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Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

The ruin as memorial - the memorial as ruin

Arnold-de Simine, S. (2015). The ruin as memorial - the memorial as ruin. Performance Research, 20(3), 94-102.

Silke Arnold-De Simine begins her essay by comparing monuments to memorials. Monuments, she argues, represent a rhetoric of permanence; they signify the endurance of their builders. Memorials, in contrast, index the inevitability of change; they remind their beholders of "memento mori," confirmation that the desire to hold onto life is vanity. This is a rhetorical move, one that argues for the destruction of old orders, yes, but also invokes the creation of new ones.

Danse Macabre
Johannes de Castua's (1490) Danse Macabre, Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia -
a reminder that all people, no matter their station in life, are mortal [photograph by Andrew Wood]

While our class will investigate other sorts of ruins, we begin with her essay because of the provocative questions she seeks to surface. Initially she notes poetic efforts (Andreas Gryphius, William Blake, and Percy Bysshe Shelley) to position ruins as a contrast between nature and culture, a distinction that may remind you of classroom conversations concerning the garden and the machine. From this perspective, culture becomes a machine that works, often through architecture, to impose a tyranny of meaning upon people. Nature, through the inevitable process of ruin, humbles those efforts. [Keep in mind that this distinction between culture and nature will be complicated by the end of this essay.]

From this perspective, Arnold-De Simine turns her attention to the effect of ruins upon time. In a world without ruins, we may easily separate the past from the present; we live in the here and now, safely insulated from yesterday's reminders of mortality, free to project ourselves into the future. The presence of ruins, though, reminds us that all our yesterdays, borrowing from Macbeth, "have lighted fools / The way to dusty death." Here we see the tomorrows of yesterday as reminders that all our plans will come to ruin, just as they always have. Yes, of course, we are reminded once more of William Gibson's Gernsback Continuum, recognizing his protagonist's preference for ruins over illusory perfection.

Thus Arnold-De Simine proposes, "[r]uins have a utopian, apocalyptic and nostalgic potential, they are heterotopias of time and space" (p. 95). To illustrate the pleasures of these "competing temporalities," the author describes Ostalgia, "nostalgia for the everyday life of the old communist East" (p. 95). Visiting places such as this, inhabiting the ruins of those tomorrows imagined by yesterday's authoritarians, we learn to "question the neat linear temporality of historical progress" (p. 95). Such inquiry, she adds, is not solely the province of poets and professors; it is increasingly a touristic pursuit.

Szimpla Kert
Szimpla Kert (2019) - "Ruin bar" in Budapest, Hungary [photograph by Andrew Wood]

At this point, Arnold-De Simine shifts to the analysis of two memorial sites whose evocation of past traumas raise ethical questions about the odd pleasures of Dark Tourism. She begins with Budapest's Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation, a site created to evoke a sense of ruin - illustrated by its inclusion of an intentionally broken column - even though it was erected in 2014. Analyzing this site, the author describes efforts by memorial designers to produce a trauma-narrative that defines Hungary as the victim of German aggression while ignoring the nation's wartime complicity with the Nazi regime and failing to account for human victims of that alliance, most notably Hungary's Jewish and Roma populations. In this way, she demonstrates one dimension of the rhetoric of ruins: the deployment of an artificial past that silences the ghosts of forgotten yesterdays.

The author then turns toward an analysis of Argentina's ESMA Complex, a site where political activists were subjected to imprisonment, torture, and death during that nation's 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Once more we encounter a site of trauma, but not an artificially constructed one. This place stood, containing real horror. Yet how should the victims of that time be memorialized? Some activists argued that the building should remain as it was, but that its interior should include a Museum of Memory with audiovisual installations to educate visitors about the miseries suffered by Argentina's political prisoners. Others disagreed with that strategy, fearing that transforming the building into a tourist site would not summon the ghosts of the past but would rather mute their voices under the din of sanitized media production. Part of their concern with the museum that did emerge was that the transformation of suffering into mediated memory would "suggest a form of closure" (p. 99) when, in the case of the disappeared prisoners, no such closure could be offered. Thus Arnold-De Simine confirms that museums, no matter how well intended in their designs, cannot affect people in the same manner as ruins: "[T]he ruin resists any interpretative closure and creates a spatial-temporal situation in which the past cannot be contained, its unsettling excess leaking into the present as affective disturbance" (p. 99). Again, she harkens to the imagery of ghosts who haunt us, not with their easily fixed memory but through their abilities to drag the past into the present.

Arnold-de Simine concludes her essay with a discussion of the ethical implications of ruins that contribute further to our rhetorical perspective. Ruins, she says, obscure our efforts to fix any sort of meaning. They blur domains of presence and absence, today and yesterday. As such, ruins call into question the potential of agency, of authorship, and potentially of responsibility. To illustrate this challenge, the author associates the sinking of the Titanic with the imminence of climate change. These "modern" ruins do not represent a divide between nature and culture but rather a collapse between the two that marks our present Anthropocene Age. As such, the rhetoric of ruins risks the creation of a sense of inevitability, that we cannot avoid the wreck of tomorrow any more than we can exorcise the ghosts of yesterday - that is unless we recognize that our memorials of past and future ultimately, always, speak to our circumstances in the here and now, summoning us to act.