Ruins and Memorials Imagining the Past Through Material Forms
Similar to memorials and monuments, ruins are clear illustrations of the way the past becomes objectified and populates our present and future worlds through our imagination. Georg Simmel’s ideas about material relics, ruins, and ruination, in particular, provide an interesting starting point to look into the intimate connection between imagination and feelings. Much inspired by Goethe’s Naturphilosopie tradition, Simmel discusses two cosmic tendencies: nature, which is related to brute matter and mechanical aspects of life, and spirit, which reaches upwards and reflects human striving. These dual tendencies interpenetrate and exist in sometimes discordant and occasionally harmonious relationship. With ruins, however, we see a separation of these forces and the eventual ascendance of nature or matter over spirit. According to Simmel, the aesthetic experience of encountering a ruin is affected by the materiality and composition of the ruin as well as its complex temporality. (Pg.2637)
Materializing the Past
The past and the present, the living and the dead, mingle together in complex and deeply felt ways. Past events, individuals, and communities may “intrude” into the present through the stories we retell and reconstruct for each other. (Pg.2642)
Indeed, this proliferation of remembrance can be witnessed in academia and in the wider culture (Winter, 2006). Transforming our material environments to recollect and preserve the past for the future has become a common activity by not only states and nationalities, but also individuals who wish to honor and remember loved ones killed in tragedies such as auto or bicycle accidents (Beckstead, 2015; Santino, 2006). (Pg.2649)
These material traces of the past in the present provide situated activity contexts for the development of the higher psychological functions—microgenetic changes become transformred into ontogenetic changes through situated and socially guided activities (Valsiner, 2007, Ch. 7). Through the internalization/externalization process, our moment-by-moment experiences at memorials become guided through the built-up environment and might lead to personal transformations, including an internalization or reorientation of values (Beckstead, 2012; Beckstead, Twose, Levesque-Gottlieb, & Rizzo, 2011). Critical to these processes, memorials and monuments also provide settings for the emergence of the imaginative faculties of human beings as individuals relating to and going beyond the here-and-now setting. Indeed, it is the nature of memorials and other material traces to evoke deep affect and to facilitate a sense of wonder, respect, peace, hope, and imagination (e.g., what may be) that lead to moving and occasionally personally transformative experiences (Beckstead, 2012). The capacity of a place connected with the past to evoke rich flights of the imagination can be observed in Gordon Mill’s account of Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr’s visit to the Kronberg Castle in Denmark. (Pg.2667)
Bohr observes that, on the one hand, the castle is just a material object composed of stones but yet at the same time it is somehow saturated with meaning. Thus, the detached and objective mode of relating to the castle does not do justice to the lived experience of the castle. Furthermore, this experience illustrates the interplay of materiality, senses, and the imagination. (Ph.2676)
Everything changes because it is Hamlet’s castle (not in the ontological sense, of course), and thus I would argue that the materiality is not secondary but rather it is intrinsic to the experience of the visitors and how it links to the imagination. To put it differently, the natural world is not a neutral tableau upon which human beings project their emotions and imagination. Rather, the very materiality of what we commonly refer to as objects or things are intimately connected with the psychological functions such as fantasy and the imagination. The nonhuman realm of things and objects are therefore key but often neglected participants in the dramas of the psyche. (Pg.2686)
Objects or things, therefore, are said to have agency, an idea which is controversial and easy to misunderstand. What these scholars, like Bruno Latour, are positing is not that things have intentions and consciousness (Domanska, 2006; Latour, 2008), but rather that they have some capacity to enact, configure, and impose certain ways human beings relate to it and to each other. (Pg.2696)
In short, the material qualities and the ruin as an organized whole are primary instead of secondary characteristics of how the ruin is experienced. As Simmel elaborates, there must be a balance between the two poles of the universe (i.e., cosmic tendencies) and this is expressed, in part, through the way these are materially manifested.
The aesthetic value of the ruin combines the disharmony, the eternal becoming of the soul struggling against itself, with the satisfaction of form, the firm limitedness, of the work of art. For this reason, the metaphysical-aesthetic charm of the ruin disappears when not enough remains of it to let us feel the upward-leading tendency. The stump of the pillars of the Forum Romanum are simply ugly and nothing else, while a pillar crumbled—say, halfway down—can generate a maximum of charm. (Simmel, 1958, p. 384, emphasis added)
Through this interplay of striving and eternal becoming and downward limitedness of embodied in the composition of the abandoned building there is an intensification of affect and aesthetic value. Moreover, ruins are not objects that are distinct and ultimately detached from their environment, like any human-made building, and therefore must be appreciated in their relationship to their surroundings. (Pg.2800)
As Hetzler comments, ruins cannot be moved to another location since their very essence depends on its surroundings. Ruins are thus objects that reflect, manifest, and conjoin a sense of wholeness between nature and spirit, aesthetic and ethical, and inner and external realms. Borrowing on the Heidegerrian notion, as discussed above, ruins can be considered objects that gather together seemingly disparate elements in relationship to each other. In this sense, we need to consider the temporality of ruins and how they are relics of the past that are part of our present and immediate future.
Ruins are objects that provoke fascination and heightened affect because they exist in the present but belong to a time period that has come and gone. (Pg.2811)
Indeed, ruins have what Hetzler describes as ruin time. Ruin time includes the span of history when the ruin was first built to the beginning of its decay and also includes the vegetation, animals, and insects in the environment; the cosmological time of the stars, sun, and moon; as well as the subjective time of the person who visits and encounters (i.e., what time of day they visit) (Hetzler, 1988). All of these factors are gathered together in the ruin’s materiality—tangible and intangible traces or indices of the past constitute the ruin as an object manifesting the past as irrevocably past. Yet the ruin stands and exists in the here-and-now. (Pg.2818)
We might even be able to claim that the generality of the past that is evoked allows for the play of the imagination—the past is present and it guides, constrains, but leaves room for the individual to be affectively drawn into the setting in the here-and-now and to go beyond it and to imagine what life was like for those who lived, worked, loved in, around, or near the building that has become a ruin. (Pg.2817)
Like the ruin, the antique is a sensuous object that presents us with the past. However, with the ruin we can imagine that in the not-so-distant future the building will be completely decayed and effaced as it continues in its destined course. (Pg.2834)
Yet ruins simultaneously belong to the past, present, and future. It is an object in transition, a quintessential liminal object that blurs the boundaries human beings construct to separate temporal periods and also objects from their surroundings.
Ruins manifest a particular configuration of this constellation, one in which there is a reversal of nature over spirit. Accordingly, ruins both interrupt, at least momentarily, our quest for dominance and transcendence and reveal the fundamental unity between human beings and their environment and nature. Thus, while buildings may be seen as the culmination of the spirit and will, ruins act to decenter human will and consciousness from their central positions.
Does the imagination “invest” the ruin with meaning, or do the ruin and its materiality spark the imagination?
Imagination and fantasy, according to Goethe and Simmel, are human faculties that are always constituted through and anchored in our (bodily) experience with the world. As such, the material world is more than a prop for the imagination (a secondary element); rather, the material may often be considered as a necessary part of the process of imagining. Instead of viewing each as fundamentally separate and giving primacy either to our imagination or to our environments, it might be more beneficial to explore their interdependence. Thus, the question of whether ruins give rise to the imagination or are constituted by the imagination, or if it is the imaginative faculties of the person that organize the multiple elements into a whole or if the whole gives impetus to the imagination seems to be invalid and misleading. It is through our experience of ruins and through grace that psychic wholeness is enabled and all of the multiplicity of elements becomes unified, connected, and gathered together. We thus experience peace, longing, equanimity, resolution, hope, and other feelings, and we imagine what might be or may have been. (Pg.2872)
WE&P By: EZorrilla.