‘The central problem in this is memory. Animals store their acquired information in gametes. These are practically eternal memories – they last as long as life on earth. Humans, on the other hand, utilize artificial memories to transmit acquired information – books, buildings and pictures, for example. They are far less durable than eggs or sperm. Humans are therefore in search of more permanent memories: aere perennius (more permanent than bronze). They know that when all artificial memories – all human creation – has long decayed into entropic debris and rubble, human gametes will continue to pass on their information, perhaps altered by chance.’ – Vilém Flusser1
There is a question of memory/knowledge, power/ownership and skill/fabrication at the basis of Vilém Flusser‘s ‘debris and rubble’. Commemoration itself starts with an incident of ruination:2 When the nobleman Scopas of Thessaly refused to fully pay poet Simonides of Ceos (556–468 BC) for a poem he chanted at a banquet, and a short while later the poet exited the room to respond to a call (supposedly by the heroic demigods Castor and Pollux honoured in the poem), the roof of the banquet hall fell and crushed all of Scopas‘s guests. The horribly mangled bodies made identification impossible, and it was only because Simonides was able to remember the guests’ seating places that their proper burial was achieved. The invention of the art of memory – mnemotechnics – emerged from those banquet ruins as the orderly rearrangement of mental images in loci so that speech could properly and swiftly access them; an art that required placing/storing, preserving and recovering such images as if they were ghost bodies that inhabit every inert ruin and each deadening ruination, and animate it to eternity, to immortality.
Memory buildings, entire elaborate ‘theatres of the world’ could since be raised out of the ruins, spread by the flows of lethe (forgetfulness, oblivion),3 at the summons and visit of their custodians, in order to shield and yield the truth, the a-letheia4 that only rhetoric was privileged to structure-into-revelation. Ever since, even under Hermetic influences, astrology and occult imagery, rules and more rules formed the main corpus of every ars memorativa treatise; the sense of sight, ‘the meditation of the eyes,’ was described as the most trustworthy ally of the ‘architectonic soul’ (âme architectonique),5 which restored various bodies of evidence in language via artificial memory. Several centuries later, ‘Forensic Architecture’ is an investigative practice that uses similar optical devices (although greatly reinforced and far more complex) in order to see, structure and expose incidents that involve abuse of power and its insidiously ruinous effect (the ‘violence at the threshold of detectability’).6
‘We no longer dwell, but hide in ruins through which blow the blizzards of communications. No use trying to adapt those ruins: a new architecture for people who “survive the revolution” is called for.’ — Vilém Flusser
Even in Flusser‘s radical vision of ruin-less cities – respons(e)ible dialogical networks, ‘places of high density’, wave-troughs with gravitational force in the vast fields of intersubjective relations – glitches can occur: when, for example, (the proverbial) architects use bundles instead of nets and information is broadcast in one direction and consumed in another. Ruination by totalitarianism lurks behind every ruination by communication. And since ruination lasts longer than ruins, the refugees of this new, digital shift – of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the ‘Sixth Rung’,7 i. e. the non-existing (virtual) interaction – may not be afforded the ‘new architecture’ of creative knots and shared information in the near future any more than did the refugees who arrived in Athens from Asia Minor in the beginnings of the previous century, only to be stacked under weather-ridden tents next to the city’s ancient ruins,8 or the refugees from the Near East and Africa who have been crossing the Aegean and the Mediterranean, fleeing one kind of ruin to be incarcerated in another.9
The existential potential of ruins of every kind – their lure beyond their role as repositories of knowledge in need of deciphering and restitution – has been of paramount importance to architects and philosophers, artists and poets, colonialists and activists. To access all that ruins name and signify, to know the ruins instead of ‘explaining them away’,10 is a useful and quirky task, a movement of many that helps everyone think otherwise:11 from Simonides‘s curious invention of the art of memory to the odd travelogue of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that glorified the divinatory potential of the classical detritus; from Romanticism’s passionate, melancholic ruinophilia (‘Hail, solitary ruins’12) to Walter Benjamin‘s sorrowful ‘angel of history’; from Jean-Luc Godard‘s iconoclastic, chaotic and irreverent search amidst the shards of art and history for an alchemical, a fractal cinematography (‘space is the time it takes to find the other’13) to J. G. Ballard‘s orgiastic nature-culture blend where entropy fashions drowned metropolis and crystallized forest alike, where devastation is but the ruined dream of moderation in our suffocatingly humane world (‘each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory’);14 from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, a delirious migration of images mapping the afterlife of antiquity,15 to the most recent bloom of parasitic images-agencies that Max Sebald has called ‘an almost pathological hypermnesia in a past otherwise emptied of content’;16 from the female body as a battleground17 to the bewitched body of politics and the dismembered body of sociality;18 from the Necronauts (the ‘modern lovers of debris, radio and jetstreams’) and their provocative embrace of the experience of failed transcendence19 to Timothy Morton‘s notion of ‘subscendence’ (‘wholes and parts are just as real as one another. It is simply that the whole is less than the sum of its parts’), where evils, like say neoliberalism, can be perceived as less than the total of the horrible ruins that have made it a frightening, insurmountable whole, and parts are no longer just replaceable components in search of some divine, primordial unity (‘Subsendent wholes are fuzzy and ragged… humankind is a fuzzy, subscendent whole that includes and implies other lifeforms, as a part of the also subscendent symbiotic real’20); from the shared untimeliness of digital real time experienced during the recent virus/viral incarceration, and the painful loss of our most common sense, touch, to the crippled or anaesthetized bodies produced by capitalist necropolitics and the ‘patchy’ Anthropocene;21 from a pluriverse in protest (‘the world we want is a world where many worlds fit’22) to the practice of terra nullius – the annihilation of many by the few;23 from T. S. Eliot‘s desperate cry (‘these fragments I have shored against my ruin’)24 to George Seferis‘s Greek outlook (‘the statues are not the ruins – we are the ruins’25); from our debt to nested temporalities (‘Stones-ancestors as creditors’26) to Moten and Harney‘s speculative debt in mutuality (‘Mutual debt, unpayable debt, unbounded debt, unconsolidated debt, debt to each other in a study group, to others in a nurses’ room, to others in barbershops, to others in a squat, a dump, the woods, a bed, an embrace‘);27 from the mystical, chthonic love of modern fragments by Dimitris Pikionis28 to the updated notion of ‘liquid antiquity’ navigated by either tentacular and roaming mêtis (cunning intelligence)29 or Orpheus’s lyre that composes time by making music with the Sirens; from gazing at the ruins to feeling their skin of time; from diasparagmos (analysis, disarticulation down to organs, disembodied knowledge)30 to weaving, interlacing and worlding with; from human-induced and human-interpreted ruins to possibly an other-than-human sense of ruins – do androids dream of ruins? What do animals, the virus, Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, Donna Haraway’s demon familiar spider, Pimoa Cthulhu,31 my dog, her chicken, his goats, the kingdom of dust, the ocean’s coral reefs, the hanging bat, the hungry termite know about ruins?
‘Our landscape is its own monument: The trace it signifies is located on the underside. It is all history’ – Édouard Glissant32
Writing from Greece, I am writing from a chthonic no-where where ruins lie (are situated or fallen) as language writes (the Greek word keimena means both lying and texts);33 from the place where the glorious ruins of classicism coexist with the bones in the mythical pit of Kaiadas (the Spartans‘ dump site for the crippled and the weak); from the place where Le Corbusier and Freud encountered the Acropolis with feelings of ‘a paralysing crush’ and ‘de-realisation’ respectively;34 from the place that Surrealist poet Nicolas Calas had to leave in order to find the exploding-fixed nature of ruins and understand how (in his own words) ‘art is a powder magazine, the Parthenon proves it!’;35 the place where poet Yorgos Makris issued his infamous proclamation for the destruction of Parthenon in 194436 as an artistic act of liberation from its entrenchment as petrified history; from the place where the legendary Octopus Press of anarchist writer Teos Romvos published a sardonic counter-touristic manifesto for the natural death of the Acropolis and the rise ‘of the vine of a new performance’ on its remains;37 the place where Robert Smithson‘s term of ‘a ruin in reverse’38 is a lived reality (precarious, undone, ever-under-construction), shared by now by many, here but also far beyond.
I am writing from a country mostly confined, ghettoed, reduced to ruins: its history assembled from the perspective of ruins, its life impaired by ruination both old and new, its living considered prone to contaminate (and thus ruinate) by example (aka ‘the Greek crisis’),39 its body shattered by all kinds of extractivist practices (including geoengineering propaganda and the ecology of affluence) which bear fresh ruins under the guise of progress, a renewed construction zeal and the dwarfing rise of the tourist industry where all is exhausted by an exhaustive language (‘Tantalus has gone into advertising’).40
I am also writing from next-to and beyond the Aegean archipelago, a sea scattered with the real, the tangible, the inhabited remnants, the archaic clusters, the ruins that survived sunken, mythical continents on the threshold between East and West; one of the mid-seas that reoccur inexorably as the metaphorical schemata-par excellence in our contemporary experience of multitudes and yearning for deep time.
Here, haptic thinking is made possible by and through the mattering matter that includes ghosts – hauntings by the impossible memory of the past; matter that entails accidents and shipwrecks from the start, that presupposes the habitation of the uninhabitable weather. Here wise knowledge (a philosophy of mingled bodies) feels familiar like care/cure from the addiction of speech, from the intoxicating ‘virus of language,’41 from the fix of information; here a pelagic texture, as discovered in the ruins, can be understood like a form of response to the climax of light that reaches its opposite: darkness;42 here the question invested in ruins by the nostalgic gaze shape-shifts into a (re)turn to things themselves, to shorelines as sites of mixtures and citations of beginnings, to topologies, interspecies, winds, waves, rhizomes, hybrids, sound, entanglements, ‘fingeryeyes’,43 to the unending exchange between hard and soft, to the sensible, a choice to ‘seek’ and not to ‘name’, to silence.
Michel Serres writes of his ‘healing’ in Epidaurus: ‘I listen. My ear grows to fit the dimensions of the amphitheatre, a marble pavilion. My hearing flat to the earth, on a vertical axis, tries to catch the harmony of the world. It awaits the birds coming in on the wind… In the ruins of tragedy, I wish to tune out my own static.’44
‘Suddenly there is something about the morne. A moving on the surface of chaos that changes chaos by its movement.’ – Édouard Glissant45
Ruins have been (ab)used as the ‘floatsam and jetsam of happenstance’;46 they have been co-opted, popularised as a kind of motif prepped for the colonial, the capitalist imaginary, and as such they still survive in forms of gaming, in the critical thresholds of LARPing, in neo-fascist cults and nationalist agendas, in the ersatz jungles of conspiracy theories, in the sterilized imagery and authoritative confines of institutionalized culture, in crisis porn, in distanced voyeurism virtual art extravaganzas and fashion’s wet dreams, in a discursive context which has been and still is turning them into fetishized, zombified relics at best or civilized souvenirs saturated by the excessive use of several biases at worst. Ruins produced by racial injustice, white supremacy, militarist agendas and all kinds of genocides have been ignored or erased, made absent and replaced by narratives of prosperity produced by extractive futurisms.
There is no one way to know and ruin the ruins unless we love ruins-in-(the-wild-of-)love; unless we capture not (the saturated by meaning) image(s) of ruins but the insufficiency of this image, unless we know how ruins mark the nuances of making, the flows of remembering, and the duration and non-spectacular wake of loss and suffering. If in this hyper-connected and ultra-fragmented world of ours we can feel how transmission trumps listening, how reception is held captive by various embedded models and structures, how the collapse of materialities engendered the rise of false promises for a viable, safe void (the net); if, in other words, by contemplating the ruins we can deeply feel how sensation itself is trapped, ensnared, abstracted, codified, then we can possibly start to understand memory as an inter-subjective, continuous exchange, a conversation held not on, not in spite of, but with the ruins, at the counterintuitive terrain of wildness. We can possibly consider ruins not as structures that house memory but as a point from which memory can be pushed far forward, as fleeting islands of stability, events that take shape in a time-fold, manifestations of rhizomatic errantry; we can see that they are not commonplace but the hyphen in ‘lieux-communs’ (common-topoi). In the Glissantian worldmentality (tout-monde) that consults the ‘uncertain evidence’ of ruins, these are forms of our common destiny, the unforeseeable and foretellable forms of ‘chaos-monde (the immeasurable intermixing of cultures)’.47 We may even imagine ruination as recurrence and difference, re-volution.
Poet Nanos Valaoritis had made a drawing of his study with ruins both arid and fertile: bearing the weight of our fantasies of the past and dreams for the future, ruins call forth the wild strands of the present. They so live and rise, they sprout as an abyss, as a contaminating virus.
Memory is possibly born from such a ‘heap of broken images’,48 such ruins in (the wild of) love. No need for palaces, foundations and territories. Ruins in the wild mediate by their confounding ambivalence, by hinting at realities of loss, gaps, voids and violence, as much as at an ethics of sustainable destruction. They mediate by resisting to be named, tamed, claimed – as the thorny mixture of hard and soft (matter and sign). Their eloquence is of the sand, the skin, the swerve (Lucretius’s clinamen) and the chaotic ocean, not of the sublime, the full, the frozen; not of sense, order, accumulation but rather that of noise, interference, turbulence, opaqueness; an ear for, rather than, the voice of, the collective din.
Serres suggests that the given of ruins is not a gift of language and thus is most often located on the entropic scale:49 it belongs to a mingling of energies that knocks us about, tears bodies to pieces, slaps faces out of sleep; such a given comes to us amidst jolts and signs as creation itself came out of the gaping void – chaos – in a staggering entanglement of entities with arbitrary names and conflictual temperaments.50 If, as per Cornelius Castoriadis, this image implies a new ontology where chaos is the fundamental ‘determination’ of being, its immanent capacity for creation, its vis formandi,51 then ruins (including those of Greek-born democracy) can also be understood as the chaotic symbiosis of bodies and languages, the mess-ups of planning and chance, the terrible mixtures of will and accident.
Flusser, committed to ‘immortality in the other’ (and not in objects), advises us to abandon our ruined houses, hold onto the hands of other people and face the void without any guarantee that we won‘t be swallowed up in it. ‘We must either risk the dangers in becoming upright creators within the void, or continue to settle for the limits of being perpetual squatters.’52
Yet ruins in love are a challenge to ownership, squatters are better equipped to navigate through wreckages, and disaster does not have a (creative) writing – it describes, un-draws.53 Ruins in love are not ‘ruins’ – corpses, dead limbs torn from the body of history, roots cramped by tradition. They could instead be defined as turbulences organized into exchangers; they welcome the risk of doubt, they confirm the ‘circumstantial bombardment’54 that makes every situation unique, they display the aurora borealis of events (their undecipherable, unyielding, interstitial, burgeoning nature); and so, they suggest threading (rather than pushing) one’s way between them.
Ruins in (the wild of) love are not remains; they are the living and writhing debris of collapsed narratives and deviant histories, T. S. Eliot‘s ever-flourishing ‘stony rubbish’ that ‘speaks in tongues’. They are ‘markers’ as manifestations of (the chaos of) the sensible; they are knowledge as its highest point, i. e. poetics; they are feral in that they can only be known osmotically; they locate struggles and at the same time stretch them across and beyond. Like us, ruins remain hereish55 via their illegibility and brokenness, through their resistance to identification and domestication, because they let the rumble of exploding content reverberate, because they are excessive even though they fail to be whole as they have never really been white.
‘For having known so well this destiny of ours
wandering through broken stones for three or six thousand years
digging in ruined buildings which once perhaps were our homes
trying to remember dates and heroes
Shall we be able?
For having been bound
for having been scattered
for having struggled with unreal – as they put it – difficulties
Lost, then striking again a road full of blind regiments,
sinking in marshes and in the lake of Marathon
Shall we be able to die according to the rules?’
– G. Seferis56
Maybe to return the ruins to earth‘s subconscious (to bury them in order to save them, in order to be able to walk on them in odd kinships), to let statues out of the museums so that they can roam free, disquieting, into our conscious – in plain air ‘laden with fragrances’ (‘laden but light / as light but full’) – is a radical architectural view, a different kind of the art of memory, revealed by another – a woman – poet now.57 Maybe it is also one kind of profanation, the wildness that we need in order to escape being eclipsed or bound by the ruins in study; in order to answer Seferis’s question. By living and dying in fugitivity, wayward, next to and beyond the rules of ruins, closer to their logic of disorder, fonder of the chaos of the everyday that ruins know.
Nadja Argyropoulou is an independent curator and art writer, with studies in history & archaeology and art history & theory. She has curated a considerable number of exhibitions and interdisciplinary events and has collaborated with many art institutions and cultural entities in Greece and abroad (Athens Biennale, the Benaki Museum, Chalet Society, Palais de Tokyo, DESTE Foundation, NEON, Onassis Foundation and others). She is a member of Aica, IKT and the collectives Saprofyta and The Climate Collective.