The bold white title reads “Cool Photos”. I dutifully open the email to find yet another link to yet another photo essay from yet another intrepid, probably amateur photographer who has schlepped their medium format through the crumbling halls of Detroit. Or was it Pripyat again? Or some (now) generic computer generated image of the apocalypse? I’ve lost track.
Visions of destruction, annihilation, ruination and decay have infiltrated popular visual platforms from the painted biblical scenes and intellectual musings of the Renaissance through to the recent ‘Urbex’ phenomenon, computer games such as Fallout; and now, most troublingly, to ‘selfies’ in front of the exploded Chernobyl reactor. Why is it that we can’t leave these places alone to rot in peace? Why do they have to be dragged before our eyes crumbling, crushed, covered in lichen and dust, spilling their broken, jagged guts into our news feeds, tea-breaks, cinemas and art galleries? We are seemingly compelled, moth-like, towards their dull, fragmented light. But what do we really see?
Creating a new world order is, of course, a theme ubiquitous to Hollywood. Permeating all genres, the hope of what comes after is as important, if not more so, than the event itself, be it natural catastrophe, alien attack, zombie invasion or eco-disaster. But it is the way that we depict that disaster, that fleeting moment of devastation, that is so fascinating. An online search into disaster movies instantly brings up a list of some of the most memorable and highly budgeted films of our time. We revel in it, we pour a seemingly endless stream of money, creativity and time into producing the most realistic visions of our civilisations and cultures reduced to chaos. When placed alongside all of the very real experiences of war, genocide and natural disasters these images seem grotesque. Interestingly, it has been widely noted that at particular moments of considerable social, political and environmental disruption there has been a coinciding decadence that bubbles up through the turmoil and rubble. Momentary breakdown in physical structures call forth a psychic release. Deviance rises, morality crumbles.
In that line, acclaimed psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel begins her bookCreativity and Perversion by stating her belief that perversion is not a disorder discrete to a minority but instead proposes that “there is a perverse core latent within each one of us that is capable of being activated under certain circumstances”. Chasseguet-Smirgel suggests that perversion is in fact the necessary vehicle through which we drive forward the limits of human possibilities, enabling us to “unsettle reality”.
Employing examples from art, literature and psychoanalytic theory Chasseguet-Smirgel then reflects on the attributes of what she calls the “anal universe” and the “genital universe” which represent opposite sides of reality. The “anal universe” is imagined to be like the digestive tract – “an enormous grinding machine” that disintegrates all matter “in order to reduce it to excrement”. The “anal universe” therefore presents us with the point at which all singularities are shattered, reality is destroyed and a new one is created, a universe where “all particles are equal and interchangeable”. The “genital universe”, on the other hand, celebrates singularities, order, structure, all forms of division and the categories that isolate male from female, child from adult, Heaven from Earth, day from night and so on.
Chasseguet-Smirgel hypothesises that, by overturning contemporary civic constitutions, historical upheavals open up the possibility not only of a new social and political vision but a new sexual potentiality as well. Could this libidinal element then introduce a link between the latent lure of the “anal universe”s’ desire to reduce, fragment and annihilate the conventional ‘genital universe’ of structure and the prevalence of ruination imagery in cinema and contemporary media entertainment?
As objects, ruins are the epitome of what Chasseguet-Smirgel describes as “man’s ability not to annihilate things but to dissolve and metamorphose them”, the acknowledgement that “all things must revert to chaos”. Intrinsically connected to perversion, the notion that we are all born from a primordial chaos and should be able to transmute from one form to another, eradicates any distinction between elements, proposing infinite new possibilities in its wake.
Man has always had a preoccupation with hybridity and the changing of forms, the visualisation or indeed enactment of which appears frequently in our art and culture. It is deep within our symbols and mythologies, in our Paleolithic Lion-Men, Hermaphroditus, Dionysian rites, Little Mermaids and alchemy. Transformation has endured as a thematic cornerstone fuelled by the desire to experience the spectacle of the ‘before and after’ reveal and to imagine new models, new creatures and in new ways.
Ruins are totems of this transformation. Devoid of their original function – as spaces to shelter, contain, or worship – the buildings and structures that have suffered destructive forces become material and historical hybrids. Simultaneously embodying spatial presence and absence, nowness and belatedness, their transformation occurs deep within as they shed their “genital” form and succumb to the “anal” return to the elemental matter from which we all emerge.
In The Ruin Georg Simmel refers to the “equalising justice” and “uninhibited unity” imposed upon all matter by nature. What ruins, destruction and decay present us with, then, is not only the erosion of form, but the literal, tangible erosion of difference that can be likened to the desired erosion of difference that occurs in Chasseguet-Smirgel’s perverse depths of the human psyche.
For Simmel, ruins reverse a fundamental cosmic hierarchy: what was constructed by man’s “will of the spirit” now finds itself appropriated by nature as material to be re-sculpted, thereby obtaining a new metaphysical aesthetic importance. The reversal of this cosmic order is evident in Andrei Tarkovsky’s stark, serrated future-thriller Stalker. Set in the wake of a mysterious alien landing, two men – the Writer and the Professor – are guided by a ‘Stalker’ through a restricted area named The Zone towards a mysterious room which they believe will make their wishes and desires real by stepping inside. We learn that in The Zone the conventional laws of physics have little bearing, the landscape is psychically disorientating, full of hidden, invisible dangers that Stalker navigates using strange, seemingly redundant methods. The antithesis of the usual uniformly greying post-disaster environments the terrain of The Zone is bright, lush, and verdurous. This forms a strong contrast to the ‘normal’ world that the characters have left behind, which Tarkovsky portrays as urban, fading, monochrome and miserable. It is telling that The Room which the Stalker, the Writer and the Professor seek is set within the barely-there walls of an old building. Desire is in the ruins.
The contemporary ruins of Pripyat and Detroit also allow us to see the numerous transformations of the urban landscape. The heightened pathos that saturates new ruins also bleeds into imaginary and foreseen ruins. We are able to capture the lingering narratives of their past and re-signify them in new visual formats such as video games that deal with future scenarios. In her essay Victim and Viewer: Some Thoughts on Anticipated Ruins, Magali Arriola puts forward Baudrillard’s concern that “we run the danger of bearing witness to history too late to effect change; that we will find ourselves standing in an empty lot, just as seems to be the case with Pripyat”.
But what does it mean to be allowed to ‘play’ in the ruins of a town like Pripyat? And does that then undermine the potency of the pathos we feel for the lives lost and families displaced at the hands of the Chernobyl tragedy? In his essay Ruin Cinema, found in The Ruins of Modernity, Professor Johannes von Moltke notices the “melancholy suspense of historicity” presented in viewing ruination and disaster. In gaming, however, there is none of this melancholy, the suspension exists: the buildings you see will not degrade further and the characters you encounter will not age. The notion of a linear progression of history no longer exists.
Gaming essentially allows us not only to witness the disaster but vicariously to have an active role in the outcome and running of the ‘new world’ that has been created in its aftermath. Chasseguet-Smirgel observes that in perversion, seeking to eradicate all differences, specifically the difference between genders and generations, “time is wiped out”. This eradication of time is evident in the world of gaming as players are able jump forward, backward, revisit, replay, build and destroy endlessly.
Just as in cinema, tracking shots are employed in games like Fallout 3 to demonstrate the degree of catastrophe for dramatic effect. Because games are generally played within a domestic environment, on a significantly smaller screen, they have to give their player a sense of vast space to add to the realism and the feeling of adventure and danger that will unfold. In her essay The Imagination of Disaster, Susan Sontag describes the participatory nature of the images and sounds of a film that allows one the “the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself”.
Both disciplines give us the ability to enter into and engage with the anal universe, to be devoured by the digestive tract. Arguably, this applies doubly for games. Gaming offers us a tantalising glimpse of our inner desire to see it all go to shit. Everything we’ve been fighting against as a species for centuries, with our structure and rules and reason. We know it’s finite. We know it’s there within us and we know we want it.
Image credits (from top to bottom):
1. Clay Gilliland, Pripyat
2. Pelle, Chernobyl 201
3. André Giroux, A Section of the Claudian Aqueduct, Rome, c.1826–29. The Whitney Collection, Promised Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003
4. Micolo J, Morning at Moreton Ruins
5. K putt, Stalker – Call of Pripyat
6. Aliaksandr Palanetski, Pripyat School