Associate Professor of English and of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, as well as a Faculty Advisory Board member of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and a member of the Advisory Council of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania
Time for Ruination: The Life of Armenian Aesthetics
Ruins are oddly liminal forms, collapsed somewhere between the structure’s imagined, original condition and its idealized, excessively pristine restoration. Nation-states and nationalist ideologies have long viewed ruins as sites to be seized: from Mexico’s frantic and fantasmatic restoration of Aztec, Maya, and Olmec pyramids in the name of indigenismo and the tourist industry; to Britain’s fabrication of Tutoriana and Victoriana in the name of imperial nostalgia; to Spain’s sleight-of-hand transformation of pre-national medieval castles and forts into expensive hotels, or paradores, honoring the nation. Ruins are also a nearly obsessive feature of Armenian culture, crowding the aesthetics of the high canon (from Gorky to Parajanov to Egoyan); the kitsch canon (the ubiquitous wall calendar images and website decorations); and, recently, the alternative or fringe. It is this latter aesthetic realm that I will discuss in this paper. Drawing on three recent cultural stagings of the ruin—Michael Blum and Damir Nikšić’s video “Oriental Dream” (2010); Karen Andreassian and the Citizen Walkers’ performance, video, and website “Ontological Walkscapes” (2010), and the project to restore a fountain in the formerly-Armenian town of Habab/Havav, Turkey-—I will propose that we understand ruination as neither a melancholic sign of lost greatness, nor an opportunity for well-funded reconstruction and restoration, nor a problem in need of improvement. Rather, I will suggest that we think of both the temporality and the spatiality of ruination as a kind of ongoing, open-ended, and catachrestical life. What might happen to our pasts and our futures, I ask, if we inhabit the time of the ruin, rather than desperately and melancholically pursue the end of that time? Ruins might just come to interrupt the narcissistic echo of the original in the rebuilt, strip the tain of the mirror that promises to reflect same to same, and live on without improving. To those who sound dissonant in that echo, ruins might just signal an opening, a crumbling of familiar forms from which we might glimpse an other life.