Logos and Art:    

The Rhetoric of the Ruins


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The Rhetoric of the Ruins

Introduction and analytical tools

The ruins of this world, time and weatherworn artworks, often impressive, are more than any other artifact endowed with multiple meanings. We wish to emphasize here this polysemous and complex aspect of ruins through the prism of political science, in the wider sense of this discipline. We will focus in particular on the dimension of ruins as tools for political domination, voluntary or not, as artworks whose magnificence causes the aestheticization of politics, first coined by Walter Benjamin in 1936, in his essay “Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

The new approach of Political Science, provided that it is not only concerned with the visible forms of power, might, I think, benefit from the critical study of the hidden forms of domination. The ruins perform such a function of domination. As they magnetize our attention, they participate in the shaping of our deeper political predisposition, i.e. our conception of happiness for the greatest number. The distinction between elliptical style and explicit style is extremely useful in the study of forms of expression, namely, those that relate to the political discourse. This distinction allows us to highlight some rhetorical phenomena and thereby to detect a number of insidious communicative schemes based on this discrepancy.

Our approach concerns the elliptical or explicit style as an aesthetic vehicle, regardless of the content of the message. When speaking of an elliptic style, we mean that it is worded, "shaped in words", in such a way that the receiver of the discourse feels the desire to complete it. When completing the elliptical component, the receiver actively participates in the way the style affects him, as an aesthetic vehicle. The elliptical style generates thus the participation of the receiver, voluntary or unconscious; otherwise the expressional distinction does not occur on an aesthetic level, which is the main condition for attracting the attention and interest on the following statement.

The speech/discourse is explicit when the effect produced by the aesthetic vehicle is exclusively contained in its formulation, in which he "resides" entirely, and requires no additional contribution. Through the use of the explicit style, the recipients’ propensity to adapt the style to his own aesthetic needs is highly limited.

The mind's eyes do not search quite freely

Intact monuments, preserved in their integrity, seem to encapsulate the completeness of the original meaning, which they were intentionally conferred by the time of their construction. This does not mean however, for both unaltered and degraded monuments, that they cannot be credited with comprising other meanings, or some additional and subsequent symbolism, which are not always in compliance with what the monument re-presented when it was erected.

And what about the ruins? How do these fragments talk? How do they dominate? (We use the term “domination”, as I have mentioned on other occasions, whenever we want to reflect the fact that when someone feels compelled to do something, he thinks he has accepted what he must do on his own free will. The individual is thus deprived of the critical attitude that could be expected of him in other circumstances. Alternatively, what is even more dangerous, he thinks he has kept his critical ability when in reality, he was unwittingly subjugated). Any vestige, even the most "Doric", the most imposing, impressive, is protected by virtue of its status of ruin by a subsequent romanticism. Its view brings about melancholy, gives the impression that inevitably, at some point—and without knowing when—what was once intact will fall into ruins.

And at the time of its final disintegration, the intact now decomposed, merges with nature, transforming gradually and imperceptibly the elements and art forms which constitutes the architectural ensemble into anonymous materials, now absorbed by the environment. The ruins are in this sense a "memento mori", as a reminder of the final term, even though its idea is rejected, that persists in a latent form as inevitable necessity.

The ruins, elliptic by definition, seem to be a sketching of what now no longer exists in its intact dimension. However, the rhetoric of their reproduction, in paintings for example, can be even more allusive. Every ruin idealizes unwittingly an art form and participates thereafter in the aestheticization not only of the past but of the present time. The influence of the imagery, not only of the ruins but also of the reality depicted in the form of ruins, such as the feeling, for example, of a vaguely depicted nature in pictorial art, finds in painting the most subtle area of enhancement.

In the work of many Romantic painters at the turn of the 18th and 19th century, one can notice an “expressionist” confession amid the ruins and in the middle of a nature painted in a vague manner, with characteristics similar to those of the ruins. This association of ruins, doubts and inaccuracies generates idealistic or critical reactions. Finally, in the last three decades of the 19th century, art played a leading role, more or less voluntary, in the restoration, rehabilitation of the value of the doubt, not only as a trend in visual arts, but more generally as a potential scientific choice in the understanding of one or another of the multiple "truths." Heisenberg does not paint, but he may be announcing, aesthetically, the philosophy of the doubt.

Ruins appear as a theme in paintings, especially from the 16th century and onwards, either as a background motive, often just outlined, or as the main theme. Later, ruins appear in the imitation of real landscapes, which are supposed to be invested with a subliminal splendor by the presence of the ruins, or in free syntheses of fantastic ruins. The history of cultural and political supremacy, that can be either an institutional or an individual supremacy—a very important issue that concerns the contemporary Political Psychology—could benefit from the history of the use of ruins in the painting. Either real or fantastic, the contribution of ruins in the staging of religious and political hagiography is undeniable.

By means of its representation, the ruin reminds us of our inevitable belonging to a temporal duration that exceeds us, and therefore, it emphasizes the vanity of things; looking at ruins, our lives can be put into perspective to such a point that the idea of death becomes almost acceptable.

The ruins of a monument result either from the natural and “candid” decay of time passing by, or from a destructive action. In the second case, the disapproval or condemnation of what has caused the destruction often "supports” the saved ruins. In that case, the discourse associated with the monument is richer, since, beyond the testimony of the remains as ruins, it refers to events which are often more dramatic than the reasons that led to its construction.

In both cases, when we closely watch or evoke a fragmentary monument, and I am referring to those who have been drilled in a system of value where the entirety, the “integrality” stands as an ideal, we are led to mentally "restore" the fragmentary monument. However, we do not proceed arbitrarily, but we restore the ruin into the hypothetical and implicit form that the decayed monument itself dictates, or which we assume that it does. The mind's eyes do not investigate absolutely freely; they look in a direction which is pre-specified and question reality in a specific way. Thus, the complete destruction of the building is perceived as less impressive than the preserved remains or fragments of what “was”, which are impregnated with something much more enigmatic and much more impressive. There is in us an emotional predisposition that drives us to discern at all costs in what has been saved, in the smallest debris, sometimes even in a hypothetical rest, the struggle for the survival of "the whole".

The ruin as interiorized memories

The need for mental reconstruction of the monument draws back- even though it never completely disappears - when the ruins remain as such for a long period of time. They seem so to acquire such an emotional autonomy and to gain such a singular aesthetic presence that the lasting experience of the deficit/decay of the building, of its wear, its erosion, raise the ruin to the rank of an elliptically shaped plasticity, an austere sculpture which is legitimized by its status of ruin. This austerity often leads to attempts of aesthetic rectification which however are made on the basis of the current aesthetic taste, a certain conception of beauty, which may not match that of the period during which the monument was intact. This aesthetic correction attempt may result in distorting art history, by introducing inadmissible attempts of aesthetic synchronization or any other form of semantic modernization. We should not forget that all the stages of life of a building, that may possibly succeed one another, are intact sequences of its own history, which, even though it may be complete, it is not a unique one.

This statement does not mean that we accept the tranquilizing notion of linearity. The term "intact sequences" is an analytical term that allows us to consider as autonomous the different stages of the decayed building, for which we have some indications that a particular symbolism was conferred to it—we should however always keep in mind the correlations that can be detected with previous or subsequent phases. The "intact sequences" or internalized memories allow us to apprehend the different periods of the building in ruins, which has been absorbed by either the intact image of the monument, or by the last aspect through which we apprehended it, without being obliged to make them mentally vanish before our eyes. The last condition of the monument, as a symbiotic reality, seeks to dislodge some earlier phases and to return directly to the first, the original and intact phase of the monument. We should therefore never ignore any of these intermediate lives, regardless of the value judgments of those who observe them, at a given period. Although this position is recursively exposed and not only in the field of history of art, we must not forget that the intermediate lives of the building are often evaluated to the gauge of the aesthetic rules which are contemporaneous with those who now bear the judgments raised. The complete restoration of a monument, whether mental or actual, may lead to the removal or artificial cancellation, both conceptually violent, of the years passed as well as of the years to come.

Ruin, idealization and restoration

The monument in ruins, when it is moreover considered as important, while instigating its real or mental reconstruction, refers not only to its own image as an intact building, but reflects the intact image, mutatis mutandis, of an entire period, namely the period of its construction. However, it is impossible to perceive the latter in its whole cultural, political and social veracity. But the more a monument is perceived as prefect by the contemporary period, the more it leads some people—hopefully, not all of them—to idealize the time of its creation and magnify it, using the aesthetic value now conferred to the ruin. Its discourse functions as exculpatory or justifying, and prevents some of us from realizing the ugliness of this world. Thus, it exempts them from the duty to go a little further beyond the superficial meaning of things, or more specifically the appearance of things and ideas. This sensation of aestheticism that legitimizes a certain period of time is often more intense when the decay of the monument is not due to the innocent work of nature or hazard, but is the result of a voluntary, unforgivable disaster, so that the guilt of those who caused the destruction justifies the indignation of those who now observe the ruin. In this case, the insidious need to restore the monument into his lost integrity is much stronger.

An issue which is directly related to the possible disaster of the monument is to know at what point in time and under which political, cultural and psychological circumstances a monument that has been preserved intact and has been taken care of so as to remain undamaged, acquires, although it is still intact, the status of ruin and the related preventive treatment/care.

The ruin and its aura, time and place of nostalgia

The ruined building belongs to the rhetoric category of elliptical speech. The latter has a power of evocation that can recall an image, a situation that no longer exists. The “callback function” of the remembrance of the intact monument that uses the ruin as a mediator can be considered, on the communication level, as the most important function of ruins. This function can be explained by another dimension of the ruins, namely the fact that the ruin activates nostalgia as a hope of return, in a soft and perhaps uncritical way, to an idealized “halcyon” space in time where all the pleasures may vanish but not die completely. The functionality of the ruins as objects that stimulate nostalgia is further enhanced when the place where the ruin is actually located is not daily frequented or is difficult to access.

The monument in ruins often acquires its full nostalgic function when isolated, as we have said, and even more when it is located in an unexpected place. Somewhere where it is not visible from a distance or where it is covered by vegetation, so that we discover it only when coming very close to it. The encounter with the ruin is then surprising, unexpected. The activation of the full nostalgic function also depends on the moment of the day we see the decayed monument, as the hours of the ruins are not all identical.

When speaking of the hours of the ruins, one can wonder if the vagueness that is generated by the passage of time and thus, the reference to the past, is eliminated or at least limited at some hours of the day, and on the contrary, if it is reinforced during some other hours. You just have to visit a ruin bathed in light, where nothing is suggested and everything appears clearly, where all the details are visible, to feel how the bright shining monument holds you somehow back in the past. In contrast, when you apprehend the ruins amid atmospheric, gradually rising mountains, when everything seems gray and cold, doubtful and vague, the past seems to claim the hypothetical entirety of the monument. Other times, it may be necessary to pay special attention to the shadows of the ruins. Many buildings have retained their magic, not only because they were represented in paintings, but because they have been reproduced as the impression given by the simultaneous representation of the ruin, its shadow and its relationship with the surrounding space. The perception of the monument is also influenced by the silence of the place. We should therefore consider, along with the rhetoric of the shadow, the relationship between the ruin and the silence. The silence in its symbolic dimension (as "time that keeps quiet"), or the real silence, in particularly quiet places, like cemeteries, where the monument stands and echoes. This relationship is extremely difficult to study as it involves two or more than two different levels of analysis, each of which requires a particular methodological approach.

Ruins, the limits of our involvement

The ruin as a genre covers a wide range of eidetic forms, degrees of fragmentation and multiple elliptical perceptions. Some monuments are in critical fragmentary condition, others not. Some are deteriorated in their structure, while others are fragmented on another level. There is also the issue of the hypothetical colors, faded or oxidized, that leads us to guess their intensity, thickness or density, or the time it took to produce a tarnished tone or shade. And all this is now integral part of their current expression.

The issue of polychromy not only refers to the entirety of the past, but also to an historicity lived in a particularly intense and naturalist way. The color restoration as part of the rehabilitation of the monument, even on a discussion level, requires great caution. Indeed, it could lead to an irreversible choice that could destroy a great part of the achromatic and white life of the monument, which is much longer than its chromatic life at a larger time scale, and which is also a historical reality.

Ruins as rhetorical diversion

The ruins, offered as an aesthetic component of a particular political rhetoric, have not always been used for the benefit of human beings. Totalitarian regimes did not hesitate—previously supported by a strong dose of glorification of antiquity—to adopt processes of de-temporalization and de-localization. It is clear that when a ruined building is reconstructed in an different area than the place where it originally existed (de-localization) and at a much later time (de-temporalization), the ruin is “denationalized”, but at the same time, in some cases, other political functions are assigned to the monument, through the adoption of suggested values,​​ that the new building incorporates into his similarity with the original monument. All these flashbacks or comparable phenomena must make us very cautious about the message that ruins can be called upon to carry. The ruined building can become the secret vehicle of a policy that should be rejected as a communication strategy by the simple fact that it makes use of manipulative reformulations that objectively facilitate the thoughtless adherence to the message…

To conclude, the ruins in combination with the nostalgic function in which they participate, have not always led to critical discourse. They have on many occasions contributed to a nationalist mythologizing.

Some ruins however are threatened to disappear. Some means of destruction are so devastating that they do not even leave behind ruins. We must, as a preventive measure, try to reconstitute the intact monument based on the testimony of narratives, photography or painting. These buildings, as they are not saved in fragmentary form, will never be able to imply an elliptical discourse. It's another story if there are means of destruction aimed at eliminating only people and keeping the buildings intact. In this case, however, the saved monument will not have a receiver. The subsequent aesthetic challenge will be reduced to nothing.