La utopía en ruinas

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Presentado en el I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)
Santiago de Chile, agosto de 2015

“La utopía en ruinas: el hospital Ochagavía”

una ruina incompleta

Parece superfluo llamar a una ruina “incompleta”: ¿no es parte de la definición misma de ruina ser una estructura a la que le falta algo? Una ruina siempre debe perderse la plenitud: está descompuesta, desintegrada, deteriorada, destruida, imperfecta. De ahí el énfasis abrumador en la negatividad o negación (en todos los sentidos de la palabra) en la mayoría de las reflexiones sobre ruinas: se asocian con la pérdida, con la nostalgia, con la ausencia, con todas las formas en las cuales la ruina no llega a estar completa. Una y otra vez, el acento se pone en lo que no está, en lo que falta y solo puede evocarse con la imaginación o la memoria. En el mejor de los casos, la ruina evoca fantasmas, espectros, sueños o promesas: complementos insustanciales de su materialidad bruta e inútil. Una ruina es una estructura que tiene que completarse por otros medios: a través del discurso, de la narración, de los relatos. Parece pedir la intervención de la arqueología, la historia o la política para que nos cuenten lo que significan esos fragmentos, cuál es el todo al cual no pueden unirse por sí mismos. De hecho, una ruina solamente se convierte en ruina (en vez de una serie de partes desvinculadas) una vez ha sido asumida por esas formas discursivas. Al estar incompletas, las ruinas no pueden hablar por sí mismas y tienen que ser explicadas; requieren un suplemento que les asegure su representabilidad. Necesitan algo más. De este modo es cómo las ruinas vienen a ser la imagen misma de la dependencia de lo material en lo inmaterial, de la promesa narrativa de compensar la pérdida por otros medios, de la subordinación de lo real al mundo. Es la imagen misma de la hegemonía, del modo en que los fragmentos disociados se articulan en una cadena significante para dar la ilusión de totalidad.

Lee más… (documento pdf)

Utopia in Ruins

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Presented at the “I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)”
Santiago de Chile, August 2015

“Utopia in Ruins: The Ochagavía Hospital”

an incomplete ruin

It would seem superfluous to call a ruin “incomplete”: is it not part of the very definition of a ruin that it is a structure that somehow lacks something? A ruin must always miss out on plenitude: it is decayed, disintegrated, deteriorated, destroyed, imperfect. Hence the overwhelming stress on negativity or negation (in all senses of the term) in most reflections on ruination: ruins are associated with loss, with nostalgia, with absence, with all the ways in which the ruin falls short of completion. Over and over, the focus is on what is not there, what is missing and can only be conjured up through the imagination or memory. At best, the ruin conjures up ghosts, specters, dreams, or promises: insubstantial complements to its brute and senseless materiality. A ruin is a structure that has to be completed by other means: through discourse, narrative, story-telling. It seems to ask for the intervention of archaeology, history, or politics to tell us what these fragments mean, what is the whole to which on their own they do not quite add up. Indeed, a ruin only truly becomes a ruin (rather than a series of disaggregated parts) once it is taken up by such discursive formations. It is because they are incomplete that ruins cannot speak for themselves and have to be spoken for; they demand a supplement that will ensure their representability. They demand something else. This is how the ruin comes to appear the very figure of the dependency of the material on the immaterial, of narrative’s promise to make up for loss by some other means, of the subordination of the real to the word. It is the very figure of hegemony, of the way in which discrete fragments are taken up in larger signifying chains to give the illusion of wholeness.

Read more… (pdf file)


Gastón Gordillo, Rubble

Before ruins, there was rubble. This is the startling and counter-intuitive claim at the heart of Gastón Gordillo’s magnificent new book. It is counter-intuitive because we tend to think of rubble as an extrapolation of ruination, ruination taken to the nth degree. Rubble is what we are left with when we don’t even have a ruin, when the forms of ruined structures are no longer comprehensible, leaving us with little more than shapeless masses of material and debris. Rubble is what ruins ultimately become, if left to their own devices; they are what ruin the ruin itself. If ruins are a palimpsest, rubble is their holocaust. If in the ruin, as Walter Benjamin observes, “the idea of the plan speaks” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama 235), and we can think we imagine a completed building, a unified structure, by contrast in the mound of rubble little can be discerned. Rubble is illegible, seemingly mute and expressionless; it defies representation. Or if rubble speaks, surely it tells us only of the extreme violence that has silenced it, that has erased the history that it once incarnated? No, says Gordillo: quite the opposite. Rubble’s apparent formlessness is an indication of its generative potential. From heaps of rubble mighty ruins spring.

Gordillo’s book, then, is a wide-ranging account of the production of ruins from rubble across a swathe of Northern Argentina from the foothills of Andes to the Paraguayan border, in the once forested plains of the Gran Chaco. He shows how diverse forces, from the Spanish conquistadors to the colonial Church or the contemporary state, have at various points tried to seize hold of the rubble that litters the region and capture it to produce what (following David Harvey) we might call a “spatial fix” to cement power, shape memory, and organize bodies, human and material alike. For even “naming something a ruin” is, as Gordillo quotes Ann Stoler saying, “in itself a political act” (196). Ruination is a process of selection that negates certain potentialities that remain virtual within rubble, even as it actualizes and celebrates others to produce “deceivingly positive landscapes” (16) punctuated by fetishized monuments to an official version of the past. If there is anything negative in the ruin it is this: the ruin sets out to negate rubble and with it its generative power and complex multiplicity. Against the flexibility and fluidity of what seem to be unformed mounds of material, scattered here and there in all manner of combinations, ruination produces “rigid objects presented as nodes of memory” that “transform space by gathering bodies around them and organizing and modulating their gaze and affective disposition” (206). But with rigidity comes brittleness. It’s no wonder that these ruins become objects of ritual veneration that require “repetitive ceremonies that something worth remembering happened there” (206). Ruins have to be endlessly (at)tended, reconstructed, shored up, rebuilt. Hence the irony that there are no structures more carefully conserved and preserved than ruins, supposed monuments to impermanence and decay that are in fact shaky bulwarks of projects to ensure stability and purity. Ruins have to be kept “whole” to hide the fact that all great structures are only ever ruins in waiting, and that everything tends to return to rubble. Ruins are the precarious legitimation of sovereign power; built on rubble, in the end they are not so mighty after all.

For the transformation of rubble into ruin is not a one-way process. Ruination is not rubble’s destiny, and Gordillo’s history is also the tale of constituted power’s constant battle with rubble’s perennial resurgence. While the elite battle against rubble, perpetually in fear of the ways in which it manifests “the fragility of state power” (57), or indeed the failures of any other would-be hegemonic project, in and around the debris itself arise other practices, other memories: subaltern reappropriations of place, such as the wild parties (“fiestones”) and “exuberant events of a Dionysiac nature” that one of Gordillo’s informants tells him used to take place in an abandoned Jesuit mission. It is this same informant, a local man called Alfredo, who first shocks Gordillo into realizing that if “we aren’t afraid of ruins” (as his Conclusion has it), it’s because we fear rubble even less. Calmly breaking off pieces of stucco, “enthusiastically eroding the materiality of the wall” (4), Alfredo happily demonstrates the vulnerability of ruins, their susceptibility to a subaltern counter-violence. Sous les pavés, la plage; beneath ruins, rubble.

But what comes before rubble? Or is history simply some kind of endless dialectic between rubble and ruin, violence and counter-violence? No. Gordillo suggests that before rubble is the void. But void does not here mean absence of any kind. It is true that Gordillo has much to say about negation, and in general his book is often dressed up in Frankfurt-School and particularly Adornian and Benjaminian rags. But his is an Adorno who, in proper Deleuzian fashion, has been well and truly fucked in the arse. So despite imperial or national depictions of the Chaco as some kind of savage abyss, defined by everything it supposedly lacks (culture, order, hierarchy), Gordillo stresses its plenitude, indeed its multiplicitous excess. This is what truly makes elites tremble: not that there is nothing there, but that there is too much, as is evidenced by the void’s power to create rubble. For perhaps it is better to speak not of the void, as though it were one object among many, but of voiding as an activity, as an insistent presence, a vital expression of the war machine as constituent power that (here Gordillo references Pierre Clastres) exerts its own violence to ward off the state, and in so doing creates rubble. The difference between the void and rubble is that the void is truly formless, a smooth space of pure immanence. Rubble, by contrast is organized (much as the state cannot see this or has to deny it) in zones of intensity, or what Gordillo consistently calls “nodes,” which themselves constitute “constellations.” This makes sense of the description of rubble as “ruptured multiplicity” (2), as opposed to the “ruptured unity” that more conventional accounts suggest. For it is not unity but multiplicity that is prior, and it is this basic (pure) multiplicity of the void that rubble ruptures.

Gordillo wants to persuade us not to fear ruins, in the name of a plea that we appreciate and affirm rubble. But should we not then love the void even more? Is this a radical call to embrace the war machine, reversing all the polarities of constituted power? Again, no, for this is not a book tainted with nostalgia for the so-called primitive, nor does it surrender to banal dialectics. There is something deeply ambivalent about the void. And we can see why if we look at the latest forces to shape the landscape of the Argentine Chaco: truly “primitive” accumulation in its purest state; neoliberal agribusiness as incarnated in the so-called “Soy Boom” of the past couple of decades. For what marks the process by which the forests are destroyed to be replaced by vast fields of soy is that the devastation is near absolute: not even rubble is produced or left behind, while the rubble that was once there is now consumed by fire. This is truly a smooth space. Moreover, there is something of the nomad, something of the war machine and even something multitudinous in these new multinational forces sweeping through the Chaco. Their voiding is certainly vigorous and active, and ultimately as threatening to state sovereignty as marauding indigenous bands ever were. These are the new spectres that haunt the Chaco, constituting lines of flight in pursuit of capital that (as Deleuze and Guattari comment in another context) “emanate a strange despair, like an odor of death and immolation, a state of war from which one returns broken” (A Thousand Plateaus 229). In the face of this latest challenge to the Argentine (but not just Argentine) spatio-historical ecosystem, it is the signal merit of Gordillo’s book to remind us of the value of the loose, but productive and fertile, horizontal connections and communities that make up the network of nodes and constellations that we too easily dismiss as “mere” rubble.

El lugar sin límites

José Donoso, El lugar sin límites

For some reason, José Donoso’s work seems particularly susceptible to a reading as national allegory. Perhaps it’s the obsession with houses: Casa de campo (A House in the Country), for instance, as (in Monika Kaup’s words) “an allegorical novel about Latin American history and culture in general and Chile’s national trauma [. . .] in particular” (“Postdictatorsahip Allegory and Neobaroque Disillusionment” 92). Likewise, then, in her introduction to El lugar sin límites (translated into English as Hell Has No Limits), Selena Millares argues that Donoso is “a man of houses” and that “the house encapsulates and represents an entire society and the history that underpins it, just like a cell speaks of the human organism to which it belongs” (74). But the biological metaphor is misleading: it is less the cell itself than its DNA that tells us about the person of which it is a part, and it tells us little if anything about that person’s history. Rather, houses are only like cells in so far as they are part of a larger and more complex assemblage, and in that they may well be affected by changes in the broader environment, if perhaps in unequal and unpredictable ways.

The houses that feature in El lugar sin límites include El Olivo, the farmhouse of local landowner and politician, Alejandro Cruz, and then the various properties that constitute Estación El Olivo, the hamlet that is both dependent upon and threatened by the estate whose name it shares. The village was established to service the needs of Cruz’s vineyards, but the coopers who made his barrels have mostly moved out, and the railway station is practically unused. Everything travels along the new highway, which bypassed the settlement and condemned it to what seems like terminal decline. All that remains are a church and a small brothel that has seen better days. The villagers’ one hope is the promise that electricity will come to Estación El Olivo. Cruz tells them that he’s putting pressure on the authorities to hook them up to the national grid. For the brothel’s part-owner, a young woman known as the “Japonesita,” with the coming of electric power everything would change: “the entire town would come back to life with electricity.” Above all, she would immediately swap her hand-cranked Victrola record player with a flash new Wurlitzer jukebox: “As soon as they brought electricity to the town she’d buy a Wurlitzer. Immediately. [. . .] The most colourful one, the one with a beach scene showing palm trees by a turquoise sea, the biggest machine of the lot” (136-137).

Note that this is a not a case of some kind of organic community faced with the coming of modernity, or of nature replaced by technology. El Olivo is an outgrowth of agribusiness from the start. If this is a village in ruins, these are capitalist ruins, the ruins of modernity itself. And there is nothing particularly natural here: the vines are laid out in geometric patterns, fully part of a social network from the start. Rather, what’s at stake is the replacement of one machine by another: turntable by jukebox, train by truck, while un-needed equipment is cast aside, like the “antediluvian threshing machine” left rusting by the railway track (117).

But one never knows when an outmoded or neglected machine might come in handy again. For the same word that the Japonesita uses of the Wurlitzer, “aparato” or apparatus, is also the term used by her co-owner, a flamboyant transvestite who goes by the name of “Manuela,” when referring to his (her) penis: “This piece of kit [este aparato] is no use to me except to go pee” (168). And it turns out that Manuela’s apparatus is not only surprisingly large (drawing comments such as “What a donkey!” and “Look how well equipped he is” [168]) but also in full working order. For the Japonesita is in fact Manuela’s daughter, offspring of a bet that landlord Cruz made to the brothel’s previous Madam that she couldn’t arouse him, couldn’t put his equipment to work. Riding on the bet was ownership of the brothel itself, and Manuela agreed to go through with the indignity of being publicly (if briefly) brought back into the supposed sexual norm with the understanding that the property would be split between the two of them. So the house is dependent on well-functioning machinery in more ways than one: Manuela’s apparatus won him his share in it, but for lack of power it’s left lifeless when the Victrola finally breaks: “They no longer make parts for this type of machine [esta clase de aparatos]” (211). Still, the Japonesita is confident she can find a replacement in a second-hand shop in the city. Alongside the trade in novelty and the latest gadget is a parallel economy of refitting or repurposing the ruined detritus discarded along the way.

And it is in this spirit of bricolage and making-do that Donoso puts his (admittedly somewhat disillusioned) faith: in the kids who turn the urine-stained thresher into their playground, in Manuela’s piecing together her ripped rags into a red dress that may once again perhaps seduce even the most boorish of the locals, however briefly and however tragic the final outcome. As the Japonesita reflects, it’s happened before, that after one of his escapades Manuela has come back “with a black eye or a couple of broken ribs after the men, roaming drunks, have beaten him up for being a queer. What am I to worry about? Like a cat, he has nine lives” (214). Grit in the machinery of capitalist development, a cobbled-together apparatus or assemblage of patched rags and reworked ruins, the way of life presented in El lugar sin límites incarnates a corrosion neither fully within nor fully outside of modernity’s grand narrative. And for the same reason, it makes a mockery of the restricted spatiality of houses or households: it makes them spaces without limits.

Modern Ruins, Malls, and Their Explorers

Hawthorne Plaza Mall

Some stories, sites, photographs, and articles on modern ruination:

  • Matt Stopera, “Completely Surreal Photos Of America’s Abandoned Malls”. Buzzfeed. April 2, 2014.
  • Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish. (David Uberti, “The Death of the American Mall”. The Guardian. June 19, 2014.)
  • Jim Waterson, “19 Haunting Pictures Of The Abandoned 1984 Winter Olympics Venues”. BuzzFeed. February 19, 2014.
  • Vitaly Chevchenko, “The Urban Explorers of the Ex-USSR”. BBC News. February 11, 2014.
  • “Tall Storeys: Lucinda Grange’s Daredevil Photography”. The Guardian. February 18, 2014.
  • The truth is that we’ve probably got rather too many ruins in the world already, and certainly more than we can preserve as we would like to. Left exposed to the elements, ruins just get more and more ruined. That’s the iron law of ruins. And it takes superhuman effort (and vast resources) to halt that natural process. Why add to our problems by excavating more of them? (Mary Beard, “A Point of View: Is the Archaeological Dig a Thing of the Past?”. BBC News Magazine. May 2, 2014.)
  • The pleasure the human mind takes in ruins is not easy to explain. It has something to do with time. In JMW Turner’s sketches of decayed abbeys that come like Soane’s broodings from the Romantic age, the artist lingers over the details of each crumbly, broken stone. Looking at his studies you get a powerful sense of the time he spent on them and the escape from daily care this involved. A ruin, in other words, is a time machine that releases the mind to wander in nooks and crannies of lost ages – and ages to come. That is why John Constable finds the ruins of Hadleigh Castle so grimly consoling in his painting of this medieval heap quietly decaying, the wars and oppressions it once embodied long forgotten. (Jonathan Jones, “Ruin Lust at Tate Britain Review: ‘A Brilliant but Bonkers Exhibition'”. The Guardian March 3, 2014.)
  • Nikki Hatchett, “Ruin Lust: Our Obsession with Decay: In Pictures”. The Guardian. March 3, 2014.
  • The lure of ruins is complex. Ruins inspire the imagination, incite pleasantly melancholy thoughts, and humanise a landscape. Only in the wildest places can we walk without coming across some kind of ruin – some human trace of enigmatic predecessors on the remote pathways. Even in the highest mountains in Snowdonia, you constantly come across quarry workings, abandoned huts and tumbledown walls. The marks of human industry are everywhere. Modern ruins are the strangest of all. (Jonathan Jones, “The Ruin-Hunters who Drove a Car down Mexico’s Forgotten Railways”. The Guardian. June 11, 2014.)
  • La enorme ruina, a pesar de su abandono y antigüedad, resistió sin problemas el terremoto de 1985, pero aún con estas favorables referencias, no se hizo nada por retomar su construcción. Como suele suceder, motivos de índole político, de planificación social y las eternas mezquindades económicas en la precaria redistribución de los dineros fiscales complotaron en contra del proyecto. Al contrario, el lugar originalmente destinado para salvar y cuidar la vida, se transformó rápidamente en sinónimo de muerte, destrucción y abandono. Numerosos delitos, robos, violaciones y asesinatos, se arraigaron por muchos años tras sus muros derruidos, con lo que ya a fines de los años 80, el edificio era un vergonzoso foco de delincuencia e inseguridad; un “elefante blanco” que día y noche ensombrecía al vecindario y entristecía el paisaje. (Sebastián Aguilar O., “Reportaje: El olvido del Hospital Ochagavía, nuestro elefante blanco”. Neurona Musical. February 11, 2014. Publicado originalmente en Revista Evavisión Cultura 7, Septiembre 2013.)
  • Gastón Gordillo, “The Politics of Ruins: What’s Hidden Under Rubble?”. Conversation with Léopold Lambert. Archipelago. May 20, 2014.
  • Detroit in Ruins (Again)

    Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

    The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

    Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

    Detroit ballroom

    The Waste Land

    The Waste LandThe final stanza of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land encapsulates much of what has gone before. It comprises four languages, multiple allusions, abrupt transitions and changes in register and tone:

    London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
    Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
    Quando fiam uti chelidon
    –O swallow swallow
    Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
    These fragments I have shored against my ruins
    Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
    Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata

    Shantih shantih shantih

    What is this, then? A monument to erudition and scholarship, that only the elite could (or should) decode? Or a cry of despair and doubt that contemporary culture will ever cohere again? In truth, it is both: Eliot claims to diagnose the crisis of an entire civilization, and also (hesitantly perhaps) to offer some kind of solution, drawn from the long history of that culture itself. The fear, however, is that the cure is simply a repetition of the initial disease. For what difference is there really between the “ruins” that litter the “waste land” and the “fragments” that Eliot wishes to “shore[] against” them? What keeps a fragment from becoming a ruin? Indeed, is Eliot not complicit in the ruination he laments? As Maud Ellmann eloquently puts it: “Because the poem can only abject writing with more writing, it catches the infection that it tries to purge, and implodes like an obsessive ceremonial under the pressure of its own contradictions” (273).

    So for all that the poem apparently concludes with the calm of quiet benediction–Eliot gives “The Peace which passeth understanding” as a translation for the Sanskrit incantation that makes up its final line (26)–something of the stench of decay and corruption, dismay and disillusion, lives on. Indeed, the fear is that the text has only accelerated the process that it sets out to delay if not reverse. The three “shantihs” cannot prevent London Bridge’s thrice-announced “falling down” of a few lines earlier. Or is it that something more sinister is at work? Does Eliot not so secretly welcome the ruination of London Bridge, on which he has earlier noted crowds of somnolent and short-sighted commuters, who for all intents and purposes have already given up on life: “I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (7). Isn’t it worth an apocalypse, laying waste to this banal and meaningless excuse for an existence so as perhaps to start all over again? For Eliot surely speaks also through the voice of the pub landlord whose invocation “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” becomes less of a warning and more of a threat with every iteration (10).

    It may merely be a matter of what we want from the text–any text, no doubt, but perhaps this text more obviously than most. Ultimately, it’s up to us how (or even if) we read The Waste Land today. Lawrence Rainey has a quite marvelous essay about the poem’s publication history that ends up with the only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the most faithful approach to the poem doesn’t get caught up in the intricacies of the text itself. Noting that “generations of students have been exhorted to look closely at the poem,” he articulates by contrast what he calls “the modernist principle of reading,” that “the best reading of a work is often that which does not read it at all” (111). Close reading, he tells us, is merely one approach among many–and if anything a sign of the way in which modernism has been hi-jacked by the academy, turned into a sport for professors.

    But Eliot’s poem anticipates this question of the reader’s desire. The line “Why then Ile fit you” comes from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie, where it is a response to the request for some amusing entertainment for the king: “I’ll give you something that will suit your wishes,” is how our editor glosses its meaning (64). Poetry is endlessly malleable, a mere transient representation, it is implied, as though to get the poet off the hook for any offence (or ruination) he or she may cause. We get what we want out of literature: if we want to see it as a puzzle to be deciphered, then so be it; but if (à la Ellmann) we now prefer to think of it as a “sphinx without a secret,” then that is fine, too. We can take the fragments that language offers us and turn them to our advantage; we can play among the ruins. Isn’t this the shift from Eliot’s time to our own? The fragmentation that modernism saw in anguished terms has simply become our everyday reality, our happily postmodern condition. The twist, however, is that in The Spanish Tragedie a staged drama (a play within the play) becomes deadly as it turns out to be all too real: amid the “meere confusion” of its polyglot “unknowne languages” (63) it serves as cover for a revenge plot whereby the maddened Hieronymo kills the men who have murdered his son, and then kills himself, too. Is there something similarly suicidally murderous in The Waste Land? And if so, should we take the affects that literature provokes a little more seriously, and perhaps its talk of ruins more literally (if less literarily)?