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Nothingness and the Aesthetics of Decay

The other leading voice for urbex, British philosopher Dylan Trigg, also argues for such a politics but for different reasons. In The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason, Trigg takes a more long-term philosophical view and argues that the decline of reason, embodied in ruins, enables a critique of progress that puts to rest the theory of ongoing and inevitable progress that has prevailed in developed countries for more than two hundred years. At the same time he defends the ontological value of modern ruins because they help us to see the truth of our current reality. This reality is not a cycle of growth and decline, as Edensor suggests, but a downward spiral of ongoing decline that cannot be stopped. Noting that Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project analyzes ruins in terms of the socioeconomic mechanisms that determine the logic of capitalism, Trigg distinguishes his own defense of ruins from Benjamin’s perspective: “My focus is not on the social significance of decay and waste, which reduces them [ruins] to a utilitarian purpose, but rather the ontological value of that decay. Whereas decay and ruin have predominately been employed in a transformative guise, conferring a supposed legitimacy upon them, in my consideration they require no further justification. In their incompletion, they are already complete.’^6 Ruins are thus stripped of their social significance and valued for their own sake while helping us to see the truth of an approaching systemic collapse.

In explaining the aesthetic value of ruins, Trigg provides a compelling explanation for the mentality that finds beauty in decay as a form of “decadent consciousness” that aestheticizes its own decline. He writes, “As rationality is disrupted by decline, the aestheticizing of that decline ensues, so establishing the decadent consciousness, a trait evident in urban exploration and romanticism. Because of this temporal proximity between culture and aesthetics, the ruin is able to be elevated from its initial disregard. The strangeness of treating present ruins aesthetically is peculiar to decadence. Rome exemplifies this and nineteenth century romanticism mirrors it.”37

But Trigg distinguishes the contemporary ruin from other kinds of ruins. The classical ruin has reached its absolute form and serves to affirm the identity of the present, whereas industrial ruins do the opposite: they erode a sense of contemporary identity. The war ruin has an alleged purpose in justifying an end result, which allows the war ruin to evade the charge of “aestheticism” because of its humanitarian component. No such imperative exists in regard to postindustrial ruins, which allows ruination to become detached from reason.38 This failure of reason and technology, already evident by the end of the nineteenth century, has led to an irreversible cultural pessimism in which the collective has given way to subjective individualism, and reason has given way to emotion. Writes Trigg: “What this pessimism signifies is recognition of the gradual collapse of environmental, economic, political and sociological factors, whereby faith in progress is disillusioned by historical experience. Cultural pessimism marks the end of rational faith in history and collective politics as apathy and cynicism replace harmony and trust. Withdrawal from the collective means that success is replaced by subjectivism and individual- ism.”39 This form of cultural pessimism as apathy and cynicism clearly defines the urbex movement, which abandons history and collective politics for subjective individualism.

But in pointing to the cultural pessimism generated by gradual collapse, Trigg’s assumed “apathy and cynicism” and “withdrawal from the collective” is too categorical and fatalistic. The recent and continuing rebellions and uprisings across North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, from Tahrir Square to Tacsim Square, Athens to Wall Street to Rio de Janeiro, inchoate though many of these uprisings may be and despite their problematic outcomes, suggest otherwise. In Trigg’s pessimistic view, what he calls the postindustrial sublime of ruination inverts the concept of the Kantian sublime as a taming of the terrible, constituting not the transcendence of the human over the external but descent and despair. Sweeping away any sense of balance between nature and culture, Trigg’s postindustrial sublime “pulls us beneath nature so that the preservation of the self is undermined as boundaries become ambiguous.”40

Like Edensor, however, Trigg suggests that what is affirming about the ruin is its capacity for critical resistance to the enforcement of spatial rationality. For Trigg this resistance is based not on the activities that might take place within the ruin but on its structural formlessness, ultimately leading to total collapse. He defines this collapse as a new category of post-sublime aesthetics that he names “the dissolute" the point at which the object vanishes completely. As decline becomes more evident, leading from the beautiful to the sublime to the dissolute, cultural pessimism intensifies, and this leads Trigg to the very bottom of a philosophical abyss:

We witness the shape of history, from the canonization of reason to its successive failures and thence to its gradual demise unfolding in spatial form. We see the correlation between solidity and progress give way to disintegration, rot, and erosion. We are at home among the debris. The ruin soothes us through reinforcing what was already present, albeit latently. By embodying the pathway from incipience to extinction, the ruin theatrically reenacts the structure of our age. After modernity and postmodernity, the ruin mirrors the gathering of closures. The final movement of the ruin is a rebirth that will exist only in the absence of its being. For us, tending to its disappearance is enough. The ruin as a home is realized the nearer we hold out into the Nothing. In the process of internalizing what the ruin symbolizes, we recognize the drive toward collapse. The “hard cold facts of late life" have been placed upon us. Ours is an age whose virtue is our nearness to the end.41

Trigg accepts the inevitability of our “nearness to the end" and “the ruin as a home.” In a form of elegant but total nihilism, he is unable to imagine an alternative to the capitalist decline he describes; his thesis therefore explicitly dismisses a social and political analysis of ruins since he sees no possibility, even theoretically, for collective political action in response to the loss of rationality inherent to capitalism. Instead, he argues for an active embrace of the resulting cultural pessimism and of a future that inexorably descends into dissolution and collapse. This is a future that ends not with an apocalyptic bang but with the quiet whoosh of a structure gradually and irresistibly falling in on itself. In case we have not grasped this, he adds, “From the viewpoint of the present work, decline is not something to be resisted.’^2

While Edensor celebrates the unregulated “space, aesthetics and materiality” of ruins as a necessary balance to overregulated urban space and regards this balance as part of a naturalized cycle of ongoing growth and decline, Trigg recognizes the failure of capitalism and foresees progress without reason as a future descending into decline—but with no mitigating intervention through human agency possible. For Trigg, ruination permanently confirms

“the downward direction of progress.” Contemporary ruins, then, must be appreciated for their intrinsic “aesthetics of decay” as they progress toward the dissolute, reflecting the central fact of contemporary reality: the Nothingness that embodies the absence of reason. While Edensor takes an ahis- torical view based on the imagined natural cycle of creation through destruction, Trigg views the descent into the void as the result of an unstoppable historical decline. Although coming from different perspectives, both arrive at similar conclusions, which must be understood as political: while taking pleasure in the immanent sensuous nature of ruins, both counsel against any attempts to combat the progress of ruination—Edensor because he enjoys the liberation found within the ruins; Trigg because he is convinced that the future has already been written. These are the key inspirational voices for urbex today.

But there are other possibilities. Although reason is indeed absent from the global system of capitalist accumulation, it is not absent as a thinkable category applied to the logics of an emancipatory political program. While historical and philosophical pessimists have lost faith in the possibility of reason as a guide to collective agency, counseling others to abandon hope is not a neutral position but capitulates to the very system that has brought about decline and helps to ensure its morbid success. Put another way, subjective individualism is guaranteed to fail in effecting social change. Trigg not only diagnoses individualism as a problem but fully embodies it, insists on it. By counseling against any attempt at social change, he dismisses the impulse for social struggle, instead fostering a slide into hopeless melancholy, while Edensor’s more hedonistic perspective tends toward amoralism. This helps to explain why the ethos of urban exploration emphasizes subjective experience while ignoring historical or political inquiry. Trigg’s definition of decadent consciousness as the aestheticizing of one’s own decline is a useful concept for understanding urban exploration, but it is not a productive political vision for the future.

The aestheticization of decay must be understood as a constituent element of the deindustrial sublime that can easily lull us into complacency. Yet ruin images cannot help but picture the violence and breaking quality at their center, the recognition of which admits the possibility of collective agency and political action even as it signals the need to contain and control the anxiety of social breakdown and cultural pessimism. To behold the descent of contemporary society into collapse and to find it pleasurable and beautiful without, at the same time, finding it politically troubling and contingent is to succumb to the profound demoralization effected by a capitalist system that has nearly suffocated the idea of an emancipated society based on equality instead of class privilege. This despairing view of an exhausted future recalls the famous assertion first put forward by Fredric Jameson in the early 1990s, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.43 Disaster capitalism will truly triumph if we surrender to a despairing vision that counsels powerlessness and encourages hopelessness, with no possibility of collective social struggle.

 
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