The ‘Introduction’ of *Waste: A Philosophy of Things* Available Here

WasteWith the official UK release of Waste: A Philosophy of Things on 22nd May 2014, Bloomsbury have supplied a preview to give you an idea of the book’s ambitions. You can read the Introduction here.


About Why are people so interested in what they and others throw away? This book shows how this interest in what we discard is far from new — it is integral to how we make, build and describe our lived environment. As this wide-ranging new study reveals, waste has been a polarizing topic for millennia and has been treated as a rich resource by artists, writers, philosophers and architects. Drawing on the works of Giorgio Agamben, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, Bruno Latour and many others, Waste: A Philosophy of Things investigates the complexities of waste in sculpture, literature and architecture. It traces a new philosophy of things from the ancient to the modern and will be of interest to those working in cultural and literary studies, archaeology, architecture and continental philosophy.


“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

– See more at:“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

Reviews “This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

Why are people so interested in what they and others throw away? This book shows how this interest in what we discard is far from new — it is integral to how we make, build and describe our lived environment. As this wide-ranging new study reveals, waste has been a polarizing topic for millennia and has been treated as a rich resource by artists, writers, philosophers and architects. Drawing on the works of Giorgio Agamben, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, Bruno Latour and many others, Waste: A Philosophy of Things investigates the complexities of waste in sculpture, literature and architecture. It traces a new philosophy of things from the ancient to the modern and will be of interest to those working in cultural and literary studies, archaeology, architecture and continental philosophy.

Table Of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Introduction
Part I: Collecting Waste
2. Narrating the Event of Waste
3. Archaeologies of Waste
Part II: Reading Waste
4. The Poetic Economies of T. S. Eliot
5. Reading Joycean Disjecta
Part III: Building Ruins
6. Ruins Past
7. Ruins of the Future
8. Conclusion


“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

– See more at:

‘Future Ruins’, Published in a New Collection, Edited by John Scanlan and J.F.M. Clark

9781443849128I have had the piece ‘Future Ruins’ published in the collection Aesthetic Fatigue: Modernity and the Language of Waste, ed. John Scanlan and J. F.M. Clark (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2013), pp. 138–158. Other contributors include Steven Connor, Timothy Cooper, and Harvie Ferguson, among many others. My contribution to this eclectic collection of writings expands upon a post available on this website. It works over the temporalities at stake when we project ruins into the future, revealing, I think, how we depend upon times of use and waste to call upon different kinds of future. Rereading some of this, especially in light of Mel Chen’s  work on the concept of ‘animacy’,  has led me rethink some of the ways we make our futures active or inactive, according to the objects we use to populate yet unrealised environments. In the end, there are some simple ideas contained here – on how waste carries and animates time; how waste is not simply a thing of retrospective contemplation (i.e. the nostalgic has-beens of a time past) but a concept which enlivens how we conceive our potential; and that thinking on the possibilities of wasted futures requires a mode of narrative thinking, one that is as much about the here and now as it is about the future.

Waste: A Philosophy of Things, Now Available on Amazon

Though it won’t be available for some months – provisionally scheduled for release in May 2014 – my first book, Waste: A Philosophy of Things, is now listed on Amazon for pre-order. The book will be published by Bloomsbury Academic at a price that will put it beyond the reach of most individuals but with the Waste-A Philosophy of Thingshope that institutions may buy enough copies for a paperback edition to be financially viable. Having worked in academic publishing, helping others to get their work published, I am delighted that I’ll be putting out something of my own. And, though my attention is now directed to other projects, my work on waste is still a source of interest to me and, I hope, not yet redundant by all that has been written and published on the subject since I concluded my research.

Things are changing in publishing and, though I am interested in open culture and, to an extent, the open source publishing models pioneered online, I am still convinced that traditional, hardcopy formats (alongside digital formats), established on flexible but globally structured editorial, publicity and marketing relations, along with the modest kinds of innovation that Bloomsbury are strong on, is a better option for me, at this stage, and for this particular project. If that sounds like I have ethical issues with the academic publishing industry as a whole, well, I do, but this is a book that requires all the support of an established and well-run press of which Bloomsbury is certainly an example.

The cover image is taken sometime in 1888, I think, during the Tower’s construction. I am particularly interested in monuments as waste or as immanent objects of waste, and the temporality of this is explored in the book’s final chapters. It is not the case that all monuments ruin in the same way nor do they always resemble ruins in their construction, but the sight and site of a building being made makes use as well as future ruin possible. It is the relationship between use and waste, use as waste, use making waste, that has captivated me and made this book project so unexpectedly relevant to my current research into the use of twins in contemporary science. More on that elsewhere, for now, I’m looking to topping off the almost-not-quite-yetness of Waste, with the index and final proofs not yet ready.

Nore Hill Folly, West Sussex – A Note on Follies, Eyecatchers and Fabriques

On Saturday afternoon I joined some friends for a short walk about the Sussex countryside. It was a day with an extra 10 degrees on the thermometer, bright sunshine, obedient daffodils and crocuses making their salutations, and all the other rites that bring the first sight of spring.

We began in Slindon village and were soon marching across the brow of one side of a small valley and,  turning to the other side of this small dip in the land, we could see Nore Hill Folly in the near distance. To feed a little ruinlust we made our loop take in this architectural  castaway and before long we were  weaving ourselves down and along one hill and then up the other to take a closer look, passing a beagle hunt,  a phalanx of ruddy-checked riders out with their puffing ponies, the London Symphony Orchestra playing a medley of Handel, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, countless other scenes straight from the small ads of Country Life, etc.

Nore Hill Folly, near Slindon, West Sussex, UK

On closer inspection the folly is like a ruinous medieval gatehouse (of a heavy, Northern European build), with one arch intact and the other shattered. Asymmetric, it has a tower to one side and crude battlements that run horizontally from one side to the other. The odd thing about the folly is that the tower, and the arch built ‘complete’, face up the hill. This suggests that the intended way of approaching the folly is from north to south, from an elevated position above the folly itself. It is worth noting how this ‘eyecatcher’, as follies of the eighteenth-century period were sometimes known, can catch the eye both from the village to the south (as it did as we began our walk) as well as collate a view down the valley, through its decaying aperture, towards the village and the panorama beyond. But little is known about the construction, intention and history of the folly at Nore Hill. It simply remains, without every aspect of its existence reducible to deed and document. It, like many other sham ruins of its kind, produces a time of stories that makes the factual basis of this architecture of secondary importance. This is the aesthetic tradition of the folly (and I am really not satisfied with the limitations of the word ‘aesthetic’, for the reasons given below). What I’m getting at, I think, are the conditions that produce the grounds for speculation, to give a narrative architecture engineered through the distructure of a built ruin.

Nore Hill Folly, near Slindon, West Sussex, UK

Although strongly associated with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some say that the desire to build sham ruins has a far longer history.[1] Vasari notes the interventions of Girolamo Genga, an architect of the early fifteenth century who was in the employment of the Duke of Urbino and commissioned Genga to build a palace, “a well-planned fabric, and full of apartments, colonnades, courts, loggie, fountains, and most delightful gardens, there is no Prince that passes that does not go to see it […] From the design of this same master, the Duke caused the Palace at Pesaro to be restored, and also the little park, making within it a house representing a ruin, which is a very beautiful thing to see.”[2] Genga’s building project was one that included the construction of a ruin, a visual diversion for the Duke’s visitors. It is worth noting that Genga’s ruin is approximately contemporary with Botticelli’s nativity works and this ruinous folly might be considered a secular equivalent to the temporal distinctions witnessed in those paintings. Later in the eighteenth century, spurred by Grand Tourism, the rise of the European picturesque and made manifest in both formal and irregular garden design, fabricated ruins became a common feature on the property of Europe’s fashionable elite. Writing in 1728, the writer and garden designer, Batty Langley, recommended ruins as a way to terminate avenues or vistas:

Ruins may either be painted upon Canvas, or actually built in that manner with Brick, and cover’d with Plaistering in Imitation of Stone. And since we are to build no more thereof than as much of the shell, as is next to our view, I therefore recommend their building before their painting, not only as the most durable, but least expensive (if the Painting is performed by a skilful Hand) and much more to the real Purport intended.[3]

Ruins provide a practical solution to the limitations of garden space and Langley preferred classical ruins for this role – “After the Old Roman Manner for the termination of Walks, Avenues &c.”[4] Again, the ruin is employed to resolve spatial distances with temporal distances. In the images that accompany Langley’s influential work, David Lockley’s simple etchings include mouldering structures to fill the gaps and channels created by ornate hedgerows. The effect of these ruins must have been to provide a telescopic vista, which gathers the manicured present within a theatrical past. Turned towards vantage points that would emphasise the ruin’s capacity to stand at odds with (and simultaneously within) the domestic space that surrounds it, these sham ruins serve to disclose many of the ruin’s narratological effects. The deployment of ruins in European gardens can be seen to follow the diktats of the picturesque as they were laid out by William Gilpin later in the century, “the picturesque eye is perhaps most inquisitive after the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles and abbeys. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself.”[5] Gilpin’s sense of the picturesque is deeply invested in the veneration of a past that ruins mediate. Engaging in the contrasts, transience and permanence that they suggest, ruins leave the historical to be “physically merged into the setting”, allowing ruin to become the visual index or material manifestation of time.

Folly at Hagley Hall, Worcester, built by Sanderson Miller, 1749–50. A.F. Kersting, n.d.

 As the locations reserved for sham ruins expanded beyond the formal spaces of English gardens, they became deployed across the land of the wealthy. The ruin built in the grounds of Hagley Hall provides a useful example, perched upon a hill and set apart from the main house of George Lyttelton who commissioned Sanderson Miller to build the folly in the 1750s. It is interesting to note Joseph Heely’s observations surrounding the historical effects of the structure, when he described the ruin several decades later:

Upon first glimpse of this becoming object, which adds so much dignity to the scene, one cannot resist an involuntary pause — struck with its character, the mind naturally falls into reflections, while curiosity is on the wing, to be acquainted with its history; and I make no doubt that an antiquarian like my friend, would sigh to know what era it was founded, and by whom: — what sieges is had sustained; — and would lament that hostile discord, or the iron hand of all-mouldering time, should so rapaciously destroy it.[6]

Heely’s response to the folly, by way of his anonymous and antiquarian “friend”, is an involuntarily narrative one, a response sensitive to the absent time that ruins make quasi-present. The “dignity” bestowed by Miller’s folly might owe something to the contrast gained from the strict Palladian styling of Hagley Hall. As Horace Walpole wrote to Richard Bentley in 1753, the folly has “the true rust of the baron’s wars”,[7] making a clear reference to a baronial, Catholic England felt to have been superseded by the Protestant neo-Classicalism of Lyttelton and his circle.[8] There is a broader case to be made for the preference for Gothic follies vis-à-vis the Classical, as James Howley argues, “for many advocates of the classical taste, the rival Gothic style was only acceptable in a ruined and defeated state”.[9] The ruin, in this capacity, performs precisely the same function as the ruins found in fifteenth-century paintings, affecting a severance between the time of a ‘then’ and a time of a ‘now’. Although the motivating forces might differ, the role of ruin to divide time remains consistent. The benefit of comparing the use of these ruins, in both paint and in landscape design, is that we are given a clear view of how ruin facilitates the distinction of thought and belief. It not that there is something inherent in these ideas – New Testament theology and paganism, neo-Classicism and Catholic medievalism – that makes them readily associated with the ruin, but these ideas gain their narrative distinction through the structural effects of ruins and the temporal oppositions they are made to mediate.

As eyecatchers, displays of wealth, politically and architecturally-loaded statements of style, follies provide important occurrences when images of waste have profound and explicit use. Whether real or fabricated, the application of waste in the ruinous folly provides just another reason why this thesis avoids making ‘non-use’ an intrinsic capability of things, but, instead, a reversible and contingent temporal effect. In terms of Heideggerian ‘dwelling’, the folly is spared and preserved, but only in so far as it serves an ambiguous ‘goal’, insofar as it maintains the temporal complexity of waste. Whilst the folly is a maintained ruin in one sense, its teleological imperative as a ruin is to be ruinous, to be detached from the temporal nature of maintained use. The ruinous effect, its capacity for picturesque pleasure for instance, depends on not being orientated towards use. This is also true of the ubiquitous practice of preserving ruins, which are preserved only in so far as they continue being ruinous and continue to stand in temporal distinction to the architecture of use. In the next chapter we shall explore in finer detail the delicate conclusions of the ruin that is left to dissolve into indistinction. Until then, we should acknowledge that our understandings of ruin rely upon preserving certain narratalogical structures of recursivity and anticipation. Attempts to stabilise, spare and preserve ruins do not simultaneously impose the temporal enclosure, the “goal” that we associate with use. Instead, to preserve the ruin is, in part, to keep this goal at bay, to preserve and potentially intensify the mediatory, unenclosed effect of ruin.

So, whilst part of the charm of a fabricated ruin issues precisely from fabrication, from artificiality, another facet arises from their successful simulation of ruin’s effects. Andreas Huyssen has argued that we can contrast modern ruins with those of the eighteenth century according to notions of authenticity. Huyssen argues that the celebration of ruins in the eighteenth century was driven by notions of “authorship, genius, originality, selfhood, uniqueness, and subjectivity” – by ruins that “seem to guarantee origins.”[10] Huyssen claims that the appeal made to authenticity that these ruins seemed to enact are now all but eliminated in, for instance, the contemporary use of Roman ruins for opera performances or the use of medieval castles for hotel accommodation.[11] But even a superficial examination of eighteenth or nineteenth-century follies shows that trying to periodise ruins according to ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ effects will prove unproductive, particularly since follies were celebrated for their ability to fuse authentic and inauthentic effects, staging both a challenge to notions of authorship, genius and originality, and a means to maintain and uphold these terms. It is better, in my view, to stress the dynamic role that narrative plays in every experience of ruin, each encounter must accept the way in which the ruin makes exigent particular time-bound narratives. Ruinous follies do not simply ‘guarantee origins’ but are capable of fabricating a fictitious past, an inauthentic origin, a time of use that never has and never will occur. In addition to the recycled quality of Sanderson Miller’s folly at Hagley, which took windows from the ruin from nearby Halesowen Abbey[12], we might consider Jeffry Wyatt’s use of Roman ruins at Virginia Water. Wyatt reused architectural fragments shipped from Leptis Magna on the Libyan coast in 1818. Without a clear plan of the original Roman construction, and making no attempt to represent their organisation at Leptis, Wyatt refashioned these fragments into what he called the ‘Temple of Augustus’. These ruins are, in a material sense, entirely ‘genuine’, ‘ancient’ and ‘original’ but their relocation and reassembly erodes any clear distinction between the authentic and inauthentic, or indeed, between ruin and fabrique. The fabrication of the ruin reveals, in Sophie Thomas’s view, “the ruin’s necessarily constructed relationship to questions of history, and its importance in the creation of the present.”[13] This propensity to stage the past, a past that responds to the way in which the ruin is bound to diverging and deconstructed times of use and waste, shows the ruin not to guarantee an authentic origin but to provide a narrative departure for many narrative constructions.

The ruin then, and its manifestation in the folly in particular, discloses one of the principal effects of waste; it suggests a disunity of time and a temporal counterpoint to those objects that surround it. William Ockenden, writing when the popularity of follies was nearing its height, chooses to stress the contemplative attraction of ruins:

 All remains excite an enquiry into the former state of the edifice, and fix the mind in a contemplation on the use it was applied to; besides the characters expressed by their style and position, they suggest ideas which would not arise from the buildings, if entire. The purposes of many have ceased; an abbey, or a castle, if complete, can no more than a dwelling; the memory of the times, and of the manners, to which they were adapted, is preserved only in history, and in ruins […]. [14]

This contemplative potential is, for the large part, a potential born from the comparative and narratological impulse that drives our experience of ruins. “Whatever building we see in decay,” continues Ockenden, “we naturally contrast its present to its former state, and delight to ruminate on the comparison.”[15] In eighteenth-century garden design, as it was on the Grand Tour, the lure of the ruin owes something to the temporal problems it posed. Ockenden does, however, concede a difference between ‘genuine’ and fictitious ruins, “It is true that such effects properly belong to real ruins; but they are produced in a certain degree by those which are fictitious; the impressions are not so strong, but they are exactly similar; and the representation, though it does not present facts to the memory, yet suggests subjects to the imagination.”[16] Those responsible for authoring and experiencing some of the best-known examples of ruin building certainly seem to accept a continuity of effect between ruins and their fabricated counterparts, what remains consistent is the narrative quality common to both.

[1] See Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, 16.

[2] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptures and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere , 4 vols. (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1996), 2:384–385.

[3] Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening: Or, The Laying and Planting Paterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks &c. (London: Bettesworth, Batlry, Pemberton, Bowles, Clarke and Bowles, 1728), xi. Italics in original.

[4] Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening, 196.

[5] William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape, &c. (1794; London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808), 46. My italics.

[6] Joseph Heely, Letters on the Beauties of Hagley, Envil and the Leasowes. With Critical Remarks and Observations on the Modern Taste in Gardening, 2 vols. (London: R. Baldwin, 1777), 1:172–173.

[7] Horace Walpole, “From a Letter to Richard Bentley (September, 1753),” in The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden, 1620-1820, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988), 313.

[8] See David Stewart, “Political Ruins: Gothic Sham Ruins and the ‘45,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 55 no. 4 (1996): 400–411.

[9] James Howley, The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1993), 109.

[10] Andreas Huyssen, “Authentic Ruins: Products of Modernity,” in Ruins of Modernity, ed. Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle, 18, 20.

[11] Huyssen also suggests that the renovation of disused industrial ruins, such as the transformation of Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern in London, also exemplifies the ‘inauthentic’ era of the ruin. Here, it seems, it is not ideas of authenticity or inauthenticity that are at stake but whether ‘ruins’ are allowed to exist ‘free’ of human interference. In any case, the renovation or preservation of ruins is certainly not a modern phenomenon, as Huyssen seems to suggest.

[12] See E. W. Hawkes, “Sanderson Miller of Radway, 1716–1780: Architect,” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1964), 45

[13] Sophie Thomas, “Assembling History: Fragments and Ruins,” European Romantic Review 14 (2003): 181.

[14] William Ockenden, Observations on Modern Gardening, Illustrated by Descriptions (Dublin: John Exchaw, 1770), 138.

[15] William Ockenden, Observations on Modern Gardening, 138

[16] Ibid, 138–139.

“The Stupendous Past”: Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins

A version of this text was presented at The Writing of Rose Macaulay, in Her Historical and Cultural Context, held at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 23 September, 2011. Special thanks to Dr. Kate Macdonald for organising this event.

Rose Macaulay’s late, great work, Pleasure of Ruins is one of the first books to give an expanded history of architectural decay. It represents an inquisition into the images, philosophy, theology, archaeology and literature of ruin. And, moreover, it is a book that allows its subject matter to infect its logic and form: it is a sprawling and enigmatic work; an excessive and truly stupendous book. I’d like to suggest to you that Rose Macaulay explores what it means to write about ruins, the first of its kind to analyse in any extensive manner the relationship between the disappearance of buildings and the disappearance of words used to describe them.

I. Beginnings 

But, before I get carried off into the labyrinthine quality of this work, a word of caution; a warning that seeks to qualify what Rose Macaulay says about ruins and what I, in turn, have to say about her:

Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth.[1]

Pleasure of Ruins is neither a work of fiction nor a scholarly journey into the purely nonfictional, but a book that follows the affective qualities of its subject to make extravagant movements between the actual and the invented. Emphasising her emphatic belief in the ruin-mindedness of human beings, Rose Macaulay’s nonfiction is thick with fictional drama, breaking down its subject only to rebuild it through a dialectical, allegorical potential through which pasts blend into the present. This provocative nature of ruin is summarised by Byron in Canto X of Don Juan, “A grey wall, a green ruin, rusty pike, / Make my soul pass the equinoctial line / Between the present and past worlds, and hover / Upon their airy confine, half-seas-over.”[2] And, I think, in form and content, Pleasure of Ruins leaves us with a tipsy sense of overstated disquiet.

Simply opening the pages of Pleasure of Ruins soon reveals its airy and enormous referential range. It has a variety of genre – poetic, epistolic, biblical, mythological, scientific and archaeological – and an equally impressive variety of historical sources. Macaulay takes extensive quotations from Egyptian, Classical, Mediaeval, Renaissance and Early Modern, 18th, 19th and 20th century texts. I’ll have more to say about this referential depth later but until then I think it is worth noting at the outset that Macualay’s relentless engagement with the writing of others is one of the overriding features of the book, it is her chosen mode of overstatement. So, Rose is clearly not the first to write with or about ruin; indeed, she was not even the first Macaulay to write with or about ruin.

Gustave Doré, “The New Zealander,” in London: A Pilgrimage, ed. Blanchard Jerrold (London: Grant, 1872).


Concluding an article for the Edinburgh Review in 1840, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Rose’s first cousin twice removed, introduced an image of ‘the New Zealander’ to the British public. He used a projective image of London’s ruin to argue that Catholicism “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”[3] So prevalent did this idea of the inquisitive and judgmental New Zealander become that by 1865 Punch placed it on their list of ruined rhetoric, literary devices judged to be “used up, exhausted, threadbare, stale and hackneyed.”[4] As a side note, many of you may be familiar with Gustave Doré’s rendering of this exhausted image; it shows that racial and political outsider, wandering from the periphery of things to visit the fallen core of an empire now past. It is of course the inverse image of the grand tour we receive in Pleasure of Ruins. The sentiment shared between Thomas Macaulay’s invocation of the New Zealander and Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins concern the travels and transportations afforded by ruin, the temporal and spatial mediation that makes ruin a thing in and of history; a thing through which we engage and refashion the past and a powerful object with which we might fashion the future.

II. Writing, Imagination, Democracy

Since writing is Rose Macualay’s chosen mode of temporal and poetic transportation, I think it worth calling into question how writing informs what she calls her “random excursion into a fantastic world” (PR, xvii). She goes on to claim that it is impossible to capture the “true” ruin (ibid) – they are constantly changing, evolving and dissolving. And, compounding this material mutability, ruins share many attributes with writing; their dubious truth is always in danger of being subsumed within the contingent terms of human representation. “ruins are always on the wing” writes Macaulay, “piece by piece they crumble away, or are transformed into something else, we stalk them down the centuries, surprising them at intervals, pinning them down, and in each stage they are less” (PR, 234). In one respect, writing about ruin serves to arrest the mutability of decay but in another respect writing suffers a comparable capacity for fragmentary obsolescence – recall the scattered prayer books which litter The World My Wilderness, the “drift of grey ashes” that signal the destruction of Miss Anstruther’s letters, or, as Macaulay wrote to Sylvia Lynd, “the charred pages of my books” that were behind after the bombing raid in 1941.[5] What emerges in these images of written decay is a familiar sentiment regarding the futility and contingency of graphic description, equally at home in the Romanticism of, say, Shelley’s fading coals as it is in the textual supplementarity of poststructural linguistics: we might try to pin ruins down but can do so only partially; they will always be less and less and less, and even that which we do manage to pin down cannot compensate for the loss of the rest. Little wonder, then, that Macaulay compares ruins to “the extant fragments of some lost and noble poem” (PR, xvii).

In her hands, ruins are a series of lost words among a world of disappearing inscriptions, fragments shored with and against words. That writing might be compared to the extant fragments of some lost and noble ruin might help to explain the extraordinary number of quotations she uses to weave her history of ruin pleasure. Perhaps her architectural subjects can only speak through these textual fragments, not so much as a tissue of quotations but more like a ruinous, polyvocal mass of extant linguistic fragments, none of which may adequately stand for a lost whole or guarantee an origin to the ruinous tradition from which Pleasure of Ruins so energetically issues. A tumbling series of quotations, expressed in a grammatical form that Sarah LeFanu has described as “a tottering pile of clauses and phrases.”[6] In both senses of the word, Macaulay’s is a work of fractured stanza. This is what makes her excursion into a world of fantasy such a modern one; it is a journey into the doubtful powers of form and transcription.

Driven by the complex uncertainties of ruins and their powers to unbalance the factual accuracies of writing, Macaulay argues that ruins make “poets and artists of nearly all tourists” (PR, 73) – ruins give a licence to roam; her book is largely dedicated to recording the records of the more rapturous and fantastical responses to Classical ruin, to which she is both an aloof and enthusiastic contributor. Ruins, for Macaulay, are “the ghosts of dead ages sleeping together” (PR, 127). In these rhapsodic fantasies, often motivated by the whispered hearsay of history, we find almost a truism of contemporary ruin theory that has been neatly summarised by Christopher Woodward, in his book called In Ruins. Precisely because ruins are materially incomplete, writes Woodward, “each spectator is forced to supply the missing pieces from his or her own imagination.”[7] Hardly a revelation, one might reasonably think, but it is an intuition important to the poetic qualities Macaulay and many others attribute to ruins. Their supplementary quality operates on textual, visual as well as epistemological levels; we do not necessarily ‘experience’ ruins directly or by miraculous isolation, but do so by mediating their liminal effects that transport our attention beyond and across the material we encounter. Our experience and consequent interpretation of ruined places become dominated by structures of metonymic correspondence and spectral supplementarity, an experience of architecture metered by a rich interplay between absent and present entities. Ruins, by definition, are engines of speculation. “Such guesses”, writes Macaulay, “are among the ruin-taster’s imaginative enjoyment” (PR, 42). Here we reach a certain kind of democratic universalism – whether you be an experienced archaeologist returning to a familiar site or a young child visiting a ruin for the first time – the pleasure of ruins is open to all. “there is room” writes Macaulay, for “all approaches in that ruin-wilderness” (PR, 213).

As I have already noted, Pleasure of Ruins argues that ruin is a cognitive quality common to all humanity, “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol” (PR, 20); she goes on to speak, in overstated terms, of “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind” (PR, 39). And yet, Macaulay is keen to explore the rather prosaic and historically divisive specificity of architectural ruin – so that they mean certain things about certain people at certain times. The “ghosts of dead ages” might be sleeping together but they are not allowed to sleep in equal comfort – Macaulay, like so many other ruin writers, hosts some ghosts and banishes others. Now I must tread carefully, there’s a finger-wagging dead end to be avoided; I will not dwell on Macaulay’s frequent allusions to those “greedy and ignorant Arabs” (PR, 135) and their disproportionate abuse of the ruins she so dearly loves. Instead, I prefer to focus on how she celebrates both the plurality of ruin response and their powers to generate a history of a highly specific nature.

III. ‘Our’ Stupendous Past

The history of ruin, as it is presented to us by Macaulay, is the qualified history of western civilisation. This is a civilisation that issues out of Greece and Rome.

in the ruin-loving dreams of western man, Persia cannot compete. It is Greece and Italy which have always mainly enshrined those wistful, backward-gazing dreams. Perhaps because it was there that our civilization was cradled and grew; we yearn back to these vestiges of our past. Perhaps because we have been bred in a classical culture, given from our youth up to understand there was the glory of the world: hypnotized, our eyes dazzle with it. Here were Socrates, Plato, Pericles, Praxiteles; here was Troy, here was Athens, the Islands, there Magna Graecia, and the tremendousness of Rome. Nothing can compete (PR, 151–152, my emphasis).

Athens becomes “the very centre of ruin-pleasure” (PR, 164). And the fortune of Roman architecture becomes synonymous with ‘history’. “Age by age, piece by piece, history falls with Rome; age by age, piece by piece, history rises as Rome rises; it is the tale of western man” (PR, 165). What can we take from statements like this? I’d like to suggest that it earmarks the duplicity of ruin as an object of historical thought: ruins are open to wild flights of fancy, dramatic moments of overstated superstition, but they can also be stages for calculated and codified acts of historical regulation, the reconstruction of an us and a them, a history of our and theirs, a history populated by victors and losers.

But, as Macaulay frequently points out, ruins are always on the move, always undergoing change, forever torn between survival and dissolution. What, then, becomes of the history that we make by these mutating entities? Although the ‘tale of western man’ might be told through ruin, the architectural basis for this history is under threat. Again, Macaulay equivocates about the paradoxical “ruin of ruins” (PR, 67). Macaulay cannot decide between the fantastic romanticism of decay or the redemptive security of the past, her past, her sense of western civilisation, that might be recovered through these extant fragments.

This conflict is born out in the rough ride that archaeologists receive in Pleasure of Ruins. By being stripped of their picturesque disorder ruins lose their poetic force, their powers of provocation. She speaks of the “familiar tragedy of archaeology—the sacrifice of beauty to knowledge” (PR, 147) and, in a marvellous moment, she claims that “Shelley would have been disgusted” if he could only see the scandal of modern Rome (PR, 202). History, Macaulay’s history, fails not in picturesque ruin but in the ruin of the picturesque – there can be no more screech-owls, toads, bats or creeping ivy once the archaeologists have rolled into town. Archaeologists corrupt the poetic history of decay. Nevertheless, Macaulay also speaks of a Dionysian battle between archaeologists, the “ruin-preservers”, and the “ruin destroyers”, those that have quarried or simply demolished ruins in order to build anew (PR, 177). Archaeology maintains ruins as well as destroys their pleasures. Excavation can make them sites of scientific enquiry that save them from redevelopment, only to lose the overwhelming and overstated effects that are the object of Macaulay’s fascination.

IV. Legacies

In 1953 Pleasure of Ruins was warmly reviewed in the British press. One reviewer, writing for The Times was quick to seal its monumental stature,

There are certain dissertations so balanced, wise, and comprehensive that they go down to future generations as So-and-So on Such-and-Such. Here is one of those rarities: “Macaulay on Ruins.” The theme has been tracked once for all, extensively, exhaustively, with wit and eloquence.[8]

And despite being out of print for decades, Pleasure of Ruins is still revered. Indeed, there has been in recent years something of a ruin fever sweeping through the social sciences and humanities. I think we can reasonably place Macaulay’s book as a precursor to this more recent fad. As a brief indication of the contemporary interest in ruin among academics, here’s a selection of books dedicated to the subject:

Michael S. Roth, Claire Lyons and Charles Merewether, ed., Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1997).

Robert Ginsberg, The Aesthetics of Ruins (New York: Rodopi, 2004).

Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (Oxford: Berg, 2005).

Dylan Trigg, The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).

Nicholas Yablon, Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009).

Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle, ed., Ruins of Modernity (Durham: Duke U P, 2010).

Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (London: Verso, 2010).

Brian Dillon, ed., Ruins (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT, 2011).

Almost all of these reference Macualay’s book, many make a point of acknowledging its formative importance. Robert Ginsberg calls it the “pre-eminent masterpiece of ruin-writing”.[9] And, in his introduction to an anthology published earlier this year, Brian Dillon describes Pleasure of Ruins as “one of the classic studies of the subject”[10].

I’ll end with this: just as responses to ruin are always overstated, it would be wrong of me to overstate Macaulay’s role in the history of ruin writing. Ruins are both a very old and a very contemporary concern. But hers is a distinctive contribution: collating sources from an extraordinary range of generic and historical locations, equivocating the precise relationship between architecture and its description, emphasising the semantic democracy of ruin whilst advancing an exclusionary history of it, and, finally, chiding the work of archaeologists with one hand and praising them with another. If I can conclude that Pleasure of Ruins has entered some kind of ruin writing canon, attaining that monumental status of ‘Macaulay on Ruins’, then I do so and it does so through a host of speculations, contradictions and idiosyncrasies, all of which remain a pleasure of remains.

[1] Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1953), 100. My emphasis. Hereafter PR in the text.

[2] Lord Byron, Don Juan, ed. Truman Guy Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt (London: Penguin, 2004), X 61.

[3] Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Review of Leopold von Ranke’s The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Sarah Austin”, Edinburgh Review, 72, October 1840, 227-58.

[4] “A Proclamation,” Punch 48, 7 January 1865, 9.

[5] Quoted in Sarah LeFanu, Rose Macaulay, 233.

[6] Sarah LeFanu, 177.

[7] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), 15.

[8] “Ancient Splendours: The Lure of Ruins”, The Times, 9th December 1953, 10.

[9] Robert Ginsberg, Aesthetics of Ruin (New York: Rodopi, 2004), 463.

[10] Brian Dillon, “Introduction: A Short History of Decay” in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT, 2011), 11.

Waste Effects – Table of Contents

As a quick way of navigating this site I thought it might be helpful to upload my table contents and provide links. These are not verbatim extracts but versions or papers that have a close correspondence to the final text. And there are lots of other incidental posts on this site, which closely relate to the subject of waste, that have not made it into the final draft. Now that this project is almost complete, the work in progress found here will be left up as a record of the various iterations it went through before being handed in, together, as my PhD thesis.


Chapter 1. Introduction
– Use-time and the End of Ends
– Waste-time and the End of the End
– Epic Wastes: “Nothing will come of nothing”
Sovereign Wastes: Unproductive and Uninhabited
– For a Temporal Poetics of Waste
– The Beginning of the End


Chapter 2. Narrating the Event of Waste
Interrupting Waste
Continuities of Waste
Narrating The Event of Waste in the Work of Cornelia Parker

Chapter 3. Archaeologies of Waste
Gathering Waste
– The Contingencies of Narrating Waste
– Anthropologies of Waste: Collecting Culture, Collecting Time
– Archives and the Afterlife of Collections
– Waste Remains, Dust Dissolves


Chapter 4. The Poetic Economies of T. S. Eliot
Make it Waste
– Bringing the Waste Land to Order
– Allusion, Intertexuality and Manuscript Drafts

Chapter 5. Reading Joycean Disjecta
Waste Words and Throwaways
– A Language of Flotsam and Jetsam
– Narrating the Place of Textual Waste
– Waste in Progress
– Eliot and Joyce: Writing into Disappearance


Chapter 6. Ruins Past
– The Temporality of Use
The Temporality of Ruins
– Ruins and the Past

Chapter 7. Ruins of the Future
Apocalypse, Then
– The Ozymandias Complex
– Encountering Last Things
– Concluding with Ruins

Ruins of the Future – An Extract

An extended version of this post appears in Aesthetic Fatigue: Modernity and the Language of Waste, ed. John Scanlan & J. F. M. Clark (Cambridge Scholars, 2013) pp. 141-162.

If waste is taken to denote change, a coming to be by having been, then the anticipation of ruins mark out the present as the condition of the future. One of the narratological effects of imagining the present in a ruined condition is the strong emphasis that this places on ruins’ relation to the present and the dynamic vigour of ending. As a form of waste, the ruin is both an end and a continuity, both the end to use and the muted remainder of that activity. Whilst future ruins frequently suggest the termination of some time, people or structure, there is a lingering or remaining sense of time, a time that is particular to the condition of being ‘leftover’. This waste-time, which marks the termination of use and its cindering persistence, means that projected ruins represent a disrupted continuation of present events. Projecting ruins discloses the duration and shape of time and dramatises a conflict between material permanence and material transience. This conflict between continuity and cessation makes the ruin an end that remains, an end that is imperfect, unreliable. The ruin marks that sense of termination that has not quite come to its end. I call this temporal unreliability a narratological effect because imagining the ruins of the future gives a means to envision a story that both locates a possible landscape and relates that landscape to present surroundings. This is not only done in order to imagine what the future might look like but, as we shall see throughout this chapter, provides an opportunity to re-examine the present. As Ricoeur writes, “In reading the ending in the beginning and the beginning in the ending, we also learn to read time itself backwards, as the recapitulation of the initial conditions of a course of action in its terminal consequences.”  (1984: 67 – 68). In fiction, film and the painterly arts, the anticipation of a ruinous end is frequently a narratological means by which to return to and make sense of the present; by ‘traveling to the future’ we might make and give meaning to the present.

Still from The Planet of the Apes dir. Franklin J. Schaffner (1968)

When in The Planet of the Apes (1968) Charlton Heston’s character confronts the toppled remnant of The Statue of Liberty, he exclaims, “Oh my God! I’m back. I’m home.”  In the comparative exercise of managing the disrupted continuity of the future ruin, between imaginary times and familiar places, we encounter not only a future in itself but also a future in which the present has been abandoned, cut off, terminated or forsaken. This is the broken continuity, the interrupted endurance that the future ruin offers. The consummation that a ruin might represent does not necessarily become imminent to the present, but ruins are felt to become immanent in present events, thus, we come to see the ruinous potential of things that have not yet been discarded and identify the long held association between ruins and vanitas. It is precisely this uncanny distance, achieved through a sense of arriving at and travelling to the estranged familiar, that gives the future ruin the power to relay the present and the future as an object that persists by passing away.

Confronting the future in ruins is by no means a formulaic exercise. The interpretative gaps that energise the exigency of this form of waste are motivated by the irresolvable questions they raise. Particularly in their painterly and cinematic manifestations, the ruins of the future frequently leave out how or when or for what reason these structures have reached their terminal condition. For instance, in the paintings of Hubert Robert and Joseph Gandy we are given no explicit explanation for why the structures they depict have fallen into ruin; their visual impact plays upon the disjuncture felt between the building existent and the future ruin represented. Robert’s Design for the Grand Gallery in the Louvre and his An Imaginary View of the Ruins of the Grand Gallery in Ruins (see images below), manipulate a dual vision of the future: one image presents a new and ideal view of a Republican art institution, the other represents a more ruinous and terminal condition of this institution. As such, the work has often been read as an ambiguous commentary on France’s new and emerging attitude to the public control of artworks and, by implication, condemns the futility of the Revolution.  For Daniel Brewer, Robert seems to dramatise “the inevitable transience of precisely the institution whose current function is to preserve the artwork from physical [deterioration].” (2008: 192). Furthermore, viewing the images together – as they were at the 1796 salon – emphasises the transition between architectural shelter and exposure, museum and ruin. But the nature of this transition, the causal events by which one moves from one condition to another, is a transition rich in absence and enigma. Time has been accelerated in An Imaginary View, leaving the Louvre at both the end of time and at a place where time seems to have resumed. The inclusion of the Apollo Belvedere, seen in the foreground, is just one indication of the intervening years and the exigent potential of imagining ruins. The statue came to the Louvre with Napoleon a year after Robert pre-emptively included it in this painting.  In this small detail we see how Robert does not simply give an image of his present as ruin, but a particular, albeit elliptical, history by which the future ruin is contextualised. The presence of the Apollo Belvedere is one indication of this causal absence, which the ruins of the future envelop.

Hubert Robert, Design for the Grand Gallery in the Louvre (1796)
Hubert Robert, An Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery in Ruins (1796)

The English parallel to Robert’s work might be found in another double vision of future ruins. Joseph Gandy’s A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1798) and Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin (1830), constitute attempts to imagine ruin in construction, ruin which marks the conception and completion of Soane’s bank. In his painting of 1798 Gandy was commissioned by Soane to project the building into a future state of ruin. Gandy draws directly from the picturesque style of Robert to give the material foundation of the bank a corresponding ruin. The painting’s companion piece, which Brian Lukacher has described as a “Piranesian ruinscape” (2006: 162), was commissioned by Soane when the building of the bank was nearing its completion in 1830.

Joseph Gandy, A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1789)
Joseph Gandy, Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin (1830)

Just as Robert’s images of the Louvre were viewed together to emphasise their chronological yet antagonistic pairing – in which ruin is conceived as the beginning and the end of a creative process – so Gandy’s paintings of the Bank of England were displayed together at the Royal Academy in 1832.  The genesis of Soane’s bank, its design, construction, and eventual use, was surrounded by images of its dissolution; the imagination of its present was permeated by the state of ruin it would fall into. Again, the idea of the ruin is used to fashion the future and narrate the trajectory of built environments. But, to renovate a formulation exercised earlier in this thesis, whilst these images of future ruin invite us to consider the idea of ‘waste’, the events of waste and the particular sequence of events whereby the useful is transformed into the non-useful is a transition frequently left to our imaginations. In the paintings by Joseph Gandy, for instance, a subtle exchange occurs between image and viewer, where the temporal absence implied by the image is shaped by the perspective on and texture of the ruin represented. The abundant vegetation contained in A Vision and the rustic scene occurring within the sanctuary of the rotunda, means that we are led to assume that this future ruin has come about slowly or without catastrophe, left to collapse gently like the ruins of antiquity. In Soane’s Bank of England as a Ruin, on the other hand, with its elevated perspective, the bare and uninhabitable interior, and the confrontational figure in the lower right hand corner, suggests fire, earthquake or holocaust, in short a cataclysmic event that has brought the bank to ruin. In this respect, ruins of the future provide a means to visualise consequences before knowing precisely what their cause might be. They are images of the future that stand prior to our reconstructive acts of narration, yet their ruins shape and inform our interpretative responses. Robert’s and Gandy’s future ruins provide us with objects within incomplete narratives, narratives with absent middles. Whilst suggesting a material continuity between the contemporary and the futural, the future ruin can also appear as cast off from any neat or continuous reconstruction of events.

So far we have considered the narratological effects of the future ruins, but these compensatory acts of narration implicitly search for ends, to the temporal terminus that ruins promise and frustrate. Michel Serres argued that historical thought searches for an impossible zero point in time, “That point inaccessible– it is a point of accumulation; another point always interpolates itself, iteratively, in front of it” (1991: 29). This is because, for Serres, historical thought “seems linear, as if progressional, as if it followed the current of time” (1991: 42). Although Serres is describing the activity of working backwards through time, towards the zero point of an origin, we might take this characterisation of historicism and consider how the future ruin confirms the accumulative, progressional nature of future thinking; that is, the way in which ruins help us to think towards an end. In a way not dissimilar to the ever-receding vanishing point of Robert’s paintings, Serres describes the impossible and ever-receding point of the origin; just as we might think that, finally, we have determined the source we find another, a time yet more remote that frustrates our neat conclusions.  In their capacity to stand as a consummation and continuity of the present, future ruins form part of a visual repertoire of an incomplete or provisional end. This is, as we have noted in previous chapters, a key condition of waste-time. It must suggest both an end and the contingency of that end, a form of material and temporal punctuation; the already-and-not-yet of waste. This makes the ruin, particularly the future ruin, a very odd object for historical contemplation. Historiography, argues Serres, takes for granted a transition from the indeterminate to determinate, “indetermination precedes the determinate” (1991: 45).  That is to say that the historian’s explicatory task is to transform the indeterminate into the knowable, the scripted and the sequential. What, then, is the historical quality of the future ruin? The ruin of the future neither fulfils this trajectory from indeterminacy to determinacy, nor flatly contradicts this progression. As Robert’s works demonstrate, there is an implicit relation between the Louvre represented as a functioning space for the public display of objects, and its consequent condition as a ruin. In one sense the ruin is always that which comes afterwards, it is always the ruin of something. Ruins, then, are the outcome of a linear, progressional transition from use to waste; future ruins are an outcome of the present. On the other hand, they are frequently the outcome of events that we do not witness, the cast offs from a time that is yet to occur. In this respect, the fragile terminus of the future ruin is laid bare; the indeterminate does not necessarily precede the determinate when the future ruin frustrates the continuity of thought between the determinate present and indeterminate future.

The future ruin, then, is an incomplete end achieved by an incomplete transition between now and then. It might fill us with a “sense of ending”, to borrow a famous phrase from Frank Kermode, but it is not quite the end itself. The politically, theologically and philosophically rich gesture of projecting ruins, of prophesying the demise of a building, as well as the people and activities associated with it, depends upon an end that can be experienced, a sense of dénouement that is not absolutely terminal. This is not the apocalypse as such, but an end to be seen, to be retold and represented – it is a telling end. The didactic, moralising potential of the future ruin depends upon its evidential nature.  Kermode writes that, “We project ourselves–a small, humble elect, perhaps–past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle” (1967: 8).  Whilst projecting ends might give us a sense of the whole and a position before this time, projecting oneself past the end proves that this is no end at all, but just one step further from the ever-receding zero of the end. Moreover, the future ruin frequently plays upon the fact that ‘the whole’ is not immediately apparent, meaning that the end it is held to represent becomes even more provisional. This is, in part, a consequence of the ‘empty middle’ mentioned earlier, which is the narrative structure of end-orientated things in which an emptiness stands between the now and the then. Kermode links peripeteia, the unexpected and penultimate twist in the plot that motivates a narrative’s finale, to this sense of ending. If peripeteia, by definition, is something we do not expect, then by assimilating the unexpected Kermode argues that we are “enacting that readjustment of expectations which is so notable a feature of naive apocalyptic.”  Imagined ruins, in contrast, do not show us the end of the world or an apocalypse as such, but the end of a temporally co-dependent relation between humans and their architecture. Looking upon images of ruin we might experience a readjustment of expectations – feelings of shock or surprise – and we might even assume the peripeteia whereby structures of use fall into objects of waste, but the relationship between ruinous futures and our narrative responses must traverse the mid-time between the use of the present and waste of the future. The periods of time that ruins seem to call to an end allow us to read ends and beginnings into time; the future ruin, then, performs an important periodising function and represents an ally and an antagonist in our attempts to bring the future to order.

Although these truncated narrative structures might not be the sole domain of the future ruin, the divergence felt between the projective times of use and the slack times of waste exaggerates the terminus that ruins are so frequently held to represent. The comparative relationship between human and architectural time means that the futural dissolution of architecture, far in advance of our own dissolution, confirms the relative endurance associated with buildings and the temporal distance their ruination creates. Indeed, the future ruin depends upon our expectation that the usefulness of a building should outlast the demands of an individual user, intensifying the disparity we feel between the time of buildings and the duration of human life, as well as increasing a building’s propensity to stand for collective use. The sense of the end that the future ruin generates plays upon the way in which buildings are felt to outlast these multiple relationships with individual users, reflecting an accumulation of uses and users.


Full references on request: willviney[at]

The Heidelbergh Project

I recently stumbled across the The Heidelbergh Project, an artwork of reclamation that transforms spaces and objects of waste in a Detroit suburb. Taking four derelict houses and burying it in layers of scavenged materials—tires, hubcaps, broken toys, battered dolls, rusty signs, busted appliances, and automobile parts—all brightened with stripes, polka dots, and splashes of paint. It’s interesting to note how the people in this promotional video  speak of the ‘magic’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘incomprehensibility’ of the work. The creator of the project, Tyree Guyton, speaks of resurrecting the city.

Whilst I realise this project has much to do with the urban economics of Detroit –  and the hope that the Heidelbergh Project might reverse the city’s decline – I’m left wondering what it is about using and manipulating waste that allows this intervention to have its ‘magic’. If I was an ethnographer I’d like to survey the varying responses to The Heidelbergh Project and Nek Chand’s infamous Rock Garden. I think that a comparative study like this would reveal some interesting responses to the instrumentalisation of waste in art. I wonder if notions of transformation, transubstantiation and redemption would be common to both.

Sandro Botticelli and Ruin

The severance between the times of use and waste that ruins undergo endows them with a powerful ability to signify a past, and to make this past an exigent object of narration. We have already noted the relation between the ruin and its former use. We might also argue that, whilst use-time orientates the building towards the future, the ruin is anchored to a use-time that has passed, a temporal relationship without the teleology of use. This might explain the retrogressive narratives that ruins entertain; the categorical and explanatory content of the ruin requires a narrative relation between a past no longer in evidence and a present dominated by the presence of this past. This demand for narrative might also suggest the complicated relationship ruins have with questions of reliability and authenticity; ruins become contested objects embroiled within a variety of interpretations both documentary and fantastic. The allegorical position of the ruin, as an object that appears to be structured by a system of referents, means that the past that the ruin offers is one predicated on a narrative transition between use and waste. If, as Benjamin noted, “In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting”,[1] then this merger is one that can be manipulated, the setting can be rendered a stage to expose the narratives that it mediates.

The ways in which ruins have been utilised to suggest a past has capitalised on the temporal divisions that ruins can effect. The trend, in Renaissance painting, of placing ruins in nativity and adoration scenes, provides a fine example of how ruins can manipulate and be manipulated by the history on display. Although the practice of using ruins in religious works was extremely widespread,[2] two works by Sandro Botticelli should demonstrate how ruins typically function in these scenes. In Adoration of the Magi (c.1472–75), held at the National Gallery, London, the drama is enclosed by the lofting ruins that extend beyond the space provided by the canvas, creating an effect of depth and scale that overwhelms the aperture provided by the tondo. The use of ruins in this painting serves a number of functions, the least of which is to disrupt the horizon and provide an unusual backdrop to the nativity in the lower half of image. But the ruins depicted here also serve to conflate spatial and temporal distance, a feature common to a great range of picturesque works that feature ruins in the far or middle distance. Seemingly remote, both spatially and temporally, these ruins provide a useful contrast to the focal and frequently human concerns elsewhere on the canvas; they are capable of reinforcing a distance of space and translating that spatial distance into a distance felt in time.

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (c.1472–75). National Gallery, London.

With a central nave-like formation running down the centre of the picture, and with other points of access from the left and right, Botticelli’s scene occurs within ruins built on ecclesiastical proportions. Instead of being born in a stable or a cave, as scriptures have tended to stress, Botticelli’s Christ is born in a ruined temple. Of course, as Michel Makarius has noted, this is a structure that is made complicit in the inauguration of the Christian era.[1] These ruins provide a stage set for narrative, a certain kind of triumphant, theological transition between the pagan past and a new, Christian present. For Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, this ability for works of this period to allow divergent times to contest one another is an important characteristic of what they call the ‘anachronic’ potential of art: “The ability of the work of art to hold incompatible models in suspension without deciding is the key anachronic quality, its ability to ‘fetch’ a past, create a past, perhaps even fetch a future.”[2] In this characterisation of the artwork, Wood and Nagel have not drifted far from the analysis I gave in earlier chapters through the work of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion; the capacity to mix and contest times was found to be a key quality of their sculpture. What Nagel and Wood do, however, is to make this anachronic potential an intrinsic quality of artistic production and downplay the way in which the image and reality of ruin, for example, already carries with it a sense of temporal separation, a sense of time divided. The temporal divisions already at work in the ruin are mobilised by Botticelli to signify the passing of the old system, to articulate a New Testament, but also register persisting reality of this passing. The classical arches and shattered pillars are, of course, an architectural style contemporary to the painting’s creation. The anachronic history of the work is made all the more doubled over, folded and irregular for the overt ruination of these structures. The ruin does not just help the work ‘fetch’ a past, the recognition of ruin means that a past, however duplicitous, has already been fetched.

Another work by Botticelli, also called Adoration of the Magi (c.1474–5) though held at the Uffizi in Florence, shows a similar interplay between the time depicted and the time of ruin that lurks as its self-divided shadow.

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (c.1474–5). Uffizi, Florence.

Here there are three stone structures in view: the ruined arches in the upper left-hand corner; the fragile walls that meet together to the right of the painting; and, finally, the imposing rock that stands behind the figures in the foreground. The antique walls and arches stand dilapidated, with sprigs of vegetation forcing through their fissures, in contrast to the shadowy stone that serves to block the wider panorama beyond the enclosure. Architecturally speaking, Botticelli seems keen to present various kinds of rock formation, all of them open to a disintegration wrought by time. Indeed, among the various architectural features found in Fig. 6.3 one can locate the keystone of the central arch dislodged, hanging delicately over the animal stalls below. We are reminded of the in-between states that helped us characterise the ruin, caught between survival and dissolution, the ‘already-and-not-yet’ of arrested annihilation. Specific to this genre of paintings are the ways in which these figurations of ruin are incorporated within an economy of scriptural reference that stresses different conceptions of time. With these Biblical intertexts in mind, Christ takes the position of yet another, more permanent rock, as both the rock upon which the church is based (Mt 16: 18–20, 1Cor 10: 1–4), and the discarded stone that has been temporarily discarded becomes the sign of eternal completion: “The stone the builders rejected / has become the capstone; / the Lord has done this, / and it is marvellous in our eyes” (Ps 118: 22–33, Mt 21: 42, Mk 12: 10, Lk 20: 17). Whilst this might lead us to conclude that Christian iconography has a distinctly architectural content, which announces and maintains new epochs according to the presence of ruins, it is also one that reinforces the dichotomy between the fleetingly temporal and the eternally spiritual. Brought into view are the etymological roots of ‘temporality’; from the Latin, temporalis, “pertaining to time as a sphere of human life; terrestrial as opp. to heavenly; of man’s present life; worldly, earthly. (Opp. to eternal or spiritual)”[1] Hence, in the writings of St. Paul we find the following distinction, “for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2Cor 4: 18). An additional doctrinal motivation behind depicting ruins in these works might be the division between the ruinam ­– the fall – of unbelievers and the resurrectionem­ of the faithful.[2] In both cases, these ruins represent all that has passed or has the capacity to pass, and therefore represent a passage of time as it is made manifest by things. Alongside the birth of Christ, Botticelli’s ruinous, terrestrial structures show how the transience of the built environment serves to both emphasise how Christ exists outside the temporal conditions of use and waste, and, by doing so, seems to reinforce those temporal conditions for all other things. Under this paradoxical economy, Christ becomes the basis by which all other entities are measured and, being eternal and without a past as such, the temporality of ruins in these images become defined by that which cannot go to waste. Rather than simply providing an unusual stage upon which Biblical events might be played out, ruins have helped to differentiate the human from the divine. Indeed, one might cite these paintings as examples of how the human is being defined by its propensity to create things that go to waste. More generally, the pagan, pre-Christian ruins that frequently adorn Renaissance nativity and adoration images display clear attempts to mobilise a powerful quality of the ruin: to invoke a series of unobtainable pasts to whatever present is being expressed. Ruins, then, can consign architectural elements into a past, in order to consolidate a narrative about present times.

We have seen that ruins do not simply represent time, but can help formulate the time of other things, to usher in new beginnings or establish, in uncertain terms, the time of the now. They can stand as the presence of a past, emblematic of a narrative passage between and across times. They do so, in part, because of their untimeliness, their sense of not being exclusively ‘in’ or ‘of’ the time in which they are experienced. This is because ruins have an enfolded, negated present that seems to say, ‘I am no longer what I once was, but what I once was still defines what I am.’ Ruins signify and make articulate their convolved condition, in a way that sets them apart from architecture that operates under the temporal strictures of use. Useful buildings signify whilst ruined buildings make us hesitate over their powers of signification and what it is that makes them articulate. For all their retrogressive, fragmentary and allegorical import, it is by being at odds with a sense of the contemporary that ruins seem to gain their power to suggest a past and thus punctuate time through the condition of disuse. Ruins show a potential to distribute, make and mark time.

[1] Benjamin, 177.

[2] See Michel Makarius, Ruins, trans. David Radzinowicz (Paris: Flammarion, 2004), 17–42; Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1953).

[1] Michel Makarius, Ruins, 32.

[2] Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone, 2010), 18.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “temporality.”

[2] See Rab Hatfield, Botticelli’s Uffizi “Adoration”: A Study in Pictorial Content (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976), 57–67.