Désert de Retz

The ruins at Désert de Retz were built on the eve of the Revolution, between 1774 and 1789 by François Racine de Monville.  They present a rich and playful, temporally complex example of the Romantic obsession with ruins, close to Schlegel’s famous observation, “the works of the ancients have become fragments; the works of the moderns are fragments at their inception” (quoted in Levinson, 1986: 10). With over 17 follies packed within just 35 acres of landscaped garden, Monville juxtaposed the ruins of a gothic church with an Egyptian pyramid, a decaying Greek temple, and a series of rustic altars.  Although Diana Ketcham might call the Désert an “architecture of fantasy” (1994: 1), it is a fantasy rooted in the figures and forms of architectural history and rehearses in stone what Panini and Piranesi achieved in paint and acid.

The Broken Column, Désert de Retz
The Broken Column, Désert de Retz

At the centre of the garden lies what is known as ‘The Broken Column’ an enormous Doric column 55 feet high and 50 feet wide.  Inside, a spiral staircase connects 5 floors and approximately 20 rooms making Monville’s column a ruin that functions, a ruin in which to dwell.  The formal, antiquarian response to the column might be to follow the proportions of the Doric order, imaginatively reconstructing the 400-foot temple that the column suggests was once existent.  Nevertheless, the column demonstrates a demand for time, however gargantuan, fictional or fantastic; it demands time and a narrative explanation of its presence.

Cross-section view of the Broken Column

“Let us bring to our gardens the changing sets of the opera,” writes Louis de Carmontelle, contemporary of Monville and originator of the term ‘pay d’illusions’, “let us see there, in reality, what the most able painters could offer as decoration, all times and all places” (quoted in Bandiera, 1989: 83).   As an attempt to synthesize all times and all places, Monville’s pays d’illusions generates and discloses the narrative frames we impose upon objects of ruin.  The ruins are allegorical in Walter Benjamin’s sense, generating their allegorical content through, what Benjamin called, “the highly significant fragment, the remnant” (2003: 178).  The allegorical provocation rendered by Monville’s follies goes some distance in foregrounding their narraratological, semantic productivity.  It is the untimely nature of the ruin, an “untimeliness […] evident in how past, present, and future conspire to converge,”  that gives the ruin its allegorical force (Trigg, 2007: 131). The Broken Column and the follies that surround it stages a performance of this convergence; not only does the Column suggest a time of use and a past that could never have existed, but it wilfully confuses our attempts to divide the time of architecture according to notions of waste and want. Monville’s Column demonstrates the fundamental noncoincidence between the ruin’s outer appearance, the fragmentary distance between past, present, and future, and our narrative attempts to reconcile this noncoincidence.  The ruin demands an impossible narrative, an impossible reconciliation between these dispersed and converging times, disrupting our sense of the contemporary and the security of the ‘now.’  The Désert becomes spectral in Derrida’s sense, prompting the “disjointure in the very presence of the present, this sort of non-contemporaneity of present time with itself (1994: 25). If we make sense of ruins by imposing the temporal frames, the time of use and waste, for example, then Désert de Retz frames those frames and brings their plastic imposition to our attention.

Breton among the Ruins
Andre Breton's Surrealist Group, among the Ruins at Désert de Retz

So the time of ruin is a time that generates narrative.  We might explain some of the Romantic obsession with ruin by pointing towards ruin’s temporal malleability and intractability, its capacity to symbolise both the transience and endurance of material things.  The narrative multiplicity of ruins is a response to and translation of objects that seem, by their very nature, to lie in fragments.  We have seen how ruin-narratives do not simply resolve the rents and fissures of the ruin, but, by displaying their narratological tricks and tensions, these narratives can simultaneously display the fragile terms by which we compose and decompose meaning.  Indeed, the fabrication and projection of ruin puts the distinction between waste and want under particular scrutiny, disclosing how the time of architecture depends on whether buildings coincide with the projective time of human activity.  Whilst the ruin makes and narrates the passing of time, the making of ruins reveals how materiality is always matter both in and of our time.

[A longer version of this text was presented in June to the Romantic Realignments series, Oxford]


An Introduction to my Research

A tenuous hypothesis:

Waste cannot mean everything nor can it mean something in particular. Waste is said to be both a category that carries great linguistic precision and a nebulous catchall term that is the destiny of the world.  We need to treat these odd contradictions not as obstacles to our investigation, nor or as a riddle to be solved, but as the guiding principles of our enquiry. Throughout the course of this thesis I will elaborate a reading of how waste, time and narrative interact with one another. In this regard, I cannot say anything about waste in and of itself. My thesis argues that we should understand waste differently, but not in order to make waste differently. It is not, in that respect, an intervention into the ongoing debate among environmentalists, scientists, politicians, and so on, that tries to reformulate how we manage waste and the effects it produces. This thesis describes how waste is effective through time and the labour of description that it demands, intervening in a way closer to the substance of philosophy than the substance of the ozone layer. This does not make my work ‘impractical’ or out of touch with the ‘real world’; it simply makes it sensitive to what waste is and how it is understood through time.

We must view waste in conjunction to these ideas of narrative and temporality because waste is rarely free of their influence and, in the same way, time and narrative can rarely be said to exist without the exhaustion of things that appear to articulate an existence. This trinity – narrative, time, waste – is by no means an exhaustive or mobile ‘framework’ by which to regard waste anew. Waste can never be new; it can only be a return or felt to be a return of something familiar. Long has waste been thought an effect of time and narrative – as a thing produced by one or the other – but rarely has it been considered a mediatory effect of time and narrative, transforming all three themes by the things they affect. These distinctions are subtle but important ones and we will try our best not to lose sight of their implications.

Whilst others have made mention of time and the methods we use to describe objects, often in the service of some immensely grand and complicated claims, they rarely enquire into the objects of narrative itself. I am not interested in trying to approach the subject of waste to improve their methods, nor am I interested in reducing everything to words to make the task easier. Rather, my aim is to show how the way that waste has been discussed reflects the insufficient notions of time and narrative that have been deployed to render waste equally insufficient. We think of waste as a lowly and disreputable thing, as ‘mere’ rubbish, not because that is what it is but because we cannot think of it through a conception of time, or a conception of narrative, that does not seem to exhaust its potential. By rendering waste objects shallow intermediaries for a whole host of other notions or ideas – sadness, decay, value, wealth, intelligence, fertility, etc – waste objects are made to be passive vectors in the service of other more ‘important’ things. We have, in the words of Bruno Latour, confused matters of fact with matters of concern, ignoring the acts of mediation that waste, narrative, and time require to be active. In short, description often gets the better of that which orientates, motivates and articulates things – i.e. things themselves. In this analysis, waste objects are things that make certain kinds of narratives possible, whilst showing how time might mediate that possibility.


I will elaborate a reading of objects, temporality and narrative that will leave waste both something and nothing. For this reason, my invocation of what ‘waste’ might actually be will, at times, appear a cheap conjuring trick – a term that is neither grounded nor entirely airborne. But I do so only to demonstrate the lengths to which humans will go in order to make waste mean a magical death, a false end, a thing that can be everything and nothing; in short, an end that is a beginning. Above all, we must explore how this is a contradiction that puts the image of waste to work.

If we can sum up this thesis in a few words it would read something like this: waste is a function and image of time that gets transcribed through narrative. What this image is taken to represent requires some elaborate techniques that have developed over the course of time. That these techniques gather together descriptions, and these descriptions seem to slow time up, hasten its progress in a negentropic, retentive way, helps us know what waste is and what waste can mean. Time is neither lamina, nor indeed, a fluid. If it flows at all (and it doesn’t) it does not flow like a river.  But narrative techniques – such as the sculptural, literary, and architectural techniques described later in my analysis – affect a hold up. If we could employ an inadequate metaphor for this temporal effect, we might say that these narratives behave like the locks of a canal. They raise the surface of time up and down, managing its movements in all directions. These canal-like techniques are neither consistent, nor do they operate within any great or overarching plan (i.e. a systematic and specifically distributed network of canals). No, the canal is a chaos built by everything and built by everyone. The locks too have their part in this chaos but they have the peculiar effect of holding time up, making its turbulent and iridescent effects knowable or scripted. The locks too have their chaos, they are not separate from time but try and manage its turbulence and make this articulate through inscription. Without the infrastructure of narrative encounters we would never know who or what has been, and what might be expected to arrive.

I set out to describe one species of object that is carried by time’s movements through the canals that are without a reliable form, place or time of their own. I call these objects ‘waste’ because, prior to entering the particular lock under consideration, we recognise the object as having entered countless other locks; it shows us the signs of a temporal multiplicity. Waste has been elsewhere: within time, place and the locks required to make these times and places knowable. What are these things that so powerfully communicate this tardy, obsolescent, yet contemporary feeling? They are objects of waste, from other times and other places, gathered upon the surface of time. Can we fish these objects out and hold them up into the light of analysis? Perhaps. But not without reminding ourselves that we too are things among things, caught in a time that is not wholly our own. These modes of analysis give us a quiet reminder that we do not stand apart from the canal like doleful shire horses, waiting to tow things through time. No, we are bobbing about in this temporal stuff too, as waving, drowning, thinking things.