In January 1871, Prussia won the war with France and a four-months siege on Paris ended. A popular uprising then took the city and established the Commune. The resulting clash with the French army was brutal. The Communards started fires along the Seine to stop the regular troops, who in turn fired shells from Versailles, all of which, adding to the destruction caused earlier by the Prussians, severely burned or damaged different and important buildings, like l’Hotel de Ville, the Palais Royal, and the Tuilleries. When all was over (including the mass execution of Communards), Paris had turned into a ruinous landscape.
The ruins became an attraction. Returning bourgeois, people from the provinces, and even foreign visitors arrived to Paris to tour the ruins, in occasions with the aid of guides, like the Guide à travers les ruines, by Hans and Blanc. Photographic series (like Jules Andrieu‘s Désastres de la guerre), prints and postcards circulated and were sold in a sudden and booming market of souvenirs.
In a great article, Daryl Lee analyzes the recourse to the aesthetics of the picturesque in the literary descriptions of these ruins in the works of different French writers like Théophile Gautier, Georges Bell or Edmond de Goncourt, and foreigners like Sir William Erskine. With more or less qualms about it, they focused on aesthetic elements such as the atmosphere, shapes, perspectives, and colors. Even though these were fast, almost instantaneous ruins, their formal similarities allowed comparisons with ancient ruins, the aesthetic of which were widely spread and popular at the time: “Nothing blocks the depth of perspective; light freely penetrates into the interior, and its illuminating effect would satisfy a gaze that has contemplated the ruins of Rome and Palmyra”, wrote George Bell in Paris incendie.
Lee notes how, even the most anti-Communard writers, appalled by the violence, could not help but to enjoy the view. This is particularly evident in Louis Enualt‘s Paris brulé par la commune:
“one senses the desolation too acutely not to feel an indeterminate remorse and shame in the face of dilettantish enjoyment, which would be nothing other than impiety […]! But this night, in this silence, in this relative solitude of the grand monument [of the Hotel de Ville], all alone in the middle of this empty and cleared out space, for a moment, the artist murdered the citizen in me, and I could not stop myself from saying under my breath: This is terrible, but it is beautiful!
And in A.M. Blanchecotte‘s Tablettes d’une femme pendant la Commune: “Dare I say it? I love the ruins.” Both the curiosity and guilt these texts betray is a perfect example of the moral implications of the pleasure of ruins (the title of Rose Macaulay‘s classical text on ruins), which Henry James qualified as “slightly perverse”.
As a result of this powerful attraction, the context of the ruins, we might say their conditions of production, are affected, or obliterated altogether, leaving aside questions about the actors, reasons, and meaning of the ruins as images. George Bell, after comparing the ruins of l’Hotel de Ville to Rome, notes that it “fills with profound sadness the heart of the Parisian, of the Frenchman, of the patriot. This sadness obliges you, in spite of yourself, to meditate”, but does not record these meditations. In that regard, certain ‘depolitization’ is at play, an issue very present in the current criticism of ruin porn, the contemporary avatar of the same pleasure of ruins. In the case of Detroit, which has come to epitomize these practices, what these images leave aside is the history, political agency oreconomic reasons behind these ruins: how, for example (and again citing Bryan Finoki), in the 1950s Detroit,
the production of cars and bombers, a constellation of new highways, and a dose of nuclear paranoia encouraged the middle class to flee for the suburbs; by the 1960s, the center of the city was left a warren of ghettos populated by jobless African Americans. In 1967, with joblessness climbing and racism rampant, the city exploded into twelve days of riots—the punctuation of an era of prosperity and the beginning of terminal urban neglect.
Photography plays a growing role as a source of information and testimony of war and violence. At the same time, as Susan Sontag or Allan Sekulla have noted, it has also contributed to the anaesthetization of pain, and to provide certain assuagement of our moral duty once we have seen a documentary or photo series.
These ideas came to mind when I found the video of the Dutch freelance photographer Tom Daams, stationed in Syria (check “The Unknown Photographer“). Wearing a helmet camera, Daams finds a group of rebels, and records a wonderful scene of the banality of war: while some of the fighters rest, eat a sandwich, or joke with Daams, another soldier invites him to take a photo of a gunman firing a rifle to a hidden enemy. Undoubtedly, Daams’ footage has an important documentary value, but at the same time, I feel it is completely uninformative of the war in Syria in particular: images of the absurd nightmare of people shooting at enemies that speak the same language and hid in similar destroyed corners could and do happen anywhere.
Daams’ video is also a terrible document of utter destruction of Aleppo after more than one year of battle. For all its horror, we realize that all buildings ruin the same: ceilings and floors collapse, covering the area of the house or overflowing onto the street; concrete beams and rebar, harder to topple, give the ruin its inevitable vertical composition. Dust and sand cover all materials, proving uniformity of tone and texture.
In the process, we have moved from the picturesqueness of nineteenth-century writers, acknowledged with a mix of pleasure and guilt, to our current morbid lust for always more violent, real-time destruction and death. After thinking about this for some time, I have decided to publish it today, when I learn about the case of the Swedish Photo Awards and the photograph of a dead Haitian girl (see for instance Erik Kim’s post). I can turn my gaze away, decide not to look, not to participate—or at least I can try, I remember how I made a conscious effort NOT to watch the footage of Gaddafi’s lynching, but that it was impossible not to watch a bit of it. Violence is imposed on us. But, as in the case of the photo in Haiti, or the footage in Syria by Daams, images may have some power; they may, still, stir and mobilize politicians, resources, volunteers. If there is a little chance that an image can alter the way we think about our world and act upon it, am not I being morally-narcissistic if I criticize and turn away my gaze?
Talking, as any discussion of ruins, about Benjamin-Klee’s Angel of History-Angelus Novus, which for the former is an image of progress, “piling wreckage upon wreckage”, the editors of Ruins of Modernity note, with Adorno, that the image is ‘enigmatic’: it “forces the beholder to choose between submitting to catastrophe and resisting it”. Let’s finish then, posing, once more, the same dilema.