Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

My city of ruin

St. Augustine’s “City of God” was occasioned by the fall of Rome. In his mind, however, this expanded into a rumination about the history of civilisation.

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Steve Latham


The city is always fallen, always falling. The city is always changing, but that surely does not necessarily entail a falling.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of prosperity there is a falling, a ruination. With capitalist, profit-led [re]development, the city is always being re-built.

And this means, in other words, demolition, to make way for fresh construction. The city is always a vanishing city.

Nostalgia and memory construct phantom edifices in the absence. Spectral, remembrances inscribe the cartography of a ghost-city

Furthermore, with internal uneven development, while one sector of the city rises, gentrified by the super-rich, another neighbourhood sinks into poverty and neglect.

In London, the inner suburbs, infra-structure subject to under-investment, now receives the unwanted, ethnic and poor, surplus populations thrust out of the centre.

Other words also articulate the falling, fallen, nature of the city. Since 2008, the language of ‘crisis’ has returned to the discourses of the Left.

Commentators have belatedly rediscovered the economic business cycle, and the prospect of final capitalist crisis.

Looking even wider, the fragile ecological foundations of the urban culture, has sparked talk of looming ‘catastrophe’.

For some this catastrophism is disabling, as they contemplate the apparent inevitability of demise.

Others deny it, as city-living may also paradoxically be the most ecologically efficient means of organising living space for millions of planetary dwellers.

Ecological notions of limit, the prospect of peak oil, provoke another metaphor, that of ‘collapse’.

Under pressure of multiple crises the feeling grows that our culture is unsustainable. Not external invasion, but internal implosion threatens the fall of this city.

Philosophically too the awareness grows that the lack of conceptual tools requires a fresh creativity, a ground-zero speculative realism, centred on the new journal entitled Collapse.

As for the city, it exists continually in a state of collapse, never actually, finally, collapsed; but always, ever, on the edge, of permanent collapse.

The city is like a cottage: ruined, unstable, about to fall, but somehow, still standing. The collapsing city is the ruined city.

Gibbon received the inspiration for his history of the Roman Empire while meditating on the physical ruins of the city.

So we too contemplate the surrounding ruins. But we actually live among the detritus, while we simultaneously attempt to detect signs of the new.

As Blanchot wrote, for us the disaster is past. It has already happened. We think the city in the light of the disaster, from amongst the ruins.

Because we have already lived the end, in anticipation, according to Baudrillard, the end cannot come. We live in constant postponement of any idea of ending.

For us, however, this is because we live already from the null point. The city is fallen.

With Bruce Springsteen, we can sing about “My city of ruins”. But this song too is an invocation, an injunction – to ‘pray,’ and to ‘rise up.’

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