Summer 2006

A Brief History of the Future

The metaphysics of ruination

Alan Berger and Dorion Sagan

Failure is more beautiful than success. 

—John Fante

Ruination has its metaphysical and cosmological, as well as its personal and physical, aspects.

Metaphysically, ruination is in stark contrast, almost a mocking antithesis, to the timeless realm accessible by mathematical imagination, Platonic speculation, and mystic reports. The fact that a distant supernova has ceased to 
exist by the time the light from its explosion reaches our eyes alerts us that we may ourselves be misperceived as present whereas in reality we are only the physical afterimage of a previous phenomenon. Projecting forward in time, the immediate present becomes, as Nabokov pointed out, 
a future memory, such that our present life, with its blue jeans and magazines, its global economy and media, becomes, from the vantage point of the future, a quaint throwback to a serene yesteryear, a 3-D daguerreotype. (Nabokov adds that such a prolepsis, turning ordinary things into invaluable, active antiques, living cultural fossils, enhances the aesthetics of daily life.) In quantum mechanics, physicist John Wheeler suggests that it is the presence in the future of far more numerous observers that co-creates the present reality in which we find ourselves. If time is, as Wheeler’s colleague Einstein put it in a letter to the family of a dead friend, a “persistent illusion,” then the very category of ruination is suspect, because everything already is. The Hindu solution, too anthropomorphic to be fully scientific, is that the Godhead, bored with eternity, creates the illusion (maya) of passing time, of separation into discrete individuals, mortals, to keep himself occupied. The whole must be split in space, rifted in time, in order to perceive itself at all. But then why this particular configuration, this set-up? Something doesn’t add up, unless, as co-author Nabokov hinted, the first author had a particular whimsical and not uncruel sense of humor.

A landfill in Buford, Georgia.
Plane disaster scene set, War of the Worlds, Universal Studios, Hollywood, California.
Rail hub. Norfolk Southern’s Inman Yard and CSX’s Tilford Yard, Atlanta, Georgia.

But perhaps this world is best described neither by 
science nor religion, neither by cosmology, which posits 
billions of years of becoming (and thus inevitable ruin as the new replaces the old) from the big bang through microbial and human evolution, nor by the antiseptic eternities of the Platonic imagination, be they mathematical or Christian. Perhaps this world is neither natural nor supernatural but rather both, which is to say Todorovian after Tzvetan Todorov’s literary category of the fantastique, which simultaneously admitted of natural and supernatural explanations. The helpful mystic Ouspensky says in his 1911 Tertium Organum, Or The Third Canon Of Thought And A Key To The Enigmas Of The World that the difference between a building and an idea is that (we paraphrase) buildings can be bombed while attempts to take down, to destroy, an idea only underline its importance, making it stronger. Witness Christianity, let alone the twin towers crucified and yet simultaneously raised up, lifted, and preserved at a higher level by the real-world equivalent of the Hegelian Aufhebung.

We ourselves are partly ruined and ruinous beings, feeding on energy and fomenting destruction, leaving in our wake complexity free of a sense of divine design. In this, we resemble other natural complex systems—organized by energy flow and described in thermodynamics as helping to disperse energy, break down a gradient, or produce entropy. From its possible beginnings in ocean floor vents captured so well in James Cameron’s 3-D film, Aliens of the Deep—the mise-en-scène evokes a mutant recrudescence of Bosch’s creatures lost at sea—life has been destroying one thing to create another, chewing up light to spit out microgreenery, availing itself of chemistry to internally quiver and grow, 
tapping into energy to imagine the blueprint, secrete the solid waste, or power the crane. 

Plastid-implanted hillocks adjacent to housing in Irvine, California.
Car salvage and junkyard near Ayer, Massachusetts. In 2003, over twelve million automobiles were scrapped or junked in the US.
Interchange at Interstate Highway 210 and Interstate Highway 15, San Bernardino, California.

In time, at least, there is no site in end. These wrecking balls and chimneys keep stomping and coughing, burying most of the present at its birth, but leaving a venous veil visible to the watchful artistic eye, so that it might contemplate in vision the eloquent words of the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris: “In what sense ‘is there’ a star that exploded a thousand years ago, and that we see now? … It is to be noted that, according to the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, everything visible—ourselves included—could be nothing but memory and phenomenalization, no less than stars that have exploded, and appeared precisely when they have ceased to be noumena.”

And it is true that we do not know that this work, so real and full of designs, though not those of a straight-thinking creator or narrator, is not already destroyed, and that these our lives, amid the ruins of the present, are not part of a more rapturous edifice accruing to that vision which contains all things in a necessarily more bland eternity.

Text by Dorion Sagan. Photographs by Alan Berger.

Alan Berger is associate professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is author of the award-winning Reclaiming the American West (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002) and Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), books which use aerial photography and mapping to reveal waste in the American landscape.

Dorion Sagan is co-author of Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life (University of Chicago Press, 2005), a book which links all growth and complexity to the dispersal of energy described by the second law of thermodynamics.

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