Ruins in the Expanded Field
Jake Romm
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 85-105.
Abstract
This paper applies the Klein Group form used by Rosalind Krauss in her essay, Sculpture in
the Expanded Field,” to the field of ruins. The opposition utilized to create the ruin Klein
Group is the opposition between vanished and intact. The paper proceeds by classifying and
discussing each of the possibilities opened up by the expanded field: ruins (not-vanished; not-
intact), consecrated sites (vanished; not-vanished), ruin-reproduction (vanished; intact), and
finally the necroaesthetical ruin(intact; not-intact). The expanded field and the political and
aesthetic implications thereof are discussed primarily in conversation with Paolo Virno’s
Deja Vu and the End of History,as well as Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics,” and Andreas
Huyssen’s Nostalgia for Ruins.
Keywords
Necropolitics, Ruins, End of history, Paolo Virno, Aesthetics
DOI
https://doi.org/10.21827/krisis.43.1.38398
Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
85
Ruins in the Expanded Field
Jake Romm
Introduction
I am walking in a field, it is day. In the distance there is a pile of stones, and I begin to walk
towards it. As I approach, it occurs to me that this pile of stones is not a pileat all, but a
dilapidated structure if I squint, tilt my head slightly, I can see the remnants of its internal
logic. It is, really, a ruin. There, off to the right, is a plaque confirming the thought,…Stone,
c.1300.” As I get closer, I’m able to touch the stones, feel the rough surfaces, the sharp-edged
nooks and crannies testaments to time’s work. But, what’s this? A stone, or what looks like
a stone, but the surface is smooth, the edges rubbery still hard but softer than stone has any
reason to be. Is this a ruin, or something else? Thisstone,whatever it is, is clearly intended
to look like the other stones it must have been intentionally placed, just so, in the ruined
structure. But the work of time is not apparent on this stone it is in the ruin, but not of it.
The other stones, are they stones or stones?; ruin or, something else? Is this a ruin at all or
some contemporary intervention? To what, then, does Stone, c. 1300refer if neither is true?
In August 2020, Russia presented a three-dimensional model of the ancient city of Palmyra,
as a part of its preparations to reconstruct (or, in their words, restore”) the archeological site’s
famous Arch of Triumph and Temple of Bel, which had been destroyed by ISIS in 2015 (al-
Khateb 2021). As a part of this reconstruction, a team of Russian scientists will compare stone
samples taken from the site with stone taken from a modern quarry, which will in turn aid in
the selection of material to be used for the reconstruction of the destroyed elements of the site.
In 2017, the National Museum of Damascus completed a restoration(again, a reconstruc-
tion) of the Lion of Al-lāt, a limestone statue partially destroyed by ISIS in 2015 (UNESCO
World Heritage Center 2017). The reconstructed Lion incorporates both original limestone
parts and parts created using a 3D printer and nylon powder (Cascone 2018). The two parts,
the new and the ruin, do not look even remotely similar, do not even remotely mesh, creating
a strange almost cubist effect in the finished product.
What are we to make of these restorations?These mixtures of the old and new, these ruins
which are no longer ruins? This paper applies Rosalind Krauss’s methodology from her now
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
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foundational essay Sculpture in the Expanded Fieldto the concept of the ruin in order to
explore the various as yet un- or under-articulated concepts within the ruins-theoretical dis-
course.
The choice of ruin here is not arbitrary. As Walter Benjamin writes, In the ruin history has
physically merged into the setting,(Benjamin 2003, 177-178) and so when examining the
ruin and its related concepts, it is not merely the stones that are at stake, but history itself. And
now, at the so-calledend of history” that never seems to come, with all its violent conflagra-
tions and waves of reaction, ruins, as the stuff of history, are becoming contested political and
aesthetic sites in new ways. Of all the concepts in the expanded field constructed in this paper,
it is thenecroaesthetical ruin(explored in the final section)typified by the foregoing Pal-
myra examplesthat most clearly points to the feeling of futurelessness endemic to the end
of historyand most clearly elucidates the political stakes of the ruin and the attendant ex-
panded field.
The Expanded Field, Introduced
In 1979, Rosalind Krauss asked us to consider what, exactly, is a sculpture. Or rather, she
asked us to consider what, exactly, is not a sculpture. What is not a sculpture but is meaning-
fully like a sculpture. What is not a sculpture but is referred to as sculpture. What is not a
sculpture but is an occupant of the same conceptual field. The questions were posed as a re-
sponse to what Krauss identified as an overextension of the word sculpture, an application of
the term to works that were not sculpture as she understood it. This overextension, Krauss
writes, was not an exercise in vanguard-aesthetics” but rather an exercise in historicism
(Krauss 1979, 30). That is, the overextension of the term sculpture serves as a way to subsume
the new under a familiar heading and to sterilize the new in the process. [W]e are comforted,”
she writes, by this perception of sameness, this strategy for reducing anything foreign in either
time or space, to what we already know and are” (Krauss 1979, 30). Sculpture, like any other
art-form, has itsown set of rules, which though they can be applied to a variety of situations,
are not themselves open to very much change” (Krauss 1979, 36). Krauss located this set of
rules, this internal logic,” in the fundamental opposition of not-landscape and not-architec-
ture. That is, sculpture lay as an ontological absence” created out of the opposition between
these two negativities. But, the terms not-landscape” and not-architecture” also implied their
affirmative opposites landscape” and architecture.” Thus Krauss posited her famous
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
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expanded fielda conceptual framework built upon these oppositions that helps us to un-
derstand and articulate the different types of works that had (erroneously) fallen under the
heading of sculpture.” The expanded field was conceptualized as a Klein Group (see Figure
1) (Krauss 1979, 38).
1
The field, so conceptualized, opened up three additional possibilities:
marked sites, site-construction, and axiomatic structures.
Figure 1
These three new concepts were not born from the concept of sculpture, as one may reasonably
assume, but rather from the fundamental negative opposition from which sculpture itself was
born (and indeed, it was locating this negative opposition and in turn, locating the structural
logic of the form of sculpture as such which was Kraussprimary focus).
Since the publication of Krauss’s essay, the expanded field has become something of a trope
in critical literature. There now exist pieces on photography (Baker 2008, 175-189), pottery
(Feldman 2019, 9), architecture (Berman and Burnham 2012), writing (RMIT University
2019), and memory sites(Huyssen 2009, 94-109)
2
all in the expanded field. But if the ex-
panded field has become a trope, it is only on the strength of its explicatory value. The Klein
Group is adaptable to all manner of fields provided there exist terms similarly expressible by
virtue of oppositions.
One field where Krauss’s framework is as yet unapplied, or as yet unapplied in systematic
fashion, is the field of ruins. The problem facing our conceptual understanding of ruins,
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
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though, is somewhat distinct from the one Krauss sought to address. Where Krauss was re-
sponding to an overextension of the term sculpture, this paper seeks to respond not just to an
overextension of the term ruin, but also to a lack of clarity on the nature of the certain concepts
which may not currently go by the name ofruin,but which still require explication within a
ruin-theoretical discourse. Bringing these concepts to light will not only provide a richer un-
derstanding of the ruin and its related concepts but will also help to uncover the as yet unex-
plored (necro)political implications of certain concepts in the expanded field.
Establishing the Expanded Field
In order to establish our expanded field, we must first ask, what are ruins? In what state do
ruins exist, and can this state be expressed in terms of a fundamental opposition? A ruin cannot,
clearly, be a completely intact structure, one which has suffered no decay. Regardless of the
structure’s social use, we would not call an intact structure a ruin, but would rather simply
refer to it as the structure itself.Ruinas a noun always also presupposesruinas a verb and
adjective - a structure is ruined (verb) rendering it a ruined (adjective) structure, and then,
finally, the ruined structure becomes a ruin (noun) (though, as we shall see, not every ruined
structure becomes a ruin proper). Conversely, a ruin cannot be a completely vanished structure.
Again, in this case, there is no structure upon whichruinationmay act. We would only refer
here to the structure’s absence or its former state and not to the structure itself qua ruin. We
can see here, in brief, the fundamental opposition at play with ruins. A ruin is that which is not
intact but also that which has not vanished. The continuum between intact and vanished, this
domain of decay, is where the ruin resides. That is, the ruin is a structure that was once intact,
and is now somewhere on the way towards vanishing. It can thus be expressed as the intersec-
tion of the fundamental opposition between not-vanished and not-intact (see Figure 2).
Figure 2
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One aspect of the ruin which is not grasped by this framework, but upon which it depends, is
memory. Piles of rubble, too, exist in this state between intact and vanished. But while it would
be semantically proper to refer to a pile of rubble that was once an intact structure as ruins,
it would not be conceptually proper without some additional work. In Nostalgia for Ruins,
Andreas Huyssen writes that Bombings […] are not about producing ruins. They produce
rubble. But then the market has recently been saturated with stunning picture books and films
[…] of the ruins of World War II. In them, rubble is indeed transformed, even aestheticized,
into ruin(Huyssen 2006, 8). The suggestion here is that it is the process of aestheticization
that turns a pile of rubble, a ruined structure, into a ruin as such. But the ruin is more than just
aestheticized rubble, precisely because the ruin is more than merely aesthetic in the strictest
sense. The ruin is also always laden with mnestic meaning. That is, again per Huyssen,in the
body of the ruin the past is both present in its residues and yet no longer accessible […] In the
ruin, history appears spatialized and built space temporalized” (Huyssen 2006, 9, 13). Thus
we can see that ruin then is not merely aesthetic (though aestheticization is perhaps a necessary
precondition for understanding), it is also a temporalized, or perhaps more accurately, histori-
cized, space. It is itself the verystuffof history.
When we regard the ruin qua ruin we are engaging in what Paolo Virno terms, by way of Henri
Bergson, the memory of the present. Our experience of reality, Virno writes, is always at all
times bifurcated as memory and perception. The two occur contemporaneously - [f]ar from
being the blurred copy or the belated spectre of immediate experience, the mnestic trace is its
inevitable correlate” (Virno 2015, 11). This simultaneity of perception and memory renders
memory useless in the moment, thus Virno quotes Bergson as writing “‘what is any less useful
to an action that is underway, than the memory of the present? This has nothing to teach us,
being only the double of perception [ …] This is why there is no memory from which our
attention is more obstinately turned away’” (Virno 2015, 12). The dual nature of experience -
memory and perception - is the form of the split between what Virno terms the virtual and the
actual. [P]erception,Virno writes, fixes the present as real, complete, resolved in unambig-
uous given facts; whereas memory limits it within the terms of mere potential, retaining some-
thing of its virtual character” (Virno 2015, 14). The actual (or the real) and the virtual (the
potential) aspect of any given act or object (objects can, in any event can always be, reformu-
lated as a consummated acts) exist, like memory and perception, simultaneously in one and
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
90
the same event” (Virno 2015, 14). It is a seemingly bizarre assertion that memory with its
corresponding passé indéfini is the realm of the virtual (potentiality), a term most often asso-
ciated with the future. But, Virno writes (again by way of Bergson), that the virtual (potential)
only comes into existence at the moment of the act itself - in duplicating the real,the virtual,
in the form of memory (which, again occurs contemporaneously with perception, the aspect of
experience which fixes the real),detaches itself into the past, and establishes itself there with
a retroactive movement: As reality is created […] its image is reflected behind it into the
indefinite past; thus it finds that it has from all time been possible, but it is at this moment that
it begins to have been always possible’” (Virno 2015, 16). Memory, then, is the mechanism
by which we are able to take the real and cast it back into the past, to see in the present the
motion that has brought us here. This is the so-called memory of the present- that which
is in the past in its form and of the present in its matter […] the possible is the hic et nunc
made into an object of memory, placed under the sign back then, re-evoked in the very
moment in which it is lived’” (Virno 2015, 16). But, we must be careful not to identify the
back then” with a mere set of past events. Rather, the back then” refers to a passé indéfini,
to a non-chronologized not-now […] the unmoveable latency which constitutes the horizon
(or context) of each datable event” (Virno 2015, 70). That is, potential can be understood as
something like time itself, the inexhaustible faculty which cannot itself be expressed but serves
as the latent background upon which historical acts might come into being, even though the
act is not identical nor completely expressive of this potentiality itself.
Returning now to ruins, we can see the way in which the ruin as such is necessarily constituted
by the memory of the present. When we regard the ruin qua junk-pile or qua aestheticized
rubble we are engaging in this dual process but in the normalway, where memory of the
present is swept by the wayside as the useless double of perception. When we regard the ruin
qua ruin, however, the normal veil of uselessness slips away, revealing both the real and mnes-
tic character of the ruin. We see the ruin as physical form but also as potential; we see the ruin
not only as a present real, but also as a past real and as a past potential. To regard the ruin qua
ruin isto spot in a specific performance the disposition or capacity that allows for it; to push
the act taking place back within its correlated dynamis […] When the events now being expe-
rienced are inserted anachronistically into the facultyinto the passé indéfinithey are, as
well as being real, always also potential(Virno 2015, 27).
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But we must be careful not to essentialize or universalize. Although the ruin’s fundamental
attributes not-vanished, not-intact may be historically constant, its mnestic status has
changed over time. While a historical or ethnographic survey is beyond the scope of the present
essay, it is fruitful to contrast, albeit briefly, the Roman conception of ruins with a generalized
contemporary westernconception in order to illustrate both the historicity of the ruin as well
as the political situation of the ruin in the contemporary gaze.
3
Both Julia Hell and Richard
Alston note that in Roman antiquity, the ruin prompted in the ruin-gazer the image of the site
of destruction, death and the fall of Empires” (Alston 2011, 699) and thespectacle of chang-
ing fortunes(Hell 2019, 96). Hell in particular helps to sharpen Huyssens distinction between
the ruin and rubble, which as, already noted, is not merely aesthetic but mnestic as well, by
demonstrating that the distinction also crucially depends upon the (political) position of the
viewer. Hell writes that while both the ruin and rubble metonymically signify the undisci-
plined violence at the heart of the imperial project, in the new ruin consciousness of (post)Au-
gustan imperialism, rubble belongs to the conquered, and ruins are the property of the empire”
(Hell 2019, 100). Furthermore, Hell notes that rubble is also temporalized, but in an almost
opposite way as the ruin. Whereas, for the Romans, the ruin signified the end of the empire
and thus also the longue durée of empire that is, imperial time as a time of deferral of the
inevitable but also indefinitely deferred ruination of Roman cities and the empire itself rubble
signified the brief rush of violence, the very moment of victorious conquest and triumph”
(Hell 2019, 100) or, the imminence of expansion, the flashing and extinguishing instantiation
of empire itself. Thus the distinction between rubble and the ruin was not merely aesthetic, nor
even mnestic in quality, but also dependent upon a distinction between ruler and subject.
What was at stake, then, for the Roman ruin gazer, was scope mastery: a constellation that
keeps the (Neo)Roman sovereign, the imperial subject, not the subjected barbarian, in the po-
sition of the one who is looking at the ruins of empire or in the position of the one who is
looking at the barbarian, looking” (Hell 2019, 13). In the ruin, the ruler saw the ruins of their
own empire, but these ruins could only be regarded as ruins because they were seen from the
future-cast perspective of the ruler. The barbarian, who will cause the ruination of Rome in
the Roman imperial imaginary, would, by the same relation that caused Rome to regard the
vanquished cities of its subjects as rubble, similarly have seen a vanquished Rome as rubble.
Thus, the Roman scope mastery” not only instantiated ruins as ruins, but was also again a
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form of deferral for a ruined Rome to be properly considered ruins, there must, paradoxically,
still be Romans who may gaze from the position of mastery. The ruin, then, is hardly a neutral
object. It is not only invested with a mnestic quality but also a political quality that, depending
upon the ruin-gazing subject, changes the salience of the ruin and highlights the ambiguous
nature of the ruin/rubble distinction in the first place.
In the Roman ruin-gazing scenario, the virtual aspect of the ruin is revealed to be the inevita-
bility of death, the potentiality of destruction contained in all things, the end of empire, empire
as endtime” (Hell 2019, 14). In this sense the Roman image of the ruin, not despite but because
of its evocation of death, still reveals the dual structure of the virtual and which animates the
ruin. The dynamis, time itself, is here, as elsewhere, the capacity for change. But, this dynamis
seen from the perspective of the desire for an eternal present, for the deferral of the end, takes
on the distinctly melancholic character of Pausanias at Megalopolis: “I am not astounded that
the Great City which the Arkadians founded [. . .] should have lost all its beauty and ancient
prosperity, or that most of it should be ruins nowadays, because [. . .] I know that fortune alters
everything, strong and weak, things at their beginning and things at their ending” (Hell 2019,
96).
Huyssen’s specifically contemporary reading of the ruin, however, flips the Roman scenario
on its head. He writes that [t]his contemporary obsession with ruins hides a nostalgia for an
earlier age that had not yet lost its power to imagine other futures(Huyssen 2006, 8). Gazing
at the ruin now, in a time marked by foreclosed or foreclosing political horizons (be it the
terminal crisis of climate change or the seeming intractability of capitalism and imperialism in
the face of mounting disaster), prompts a nostalgia for the future for the existence of a future.
Whereas for the Romans, with their eternal empire,” the ruin gazing scenario prompted the
gazer to [know] that the end will eventually come and [hope] that it will not come now(Hell
2019, 103), the contemporary ruin gazer, in Huyssen’s scenario, hopes that the end will come
but doubts that it ever will. Indeed, this is precisely the attraction of the ruin the embodiment
of the negative as the precondition for progress. The previously quoted Benjamin passage is
again instructive:In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting. And in this guise
history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible
decayBenjamin 2003, 177-178). While the ruin as a sign of irresistible decay may correspond
to both the contemporary and Roman experiences of the ruin, it is in the contemporary that it
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
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becomes a pre-positive moment. The ruin, as thrown back into the past, contains within it all
the potential which made it possible and thus carries that potential still (as the virtual and real
coexist in every event). It also serves as a real reminder of the past-form in the ruin, we are
reminded of the potentiality of time itself, of the existence of time as such.
In this sense the prior statement that ruins are the very stuffof history can be elucidated
Memory is not historical’ in virtue of the particular content” (Virno 2015, 4), Virno writes,
rather it is historical insofar as it is the very thing which allows us to historicize, to perceive
existence not as a mere chronology, but as a history, as a collection of events and the potenti-
alities that made them so and will continue churning still. So, as our diagram points out, ruins
are the product of a neuter axis of the not-vanished and the not-intact. The midway point be-
tween what may be perceived and what may only be remembered. It is the form of memory of
the present, and, as such, it is the form of history itself.
But, as we shall see in the following section, the nostalgic mania for ruins identified by
Huyssen, in a time marked by futurelessness, by an apparent eternal present, leads to strange
constructions, which recapitulate this futurelessness upon the ruin-form. This is, again, the
problem of the necroaesthetical ruin. But, before explaining the concept of the necroaesthet-
ical, we must build out the expanded field and tackle the new concepts one by one, leaving
now the ruin for other grounds. If we understand the ruin as not-vanished and not-intact, we
will have to add the terms vanished and intact to the group. The resultant diagram leads to four
concepts: Ruins, Consecrated Sites, Ruin-Reproductions, and Necroaesthetical Ruins (see Fig-
ure 3).
Figure 3
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Consecrated Sites
The consecrated site sits at the schema of vanished and not-vanished. It is, despite this para-
doxical formulation, perhaps the least complex of the terms in the expanded field and will
therefore be dispensed with rather quickly. What does it mean for something to be both van-
ished and not-vanished? In what state can such a thing exist (and not exist)? In order to tease
out the concept we can turn to an illustrative example the Treblinka death camp. Treblinka,
the deadliest of all the Nazi death camps, was entirely destroyed in 1943 in anticipation of the
Soviet advance in an attempt to hide the evidence of genocide (The Memory of Treblinka
Foundation, n.d.). The structures were all dismantled, and the ground, rife with ashes and hu-
man remains, was ploughed over (The Memory of Treblinka Foundation, n.d.). All that re-
mained was a vast, empty field and lone farmhouse (The Memory of Treblinka Foundation,
n.d.).
As James Young writes in The Texture of Memory,after the war ended and the horrors of
Treblinka became known, the sitewas long regarded as almost too terrible […] to even visit
(Young 2000, 186). It was only in 1964, nineteen years after the end of the war, that a monu-
ment to the dead was finally constructed on the site (Young 2000, 187). In the intervening
nineteen-year period where nothing stood on the site of the camp, we could properly call Tre-
blinka a consecrated site. That is, the physical structures had vanished, and yet their mnestic
power, their signification remained in such a potent fashion that the open field left in its wake
was too terrible” to visit. The real aspect of the site was so terrible, that the virtual aspect,
perhaps more terrible still, was able to fill the void left by the real and assume an almost cor-
poreal existence. Here, the virtual characteristic of the site, the potentiality contained within a
site like Treblinka, is the potentiality for another Treblinka potential itself has no moral
valence. Such was the power of the place that it was as if the structures had remained intact,
still occupying the field, precluding the construction of anything else. Thus, the site is both
vanished, in the physical sense, and not-vanished, in the mnestic sense.
It must be noted that not all remembered but physically vanished sites are consecrated sites,
even powerfully remembered ones. The consecration of the site consists precisely in the fact
that nothing new can be built upon it, that it lies empty even as it bursts with meaning. The
moment that the memorial was constructed in Treblinka, it ceased to be a consecrated site as
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such, even though it retained certain characteristics by virtue of the fact that the site still stands
primarily as an open field.
Ruin-Reproduction
In the combination of the complex axisvanished and intactwe have the ruin-reproduction.
The ruin-reproduction finds its expression in the faithful reproduction of an existent ruin or a
once existent ruin now fully vanished, (the advent of digital reconstruction technology adds a
new dimension to the ruin-reproduction, and indeed to the entire expanded field, but we will
only concern ourselves here with physical reproductions). Thus, it is both conceptually and,
within the Klein group, spatially, the direct inverse of the ruin. The original ruin that is being
reproduced need not currently exist in physical form, it is enough that the original once existed,
(it is important, however, that the ruin-reproduction cannot consciously take a fictional ruin as
its referent. If this were the case then the ruin-reproduction would not be a reproduction at all
but only a representational work, itself an originalof sorts).
We have seen a recent example of the ruin-reproduction in the 2/3 scale reproduction of Pal-
myra’s Arch of Triumph destroyed by ISIS in 2015 unveiled in London in 2016 (Raya
2016). The Arch, built using 3D printing technology, was intended to stand, in the words of
Boris Johnson, in defiance of the barbarians who destroyed the original(Brown 2016).
4
In
Palmyra, the Arch stood at the entrance to the Grand Colonnade; in London, it stood in the
centre of Trafalgar Square. Later, in New York City, the Arch stood in City Hall Park, and as
of the time of this writing, the reproduced Arch has been displayed in Dubai, Florence, and
Arona as well (Gulf News 2018). The logic of the monument the inseparability of the archi-
tecture from the hit et nunc of its creation, i.e., the tangible expression of permanence or, at
the very least, duration(Auge 2008, 48) which, though it may take on different significations,
is, as an expression of duration, always anchored to the originary time to which the original
Arch corresponded, is entirely vitiated by the ruin-reproduction, which borrows from the logic
of modernist sculpture as articulated by Krauss, a kind of sitelessness […] an absolute loss
of place […] the monument as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-
referential(Krauss 1979, 34). But the ruin-reproduction extends the sitelessness of modernist
sculpture even further. That is, whereas the modernist sculpture, in its sitelessness, is a self-
referential qua auratic work of art, the ruin-reproduction is the paradoxical and always already
failed embodiment of the signified without a signifier.