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The psychoanalysis of ruins

By Dylan Trigg.

Freudianism is an explicit and thematized archaeology.
– Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy

Time Out of Joint
How does a ruin — be it the remains of an industrial factory or the relic of an ancient civilization — fit into the landscape of a city? Beyond its warped mass of broken materiality, a ruin is also a disordering of time. It maligns time, dissolving boundaries between past and present. The question is not where the ruin is located, but when? Not in the present, but neither in the past. Time out of joint, to invoke the spectre of Hamlet.

More than this, the ruin undercuts our attachment to places. If there is sometimes a tendency to become overly attached to our little corner in the world, then where that corner is a ruin, such attachment is overrun by constant change. Becoming overly attached to one’s favourite ruin is likely to result in heartbreak. Impossible, after all, to become nostalgic about something that resists a fixed identity. No matter how much we want the ruin to testify to a past of our own — to be one’s own ruin — in the glance of an eye, it assumes a different past, and wholly disconnected to the one we may have incorporated as our own.

Ruins return. This is one of the great surprises that the ruin presents to us: its persistence in time alongside its disordering of time. Far from the waste matter of culture, the ruin always resists repression, finding ways to fend off the very decay that constitutes the ruin in the first instance.

No wonder, then, given this complex structure that Freud elected the ruin to the principle metaphor not only for the practice of psychoanalysis but also for the mind itself. In the archaeological excavation of the ruin, Freud found the means to articulate a set of themes central to his thinking as a whole, not least the very preservation of the past in the mind.

Why the image of the ruin? What can it tell us about psychoanalysis — and equally, what can psychoanalysis tell us about ruins? And moreover, if Freud’s concern is with the ruins of classical Rome and Athens, then how can psychoanalysis contend with the contemporary ruins of Detroit and Chernobyl?

Freud’s usage of ruinous and archaeological metaphors shifts through his psychoanalytical thinking, beginning with something broadly equivalent to ruinlust and ending on a note of anxiety and melancholy. At the earliest stages of this relation, he assumes the role of an intrepid adventurer, keen to excavate the buried secrets lurking in the psychic and earthly unconscious. A passage from the 1896 essay “The Aetiology of Hysteria” reads thus:

Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced and unreadable inscriptions… He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried. If his work is crowned with success, the discoveries are self-explanatory; the ruined walls are part of the ramparts of a palace or a treasure house; the fragments of columns can be filled out into a temple; the numerous inscriptions, which, by good luck, may be bilingual, reveal an alphabet and a language, and, when they have been deciphered and translated, yield undreamed-of information about the events of the remote past, to commemorate which the monuments were built.

With this account, Freud indirectly gives us the foundations of analytic theory. In assuming the role of classical explorer, Freud elevates psychoanalysis to a mode of both retrieval and restoration. The dotted fragments and sketchy remains of a former civilization require careful work in order to bring them back the light of consciousness. Too abrasive, the explorer risks effacing the traces through driving them deeper into the buried earth. But with cautious probing, these same traces point to a past that is accessible through the work of reanimation and reconstruction.

Still in this early phase of his thinking on ruins, Freud expands upon his archaeological analysis, remarking that “This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city.” In each account, the ruin is presented as material, which if disorderly, is also lodged in time and thus receptive to the work of excavation, interpretation, before subsequent reconstruction.

From the outset, then, Freud’s relation to ruins is laden with tremendous psychic value. Far from inert matter, devoid of substance, at all times, the materiality of the past assumes a latent meaning. Freud recognises here the value of the ruin as being imbued with a future life, making it clear that the appearance of inactivity is deceptive. In this way, the past in question is one that has an afterlife attached to it, its buried meaning waiting the emergence of a future psychoanalysis to restore it.

This rather uneven relationship between Freud and the ruin gives voice to the latter only by dint of a psychoanalytic intervention. The ruin, to put it in phenomenological terms, speaks less for itself and more through the method of analysis. The ruin does not decipher itself. As a fragment rather than a complete work of materiality, it requires analysis for the ruin to reach a state of reconstructed completion, begging the question of where the ruin ends and the psychoanalysis begins.

The Limits of Ruins
By 1930, Freud was still lingering with the theme of ruins and buried pasts. Only now, he was slightly more cautious about identifying the mind with the ruins of antiquity. In Civilization and Its Discontents, the theme reappears again, this time in relation to the preservation of the past in the mind. He writes: “In mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish — that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances…it can once more be brought to light.”

Once more, classical ruins assume a central role in deciphering the role of the past in the present. Situating us in the “Eternal City of Rome,” Freud provides us with an account of the early days of the city before then posting a critical question: “[How] much [will] a visitor, whom we will suppose be equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge, may still find left of these early stages in the Rome of today”? In response to this question, Freud speculates. I quote at length.

Except for a few gaps, he will see the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged. In some places he will be able to find sections of the Servian Wall where they have been excavated and brought to light … Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient area he will find nothing, or only scanty remains, for they no longer exist … Their place is now taken by ruins, but not by ruins of themselves but of later restorations made after fires or destruction. There is certainly not a little that is ancient still buried in the soil of the city or beneath its modern buildings. This is the manner in which the past is preserved in historical sites like Rome.

There are several remarks to make on this rich passage. At first glance, the surface of the city appears unchanged. Fragments of the past remain in place, raised to the light through excavation. Concerning the broader outline, only remnants have survived. Ruins have taken the place of the former city. Yet the ruins discovered do not give us direct access to the past, but instead are mediated as restorations. All of these ruins and fragments, finally, take their place alongside the familiarity of everyday life in the modern city.

So, we have here multiple orders of space and time. Authentic fragments, reconstructions of ruins, and modern buildings all conspire together to produce a complex relationship between the present and the past. Overlapping with this ordering of space and time are the principle themes of Freudian analysis itself; depth and surface, hidden and revealed meanings, latent and manifest content. Each of these pairings, so central to the workings of analysis, finds a counterpart in the ruins of Rome.

Here, Freud takes a step beyond aligning the ruins of Rome with the themes of psychoanalysis and questions if Rome itself can be compared to a “psychical entity.” Pursuing this speculative thought, Freud encounters a dead end. For in imagining Rome as structured by a multiplicity of latent contents, he finds himself contending with the image of two or more different past events occupying the same space simultaneously. This symbiosis of different timescales proves too much for Freud, and thus he withdraws the analogy, remarking that “A city is thus a priori unsuited for a comparison of this sort with a mental organism.” Only the mind, he goes on to say, is truly able to preserve all the earlier stages of development alongside a “final form.”

Disturbance of Memory
By 1936, Freud’s relation to ruins took a final, dramatic and rather telling turn. In an essay titled “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis,” Freud gives us an autobiographical account of visiting the ruins of Greece with his younger brother. When Freud arrives at the Acropolis, he makes a striking confession to himself: “So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!” This unexpected disbelief that there is such a place as the Acropolis at all takes the place of joy. In contrast, Freud experiences something like dejection or better rejection. For what Freud contends with in the face of this ruin is an experience that cannot be ingested but is instead taken as “an attempt to reject a piece of reality.”

This rejection of reality is in direct contrast with the relationship Freud developed with ruins in the earlier part of his analytical excavations. This time around, the ruin displaces Freud from his role as intrepid explorer, employing his own past as the means to induce a feeling of melancholic anxiety, which he will term a “feeling of estrangement” or better still, “depersonalization.” In each of these terms, Freud identifies something in the ruin that resists appropriation. The ruin is factually present, yet experienced as being unreal. This paradox in the structure of experience establishes a disorientated atmosphere, in which things become otherworldly, fragmented, and above all, uncanny.

This disorientation of space and time is uncanny precisely because it leaves the world intact. What follows is a disjunction between reality and experience. Doubt intervenes in the reality of the Acropolis and overpowering sense that the same place is bathed in total unfamiliarity overwhelms him. In the tension, unreality protrudes into the world.

And yet, the world remains as it is. Freud’s confrontation with the ruin does not bring about a loss of self or a loss of world. Both remain as they were. Instead of being consumed by nothingness, they lose the quality of being irreducibly real. Here, the materiality of things is not a sufficient condition to attest to their brute existence. Suffering from a lack of phenomenal depth, things become flattened, divested of their dynamism, and now reduced to a simulacrum of reality.

Ultimately, Freud reduces this experience of ruin alienation to an intra-psychic conflict involving the defence of the ego. In particular, he rationalises the experience in terms of an oedipal conflict involving the sense of having travelled “further than one’s father, as though wishing to outdo one’s father.” The guilt that accompanies this thought is held responsible for the disturbance of memory. Given the history of Freud’s relationship to ruins as one of lust and colonization, this retreat from the disturbance on the Acropolis should come as no surprise to us. Yet this hasty justification employed to account for the experience of estrangement is especially disappointing given the richness of content overlooked.

Anxiety in the Ruin
In order to pursue this unthought thought in Freud, we would like to return to the ruin with the mood of estrangement and anxiety in mind. I would suggest, in fact, that the mood of anxiety provides us with the clearest sense in which the ruin can challenge our normative ideas of space and time. The dis-orientation of memory and reality that Freud articulates in the face of the Acropolis carries with it a sense of the ruin’s power as able to overturn our relationship to the material world.

What if this experience of Freud’s was not an ego defence placed in the context of an oedipal drama but an experience of over saturation? There are, after all, certain places in the world that cannot be digested with the senses alone, but instead hover in an anxious space, invoking a ghostly quality that cannot be tied down to appearances.

Elsewhere, I have called this irruption of ghostly matter into the everyday realm an “accident in reality.” The term refers to the sense of inadvertently catching sight of someone/something that belongs in our nightmares or our unconscious but which has somehow made its way to the surface of daylight appearances. A ruin is set aside from the surrounding world in its ability to contort our rational grasp on space and time. It belongs to an undead realm: of the past, yet haunting the present; dead but in ceaseless motion; devoid of life and yet constitutive of life. The peculiarity of the ruin is that it forces materiality to adhere to the logic of unreality. It is a place that cannot be seen, except in a fleeting fashion. Less still, can it be grasped as a concept. With this breakdown in thought and sense, anxiety enters the scene of the ruin.

To put this anxiety in context, consider how Freud’s earlier encounter with the ruin was predicated on the idea of it being defined according to an egocentric account of space and time. As he puts it in a note from 1909:

[The] analytic work of construction, or, if it is preferred, of reconstruction [of the patient’s forgotten years], resembles to a great extent an archaeologist’s excavation of some dwelling place that has been destroyed and buried or of some ancient edifice … Just as the archaeologist builds up the walls of a building from the foundations that have remained standing, determines the number and position of the columns from depressions in the floor, and reconstructs the mural decorations and paintings from the remains found in the debris, so does the analyst proceed when he draws his inferences from fragments of memories, from the associations and from the behaviour of the subject of the analysis. Both of them have an undisputed right to reconstruct by means of supplementing and combining the surviving remains. Both of them, moreover, are subject to many of the same difficulties and sources of error.

This earlier approbation of the ruin places Freud in a curiously detached position to the ruin. The ruin beckons itself as a raw matter to be transformed under the gaze of the analyst’s watchful eye, thus coalescing the past into the present. This act of returning the past to the present — so central to the work of Freudian analysis generally — eliminates the anxious quality of the ruin by housing it in time. Thus, if Freud cites his method as restoring the past to the present, then it is as much an attempt at restoring the past to the past: in other words, of re-burying it. Only now, ensuring it remains buried.

It is precisely for these reasons that Freud’s disorientation at the Acropolis is so telling. With it, the past returns to the past in unbound fashion, decentering the static place of the analyst’s ego and revealing the fragile hold psychoanalysis has on the past. Anxiety ensues. But it is a special kind of anxiety. Freud’s admission that “What I am seeing there is not real” gestures toward a type of anxiety that mirrors the contingency of ascribing a definite role to the ruin. What he sees in the Acropolis is not so much unreal as marking another reality. The ruin ceases to reflect Freud’s own gaze, penetrating the veil of appearances with the gaze of a reality that cannot be assimilated by the ego. The ruin puts Freud out of joint, spatially and temporally. None of this can be considered a failure in the experience of attending to a ruin, but instead is to be regarded as an opening that carries with it the germ of insight.

All of this takes place — importantly — at the birthplace of Reason, Athens. This pilgrimage for Freud turns out to be an encounter with the beyond of Reason. The conditions are in place for an eruption of anxiety. Anxiety unmasks the featureless face of an appearance — that of an egocentric and rationalised concept of the past — and restores it to a state of dizzying contingency. The dizzying anxiety is not peculiar to Freud, but in one way or another haunts all instances of ruination. From Athens to Detroit, time cannot be contained except as a caricature of what it means to confront the past. How, after all, does the past belong to the ruin if not through the experience of anxiety?

Dylan Trigg is a postdoctoral researcher at UCD, Dublin. He is also a visiting researcher at Les Archives Husserl, École Normale Supérieure, Paris working on the intersection of phenomenology and psychoanalysis. He earned his PhD at the University of Sussex. Trigg is the author of three books: Body Parts (Paris: 3AM Press, 2012); The Memory of Place: a Phenomenology of the Uncanny (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012); and The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason (New York: Peter Lang, 2006). He is working on two more books, one on agoraphobia and another on the origins of life. The images of Shoreham Cement Works in this piece were captured by Dylan. For more of his photos, see his Tumblr.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 9th, 2012.