The Psychoanalysis of Ruins


Dylan Trigg in 3:AM Magazine:

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?