Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Can a building be anti-capitalist? Yes - so long as it does not obey its fundamental rules.

A building which has no value and which produces no surplus deviates from the logic of capitalism whereby all objects (including people) are judged according to their profitability. An empty building performs a dual (un)purpose: it fails to generate profit, and by standing on valuable ground it prevents another building from generating profit.

Hoorah, therefore, for derelict buildings!

The Anglo-Saxon form of capitalism is based on a deep-rooted utilitarianism. Everything must have a capacity for profit, a potential to produce surplus value. That which does not is dismissed as wasteful or useless. This is not quite the case in, for example, France and Germany, where radicalism and reflection are privileged. But Anglo-Saxon nations privilege practicality. They quickly judge when something is alive (profitable) and when it is dead (unprofitable, and therefore redundant).

The French writer Georges Bataille inverted this view. He believed that the bourgeois emphasis on utility denies basic human drives, and that a life dedicated to work is really no more than a living death. He called the emphasis on utility “profane”, and contrasted it with the “sacred”, a mode of life which is not subordinated to production, and which enables people to live in the here-and-now.

Bataille would therefore be a champion of buildings which have outlived their original purpose. Two such buildings are Battersea Power Station and the West Pier at Brighton (though this website explores whole villages whose moment has passed).

Battersea Power Station no longer generates electricity and is structurally unsound; the West Pier has collapsed into the sea. As far as capitalism is concerned, they are both useless and should be replaced by something more purposeful - and our utilitarian friends have been planning hotel complexes and theme parks on these sites for years. And yet, the power station has been not been operational for 25 years, and the pier lost contact with the land in 1975. These ghostly buildings ain't conceding to capital without a fight.

This seems particularly pertinent to the discussion on “hauntology,” which k-punk has led, and which is the subject of a symposium at the Museum of Garden History in a month or so. The term 'hauntology' was coined by Derrida in Spectres of Marx to describe the way in which traces of Marxism can exist in a society which, according to the neoliberals, has outlived Marx. Even though capitalism has overcome socialism, it can never be altogether free of its influence. The ghosts of Marxism, and in particular its messianic hope for a better world, continue to haunt our twenty-first century world.

Hauntology (homophonous to “ontology” in French) is generally seen as a theory of being where the present is haunted by the past. I’m not sure this is entirely true – the capitalist present is constantly preoccupied by the future, and some science fiction writing (especially comics) would fit the category of hauntology perfectly.

The spectrality of these buildings means that they are barely present - they do not occupy a comfortable place in the accepted order of things, and so they hardly exist. They are deviant. But by not subordinating to the demands of the past or the future, in negating both tradition and investment, they are absolutely present. The more skeletal they become (both are open to the elements), the more we see their ghosts. We are unable to grasp them, and yet they possess a rare vitality. Such buildings refuse capitalism's demands. They are the playgrounds of another world.


Blogger owen hatherley said...

Weird that no-one seems to have made the 'ruin as expenditure without return' point before...

When getting trains around central Europe lately I noticed two very un-English things: the quality of everyday design in suburbs and exurbs, and the sheer amount of ruined buildings left lying around. British capital seems especially, fastidiously keen on making sure everything is tidy and making money, rather oddly considering the aesthetic mess of British cities.

(favourite ruin in extremely capital-intensive place has to be the Millennium Mills in Silvertown, right next to all manner of Stunning Developments, City Airport and the Ex:cel centre - rotting loudly in the face of them)

1:18 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

The number of British and American people I met travelling in South America who would say, of Buenos Aires or La Paz, "this place'd be so much better if only they tidied it up a bit"...

Those Mills look fantastic - there is a whole section on the site on Silvertown - I shall put it on my to do list for a Sunday afternoon jaunt.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Murphy said...

A couple of things -
One, Battersea Power Station functions very well for capitalism, thank you, making its previous owner an eight figure sum by merely rotting away slowly. The complex proposed was NEVER serious, it was merely made to achieve planning permission for change of use, thus upping the land value ridiculously. In fact, the truly 'spectral' aspects of the Power Station project were the designs made by numerous architects that the client had no intention to build...
My point here being that 'ruins' are not 'outside' capitalism, or even situated in opposition to it. Rather, they perform as a typological supplement, making it easier for the rest of urban space to signify permanence.
Two - Hauntology is not merely the haunting of the present by the past, but also the influence of ghosts on the practice of thinking the future, otherwise we are only talking about nostalgia. I can't stress that difference enough.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Charles Holland said...

True dat. I'm not sure at all how the (admittedly seductive) appreciation of melancholic ruins resists or escapes capitalism. The cult of the ruin has a long and distinguished (if that is the right term) relationship to European culture, that is not exactly benign ( alone anti-capitalist. The idea of 'use' (i.e. a ruin is functionally useless. well yes-ish) used here seems to ignore the issue of fetishisation in order to create surplus value that forms your starting point.

2:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home