Ruins Cristián Gómez Moya

The ruin—that evocative concept—has, in the modern Eurocentric tradition, been discovered as the representative vestige of something lost, of a vanished work. Its image, however (accompanied by a certain nostalgia for the past), has been reappearing as a defeated corpse, reminiscent of an era dominated by ideological rather than architectural traces. The desire to look into the past focuses its gaze on that which is genuine, original, and supposedly free from political pressure; however, it is, at the same time, framed in a monumental plan in which a backward look operates as an enigmatic paradox, as nostalgia for the absence of the incomplete time of the Modern. As the German theorist Andreas Huyssen said, “the imagined present of a past that today can only be captured in its decomposition. That is why the ruin is an object of nostalgia.”1 However, this same look into the past would be validated by calling the new which is to come (from the fossilized past) authentic.

Insofar as we accept Walter Benjamin’s statement, it is through its historical dimension that the ruin belongs to the domain of things; that is, we could follow the remnants of its architecture (for example) and discover there the history of its past—its Urhistory, Benjamin would say—enabling us to refer to industrial objects as “the trace of living history that can be read from the surfaces of surviving objects”2—although a history charged with ideology. Therefore this ruin—which originates in the transience of a political conjuncture that goes from the corpse (skull) of history to the recovery of the remains (remodeling, regeneration, preservation, and renewal) as an innovative embodiment of the visualization of history—indicates that its condition is determined by a future which, in the Benjaminian sense, goes from nature in a petrified state to nature in a permanent state of transition. The ruin therefore—located in the interval between the corpse (skull) and the innovation—acts as a connecting and transformative remnant. The historic corpse (skull) creates a catastrophic image of a context marked by an ideological system, which, in its utopian operation, unbalances the powers which help to hegemonize the catastrophic mark of history. We should remember that hegemony in a Gramscian sense does not dominate individual lives; that is to say, hegemony as such expresses itself as a relationship of forces in which “a certain particularity takes on the representation of a totally immeasurable universality.”3 Political hegemony thus transforms itself into a field which has to be occupied.

Thus the seal of the ideological catastrophe is created by an image—that of a corpse concealed in the record of hegemonic history. This corpse, shot through by the violence of the historic event, lives on as a mythical image of this destroyed utopia. That is why it is the history of the record, and not the record of history, that permits the revelation of the declining existence of a utopian project which travels along the flight path of the arrow of history, transforming itself into a prospect of desire; a prospect which expands and takes refuge in a monumental image of the innovation yet to come.

Ruins 1

It is therefore necessary to create a ruin in order to inscribe a visual memory of history. A corpse went down in history as the organic defeat of Marxism in an ailing state (“the cancer of Marxism,” as it was called by military politicians at the time of the dictatorships in the Southern Cone of Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s). In the postrevolutionary countries of Latin America the authoritarian military regimes removed the sickness of Marxism (the ruins) from social conditions by means of an industrial project—the modernization and development of the criollo oligarchy. The democratic transformations which followed (under the oversight of the authoritarian military regime) were not considered to be legal or illegal; it was sufficient to give them the appearance of a temporary history between the corpse and the innovation.

In 1973 the picture of a shot-through body led to the disintegration of the socialist model founded in the monumental context of one of the states of the Southern Cone of Latin America; this body denied its ideological condition through the rough black-and-white image of the presidential corpse (riddled with bullets from his own revolutionary AK-47 rifle).

In the Benjaminian scheme, natural history involves a double dimension: a petrified nature and a transitional nature. Transitoriness comes from the allegorical notion of the montage which, referring to the Baroque allegory of the 17th century, uses a human skull as an emblem to represent nature in decay, “the skeletal residue with its empty state that was once an animated, human face.”4 The skull as an allegory of human vanity and the futility of earthly power; the corpse, on the other hand, as an inert organicity defeated by capital, and clearly as an image for the consumption of catastrophe.

The ruin, following the dialectical image5, alludes to an emblem of nature in decay and corresponds to the transitory futility and fragility of capitalist culture, but also to its destructiveness. The transitoriness with which the monuments of power have disintegrated speaks to us about the political practice of the ruins of immortality. These politics of the ruin create the difference between Baroque allegory and the historical social criticism implicit in the project which the German-Jewish philosopher eventually worked out.

The shallowness of the historical experience of merchandise, the new as always-new-again6, thus acts as the politics of the ruin: that is, remains in the condition of corpses are reified by means of the expanded dimension of the state/museum. The politics of the ruin would thus undertake the labor of “corpsification,” of ossification7 or of ruinification8; a task appropriate for the modern state/museum and all the offshoots of its institutionalist emancipation of everything culturally ecumenical.

Ruins 2

The dialectical coordinate of presence and absence (of the representative remains of absence) reveals a new order, or one which is at least about to be reborn from the ruin of the corpse/broken-lens: its mechanism operates as an ideological vestige as well as a desire for reborn merchandise. Innovation, fixed in the always-new-again, is created in a time of historical discontinuity. It is this innovation, everlastingly crisscrossed by intermittencies, interruptions, and delays, which produces and transforms the space and time of the transition to the historical ruin.

The renaissance of a ruined desire, that stone which, according to Benjaminian logic, always remains to be removed—as in the case of that Latin American Southern Cone state—is created in a monumental innovation in the course of emancipating itself from decolonialization politics and at the beginning of the free market of the image: the new republican order supported in the transitional nature of the new emblem of economic coldness—the iceberg—which exploits the mythical nature of the new state/museum, an ephemeral innovation, which moves lightly, despite its great volume, through the trade-fair/museum of global universalism inaugurated at the beginning of the 1990s (the Universal Exhibition of Seville 1992). This iceberg, as the primary innovation of the state/museum beginning its democratic transition, promoted the cultural policy of heritage and monumentalization in order to transform it into new capital gains with an international trade fair which celebrates the state/museum in its global dimension—in other words the genealogy of a catastrophe: corpse, ruin, innovation.

Therefore the body, as the mythologizing anatomy of a nation expecting and recovering from catastrophe9, is reborn as a ruin moving toward innovation. The state/museum thus reaches its expanded field10 outside of institutional margins. The ruin could then flaunt its category of a symbolic emblem continuously redesigned by the conservative new criollo oligarchy. So, after great deeds comes glory. In other words “the ahistoric history of a natural monument”11 such as the iceberg, was able to leave out of destructive time the causes of a historical past linked to the catastrophe of the socialist project (including the Latin American revolutionary utopia of the 1960s) as well as the traumatic dictatorial past of the 1970s and 1980s.

A fiery corpse versus a cold iceberg, two transitional stages. From a pseudo-Marxist state to a social neoliberal market state which does away with its historical nature (the corpse) to rule as a renewed state/museum of a mythical nature (innovation).



The corpse of the socialist Salvador Allende (President of Chile, 1970–1973) after the coup which took place in Chile in 1973; and Iceberg in the Chilean Pavilion of the Universal Exposition of Seville in 1992 (ExpoSevilla 1992) following the transition to democracy which began in 1990.


Salvador Allende’s dioptric spectacles found in the Palacio de la Moneda after the coup in 1973 (Museo Histórico Nacional Collection, Chile); and a gigantic reproduction of Allende’s spectacles, the “No tiene nombre” sculpture by Carlos Altamirano (“Cien años mil sueños” ceremony commemorating 100 years since Allende’s birth [1908–2008], Palacio de la Moneda, Santiago de Chile, 2007)


1 / Andreas Huyssen, “La nostalgia de las ruinas” Punto de Vista, Documenta Magazines Online Journal (April 21, 2007),

2 / Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, The MIT Press, Cambridge 1991, p. 56.

3 / Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, “Prefacio a la Segunda edición de Hegemonía y Estrategia Socialista,” Hegemonía y Antagonismo: el imposible fin de lo político (Conferencias de Ernesto Laclau en Chile, 1997), ed. Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, Editorial Cuarto Propio, Santiago de Chile 2002, p. 51.

4 / Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, p. 161.

5 / Ibid.

6 / Walter Benjamin, La dialéctica en suspenso. Fragmentos sobre la historia, trans. Pablo Oyarzún, Universidad ARCIS/LOM ediciones, Santiago de Chile 1996.

7 / Andreas Huyssen, En busca del futuro perdido. Cultura y memoria en tiempos de globalización, FCE-Goethe Institut, Mexico City 2002.

8 / Jean-Louis Déotte, Catástrofe y olvido. Las ruinas, Europa, el museo, Editorial Cuarto Propio, Santiago de Chile 1998.

9 / Tomás Moulian, Chile Actual. Anatomía de un mito, Universidad ARCIS/LOM ediciones, Santiago de Chile 1997.

10 / Willy Thayer, “El museo como campo extendido,” Revista de la Academia no. 10 (Spring 2005), p. 287–305.

11 / Nelly Richard, Residuos y metáforas: Ensayos de crítica cultural sobre el Chile de la Transición, Editorial Cuarto propio, Santiago de Chile 1998, p. 175.