It would be hard to write about ruins today without acknowledging Wal-
ter Benjamin’s imprint on the politicized readings we bring to them. When
this volume was still in early formation in 2005, his writings on ruins had
long made them a productive and privileged site of critical historical inquiry.
Benjamin and Susan Buck- Morss’s enabling reading of his Arcades project in
The Dialectics of Seeing, fifteen years earlier, had helped turn many of us away
from the nostalgic European gaze upon ruins, to treat them as symptom
and substance of history’s destructive force, to take the measure of the “fra-
gility” of capitalist culture from the decaying structures left scattered across
our urban and rural geographies, to attend to the force of these fragments
and the traces of violence left in its wake. He would seem to be an obvious
reference for what follows, and in sundry ways contributions to this volume
build on his reflections.
But, strangely perhaps, because of the nature of the conversations that
elicited this project (and the convergence of persons and concerns it joined),
it was not Benjamin’s treatment of ruins that served as this volume’s inspi-
ration. It is around processes of “ruination” as much as imperial ruins that
this volume turns. Ruination was neither Benjamin’s focus nor the process
he sought to explicitly name. Our centering on ruination shifts the emphasis
from the optics of ruins to the ongoing nature of imperial process. The latter
joins psychological disablements to the imperial genealogies of dislocation
and dispossession.
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