On Abandoning What is Public, Part I


Ruin lust has become a fetish and a buzzword in some circles in recent years, producing a trickle of books, and the attraction seems to be a love of decay, or a love of ruins as a kind of ἀποκάλυψις, or un-veiling of the fate of our loved, ordinary haunts. Many of us are haunted and captivated by ruins; some are filled with dread at the sight of them. I am among the former, though I don’t wish ruin on any familiar place.

I have seen the look on a friend’s face as he stared at the abandoned shell of the hospital he was born in, and after, as we wandered its dead halls. The home in which I grew up will be sold to a business soon; a large tree that I have known my whole life, which sheltered my childhood play and the zipline of my childhood dog, will likely be destroyed with the transition. The glade where I learned how to pray has become a dump. The field in which I first made love under the stars has been bulldozed. I have already seen other places of my childhood –my grade school, middle school, high school, boy scout camp, forests where I once would play with friends, hills we would sled on, &c.— wiped away either by accident, for development, or for convenience. When these places die or are abandoned, something of the joy and vivacity of our memories, something about their anchor, so often dies with them.

“Ah, but nothing lasts forever”, so goes the true-ist retort. –and it is true. We should expect this, to some degree. (In the early fifth century did not Augustine of Hippo, in book 19 of the City of God, warn that all things long for peace, even if the peace of dissolution into the elements?) A healthy form of this expectation is good. The true-ist retort, however, dodges the question as to whether we should be resigned to the ruination of every imperiled and decaying place, especially those places that real estate agents don’t deal in.

Buildings and topography are not the only kind of place, and these other kinds can become ruins, too. (I write this with some embarrassment, as it seems so obvious.) There is the architecture of our shared public life; there is the shape of our relationships with one another; there are the clusters of habits we collectively engage in and by which we can recognize the significance of so much of what passes between us. We should not resign ourselves to the ruination of these places, and we must know how to repair and maintain them. What are the ingredients of these places, what is the building material of our public life? 


It is good for individuals and societies always to be seeking better conventions and rituals. There are, however, some to whom these are stifling obstacles to freedom. Yet the mere loss of convention and ritual does not liberate, but ruins, and makes ruin of our shared life, subjecting it, externally, to the lowest common denominator: power.

This is clear in architecture, when, with the loss of conventions surrounding a local style, either the power of local laws or the power of major corporations (usually the latter) can shove whatever building they wish into any area; one cannot reasonably expect much sensitivity to the surrounding context or local weather conditions, &c (e.g., flat roofs in Boston, causing perpetual building damage because of the amount of snow).

This principle is also clear in social relations. The power that obtains with the abolition of social conventions and rituals is not necessarily subject to any good shape by these habits. One can hope for good temperaments and upbringing and good ritual hygiene from individuals, local tradition, and voluntary affiliations, but these are no longer public culture (they are often private and voluntary affiliations, like churches), and occur in the ruins, and in the midst of power.

Theodor Adorno 1

The heart-breaking, love-stealing, head-turning Theodor Adorno: soon strutting down a catwalk near you.

In his book, Minima Moralia (section 1.16), Theodor Adorno notes how Goethe thought that tact, as the suspension of roles and the expression of restraint-as-care,  might allow for life together within industrial society. Tact, he thought, would allow our mechanical relations to be humanized. Formerly, other people could be known as this-or-that person by the customs and duties appropriate to them, given their social status, by conventions normed within a society. Any particular individual might not fit his or her role, however. Thus, any two individuals might find the customs and conventions by which they are related stifling, and so find the suspension of these conventions liberating; by Goethe’s lifetime, these rituals and conventions came to be thought of not only as a peripheral obstacle to authentic human relations, but as a central obstacle. The idea seems to have been that if individuals simply eliminated conventions, they could communicate themselves directly, immediately, even if not completely; yet they eventually discovered that without convention, they couldn’t suspend it so as to recognize the uniqueness of the other person, and, also, that without it, they didn’t even have a shared language in which to communicate their concern and attention. One cannot dwell in the suspension of conventions that are abolished. Also, one cannot so easily register the particulars of the duties one owes to a particular person when one has abolished the backdrop of the duties specific to universal roles by which inter-personal relations are coordinated, and in the light of which the particular shows up as a particular at all.

Adorno illustrates this through a discussion of tact as a breach of social-role ceremonies: recognizing that another person is at variance with their social role in some fashion, the tactful individual suspends the ordinary ceremonies appropriate to the other person’s social status in order to deal with the other as they are apart from their status and apart from the rituals appropriate for them:

[36] The demise of the ceremonial moment seems at first sight to benefit tact. Emancipated from all that was heteronomous and harmfully external, tactful behaviour would seem one guided solely by the specific nature of each human situation. […] [Tact] demanded the reconciliation –actually impossible– between the unauthorized claims of convention and the unruly ones of the individual. […] [37] Tact is the discrimination of differences. It consists in conscious deviations. Yet when, emancipated, it confronts the individual as an absolute, without anything universal from which to be differentiated, it fails to engage the individual and finally wrongs him. The question as to someone’s health, no longer required and expected by upbringing, becomes inquisitive or injurious, silence on sensitive subjects empty indifference, as soon as there is no rule to indicate what is and what is not to be discussed. [Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (New York: Verso, 2005), 36-37].

Without the backlight of these conventions and rituals (which are arguably somewhat tyrannical), the individual cannot even appear as idiosyncratic to the role he or she is socially expected to fill, and so the individual cannot be addressed as an individual different from such-and-such. All that is left is “naked external power” which then triumphs “even in the most intimate constellations.” [Adorno, Minima Moralia, 37] Thus, Adorno argues, our emancipation from conventions does not offer the liberation that comes when they are merely suspended.

We do not need to agree entirely with Adorno to see the danger of the loss of public ritual habits that allow people to cohabit a space, and engage in building a shared life together. So much can become ruined. Our conventions can become ruins, our conversations can become ruins; our common discourse can become ruins, we can fail in our cultural projects, and we can fail to be a single people. Without these shared rituals and conventions, there is nothing holding us together except for “naked external power”, and our conversation –if what remains can be called a conversation– shall become all about power; we shall become Sophists.

One thought on “On Abandoning What is Public, Part I

  1. Pingback: Poetry, Power, and the Arrest of Thought (Part One) | Into the Clarities

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