Absence and Essence

Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)

He isn’t mentioned in this book, but he haunts it like a semiotic spectre at a phantasmic feast. Yes, this is a very Ballardian book and I’m sure J.G. Ballard would have liked it. And perhaps been inspired by it to write one of his haunting stories about abandoned buildings or aircraft, about human artefacts slowly succumbing to nature and the elements and the ineluctable forces of entropy.

But Ballard’s omission isn’t surprising. There’s little room to mention anyone or anything here: apart from a brief foreword by the compiler Mathew (sic) Growcoot, there’s nothing but section headings, photographs and brief captions. I like the absence of words and the abundance of images. Abandoned buildings and artefacts are fertile not only for Ballardianism but also for bullshit. You can imagine what po-mo-ticians would make of the anomic alienation and transliminal alterities on display here.

As it is, the photographs are allowed to speak for themselves: silently, subtly, seductively. There’s everything from fairgrounds and theatres to jails and asylums, from rusting aircraft to sunken ships. The photographs are all variants on the single theme of abandonment, of what happens when bustle and busy-ness turn into quietness and contemplation. And the buildings and other artefacts do seem to be contemplating themselves or their own decay, like a Buddhist monk sinking slowly into deeper and deeper into meditation until he begins to merge into what surrounds him, becoming one with the world. But the power in the photos comes partly from what isn’t there: the human beings who created what nature is now reclaiming. That’s why the graffiti you can see in a few photos spoils the beauty of the abandonment. It’s ugly and intrusive, laying claim to structures that should now belong only to themselves and entropy.

They’re abandoned: human beings should be absent. The ab- of “abandoned” and the ab- of “absence” aren’t actually the same, but it’s appropriate that they seem to be. The ab- of “absence” is from the Latin preposition ab, meaning “from, away”. When a building or machine is abandoned, people have gone away. Something is subtracted and something else takes its place: an eeriness, a melancholy, a murmur of memento mori – “remember that you die”, that all things must pass. That eeriness comes in different flavours with different kinds of abandonment. The section headings run like this: “Abandoned Homes, Abandoned Recreation, Abandoned Rooms, Abandoned Journeys, Abandoned Society, Abandoned Industry”.

The photos of abandoned fairgrounds, theatres and stadiums – “Abandoned Recreation” – are in some ways the most powerful, because the absence is most present there. Crowds of people once filled these places with noise and activity – they laughed, cheered, applauded, had fun. Now paint is peeling off the colourful walls of a “Gym in a derelict school, Arctic circle.” Frost-whitened trees surround a stationary “Ferris Wheel, Chernobyl, Ukraine”. Shadows and slanting sunbeams fill an “Abandoned theatre near Berlin, Germany”.

No-one’s there: the crowds have gone. These places are abandoned to absence. But if the photos in “Abandoned Recreation” are in some ways the most powerful, they’re also in some ways the least powerful. Fairgrounds, gyms and theatres were regularly abandoned even when they were in use: the crowds would come and go, like tides filling a bay. It’s just that one day the crowds went and never came back. The private homes of other sections never had the same noise and activity, but they didn’t fill and empty like fairgrounds and theatres. People were always or almost always there, so their absence now is a stranger and sharper thing. Men, women and children did intimate, ordinary things there, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century. And now the thread is broken: the people are gone. No-one will ever sit in the sagging armchair or play the collapsed piano of a “Living area in industrial site, Austria”. No child will push the wheeled little horse in the “Nursery, Château de Moulbaix, Belgium” or look at the pictures on the walls.

But the sadness isn’t very strong in the nursery, because a nursery isn’t a permanent place. It’s akin to a theatre: abandonment is always natural there, because children grow up and leave. No, the sadness is strongest in places that were built to be in permanent use, like houses. Except that nothing is permanent. A nursery is used for a few years; a house might be used for decades or centuries. But in the end it will pass away, perhaps quickly, if it’s demolished, or slowly, if it’s abandoned. Demolition has its delights too, but abandonment is subtler and slyer. Its power follows a curve, first rising, then falling. The most powerful photos here have the least change in them, because they have been taken when the abandonment is most recent. Dust and shadows have taken over, but everything is still more-or-less intact.

When the abandonment is older and ceilings and floors have collapsed, as in the “Collapsed villa, Italy” and the “Collapsed palace, Italy”, there’s less power in the photographs. Or a different kind of power. Humans have been gone much longer and their absence is less poignant, less powerful. Their ghosts are fainter. And sometimes there are no ghosts, because something else has taken the place of humans. In the “Old overgrown glasshouse, Belgium” and the “Shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand”, it’s vegetation, green and growing. In the the “House full of sand, Kolmanskop, Namibia”, it’s sand, slanted and scalloped. Or perhaps you could say that here the ghosts themselves have become ghosts.

“Ghostly” is certainly the word for the photographs in this book. The ghostliness comes in different forms and flavours, as the photographs capture both what’s there and what isn’t. Or rather: they capture what’s there and your mind conjures what isn’t. Absence is essence. Abandoned is a Ballardian book of phantasmic photography and I think Ballard would have enjoyed it a lot.

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #55

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Arms and the ManagerPassage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

Tods and ToadsThe Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne 1989)

La Guerre et la GauleLe Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny et Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

The Hurt Shocker – an exclusive extract from Titans of Transgression, ed. Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and Dr Samuel P. Salatta (TransVisceral Books, forthcoming)

Schlock XpressThe Bad Movie Bible: The Ultimate Modern Guide to Movies That Are So Bad They’re Good, Rob Hill (Art of Publishing 2017)

Brott und der TodThe Maximum Security Yoga Club, Mikita Brottman (TransVisceral Books 2017)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #54

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Protean ProseThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

SchmetterlingsschmuckButterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

Criblia – ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Micro MacroSuper Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Chute: The LotThe Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

Twice Has Thrice the VicePisces, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2017)


• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

He Say, He Sigh, He Show #33

Apud me omnia fiunt Mathematicè in NaturaRené Descartes (1596-1650).
  • For me, all things in nature occur mathematically. — Correspondence with Martin Mersenne (1640).

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #30

• Cognitio nostra est adeo debilis quod nullus philosophus potuit unquam perfecte investigare naturam unius muscae: unde legitur quod unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis. — Sancti Thomae de Aquino Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum (1273).

• Our knowledge is so weak that no philosopher has ever perfectly discovered the nature of a single fly, whence we read that one philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee. Thomas Aquinas, The Apostles’ Creed.

Breeding Bunnies

Front cover of The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio
The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the Extraordinary Number of Nature, Art and Beauty, Mario Livio (Headline Review 2003)

A good short popular guide to perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most irrational, of all numbers: the golden ratio or phi (φ), which is approximately equal to 1·6180339887498948482… Prominent in mathematics since at least the ancient Greeks and Euclid, phi is found in many places in nature too, from pineapples and sunflowers to the flight of hawks. Livio catalogues its appearances in both maths and nature, looking closely at the Fibonacci sequence and rabbit-breeding, before going on to debunk mistaken claims that phi also appears a lot in art, music and poetry. Dalí certainly used it, but da Vinci, Debussy and Virgil almost certainly didn’t. Nor, almost certainly, did the builders of the Parthenon and pyramids. Finally, he examines what has famously been called (by the physicist Eugene Wiegner) the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics: why is this human invention so good at describing the behaviour of the Universe? Livio quotes one of the best short answers I’ve seen:

Human logic was forced on us by the physical world and is therefore consistent with it. Mathematics derives from logic. That is why mathematics is consistent with the physical world. (ch. 9, “Is God a mathematician?”, pg. 252)

It’s not hard to recommend a book that quotes everyone from Johannes Kepler and William Blake to Lewis Carroll, Christopher Marlowe and Jef Raskin, “the creator of the Macintosh computer”, whose answer is given above. Recreational mathematicians should also find lots of ideas for further investigation, from fractal strings to the fascinating number patterns governed by Benford’s law. It isn’t just human beings who look after number one: as a leading figure, 1 turns up much more often in data from the real world, and in mathematical constructs like the Fibonacci sequence, than intuition would lead you to expect. If you’d like to learn more about that and about many other aspects of mathematics, hunt down a copy of this book.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Roses Are Golden – φ and floral homicide

Double Bubble

The most mysterious thing in the universe is also the most intimate: consciousness. It’s an inti-mystery, something we experience constantly at first hand and yet cannot describe or explain. We are each a double bubble: a bubble of flesh and a bubble of conscious experience. The second bubble bursts regularly, when we sleep. Sooner or later, the first bubble will burst too, when we die. And that will be it for the second bubble, the bubble of consciousness. Or will it? Can consciousness survive death? Can it exist without a material substrate? Or without a particular kind of material substrate: the soggy, sparky substance of the brain? Can the clean, dry metal of a computer be conscious? Who knows? The double bubble attracts lots of double-u’s: what, where, why, when, (w)how. What is consciousness? What is its relation to matter? Is it king or courtier? Where does it exist? Why does it exist? When? And how?

Continue reading Double Bubble