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Puncak in Ruins, Part 5: The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins

October 12, 2011

This post is the fifth of five in a series.

The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”

The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The third is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously”

The fourth is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia”

Since I started writing about the ruins we saw at Villa Kota Gardenia (VKG) up in Puncak, West Java, I’ve been attuned to the presence of and fascination with ruins all around us. Ruins, it turns out, are EVERYWHERE, and there is no shortage of literature to evaluate our preoccupations with them whether we find ruins utopian, dystopian, or somewhere in between. The ever-growing corpus of printed words devoted to ruins over the centuries is nothing short of an accumulated ruin of its own, every scholar pushing their analysis forward, leaving prior analyses behind them in the academic dustbin of history. I fear the whole subject—so comprehensively reviewed elsewhere and with more sophistication—began to feel rather mundane and pointless (kinda like my dissertation, frack dammit!).

I found a nice review of the social science literature on ruins by Shannon Lee Dawdy that narrows its focus and critique upon two of anthropology’s subfields:  archaeology and socio-cultural anthropology.* Dawdy relies generously upon my hero Walter Benjamin, and also name-checks the piece by Ann Stoler that I wrote about in my previous post. In a broad-stroke summary, Dawdy writes:

“The creation of ruins is a function of capitalism’s fast-moving frontiers and built-in obsolescence, as well as political hubris and social conflicts.” *

Yep, so that’s about it … j/k!!1

When I was searching for online documentation about VKG, my jaw dropped when I found this proposal to build a small waterslide park (called a “water boom” in Bahasa Indonesia) next to the swimming pool, right where the annotated map in my previous post shows a small pond near VKG’s main entrance:

"before"

"before"

"after"

"after"

The cognitive dissonance between this proposal and the kind of engineering that resulted in so much devastation at VKG (the drainage channel turned out to be a kind of “water boom” did it not?) utterly mocks the hubris of slapdash Indonesian contractors. The last thing I expect anyone who is left at VKG would want to do is simulate the sensation of riding down the slopes of Gunung Gede upon an avalanche of water! What’s worse, the fiberglass contractor markets their Kabayan Waterboom at VKG as if it already exists on site. Even the reputable Tempo magazine name-drops Kabayan Waterboom in a list of other waterpark developers that joined together to construct a new water boom in Sulawesi, without even checking to see whether Kabayan Waterboom actually exists.

As I wrote in the previous post, a moment of rupture—such as the flash floods that took out VKG’s main road up in Puncak—is an easy starting point for a discussion of ruins. It’s a raw knockdown of the arrogant impulses that characterize development practice up in Puncak. Moments of construction and destruction easily propel the development plot line forward, which in turn privileges certain kinds of progressive stories we tell ourselves about modernity, but it’s harder to look at the economic downturns and slow aftershocks that characterize the long social life of ruins. Periods of decay and vacancy frequently last much longer than the golden ages of construction and production that preceded them. Back to Dawdy:

“Studying why and how ruins are not only made but also erased, commemorated, lived in, commodified, and recycled can tell us at least as much about society as the processes that created the original edifices.” *

If there is one thing we’ve learned about Indonesian society from the VKG story, we’ve confirmed that it’s possible to win contracts based on the as if merits of sham achievements that were built on sites of shameful catastrophes, as if there were never any floods that prevented the construction of a marvelous water boom. Ruins beget more ruins so easily!

Apart from my quick overnight trip to VKG when Dezant and I took the pictures that figure in these blog posts, I’ve relied upon the following mass media texts to thematically explore the ruins we found there. Not surprisingly, they all highlight moments of creative or destructive rupture:

  1. Lost’s Dharma Initiative commences its ruination and decline around “The Incident,” one of the most climactic moments of the entire series, when an atomic bomb detonates near a powerful source of electromagnetic energy.
  2. The Year of Living Dangerously has a plot that culminates in the destructive military coup on September 30 1965 that effectively ended Soekarno’s rule and ushered in Soeharto’s New Order regime. The scene set among the ruins of an old Dutch villa up in Puncak echoes the destruction of an earlier regime, highlighting what is at stake for the story’s ex-patriate characters living in Jakarta while simultaneously effacing what is at stake for the Indonesians who live and work there in between historical ruptures (which is to say, most of the time).
  3. The mudslides that bring about VKG’s ruin are recounted through newspaper reports archived online, from both Pikiran Rakyat and Pelita.
  4. Kabayan Waterboom is brought to you by an Indonesian fiberglass contractor that advertises a design for their imaginary construction at VKG via several promotional blog sites online. Kabayan Waterboom inadvertently receives further legitimation from Tempo magazine in their story about Indonesia’s latest water boom being built in faraway Sulawesi.
Better Homes & Gardens:  Villa Kota Gardenia

Better Homes & Gardens: Villa Kota Gardenia

But if I could seriously take up Dawdy’s (and Stoler’s) suggestions, I would spend more time up in Puncak, i.e. conduct actual fieldwork and not simply rely upon mass media documents that stick to rupture-oriented moments in relation to their ruins. It takes more time than a weekend and some googling online to make sense out of how people live with decay and vacancy in their midst. Dawdy suggests that a different kind of plot line may emerge in which the creative and regenerative forces of social life take center stage instead of the overdetermined but reckless designs of development practitioners and the capital they mobilize for both production and destruction. Everyday life among ruins yields not only dystopian resentment (see previous post), but maybe also some utopian—or at least some make-do—improvisation. If there was anything that gave me an inspirational pause among so much wreckage at VKG, it was the small garden that someone had planted on the banks of the ravine forged by the mudslide that destroyed VKG’s main boulevard. Then again, I’m a sucker for pastoral nostalgia. The point is, we’re left with images slightly more nuanced than total destruction and disillusion. A tiny terraced garden among the VKG wreckage brings Puncak’s primarily agricultural past into our present scene of destruction, and vice versa. Ruins fold our temporal perceptions upon each other in unexpected ways. For at least a moment, modernity’s temporal logic—that endless linear series of ruptures that progressively usher in ever new creations—enjoys a temporary reprieve. Another perspective. Living with the ruins amongst us.

* Dawdy, S.L., 2010, “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity” Current Anthropology, 51(6), pp. 761-78.

The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins

The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins

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