Dylan Trigg (1978- ), is a research student and tutor in philosophy at the University of Sussex. He has published on the phenomenology of place, continental philosophy, and aesthetics. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason. His blog is Side Effects.
Mark Thwaite: What was the inspiration for The Aesthetics of Decay?
Dylan Trigg: The principal inspiration was a desire to consolidate several themes which I was (and continue to be) preoccupied with: namely, the relationship between place and memory, rationality and history, decay and time, and above all, the effect spatial displacement has on personal identity. The writing of the book was not something I had planned in advance, less even with any academic end in mind. Instead, it grew from these related preoccupations, gradually adopting a narratological structure, and somewhat saturated by an interest in Symbolist literature, which I was then very much taken with.
Two other factors shaped these themes: an interest in Heidegger’s idea of “the Nothing” and a discovery of the music of the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. In Heidegger, I was unconvinced with the notion of nothingness as an existential mode of anxiety. Heidegger’s emphasis on the “hovering” of anxiety seemed to underplay the spatial and temporal dimension of nothingness. This omission in Heidegger was the impetus for the origin of the book.
Meanwhile, the compositions of Kancheli crystallised a set of vague intuitions I held about the temporality of nothingness. One of these intuitions was that any reference to the Nothing ought to involve a mutation between presence and absence, and past and present. Kancheli’s music, especially his earlier symphonies, clarified this intuition through giving a form to a silence which is peculiar to his music, and also resonant to the discussion of the Nothing.
Eventually, the discovery of Kancheli and the discussion of the Heidegger drew me, in one way or another, to consider the significance of urban ruins and the post-industrial landscape more broadly. What I discovered exploring these landscapes was a spatial counterpart of Kancheli’s compositions, a strange half-life horizon in which the past and present fused. The result of this was the possibility of resituating Heidegger’s the Nothing.
MT: Can you quickly sketch out the argument of your book?
DT: The book begins with a critique of Heidegger’s metaphysics. From there on, the task is to spatialize the Nothing. This leads to a phenomenological account of the experience of gradients of silence, out of which the issue of memory becomes central. Following Bergson, I establish an account of the remembering consciousness as dualistic. I dissent from Bergson, however, in claiming that duration invokes a radical split within consciousness, which compels a desire for a fixed centre. The desire for a centre is symbolic of the logic of nostalgia. Since I characterise nostalgia as an impasse, I then turn to postmodernism, with the aim of overcoming this emphasis on centrality. What follows is a critique of postmodernity, on the grounds that it succumbs to a duplicitous relationship to the past. The final chapter of the first part brings together decline and progress as compatible, and thus sets up a polemic against the notion of progress as rational and ascendery.
The aim of the second part of the book is to situate my model of post-rational decline in spatial terms. My method for doing this is to provide a phenomenological account of modern ruins. So, through a history of decay, I then go on to consider the particularity spatiality of the modern ruin within the context of global capitalism. At this point, I identify the Nothing with the temporal features of the urban ruin. In the following chapter, the temporality of the modern ruin is contrasted with ancient ruins, resulting in an emphasis on the disruptive properties of the urban ruin. The following two chapters deal with various phenomenological and aesthetic aspects of ruins and decay: via a discussion of Bachelard on dwelling and Freud on the death-drive, stairways, alleyways, and rust become prominent features. Toward the end of the book, the topic of centrality reappears in a spatial guise. By aligning my argument for memory-as-decentering with the structure of rational history, I claim that the ruin articulates a centre existing beyond history. The outcome of this altered-centre is a critical history of memory and place, which I outline in the final chapter.
MT: You say that confronting the fallout of reason would enable us to consider decline as progressive. Has reason really stalled? I take you to mean by this that postmodern thinking has achieved a kind of ascendancy/residency in the Academy? Or are you thinking more about the rise (the resurrection, perhaps), of religious thought?
DT: When I talk about the nostalgia of reason, what I have in mind is not methodological reason, or philosophy as critical reasoning, which distinguishes between sound and valid arguments, but rather the idea of reason as a broad inclination to assimilate particularity into a scheme already established in the past. I am concerned with rationality as a backward-turning movement. Coexistent with this backward-turning motion, it seems, is a claim to universality and permanence. We also see this in a future-orientated, though not strictly linear, direction, at least insofar as Benjamin’s idea of “Jetztzeit” (the Now) attests to the convergence of time rather than its dispersion.
There are two implications to this temporal absolutism. The first is the danger of difference being falsely assimilated into the category of the same. The danger concerns as much our knowledge of the past as it does experience in the present. The second implication is that progress is measured in terms of a return to a static instant, a singular point. In this sense, reason risks becoming stalled: through losing its receptivity to fragmentation and contingency, the continuation of reason emerges as an act of preservation. I want to challenge this by considering what mutability and decline can tell us about temporal movement, progress, and memory, all of which are central to the formation of rationality.
Postmodernity, for me, is emblematic of a conceptual impasse, in which the attempt to decentralise the presence of rationality engineers a complicity with reason’s continuity. In principal, I think there is much of worth in Lyotard’s and Baudrillard’s anti-foundationalism. The solution to this critique, however, suffers from a reliance on what is absent for postmodernism to assert its identity in the present. The result is a mode of mourning, only counterbalanced by an inclination toward a sterile mode of irony. Of course, this relation between mourning and irony is well established, and the canonisation of postmodernism in the humanities is perhaps proof of its diminishment.
So, the question I am asking is: Are we able to think beyond the notion of rationality as an already-formed-scheme without committing ourselves to the destruction of subjectivity? One way in which this question can be approached is to consider phenomenologically how the absence of reason correlates with the notion of progress. Progress occurs on a historical and social level, but it also occurs through the relation between memory, time, and place. There is, I would claim, a correspondence between how we experience things as discrete subjects and how that experience provides a legitimacy for an understanding of historic progress. By turning to the phenomenology of liminal situations, such as those discovered in ruins and non-places, we are also turning toward a much broader horizon, where temporal discontinuity becomes the mark of progress.
MT: How long did The Aesthetics of Decay take you to write Dylan?
DT: I began writing about the relationship between place and memory in September 2002, though I was already thinking about it a year before. At that point, I was still an undergraduate at the University of London, though gradually becoming increasingly disillusioned by the University of London’s narrow-minded approach to continental philosophy. As a result, I spent the next two years pursuing the work in my own time, alongside my academic studies. This pattern continued when I came to the University of Sussex. The writing of the book was an obsession, so I managed to complete it in a comparatively brief time. It came together around September 2005.
MT: Your book has been out there for a little while now, what have you learned most from the feedback?
DT: One of the interesting things about other people reading your own work is that much of what is taken- for-granted during the process of writing comes to the fore. This is a kind of phenomenological discovery of its own, in which writing finally gains the mark of becoming an externalised object. Recently, Fido the Yak posed a question in his blog as to what kind of text the book was. This was a fascinating question, to which I have no clear answer. The fact that I’m unable to answer the question testifies to a sense of detachment I feel toward the book as something I’ve written in a particular place over a number of years, and an object which is the result of that experience. So, to have this question turned back on me leads to a re-discovery of writing itself, and this, ultimately, is a rewarding process.
MT: You are also a blogger. Why do you blog!?
DT: Well, blogging is an excellent research tool. Since my handwriting is atrocious, posting ideas and sketches of ideas in a chronological order is a great resource. Of course, this could have been achieved well before blogging became endemic. There are always ways around bad handwriting. But being able to publicly share that research with such ease is peculiar to blogging. This can only be a good thing, especially where this is a network of academics working on serious and substantial material, such as The Cloisters, Passages, Fido the Yak, and several others.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing and blogging?
DT: Alongside teaching there isn’t a great deal of time to adopt a pastime. I have a passing interest in photography, occasionally think about composing music, and sometimes get around to it. Travel, and the experience of travelling between places, is important, too. But all these things tend not to stray too far from writing interests.
MT: What are you working on now?
DT: Finishing up my PhD, which continues my interest in place, memory, and history, but focuses more directly on how place can contribute to the testimony of trauma. In addition, I am working on a critique of the distinction between place and non-place, attempting to give a more morphological account of gradients of place. In the future, I am hoping to do some work on place and phobia. Beyond this, I have a vague desire to write about the German artist Max Klinger at some point.
MT: Which thinker(s) is most key to your work?
DT: Despite many critical reservations, I have a great fondness for the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard. What I love about Bachelard is his incisive account of the relationship between identity and place. There is great faith in the power of place which, although I find problematic, is very inspiring. Bachelard has also written a very persuasive critique of Bergson, which challenges the notion of duration as temporally continuous. (Leonard Lawlor’s book on Bergson, The Challenge of Bergsonism, is also important in this respect.)
Another wonderful phenomenologist is Edward Casey, a professor at Stony Brook. Casey is very prolific in the field of place and its sub-divisions: representation, time, aesthetics, memory, etc. Both his Getting Back into Place and The Fate of Place are magnificent achievements in terms of their clarity alone. There is a commitment and precision to Casey’s writing which is admirable. Much of Casey’s phenomenological forays into place are indebted to Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, both of whom are also central for me. Away from phenomenology, the vision of Virilio, the metaphysics of Schopenhauer, the aesthetics of Hegel, the epistemology of Max Stirner, and the critical history of Benjamin and Adorno are all of interest to me.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
DT: I could not isolate a favourite, but given my interest in place and memory, I gain a lot from Sebald. I don’t read nearly enough contemporary fiction as I should, but among works of fiction which are close to me, I would have to cite, M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, Huysmans’s La Bas, Goethe’s Faust, Alfred Kubin’s Other Side, Octave Mirbeau’s Torture Garden, and in particular, Georges Rodenbach’s supremely wonderful Bruges-la-Morte. In fact, above all, I would have to favour Bruges-la-Morte. Much of Sebald’s restrained writings are pre-empted in Rodenbach’s account of Bruges as uncanny, haunted, and morbidly inflected. Wonderful.
Recent academic book which have impressed me include, Robert Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory, Adam Sharr’s Heidegger’s Hut, and Karen Till’s The New Berlin. All excellent treatments of various aspects of space and place.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
DT: I thank you for these interesting questions Mark and wish you all the very best!