Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Into the Chaosmos

Alexei Monroe

Chaosmos – James Joyce’s evocative neologism for the combination or collision of chaos and cosmos, later adapted by Umberto Eco and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Eco saw the term as a midpoint or synthesis between the poles of chaos (symbolising disorder) and cosmos (symbolising order). I encountered the term recently when reading Eco’s invaluable work on Joyce. This was a small epiphany for me, having recently finished Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I am a half-Irish writer and artist in a double exile, both from London, and from the Irish landscape that haunts and sustains me.

An Irish concept that has always resonated with me is that of the Caol Áit (thin place). These are sites at which there said to be only a thin veil between this and other realities. They are often understood as portals through which enchanted folkloric realms, or the afterlife can be accessed, and are especially associated with Western Ireland, including the areas I am most strongly connected to. Yet they are not exclusive to Ireland and can also be understood metaphorically as any location in which it is possible to access another reality or to temporarily step out of the normal in a transformative experience (however loosely defined).

It is believed that a non-ritualistic way to access them is to stumble upon them by chance, and if they can appear or be found by chance, is it not also possible that the most unlikely, even unimaginable places can be or become “thin”, temporarily or permanently? Ruined ancient monuments fit the traditional image of a thin place, but what of monumental modernist ruins with a dark history? What of coal separators, train depots, or power stations? Few would question their status as ambivalent, historically or environmentally toxic sites, but they can be not merely aesthetically fascinating to those open to their ruined charms, but also sites of revelation, in the sense that thin places are understood to be? Can they really offer temporary or even permanent shelter and sustenance to the weary spirit and imagination?

My zone of Istria has a series of spectacular industrial ruins that bear witness to the ideologies that dominated the region during the previous century. The landscape itself was heavily industrialised and geo-engineered and while the ruins may become more overgrown, the modernist reshaping of some parts of the landscape is irreversible, just as the associated histories of struggle and oppression cannot and should not be forgotten. Yet Istria has another reputation, a little akin to that of Western Ireland. It is spoken of as a Terra Magica, with its own specific energies and folklore. It requires little imaginative effort to apply this concept to ancient hill towns, shrines or clearings in the dense woods. Yet what of Istria’s Terra Industria? Are such sites barren concrete shrines only to modernist industrial megalomania? Or is there a cross-contamination between industria and magica? Do they contain their own improbable and paradoxical Magica industriale? And are their shattered, contaminated remains monuments of a Terra Industria Magica?

Based on my dialogues with them, I believe so. At this point I will confess to being a believer in industrial magic (which I understand not as a literal ritual system, but as a diffuse energy of aesthetic and even spiritual power latent in such abject places amongst the shattered beams and corroded dreams). Yet there is something specifically transcendent about the most spectacular and “magical” Istrian industrial ruins. Something concrete yet intangible which I cannot (and would not want to) define, but with which I can work as an artist and writer, and which I can communicate with in an abstractedly spiritual manner.

Perhaps all this is not so surprising if we think back to modernist propaganda that would often describe sites such as power stations as “temples of power”. Due to their scale and the titanic forces they harnessed, they can for instance

be compared to Gothic cathedrals. Industrial sites had a primarily functional-ideological mission, but also harnessed and exploited aesthetic power. The ‘thin’ atmosphere that they retain as ruins flows from a similar source to that found in Christian or pagan Irish sites - from the echoes of collective endeavour and focus, and from the imprints and scars that these leave on a place. They contain what the Irish call imbas forosnai an “encircling knowledge which illuminates”. This equips them as sites through which to metaphorically view the past and future. Their semi-destroyed state enables access to a similar “deep time” perspective to that can be perceived at ancient sites in Ireland.

Even when new, modernist industrial temples had a subdued or diffuse thinness, but the trauma of being shattered and dispersed brings this to the surface. To become thin in the specific way that I perceive, they must have endured catastrophic collapse, just as the land they were built upon once experienced the trauma of being dug out, extracted and contaminated. It’s as if the functional industrial magic is shattered and dispersed into the countless fragments of concrete and machinery – a post-industrial chaosmos in which a rusted component can be a powerful relic. The debris, gaps and fissures are part of a web of feeling, exuding a vaporous atmosphere. A background spiritual radioactivity can be detected and worked with (akin to the diffuse and uncanny atmosphere that permeates Kraftwerk’s Radio-Aktivität album).

This was also an influence on my own artistic response to one of the most impressive ruins in my area, accessible only after a tough walk along a valley, it is a former “temple of power” appropriated by local farmers. Sheep shelter in the coal bunkers, and hay is stored in the turbine hall. None of this dilutes its thin atmosphere though, and, working with a visiting filmmaker friend, I set out to document the space and its ghosts. Through contemporary digital effects, the space and its history is temporarily re-animated, raising the question of how and why such an impressive structure has been allowed to fall into ruin.

Sz. Berlin ± Panic - Degeneracija [TEV-24]

Does any of this have wider significance or meaning though? If the aesthetic arguments in their favour set out here do not impress, are there other reasons to preserve or at least stablise them? The titanic relics of the industrial age are slowly collapsing, but just as preservation has a price that few are willing to pay, so does collapse. As floors cave in or basements flood, further contaminants are released into the air, soil and water, potentially affecting local populations. Demolition can also release colossal amounts of carbon embedded in concrete, especially in mining areas. Derelict industrial heritage is under a double threat – firstly from populist forces that would be happy to erase an entire era of architectural and industrial history, both because of its reminders that systems can collapse, and the lingering memories of class struggles these places contain. Then there are others who would obliterate them as reminders of humanity’s rapacious and polluting extractivism.

Terrible and shocking to many, for a few these places can become Unheimliche Heimaten or concrete shrines (even and despite their symbolic desecration by scrap merchants, looters, vandals and drinkers. Yet if such people can (ab)use them, wanderers and artists can (re)use them for artistic or even spiritual purposes. Visited and documented with reverence, they mutely offer the chance to gather fragments of shattered meaning and reassemble them into newly meaningful forms. Strewn with toxic waste and decay, and embodying disenchantment, they can also spark re-enchantment, both with their own ruined aesthetic grandeur, and in a wider sense. Although built by humans for human motives, their abandonment and ruin make them non-anthropocentric and (at least for some) non-comprehensible. However, this is precisely what can at least temporarily free and decondition the wanderer, so that when they return to less thin spaces it is with a subtly altered perception, not just of the ruins, but of the forces that create or obscure them.

Photos: Sz Berlin + Panic

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