Research as Ruin

Is a research project really ever finished? The academic industry has, for a long time, relied on notions of completion (of papers, degrees, etc.). With tenure decided on the basis of publications, the dominant image of the scholar is of a consumer/producer moving from one completed project to the next, building a diverse portfolio of “knowledge.” This narrative has only become more entrenched with growing pressures to self-brand and self-promote using personal websites (like this one…), ResearchGate profiles, and online CVs. Here, completion becomes market currency.

So much is lost this way. Research can only remain critical when it leaves space for failure and half-baked ideas. There must be a push to open up work itself: to reconceive of it as never whole. Never done.

This is why research, in academia or not, should be treated as ruin. Only in this way can it escape the repetitive structures of the present. For ruins carry traces of past violence; they remain incomplete and unredeemed. In drawing attention to their own fragmented structure, ruins shatter the illusion of presence – pointing beyond the immediate, towards the past and the future.

Citing Walter Benjamin’s “failed” Habilitationsschrift on German tragic drama, Adorno (1973) believed that natural history was “really present as a ruin.” To study the world was to study something deeply transient, but also eternal. This involves a degree of aesthetic experimentation in research. For it is art, Adorno (2013) argued, that imitates the “transient eternity” of nature. Adorno himself experimented with aphorisms in Minima Moralia. In that text, fragments of writing amounted to “reflections from damaged life.” This life formed a totality, but one that was false, filled with patches of violence, silence, negative space.

Research might be considered along similar lines: as shards within a broken whole. These shards can appear in many forms – in pamphlets, conversations, demonstrations, blog posts. It is only when treated as “failed” and incomplete that research is able to avoid affirming what is. This is what makes failure the sharp edge of critique: it allows us to cut beyond the present. It reveals hidden worlds of past and present violence, as this paper has shown. But it also maps out different worlds altogether, better worlds, beyond this one.

Adorno, T. W. 2013. Aesthetic Theory. London: Bloomsbury.

Adorno, T. W. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: Verso.

Adorno T. W. 1973. Negative Dialectics. New York: Continuum.

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