Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: Coming to Ruin

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: Coming to Ruin

Article excerpt

We came to the subject of ruin because destruction and disaster seemed to be everywhere we looked. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent collapse of the levees protecting New Orleans, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the Japanese tsunami and nuclear plant crisis, the tornadoes in the South and Midwest of the United States, and the flooding of the Mississippi river, the line between "natural" and "man-made" disaster was stretching to almost imperceptible thinness, a membrane held in place mostly by vague but emotionally powerful words like "tragedy," "loss," "devastation," and calls for mostly white people to rescue mostly brown and black people. As a geographer (Rupal) and a literary scholar (Sarah), we knew that those words held within them other worlds of meaning, that few disasters were solely "natural" either in cause or in effect, and that environmental devastation always brought with it immense social, cultural, political, economic, and psychological change.

We were most interested not in disaster itself, though, but in its aftermath - how do we understand the ruins that are left behind? And what about ruin that is not the result of a single event, but is the accumulation of neglect, the outcome of political repression, or the shifting of priorities? Moreover, we wondered, is ruin always negative? After all, while ruin can exist in the singular as a catastrophe, it also figures in the plural as an aesthetic, architectural, and historical pleasure. What is (always) so bad about ruin? Can we, for instance, imagine more fair and just possibilities emerging out of financial ruin?

Ruins also engage in and spark a variety of affective responses. Mourning at a ruin can entail grief as well as nostalgia for a world before disintegration and decay. Ruin suggests both temporal and spatial change, evoking a time and a place before as well as meditating on the here and now. And ruin has metaphorical valences as well as environmental, architectural, and economic meanings.

Gendering Ruin

As feminists we were also struck by how little gender analysis accompanied considerations of disaster and its ruins. How do enormous environmental changes alter gendered relationships, let alone the intersecting hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality? Closest to home for us here in New York City, the victims in the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, were not unmarked by gender or class. Indeed, the majority of people who died were men working in predominantly male occupations defined very specifically by class: financial services workers, fine dining waitstaff and busboys, firefighters (one of the most gender-segregated jobs in New York). In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, "September 1 1th widows," predominantly white, middle-class, and US -born, were pitted against "the terrorists": male, Muslim, and foreign.

The ruined, charred remains of the World Trade Center, doubling as a mass grave, were almost immediately transformed from a site of disbelief, grief, and trauma into a contested space, a source of debate over what the attacks on the World Trade Center meant and what the right response to them was. As we all know, this debate was significantly foreclosed by US military action, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, which then raised and revived new and ongoing debates about (to name a few issues) women in combat, women in Muslim countries, sexual assault, and sexual orientation.

This potted history powerfully illustrates Ann McClintocks pithy maxim: "All nationalisms are gendered, all are invented, and all are dangerous" (1995, 352). If the ruin of the World Trade Center (re)invoked a narrative of American exceptionalism, and the horrors of the attack (perversely) allowed the United States to reclaim its place at the center of the world stage, the nationalisms that emerged out of the ruins were deeply gendered. …

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