Simmel suggests this inevitable return “home” might be tragic, but it is not “sad nihilism” because it is “[a]ccording to the cosmic order”.9 Simmel the philosopher sees purpose and meaning in decay: its effect on the built environment is a result of its role in the natural cycle of rise and decline, and this is the basis of decay's cultural significance. Furthermore, decay is a concept that can be applied to the internal processes of the individual: “The forces which one can designate only by the spatial simile of upward-striving are at work continuously in our soul, continuously interrupted, deflected, overcome by other forces which work in us as what is dull, mean, ‘merely-natural.' The way in which these two variously mingle in extent and manner yields, at every moment, the form of our soul”.10
Driven by contradictions and opposing abstract forces, there is no denying the dynamism of these processes, constantly at work all around us and within us, constantly in a state of flux and producing new forms, new balances and unities, new states of being. This dynamism is intrinsic to the philosophical concept of dialectics, a playing out of states of being and their contradictions that results in a synthesis – a new unity comprised of the reconciled elements of those previous states of being – before the process begins again with newly generated antitheses, the contradictions and tensions inherent
to existence. The dialectical process is essentially an evolutionary process, and it has been applied to nature, history and thought; Simmel applied it to the ruin.11 We relate to the architectural ruin, the external ruin, because it is symbolic of our internal processes of growth, (self-)construction, decay and, importantly, renewal. This is why ruins evoke such powerful psychological and emotional responses: we witness the dialectic at work around us, in the ruin, and intuitively, subconsciously, know it is at work within ourselves.
However, the interpretation of ruins' significance is not always tinged with the metaphysical, not always coloured by a moody emotionalism or misty-eyed nostalgia, nor by any flavour of hedonism, “perverse” or otherwise. In modernity's ruins, to narrow the focus – essentially, the discarded and derelict structures of western industrialism, those of the twentieth century in particular – contemporary theorists see multifaceted historical and cultural narratives that are essential to our understanding of the recent past, of where western civilisation is situated today and how it arrived here, and the implications for its – for our – future. The Russian–American literature–culture scholar and theorist of the “off-modern”, Svetlana Boym, for example, insists that modernity's astoundingly diverse array of ruins can serve as both inspiration for and nucleus of a contemporary historical and cultural synthesis. She argues that last century's avant-garde