During the era of actually existing socialism modernity found a home in the Soviet city of Pripyat, just 3km from Chernobyl. Pripyat had been dubbed the city of the future. For some the idea that a site so invested with bold optimism should become a massive abandoned nuclear ruin might seem ironic, and certainly it must have been traumatic for the 50,000 resident workers and their families.

No family ever enjoyed the theme park of Pripyat, Ukraine. Due to open a week after the Chernobyl accident it has remained unused by anyone; a scene constructed entirely for happy abandonment, reckless exhilaration and innocent fun forever frozen in the moment that these essential luxuries, and the world that made them possible, where swept away by the dark shadow of progress.  It is as Hannah Arendt wrote that “progress and catastrophe are the opposite faces of the same coin,” the one stalking the other.

Pripyat remains as a no-man’s land such as in Paul Nash’s canvasses, rendered in a fuller sense of horror, of abjection because not only are there no people in these locations there is not even a human monster lurking behind them. This is not the outcome of war, it doesn’t fit neatly into any narrative of man’s inhumanity to man. This is impersonal destruction, an accident immanent to our highest aspirations, the consequence not of cruelty but our inevitable Prometheanism, an urge which is as wonderful as it is destructive as it is unavoidable. In the above image we instinctively place the children within the bumper-cars, highlighting their disappearance.

The schoolroom, empty of children, teacher, books communicates the absence even more clearly. This is not simply the absence of children but the absence of the future. More than that even, Pripyat is held in a suspended moment, repeating that moment everyday, the passage of time only evident by the slow decay of the debris that remains, uncanny as it is in its resemblance to somewhere ‘real’.

Pripyat only resembles a real city, a real place, because devoid of the humanity that should accompany it, bereft of the everyday life that it ought to house, to define and in turn be defined by it is merely a mausoleum of itself. This accounts for such places uncanniness; like a post-traumatic subject they survive their own death. Pripyat has endured an obliteration more thorough going than had it been physically torn down in a nuclear blast. What it retains, how it persists beyond itself, is a perfect illustration of what JG Ballard means, and often encapsulates in those notoriously obsessive iterations of drained swimming pools, when he speak of the sense that  ‘what we think of as conventional reality – this quiet suburban street, for instance – is just a stage set that can be swept away’. Reality, the reality that human being live within as a uniquely human dimension, is a partial construction. In Pripyat this construction has been torn down, left to rot, whilst the physical corpse of a city remains, forever alluding to futures that will not come.

In Pripyat’s de-realisation there is, paradoxically, no longer even a past to speak of. We may say that it is a hauntological place insofar as it is haunted by its exhausted possibilities but strictly speaking, to quote the recent Capitalist Realism, ‘a culture that is perfectly preserved is no culture at all.’ If Virilio speaks of a museum of accidents then what we have here is a mausoleum that is identical with the corpse it contains. The portrait of Lenin may conjure up the Soviet past and the possibility of a communism to come but within the confines of the dingy, silent room being reclaimed by a potted tree that cannot root itself into the earth the image means nothing. The temptation is to assert that Pripyat and its strange sisters across the world represent our future denied, a landscape in which nothing can ever happen again.

The areas in dark red on the map show what is referred to as the Zone of Alienation, an area some 30km in area , wherein people may work and visit (for limited time periods) but cannot live. The radiation levels within what is affectionately (?) known as the Zone are so high that they are for most intents and purposes abandoned. There is an immediate, and often noted, connection here with the Tarkovsky film Stalker which is set within a mysteriously depopulated area of debris and decay known only as the Zone. Although the film pre-dates the Chernobyl accident by seven years it is still worth scanning this point of resonance.

The eponymous character of Tarkovsky’s often quixotic film lives in a small village that boarder’s the film’s Zone, a region that has been mysteriously depopulated and entry prohibited. The Stalker’s town, filmed in a sickly yellow, is a place that is hardly populace itself and which seems to already be suffering, as the nuclear plant nearby suggests, from its own radiation sickness. The Stalker has defied the patrolling authorities and gained access to the Zone and now, for a fee, he takes people into the heart of the industrial detritus of its landscape to lead them to the heart of the Zone: the Room, where it is said whoever enters will have their true desires, their essence, revealed to them. What is left uncertain in the film is the nature of the Room, which is the nature of the Zone itself. We can never know whether whether the Zone keeps its promises or whether it is even real, all we know is that upon entering the Room there is nothing special about it.

This ‘dream sequence’ is one of the best, and most commented on, scenes in Stalker. There is a sense of longing in this shot, as we move over corroded objects left discarded, revealing time’s treatment of them as they lay submerged in water. This longing is coupled with a sense of loss. Desire mingles with its emptiness as we observe a temporality that we cannot decide is real or part of the dream of the Stalker. Hence the question is often asked as to whether the Zone itself is a dream, a fantasy that lacks any reality. We cannot really decide. There is something mystical expressed in the scene above, something about time itself that cannot be reduced to its mere passing as numerous critics have observed; Tarkovsky is demanding that we pay attention, not so much to the objects but to a temporality that does not exist for us any longer, it is a spiritual time of its own, and of objects that pay no heed to it. If the Zone is anything it is a temporality that is no longer in any hurry to reach any point and is not moving in any particular direction, it is a dream time decoupled from narrative. It is a time that is simply going-by. This is the time of faith.

I am often asked what does this Zone stand for. There is only one possible answer: the Zone doesn’t exist. Stalker himself invented his Zone. He created it, so that he would be able to bring there some very unhappy persons and impose on them the idea of hope. The room of desires is equally Stalker’s creation, yet another provocation in the face of the material world. This provocation, formed in Stalker’s mind, corresponds to an act of faith”


For Zizek the facts that the Stalker and his two paying companions are afraid to enter the Room and that the Room is itself quite ordinary to behold means that there is a ‘blockage’ going on that is constituted by our inability to formulate our desires. That is, our desires are not authentic and so we cannot have any true desire that we might hope to be realised. For Zizek this ultimately means that Tarkovsky is showing us that we are incapable of ‘achieving the state of pure belief’.  What the Zone of Stalker finally reveals is our absence of faith, our inability to make the leap. Yet Tarkovsky himself has stated that the film is about a man, the Stalker himself, who at every step of the way is tested by doubt and yet each time recovers his faith- a faith he carries on behalf of others. The Stalker is not so much of a physical guide as he is a guide through the temporality of faith.

Pripyat can then be understood in the same way as the cinematic Zone; if it is a place of exhaustion it is also a place of faith and of a strange kind of temporality. The closure of the future that seems to loom out all over Pripyat isn’t so complete. What occurs with time in Stalker is also what occurs in real life zones of alienation, which is to say everywhere that capitalist realism’s grim insistence that there is no alternative holds sway. We become unshackled from a linearity in which past, present and future have what we might call a totalitarian compulsion.

If the Stalker is able to maintain his faith within a time that simply goes-by then we are within a time that also touches the eternal. In other words, it is not because time simply unfolds in some processual manner that we are no longer held in sway but because we are no longer within a temporality that is conceived in these quantitative terms. Rather like with Kierkegaard each moment is penetrated with a Moment that exceeds it. We do not have to be brave enough to think of our desire, that is to think of a utopian condition- ‘another world’- it is merely the faith which is enough, and it is this faith which unshackles us from the false infinite of the present moment stretched out forever.

Essentially, the temporality of faith is one in which all times merge and co-exist. Messianic hope comes to penetrate the present and the non-existence of utopia signals not a defeat but an opening: for the first time communism becomes thinkable because it is truly no longer to come, as all to comes are rendered already present. We are left with an autonomous time that exists alongside but not as reducible to the truly non-existent time of capitalism. It is in this sense that the image of Lenin in the picture above comes to symbolise not the exhaustion of communism, but its strange indestructibility.

If there is something remaining of our interiority it is in this strange landscape, this may be the useful element of the post-traumatic subject. Whilst talking about the content of certain writer’s imaginations JG Ballard remarks that certain elements become time-sculptures, and that the imaginative area in which they appear are ‘the internal landscape of tomorrow that is a transmuted image of the past’ which he calls inner space. Whatever remains of interiority today, however strangely mangled it may have become, this inner space must necessarily be the space of faith in which, as I have tried to show, the breakdown of the usual divisions of time does not have to be viewed in wholly despairing terms.  Within the flows of time are every direction. Zones of alienation are zones of faith.

And if none of that makes sense then shove it up your out-hole. Only jokes, love ya really.

5 Responses to “/Zones/”

  1. great pictures droney….time sculptures – what book was that from, i love the picture it conjures

  2. 2 dronemodule

    I just hope the post makes sense at the end. I’m not entirely sure of what I was trying to get over… I mean, I know it but I’m not sure I can express it.

    The Ballard thing about time-sculptures was from a very short non-fiction piece he wrote that you can (and should hehe) read here


    it also resonates with the rest of the post, as the director of Stalker wrote a book about his ideas on cinema called “Sculpting Time”- or something similar

  3. im sure it did…i just scanned it, admired the pictures and loved the “time sculpture” – that just bounced at me………..i read the link (oooh no way! yes, yes i did)…….is he writing something that he thinks is new or is he rehashing founded ideas?….

  4. 4 dronemodule

    I’m not sure. He doesn’t believe in progress for one… but also, it was written some time ago…1963 i think….

    it may not have been new then, but Ballard has always tended to be an exponent of the new within a situation- always seeking trajectories within but beyond it. so if you mean original as in competely unuttered before.. i don’t think it matters.

    shit, you clicked a link i gave you!!!!!hahhahaa

  1. 1 Stalking the cinema stalking the world | immanence

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