Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Animating Ruins: A Temporal Cleansing, By Leslie Saunders (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”

Between 1992 and 1996 I was providing social-educational sessions on weekends to men who were dealing with drug and alcohol dependence. These men were mandated by the courts to attend the program and participated for an average of 12 weekends. Essentially, they were a captive audience, and this allowed for exposure to new and sometimes contentious ideas and discussion which was intended to interrupt the patterns of drinking and drugging through an intervention they would not otherwise have. 

About two thirds of the way through the program, I would lead the class of about 25, on a field trip to Hart House. It was a 10 minute walk from where our session was and on a sunny summer, spring, autumn or winter day, this exercise had an emotional and physical impact, evidenced by the improvement in mood that registered through friendly discussion and laughter that I would hear amongst the men as they made their way through streets most had never walked before in their lives.  They could be time travelers for a short while. The walk -through Hart House was brief but it was always guaranteed to transport the men to a different temporality, disconnecting them from their present problems with substance use, relationships, finances, work and the law. The objective was to create an opportunity for them to experience the felt history of the building through the architecture and the artifacts and then, in the context of what I had discussed with them in earlier weeks, see themselves in a future they may not have considered. I knew that many of them had families and I hoped that this experience would also make it possible for them to appreciate the academic goals percolating within their teenaged children who as members of a family with addicted parent(s) would most likely have to struggle to be able to realize post-secondary education.

Most of these men had never been on the University of Toronto campus and I often spoke to them about education as a style of recovery. This visit put them in proximity to where academia was housed. At the same time, Hart House’ otherworldliness offered a spatial and temporal shifting away from a present that for these men, was measured in minutes spent outside of jail and house arrest. That present could barely find a place to root itself in the thickness of the temporality of Hart House, where with the exception of the dress of the people walking through the halls, it seemed to stubbornly resist the present. The stone architecture holds the past firmly like a refrigerator holds the cold. For these men, it would take conditions this extreme, an immersion in a past where their current ways of being and knowing had little currency, to stimulate a reimagining of the self.  In debriefing after the trip to Hart House, many described the experience as profound, recalling temporal and spatial memories of previous lives before coming to Canada or Toronto and they indulged in relocating forgotten stories of people and ideas they once carried before drugs and alcohol began to commandeer their lives. Visiting Hart House was like a reboot or restart in the context of their participation in the program. For most it fostered a marked change, as from this point they gave themselves permission to initiate or participate in a rich discussion, dropping the armor for just an hour or so.

This story introduces the concept of temporal affect that I am suggesting is produced by the antiquity of Hart House, the felt history of the building, sometimes nostalgic or alienating or isolating and for still others it could be disorienting. I have employed the affective theory developed by Yael Navaro Yashin who asserts that affect is produced “relationally” (Navaro Yashin, 2012) by the subject and the object as they are sutured together by history and politics (Navaro Yashin, 2012, p. 9). She expands this idea in her ethnographic study of the affective quality of the border that in 1974 partitioned Turkish-Cypriots from Greek-Cypriots (Navaro Yashin, 2009). She outlines the environment in which her Turkish-Cypriot informants live, as melancholic and reports that each of them also described an interior feeling of melancholia.  Navaro Yashin argues that the bullet shot cars, abandoned agricultural ground, and emptied and neglected buildings that were formerly homes, produce a melancholic affect that passes through the subject. To explore the evolution of the concept of affect further, I canvass the work of Valentina Napolitano, who is focusing on the idea of “trace”. The foundations of her concept are derived from the writing of Benjamin and his defining of the “auratic”. The auratic is described as a “fleeting perception of a past that does not ordinarily register in the waking consciousness”  (Hansen, 2008, p. 344), (of the subject who is gazing) and that more than just passing through to the subject, this perception takes possession of the subject. This could occur when gazing upon a work of art, a photograph, or an artifact or a space that once was something else. Napolitano argues that it is this “trace”, that has remained on and around the object or space, that registers in the consciousness of the subject. 

My research and its connection to affect, has been directed by the question “How is time mediated by the University of Toronto”? How does time shape subjectivities of students, staff or faculty? I chose to examine antiquity as a measure of time that is particularly interesting in the context of this university (like most universities) being compelled to engage in the fetishizing of the future, all movement calibrated forward towards the production of the work-force that is required for tomorrow (Nielsen and Sarauw, 2017).  How does the University of Toronto mediate the temporality of antiquity which grips the past? 

My project aims to understand the temporality of antiquity and to explore the affect that it produces, in order to expose how the University works on time.  I began the project with the idea that antiquity is an asset of the University, that it is a large part of the prestige that this institution enjoys. However, it became clear through my examination of the HartHouse100 campaign to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of Hart House, that what is important now is the (re)branding of the campus and this includes a large investment by the University in casting this as an institution that exists in the global future, delivering imitable education and at the same time   aligning its principles with the ecological and anti-colonial standards of a new world that at least discursively, refuses the immorality of anything colonial. But antiquity in a settler-state becomes an expression of its colonial past. Media and rhetorical messages facilitated across the HartHouse100 regarding rebranding seem chaotic with some pointing to the need for a costly structural redesign that sounds solely about improving physical accessibility and others  interpolate a shameful past of exclusions that must be purged in order for the citizens of the future to feel welcomed. While this second discourse is confusingly positioned as underdetermined or perhaps restrained, it is lunging at the leash to make its powerful statement for a moral need for temporal distancing. Archival fieldwork proved to be the most substantive in exposing the undercurrent that is driving the rebranding, initiated to produce that temporal distancing. 

Fearing its continued fostering of colonial exclusions that yield marginal subjectivities, the University management appears resistant to antiquity’s temporal affect being the means of defining the institution. I draw on the work of Augè to explore the significance of architecture and its statements of time, how it informs how a city inhabits time. The challenging architectural expression of Hart House may be esthetically pleasing, but its temporal affect does not “transmit the illusions of the current dominant ideology” (Augè, 1995), which in this case is the University’s fitness to appeal to “global” not just “local” students. The” global” are a critical stakeholder group that is seeking cutting edge education in a progressive institution where they can be assured of becoming career ready for the future that awaits in the contemporary global business context. This we must remember, is taking place in the context of Indigenous resurgence which cannot be underestimated or ignored.  However, there are various stakeholder groups and opposing perspectives – namely alumnae and students.

In response to this, I argue that the University has embarked on a form of creative destruction to work on the “time problem”, engaging in the “ruination” (Stoler, 2016) of Hart House to construct the optics that (antiquity) is a receding temporality. Ruination is a way to resolve the conflict created by “situations of disparate time and place” (Stoler, 2008) of which the architecture of antiquity is symbolic. I draw on the work of Ann Stoler and Dora Apel to assist in conceptualizing ruination and ruin. The ruination here is a mechanism used to discursively dismantle the sexist, racist and classist history that is maintained in the temporality and the temporal affect of Hart House. Ruination is evidenced in the culling of artifacts. Artwork that clings to the walls and fills the space, represents the cultural power of a white European elite class. This undoing is attending to the affective and moral hygiene, essentially decolonizing the physical and psychic space with images that introduce and secure the temporal present by including the voices of marginalized students, feminism and perhaps the largest commitment made by employing Indigenous artistic representations not to “Indigenize” the space but to insert a new cosmology to heal the ruptures and fissures that otherwise threaten to continue to alienate. This is taking place within the politics of Truth and Reconciliation and the charges and changes to disavow the authority of empire.  Ruin affords “promise of renewal and regeneration” (Apel, 2015, p.22). The ruin, Augé asserts, “speaks not of history but of time” (Augé, 1995, p. XVIII). This ruination provokes reconsideration of nostalgic accounts of Hart House’ past that work to continue to construct the “Other” of those not recognizable among memories of an imagined utopian past. 

In writing this paper, I mobilize the insights offered through discussions and lively debate regarding issues that are leaking from the temporality of antiquity and are percolating from the friction produced by the HartHouse 100 campaign. I suggest that it (the campaign) is functioning like an audit, scrutinizing the relationship to time, using the grit of morality and contemporary political sensibilities to begin grinding on the embrace of a temporality that fosters racism and misogyny and exposes what Stoler refers to as the “durability of temporality” (Stoler, 2016). This durability was laid bare in the discussion I was able to have with a prominent staff member of the University of Toronto. He took hold of the affective quality of Hart House,  hanging it on the architecture as it is symbolic of exclusions based on class, race, ability and gendered identities – reified by this “neo-gothic edifice”, (as he referred to Hart House) that is built on stolen land. This my interviewee said, “has historically been a space occupied by the cultural elites of the day including members of the Arts and Letters Club”, and I would suspect also the members of the Theosophy Society in Toronto, who were also central figures in the Group of Seven,  and Canadian politics. “The University”, my interviewee reports, “is cognizant of how the architecture is challenging for some of the students”. He specified artifacts like the Founder’s Prayer, the abundance of paintings by the Group of Seven – so specific to the construction of nationalist visions of a new frontier with depictions of landscapes scrubbed of Indigenous occupants, the Debating Club, and the “RedFace” used by actors in the 1920’s performance of God of Gods, in the revered Hart House Theater. Through his energetic discussion that wove together stories of the past, accounts of the present and forecasts about the future, it occurred to me that I had been seeing Hart House as a cultural object like a work of art, not a space to be engaged with or to move within. More than once, my interviewee, referred to Hart House as a “heritage protected limestone neogothic castle”, a description that is poetic and at the same time foreboding in the context of a contemporary temporality that wants to reconcile its colonial past.

It could be said that of him (my interviewee), Hart House has produced the subjectivity of the “disrupter”, someone deeply invested in “making the familiar strange” (Trouillot, 1995) perhaps as a way to effectively challenge the status quo. Ruination is a means of resolving the incommensurability of an imperial edifice that was once assigned as symbolic of university time.  Has the 100th anniversary of Hart House started a revolution or is there a revolution that is instrumentalizing the anniversary?  

My fieldwork included a third archival site, a series of event presentations promoted by the HartHouse100 campaign. One of the set of four, was an address by Stephen Lewis that also offered an opportunity for audience members to become (re)acquainted with feminist journalist Michele Landsberg who I am suggesting, continued this work of ruination. She effectively called out the misogynistic and xenophobic history that seemed to astonish the crowed that filled the Great Hall of Hart House that chilly November evening. I draw on Ann Stoler’s concept of “the psychic space of empire” (Stoler 2016) to highlight the meaning and importance of the temporality of affect that was being presenced by Ms. Landsberg’s account that evening and by the U of T staff interview I discussed earlier. Anchoring her address temporally, Ms. Landsberg curated Hart House history from 1919 lingering in the years up to the 1970’s. She characterized her address as a “séance”, warning the audience that they would need to hold onto their seats! She then proceeded as though telling a ghost story, to reveal the political struggle in “the House that Vincent built”. She was referring to Vincent Massey, former Canadian Governor General and heir to the Hart Massey fortune that had been produced by the manufacture of agricultural equipment. It should not escape us that this wealth was accumulated through colonial ideas of property and nature which ties the gift of Hart House (to the University of Toronto) in 1919, to a deeply colonial history. The crowd in the Great Hall that night, was hushed by Ms. Landsberg’s disclosure that Vincent Massey “Hung out with Nazis in England” and tried to use his political influence to disallow Jews from entering Canada, and that it was he who had determined that no women should be allowed at Hart House and indeed they were not. “Women”, he reportedly said and as told by Ms. Landsberg “would ruin the collegiality among the males”, “the only students that count”.  

Her narration included the telling of the 1957 debate at Hart House, which both her partner Stephen Lewis and the visiting John. F. Kennedy who was a Senator at that time, participated in. She described a ruckus scene of protest that took place on the other side of the main door that night– women of all ages contesting their exclusion from Hart House and this very public event. She described a very placid J.F.K who went on record that evening, with a compliment to the Hart House administration for “keeping women out”. 

Hart House Affects   

 Hart House, with its long temporal biography entombed in each room, hallway, stairwell, light fixture, lamp, book, table and chair generates affective influence which registers in very physical sensations, a tingling in the chest, a held breath, and with sentimentality that causes deep feelings of longing, sadness, mourning, excitement, etc. During my fieldwork, I observed students and audiences of large events in the space and spoke with some of the staff.  I took a brief walk through the long corridors, finding myself feeling nostalgic. I quickly settled into the 2nd floor commons where I could spend some time observing those who use the space. This is a formidable room, sparsely furnished with large thick dark colored heavy wooden tables, an icy gray stone hearth, and dark patterned cushioned window seats. The off-white walls are not successful at softening the heavy masculine feeling that dominates the room. Etched into the concrete precast, featured prominently above the hearth is the motto “Crescit OccultoVelut Arbor Aevo” – “May it Grow as a Tree Through the Ages”, a declaration of the investment in and loyalty to, history reproduced with intentionality and devotion.  

Further up the tall chimney, is a hit of the contemporary. A long wide horizontal 3 screen digital photograph lit from the back, that unapologetically insinuates the real time world of women in a North American context. On the screen we see a young woman in the center of a field of protesters in the busy downtown. From a car, another symbol of modernity, she is waving a sign that says, “how Slutty are you now”!? Hart House is showing us that it can be both historic and current, and that there is a place here within multiple temporalities, for women despite the overdetermination of masculine energy.  

This room, like all the rooms, is flooded with sunlight that is streaming in through the long leaded glass windows during the day and warmly lit in the evening. Students in the space look very studious, eyes trained on computer screens with the occasional break to check on cell phones. There is no sign of anything other than “school time”, only laptops on the tables and not even a cup of coffee or water bottle is in the scene. 

I alternated time spent here and in a small library on the 3rd floor. The subject matter of the books on the shelves there seems more like nourishment for the sole than the resources for academic papers. Titles like “Comfort Me With Apples” call out to the occupants, a reassuring familiarity with what is comfort and safety, emanating from the walls that are here blanketed in the soft warm glow of the evening lighting. The librarian tells me that the books cannot be taken out of the library, affirming that in this space you are off the fast track.  I note however, that no one in the room is reading a book, but they are focused expressly on their laptops or quietly whispering pleasantries to one another, evidenced by muted laughter and bright knowing smiles. 

One evening, three men appeared and stood out because of their age and casual manner, no backpacks hanging from their shoulders and no coats visible despite such a frigid night.  Possibly in their 80’s, their stoic resignation changed the energy in the room, yet they seemed to go unnoticed by the students around the table. The gentlemen walked with their hands clasped behind their backs, striding slowly along in behind the seated students in the narrow space between the bookcases, quietly peering at what the students are looking at. I made note of the 3 men’s outfits of loose fitting, worn corduroy pants and soft looking flannel shirts, their spectacled faces and grey beards left me asking myself if these men are visiting “professors emeritus” or three ghosts. This image was fascinating, but a fleeting distraction left no trace of the three wise men when I tried to relocate them along the north wall where they had been seconds before. They had disappeared as quickly as they had entered the scene.  

During another visit to Hart House, I find no one inside the commons room and so I use the vacantness to begin to take some photographs of the architectural features and of the art pieces. While the art is interesting and appealing, it is clear that it is there to perform. It looks out of place and seems to be hung too high, out of reach of the esthetic of the room. It is becoming clear that there is an intentionality behind the insertions of modernity. Nothing else had been disrupted by this effort, only the walls. Multiple temporalities were coming into view and it looked like this was being mediated by art.

A small poster fastened close to a glass case filled with old framed black and white photos drew me over. I had passed by this case several times. It was almost invisible, perhaps because of its tiny stature in comparison to the omnipotence of the cathedral like room. The poster explains to the reader that November 11th, 2019 is the 100th anniversary of Hart House. This could explain the motivation that instigated the temporal flourish which was appearing in the rooms and hallways of Hart House. 

The branding of was showing up in even the most remote corners of the building its familiar blue, yellow and red 100 in large bold text, looking very stylized for a representation of times gone by. The narration on the first page of one of the glossy colored campaign brochures incites a strong temporal orientation. It reads like a no-contest clause: “Throughout our Anniversary year, Hart House is remembering the past, celebrating the present, and envisioning the future” (HartHouse100). There was a quiet siege underway and I had to know more about what problem that this was solving. It was becoming apparent that beyond the emergence of “multiple temporalities”, this was a “battle of temporalities” and the future seemed to be the favorite.

Across the Temporal Landscape

Time finds many expressions at the University of Toronto and antiquity is only one. An examination of architectural structure on the campus is also important to understanding how time is worked on. To pursue the importance of this, I draw again on the work of Marc Augé who discusses the way that architecture has the capacity and indeed is relied upon, to craft our relationship with time. He explains that architecture draws on time to create the representation of “time that has not yet arrived, that may never arrive” (Augé, 1995, p. XVII).

In this way, the Rotman building poses an interesting contrast in the materiality of temporal mediation. It was formerly known as the John Downey House and was built in 1890, an example of Neo- Gothic architecture in the Queen Anne Revival Style and remained a private residence until 1929 (City of Toronto, 2009).  It was designated as a heritage building and has been the property of the University of Toronto since the 1960s. Now the site of the new Rotman wing as a result of an expansion project that wrapped up in 2012, it is considered a feather-in-the- cap of the illustrious Rotman School of Management. The heritage building originally there (John Downey House) would not permit demolition and so the architects encased the antiquity within glass and proceeded with a futuristic looking design that now occupies the site.

The dominance of the new wing of the Rotman building, its hyper-contemporary design in comparison to the architecture of the majority of the buildings on campus, appears as a tell of the University’s fetishizing of futurity. It is a bold statement of how the management of the University has reimagined the institution and that seems to be replicated on the pages of the literature of the HartHouse100 campaign towards commandeering the temporal direction of the University towards tomorrow and the desires of the global citizen student. I suggest that the Rotman building represents a collision of temporalities and brings into focus, the manifestation of the “relic”, its use of glass to capture and contain the older building, which has been allowed to remain I suggest, in the diminished capacity of a “keepsake”. The architect sees these types of design choices as prescriptive for preventing the forgetting of the past by the city. He uses Alzheimer’s as a metaphor for what happens when a city loses sight of its past and has only one temporality, the present. 

This is also conceptualized in the work of Giulia Bortoluzzi who has deeply examined Benjamin’s, Agamben’s, Diderot’s, Augé’s, and others’ discussions of time. Bortoluzzi concludes that “If we keep destroying everything, only a short-term memory will exist” (Bortoluzzi, 2014). But he takes this further and goes on to say that “The less we experience time, the more we are absorbed by the present” (Bortoluzzi, 2014).  This begins to sound like the temporal distancing that is produced by ruination and the University’s pursuits regarding Hart House. This is perhaps reaffirmed by Augé’s claims that “Modernity does not obliterate ancient places, it pushes them into the background” (Augé, 1995, p. 68). 

The temporal interventions that are performed by the deep storying of change and the shifting skin of Hart House, as the old masters are taken off the walls and are replaced by new images produced by contemporaries’ expressions of life today  – disrupt colonial formations that incubate and perpetuate the “Rot” (Stoler, 2016, p. 339) – a metaphor for understanding imperial debris as an active agent that is not inert matter but continues to pervade and press against humanity, stimulating and maintaining exclusion and elitism.  Dora Apel’s close study of ruins in a North American suburban context, encourages us to understand the plausibility of ruins as a result of the destabilizing effect of the flow of capital transnationally. She provides a fascinating discussion about how Hitler actually anticipated ruins and ruination of his regime, “Insisting that his architects construct for eternity,” (Apel, 2015) demanding that Nazi structures be resistant to temporal undoing – and be designed instead to resist ruin.  Apel’s research works to normalize the appearance and reality of ruins and ruination, understanding it as a technology to decommission the past and to authorize renewal.

The University’s 5-year Landmark strategy of deconstruction will excavate and cleanse antiquity and its temporal affect from the space that is in immediate proximity to Hart House as well as other pinnacles of antiquity, with an objective of creating a spectacle of future. Promotional material for that project incorporates before and after images (  that provide concrete examples of ruination in action. The before pictures depict the decline of the buildings that include Hart House and Convocation Hall, which are looking grayer and shabbier than we may remember, surrounded by dormant trees, overcast skies and few to no humans in the scene. I argue that this technology works on time, making antiquity look redundant and obsolete.  The after shots claim renewal, curated with images of fertile plants bursting with buds and colour, lush green grass and hordes of healthy young virile men and women in athletic poses, no cars to contaminate this new world order of the campus that calls out to the global students looking for a place to dock. This contrast of before and after is a powerful and highly evocative tool for legitimizing temporal ruination as a way to solve the problem of the past with physical and psychic regeneration. 


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Stoler, A. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Duke University Press: London. 

Trouillot, M.R. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.

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