Or: Post-Fordist Rubbernecking as Surrealist Slapstick
All that stone and concrete patinaed with age, the windows empty or broken or gaping, the random graffiti and intrusions of natural reclamation. The remnants, how they loom. No figures in the landscape. Ah, but if those walls could talk, what might they have to impart?
But chances are that by now you might be bored with ruins. I have been for a good while. They've kind of everywhere these days. More of the same, shruggingly navigate away. Pictures of them, anyway -- all over the web, in coffee table books, etc. And yes, I've blogged about them before; did so very recently in fact. A cultural meme/trend that's been going for several years; which isn't as ubiquitous as all the zombie bullshit and the proliferation of various eschatological scenarios in books and films that've also been quite popular for a while now. The appeal of which makes one wonder about the nature or source of that appeal; which for me has long been the main aspect of the ruins/Detroit meme that I have found intriguing. Intriguing, because there's been so little commentary or analysis accompanying it. Or I suppose there has been, but none of it amounting to anything substantial – not much aiming to get beneath the surface of the allure of so-called ruin porn.
These misgivings of mine being something I tried to address when writing about this topic a while back. The obvious point being that the current allure of ruins being something quite different from that of more Romantic times; because in the previous era that appeal came down to a sublime awe for the remnants of antiquity, whereas today it's a matter of aestheticizing the decaying foundations of the present society. And that latter aspect, I've long suspected, has a lot to do – consciously or not – with the recent proliferation of images, photog projects, magazine spreads, books, and etcetera. Yet the discourse that has accompanied all of it has been either scant or anemic, if not both. And that absence begs any number of questions.
But this is more like it. The '"this" being a piece in the winter edition of the Glasgow-based arts publication Variant, submitted by contributor John Cunningham, entitled "Boredom in the Charnel House: Theses on 'Post-Industrial' Ruins." Of Marchand and Meffre's photography book The Ruins of Detroit, Cunningham at one point observes:
"There’s a sense in that [the photos] reproduce the viewing subject as a consumer of dereliction, the images mediating the ruin as a theme park to be drifted through. A certain distance is necessary to enjoy the accumulation of debris since who would want to live in a ruin? Images of the contemporary ruinscape present the aestheticisation of the destruction of the world in much the same way that 20th century avant gardes such as the Futurists enjoyed the bluster of warfare. Except what is lacking in these images of our dereliction is the passion and joy that animated the parodic virility of the Futurists. Aestheticised might be better read as anaesthetised affect since The Ruins of Detroit for all the wide screen flourish and detail of the images gives me the sense that all of this has simply been curated for the sake of distraction and gazing – or perhaps grazing – upon the ruins. The lack of affect present in such acts of curation is even more accentuated in the repetition of the curating impulse on the web."
As the title proposes, Cunningham offers six possible theses for framing "ruin porn" in various discursive contexts, six possible means of unpacking the pop-cult fixation at hand. He perhaps gets closest to my original thoughts on the matter with his third thesis, "Ruined Passivity"...
"This process of the subjectification of a passive, neutralised subject might seem too much to read from the diffusion of images of dereliction but the theme park or art space is also immanent to the contemporary ruin. For instance, photographer and ruin auteur Camilo José Vergara proposed with a kind of blank irony that the ruinscape of Detroit be preserved as a museum of US capitalism. It’s worth noting that in Germany the industrial detritus of the Rurhr valley and the mining areas of the ex-Stalinist Eastern part of the country have already been transformed into such a museum of Fordism. In an essay upon this, Kirstin Barndt goes so far to write of a 'transformation of the subject' from worker to leisured (or unemployed) consumer and a 'new landscape of affect' produced through the aestheticisation of dereliction and its preservation as a post-industrial playpen with walkways, art galleries and perfectly preserved ruins. [...] And what might be termed affective subjects are partially produced through such spaces. As Ganser, the project director of one of the 'post' industrial theme parks in Germany comments: 'People feel better, even though objectively the economic situation remains unchanged'. This can also be shaped as configuring nostalgia in the shape of mourning for the past, a past where the local population was not quite as surplus to the requirements of capital. 'People feel better' is as good a motto as any for the disciplinary apparatuses of contemporary capitalism."
I'd recommend the .pdf version, as it's better formatted and includes the illustrations that Cunningham refers to at various points in the essay (whereas the poorly-set 'text' version doesn't).
From ruins to wreckage...
"Even with our little lapses, we generally intend the best. We reason, calculate, tabulate. We conspire. We watch our backs, and we sometimes have the backs of others. And yet we stagger forward across seas on which oil from a busted well below is burned. We build reactors, and they are upset when we barricade the railroads that carry away their waste. We make dolls that chew the scalps of little girls. We bury waste in a too-shallow grave and now you can’t eat the cheese. We throw away pairs of shoes and books, and we make more of them, and we don’t burn the ones that should be burned. We starve or are starved. We are surprised that rocks exist."
Evan Calder Williams, currently residing & researching in Napoli, momentarily breaks his blogging hiatus to offer a spiel on a certain recent event. As usual for when he lays forth in long form, it's a corker.