John Patrick Leary’s essay in Guernica magazine about Detroit “ruin porn”—images of decaying, abandoned buildings; of familiar contemporary types of places turned eerily desolate—is well worth reading. As Leary notes, these images tap into an archeological fantasy that allows viewers to imagine they have survived the apocalypse, rather than confront the truth that they are living in the midst of it, the turbulent and unruly transition to a globalized, postindustrial order. Ruin porn allows us to believe that we are not the victims of the chaotic upheaval; it even offers the hopeful sense that all the requisite suffering is in the past. Leary points out that one rarely sees humans in these photos.
So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.
Viewers have no stake in the city’s survival or the ongoing struggle to halt the decline; instead the ruin photos drive us inward and invite us to regard what we see as the majestic and irrevocable result of cosmic entropy, an emblem of the vanity of human wishes. Time is cast as the enemy, as the photos depoliticize the consequences of so much negligence and malfeasance, of exploitation and broken promises.
Of course, if one really wants to enjoy the apocalypse as sublime entertainment, one should plan to visit the recently reopened Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion (sometimes translated, more fittingly perhaps, as the “zone of alienation”). “It is very moving and interesting and a beautiful monument to technology gone awry,” says Mary Mycio, who wrote a book about the zone. Who doesn’t want a monument to out-of-control technology? It lets us think we are always ultimately in control of it. Detroit’s ruin porn seeks to cast the city as a kind of zone of exclusion, an anomaly, a disaster area that can be cordoned off form the real America of prosperous innovation and heroic entrepreneurs and can-do strivers. But the reality is that entrepreneurs and innovation always leaves a trail of destruction somewhere else, and these images, as Leary suggests, fail to evoke the causal chain.
No photograph can adequately identify the origins for Detroit’s contemporary ruination; all it can represent is the spectacular wreckage left behind in the present, after decades of deindustrialization, housing discrimination, suburbanization, drug violence, municipal corruption and incompetence, highway construction, and other forms of urban renewal have taken their terrible tolls.
The photos license our indifference to the entire question. Leary writes that “ruin photos suggest a vanquished, even glorious past but, like the ruins themselves, present no way to understand our own relationship to the decline we are seeing,” but they probably do worse, they suggest such understanding would be an irritating distraction to the decadent beauty.
Ruin photos speak to our desperate desire to have our world re-enchanted. We want the banal structures and scenes of our everyday life dignified by the patina of decay, so that we can imagine ourselves as noble, mythic Greeks and Romans to a later age and, more important, so that we can better tolerate the frequently shoddy and trite material culture that consumerism foists on us, see it once again as capable of mystery. We carry our own personal zone of alienation wherever we go, but seeing the familiar world of our everyday life in ruins externalizes that alienation, makes it seem as though we’ve exorcised it like a devil. We become larger than this life, than these dentist’s offices and deserted boardrooms Leary notes in the photos. We will survive it all, we will outlast the mediocrity that made us.