06.05.2015
  • United States

The Ruins of Capitalism

By depicting urban decay and ecological crisis, ruin imagery shows the people and places that capitalism left behind.

Birches Growing In Decayed Books, from Detroit Disassembled (2010). Andrew Moore

Images of urban abandonment and decay produced by deindustrialization and disinvestment have become pervasive. And no city is pictured in books, exhibitions, web sites, films, and popular media more than Detroit. Although deindustrial landscapes are scattered across the world, most notably in the former leading manufacturing centers, Detroit has become the preeminent example of urban decay, the global metaphor for capitalist decline, and the epicenter of a photographic genre: deindustrial ruin imagery.

By highlighting poverty, urban deterioration, and economic and ecological crises, ruin imagery underscores the inability of capitalist society to protect its citizens and its cities. As national economic imperatives clash with the demands of globalized capital, the decrepitude of cities like Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland feeds a pervasive cultural pessimism that foresees violent disintegration and collapse — whether through viral pandemics, ecological destruction, warfare, or deindustrialization.

Hence the paradoxical appeal of ruin imagery: as faith in a better future erodes, the beauty of decay helps us cope with the terror of apocalyptic decline. In the cultural imagination, the idea of Detroit has come to serve as the repository for the nightmare of urban decline in a world where the majority of people live in cities.

Detroit ruin imagery also serves another function — it geographically circumscribes and isolates the anxiety of decline, making the predominantly African-American city a kind of alien zone. The ubiquitous photos of derelict skyscrapers, churches, businesses, and homes, and abandoned factories like the Packard Plant — the nation’s largest ruin — are repeatedly compared to war zones, hurricane wreckage, and the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

The effects of ruination are stark, to be sure: Detroit’s unemployment rate in 2014 was the highest of the nation’s fifty largest cities and more than three times the national average, while the higher education rate was well below it. City services are slow and inadequate, but property taxes are high, continually threatening poor residents with home foreclosures and the city with yet more blighted, abandoned houses. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line.

But photographs of crumbling neighborhoods, by their nature, explain very little about the complex causes of decline or the ramifications of ruination for the city’s future, or the nation’s. Instead, the city, as produced through images, takes on different meanings in different contexts. In the popular imagination, Detroit is seen as both representative of urban decline and as a uniquely mismanaged city.

As the former leading manufacturing center in the world and now a failing city that is predominantly poor and black, Detroit is construed as both exemplifying inevitable economic trends for which no one is to blame, and as a highly racialized city that has caused its own decline through incompetent or corrupt leadership.

Detroit is thus regarded as demonstrating either the historical inescapability of decline or its own history of irresponsibility. In this way, the rest of the country is lulled into believing that Detroit’s downward spiral is either deserved, unavoidable, or a combination of the two.

These constructions of the city allow the real agents of degeneration — corporations and the capitalist state — to evade responsibility and justify the city’s takeover by the state, its forced bankruptcy, the attack on workers’ pensions, the privatization of city services, and other threatened austerity measures.

They also serve as disciplinary warnings to struggling cities and towns from Maine to California. By placing the debt burden on poor, black, and working people while blaming no one or the city itself for such iniquities, Detroit and its representations assume a pivotal role in shaping the future of city life in America.

A standard trope in ruin imagery is the suggestion of a timeless struggle between nature and culture. The photographs of Andrew Moore, in Detroit Disassembled, or Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, in The Ruins of Detroit, are two well-known examples that focus on the pastoral reclamation of the built environment.

Moore’s Birches Growing in Decayed Books, Detroit Public Schools Depository shows young trees in a carpet of rotting books that reach toward the sky through a hole in the roof of the former book depository. The upward diagonal perspective and warm light create a sense of renewal in adversity, while evoking the seemingly natural cycle of trees to books and back to trees. Vibrant with color, the photograph offers a commemorative tribute to the resurgence of nature.

Marchand and Meffre’s photographs are taken in dark, overcast light conditions. Cool and drained of life, they suggest a somber lamentation for a state of irreversible decline and mortal rigor. The last image in the book shows the photographers themselves as two tiny silhouettes walking down an alley amid the derelict buildings of the Packard Plant. The alley appears to be a vacant street and the desolate facility a metonym for the city, which by implication is also empty and abandoned. The image offers a mournful farewell even as it commemorates the city’s picturesque appearance.

Packard Motors Plant. Marchand Meffre
Southern Part, Packard Motors Plant (2009) from The Ruins of Detroit (2010). Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

These are flip sides of the same aesthetic strategy. Marchand and Meffre’s photograph bemoans city decline as a deindustrialized wasteland even as it finds beauty in decay, while Moore’s photograph engages in romanticized reveries on the struggle between nature and culture and sees the same beauty in decay.

The metaphor of nature reclaiming the city, whether used in negative or redemptive terms, neutralizes the actual processes that have had such a destructive impact on the city: virulent racism, anti-unionism, and industrial restructuring. This neutralization is compounded by the fact that most ruin imagery rarely contains evidence of an urban populace — many observers are surprised to learn that Detroit still has almost seven hundred thousand residents.

In December 2013 the New York Times published three photos by Marchand and Meffre to accompany a front-page article announcing a federal judge’s ruling that Detroit was qualified to enter bankruptcy without protections for city pensions.

The December 4, 2013 front page of the New York Times, featuring three photos of abandoned sites by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.
The December 4, 2013 front page of the New York Times, featuring three photos of abandoned sites by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

The top photo showed the Michigan Central Station, a grand civic structure whose abandonment serves as a symbol of city failure. Below that were images of the formerly luxurious ballroom of the Lee Plaza hotel, with its beautifully painted ceiling and overturned piano, and the classroom of a former Catholic school.

By eliding the active human presence in the city and the combative local response to the judge’s ruling, the front-page trio of ruin photos suggested an already dead and mummified city. This was reinforced by the boldface caption, “Visions of a Lost City,” which in turn provided ideological support for cutting municipal workers’ pensions: if the city is already lost, there is no need to worry about the thousands of people who are fighting to survive or to preserve their meager pensions (which average only $19,200 a year).

If the victims of the city’s decline disappear, the discourse of ruination becomes one about architecture and landscape and the city’s inevitable “reclamation” by nature, whether that means a return to a pre-civilized state or the emergence of a new ecological idyll. Photography that focuses only on the beauty of decay in architecture thus distances the viewer from the effects of decay on people and obscures the ongoing crisis of poverty and unemployment.

This effacement of the populace also reflects and reinforces their invisibility to corporations and the capitalist state, who helped create the patterns of ghettoized, racialized poverty that have long prevailed in the city while simultaneously absolving themselves of any responsibility.

The point isn’t to suggest what artists and photographers should or shouldn’t photograph; rather, what’s important is examining the cultural work that ruin imagery performs and the political uses to which it is put. The romantic narrative of the beauty of decay in the ruin image produces pleasure by containing and controlling the anxiety of decline through the safety and distance of representation.

This is the cultural function of ruin imagery; the mental mastery of the terrifying is its nature and purpose. Even as it makes evident the disastrous effects of capitalism, the more aesthetically refined and pleasing the ruin image, the more effective the distancing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the proliferation of ruin imagery has activated a debate over “ruin porn,” a term that raises the question of whether such photos should be dismissed as voyeuristic and exploitative or whether they make visible what might otherwise remain hidden from history. The ruin porn critique depends on a dichotomy between “insiders” and “outsiders,” between those who regard themselves as city loyalists whose lives and work are affected by the city (and therefore have earned the right to profit from it), and those whose who are merely “drive-by.”

For many poor Detroit residents, ruin imagery in the national media is a source of demoralization and embarrassment — regardless of who has taken the photo — and there are plenty of local photographers who shoot the decaying landscape. They fear the irreversible marginalization and estrangement of the city from a host nation that views the city from a position of aestheticized fascination, at a comfortable remove.

This sense of powerlessness evokes feelings of anger and resentment — not against the conditions of the city directly, but against the pictures that convey them. They seem to make those conditions worse by publicizing them, making the city seem alien and pathetic and, perhaps worst of all, provoking pity as a depersonalized response to “distant suffering,” akin to seeing pictures of starving children in Africa.

But history is rife with scenes of disaster and decay that draw outside photographers and reporters, and they are responsible for a great many indelible images as well as written history. Picturing the abject always carries a risk of exploitation, yet those pictures also act as witnesses to history. Like all witnesses, they are subjective and imperfect. Yet they offer perspectives that might not otherwise be seen.

“Ruin porn” is therefore a highly problematic tool of critical analysis, because the appetite for ruin imagery only grows larger as abandonment and decay spreads, and because insiders ultimately cannot retain “ownership” of the ruins. The ruins of Detroit, like those of Baltimore or St Louis, are America’s ruins.

Such imagery visually intensifies the realities of economic and cultural deterioration. By making these devastating effects starkly visible in carefully composed portraits of decay, they induce a variety of affects, from pleasure to unease. Like late romantic art and literature that criticized the imperial pretensions of empire, contemporary ruin imagery also functions as an implicit criticism of our domestic status quo. The aesthetics of decay serve as a warning of decline even as the images participate, wittingly or not, in constructing the dominant narrative of Detroit.

These images can thus lament, elegize, or celebrate the decay they depict; they can implicitly critique the forces or effects of decline; they can embrace those effects as beautiful or melancholic; but they cannot disguise the halt in progress that ruins represent. As fears of decline grow, the threshold for compensatory aesthetic pleasure also increases, requiring more images of dilapidation and post-apocalyptic disaster in order to achieve a sense of safety. In this way, ruin imagery is imbued with ever greater cultural power.

Not surprisingly, the fascination with Detroit’s urban ruins intensified as the city negotiated the bankruptcy crisis. And despite the narrative that seeks to marginalize and isolate the city as responsible for its own decline, Detroit has become emblematic of failing cities everywhere.

Yet just as ruin imagery challenges the logic of neoliberalism and the capitalist state as an effective protector of its citizens and a source of progress and rationality, it also challenges us to consider how our declining cities may be reclaimed and reimagined.

It invites us to think about economic reorganization and democratic planning, as part of the forging of an egalitarian society based on need and not profit — where cities meet the requirements of their collective populations, provide the basis for individual fulfillment, and help sustain the earth’s environment.