Mediapolis Live: Dora Apel on “Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline” (Part 1)

Michigan Central Station, yesterday and today. Photos by David Light and jasonwoodhead23. Photo illustration by Mediapolis.
Our Mediapolis Live series continues with an interview with Dora Apel, author of "Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline." In the first of a two-part series, co-editor Brendan Kredell discusses with Apel her notion of the "deindustrial sublime" and the nomenclature of ruin photography.
[Ed. note: Mediapolis Live is an audio series of interviews, live events, and other discussions of cities and culture. An edited and condensed transcript of this interview follows; due to its length, we’re publishing it in two parts. The second part continues here.]

In their sheer volume, the images of contemporary Detroit – decaying skyscrapers and overgrown residential tracts, abandoned factories and desolate streetscapes alike – have a way of distancing us from the place itself, rendering a city of 700,000 people as a modern-day Pompeii. But Dora Apel sees something more profound, and more troubling: she finds in those same images evidence of our “anxiety of decline,” reading Detroit’s representations as our visual reckoning with deindustrialization and late capitalism. Apel is the W. Hawkins Ferry Endowed Chair in Modern and Contemporary Art History at Wayne State University and the author of Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline.

Brendan Kredell: I wanted to begin right at the start, with the title, which I think is such an evocative one, and really sets us off onto this course that you’re charting through the rest of the book, looking at this inherent tension and the dichotomy between the beauty and the terror of ruins. The way that we’re drawn to them like a moth to the flame, in some way. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you came to that title, and what you see it meaning for the work as a whole.

Dora Apel: Thanks Brendan. I wanted to establish a kind of dispassionate position that didn’t immediately suggest that I was either celebrating or criticizing the representation of ruins, or the effects of ruins, but that didn’t deny the fascination and the seduction that ruins have for all of us, even if I also wanted to look more critically at the way they’re represented and what the ruins themselves mean. So “beautiful” and “terrible” seem to encompass the whole spectrum of feelings that we — or most of us — have about ruins.

BK: I think one of the really interesting moves you make at the beginning of the book in framing your argument, which comes off of this idea of attempting to capture some dispassion in the discussion. You talk about the legacy of fascination with ruins, and I think one of the really interesting things you do is historicize this and locate the impulse in eighteenth-century garden follies, and trace this through the twentieth century, and the idea of “ruin lusts,” Rose Macaulay’s concept. And then bringing it up to the modern day, you talk about the way that “ruin porn” has entered into the vernacular. Yet, pointedly, you don’t use terms like ruin lust or ruin porn when describing this, but opt for the more dispassionate — and almost clinical -– “ruin imagery.” So I wonder if you could keep talking about this idea of dispassion, and specifically, why frame the argument in these terms of imagery rather than acknowledging this sort of ardor?

DA: I mean for one thing, I don’t think that imagery actually speaks for itself the way people often think it does, and it really depends on how it’s contextualized, how it’s used, what kind of cultural and symbolic work it’s made to do – and that depends on the arena in which it circulates, the discourses that surround it. So it’s unfair to frame the imagery itself with a kind of moral weight in and of itself. And part of what was interesting about looking back at the eighteenth and nineteenth century lust for ruins, if you think about the Grand Tour that many Brits would go on, this was a way of confirming for themselves their own national superiority because the ruins they were looking at were elsewhere — usually Greek and Roman ruins. I thought it was important to establish the difference between classical ruins and contemporary ruins, but those classical ruins that people would go to view — beautiful as they might be — confirmed for themselves that their civilization was superior, that these civilizations fell. And ruins today, deindustrial ruins, are part of our own empire, as it were. So you don’t get that sense of satisfaction from looking at the ruins. And this is one of the reasons why it’s terrible, it’s frightening, and it’s horrifying.

BK: You talk in that chapter about the Grand Tour, about how the philosophical notion of the sublime, as developed by Kant and Burke, can be traced back to this moment in European cultural history. You talk about the Great Lisbon Earthquake as being an instigating event in the notion of philosophizing the sublime. And then you bring that forward in your own work on Detroit, where you talk about the “deindustrial sublime,” which I think is a really wonderful term. So I wonder if you might trace that intellectual history a bit for the listener and how you see the idea of sublime as being a useful lens to think about deindustrial ruins.

DA: The sublime, it is sometimes confused with the majestic or the beautiful, but the sublime is actually something that happens inside the human mind. It doesn’t reside in nature, but it’s a way of mastering the terror of nature through the rational mind. This is how Kant talks about it. So that mental mastery induces a sense of safety, but that that can only come about through distance or through time. So in the case of the Lisbon earthquake, which was the mid-eighteenth century and which was a horrendous geological event that killed tens of thousands of people and was quite terrifying, a lot of people wrote about it. And Kant, in fact, developed his theory of the sublime just a few years after it. That was something that people must’ve felt could have happened to them, but it was a way of distancing themselves from it. If you read about it or see paintings of it, your distance is both through time and through representation itself. Representation is a way of distancing yourself and producing a sense of mental mastery and safety. So in the same way, looking at deindustrial ruins, which in a way are much more anxiety-producing because they’re right in your own backyard, and photographing it and looking at photographs of it becomes a way of coping with the anxiety that decline produces. This is essentially the thesis of the book, that the anxiety of decline produces an enormous appetite for ruin imagery because that ruin imagery becomes a way of not only mastering the terror, but also producing a sense of pleasure. We take pleasure in the aestheticizing of the ruins.

BK: You talk about how the sublime as initially formulated by Kant is located in this acute moment of the earthquake, and how subsequent to that we’ve identified these moments of trauma in acute instances — you give 9/11 as a more contemporary example — and that the acuteness of those moments allows them to be memorialized, which serves to function as a way for us to sort of frame our understanding of the ruins. So what is it about deindustrialization as we see it, for instance here in Detroit, that breaks that frame? That it’s the absence of an acute moment of deindustrialization? You do talk about how in a sense the national media “discover” Detroit’s ruins at the Super Bowl in 2006, when everyone comes to the city and sees it firsthand.

DA: Well that’s one of those acute moments, I think, because Detroiters now saw themselves through the eyes of the national media. And that in turn I think is one of the primary events that gave rise to the term ruin porn, because there was a sense of embarrassment and resentment, you know, being pitied from a distance — from a privileged distance — the way that we look at pictures of starving children in Africa. So they didn’t want to be seen that way. At the same time, it meant looking with fresh eyes at your own city. So the things that you’ve seen for a long time that have become normalized that you in fact don’t see anymore, you see it now again through outsiders’ eyes and you see how horrifying it is. And what does that mean to raise a family around ruins? And the kind of dangers that ruins attract and produce?

BK: One of the things that I appreciated about the book is the insistence on historical specificity, and the degree to which this becomes a political and a cultural history, as a way of framing our understanding of the visual culture that you’re talking about in the book. And I saw echoes of that in your discussion at the beginning of this dichotomy between insider and outsider as it relates to the photographers taking the actual pictures of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository. The wariness that you have in describing the relationship of the photographer to the subject in terms of exploiting ruins and who is authorized to make these images –I couldn’t help it see echoes of that in your own insistence on the historical specificity, that that was a way to avoid exploiting the same images that these photographers were exploiting. That the insistence on context is a way of denying the pure aestheticization of ruins in a way. So, I guess as a methods question, how much of that work did you feel compelled to do for the reader, many of whom presumably will be largely unfamiliar with Detroit’s history, as a way of introducing discussion of the visual culture of the city?

DA: Well I thought that that was fundamental, that was crucial, and I was at pains to — I wanted to really try and break down the dichotomy between insider and outsider because I think they ultimately as photographers do very similar things. And it starts to come down to a question of “who has the right?” Which is never a good question. Everyone has the right to photograph the ruins if they want to, and it’s the wrong question. The question is “what do you want those photographs to do? What do you want them to say? What do you want people to learn?” And in order to learn from them you need the political and social economic context. So my critique is not exploitation by outsiders versus insiders, but how are they used? And I argue that they’re used in various ways, but there is the romanticizing of the ruins that defines it as a struggle between nature and culture. And in some cases the triumph of nature over culture is seen as a celebration of new life and growth. There are others who see it as a lament and a downward spiral that leading to the end times, so that it’s a kind of a pessimistic nihilism. There are those who see it as a kind of return to a pre-industrial past, and you know, an open slate for a new kind of off-the-grid growth, which I think is also romantic. And there is some who see it as laying the foundation for a critique of the status quo, a critique of the capitalist system that has gotten us where we are. But almost all the photographs, by their nature, can’t deal with the causes of decline. They can’t deal with the downward spiral of capitalism and its effects on race and class and culture, and so if you don’t embed the imagery in that history then you don’t really have anything but except maybe what people call ruin porn.

Editorial assistant Nicole Diroff contributed to the production of this interview.

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