It has been interesting over the past couple of years to watch the way in which Detroit has come to occupy a very specific place in the contemporary cultural imagination. There is a whole strain of contemporary photography that takes aim at Detroit and its picturesque modern ruins. At its best, this aesthetic framing of decay invokes a sense of melancholic humility that links it to a poem such as Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which likewise invites the humbling contemplation of great power come to ruin and visible in the present only through its remnants and remainders.
There’s an element of the industrial/historical sublime in any such gaze upon ruins. In the traditional form of the picturesque the monumentality of time itself, how duration erodes the power of even the most powerful, is experienced as sublime. In the ruins of Detroit, the catalyst for the sublime seems to be the sheer acceleration of this process. A city which less than a century ago stood as the symbol of modern America and the most advanced form of capitalist production now represents the collapse of that system and its replacement by a more advanced and even more rapacious form. The sheer speed of its fall, in relative terms, induces slack-jawed wonder. In a sci-fi type scenario, the ruins of the twentieth-century arrive prematurely in Detroit. The shock of the photos is that they are not from the future but from the present day.
At times there seems an almost pornographic fascination with the ruins of modernity in Detroit. To term it pornographic is to suggest that representations of the city’s ruins, largely by those from elsewhere, conjoin the melancholic and erotic, replace humility with humiliation, and derive a perverse pleasure in seeing a hitherto vibrant and alive city emptied, windswept, and abandoned.
As John Patrick Leary argues in his article “Detroitism,” the most intriguing thing about the representation of Detroit’s ruins is the skewed temporality of the perspective. From one vantage point, the ruins of Detroit point to a past that has elsewhere been eclipsed but which remains visibly suspended in its failure in Detroit. But, from another vantage point, and far more intriguingly, the ruins point toward a future that has been realized in Detroit first and simply awaits its realization in other cities. The energy of these representations of Detroit seems at first to be primarily melancholic, the way in which they evoke a sense of a terrible fate avoided. But this melancholia must just be a way to repress the more terrifying truth of these images: that Detroit’s present is our future, that ruin has not been avoided at all and awaits us in the future.
That, I have to admit, came out a bit melodramatically, a bit Charlton Heston shaking his fist in front of the buried Statue of Liberty, but what I find so interesting about these representations of Detroit is how documentary impulses blend with the energy of science fiction: the desire to represent the ruins of Detroit draws on the representational arsenal of dystopian fiction. Again, the question here is one of history and temporality: the past inside the present obscures the future that also lurks there.
Two books of photography: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit and Dan Austin and Sean Doerr’s Lost Detroit: Stories Behind Detroit’s Majestic Ruins.
Several articles: John Patrick Leary’s “Detroitism”, Willy Staley’s “What’s Really Pornographic: The Point of Documenting Detroit”, Thomas Morton’s “Something, Something, Something Detroit”, Julien Temple’s “Detroit: the last days”, and Kelli Korducki’s “Detroit and What it can mean for Toronto.”