Corpses and Ruins: More on “Ruin Porn”

by on Apr.04, 2014

Memories
From Eva Brauns’ body snow in and
Finally cover over the portals. There is nobody
From the soil. It is still
The thirties. Grass on the floor, it is
Different, the apartment with
The white friends in underwear in
The burning grass.
– Lars Noren (from Final Song on the Morning of Eva Braun’s Death)

Yesterday I wrote a piece about ruin porn inspired by my visit to Detroit. It was really more about the critique/condemnation about “ruin porn,” how this critique stages a condemnation of art and art’s deformation zone, how it also stabilizes something volatile about art, and especially the image.
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I see the same condemnation/stabilization in a lot of the rhetoric around kitsch. So that Saul Friedlander condemning kitsch for its connection to Nazism is a little like condemning art as “ruin porn.” Friedlander could be talking about these Detroit pictures here:

“Here is the essence of the frisson: an overload of symbols; a baroque setting; an evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, of the myth and of religiosity enveloping a vision of death announced as a revelation opening out into nothing – nothing but frightfulness and the night. Unless… Unless the revelation is that of a mysterious force leading man toward irresistible destruction.”

But if it’s “porn”, how come there are no bodies in it?

Of if these pictures have bodies in them, they must certainly be corpses, right? Corpse porn?

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And Blanchot pointed out a long time ago the intimate connection between images and corpses:

“The cadaver is its own image. It no longer entertains any relation with this world, where it still appears, except that of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow ever present behind the living form which now, far from separating itself from this form, transforms it entirely into shadow. The corpse is a reflection becoming master of the life it reflects—absorbing it, identifying substantively with it by moving it from its use value and from its truth value to something incredible—something neutral which there is no getting used to. And if the cadaver is so similar, it is because it is, at a certain moment, similarity par excellence: altogether similarity, and also nothing more. It is the likeness, like to an absolute degree, overwhelming and marvellous. But what is it like? Nothing.”

4-Song-of-Sentient-Beings-1612-1995

Maybe we need a “parapornographic” reading of Detroit?

images

8 comments for this entry:
  1. David Need

    I wonder if Blanchot is right–what is relationship between, say, my image (the way I appear to others) and the kind of thing we are often talking about when we talk about image in aesthetics (something our brain makes of visual sense, or in imagination, that we offer each other in various plastic terms)…

  2. Johannes

    Blanchot is talking about image in art, but your question is interesting.

  3. Matthew

    See Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, for the undead (vampires) living amongst Detroit’s “ruin porn.” Good stuff.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TbxI_oRSKI

    Jarmusch turns—like a vampire “turns” a person into another vampire—Detroit gothic / Romantic: from the abandoned house Adam lives in an ruined neighborhood “where no one lives,” surrounded by black dogs / children of the night making their beautiful music while he is making his own music, to the chill late night drives through Detroit’s ruined everything, ending, mournfully, at the Michigan Theater, which is now a car park. “Ruin porn” turned into / suffused with Art, and vice versa.

    Super beautiful movie. Plus, there’s maybe the most fucking ecstatic blood-drinking scene since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The good stuff, indeed.

  4. Johannes

    I’ll have to check it out. I haven’t like Jarmusch films for a while, but maybe this is the one. it also seems to be about whiteness which I am really into these days. / J

  5. Sean Patrick Hill

    I started writing an essay about this subject this morning. I really got into “ruin porn,” so-called, because of the photographs of Seph Lawless, one of which I bought, images to which I composed a series of poems that I sent to him.

    I’ve thought about this a long time–there is also a precedence in Baroque and Romantic visual art, of course, all of which I’m writing on–and I considered two simple approaches to this.

    First, there’s the historical level. The ruins of mills in Oregon, which is where I began, are comparable to the auto industry ashes in Detroit. It’s a history we forget and thus repeat. In this too, it’s interesting that much “ruin porn”–but not all–relates to economic ruins.

    Second, there is the Buddhist meditation of the world passing continually out of existence; thus, these images are a contemplation of the notion of impermanence, which is a foundational “truth” to Buddhism.

    Ruin Porn fetishizes something that is, ultimately, taboo: death. What is happening, I think, is that we project ourselves upon the ruins. Because the ruins are cultural constructs themselves, they are really “us” in that regard. A culture is dying, which means WE are dying, and this deflects the contemplation in much the same way as Greek Theatre, through mimesis (at least in the way I understand it) which is cathartic. We can acknowledge this death through the layers of framing the artist achieves.

    It’s not all economic, though that seems America’s chief concern. Consider some of the most pertinent ruins that Seph Lawless depicts: homes and churches. Churches in ruins seem particularly appalling. Factories in Detroit we can understand–the images do point, I would think, at least they do for me, toward a commentary on economy–here is the inevitable outcome of industrialization. And one has to ask questions when confronted by these images that transcends “jobs”: where did our economy go (remembering “eco” is really the “earth household” Gary Snyder talks about), and thus this links the economic ruins with the images of ruined homes–even mansions (wealth, like anything else, is temporary). But churches in ruin point to a death no one is willing to acknowledge, much to the apparent dismay of the devout.

    Part of the taboo being brought to light is our wish to see things destroyed. Hollywood, whether it’s as long ago as “Logan’s Run” or as recent as remakes of “Planet of the Apes” or “Godzilla,” has long known about the public’s urge to see civilization destroyed. It may be simply that the real taboo subject of a corporatized, capitalist society is that it doesn’t work and therefore should be dismantled. We know that the homes in ruins are OUR homes.

    Ron Fricke’s film Samsara deals with this notion quite straightforwardly, and images of modern ruins begin the film, notably. New Orleans is another image of abandonment that rivals Piranesi’s 18th century images of Roman ruins. This romanticizes a “golden age,” same as ours do–though our Golden Age was the same industrialization the Modernist painters (say, Sheeler) regarded with such aplomb.

    Confronting and examining wreckage is, therefore, a way to contemplate consequences. The images would be patently karmic in that regard. They simply point, unflinchingly, to that which is true: everything we build goes to ground.

  6. Johannes

    Great comment. I’d love to read what you wrote. The death thing is also all over kitsch, and Saul Friedlander’s book about kitsch and its Nazi connections.

    J

  7. Sean Patrick Hill

    Johannes, not Jarmusch but Fricke, who also directed “Baraka,” which also deals with ruins. I neglected to say I saw something similar to Joyelle’s discussion of the “necropastoral,” though clearly different, too. The ruins are not hidden beneath the threshold of memory, as in Whitman’s poem of churning up rotted flesh and bones (a bit out of context here, and I can’t remember the title at the moment). But the ruins, too, have a relationship to the landscape.

    I pounded out 8 pages of talk about this subject just this morning. I drew some parallels in relation to WHO experiences the ruins: the viewer of the art, surely, but also the individual in their lives (the house I lived in is going to ruins, actually) on up to the culture as a whole (say, the residents of the Rust Belt or even Detroit, some of which are living, I said, in an open casket).

    I’d be happy to send a copy of what I wrote, perhaps as a Facebook message. I would like to find an appropriate venue for it and also need to tune it. There’s also the topic of whether the “ruin porn” images are truly representative of the place they claim to document; for example, the poet Jamaal May argues that Detroit is not as it is depicted in the media at all, so that a single image does not stand in for the whole–is not a metonym, perhaps? So I can see how “ruin porn” is indeed sensational.

  8. Danniel Schoonebeek

    The new Jarmusch was good on these, I agree.

    And here’s a surface glean of some Nazi architectural ideas, particularly Ruin Value. Hard to find Speer’s original, but this is a good introduction:

    https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/citd/holtorf/7.4.html