Just back from some research work that took up my energy for writing and thinking, I spent some time catching up on blogs and social media. I followed one link out from a Facebook friend to Paul Mullins’ excellent Archaeology and Material Culture blog, which often has content that I bookmark and mean to respond to but never quite get around to tackling. The linked essay was actually an older one, on “ruin porn”. This caught my eye because I like ruin photography quite a bit, as well as the general practice of “urban exploration”.
Mullins has a typically careful, considered, densely hyperlinked appreciation of the topic that exemplifies the best kinds of curation that digital culture has to offer. But as I followed some of his links to the critics of “ruin porn”, even the more subtle and careful critiques like John Patrick Leary’s response to ruin photography centered on Detroit, I found myself thinking about some tendencies in humanistic writing that I think first took shape in the 1980s but continue to be a limitation of some humanistic intellectuals both inside and outside of the academy.
I’m aware that some of what I’m about to say commits some of the sins I’m identifying, partly because I want to abstract some of these observed problems away from any single one of the links that Mullins offers rather than turn this into “my blog vs. that blog” (especially when some of the linked blog entries in Mullins’ essay are two or three years old: the presentism of digital culture sometimes means that people are deeply puzzled when you start a debate about entries that the authors wrote years ago). None of the critiques that Mullins includes in his overview perfectly exemplifies the issues I’m about to describe, and in many cases they simply reminded me of overall frustrations I have with large strains and tendencies in work that I want to like more than I do, including issues I sometimes see in the writing of my students.
So here are six tendencies that I have a problem with:
1) The complaint against omission and the demand for an impossible culture. Reading through Mullins’ links, some of the critics of ruin photography complain that many ruin images leave out people, excise the history of how a building or place came to be ruined, or omit the political economy of abandonment and neglect. I see some similar, if less experienced and articulate, arguments in some student writing: asked to critique, many students opt to accuse a scholar or writer of leaving out, neglecting, forgetting, rather than to directly disagree with or argue against a claim or analysis. At the least, this often amounts to a weak, evasive or highly selective form of intertextuality: it lets the critic pose one text that they happen to know against the text they’re critiquing, without having to have anything like a systematic knowledge of entire genres, tropes or bodies of scholarly thought or without having to know whether or how the two texts being contrasted might plausibly actually be expected to be in relation to one another. (In the case of my students, I sometimes see them holding one author accountable for having neglected or forgotten another work which was produced at a much later date.) So looking at ruin photography in isolation without asking what histories of visual culture it draws from or is talking to, or whether the critic has the same expectation of ruin photography of other sites and places or even of non-ruin landscape and architecture photography (which often also leaves out people and political economies and processes), is a problem.
Two photographs that leave out people, histories and political economies, for example, and are almost entirely “aestheticized”:
It’s a bigger problem when this strategy demands impossible culture–or it holds all culture accountable for not being a single idealized type of work which is (surprise) frequently either the kind of work that the critic does or is the kind of work that the critic professionally identifies with. This is when criticism starts to look like the worst Christmas list from the most overprivileged child, an endless list of unprioritized and urgent demands. There is no photography, no performance, no representational work, that can include totality and even the desire that they should is a terrible misfire.
This has always struck me at the least as the kind of thing that a dullard senior professor does when called upon to act as a discussant or critic, to compile a long list of omissions from the work on offer without any reading of the meaning of those omissions and the possibilities of their inclusion. Taken seriously, this kind of demand actually encourages the production of expressive and interpretative work that looks like a horribly literalist editorial cartoon with labels on all its images, less an analysis and more a catalogue. What does a photograph of a ruin look like if it includes all the people, all the processes, all the political economies, all the histories, that went into making the ruin? It looks like an archive or an exhibition, and an endless and imaginary one at that.
One of the wellsprings of this kind of wish for an impossible culture, I think, is the way that a sort of backdoor empiricism infiltrated humanistic practice in the academy via historicism. Much as the ‘hard’ social sciences have come to rest on an almost parodistically exaggerated distortion of the positivism that that they (wrongly) attribute to the natural sciences, some humanistic work trying to do useful sociopolitical work slowly but surely came to take on board the dullest kind of empiricism of the most literalist historian or sociologist to the point that this mode of criticism can appreciate or admire no text for what it is or does, only complain of what it is not.
2) The assertion of ownership. The critique of ruin photography and urban exploration often comes down to this: that its practicioners are carpet-baggers, cosmopolitan passers-by, tourists and short-termers, inauthentic. At best, these formulations are true but banal. Places, communities and people give up different stories at different time scales as well as in response to different styles of knowing. There are things you can’t know about a place after a day, a week, a year, a decade, a life–and things you can’t know about a place if your decade there was from age 10 to 20 or from age 60 to 70. But this proposition is always reversible. The longer you’re in a place, the less able you are able to see other things. Banality dulls the ability to see beauty and horror. Watching a building crumble slowly over the years, knowing intimately the processes of its abandonment, may make it hard to see how startling or interesting the results of that history might be to fresh eyes. At its worst, playing the authenticity game puts a very deadly weapon in the hands of repressive actors. It’s always something that can be turned back on the critic: there will always be an experience or subjectivity beyond the critic’s own boundary, a point at which they will also have to borrow from, rework, or rely upon accounts of experience or embodiment that the critic doesn’t have in themselves and didn’t live in, or they will have to distract mightily from the presumption of their own assumed authority. (Say, the arrogance of anyone speaking for what “Detroiters” in general think of Detroit’s history and landscape: I don’t recall there being a plebiscite or poll that documented what most of ‘them’ think, I don’t think that Detroiters as a whole think the same things or have lived the same lives in relationship to their landscapes.) Coupling the right to represent to a privileged subject position is a bad move, and it’s easy to fall into that from the simpler and often useful assertion that a particular representation has assumed its own privileged relationship to the truth of what it shows. But in fact ruin photography often makes quite clear its outsider status and to see something in ruins which locality and rootedness do not see.
3) Starting with accusation rather than curiosity. I think this tendency is especially deadly to humanistic study and writing, a point that is also made by the recent Harvard College report on the humanities. As the report puts it, “among the ways we sometimes alienate students from the Humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in our classrooms.” Or in expressive culture and critical interpretation at large. What is striking about some of the critiques of ruin photography is that they do not start with the question, “So why are these images being produced? Where are they being produced? What do their creators say about them? Who views them? Who likes them?” in a time when all of these questions are more richly answerable on a vast sociocultural scale than ever before. And I do not mean to suggest they be answered in the dullest or most literally sociological ways. Instead, ask them as if the answers might be a surprise, because when asked in that spirit, they often are. We’re not blank slates: what we see or know forms out of what we already see and know, and we’re not discovering an already-made ontological reality that only waits for us to ping it with the right gadget. Curiosity is a spirit, an attitude, a starting posture. It’s a way of tuning your instrument before the performance, or seeking ongoing inspiration for inquiry. Critique that follows something like curiosity, something like an ethnographic understanding of the thing we want to criticize, is more powerful both because it is truly earned and because it is more precisely targeted. When you have to fling around tropes like “hipster” to hit your target, the humanities that results is about one step above a Buzzfeed listicle.
4) The lost opportunties of anti-curation. Again, in a time when it’s possible to bring together large bodies of text and representation and work the resulting aggregations of “medium data” as a way to think to and invent new possibilities of seeing, it seems depressing to see some kinds of humanistic critique involved in the disembedding of expressive culture, in the assembly of cherrypicked galleries of grotesques, of being stuck in the flow of digital attention without ever making strategic decisions to go beyond or below the flow of the picture or meme that floods past our doors. That flood is a marvelous thing and there are incredibly fruitful ways of knowing and interpreting that are growing out of it. But we ought to be able to take whatever detritus washes up in front of us and then dive deeper into the wreck or look out at all the flotsam and jetsam around it. Sure, suddenly it seems that here are all these photographs of Detroit in ruins. But go wider and suddenly there are all these photographs of ruins in general, not just post-industrial North American cities. Or even wider and suddenly there are all these photographs period. Suddenly the critic’s perception of a boundary around one trope or expressive moment requires a much stronger defense. Go deeper and suddenly a fascination with ruins seems both more historically interesting as an affect of modernity or much more banal as a consequence of the movement of people and capital. None of the widening and deepening that curatorial practice entails forbids the critic to criticize, but it does place important burdens and challenges upon critique.
5) The mistrust of beauty and pleasure. It’s really striking in some criticisms of ruin photography to see the critics resist or defract the appeal of the images themselves, often via the term “ruin porn”. Like “food porn”, that can be a lightly ironic way for people who actually produce and appreciate the images to label their own desire, but some critics of the form seem to use it much more seriously as an indictment of aestheticization itself, that any image or performance or text which produces desire and pleasure is prurient and unsavory. This is again a kind of backdoor positivism sneaking into the picture, as if a more real and less aestheticized image would be both always possible and inevitably preferable. It’s not like that: street photography, for example, with its typical emphasis on naturalism and embodiment and documentary realism, is another aesthetic, whether it stages itself among decline or in the midst of wealth. The argument that we should have a critical or systematic preference for an aesthetic is the hardest one in the world to make in the humanities, and that difficult labor is something that polemicists typically bypass whether they’re self-declared conservatives insisting on the “Western tradition” or progressives complaining about hipsters aestheticizing ruined buildings in Detroit. It’s not that “this ruin is beautiful” is a sufficient justification for an image in its own right for anyone but the producer of the image but that it’s a possible justification. It’s not just positivism that sneaks into the picture here but productivism, the proposition that culture has work to do, and that the work of producing culture should always somehow justify the investment of time and resources not just of the artist but of the viewers.
6) Which I think leads to my last complaint: that this kind of critique doesn’t look to recuperate, reimagine, reinterpret but to forbid. In some sense there should be no image, no expressive work, no text, no performance whose existence we regret to the point of wishing it had never happened. This is where there is often a disjuncture between humanistic work on the past (which accepts the inevitability of the texts and performances of interest and is therefore often capable of interpreting them in fresh and novel ways rather than just wishing they had never been) and work in the present, which much more often attempts to instruct or set boundaries around the creation of culture and interpretation in the near-term future.
All of this, by the way, isn’t important just because of how it affects acceptance of work by scholars and public intellectuals, or how it affects the institutional status of the humanities. Much of this is also a good explanation for why contemporary progressive intellectuals struggle so hard to make headway in the politics of culture, as these tendencies both hobble any dialogue between critics and practicing artists, performers and producers of expressive culture and they inhibit humanistic thinkers from producing their own persuasive cultural artifacts outside of the institutional networks that provide secure guarantees of value and praise for their work. If a person read nothing but a diet of the strongest and most dogmatic critiques of ruin photography and was then handed a camera and told to go take a picture of a ruin, that person would have to have an extraordinary bulwark between their creative impulses and their critical training to ever press the shutter button. Or, more likely, they would find themselves refusing to take the picture knowing in advance of the inadequacy of the gesture.