Miles Orvell, Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction (New York: Oxford UP, 2021), 281 pp.
“What can we do with these wrecks and ruins?” This is one of the deceptively pragmatic questions Miles Orvell poses in his timely book on the ruinous in U.S. culture and society. “Doing” something with wrecks and ruins—as Orvell shows via a dazzling range of examples reaching from nineteenth-century archaeological illustrations to twentieth-century conceptual art and twenty-first-century documentary photography—more often than not means turning them into images, making them representative. A staple in aristocratic landscaping and the romantic imagination of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, ruins acquired a very different urgency in the United States: first as specimens of a “usable past,”1 later as artefacts of a (globalized) capitalist society that condones obsolescence and decay as inevitable by-products of mass production and consumption.
In the desolate landscapes of mining sites or in Detroit’s abandoned industries, ruins seem to embody “creative destruction” as a foundational principle of unfettered economic growth—as Orvell points out, the “ruins of Detroit are not a symbol of failed capitalism but of [its] success” (89). In a similarly paradoxical manner, the ruined cities of the long nineteenth century—including San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires—were rhetorically elevated to historical simulacra, short-term visual evidence of an antiquity the United States seemed to otherwise lack. As the book’s title suggests, ruins are thus very well something to build an empire upon: Far more than just reminders of impermanence, they can signify historical change and help create continuous identities. Up to the twentieth century, Native American ruins were uneasily integrated into an encompassing historical narrative, (mis-)representing pre-colonial American societies as unknowable “lost” civilizations, or re-framing Indigenous cultures as “authentic” alternatives to contemporary consumerism. In this sense, ruin imagery can be read as either affirmative or critical of contemporary society in relation to a larger historical narrative—which, in the case of the United States, will be inevitably imperial in scope, be it in regard to settler colonialism or global capitalism.
As a critique of “ruinous” U.S. ideologies, Orvell’s book continues a discourse that emerged in the twenty-first century’s first decade with books like Kevin Rozario’s The Culture of Calamity (2007), Nick Yablon’s Untimely Ruins (2008), and, to a certain extent, Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), or even Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007). While such writing shares with Orvell’s study the assumption of the “disastrous” being central to the American project—as a usable past, or as disruptive economic or geopolitical policy—it also happened against the backdrop of contemporary (U.S.) history being shaped by the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and, of course, the respective responses by the George W. Bush administration. Two decades and three presidencies later, the claims and failures of U.S. hegemony of this era seem no less relevant, but much less mandatory as a hermeneutic framework for the “ruinous” in U.S. culture in general. Orvell’s book thus offers a very welcome re-assessment of this topic both for disaster studies scholars and a general audience interested in the role of ruin(s) within U.S. culture.
Yet, Orvell contributes much more to this discussion than just a fresh viewpoint. Empire of Ruins is about image-making; about ruins as motifs for various kinds of specialist or popular media. While his focus is on photography, Orvell includes examples from literature or even architecture. The photographic, here, is less an exclusive category but rather a reference to a modern means of representation and documentation, with very specific characteristics regarding the notions of time, authenticity, and objectivity. In, for example, Frederick Catherwood’s 1840s chromolithographs of Yucatan ruins, daguerreotypes provided the template for hand-drawn illustrations, thus supporting their claim to accuracy—which, on a narrative level, was further reinforced by the explorers measuring the ruins on one of the images. Indeed, Orvell makes a strong case for an immediate relationship between the ruin and photography. Both seem to occupy the same space between the scientific and the imaginary, at the same time verifying and constructing historical narrative.
Despite notions of progress and continuity permeating this topic, Orvell omits an either strictly linear or comparative perspective. Empire of Ruins is structured around three parts, each presenting a specific thematic development: “The Romance of Ruins” describes the romantic or even utopian fascination with pre-colonial ruins; “Modern Times” focuses on urban decay and 9/11 as an endpoint to naïve assumptions of both liberal capitalism’s global predominance and modernist concepts of spectacular aesthetics; “The World in Ruins” discusses the complex entanglements of technological progress and the ruinous—nuclear warfare, industrial exploitation, and climate change. This multi-layered approach to its topic is one of the greatest strengths of Orvell’s book. Ruin imagery is highly flexible in its cultural applications but also highly dependent on context. The delight of San Franciscans in 1906 in seeing their city in ruins akin to “Pompeii, Babylon and Nineveh” (5) is nearly incomprehensible from a contemporary perspective, just as today’s ruin imagery always exists against the backdrop of a potential nuclear annihilation unthinkable for earlier generations. Yet, both the invocation of the sublime in pictorialist ruin photography and the “bomb” follow adjacent trajectories of Western thought. One of the most-discussed films at the end of 2021, the disaster denial satire Don’t Look Up, ends with images of a world in ruins—images that both warn against “ruinous” ideologies and revel in destructive sublimity. Orvell’s book arrives at a moment when understanding the history, the lure, and the critical potential of ruin images will most certainly not become less urgent.
Jacob Birken (Universität zu Köln)