- Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline by Dora Apel
“Modernity in ruins. The disaster unfolds. …” Thus begins Dora Apel’s fascinating account of Detroit, specifically the ways in which the city’s visual representations have captivated the cultural imagination. Characterizing Detroit as “the crucial nodal point” (p. 6) in a dense network of imagery expressing contemporary disillusion with Western progress and power, this volume intriguingly engages with aesthetic, social—and more covertly, psychoanalytic—theories to form a singular critique of the ongoing cultural enthrallment with ruin imagery as a seductive diversion from the failures of the failures of capitalism. In so doing, Apel successfully deconstructs the continuing urban crisis as one mystified by ideological cipher fashioned from alternately fetishistic and exploitative representations; by empirically problematizing the notion of “ruin porn” she further demonstrates the insurgent power of re-contextualized art to focus attention on the human and political tragedy expressed in urban decline. However, by not fully engaging with the genitive power of racial ideology and its essential role in constructing the imaginative landscape of Detroit, the book critically under-explores the deep connections between the geographic subjectivity of the city and the West’s long association of the racialized Other with anti-civilization, pollution, and decay.
The book does several things well, particularly those achieved under the rubric of what Apel terms the “deindustrial sublime.” An analytic drawn from Kant’s notion of the sublime (an aesthetic category describing experience that agitates paradoxically to soothe), deindustrial sublimity is employed by Apel in order to reframe images of urban ruins as ultimately comforting stabilizations of otherwise disorderly and threatening places and events. Apel argues that within the context of real economic precarity, sublimatic depictions of urban abandonment assuage anxiety by exotifying and safely situating ruins elsewhere on the map. The aesthetic “containment” of decline, Apel contends, is evidenced well beyond the ubiquitous coffee-table photo books, and her analysis casts a wide net as it draws upon material from disparate genres like documentary and narrative film, product and ad-copy (for instance, Chrysler’s recent “Imported from Detroit” campaign), newspaper reportage, and the recently popular zombie figure to explore the city’s ability to domesticate disinvestment and inequality through its rendering as a tragic, yet beautiful object. This analysis, like Apel’s earlier work with torture and lynching imagery (2005) is embedded in a thorough review of the history and theory of Detroit and deindustrialization, in this case relying heavily on work by Thomas Sugrue and David Harvey. [End Page 254]
By considering Detroit in aesthetic terms, Apel produces a few distinctive insights. First, by making use of a representational rather than “real” framework, Apel is able to address the conventions of “documenting” decline as an implicit rhetoric functionally supportive of hegemonic neoliberal urbanism. This approach may be familiar to scholars acquainted with Megan Cope and Frank Latcham’s (2009) and Jeff Crump’s (1999) respective critiques of decline narratives in Buffalo, NY and Moline, IL. However, the visual methodology and empirics of Apel’s study uniquely emphasize both the power of ruins to evoke an apolitical response and the proficiency by which representations of urban decline circulate in a culture otherwise uninterested in its social realities.
Apel’s aesthetic approach also allows her to foreground the affectively contradictory nature of urban decline in a way under-appreciated by the existing literature on Detroit and decline both. Focused on “the ability of ruin images to move and arouse us (intellectually or emotionally)” (pp. 24), Apel unearths just how Detroit is able to touch us, inspiring both fear and desire and channeling both onto a place most have never been and many will never go. This argument effectively reinterprets Detroit more as a project than object, a geographic repository for society’s irreconcilable emotions about the present and future of capitalism. Though unacknowledged, Said’s Orientalism reverberates through the...