By: Nick Santangelo

When most Americans think about ruins, they tend to picture something older than the United States, maybe something in Europe or Asia or South America. But in analyzing actual pictures (among other media and art), English and American Studies Professor Miles Orvell draws our attention to some ruins that are much closer to home.

In his latest book, Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction, Dr. Orvell searches for the cultural meaning of American ruins, detailing those left behind by Native Americans as well as those from the 20th-century United States.

“In the 20th century, ruins become much more commonly a part of our lives,” explains Dr. Orvell. They're not in the past—they're in the present.

“We create ruins, we knock down buildings, we demolish buildings, change cities, factories, move out, cities become decayed. Moreover, we create ruins in a number of really inventive ways, like the atom bomb. Those powerful images of destruction become central to American culture. And the whole idea of destroying/creating becomes just a given and accepted premise of what American culture is good at.”

It was the most horrifying singular incident of destruction on American soil this century that first set Dr. Orvell on the path to writing Empire of Ruins nearly 20 years ago: 9/11. The professor found the media portrayal of the terrorist attacks to be both shocking and sensational. Wanting to understand this aesthetic, Dr. Orvell researched and wrote essays about 9/11, which he later followed up with published work on Hurricane Katrina. 

His increasing fascination with American ruins led to him studying images of those in cities like New York, Detroit and Temple University's home of Philadelphia. About five years ago, Dr. Orvell decided he needed to pen an entire book to fully understand the subject himself.

it's beautiful, and yet it's representing destruction

After all, the history and culture of many of these cities is a subject the professor has taught to many of his American Studies graduate students. 

“Recently I taught a graduate course on the relationship between images and text as a sort of hybrid genre that included photos, books, biographies,” says Dr. Orvell. “It explored the nature of genres and the way that visual images affect the reader's response to the images. While the whole course was not explicitly about ruins, it was about the implicit methodology of the tourist in sync with the kind of questions and the approach that I'd take to researching representations of ruins.”

One such representation the professor explored for Empire of Ruins was photographer Vince Feldman’s City Abandoned: Charting the Loss of Civic Institutions in Philadelphia. Dr. Orvell’s chapter on urban ruins looks at “creative destruction” in Temple’s backyard (as well as in cities like Detroit). The chapter examines, among other things, Philadelphia’s old mills that line the Schuylkill River’s Manayunk Canal.

But, as mentioned, Empire of Ruins isn’t strictly concerned with 19th-century ruins such as those. The book is also concerned with the 21st-century process of creating change, growth and development as well as taking a forward-facing look at where the process of creative destruction is leading America. As people begin to discover that all this progress is ruining the planet, they begin to accept that surviving the future it’s creating will be a major challenge.

Empire of Ruins’ focus on photography as a means of processing the creative destruction that’s led to that existential threat, says Dr. Orvell, is because photos help us memorialize ruins.

“It's that paradoxical response where we're looking at an image—it's beautiful, and yet it's representing destruction. That is such a common experience in the representation of ruins that I incorporate that into my discussion and argue that we have to acknowledge what the ruins represent in historical, economic and social terms. 

“We can't be seduced by the beauty of these images, even though we have to acknowledge that's why we're looking at them in the first place. I try to allow the reader and myself to experience the ambiguities of representation in relation to ruins.”

Want to learn more? Check out Empire of Ruins for yourself!

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