Are We Unfairly Stigmatizing Rust Belt Photography?

There are so many opinions on what is too often dismissed as “ruin porn.” The critics of ruin photography have some valid points, but too often write off what is actually a broad and diverse body of work, only because of its subject matter. So here’s a voice in favor of the photographic genre, broadly speaking.

Many people are not shy in expressing disdain for the kind of photography that has been branded as “ruin porn.” Though I have to say—as a Clevelander inundated with vacancy to the point one becomes forced to create a new perception of decay else shrink into a corner — I don’t get too moved by the critiques.

Why?

Well, let’s get the name thing out of the way first, because if the practice of photographing industrial and urban ruins was simply Ruin Photography as opposed to Ruin Porn then much of the debate wouldn’t exist. But it does. And we have the word “porn” to thank for it.

The power of language.

Because even before you get to analyze the practice of ruin photography on its own merit, you got the connotations of porn filmed over your judgment. And so the act of filming ruins becomes the act of filming…

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The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation

Millennials give me hope. I think if we let them, they will actually make a better world.

Born Again Minimalist

I was in graduate school when I first heard the term “millennial.” It was at a conference. The session was about how to serve millennial students, because they have different characteristics than the Generation X students that went before them. It was here that I first started hearing things like “millennials need to be recognized for participation,” “millennials feel they are special,” “millennials are sheltered,” “millennials are likely to have helicopter parents,” and more. Society as a whole loves to hate on the millennial generation (those born between 1980-1999), calling us “special snowflakes” and sarcastically referring to us as “social justice warriors,” calling us out for “being offended by everything” and, everybody’s favorite, pointing out how very entitled we are.

Here’s the secret: We’re not.

millennial late for work.jpg

The negative opinions directed at millennials are a perfect example, on an enormous societal scale, of cultural gaslighting.

What’s Gaslighting?

Glad you asked. I learned…

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On the Longest Night in Advent

OK, I’m off by a day or two…Solstice is over, and the days begin to lengthen. But on this eve of Christmas Eve, here’s one more reflection on the coming of Christ. Fittingly, it’s the longest poem I ever wrote.

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT IN ADVENT

There are times when I am so mindful of the life
growing inside me
that it seems to also saturate the world around:
These tiny leaves that twirl down to meet me,
kindred withered things,
that pass from their former greenness by the arrangement
of seasons, and fall
with such levity;
Damp chilled air that hovers
like a promise of ensuing warmth –
These are the portents of hope known by
the cold and lonely.

A shriveled leaf falls out of the frigid dark,
and I, who choose to hope,
must confess that I know only the weight
of believing, and wonder
if I wouldn’t rather
feel myself absorbed into the void of the empty night sky.

My tiny messenger of hope
crumbles at my touch. In the distance,
lit and unlit windows
speak in cryptic patterns,

like the few stars emerging from heaven tonight,
like the flashing beacons of radio towers,
like the questions
that spin in my mind, refusing
even to be formulated –

thoughts I wear like a thick skin
against the cold
as all pretense of contact
retracts, and the world sinks back
into the impenetrable dark. It needs
nothing from me.

The sun
is invisible now, but it burns tirelessly, fueling
even cold night.

The void
that presses against my skin,
that surrounds everything in space,
that swallows everything in time,

also relentlessly burns, but cannot consume me. My life
is buried deep inside,
embalmed in past appearances, waiting to be recollected
like a long-forgotten promise – waiting
to be born anew

into this world full of
life that is separate from me, hiding behind its own
thick skins: tree bark, brick and concrete,
headlight glare, human flesh, night sky,
the negative space that implies,
like a question,
the yet-unknown object of my belief.

The answers
will be ordinary. The prophets
will wear the faces of my neighbors, speak to me
in my own dialect, and I will understand them
through my senses: the same ordinary means
by which I interpret the universe of sense
that enwraps me, the universe of which
my body and its senses
are a part.

Immersed as I am
in routine and emptiness,
will I fail to recognize it?

Another leaf falls,
and I reach out to touch it –
a gesture that is no more faith
than desperation.

All my experience,
and all my memory,
and all my knowledge,
my collected bits of the appearances of Life
converge

As at the intersection point
between ancestry and descendants;

and the void
in which I exist
exhales its quiet chill,
becomes a sanctuary
for the hope that grows inside me:

the future drawn out of my past – a mystery
birthed in the familiar,
nursed in my own being,
destined to transcend me. It will begin
in the immediacy and subjectivity
of my own sight and touch and hearing,
and will unfold forever – boundless as the ever-growing
ever-cryptic universe.

Is it enough to believe?

The dark world reaches out with wind to brush my cheek,
and I feel its cold penetrate my skin.

Ruinenlust—Taking pleasure in ruins

This post is adapted from one of my comprehensive exams in my doctoral program.

What does it mean to take pleasure in ruins? There’s a German name for it: ruinenlust. It turns out this is pretty much a European (and European-American) phenomenon, born out of a Romantic sensibility—that is to say, it’s relatively recent. Taking pleasure in ruins is sometimes equated with the “aestheticization” of ruins—what is commonly now called “ruin porn.” The critique of such a narrow understanding of aesthetics will have to be another blog post. Suffice it to say that its broader meaning incorporates how we learn, through our senses, what we ought to love. (My sources for this are primarily Thomas Aquinas, Alexander Baumgarten, and, especially, Charles Sanders Peirce.) So let us return to our ruins.

When I say “ruins,” the image that pops into your head probably depends on where you live and what your experiences have been. It is common to think of such ancient structures as Angkor Wat or the Parthenon, but there are other types of ruins, each with different (though overlapping) sets of aesthetic concepts and responses. For my purposes, I will categorize “ruins” into three broad categories: ancient (e.g., classical and medieval ruins in the West), ersatz ruins, also known as “artificial ruins,” a subset of which is the folly; and modern, also called “industrial” ruins. There are other ways, of course, to classify ruins—for example, by the cause of destruction (war, the effects of time, natural disaster, abandonment, etc.), which will also play a part in my discussion. When we know how a ruin became a ruin, such knowledge impacts our aesthetic experience of the ruin. But in many cases we simply do not know, and part of the enjoyment (for those who enjoy ruins) is imagining what might have happened.

Aesthetic attitudes toward all kinds of ruins have varied according to philosophical, religious, and political frameworks. For example, Christian polemicists have pointed to Greek and Roman ruins as an allegory of Christianity having supplanted the pagan Greek and Roman religions. But ancient ruins have also been upheld as reminders of a particular nation’s or culture’s proud history.

The most common source of such pride, naturally, is the ancient (pre-modern) ruin, as its continued existence hints at past wealth, power, or expertise—a culture’s ancestors’ having had the materials, such as marble, as well as the knowledge, skill, and workforce to build structures that have lasted. Ancient ruins have not always evoked such pride, however. In many parts of the world, ruins were simply part of the landscape until European tourists started showing up to see them. And in pre-modern Europe, disused or ruin structures were often left abandoned and forgotten, or they were treated as mines, so that materials such as large blocks of marble would be removed and re-used elsewhere. In other cases, new buildings were erected over ruin sites (as was a common practice in the ancient Near East) or integrated into them. The Piazza del Anfiteatro in Lucca, Italy consists of newer buildings that, over time, completely displaced the ancient ampitheater that used to be there—a little bit like the engine of my ’97 Dodge, I’m sure…

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, archaeologists were quite busy digging up ruins and artifacts. A fascination with ruins became a tourist industry. Eventually, ruinenlust developed as a romantic reaction to the Enlightenment aesthetic that prized perfect proportions and other abstract ideas as contemplated by the (disinterested) rational mind. In contrast, ruins were wild, incomplete, irrational, and highly sensual. Rose Macaulay’s classic early-twentieth century book, The Pleasure of Ruins, describes this aesthetic well. For Macaulay, the aesthetic pleasure offered by ruins is bound up not only in the visual appearance (although that certainly is part of it) but also in the sounds and smells of the plants, animals, and elements—water and wind, in particular—that have made their home at the site. She seems disappointed in any ruin that lacks “screech-owls” and jackals, ivy and wildflowers.

In the US, the lack of ruins (recognizable to Europeans as such, anyway) was alternately seen as an embarrassment—a sign that history was lacking—and as possibility. For Americans, it indicated that this continent was virginal, waiting to be civilized by European immigrants. It played into justifications for subjugating the Native peoples: as they had produced no ruins, they must have yet to produce any culture (again, recognizable by European-Americans). Visitors from Europe sometimes viewed the lack of ruins as a mark of the Americans’ cultural immaturity. But some European tourists (such as Alexis de Tocqueville) sought out other kinds of ruins, from Native burial mounds to log cabins abandoned by westward-traveling pioneers.

During the same period, as the aesthetic interest in ruins grew, and with it, the understanding of ruins as symbols of nationalist glory, the ersatz ruin emerged. This phenomenon was especially popular in England. Land owners might build a small “ruin,” a broken column, or a shack of sorts, made to look ancient, in a corner of their property—some going so far as to get a hermit to live in it! Other property owners constructed larger artificial ruins or collections of “ruins.” A house might be designed to look as if it had been built into the Gothic arches of a ruined church, for example, even though no church had existed there. Some houses used visual tricks, optical illusions that might give the impression of structural instability. Such “follies” were meant not to imply a grand past but to play with the visual aesthetic of ruins.

A similar “art for art’s sake” visual aesthetic seems to inform much of the photography of modern ruins that has recently become so popular. Whether seeking to capture a fleeting moment or to study the geometrical designs of a building and the decay that disrupts them, many “urbex” (“urban explorer”) photographers seem to pay little attention to the meanings that might be read into their work. Whereas earlier painters generally used ruins allegorically, contemporary photographers seem to prefer not to push a message. Painters had depicted ruins as a primary subject, often in order to contemplate some moralistic idea about human mortality or the ultimate futility of earthly power. Later, the ruins became a backdrop for another subject, but still carried allegorical import, as, for example, when the nativity of Christ was depicted among classical ruins to suggest the passing of pagan religions with the advent of Christianity. These uses fed into the appreciation of ruins as “picturesque,” an aesthetic idea that justifies their appreciation for their own sake, and not for their symbolic value. Perhaps the present urbex photography simply is an extension of that.

Cass

Modern ruins, especially in North America, tend to be the result of abandonment resulting from the exigencies of consumer capitalism as well as from technological changes. Older ways of making cars, e.g., such as the multi-story factory, are replaced with more efficient methods—e.g., the single-story, sprawling factory that is easier to build in a rural setting. Workforces shift, or are shifted when cheaper labor is found elsewhere. Or the demand for a product wanes. Not only the factories, but the entire local economy supporting and supported by them, fall into disuse and decay, leading to the abandoned factories, churches, schools, houses, libraries, train stations, office spaces, and other buildings enjoyed by “urban explorers.”

But there is another kind of modern ruin, the one produced more suddenly by disasters such as war, earthquake, tsunami, fire, or terrorist attack. These ruins also fascinate, but our primary impulse is to demolish or restore them (as the economic and cultural resources warrant) in order to efface the memory of the devastation. (Macaulay wrote briefly of war ruins, and left it an open question as to whether or not there was any room for aesthetic enjoyment of them. She leaned toward answering no, citing the fact that any relatively new ruin has not yet reached that state of détente where the ruin continues to exist relatively unchanging. By contrast, photographers Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre cite the ephemeral nature of modern ruins as integral to their project.)

These aesthetic responses to ruins are, naturally, framed within cultural, religious, philosophical, even political contexts, and shaped by cultural attitudes toward decay, imperfection, impermanence, and conceptions of history. For example, Christianity in the West has normally emphasized the perfection of God as the standard of beauty. In addition, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures use ruin as a metaphor for divine judgment. While these are not the only aesthetic concepts available to Christians or to Westerners more generally, the suspicion exists—even among lovers of ruins—that there is something perverse about an aesthetic appreciation of decay. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi can be helpful here, and can find correlates in Western thought if one searches for them.

“Wabi” is a term relating to a philosophy of life; “sabi” is a corresponding aesthetic. “Wabi” initially meant something like “the sadness of poverty,” but has come to express the spiritual value in living simply, in contentment with what one has, and a mindfulness toward living that appreciates material objects for what they are—however imperfect—and for their impermanence. It involves a profound awareness and acceptance of the fact that nothing lasts forever. “Sabi” is the aesthetic appreciation of imperfection, as well as the age of materials and the effects of time and use. It values patina, even, in some cases, grime. At the same time, it encourages care for material things. The patina comes from use, not neglect or abuse. Several centuries-old temples built of wood, with no aspiration toward permanence, still exist in Japan. I think that speaks to a valuing of place, buildings, and materials, a valuing that has preserved the structures.

In the West, such a value for the very materiality of things as such, for their use, and for their impermanence does exist, and does make up part of the fascination with ruins. But the values of wabi-sabi have not been so well fleshed out, articulated, and intentionally practiced here—they tend to be more the idiosyncratic tastes or values of individuals. In our consumer culture, especially, we value newness, sparkle, and disposability, and also cheap goods that simply will not last, and certainly will not age well. Perhaps we would do well to consider ancient ruins in this light, and to learn from modern ruins where our consumer-culture aesthetic actually leads.

Occasionally, Western architects have imagined their work as eventual ruins. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, was charged with building structures that would make for beautiful ruins to provide a lasting testimony to the glory of the Third Reich (which was, meanwhile, engaged in the production of ruins throughout Europe and inviting the Allies to likewise produce ruins in Germany). When architect John Soane built the Bank of England in London, one of his draftsmen, Joseph Michael Gandy, drew it as a future ruin—perhaps to symbolize its importance as an institution. A New York periodical invited writers, in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, to describe New York’s buildings in ruins, as an exercise in considering building design and technology. Today, as sustainability emerges as a value among architects, engineers, and building owners, perhaps a similar exercise is being practiced, or should be—if not imagining the building as ruins, paying close attention to chosen materials with an eye toward impermanence. If the West were to adopt the values of wabi-sabi, what would we build?

Pentecost—It’s a beautiful day!

Here in Detroit, the gorgeous weather we’ve had this weekend is starting to gear up for the thunderstorms that are predicted over the next four days. But luckily, I’m not talking about weather.

I’m talking about the feast the Western Church observes today. In my own Episcopal church, we dress up the church (and sometimes ourselves) in festal red, the color of fire; we listen to Scripture read in multiple languages; we sing, “Hail Thee, Festival Day!” A beautiful liturgy for a beautiful day—the “birthday of the Church,” Pentecost.

The name “Pentecost” derives from the Greek for “fiftieth,” and was originally applied to the Jewish festival Shavuot in the Greek-speaking diaspora in the Roman Empire. Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover, commemorates God’s gracious gift of Torah at Sinai, and the people’s reception of it. Shavuot also celebrates the first fruits of each year’s early harvest. The Christian festival picks up these same themes, but with the different inflections of a different language.

St. Luke mapped the Christian onto the Jewish feast, in the second movement of his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Because Jesus died and rose again around Passover—a deeply meaningful connection made by all four canonical Gospel accounts—it certainly makes sense to link the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the giving of the Torah. Hints of the parallel may be found in today’s Gospel, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 (follow the link for the text):

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [NRSV]

The Spirit will be to the Church what Torah has been to Israel: a teacher and guide; a way for humans to deepen their understanding of the divine; a means to be in relationship with God. (That, of course, is not an exhaustive list.) Placing the Christian celebration of God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost should not efface God’s gift of Torah to Israel or fuel the unhelpful (and often destructive) “spirit v. law” dichotomy. Rather, it links together the two great events, showing them to be two harmonious movements of God’s love song for the world.

But there’s another element to Pentecost: the “gift of tongues.” St. Luke describes it in Acts 2:1-11:

When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [NRSV]

It is often remarked that this scene represents a reversal of Babel—the story in Genesis where God “confused the language of all the earth.” It is a strange story. According to the text, everyone in the world spoke one language. They decided to build a city, the highlight of which would be a tower reaching all the way to heaven. The reasons given in the text are “to make a name for ourselves,” and to prevent humankind from being scattered throughout the world. So God comes down to earth to check it out. Apparently, God is impressed, but not in a good way. In fact, it sounds as if God feels threatened by what humans had achieved, and worries about what else they might do. So God decides to break them up by causing them, rather suddenly, it seems, to all speak different languages so that they cannot understand each other. It worked: people found the others who spoke their language, and these language groups each went their own way, simply abandoning the work they had begun together.

The story leaves us with some strange impressions: for example, that human unity is a bad thing; or that God feels threatened by human achievements. Certainly there is an element of hubris in what the humans in the story have proposed to do, but there is nothing inherently evil in building a city or a tower.

What struck me today, hearing these texts in church, was the vastly different visions of unity in each story.

In the first story, human unity is grounded in homogeneity. “Look,” God observes, “they are one people, and they all have one language…” They proposed to build one city with one tower, in an attempt to preserve this kind of unity. It is a unity that has to be enforced, lest it disintegrate naturally. The city, had it been completed, probably would have been full of sameness, micro-managed by homeowners’ associations and building codes and fashion police. God’s presence, then, was a dangerous and threatening one. God seemingly just wanted to thwart the construction project—and to destroy mutual understanding among humans. That doesn’t sound like any God worthy of the Name, does it?

Maybe, though, if we read this story through the lens of Acts, we might see that God has a different vision of unity.

One ancient definition of beauty, in fact, is unity-in-diversity: different parts making up a harmonious whole, like the movements of a symphony. What if in “confusing” human languages and dispersing people through the earth, God was creating diversity, in order to unite humanity again more beautifully?

The unity we see in Acts involves disparate peoples together in one place, understanding each other through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Unity, in other words, is not something humans can engineer, no matter what building projects we undertake. Unity finds its source in the one God. What does that unity look like? Christianity affirms that the one God is three Persons. God is inherently relational (“God is love”). So beauty finds its source in God: the Holy Trinity is unity-in-diversity, is beautiful. This beautiful, loving, relational unity is God’s gift to us humans. It is a major concern of the Torah, and it is Christ’s own prayer for the Church.

Continuing his story in Acts, St. Luke tells us that Peter, prompted by the Holy Spirit, preached to the (highly diverse) crowd, and three thousand of them believed in Christ and were baptized. Not only that, but “day by day the Lord added to their number.” These were the “first fruits,” we might say, of Christ’s Passover. St. Luke describes this nascent but growing community thus:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. [NRSV]

As with Shavuot, we have a multi-faceted commemoration: God gives, we receive. God’s gift bears fruit, and we feast with “glad and generous hearts.” God’s gifts create covenanted communities, in which we are united with God and with each other.

The gifts we receive from God are for the life of the world, as both Jews and Christians can agree. So the movement builds, weaving familiar motifs into increasingly complex and beautiful music. Or, if you prefer the gastronomic metaphor, each successive harvest adds new flavors, colors, textures, and complexities to the feast. At any rate, it is a unity-in-diversity which, when scattered throughout the world, produces a harvest of beauty.

There’s a famous quote from Darwin that I think applies here:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [Source: On the Origin of Species, last line in the text.]

zen cadenza

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ZEN CADENZA

what music
does the sea transmit across its channels
pulling you out wave upon wave
to crash a wave against some distant coast?

the noise of sea gulls cyclically
builds crests disintegrates
rebuilds

and the silence
intones your mother tongue.

there is no language
without the sea, no music
without oceans

steadily these fitful waves
emerge from the placid horizon


Detroit’s Song

I’d have to hear them, but I rather like the title, “Hang your hat in Detroit.” Which is odd, ’cause I don’t wear hats.

Look what we found!

The Detroit Schottisch, 1854 The Detroit Schottisch, 1854

We all know “New York, New York” and “Sweet Home Chicago”, but does Detroit have its own quintessential anthem? Browsing through the many hundreds of sheet music titles in our online digital collection, you will come across dozens of pieces that have been written about the city through the years. Most were probably published with the hopes of becoming that one song to endure as the city’s calling card. It seems that each generation takes a stab at composing a memorable melody about Detroit, but none have yet to stick. Which of these do you think we should revive?

The Detroit, 1886 The Detroit, 1886

Our earliest examples are instrumentals, played to accompany dances in the 1850s. The first to have lyrics was “Detroit”, composed in 1899. Several songs were written for events: “Hang Your Hat in Detroit” welcomed the 1910 Elks Grand Lodge Reunion, “A Real, Live…

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