Back to previous post: Live from Dixville Notch 2012

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Making Light to go dark against SOPA and PIPA

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

January 15, 2012

As you are, once was I; as I am, you will be
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:38 PM * 66 comments

Somewhere in the hyperactive panopticon that is my Twitter stream, I appear to have happened upon a clump of “ruin porn” links. I think they cluster around an Atlantic article on the psychology of ruin porn, which seems to have inspired a number of bloggers to write things they’d been chewing over for some time, or at least bring up relevant posts they’d seen of late.

The Atlantic piece starts out as an interesting taster article: an introduction to a topic that readers may not have spent much time thinking about before clicking to it. Then, for some reason, it wanders into the disagreements between standoffish ruin photographers and more-involved urban explorers. It’s a turn that makes me wonder if the author thought that expository writing, like short stories, needed conflict to be complete.

But I digress. For those of us who are already ruin-bibbers, randy for antique, the interesting word is the term “porn”. As this article (which references the one from the Atlantic) points out, ruin porn is the depiction for an uninvolved audience of the photographer’s physical experience of ruined places and consequent perceptions of the past those ruins represent.*

Through the experience of the space, explorers and photographers (and blends of the two) break out of a conventional experience of the present and into a space where the artifacts of history feel at once fresh and new, and ancient and decayed. Imagination is key to the atemporal experience of these places: One can exist in an abandoned, ruined space and see shards of a dead past on which one can construct a live imagining - who were the people who lived and worked here? What were their lives like? What were their stories? What happened to them? What happened to them in these spaces?

This is as good an explanation of the lure of ruin porn as I’ve found. It’s like a story prompt, the visual equivalent of a Mad Lib gone melancholic, and the topic is our own lives.

Ruins serve as a kind of spatial memento mori for people embedded in a culture marked by production and consumption (and prosumption) of the new and by the invisibility of the discarded: They are gentle reminders of our own transience. They lead us to questions just as the imagining of the past did: What will our contemporary structures look like in fifty years? In a hundred? Who will remember us? Who will stand in our abandoned spaces and wonder about us?

The risk, of course, is that what we are led to imagine may not be real. When we see grim bare walls, do we really know that they weren’t covered in cheerful posters? We could easily look at the remains of The Chrysalids and mistake them for The Lord of the Rings. Watching dramatizations of historical events, even knowing that they’re inaccurate, we get the the gut-deep feeling that we understand things better for having seen them. How much, in the same spirit, does ruin porn encourage us to see the past as something faded, shabby, and threadbare?

I love ruin porn, personally, but I try not to mistake it for genuinely knowing history.

* It’s worth pointing out that the article is the first in a not-yet-completed series. I’ve no idea whether the author will duplicate or diverge from my musings here. I suspect that my observations and hers are more like two trains that run briefly in parallel than that what I’m talking about is of much use or challenge to her theses.

Comments on As you are, once was I; as I am, you will be:
#1 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2012, 10:14 PM:

The article makes it sound like an urban experience, but of course there are abandoned buildings in rural areas too, some large and impressive. My BF took a series of photos inside the long-disused county poor home.

#2 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2012, 10:23 PM:

The pictures that catch my attention are the ones where things are left behind—things large and small, but things. There are photos from Detroit of abandoned schools with all of the resources left behind, long since vandalized and strewn about. One wonders why they didn't see a need for the desks or books or supplies at other schools. Or the photo in the first article, with the ruined church/cathedral, with the organ sitting inside and the stained glass windows awaiting redemption.*

*My college chapel acquired some stained glass windows from a church sale that were contemporary with its building, not with the 70s era abstractions that were put in at a later date.

#3 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 12:34 AM:

I too love ruin porn and delving into ruins in person, which I guess is ruin prostitution? Which would make places like South Detroit and Centralia ruin brothels? That whole sex and death conflation metaphor doesn't work at the scale of a neighborhood or small town, does it? It starts to confuse matters, allows a lazy journalist looking for a hook to swap the sex for ruin in a "beware of porn" story.

The allure of ruins is that they are what's left behind once the world gets done with us. They are a glimpse of the future that is inevitable. Photographing and visiting them (or having a picnic there, like Granddad used to) is flirting with death, not bending it over a chair and taking tawdry pictures. That implies control. And you don't control death.

#4 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 03:12 AM:

It's interesting hearing this, and thinking about the difference in mindsets across continents. For example, here in Western Australia, there are a few "ghost towns" left over from the gold rush era (mid to late 1800s). Now, these aren't "ghost towns" as per the US Western theme, with largely intact deserted buildings still standing. No, what a "ghost town" means here in Western Australia is that there's a sign indicating you're on the outskirts of the area which used to be a town, on the edge of a dirt road. If you look hard, you might be able to find a couple of bits of corrugated iron, or maybe the remains of a foundation of a shack. But while there may have been a thriving town there once, there's no evidence of one ever having been there today. Everything moveable got pulled down and taken away when the original inhabitants left.

There are older buildings around here in WA - but most of the ones which are still standing are still in use. Not necessarily for their original purposes, I grant you (a lot of them are museums these days, full of stories about what we've crammed into less than two centuries of European occupation, and briefly touching on what the original inhabitants were doing here for forty thousand years or so... and there's another difference in cultures, because the impression we're given as a result is that the indigenous Australians "didn't care" about history) but largely still in use. Or they're restored, or facades in front of a sky-scraping complex of offices or flats.

#5 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 03:24 AM:

There's something about the term itself which feels wrong. It implies something about the mental reaction of the consumer which is somewhat unwholesome. I can see the visual appeal of abandoned buildings, and I don't want to set out a thesis that all porn is bad, but the "porn" tag does seem to signal something is wrong about wanting to look at what is depicted. Think of "war-porn" as an instance of that. As for sexual porn, even the most ordinary of sexual acts (modified to allow a good view for the camera) are presented in contexts which indicate abuse and somehow denigrate women.

I don't see how "ruin porn" can have any of those flaws, so why the name?

(No, I am not jealous of any fluorospherians who got laid over the weekend. Not much...)

#6 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 04:37 AM:

I often see car magazines of a certain type called car porn: the kind of magazine where the photos are artfully posed to look like action shots, but the cars themselves are impossibly clean and beautiful.

I only read it for the articles, of course.

#7 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 07:30 AM:

Niall @6

Your last paragraph needs a slight edit.

"I only read Vee-Dub Monthly for the air-cooled cylinder heads on page three..."

#8 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 08:03 AM:

Allan Beatty @1, that's an excellent point about rural decay -- I grew up in the Great Plains, so both pictures of ruined barns and old homesteads and the actual things themselves were part of the landscape. (Old barns, in particular, are a favorite subject for photography -- they're actually more attractive than modern and currently-maintained barns in many ways.) I'd never made the connection, though. Perhaps urban reporters just never noticed when it was farms, rather than cities, falling into disrepair -- people leaving the farm for the city seems like the natural order of things to them, after all.

#9 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 08:28 AM:

Dave Bell: #5: Besides car porn, I've seen references to food porn, tool porn (Snap-On!¹), clothes porn², and many others. I'd say the usage applies to the compulsivity, with any denigration being at least slightly self-mocking.

¹ As an illustration of what's wrong with the idea of "suggested" searches, I stumbled onto "Snap-On Smiles", which will be disturbing me for days.
² with subordinate fetishes ;-)

#10 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 08:31 AM:

My reason for using the term "porn" is less about the conflation of sex and death (though that is hardly staggering or original to this conversation) and more to do with degrees of remove from the experience.

If we're to take the metaphor all the way across the spectrum:

* Walking in ruins (and I love a good ghost town) is analagous to having sex myself. I am experiencing the ruins directly.

* Looking at photographs of someone else's exploration of ruins, with its implicit imposed narrative, is porn. I'm living someone else's experience to satisfy urges that I can't currently fulfill more directly. It's true that there's a pejorative (in some subcultures) subtext to the term, but to the extent that I find exploring ruins myself seductive and enjoyable, I think it's appropriate.

* Watching myself look at photographs of someone else's exploration of the ruins, and wallowing in the gentle melancholy that that experience brings is kitsch. That's from one of my favorite Milan Kundera quotes:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

(No one has gone there, actually, but it's relevant to the discussion and I just kinda like the point he makes.)

Moving from form to substance, I think that watching things decay is one of the ways that we understand them, and our relationships to them. In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

My concern, to the extent that I have one, is that it's easy (as always) to mistake narrative for truth, or for unary truth. And that narrative carries a bunch of passengers we might want to examine more closely, like that the past is a shabby, decayed place, or that our present is inevitably going to become a ruin in the same way that the thing we're contemplating has. In a context where the legacy we leave the future is particularly important and heavily debated in the public sphere, the message that our legacy is inevitably one of shabbiness and decay is one to treat with caution.

Of course, my private narratives tend toward the inevitable at the best of times, so I am generally skeptical of external ones that confirm that assumption. I think that a more optimistic person might want to contemplate ruins as a way of realigning their internal compasses in a more realistic way, but for me it's like a sleepy person taking sedatives.

#11 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 09:40 AM:

"Sometimes a tower is just a tower."
- Henry Jones Jr & Sigmund Freud

#12 ::: Nicholas Condon ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 09:46 AM:

I think that there are reasons to appreciate ruin photography other than as an entree into the stories of the past. For me, as both artist and audience, the joy of photography is about learning to really see things rather than just glancing at them and letting your mind fill in the details. Things that are broken or decayed have features that move them out of our normal experience of them as intact entities; this induces us to move past our preconceptions and take a closer look.

For example, while I'm very happy with the shadows in this photo, it was the peeling paint and rust that made me take a closer look to begin with.

#13 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 09:54 AM:

Some years ago there was a miniseries about what would happen if humans disappeared, and when. For me what it drove home is how much human labor goes into maintaining things that often appear static. One thing I hadn't known (though I'm sure nearly everyone in the Bay Area did) is that the Golden Gate bridge is painted absolutely continuously; by the time they get to one end, it's time to start painting from the other end. The simulations of things falling into ruin was quite stfnal.

One piece of real-world documentary they put in was an exploration of the area around Chernobyl, which is too radioactive for people to live in (and they didn't stay long). The overgrown playground at a primary school is the image that sticks in my mind.

They didn't give any explanation as to WHY humans would all vanish simultaneously throughout the world, which to my mind would be the more interesting story, but it was still fascinating.

#14 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 10:04 AM:

I'm still trying to figure out how a pantopticon is different from a panopticon.
Seems to me that whether the interest described, and the actions of satisfying it, are healthy or not is a function of how much thought one can put into it. It becomes less tawdry, more dignified or something, when one can analyze it and help it evolve, make it connect with the rest of what's good in one's life.
When I was 12 we moved to a remote village for a year. It was a momentous year for me--I really liked the place, especially a couple of structures there, and in some ways never really got over having to leave. Now, I read, it is deserted--someone owns the site but only for storage. A recent picture showed one of the structures falling apart. I thought back to how I'd wondered what it would be like if I lived to 112. I never dreamed I'd outlast it. I didn't feel that much sadder somehow, it was almost as if neither of us belonged in this horrid world. But I wonder how many other people alive are survivors of ghost towns, and have memories of such places in their heyday?
A few years later, I got fascinated with a deserted structure in another town--not because it was deserted [not ruined,it was in fine shape] but because of its appearance, because that was the sort of person I was/am. I was fortunate that no one prevented me from exploring it although some parts would have been quite dangerous for the careless. I was not careless, and had a great time. I did wonder about the people who built it and originally used it, but only to feel as alienated from them as I did from the people in my own time. Now, 40 years later and thousands of miles away, I read that it has been restored to its former function, deserted no more. I don't feel inclined to go back and see it (for unrelated reasons), but I am glad one of us made good... I had put as much thought into these as a teenager could, and don't regret it in the least, even if I still can't put it into words. I only regret not being able earlier to quit feeling guilty about being (as I sensed from day one) so different. I will RTFA when I get to where there's a high-speed connection.

#15 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 10:06 AM:

If an archeologist of the Future comes across a porn shop's ruin, will it be Ruin Porn Porn?

#16 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 10:44 AM:

There's something indefinably sad about ruins that does make photographs of them attractive.

#17 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 11:02 AM:

re 13: The many photoessays of Pripyat1 are the sina qua non of ruin voyeurism. Perhaps no other place has ever managed to capture a snapshot of abandoned life from another time so perfectly.

1The astute may notice that the Wikipedia transliteration differs from that of most of the rest of the world, possibly because most everyone uses the Russian transliteration rather than the Ukrainian transliteration. One has to ask what it says that the latter must be used for a place that hasn't been inhabited since before the Ukraine became a separate country.

#18 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 11:49 AM:

Serge, I believe that would more properly be Porn Ruin Porn.

(So glad I picked something genuinely worthwhile to say for my first internet post of 2012.)

#19 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 12:07 PM:

Xopher, #13: S.M. Stirling's "Changed World" series does a fair amount of that sort of thing. There are incidental mentions of things which have fallen to rot for lack of maintenance, references to the amount of work that goes into maintaining things like roads, and a couple of quite detailed discussions of old ruins that the travelers are going past. There's also one major scene where the questing group takes a couple of hours to explore (what I think is) the ruin of the CN Tower in Toronto.

And there's one battle scene which is set in a dead porn shop. :-)

#20 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 12:34 PM:

Russ @ 18... Heheheh

#21 ::: Nanette ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 01:16 PM:

David Harmon#9
Every winter the catalogs come in and my daughter and I indulge in "seed porn". Longing looks at what we want but can't afford, what we need, etc.
It is a slightly mocking, we enjoy this too much, sort of phrasing to my ears.
And love the idea of ruin porn- old boxes of letters ( a long lost thing) can evince the same thing.

#22 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 01:37 PM:

I ran across "porn" in something like this sense more than twenty years ago in Pat Cadigan's Synners. In the course of reviewing the book, I wrote, "Practically anything that can be obsessed about turns up as hyphenated pornography with its own dataline channel: food-porn, disaster-porn, even plain old sex-porn. At this point it's clear that the meaning of "porn" has become as elastic as that of 'drug,' and that both point to an emotional landscape of compulsive-addictive behavior."

The current half-serious usage I'm familiar with is parallels that noted by David Harmon @9 and Nanette @21--"guitar porn." It's all about the gaze directed at an object of desire. Long ago, when I spent a junior-year-abroad in Italy, I was accused of being an embracer of mossy walls. This might approach a ruin-porn sensibility, though it lacked the representation angle.

#23 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 01:45 PM:

Darn... Where is that XKCD cartoon about porn that focuses on guitar-playing in a shower stall?

#24 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 01:46 PM:

Nanette, now that I can no longer have a vegetable garden (being unwilling to cut down a lot of oak trees), I call seed catalogs "tomato porn". Ditto on the self-mocking and indulging the lust for something I can't have.

(I do have bulbs and perennials. And access to good fresh veggies. I just can't grow 'em in my yard.)

#25 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 02:31 PM:

Lila @ 24... Corn porn?

#26 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 03:26 PM:

I can afford the seeds - but I have no garden space.

#27 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 04:07 PM:

Serge Broom @23: It's #305. (And also where Charlie Stross got a novel title.)

Curiously enough, I misremembered the URL in the last panel, searching for "wetlicks" instead of "wetriffs", and it still came up as the only search result (" wetlicks").

On the topic of types of porn, don't forget wealth porn. What else was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? And there's tons of it in Homer -- all those loving descriptions of the amazing stuff that gods and kings have, and even just the way the heroes constantly get to eat roast meat instead of boiled fish on bread.

#28 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 04:08 PM:

Serge @ 23: It's here. And yes, the site referred to by the characters was created and still exists.

#29 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 04:51 PM:

David Goldfarb @ 27:

So we could call the pages long lists of things in Moby Dick whale porn?

#30 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 06:30 PM:

Serge #23, Paul Duncanson #28: Testing Rule 34 is dangerous, what with it's Quantum Extension... wasn't it here at ML someone tossed out "dragons having sex with cars", and got Same Day Service, including several sites worth of drawings?

#31 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 06:48 PM:

I just went to
Oh my...
As for porn about dragons having sex with cars... I'll probably be sorry for asking if there's one about dinosaurs and sodomy.

#32 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 07:17 PM:

@31 Serge... aren't we reading it?

#33 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 07:25 PM:

David @ 27

Re: wealth porn
My initial response to abi's initial post (and the concept of "ruin porn") was to flash to the kind of ecstatic wallowing some people do when they witness the ruination of somebody they consider "wicked." In the current political climate, a very different form of wealth porn.

That said, we refer to women's magazines as "housewife porn" in our family... and have done so, for as long as I've been buying them.

#34 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 07:28 PM:

Thena @ 32... Not as much as one would expect. This reminds me that my wife has a large collection of dinosaur models AND that I just bought a camera. Hmmm...

#35 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 07:54 PM:

Xopher HalfTongue@13:

That would be "The World Without US", based on a book of the same name. The book went a lot more into the engineering and science behind why all these things would decay at the rate they do and went in increments from 24 hours after humans disappeared* to a few thousand years.

What was interesting was how quickly the volatile stuff like the electricity grid and power plants would wreak havoc and then burn themselves out. Basically within a week, leaving everything else to slowly molder. After a few years, mostly the heavy stuff like stonework is left and within a thousand years everything is gone but bronze, which would last a good 10K more years or so and indefinitely if they end up buried or sunken.

* The author left the cause/reason for humanity's disappearance deliberately oblique as that wasn't the thrust of his intent. I imagined a nice and thorough zombie apocalypse.

#36 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 08:52 PM:

Keith Kisser @35: The author left the cause/reason for humanity's disappearance deliberately oblique [..] I imagined a nice and thorough zombie apocalypse.

I vote for the Vingean Singularity (see Marooned in Real Time).

#37 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 09:14 PM:

Xopher (#13) Some years ago, my son and I were watching a TV comedian going on about peculiar words. He said "Why do they call them 'buildings'? Shouldn't they be 'builts?' "

My son said "Obviously, he's never owned one."

#38 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 09:21 PM:

For quite a few years, my favorite bed-time reading was tool porn, and I called them that at the time.

I have since come to terms with the reality that I own Enough Tools, so I had to give up reading the lovely catalogs lest I "accidentally" order some.

#39 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 09:31 PM:

Keith @ #35, I had an retired engineer friend go nuts over the building failures in the building, as in "we built them better!" (I think the space needle got to him)

I politely pointed out that all things of steel and etc. need maintenance. Constant maintenance. The first thing to go bad without maintenance causes a cascade of failures afterward. The whole premise of the show is that the humans are gone.

Is reply was, oh... yeah.

#40 ::: Lylassandra ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2012, 10:26 PM:

@33: I think the only appropriate response is this.

#41 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 12:08 AM:

Paula Helm Murray @ 39: You are so right. Based on my experience with a house, I'm confident that decay without constant maintenance would be very fast. Unfortunately. I've been jolted out of more than one story with a post-apocalyptic setting by the implausible durability of things. Roads, for example, disappear from view amazingly fast without traffic, at least in the wet climate here. Moss is succeeded by plants and the top soil grows apace. Once water gets into a building, not only the wood rots -- steady water on the foundation will eventually turn it to sand. This takes longer, but I have personal experience of 100 years. (sigh)

I'm also quite confident that water and electrical systems would fail quickly, and spectacularly, it they were left running without human monitoring. Even aside from hardware failures, you know the software will fail promptly when no one is checking logs, maintaining databases, etc.

#42 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 02:02 AM:

@41 That is, 'I have personal experience of seeing a concrete cement foundation weakened by water within 100 years'. I have not -- personally -- experienced a century.

#43 ::: Helen ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 03:13 AM:

The consequences of Ruin Porn: Brownfemipower writing at Feministe

And when thousands and thousands of pictures and books and movies and websites and videos are made that showcase ugly old abandoned Detroit (or any post-industrial city), that means thousands and thousands of people are going to be drawing the wrong conclusion about that city. Eventually, a *narrative* is created about that city. In the case of Detroit, the narrative that ruin porn supports is that Detroit is dying. That it is being abandoned. That it’s a ghost town. That it’s not just dying–it’s dead.

And that narrative has consequences.

#44 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 06:28 AM:

Yes, Detroit is dying. Who can save it?

Robocop on a Unicorn!

#45 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 07:58 AM:

ISTR that Hitler was particularly obsessed with how the buildings of his New Berlin would look when abandoned. He wanted buildings that would, as it were, fail gracefully and leave impressive-looking ruins.

#46 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 08:33 AM:

The amazingly fast decay of buildings without maintenance (don't forget mold--it can render a house uninhabitable within a few weeks!) is one of the reasons I cannot fathom why banks are foreclosing on houses, letting them stand empty until the only recourse is to demolish them, rather than renegotiate for a smaller payment and keep the house inhabited and maintained. (Though around here the copper thieves will get to them before the mold does.)

#47 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 10:32 AM:

ajay @ 45... This is the first time I've seen a thread go Godwin so quickly. :-)

#48 ::: Charlie Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 10:54 AM:

@43: Here's another post in the same series, which also makes the point that the term "ruin porn" has currency among people who object to the stuff in part because they see it as often exploitative in some of the same ways that regular porn is: fetishizing the situation, stripping away mentions of causes and antecedents, and effectively hiding the people who are still there and the things they are doing to cope. (There are almost never people in these pictures.)

But I like the pictures...

#49 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 12:25 PM:

@47: Bringing to mind another XKCD comic....

#50 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 01:46 PM:

I was always fascinated by ruins and desertion. The ghost towns Dad showed me in Colorado didn't satisfy me much. There was nothing there but a few logs, a vague sense of where the main road (hardly a street) had been, and sometimes berry bushes, still producing fruit, around a vanished cabin.

Probably the best brushes with vanished people were in Texas. My grandfather used to buy unproductive farms, make them productive, and sell them for a profit. As a result, there were a couple of times I spent a night of a trip in a house I'd never been in and would never see again. These had little bits and pieces of the former lives: furniture, appliances, stuff in the cupboards. It didn't occur to me then that the previous tenants may have simply died of old age.

I ran into this years later, a time or two, when Cathy and I were looking to buy a house. Being shown a place that's still full of someone's life — someone who died suddenly — is a sobering snapshot. Hey, they have that book too! All the time I was calculating how much our stuff would fill the place up, I couldn't help but see how much theirs had and still did.

Oy. I've got to get rid of some boxes.

#51 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 01:59 PM:

two more links for your collection,

a simple story

the house which did not exist

though upon reflection I think these are rather the antidote to ruin porn: they try for the whole story, instead of leaving us to imagine ourselves into the scenes.

The Kundera quote on kitsch that I had preserved is,
"the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling that moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel."
I like the two-tears version better, though.

#52 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 02:29 PM:

Coming soon to ML, a thread composed solely of XKCD links...

#53 ::: Ian C. Racey ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 06:48 PM:

@ajay #45

It was called "ruin theory", IIRC, and Speer, upon seeing Berlin from the air during his flight back from Nuremberg to be imprisoned in Spandau Castle, apparently felt it had been validated.

I've recently come into possession of a book called Berlin nach dem Krieg (Berlin After the War), a collection of rare photographs of Berlin taken in the late 1940s. There are some amazing images of people continuing to live and survive in the charred, shattered skeleton of a city. A few of them can be seen here; that's where I first found out about the book.

(There's also a chapter of photos of Hitler, including one odd one of him holding a closed fan, wearing a kimono decorated with swastikas.)

#54 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2012, 10:04 PM:

"The World Without Us"...that and another program about if humanity suddenly disappeared...I can't remember which of the two featured a speculation that cats, living in skeletal highrises, would develop gliding membranes like flying squirrels. My thought upon reading this was first, cats might be too big for the gliding thing to work, and second, the lifetime of the highrises might be too short for that sort of evolution. Dougal Dixon's "After Man" features brachiating cats, and a lot of other interesting conceptions. But I still like the idea of gliding ones.
As for copper thieves...I hear there's a couple of them somewhere that are permanently cured of the habit--they didn't know the wire they were cutting was hot.

#55 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2012, 12:44 AM:

I've always been fascinated by the strange fad of 18th century British landed aristocrats for building ruins on their estates. I wonder if it wasn't intended to keep the main houses from decaying; sort of the architecture of Dorian Gray.

#56 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2012, 10:03 PM:

Last week, there was a video going around on FaceBook that some people called book porn, even though it didn't feature Bettie Page.

#57 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2012, 09:12 AM:

While at the Soane Museum I saw some cut-away paintings for the (then) proposed designs for the Bank of England by Sir John Soames. These were done in the style of the Bank in ruins. According to the guide, ruins were in fashion at the time, so pictures of the building in ruins would have helped sell the design.

#58 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2012, 06:57 PM:

While modern constructions fall apart quite rapidly, that's not inevitable - it's a result of choices made and a trade off between cost and durability. The state of the acropolis, stonehenge and the sphynx are all the result of deliberate damage. Without the depredations of local farmers, Turkish and French artillary and English aristocracy all three would be doing fine.

And while nothing remains of most Anglo-Saxon buildings, I regularly walk the Devils Ditch in Cambridgeshire; a defensive wall built c1500 years ago and still pretty much all there.

Similarly a quick scrape of the ground can reveal Roman mosaics almost completely undamaged just a few inches below the turf. If we all vanished tomorrow most modern buildings might disappear, but your average medieval cathedral would be pretty much intact in a thousand years. Lack of weeding might do for the Uffington White Horse rather quicker though - which would be a sad end for a structure that has been continously maintained for three thousand years, and is thus the antithesis of ruin porn.

#59 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2012, 07:08 PM:

Angiportus #54: That happens pretty regularly to copper thieves, just as it does to various nonhuman varmints seeking to chew away at the electrical infrastructure....

Andy Brazil #58: Without humans to keep the weeds out, I wouldn't be so sure about those cathedrals, certainly not for more than a few centuries.... remember that roots and frost can both shatter stone.

#60 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2012, 10:14 PM:

... bare ruined choirs ...

My wife likes to sneer at Frank Lloyd Wright, and I periodically join her. Part of it's aesthetic preferences, part of it's that his buildings are designed for Short People, and many of them require the taller or clumsier visitors to bow to the Master if we want to avoid head injury while entering*, but her major objection is that they require seriously aggressive consistent maintenance to avoid falling down. It's not just Fallingwater, which was a sufficiently cool folly that it can be excused for falling into water after a few years, but a lot of his basic Midwestern houses intended for regular people haven't been very durable. If the owners didn't keep up with all the putty and all the roof flashing, they tend to rot away and collapse, or require major repair and rebuilding to keep them from doing so. Regular houses also need this, as my condo roof skylight reminds me during the rainy season, but his tended to do worse.

And then there are geodesic domes - being an engineer and hippie of a certain age, I've got a nostalgic affection for them, but they've got a well-earned reputation for leaking. The one I've got the most experience with had worse problems, because it was built on a hillside and the double whammy of water leaking in through the bottom as well as the top side, until the owner did heroic amounts of work on the foundation and drainage.

* Particularly Taliesin West, which I otherwise really enjoyed.

#61 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2012, 10:44 PM:

"hyperactive panopticon"
I love that turn of phrase. It says exactly what I've been trying to articulate.

In my current job, I digitize paper records about government buildings. I look at things like "existing conditions reports" and stuff.

I am within another kind of panopticon, not so hyperactive.

Maybe some guy who works in the same office as me might think of the "ruin porn" photographers as being kind of annoying and in the way.

#62 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2012, 10:45 PM:

Serge at #56: book porn

was it leatherbound?

#63 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2012, 10:51 PM:

14 Angiportus; panopticon/pantopticon

well,maybe this website is a pantopicon.

#64 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2012, 11:45 PM:

I feel like the "ruin porn" idea should swing over to the realm of videogames, which are frequently set in ruined cities for good and compelling narrative reasons. The trope goes back to Zork. When videogame art got good, the ruins became spectacular -- Bioshock being a current example -- and of course we then had entire teams of industry artists designing buildings *as ruins*, ab initio.

I don't know how that ties back to the original notion, but it must somehow.

#65 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2012, 01:32 AM:

Yes, I made a spelling mistake, and then was traveling and didn't catch Angiportus' correction. That creeping "t" after the "pan" prefix is a minor family error—we use it in any number of words, but not (mercifully) "pancake".

I'll fix it.

#66 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2012, 10:44 PM:

I can't believe that no one has yet claimed that there's a fascination frantic in a ruin that's romantic.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.