It was recently brought to my attention that “Ruin Porn” is a thing –and a problematic one at that. I am no stranger to the draw of abandoned places, I recently found an abandoned Renaissance Fair, and I never pass up the opportunity to look at photos of defunct amusement parks or detailed architecture made more beautiful by an envelope of lush greens. I understand why critics justifiably rail against the many photographers who lurk around Detroit, capitalizing on the city’s busted economy. It is voyeurism; porn is a strong word, but voyeurism, slumming, insensitive all those work just fine.
This week I read Paul Mullins’s Aug 19, 2012 blog post “The Politics and Archaeology of “Ruin Porn”.” Mullins details the many objections to what has been called “Ruin Porn” and suggests how these photographs can be used to ask compelling archaeological questions. He says “There is tremendous archaeological potential to develop reflective narratives about modernity that weave the decaying ruins of contemporary cities or industrial sites to a complex range of social, political, racist, and class factors that would illuminate how archaeologists, states, and communities value spaces, heritage, and things.” He goes on “We should obey our own fascination with and curiosity in these old spaces—the decayed amusement parks, ruined factories, asylums overtaken by nature—and accept that there is something far more consequential in that curiosity than simply compelling aesthetics. If “ruin porn” helps us see those spaces in new ways, then photography, narratives, and material analysis might collectively provide us an exceptionally powerful way to interpret such places and dissect the concrete social and material forces that create abandonment and ruination.” (Ugh, I love it)
Because I look at ghost stories and rumors of hauntings, as ways that people understand landscape and historicity, I completely understand where Mullin’s is coming from. Reading his post and talking with a fellow researcher, I am left wondering the connection between “abandoned” and “haunted”. Can there two understandings of place co-exist? Are they one in the same? If they diverge, where?
My answer: They are two totally different concepts of status.
Abandoned places don’t have ghosts; if they did they would be haunted not abandoned. The descriptor “abandoned” means that a place is forsaken, discarded, not thought about anymore. “Abandoned” places become non-places (as odd as that sounds). In order to be a “place” or to exist something needs to be recognized, in order for a place to be a place it needs definition, it needs people to interpret it.
“But” you ask, “what if it is a ruin? Are ruins places? Can ruin’s have ghosts?” Of course ruins are places, they are ruins. They are “ruins”/remains of a former recognized place. I think ruins can have ghost stories or hauntings. I have not read anything about a haunted ruin yet, but I think there is potential simply because ruins are recognized as places. Abandoned places are abandoned places until something thinks about them, then they are ruins, or if there is a ghost story, they are haunted.
Saying “That abandoned house is haunted” is like saying “That yellow dog is cat.” It can’t be both, because they are not arbitrary titles and they mean more than just a description of outside appearance. You can say “That abandoned house looks like it could be haunted.” But you can’t say “The abandoned house is haunted” because once you claim that something is haunted, you are saying that it has 1) a recognizable past and 2) a resident (conceptually).
Abandoned places don’t have a past, because they are recognized as abandoned spaces. Being an abandoned place is a status, and status’ change. In archaeology you could say it is an abandoned landscape until you excavate and find a cellar. Perhaps the phrase “landscape bastard” would be a better, less convoluted, term than “abandoned.”
Why is this and important distinction to make?
As we begin to take seriously both ghost stories/rumors of hauntings and abandoned places we need to recognize them independently. While they both give evidence of time and illustrate a way of thinking about landscape and the past. They are two different statuses.