Empire of Ruins American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction

Edition: 1st
Format: Hardcover
Pub. Date: 2021-02-03
Publisher(s): Oxford University Press
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Once symbols of the past, ruins have become ubiquitous signs of our future. Americans today encounter ruins in the media on a daily basis--images of abandoned factories and malls, toxic landscapes, devastating fires, hurricanes, and floods. In this sweeping study, Miles Orvell offers a new understanding of the spectacle of ruins in US culture, exploring how photographers, writers, painters, and filmmakers have responded to ruin and destruction, both real and imaginary, in an effort to make sense of the past and envision the future.

Empire of Ruins explains why Americans in the nineteenth century yearned for the ruins of Rome and Egypt and how they portrayed a past as ancient and mysterious in the remains of Native American cultures. As the romance of ruins gave way to twentieth-century capitalism, older structures were demolished to make way for grander ones, a process interpreted by artists as a symptom of America's "creative destruction." In the late twentieth century, Americans began to inhabit a perpetual state of ruins, made visible by photographs of decaying inner cities, derelict factories and malls, and the waste lands of the mining industry. This interdisciplinary work focuses on how visual media have transformed disaster and decay into spectacles that compel our moral attention even as they balance horror and beauty. Looking to the future, Orvell considers the visual portrayal of climate ruins as we face the political and ethical responsibilities of our changing world.

A wide-ranging work by an acclaimed urban, cultural, and photography scholar, Empire of Ruins offers a provocative and lavishly illustrated look at the American past, present, and future.

Author Biography

Miles Orvell is Professor of English and American Studies at Temple University. He is the author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940, American Photography (OUP, 2003), and The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community. Orvell received the Bode-Pearson Prize for lifetime achievement from the American Studies Association.

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