In 2011, Paul Clemens, a writer from Detroit published an up-close and personal look at deindustrialization called Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. It recorded the year he spent on a work team hired to dismantle and gut one of the city’s remaining factories. I wrote about the book when it came out, and won’t recycle anything here, but recall a few paragraphs expressing a particular kind of frustration that a non-Detroiter can only sympathize with, not really share.
The cause was a tendency by outsiders – or a subset of them at any rate – to treat the city’s decline as perverse kind of tourist attraction or raw material for pontification. Clemens had lost all patience with arty photographs of abandoned buildings and pundits’ blatherscate about the “creative destruction” intrinsic to dynamic capitalism. He also complained about the other side of the coin, the spirit of “we’re turning the corner!” boosterism. “No Parisian is as impatient with American mispronunciation,” he wrote, “no New Yorker as disdainful of tourists needing directions, as is a born-and-bred Detroiter with the optimism of recent arrivals and their various schemes for the city’s improvement.”
Dora Apel, a professor of art history and visual culture at Wayne State University, has, in effect, gathered everything that dismays and offends Clemens between the covers of Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (Rutgers University Press).
She calls Detroit “the quintessential urban nightmare in a world where the majority of people live in cities.” But nightmare imagery can be seductive, making Detroit “a thriving destination for artists, urban explorers, academics, and other curious travelers and researchers who want to experience for themselves industrial, civic, and residential abandonment on a massive scale.”
That lure is felt most keenly by people who, after the “experience,” enjoy the luxury of going home to someplace stable, orderly, and altogether more pleasant. It’s evident Apel finds something ghoulish about taking pleasure from a scene of disaster, “feeding off the city’s misery while understanding little about its problems, histories, or dreams.” But the aesthetic appeal of ruins – the celebration of old buildings crumbling picturesquely, of columns broken but partly standing, of statuary fractured and eroded by time –- goes back at least to the 18th century, and it can’t be reduced to mere gloating. The author makes a brief but effective survey of “ruin lust,” a taste defined by “the beautiful and melancholic struggle between nature and culture,” as well as the feelings of contrast between ancient and modern life that ruins could evoke in the viewer, in pleasurable ways. She also points out how, in previous eras, this taste often involved feelings of national superiority, as with well-off travelers enjoying the sight of another country’s half-demolished architecture. (At least a tinge of gloating, in that case.)
It’s not difficult to recognize classical elements of the ruins aesthetic as "The Tree" by James D. Griffioen. One of a number of images reproduced in the book, Griffioen took the photograph in the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, in which a sapling has taken root in the mulch created by a layer of decomposing textbooks – an almost schematic case of “the beautiful and melancholic struggle between nature and culture.” But Apel underscores the differences between the 21st century mode of “ruination” and the taste cultivated in earlier periods. For one thing, ““modernist architecture refuses the return of culture to nature in the manner of ancient ruins in large part because the building materials of concrete, steel, and glass do not delicately crumble in the picturesque way that stone does.”
More importantly, though, the fragments aren’t poking up from some barely imaginable gulf in time and culture: Detroit was, in effect, the world capital of industrial society within living memory. In his autobiography published in the early 1990s, then-Mayor Coleman Young wrote: “In the evolutionary urban order, Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow.” The implications of that thought are considerably more gloomy than they were even 20 years ago. One implication of imagery such as "The Tree" is that it’s not a reminder of the recent past so much as a glimpse at the ruins of the not too distant future.
Photography is not the only cultural register in which the fascination with contemporary ruins makes itself evident: There are “urban exploration,” for example: a subculture consisting (it seems) mainly of young guys who trespass on ruined property to take in the ambience while also enjoying the dangers and challenges of moving around in collapsing architecture. Apel also writes about artists in Detroit who have colonized depopulated areas both to reclaim them as living space and to incorporate the ruins into their creative work.
The effects are not strictly local: “the borders between art, media, advertising, and popular culture have become increasingly permeable,” Apel writes, “as visual imagery easily ranges across these formats and as people produce their own imagery on websites and social media.” And the aestheticized ruination of Detroit feeds into a more widespread (even global) “anxiety of decline” expressed in post-apocalyptic videogame scenarios, survivalist television programs, zombie movies, and so on. Not that Detroit is the inspiration in each case, but it provides the most concrete, real-world example of dystopia.
“As the largest deteriorating former urban manufacturing center,” Apel writes, contemporary Detroit is a product of an understanding of society in “rights are dependent on what people can offer to the state’s economic well-being, rather than vice-versa,” and “the lost protection of the state means vastly inadequate living conditions and the most menial and unprotected forms of labor in cities that are divested of many of their social services and left to their own devices.”
Much of the imagery analyzed in Beautiful Terrible Ruins seems to play right along with that social vision. The nicely composed photographs of crumbling buildings are usually empty of any human presence, while horror movies fill their urban landscapes with the hungry undead -- the shape of dreaded things to come.
The #forKariann may have achieved its aim: Joshua Eyler, the academic who has been publicly pleading for Aetna to approve an experimental treatment for his wife’s chronic pain, announced Monday that her treatment was approved. Eyler’s wife, Kariann Fuqua, is a full-time, non-tenure-track instructor of writing and communication at Rice University who developed small fiber neuropathy last year and is in near-constant pain in her hands and feet. An expensive treatment held promise for a life beyond pain medication, but Aetna rejected the prescription on the grounds that it was still experimental for her condition. So Eyler, the director of Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence who’d been blogging about his wife’s condition, built a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #forKariann for Aetna to change its decision.
Eyler said that on Monday, as the couple was in the process of completing their first appeal, Fuqua’s doctor put in the treatment request again -- to the couple’s pharmaceuticals provider, Envision Pharmaceutical Services. Envision ultimately approved the treatment, Eyler said
Fuqua will begin her treatment next week.
“This means everything for our family,” said Eyler, who guessed that social media may have played a role in the decision, along with the persistence of his wife’s medical team. “It is a chance for her to live a life without as much pain. All we ever wanted was to have this chance, and now we turn our focus to the treatments themselves.”
I have spent the last several years participating in the collective hand-wringing that has occupied humanists and liberal arts educators everywhere. There is no point in rehashing the indignities that academe has suffered at the hands of legislators, administrators, corporations, and student-consumers. You know the lament all too well.
There seems to be some sense among us that what we are experiencing is an unprecedented problem; that somehow profit incentives, patriarchal administrators, corporate values – in short, “the Man” – have only recently taken over American education. We like to believe that once upon a time higher education had a golden age that was due, not simply to the nation being flush with cash or to growing populations, not to bull markets or boards full of generous millionaires, but to high-minded, honorable prevailing philosophies about democracy and justice that have since fallen by the wayside.
But, as philosopher Stan Goff points out, the idea of education-for-all didn’t enter American culture until well after the Civil War (even then it remained heavily segregated), and this was for somewhat suspect reasons. Progressives at the turn of the century “were concerned about the feminization of men, the recent influx of non-English speaking immigrants, the temptations to vice of urban life for boys, and a general lack of discipline among the young. The compulsory public school … was a ready-made solution. Progressives equated ‘good citizenship’ with respect for authority.” Widespread education was designed to produce manly men, and obedient women and workers, who would answer their nation’s call in peace and wartime. Football, Boy Scouts, and the National Rifle Association were parallel projects of this era. A flourishing of land grant universities and private institutions – supplementing the already-existing elite institutions – began producing a steady supply of human capital so that America could enhance its economic and military dominance.
In other words, American education has always owed its primary existence to the Man and has never really challenged his dominance. Not everyone is equally invested; there have been student uprisings here and there, and certainly particular persons on the margins have called for radical change. But by and large higher education has never demanded a fundamental re-thinking of the American project.
For example, on the whole, the educational sector doesn’t call for the return of the continent to Native Americans (my house!), payment of reparations to descendants of slaves (my taxes!), the end of industrial economies (my iPhone!), or the radical revision of state or national borders (my scary neighbors!). On the whole, we don’t question the concepts of nation-states, economic and social progress, the primacy of individual choice, or the use of state force – instead quibbling over their limits. Such concepts are the water we swim in and the air we breathe; except for an extremely small number of us who truly live off the proverbial grid, we hardly notice these assumptions, much less interrogate them.
And even those of us who are radical enough to challenge governmental or corporate sectors are almost certain to rebel against any wholesale revision of higher education. We may call for tweaks – more diversity, more tenure-track lines, fewer administrators, better family leave, better need-based financial aid. But the end goal of democracy (not to mention getting/keeping my job) stays the same. It’s not just Arne Duncan who sees educators as “nation builders.” Many times have I heard colleagues bring up “citizenship” when pressed to defend the work that we do.
While we may hope good citizens will speak truth to those in power, we must also admit that most of our students will end up – like us – not as revolutionaries but as more or less comfortable (and eminently replaceable) cogs in the global economic machine. Even in flagship institutions of liberal arts, a mainly white Western canon prevails that is designed to shape students who will foster some variation of American-style democracy, at home and abroad.
This is not the mythology we live by, of course. I, for one, am conscious to include readings in my classes that will anger nice white liberals and Fox News devotees alike. And I like to think of myself as counter-cultural in my educational ideals of “learning to think” or “awakening human beings,” which often involve a soft-focus image of toga-clad ancient Greeks or medieval monks, mingled in with brochure-worthy photographs of diverse and smiling young people doing good works. Such images are what motivated many of us to work in education, and are among the reasons (along with summers, health benefits, and retirement funds) that many of us stay on even after we’ve become disillusioned.
But in the end, I’m pretty dedicated to colleges and universities continuing to exist mostly as they are; the liberal arts education that has shaped me is, in very real ways, my religion. I’m unlikely to renounce it as such. Thus, all the stories I’ve told myself about changing the world are probably indicative of my wishes and best intentions rather than my reality.
What if revolution, not mere reform, is called for? What if we – yes, even those on the margins – have been so indoctrinated into the putative value of education-for-freedom that we can no longer see the ways in which educators – as educators – are part of the problem? If, as Audre Lorde says, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, what makes us think we can somehow make the institutions of American higher education work for something other than the master? Is it at least possible that, just maybe, the American educational system is so corrupt at its roots that we should welcome its passing?
Don’t get me wrong. If the Ivy Leagues and other billionaires are all that’s left when the rest of us crumble, I will be furious. But perhaps, if we take the long view, we could rejoice in the opportunity that this crisis presents – if not for us as individuals, then at least for future generations on the earth. What if our demise will make room for, be the mulch that nourishes, something even better? Perhaps instead of institutions imprisoned by endowments, academic calendars, boards, legislators, tuition discounts, or profit margins, there will be “flying universities,” “artisanal” colleges, online-residential hybrids, or various kinds of micro or macro institutions actually run by the people and for the people, not yet invented or even imagined.
As someone once said, “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” Why not us?
Kate Blanchard is associate professor of religious studies at Alma College.
Adjuncts at Whittier College gained some significant improvements to their working conditions in their first union contract, they announced late last week. They’ll see an increase in pay from $1,150 per credit hour to $1,550 by fall 2016, plus a $300 course cancellation fee within 21 days of the start of classes and pro-rated pay for any classes actually taught. A professional development fund also has been established.
The Service Employees International Union-affiliated adjuncts also gained more job security, such as 1-year appointments starting with the second year of service (up from semester-to-semester appointments). The contract includes additional protections for reappointment and evaluation and a “just cause” standard for discipline and dismissal.
Whittier adjuncts make up the third SEIU-related part-time faculty union to achieve a contract since SEIU began its Adjunct Action campaign, a major push to organize adjuncts across metro areas. Adjuncts at Tufts and Lesley universities saw similar gains in their first contracts. Dozens of other new unions are negotiating their first contracts.
Whittier President Sharon Herzberger said in an emailed statement that the college and SEIU "have been hard at work for about a year to reach a fair and mutually beneficial agreement. We look forward to continuing our constructive relationship with the union and our talented group of adjunct professors as we prepare to welcome our students in early September." (Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include Herzberger's comments.)