Say Nice Things About Detroit

I moved to Detroit five years ago, but I’ve come here every summer to visit family since I was a baby. Like most folks, I live in the suburbs, but I’ve often toyed with the idea of moving downtown and I’ve spent significant amounts of time in the city and have a certain love for it. When I think about moving away or even just living in the ‘burbs, I feel disloyal. There’s something about the death and life in this city that is fascinating for living and for theorizing.

Ruin Porn

I first began to think about Detroit theoretically when Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre had their photo gallery about the ruins of Detroit published in Time Magazine. While striking, photos like these have come to be known as ruin porn: your titillating, all access pass to the dirty, gritty, underbelly of politico-economic liberalism.

Since then, I’ve always thought of Detroit in the context of a class I took in graduate school. It was one of the best classes I ever took and it was about memory and democracy, but what I remember most was the discussion of ghosts. When I mentioned I was working on this post to the tumblr, everyone screamed at me: Derrida!

Of course Derrida, so I picked up Specters of Marx (which, full confession, I haven’t finished re-reading). Marx aside (and someday when I’ve read more of him I’d like to contextualize Detroit in that discourse), the ghostly injunction that Derrida delivers is helpful in the context of Detroit.

Derrida and Ghostly Politics

Derrida turns to Hamlet to point out that the specter is at once there and not there; anticipated and missed. They are nowhere and everywhere. When the ghosts arrive and “the time is out of joint,” bad shit is going on.

Ruin porn is full of ghosts. Schools left where they were, dentist chairs empty and ready, grand buildings with empty windows that stare. Even the places where people still live feel empty half the time. Detroit is spooky. But it is also painfully alive. I’ve spent a good deal of time talking to people who love this city and work hard to bring good things to this place. I myself have participated in the urban farming movement, that nostalgic practice that people hope will one day revive the city.

Detroit Reminds Us of Who We Are and What We Did

In Specters, Marx delves into Fukuyama’s interpretation of politico-economic liberalism, saying:

On the one hand, the gospel of politico-economic liberalism needs the event of the good news that consists in what has putatively actually happened (what has happened in this last quarter of the century, in particular, the supposed death of Marxism and the supposed realization of the State of liberal democracy). It cannot do without the recourse to the event; however since, on the other hand, actual history and so many other realities that have an empirical appearance contradict this advent of the perfect liberal democracy, one must at the same time post this perfection as simply a regulating and trans-historical idea (62). [emphasis Derrida’s or the translator’s]

In other words: the liberal democracy that Fukuyama (and other theorists of his ilk, I’d like to add) promote requires two events: the one we anticipate and the one that has already arrived, and it’s best not to confuse the two. To put it in the context of Detroit: the ideal of politico-economic liberalism has arrived and is inscribed in the grand halls and beautiful architecture. The ideal, however, has also never arrived, hence the decay and the haunting of the specter of what everyone wishes had happened.

This particular quote moved me because Detroit is often spoken of in hushed tones as the signal of the decline of capitalism, the canary in the coal mine of our liberal hubris – the city that is at once what Fukuyama’s ideal brings and what it can never have. I don’t think Detroit, and politico-economic liberalism, are that simple. Derrida says elsewhere:

…that time is “out of joint” is what is also attested by birth itself when it dooms someone to be the man of right and law only by becoming an inheritor, redresser of wrongs, that is, only by castigating, punishing, klling. The malediction would be inscribed in the law itself: in its murderous, bruising origin (21).

What I love about Derrida in this book is how deeply poetic and pissed off he sounds. These words are strong: the origins of so many of our injunctions, laws, and punishments come from fucked up places, and the corrections for these are often violent and just as fucked up as what came before. Derrida doesn’t want us to forget this. The specter is often violent.

Detroit’s Origin is Deeply Problematic

Thomas McCarthy, in his essay “On the Politics of Memory and Slavery,” makes the argument that we have a moral obligation to remember the wrong and the cracked foundation upon which a society is built. He notes in particular the cruel way in which slavery in the United States has been glamorized: plantation life is romantic, slave-life is rustic and cozy – the horror of the origin is ignored, glossed over, and even held up as good. What’s more, he suggests, everything since then is a manifestation of this injustice:

The back/white polarity has fixed the geography of the color-coded world to which successive waves of immigrants have had to adapt; there is no comprehending the bizarre ethnoracial categories into which Americans have been and still are forced apart from that polarization and its effective history (636).

The original divide creeps in everywhere, ghostly and spectral and never where you think it will be. You can see it in the ghetto and poverty, and Detroit, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. The poor and black live mainly downtown, the white and wealthy live in the ‘burbs. The cracked foundations force us into this divide even as we attempt to ignore its presence.

No One Ever Takes a Picture of Lafayette Park, but the Camera Loves Heidelberg

Lafayette Park is not ruin porn. It’s a gorgeous expanse of Mies van der Rohe-designed homes and green space. What did it used to be? Black Bottom, Detroit – a predominately black neighborhood demolished in the name of urban renewal. Before the name confuses you: it wasn’t always predominately black. The name comes from the color of the soil and the depression in which it is located. It has also been home to the city’s European Jewish settlement.

Black Bottom declined because people lost their jobs. It was replaced with the bright, shiny signal of politico-economic liberalism – beautiful housing that would make everyone rich (or they would at least appear to be so). No one takes a picture because it’s not ghostly. To me, however, there is something creepy about covering up the blight without a thought to what came before. That is when, in my experience of horror movies, the ghosts get angry.

The Heidelberg project is a contrast to Lafayette Park. If you’ve ever had the privilege to visit this street, you’ll see houses, some abandoned and some not, covered in things like dots and stuffed animals. In the context of what I’ve been reading lately, it’s like tossing a sheet over the semi-formed ghost: it reveals the shape of the specter so you can talk to it.

Tyree Guyton, the artist behind the project, considers his mission an important one. It’s to make you think. The city of Detroit has bulldozed his projects several times, but Guyton (and the tourists) keep coming back. Heidelberg is tacky, flamboyant and in your face. It’s also funny and absurd and very ready to make you wonder why you fear the ghosts to begin with. Guyton’s fundamental project seems to be inviting the ghosts out to play.

Within the context of Derrida and McCarthy, Guyton presents an intriguing strategy and perspective: the ghost asks Hamlet to swear, and Hamlet does and proceeds to wreak havoc on his close friends and family. Guyton swears to the ghost and starts all of us in argument, bringing up the memory of a neighborhood blighted and transformed with a little crazy elbow grease.

I’m getting sentimental, though. Heidelberg is ridiculous, but it’s what I think a reader of Derrida could do. Derrida’s book, let’s not forget, reminds readers both of the injunction of Marx and also of Derrida’s own injunction to the declare the time to be out of join and then to do something about it, preferably something that upends the violence of the thing you wish to change. Guyton does this nicely, troubling our ideas of race, politics, economics and art, all the while creating something that people actually travel miles to see.

Detroit Asks Us to Do What Henry Ford Could Not

Detroit does tell us that the time is out of joint. The industrial project is a failure. The post-slavery economy is still too reliant on the worst off and too committed to division. A quirky place in the Detroit area that you should visit is Greenfield Village. It’s Henry Ford’s ideal. It’s what he thought he was building when he hired people to make cars. It’s full of memorials to the productivity of ingenuity and a belief in politico-economic liberalism: Henry Ford’s own childhood home, the Write brothers’ workshop, and so on. Everyone walks around in a Disneyfied version of industrial America. Life, it says, could be (have been) good.

But it never will happen the way Ford imagined. It will happen in a strange, uncertain way and it might not look much like the politico-economic liberal ideal. Detroit is a microcosm, but I don’t think it’s a microcosm of what most people think. Most people see it as a place where things went wrong, asking us to notice so we don’t repeat the same mistake. Detroit, I am hopeful, is the place where we come to fulfill the injunction, to swear, and to make shit better.

Things I Read While Writing This

Specters of Marx by Jacques Derrida

“On the Politics of Memory and Slavery” by Thomas McCarthy in Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 5 (2002)

This post originally appeared on my personal blog, The Most Pretentious Blog You Will Ever Read

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[E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

4 thoughts on “Say Nice Things About Detroit”

  1. The only experience I have with Detroit is a conference I attended at the zoo this summer, but I can say for Detroit: the zoo is phenomenal, one of the best in the country. I know it’s a place of relative privilege, and that part of the reason it’s so progressive is thanks to the Ford family, but still. The polar bear exhibit is the best habitat for zoo animals I’ve ever seen.

  2. A friend of mine has a friend in Detroit and has gone over there several times. She doesn’t talk a lot about ‘ruin porn’ and stuff, but praises the people living there and is always very enthusiastic about it.

    So even though my first association with hearing the name is with rappers, I know there’s more :)

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