Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Pornography of Ruin: The Metaphor of Sensuality in Ruination as It Applies to Detroit

Pornography of Ruin: The Metaphor of Sensuality in Ruination as It Applies to Detroit

Sarah Beste

This paper explores the meaning of the metaphor “ruin porn” especially as it applies to the condition of the city of Detroit. Remnants of post-industrial Detroit are spread in abundance throughout the city proper, not only evidenced in the buildings left to rot but also in the people left in its wake. The powerful metaphor “ruin porn” is used to describe a genre of photography of primarily urban architectural dereliction. In the case of Detroit, most of the architecture currently in ruin is a product of the Industrial era when the Motor City was the world’s source of automobiles. The history of the Industrial era of Detroit leading up to the present day will be reviewed followed by an examination of the metaphor “ruin porn” using cognitive theory and studies of metaphor by Lakoff and Johnson as well as Deignan. “Ruin porn”, like other types of pornography, can be conceptualized as being empowering and positive, or exploitative and negative. This article will explore how people around the globe are using the metaphor when referring to Detroit and whether the connotation is positive or negative. Who is using the metaphor more often – the photographer or the critic? What makes the collapse of a social system sensual will be explored through various forms of media, especially posted opinions from blogs, reports from news websites, and research posted throughout academia. Possible future research into the metaphor “ruin porn” and its application could be to explore how the metaphor is used to describe photographs of other ruin sites elsewhere around the world.

Keywords: ruin porn, metaphor, Detroit, photography, architecture


April 6, 2015 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Digging in Roosevelt Park during the archaeology field school sessions, we saw the busloads/carloads of ruin port tourists hopping out, snapping their photos, and driving off to the next ruin site. Under those circumstances, it doesn’t take much mental effort to change places with, say, an indigenous archaeologist of Maya ethnicity at Lamanai, overhearing a busload of Euro/Yanqui turistas exclaiming, “Whatever became of the people who built this?” Yo, we’re right over here.
    So what makes it porn? Ruined beauty? Necrophilia? Schadenfreude (c’est dommage- our train stations are both beautiful and operational, too bad about yours)?

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 6, 2015 | Reply

  2. While it is true that “ruin porn” is not unique to Detroit, it seems that the Detroit brand of ruin porn is heavily attached to a story of pain and suffering, despair and hopelessness, and a tale of rampant corruption. Of course, the elephant in the room (race) is ever present but selectively mentioned. These are not the beautiful ruins of a distant past, but rather the ugly carnage of a current power struggle that’s still being played out – or so part of the the story goes. “Porn” is a fitting term for the images of Detroit’s crumbling structures. We derive at least some amount of satisfaction from viewing the rot that is similar to slowing down to view the aftermath of a bad car crash. Very interesting topic!

    Comment by Glenda Wyatt-Franklin | April 8, 2015 | Reply

  3. I think this conversation brings a LOT of really interesting topics into play. While I have long thought about the impacts of ruin porn on communities living in the city and the politics of aesthetics, I have never actually deconstructed the terminology used describing such photographs. Does thinking about ruin porn in two genres (as it’s often divided into with “grand” ruin porn in one category and “mundane” ruin porn in the other) impact your analysis, or do you think that this frame applies pretty well across the board? How might cross-cultural examples of ruin porn (thinking about post-Soviet ruin porn or post-Chernobyl ruin porn) also fit into the theoretical model you develop here?

    Comment by Kathryn Nowinski | April 21, 2015 | Reply

  4. I am very excited about this paper, and the exploration of the concept of Ruin porn. People are coming from all over the world to photograph the urban decay of the city. What about the practical concept of it? Do you think this kind of publicity can be beneficial? Or is it all negative and brings unwanted attention to the city’s blight problem?

    Comment by Jaroslava Pallas | April 21, 2015 | Reply

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