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In cooperation with the Bavarian American Academy (BAA), Munich
Miles Orvell, “Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction”
Americans in the 21st century inhabit a perpetual state of ruins – from abandoned factories and malls to toxic landscapes and the looming threat of climate ruins. Ruins, once symbols of the past, are now symbols of the future. Taking an interdisciplinary perspective, Empire of Ruins discovers a changing pattern of meaning in the way ruins have been perceived and represented, from the 19th century to the present. Orvell explains why Americans at first yearned for the ruins of Europe and the Middle East, discovering gradually in the 19th century that the remains of Native American cultures were as ancient and mysterious as Egypt’s. Using photography as its chief lens throughout, Empire of Ruins then analyzes the growing recognition that the 20th century was the age of ruins – decaying cities, abandoned factories and shopping malls. In the accumulated waste of the industrialized landscape, in the testing and deployment of the atomic bomb, America’s 20th century culture seemed to find its dubious fulfillment. Orvell examines how photography has depicted waste and destruction while creating works of terrifying and spectacular beauty. He considers photographers like Walker Evans, Camilo José Vergara, David Hanson, Edward Burtynsky, Joel Meyerowitz, and James Nachtwey. In addition, he explores ruins in artists like Thomas Cole, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Robert Smithson and in filmmakers like Roland Emmerich. Orvell unravels the cultural dimensions of America’s obsession with waste, rubble, and destruction, and how visual media have shaped our political and moral responsibilities. Looking to the future, he explores the crucial role the spectacle of climate ruins will play as we face our changing world.
Miles Orvell is Professor of English & American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. His publications have ranged from literary criticism to broader studies of American culture. His early book on Flannery O’Connor was followed by The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (1989), a study of technology and culture that was co-winner of the ASA’s John Hope Franklin Prize (reissued in a Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition). The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community (2012) was a Finalist for the Zócalo Public Square Book Prize for Best Book Published on Community and Social Cohesion, 2013. In addition, he is the author of After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries (1995) and of American Photography (2003) in the Oxford History of Art Series. (Expanded and revised in 2016 as Photography in America.) Orvell has edited the volume, John Vachon’s America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II (2003) and he has co-edited Public Place and the Ideology of Space in America (2009) and Rethinking the American City: An International Dialogue (2013).
He was the founding editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of American Studies (American Studies Association – print and online), from 1998 to 2011. Orvell’s Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction was published by Oxford University Press in early 2021. He is the recipient of several NEH awards and of the Bode-Pearson Prize in American Studies for lifetime achievement.
Prof. Orvell is a cooperating partner of “Practicing Place”.