Writing on photography

After Empire II: The American Ruin

Last week I wrote about our fixation on the ruins of the Soviet Empire, and our continuing search for meaning in the ashes of an empire which seemed to extinguish itself without confrontation. I was curious about the gulf of unfulfilled expectation this might have created for us, a sense of un-fulfilment which now finds some placation in the photographs of abandoned Soviet infrastructure and military bases that are produced in great quantity by amateur and professional photographers alike. This week I want to explore a somewhat similar trope which is forward, rather than backward looking. That is the ubiquitous trope of the American ruin in popular culture.

Empires invariably cast themselves in relation to others which have preceded them. Whether as spiritual inheritors of their antecedents or opponents of their values, new empires almost always take on something of that which has come before, in the western world most often tracing a lineage back to ancient Greece or Rome. The German Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic France, Fascist Italy, all demonstrated such tendencies. Controversial though it might still be to speak of an ‘American empire’ the United States is no exception to this weakness for imperial over-shoulder glancing.

The iconography and architecture of state is rich with appropriations from the old empires of Europe, themselves invariably loaned in turn from the far history of ancient Rome and Greece. Lincoln’s memorial statue rests its hands on two bundles of sticks or fasces, a roman symbol of state power backed by the will of the people, and later a symbol of the new Italian fascist empire of Mussolini. It is a strange, although not entirely unfitting contradiction, that American notions of democracy and self-determination are bound up in a lineage of empire building which has involved the depriving countless people of these things.

The United States’ short existence as a unified country seems to exacerbate this imperial awareness of empire’s past and present. Something which has often fascinated me is the subject of ruination in American art, which seems not entirely disconnected. Thomas Cole’s series of paintings ‘The Course of Empire’ is as easily readable as a cautionary tale for the young America as it is a generic, idealised account of an ancient civilisations rise and fall. Flitting to a more recent media, video games such as the Call of Duty franchise, and blockbuster movies such as White House Down (2013) are laden with images of America under attack, its iconic government buildings in ruin.

Like all great human constructions, empires at their most massive and apparently indomitable almost always presage or anticipate their eventual, inevitable decline. Whether they do this simply in the minds of those who gaze on them, or whether they do it more intentionally, can vary. Albert Speer’s theory of ruin value, which I’ve written about before here, intended that the grand ruins of the buildings of a German National Socialist Reich would one day impress and inspire those explorers who discovered them, decayed and destroyed. In many cases his theories were put to the test far sooner than he perhaps anticipated.

It is clear to note from history that as the pace of technology and all other things is subject to increasing velocity, so too are empires subjected to ever shorter spans of existence. Egypt, if we may stretch the definition of an empire, lasted millennia. Rome lasted five centuries, the British Empire perhaps two hundred years. The United States could already be in decline after a period of global dominance lasting not much more than half a century. As wars today are increasingly fought and won in a matter of days (even if their reverberations last decades) it is tempting to wonder if we will one day see an empire rise and fall like a mayfly, growing exponentially to span the globe, only to die out in the course of just a few years, months, or days.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography