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3.3: Ghosts in the Ruins

Specter: The ghosts of highway futures-past continue to haunt us in retro-science fiction and nostalgic car commercials.

Published onJun 04, 2021
3.3: Ghosts in the Ruins

Ghosts in the Ruins

In this section we look at some of the ghostly remainders of the bright auto-centric worlds so fondly imagined between the two World’s Fairs. In particular, we consider the way past visions of the future come to us in pieces, appearing as fragmentary media images used to incite nostalgia, or reflection, or merely to stimulate consumerism by appropriating and remixing from our optimistic past. From the science fictional tropes of the thirties and forties celebrated and critiqued by cyberpunk author William Gibson in “The Gernsback Continuum,” to the photographic and moving images of a ruined (and then restored) Motor City, we look at the ways our understanding of the past and the future is characterized by what Bruce Sterling calls “a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity” (“Atemporality for the Creative Artist”).

Semiotic Ghosts

William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), a short story centered on a hallucinatory experience with retro-techno images, issues an entertaining critique of our nostalgia for futures-past. Gibson’s story is a tale of an accidental encounter with the ghosts that exist in the ruins of streamlined architecture from the thirties and forties. Sent on a mission by a pop-historian to photograph “raygun Gothic” (25) buildings , Gibson’s narrator accidentally crosses into another timeline, “penetrat[ing] a fine membrane, a membrane of probability” (29). He begins to hallucinate images from the 1930s and 1940s—“fragments of mad-doctor chrome”—scenes so deeply entrenched in the cultural psyche that his journalist friend suggests that they are “semiotic phantoms, bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own” (31). What he sees in his moments of psychic connection with this alternative world are the ruins of a failed (because impossible) future.

These ghostly reminders from the heyday of industrial design—“shark-fin roadsters,” “gleaming eighty-lane monster” freeways (24), a “grandiose prop-driven airliner, all wing, like a fat, symmetrical boomerang with windows in unlikely places” (26)—reveal at once the naïve optimism of the early twentieth century as well as its more sinister flipsides: our actual present as the nightmarish realization of an “Airstream Futuropolis.”

And as I moved among these secret ruins, I found myself wondering what the inhabitants of that lost future would think of the world I lived in. The Thirties dreamed white marble and slipstream chrome, immortal crystal and burnished bronze, but the rockets on the covers of the Gernsback pulps had fallen on London in the dead of night, screaming. After the war, everyone had a car—no wings for it—and the promised superhighway to drive it down, so that the sky itself darkened, and the fumes ate the marble and pitted the miracle crystal. (28)

The Gernsback style. Illustration by Frank R. Paul. Air Wonder Stories, July 1929. Wikimedia Commons.

The narrator’s visions culminate on the side of a highway where, having parked to fall asleep, he sees a couple standing next to their streamlined car: “they were Heirs to the Dream. They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American” (33).

Gibson’s story describes many of the key elements of futurism’s compelling ideals (preternaturally healthy white people, food pills, streamlined transportation; in short, the victory of technology over body and landscape), while identifying major ideological/narrative problems with the futurist movement: the disturbingly Aryan imagery, an oppressive technological optimism. The photographer’s horrified response to this vision reflects his sensitivity to the potential damage of the futurist narrative:

Here, we’d gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to use. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. . . . It had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda. (34)

Gernsback science: “Berlin to New York One Hour.” Illustration by Frank R. Paul. Everyday Science and Mechanics, November 1931. Wikimedia Commons.

Even after he shakes off the apparition, he notices remnants/ruins of this dream of the future:

I nearly wrecked the car on a stretch of overpass near Disneyland, when the road fanned out like an origami trick and left me swerving through a dozen minilanes of whizzing chrome teardrops with shark fins. (35)

The photographer’s commission to collect images of the remains of the dream leaves him unnerved, and he seeks to anchor himself in the ruins of post-futurist culture we have inherited: petroleum crises, old malls, bad cable. His reaction to the “Gernsback Continuum,” an urge to immerse himself in the postmodern uncontrollability of strip malls and failed architecture, suggests a very different approach to the problem of futurism: a need to respond anarchically, using street culture to fight back against the social determinism implicit in the staged and designed worlds of the thirties and forties, which he describes as “all a stage set, a set of elaborate props for playing at living in the future” (26). He needs to “exorcize [the] semiotic ghosts” (35) of the Futurama, inoculate himself against idealist/imperialist nostalgia.

These “semiotic ghosts” represent a very specific formulation of history. Peio Aguirre notes that in its cascade of retro-future images, “The Gernsback Continuum” comprises “a hilarious compilation of sci-fi tropes” (125), which, when taken together, constitute a vision of the past as inherently science-fictional:

Gibson’s version of a futuristic pop ghost echoes that “old-fashioned future” that Bruce Sterling, Gibson’s cyberpunk peer, coined in the title of one of his books to describe the time-space shifts that tend to present the past as science fiction and science fiction as past. (125)

This “futuristic pop ghost,” argues Aguirre, is part of a more general turn in history toward a postmodern fragmentation of past images, a “ceaseless proliferation of textuality, which holds that history never comes to us ‘as it was’, but in the form of texts and other documentary objects” such that it becomes “a narrative composed by infinite other texts” (125). Such a conglomeration of images, in the case of Gibson’s story, suggests that the past is not a seamless roadway through history, but rather can be understood only as a kind of fragmentary jumble of images that come at us like ghosts popping up on the highway create, as Christopher Woodward, suggests, “a dialogue between as incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator” (139).

The Ghosts of Detroit

While the ghosts of highways-past continue to haunt our current visions of transportation, those ghosts have started to move forward in time, from the imagined city streets and highways of the twenties, thirties, and forties, through to the car-centric city and factory spaces that were constructed in the 1950s with the ramp-up of consumer automobile manufacture and marketing. If one side of our “old-fashioned future” is Geddes’ vision, the other side is what we now think of as “ruin porn”—the current artistic fascination with abandoned manufacturing plants, and the decaying remains of lavish auto-era buildings captured in photographic works such as Dan Austin’s Lost Detroit (2010).

The road to nowhere. Remains of a Lincoln Plant in Detroit, MI. Photo by Andrew Jameson. Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA.

Detroit serves as a particularly poignant example of the birth, heyday, and death of the dream of the comfortable consumer autopian future, manufactured in the Populuxe film and advertising campaigns of the 1950s and 60s. GM’s Design for Dreaming may have been filmed in Miami and set in New York, but it was built on the beautiful machines assembled in the “Motor City.”

Lost Landscapes of Detroit 2010 is first in a series of collage videos created by Rick Prelinger from fragments of earlier films in the Prelinger archive showing Detroit in its heyday. The retrospective takes a different approach to the ghosts of Detroit. Rather than focusing on the ruins of idle factories and faded public buildings in order to call back to its luxurious past, Prelinger’s fragmentary documentary layers together moving images from that past and in doing so calls forward in time to our own knowledge of what are now ruins—in effect, creating a film that documents a kind of “pre-ruined” landscape.

Lost Landscapes starts with the opening from Key to Our Horizons (1952), in which the narrator uses the difference between old and new media of the time (daguerrotype and film camera) to illustrate the power of the moving image (and movement itself, in the form of the car) in place of the old, static Daguerre camera and, by extension, the old static city. The daguerrotype, with an exposure rate too slow to pick up movement, shows an image of a seemingly empty city.

The empty city. Lost Landscapes of Detroit 2010. Rick Prelinger. Prelinger Archives.

As a kind of retrospective collage, Lost Landscapes cleverly manages to invert the function of daguerrotype and moving image. The city, implies Prelinger, is empty again, just as it was through the lens of the daguerrotype. And again, it is technological obsolescence that has caused the “emptying” of the city; but this time it is not the fault of the camera, unable to keep up with modern automobiles, but rather the end of the car industry in Detroit, unable to keep up with the transnational flows of global capital. Thus Prelinger appropriates the sequence rather poignantly to suggest that a city without cars, especially a city whose economy depends on the manufacture of cars, is not just empty, but a ruin—a ghost city.

The form of Lost Landscapes itself echoes some of the postmodern aspects of Gibson’s story—what Aguirre calls “the reception of history . . . based on the eternal return of fragments” (125). The only way we have access now to this obsolescent past is through fragments, in Prelinger’s case fragments of antique film. The film constitutes an archaeology of sorts, but a carefully crafted one in which fragments of moving images are strung together to document a city filled with automobiles and people that no longer exist and factories that no longer function. In doing so, the film reveals that the only way to understand these pasts now is to see the fragments left behind. Fragmentation, we learn, is part of the process of becoming a ghost.

The Ghost of the Ad-Man and the Ghost of the City

One consequence of the appearance of ghosts in today’s automobile culture is the promise of a return to the past so cleverly manufactured in the 1950s and 60s through advertising. Two ad campaigns for American cars from the early 2000s capitalize on the blending of nostalgia and technological advance in an attempt to convince consumers (so crucial to the 2009 post-recession return to economic growth) that American cars have come back from the dead, recuperating themselves following the widely controversial 2008 U.S. government bailouts (and subsequent bankruptcies) of General Motors and Chrysler.

The 2010 “Smarter Than Luxury” campaign for the Lincoln MKZ starred John Slattery, famous for his role as Madison Avenue ad-man Roger Sterling in AMC’s Mad Men. The ad campaign is focused on the unique electronic features of the car:

“Don’t be surprised if you haven’t seen technology this intuitive before. No other car in the world has it. Actually, no other anything in the world has it.”

The campaign, aimed at reviving the Lincoln brand and pointing to the survival of the post-recession American car industry, relies on the claim that American cars are returning to the market because of new electronic technologies (GPS, media controls), rather than the physical presence of the car itself. But at the same time, the campaign calls back to the Design for Dreaming era in two ways. First, it establishes Lincoln as a “luxury” brand, using rotating camera shots (to display external design features) and a sequence of the driver stepping into the car and admiring the controls: both visual elements used prominently in the “exhibition” portion of the Populuxe film. Second, by referencing the image of the 1960s ad-man, the ad reflects on the glamorous white-collar culture that accompanied the blue-collar economic engine of the automotive industry. Slattery, widely recognized for his portrayal of Roger Sterling, a philandering pop-modern aesthete, represents the connection of the 1950s and 60s automobile not just to manufacturing and union jobs, but to the style, confidence, and sex appeal of the advertising industry. While the show itself may be a critique of ad culture in an age of social change, it plays on and profits widely from the nostalgia for Populuxe design and the (white) consumer American fantasy.

Perhaps the most interesting expression of the complex cultural terrain of the car industry (in particular Detroit), is captured in Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” series. The first ad, “Born of Fire” for the Chrysler 200, first played at the 2011 Superbowl and features rapper Eminem driving through the landscape of “the Motor City.” The ad is indebted, whether consciously or not, to a modern reinterpretation of the visual features so compellingly laid out in Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes: the driver’s-eye-view of factories, luxury buildings staffed with uniformed doormen, wide un-crowded streets, and of course the iconic skyline of Detroit, built on the wealth of automobile manufacturing. At the same time, it also incorporates images of “ruin porn” to signal the then-popular acknowledgment that the car industry in America was believed to be dead and Detroit on the verge of becoming a postmodern American ghost city. It also points—ironically, given that the auto industry was known to blame its economic problems on labor unions—to the proud blue-collar ethos of industrial might, making, for example, playful jabs at the new-era tech cities (“Emerald City” Seattle).

The ad starts by showing the Interstate highway sign for I-75 passing into Detroit, and features a deep, gravelly voice (Michigander Kevin Yon), designed to reflect working-class pride:

Yon: I got a question for you. What does this city know about luxury? Huh? What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well I’ll tell you—more than most. You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel. Add hard work and conviction, and the know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us. That’s who we are. That’s our story. Now it’s probably not the one you’ve been reading in the papers, the one being written by the folks who’ve never even been here, and don’t know what we’re capable of. Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from, as who it’s for. Now, we’re from America. But this isn’t New York City. Or the Windy City. Or Sin City. And we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.

Eminem: This is the Motor City. And this is what we do.

Many contradictions have been carefully tied up in this ad. How does one sell a luxury experience manufactured in what is widely believed to be a ruin? How does the blue-collar worker parse what luxury is? Most importantly, how does a car company that has been bought by an Italian company (Fiat, known for its budget autos) maintain its American associations? The ad does it through the slogan “Imported from Detroit,” simultaneously signaling that luxury (traditionally associated with Europe and expensive “imports”) and the old tradition of American hard work (visualized through the Diego Rivera Detroit murals and the gruff voice of the speaker) have combined to create a new vehicle imported from a revived-from-the-dead city with deeply American roots. Eminem’s route through the city from ruined factories to the glorious downtown, and the inclusion of his title song from 8 Mile, further signify the path of a working class that has crossed from one side of Detroit’s 8 Mile Road (the city’s dividing line between rich and poor) to the other; from hardscrabble obscurity to fame and fortune. Eminem’s trip through the city culminates with his entrance into a theater and onto a stage where a gospel choir is in full throat, signifying the spiritual reawakening of Detroit.

These dreams of rebirth, however, cover over some of the less savory aspects of America’s declining automotive industry—the specters of race and labor activism. The ads skirt around (or ignore outright) potentially problematic racial politics: 8 Mile, for example, flips racial identity by featuring a white man “breaking into” a predominantly African American music industry, recasting the move as one of class mobility, even while the auto industry had for decades tended to systematically value and accommodate white workers over black workers, including the situation of factory plants in suburbs away from the African American city core. Schulz et al., for example, note that

As Detroit’s employers moved to the suburbs, a greater proportion of white than African American employees kept their jobs. The older factories that stayed behind in Detroit’s increasingly African American neighborhoods were less technologically sophisticated than the newer plants in suburban areas. (683)

Meanwhile, the appeals to working-class values clash with the neoliberal narrative of American auto companies and economists, who have systematically engaged in anti-union discourse to place blame for the end of the American car industry firmly at the doorstep of organized labor, rather than the car industry’s refusal to innovate or the rapidly changing economic landscape amidst the global flows of capital. One particularly potent narrative weapon of anti-union economists during the debates over the formation of the Affordable Care Act (now know as “Obamacare”) was to coin the now-ubiquitous term “Cadillac insurance,” describing the generous health insurance coverage negotiated at the cost of wage increases by the United Auto Workers Union, and partially blamed for the auto industry crisis in 2008. The Cadillac, once considered the epitome of luxury American cars, is now routinely used as a trope to signify labor union overreach, denying the long decades’ decline in union membership and protections.

Industrial architecture: Ruins of the future. Albert Kahn’s Ford Motor Company Edgewater Assembly Plant, Edgewater, NJ. Photos by Stephen Senigo/HAER. Library of Congress.

Both of these issues—race and labor—come together in the brief shot of Diego Rivera’s famously controversial Detroit Industry fresco, which was commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford. Rivera’s celebration of the working class and his depiction of black and white workers shoulder to shoulder is featured in a single shot by the Chrysler ad with little thought for the murals’ complicated political history—appropriating a celebration of labor in the cause of anti-labor consumerism. In such ways, the ad neatly ties up a cascade of images and associations such as the Rivera murals and 8 Mile, each of which is simultaneously decoupled from its racial and class implications and are used, instead, to signal a simplified tale of solidarity and rebirth—a compelling example of Aguirre’s “narrative composed by infinite other texts” and the “eternal return of fragments” (125).


The examples offered in this section—from Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” to Lost Landscapes to Chrysler’s “Born of Fire”—suggest that the ghosts that haunt us from an earlier, optimistic era go beyond the simple inclusion of “ruin porn.” What we witness instead are the detritus of cultural images themselves—antique film, iconic images, and objects chopped up and recombined in order to remind us of the former glories and cultural associations between technology and futurism. Avery Gordon notes that the common supposition of our media-saturated age is that of “hypervisibility,” in which we deny the presence of problematic ghosts:

In a culture seemingly ruined by technologies of hypervisibility, we are led to believe not only that everything can be seen, but also that everything is available and accessible for our consumption. (16)

Instead, the recombined media elements so evident in the examples we’ve given constitute their own set of ghosts: fragments of films, murals, artifacts, and narratives, stitched together to remind us not only that we once believed in technology, but that technology still haunts us from the past as we persist in our attempts to reconstruct what we thought were once the glory days of the automobile.

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