What We Save and What We Abandon: A Chat about Ruins and their Social Value

By: Niki Fritz

A view from above of the limestone pyramid ruin.

Up by Bedford, there is a half-completed/ half-uncompleted pyramid. While walking along the limestone slabs with weeds and flowers now poking through the crevices, it looks like a haphazard stone park of some sort. But from above you can see the outline of a pyramid, a human-made one. Back in the 80’s, the now-deserted pyramid began as a project partially funded by the government and partially by the local community. It was meant to display the beauty of one of Indiana’s most prevalent natural resources: limestone. But due to lack of funding, the structure was never finished. And now it sits, weeds seeping through, a ruin.

A glimpse of the pyramid from the ground, which Saul took while exploring the ruins.

A glimpse of the pyramid from the ground, which Saul took while exploring the ruins.

“People call it a folly, an example of government waste. It is interesting to think of that failure of the pyramid when we talk about the history of limestone in Indiana. Limestone surrounds us every day on this campus,” explains Saul Kutnicki, a first year PhD student in Communication and Culture. “[Ruins] are also a way into thinking about history in a way we didn’t do before, to question something that we encounter daily. It is interesting that ruins can be a failure or something to be preserved. There is some sort of culture consensus about what ruins matter and what don’t, about what is sacred and what is not.”

For Saul, ruins weren’t always his primary interest. He came into the program as a MA student interested in film and media studies and gradually began to integrate rhetoric into his work.

“The intersection between film & media and rhetoric & public culture is an important component of my work. This was the impulse behind participating in the interdisciplinary opportunities afforded in CMCL, opportunities that I hope to carry on taking and sharing in the Media School,” Saul explains.

The ideas of ruins interested Saul so much because of their pervasiveness in the media today.

“[Ruins] are kind of a big deal right now. Anyone who is on social media knows ruins are big. There is always some part of Detroit that is being depicted,” according to Saul. “Ruins are such a part of our everyday language. We talk about ruined relationships, ruined careers … What are the things we deem ruins and what does that mean.”

Saul Kutnicki

His work with the rhetorical criticism and images of ruins led Saul to think of the ethics of ruins, which in turn led him to apply for the Poynter Center’s Jesse Fine Fellowship.  Fine Fellowships support the creation of course curriculum that specifically address ethics in classes developed for undergraduate students. In the “Ethics of Ruins” course Saul is developing as a Fine Fellow, he has several objectives.

First, he hopes to help students establish their own archives of ruins and to give them a broader understanding of the history of ruins. Traditionally we think of ruins as things that are a) old and b) part of our heritage, but Saul wants students to expand this narrow definition to encompass what are ruins in their own lives or in their communities or in the larger world.

Next, Saul seeks to encourage students to place the ruins into a narrative, not just looking for similarities in structures or locations but similarities in the value and metaphor, the ruin represents. To illustrate this point, he pointed to the difference in how we treat ruins and slums, going to great lengths to preserve the former and not hesitating to tear down the latter.

“What do we save? What don’t we save? What films do we protect? What buildings do we protect? What value to be attribute to ruins? We assign value according to certain social values,” Saul explains. “Ruins are a good place to start thinking about our values.”

Finally, Saul wants his students to make something out of their ruins, whether that be a film, a photo essay or some sort of multimedia presentation. From his course proposal, Saul explains:

“In my teaching, I strive to provide students with an opportunity to hitch their own intellectual wagon to the ideas, concepts, and problems presented in the course material. The course will be designed to help students carve their own path according to their individual productive or creative impulses. Thus students will be asked to develop individual or group projects that demonstrate critical writing skills, visual storytelling and public speaking.”

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