An excerpt from 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration by David Simpson.
The whole play of history and power is disrupted by this event, but so, too, are the conditions of analysis. You have to take your time.
—Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers
Has the world changed since 9/11? If it has, then in what ways? If it has not changed, then who has an interest in claiming that it has? Whose world are we talking about? Acts of commemoration are particularly sensitive occasions for assessing the balance of change and continuity within the culture at large. They often declare their adherence to time-honored and even universally human rituals and needs, but nothing is more amenable to political and commercial manipulation than funerals, monuments, epitaphs, and obituaries. Outpourings of communal or national grief are proposed as spontaneous but are frequently stage-managed: Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train made carefully scheduled and choreographed stops on its protracted twelve-day passage from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, in the sad spring of 1865.
Commemorative practices are themselves composed of elements that seem deeply traditional and repetitive, along with others that are open to innovation and surprise. Still others appear to be enduring but can be related to long-term historical preferences that shift slowly but shift nonetheless. Grieving over and laying to rest the bodies of the dead, summarizing and remembering their lives in obituaries and epitaphs, and erecting monuments and buildings that memorialize or mark the sites of tragic events have all been part of the rituals of ongoing life, but not always in the same way or to the same ends. In the period of the modern nation-states, these events have taken on national significance when the occasion has seemed to demand it. In these same states, millions have died in designated pursuit of national-political ambitions and in avowed defense of homelands. Their deaths have generally been emphatically pronounced worthwhile, not to have been in vain: motherlands, fatherlands, and fellow citizens have celebrated the sacrifices and observed the endings with dignity and ceremony. If all of this has taken on a certain familiar quality, as evident, for example, on the battlefields at Waterloo, Gettysburg, or the Somme, it has remained the case that for those immediately affected, the families and friends of the dead, every death is horribly immediate and unrepeatable. Rituals of memorialization exist to assimilate these intense and particular griefs into received vocabularies and higher, broader realms than the merely personal. The routines of commemorative culture, whether private or public, exist to mediate and accommodate the unbearably dissonant agonies of the survivors into a larger picture that can be metaphysical or national-political and is often both at once. They must somehow signify and acknowledge the idiosyncrasies and special qualities of each of the dead, so that each death is not simply merged with innumerable others, without allowing those idiosyncrasies to disturb or radically qualify the comforting articulation of a common cause and a common fate. In public memorials the personal identification may be nothing more than a name on a wall, but it is still intended and felt as personal.
Taking physical leave of the dead, when there is a body to inter or cremate, normally happens soon after death, and usually with some premeditated ceremony combining tradition and deliberate personalization. Decisions about the monumental, public forms that commemorate local or national traumas and tragedies are often and ideally the products of slow time. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was not built until seven years after the end of a war that proved too divisive and unresolved to allow for ready representation; the World War II Memorial took form even more belatedly, not so much because its memories are divisive (though some of them are that) but because its scope was so great as to seem beyond representation at all, except as a series of relatively local events: hence the monuments at Pearl Harbor (another memorial that was a long time coming), to the Iwo Jima flag raising, and to the Bataan death march, among others. Holocaust memorials also came late, and are still coming, for a range of reasons that include national and international shame or embarrassment and a sense of iconographic inadequacy (how can it be represented?) as well as of unsolved histories and contested contemporary politics. A culture that can take time over the commemoration of its past signals in its protracted deliberations the expectation that it will have time, that it can look forward to a continuous future both in the minimal sense of mere survival and in the more substantial sense that events from the past will be explained and set into context, made part of an intelligible history. But there is often a sense of guilt or unease that accompanies the assumption of an ongoing history with its implicit emphasis on coming to terms with and getting over tragic events. This is particularly so since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the period of the so-called memory boom, when a proper acknowledgment of the enormity of human cruelty (typified by and sometimes fixated on the Nazi genocide) has often seemed to insist that we not pass into a future that is forgetful of the history of atrocity, even that we reenact the primary shock of suffering itself as a state not to be overcome but endlessly made present. This has led to a besetting sense of bad faith about both forgetting (as if we could, but we do) and remembering (as if we could suffer in any way as much as those who lived and died in the camps). Freud’s brief remarks on the distinction between mourning and melancholia, getting over (working through) and acting out, have proved hugely prophetic of and influential for late twentieth-century deliberations on the ethical and psychological burdens of a horrific past. Above all, what has been deemed most intolerable is the role of the bystander, the person who simply notices but does not act. At the same time the inhabitants of affluent countries, whose economic position insulates them from the routine sight of violence, are often just that, bystanders, biding their time.
The event of September 11, 2001, seemed to challenge such complacency. It has been widely presented as an interruption of the deep rhythms of cultural time, a cataclysm simply erasing what was there rather than evolving from anything already in place, and threatening a yet more monstrous future. It appeared as an unforeseen eruption across the path of a history commonly deemed rooted in a complacent steady-state progressivism (the well-known "end of history" mooted after the fall of the Soviet empire). The forms of its commemoration have been correspondingly urgent and perhaps untimely, hurried along and even hijacked by a tide of secondary events whose connections with 9/11 are to say the least open to dispute. In less than two years we went from the fall of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon to the invasion of Iraq, a process marked by propagandist compression and manufactured consent so audacious as to seem unbelievable, except that it happened. The time of memory and commemoration evolved from the start alongside the time of revenge, but those now being punished were not the original aggressors. Most of the world knows this and stands appalled. Political scientist Jenny Edkins has seen 9/11 as the moment when "trauma time collided with the time of the state, the time of capitalism, the time of routine," producing a "curious unknown time, a time with no end in sight." Most worrying to her is that "the state, or whatever form of power is replacing it, has taken charge of trauma time." The balance between acting out and working through has been skewed by a prolonged period of ideological shoring up and military hitting out. Mourning and melancholia have both been made secondary to the initiation of new states of emergency. For a national culture as committed as is that of the United States to a high level of ethical self-justification and even self-righteousness, this compression produces a definite tension in the conventions of national self-representation. If the ethical task is somehow to "know how to reinstate justice in the place of vengeance," then it requires (and has produced) a radically devious logic to justify the invasion of Iraq. In the face of this deviance it is tempting to agree with Badiou that 9/11 and the "following battles" represent little more than the "disjunctive synthesis of two nihilisms".
Excerpted from 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration by David Simpson.
See also: In the months following 9/11, the Press created The Days After, a collection of writings on 9/11 by our authors.