9/11: Past and Future

September 8, 2006

jacket imageAn excerpt from 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration by David Simpson.

The event we call 9/11 has a past that we can rediscover, a present that we must monitor, and a future we can project. Many of us who were addressing even the most circumscribed of publics—our students or fellow academics—felt the urge, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, to make a statement, to testify, to register a response, to initiate some sort of commemoration. Many of those responses took the form of grief, sorrow, shock, and above all, self-recrimination at the appearance of carrying on as before. The rhetoric veered wildly between sympathy and self-importance—as if it were a moral duty that each of us should speak—but what was notable was the need to register awareness of some sort. Many people all across America, not only those who knew one of the dead or knew someone who knew someone, reported feelings of acute personal anxiety and radical insecurity, but there was never a point at which this response could be analyzed as prior to or outside of its mediation by television and by political manipulation. With the passage of time it may come to appear that 9/11 did not blow away our past in an eruption of the unimaginable but that it refigured that past into patterns open to being made into new and often dangerous forms of sense. Take the date itself. There is now evidence that it was not selected with absolute foresight as both the national emergency telephone number (911) and the anniversary of various momentous other events in the history of the West and its "others," but fastened on late in the planning process as the best conjunction of all sorts of pressures and conditions, some of them short term. But when we rediscover those events, the prospect of a certain paranoid coherence emerges: the assassination of Allende on September 11, 1973; the British Mandate in Palestine on September 11, 1922; the U.S. invasion of Honduras on September 11, 1919; and the defeat of the Ottoman armies before the gates of Vienna on September 11, 1683. If this is not metaphysical irony or the mark of some devilish and well-informed intelligence, then it is a sign that our culture is saturated with such coincidences, that almost any date would bring up other anniversaries, any of which could become significant in the light of a supervening event. Take September 10, the date of John Smith’s assumption of the presidency of the Jamestown colony (1608), or of the beginning of the British economic boycott of Iran (1951). Or take September 12, the date of the first major U.S. offensive in Europe (1918), or of the defeat of Persia by Athens at the battle of Marathon (490 BCE), or of the birth of Richard Gatling, inventor of the Gatling gun (1818). These dates are not quite as redolent with significance as that of September 11, but they are not without significance. September 12 comes up on various Internet searches as the beginning of an era, the "September 12 era"; for one webmaster the date is the "ongoing reminder" of the "positive emotions" we are all deemed to have experienced. Fortuitously the FBI attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, took place on April 19, 1993—Patriots’ Day. So too therefore it was on April 19, 1995, that Timothy McVeigh detonated his bomb in Oklahoma City.

These are examples of how an event supposedly without precedent draws to itself a new history and projects a new future, a culture past, present, and to come. Some of these inventions are immediate, but they draw on traditional resources that are indispensable even as they are felt to be inadequate. As we ponder the appropriate means by which to commemorate and memorialize the dead, we are engaging with an element of culture that perhaps goes back to the proverbial dawn of civilization, if the ritualized burying of the dead is indeed to be imagined (as Vico imagined it) as that which makes humans something other than beasts. And as we witness the effort to rebuild at the purposively designated "Ground Zero" what has been brought down and listen to the arguments about it, we are participating in a process of seeking to harmonize the need for shelter and commemoration with the desire for display and political advantage that has governed all public and much other building since buildings came onto the human scene. The massive national debate about memory and memorialization in relation to history has the potential to reinvigorate a debate about these issues that previously had been focused on the Holocaust and had before 9/11 been widely felt to be approaching its exhaustion. Or perhaps the debate will fizzle and falter so that the final pieces of the site plan in New York will slip into place almost unnoticed beyond the parameters of Lower Manhattan. Pierre Nora’s encyclopedic Realms of Memory set out to produce for modern France a site-based cultural record that was premised on the end of authentic memory, of a world in which "memory is a real part of everyday experience," and the onset of a society entirely driven by responding to the "thin film of current events." This elegiac paradigm pitted memory against history, the one sacred and the other critically demystifying. The "sites of memory" (lieux de mémoire) he records are themselves only vestiges of a lost integrity, the products of "a society fundamentally absorbed by its own transformation and renewal". Nora’s own gathering of critical instances is itself selective and can be read as a somewhat willful construction of accepted vestiges; it falls prey to the motivations of an inevitable historiography. So too will the vestiges of 9/11, whatever they turn out to be.
The need and desire for critique therefore remains unembarrassed. The commemoration of 9/11, and 9/11’s culture of commemoration, has both history and a future. The event has been and will be made to mark a new epoch, and as such it is already generating a mythology and a set of practices of its own. This process is not autonomous but, precisely, cultured, in the sense of cultivated, and monitored and produced with the specific possibilities of consumption in mind. The event known as 9/11 lives on as the emergency telephone number painted on the sides of thousands of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances, a part of our communications rhetoric of which one suspects that some of the hijackers were quite aware, even if the choice of this date was for them a matter of chance. It remains an emergency condition, not just because of the disaster itself (already drummed into our visual imaginations as a flat-screen phenomenon that is repetitively seen while it cannot be "imagined") and its potential recurrence in some other American place (against which homeland security is trying to protect us), but as the available icon of a massive reorganization of the global political sphere on the principles of U.S. exceptionalism and unilateralism—a reorganization that is ongoing and widely held, elsewhere in the world, to be extremely dangerous. What the term 9/11 actually names, as Jacques Derrida was quick to point out in the weeks following the event, is critically unclear. Who first coined the phrase, and how did it spread so quickly across the airwaves and into the lexicon? We may never know the answer—things happened so fast, abbreviation seemed the only way to go. The figure 9/11 is not a place (although New York City plays that role in the national imaginary), nor yet even a time, since what is missing is the designation of the year, 2001. It will repeat itself every year, and it will remain an open designation, a communications channel for crisis, an emergency number. At one moment these numbers will be a sign of remembering the dead, at another the mandate for military adventurism, at yet another an architectural and civic opportunity. The slimmed-down economy of this signifier can draw to itself, with minimum resistance, almost anything that comes its way—and anything that is sent in its direction. The power of its manipulable iconicity is such that the Bush White House can repetitively at once affirm and deny that there is evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attack on the World Trade Towers, even where there isn’t any, confident that many Americans will continue to believe that such a connection exists, a view continually reinforced by images of falling towers and statements that the war in Iraq is about fighting "terrorism" in the open and in a contained place rather than having to respond to its sinister and untraceable penetration of the world system and of the homeland in particular. Alternatively, 9/11 is deployed in the telescoping of an entire worldwide threat syndrome into the living rooms of each and all of us. Army National Guard recruiting literature delivered to my high-school age daughter in April 2004 began with the headline "The Most Important Weapon in the War on Terrorism … You."
In arguing that the culture of 9/11 has a longer history than many have supposed, even as we must recognize its disruptive forms, my inquiry takes very long views—of the culture of epitaphs, obituaries, and of the naming of the dead, of the building of the shelter and the monument—and relatively short views (though with long-term implications)—the framing of the dead, the war in Iraq, the rebuilding at "Ground Zero." Language itself is a major resource in the naming of what cannot be named, in the location of 9/11 within the longstanding rituals and short-term political strategies that it embodies and enables: so we have sacred ground, Ground Zero, the heroes of 9/11, the careening hyperbole that shifted from shock and awe to infinite justice to enduring freedom to the Freedom Tower itself. All of these terms, and others like them, have already been naturalized and pass by without question in the national media and the popular imagination. The normalization of these terms within the standard lexicon so that they can be repeated without question is precisely one of the most effective ways in which culture is remade. No responsible intellectual should fail to notice and respond to this process.
Excerpted from 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration by David Simpson. See another excerpt.
See also: In the months following 9/11, the Press created The Days After, a collection of writings on 9/11 by our authors.

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