Forgetting September 11?

 

 

‘In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in a situation where he has to play detective.[1]

 

 

As Walter Benjamin’s quote suggests, in times of terror humans are prone to look for meaning in unfolding chaos. The global proliferation of communication technology and hyper connectivity has immersed contemporary mankind into the cinematography of terror. In this pixelated loop of atrocities and the transportation of violence from there to here, we are compelled to find meaning in overarching narratives explaining such horrors. Building upon Benjamin’s sentiment concerning the construction of truth, Maja Zehfuss’s provocatively titled Forget September 11 attempts to provide a strategy for combating the destructive narratives post 9/11. More broadly, Zehfuss demonstrates a poststructural challenge to orthodox epistemologies by questioning the divisive use of temporality and memory as a means of locating the enemy within a historical narrative. Zehfuss is correct to argue for us to question the dominant narratives constructed in the aftermath of 9/11, however, she touches upon, but does not expand what types of narratives should fill the vacated void. Building upon Zehfuss’ suggestion, I will argue that a plural humanist understanding of 9/11 should replace the void left in the wake of Zehfuss’ dismantlement of the dominant narratives.

It is worth pondering the nature of the attacks and the theoretical frames that are best suited for analysing 9/11. In cultural studies scholars have pondered if the destruction of the WTC also brought about the destruction of postmodernism. The critic Charles Jenkes suggested that the symbolic start of postmodernism began with the demolition of prize-winning architect Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and ended with the destruction of his most famous architectural work, the WTC[2]. If we are to take these two points to mark out the temporality of postmodernism then is it useful to use a postmodernist methodology – poststructualism – to analyse the event that brought it to an end? Viewing 9/11 as a postmodern event is to locate the event as presenting us with ‘no detached point of observation: we were immersed in a network of tragic images of destruction and loss, looped in 24/7 cycles, which induced a state of emergency and trauma at all levels of society.’[3]. Its qualification as a postmodern event derives not from the motives of the attack but from its broadcasting and symbolic imagery, as a spectacle of destruction. Zehfuss’ poststructural approach is based on the Foucauldian assumption that ‘discourse is not confined to written forms or to language in the narrow sense, but extends to all symbolic systems’[4]. Moreover, Zehfuss applies Derrida’s work on politics and memory by building upon the idea that ‘invoking memory always already involves a reversal of time – producing a past in the present.’[5]. Zehfuss is thus posited within a poststructualist scholastic tradition that attempts to understand 9/11 as a truly postmodern event.

Zehfuss builds upon De Derian’s poststructualist approach, particularly his work on the military-industrial media-entertainment network which he describes as ‘networked information and virtual technologies to bring “there” here in near-real time.’[6]. She does not specifically mention Derian’s concept of mimetic war of images, but should be touched upon. In its broadest sense, a mimetic war is a battle of representation and imitation, in which the relationship between who “we” are and who “they” are is played out across a wide spectrum of ‘familiarity and friendliness, indifference and tolerance, estrangement and hostility. It can result in appreciation or denigration, accommodation or separation, assimilation or extermination.’[7]. This mimetic war is clearly seen in Bush’s discourse of ally and foe, ‘either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’[8] And Bin Laden’s spiritual interpretation of ‘the faithful and the infidels.’[9]. For Zehfuss, it is important to move away from a one-dimensional moral understanding of the attacks, as they have led to an emotional and political climate in which the curtailment of civil liberties was readily accepted through the patriot act[10].

Rather then accept the discourse as a given, poststructualist such as Zehfuss have concluded that the imagery and discourse deployed by Bush has directly played into the hands of Bin Laden through opening up a mimetic communication loop via counter image munitions[11]. Moreover, the discourse is neither neutral nor non-political as it serves a purpose of reproducing knowledge for political purposes and as means to identify the “other”. The utilization of a particular discursive narrative for political ends is problematic as it neither reveals an objective truth, nor by the policy makers own objectives, alleviates violence. What follows from this ‘crude form of othering’[12] is a constellation of problematic binaries that pits the “west” or “infidels” against the “terrorists/barbarians” “faithful”. Zehfuss’ skilfully undermines this superficial construction by arguing that many of the hijackers had lived in the USA and Germany, and are essentially from our midst[13]. Zehfuss alludes to a different type of categorisation that does not construct 9/11 as something exceptional but rather builds into a universal understanding of human suffering[14].

Building upon Zehfuss proposition, a new categorisation of remembrance could serve as a tool for understanding the “other” as well as personalising the events. This new categorisation should resist divisive master narratives that seek hegemonic national unity. It should promote a mosaic of memory as a subjective form of remembrance promoting plurality, drops binaries – Bush’s ‘war against evil’[15] – in favour of a global humanised understanding of violence. Within this new individualised memory, new temporalities and spatialities shall be woven into the fabric of global remembrance.

As Lee Jarvis outlines, the congealment of the 9/11 narrative by the Bush administration as a rupture from “history as normal” into a new era of insecurity and war[16], has hindered the wider debate on the ‘fundamental questions of politics ….our inevitable vulnerability and our responsibility towards others.’ [17]. This line of argumentation follows a larger poststructuralist belief that the politics of power and space, temporality and identity must be debated between multiple political and social hues. Shapiro argues that the nation state presents ‘its people as ‘subjects’ in a signifying process aimed at showing the national life as a continuous heterogeneous process of renewal.’[18]. Thus, 9/11 becomes another instance of a long historic battle for innate “American values”, a battle that has been reproduced throughout time and space. Shapiro’s National Times and Other Times questions different forms of time, space and memory that the state and individuals utilise. He uses the work of Julia Kristeva to highlight the notion of “women’s time” as an example of divergent forms of temporality ‘emerg[ing] from different moments in the history of the feminist movement’[19]. Shapiro concludes his article by arguing the political must involve a continuous recognition of persons whose ways of being-in-time are diverse.’[20]. To apply this idea to remembering 9/11 is to acknowledge that the event was horrific yet not unpredictable, indescribable or unprecedented[21]. In contrast, divergent forms of temporality should be promoted that are ‘receptive to the meaning of our multiple, dispersed, mortally fragmented existences’[22] and acknowledge a global commonality in suffering.

Zehfuss’ article highlights that the West’s search for “elusive security” has undermined what many consider core Western values. To move beyond the singular time and the divisive master narratives enforced by Bush and Bin Laden a new inclusive temporality must be found. This temporality must manifest from a global perspective that takes into account connectivity and similarity rather than difference and security. By taking into account individualised memory within a larger global understanding of suffering we can set humanity on the course of undoing the categorisations that has sought to explain the larger political questions of identity through antagonisms.

 

Footnotes

 

 

Nancy, J.L, The Inoperative Community, (trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus,

Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney, London, 1991).

[1] Benjamin, W, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, p. 40.

[2] McHale, B, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism, p. 175.

[3] Der Derian, J, ‘9/11: Before, After and In Between’, http://essays.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/der_derian.htm [Accessed 24/03/16].

[4] Griffiths, M (ed.) International Relations Theory for the Twenty-First-Century, p. 91.

[5] Fagan, M (ed.) Derrida: Negotiating the Legacy, p. 109.

[6] Der Derian, J, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-industrial Media-Entertainment Network (New York, 2nd ed. 2001) p. 202.

[7] Der Derian, J, Terrorism, Media, Liberation, (New Brunswick 2005). p.328

[8]The White House, Official Press Secretary, ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and The American People’, (Washington 2001),

http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html [Accessed 26/03/16].

[9]George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden October Speeches, (October 8, 2001) http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/481921texts.html [Accessed 26/03/16].

[10] Zehfuss, M, ‘Forget September 11’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3. (2003) pp. 513-528, pp. 518.

[11] Roger, N, Image Warfare in the War on Terror, (London 2013) p. 70

[12] Zehfuss, M, ‘Forget September 11’, pp. 519

[13] Ibid, pp. 519.

[14] Ibid, pp. 520.

[15] Ibid, pp.525

[16] Ibid.

[17] Zehfuss, M, ‘Forget September 11’, pp. 526

[18] Shapiro, M, ‘National Times and Other Times: Re-Thinking Citizenship’, Third Text, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 79-98, pp .84

[19] Ibid, pp.89.

[20] Ibid. pp.94.

[21] Javis, L, ‘Times of Terror: Writing Temporality into the War on Terror’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, Vol. 1, No. 2, (2008), 245-262, pp. 246.

[22] Nancy, J.L, The Inoperative Community, (trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus,

Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney, London, 1991) p. xi.

 

Bibliography

 

Benjamin, W, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, (London 1973).

 

McHale, B, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism, (Cambridge 2004).

 

Der Derian, J, ‘9/11: Before, After and In Between’, Social Science Research Council, http://essays.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/der_derian.htm

 

Griffiths, M (ed.) International Relations Theory for the Twenty-First-Century (New York 2007).

 

Fagan, M (ed.) Derrida: Negotiating the Legacy, (Edinburgh 2007).

 

 

Zehfuss, M, ‘Forget September 11’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3. (2003) pp. 513-528.

 

Der Derian, J, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-industrial Media-Entertainment Network (New York, 2nd ed. 2001).

 

Der Derian, J, Terrorism, Media, Liberation, (New Brunswick 2005).

 

The White House, Official Press Secretary, ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and The American People’, (Washington 2001), http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html [Accessed 26/03/16].

 

George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden October Speeches, (October 8, 2001) http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/481921texts.html [Accessed 26/03/16].

 

Roger, N, Image Warfare in the War on Terror, (London 2013).

 

Shapiro, M, ‘National Times and Other Times: Re-Thinking Citizenship’, Third Text, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 79-98.

 

Javis, L, ‘Times of Terror: Writing Temporality into the War on Terror’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, Vol. 1, No. 2, (2008), 245-262.

 

Nancy, J.L, The Inoperative Community, (trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus,

Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney, London, 1991).

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Forgetting September 11?

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