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September 11, 2011


> Paru le : 18.09.2016

Despite predictions that the events of 11 September 2001 would mark the end of the “memory boom” (Klein 2000), which preoccupied critical and cultural discourses at the end of the twentieth-century (Zehfuss 2003 and Rosenthal 2009), in the aftermath of 9/11 discussions about commemoration have dominated public-political discourses in the United States (and further afield). Debates over the redevelopment of Ground Zero, the widespread consumption of commemorative memorabilia, and ongoing controversies surrounding the Bush administration’s mobilization of the deaths of 9/11 victims in justification of the War on Terror have impelled unprecedented attention to the politics and ethics of memory.

As Richard Stamelman (2003) has noted, plans to commemorate 9/11 began with unusual haste – the events of September 11 appeared to pass out of “history” and into “memory” (a transition that Stamelman suggests normally takes decades, even generations) before the significance of the attacks and their aftermath had been fully assimilated. However, although prospective designs for memorials were posted on the Internet as early as 12 September 2001, the construction of the final monuments at the sites of the attacks has not proven so efficient. Whilst the Pentagon Memorial (comprising a privately-commissioned design by Paul Murdoch Architects, which features a bench, set above a reflecting pool, named in memory of each of the Pentagon employees and the passengers and crew of American Airlines 77 who died on 11 September) opened, in 2008, with relatively little controversy, the process of commemoration at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Ground Zero, New York, has not been so smooth. Part of the Flight 93 National Memorial (as it currently stands, this structure – designed, following an international competition, by Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman – comprises a wall of names, listing each of the 40 victims who died on Flight 93, and a walkway set back from the crash site) opened on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, but the memorial remains incomplete due to a lack of funds. Also dedicated in 2011, the construction of the National September 11 Memorial in New York (designed, after a public competition, by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the memorial focuses upon the two footprints of the Twin Towers, which have been transformed into reflective pools, lined by the names of the victims of 9/11 and the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing) has been hampered by the arguments that have surrounded the wider redevelopment of Ground Zero, as different interest groups (the architects, the leaseholders, the victims’ families, community representatives, politicians) have struggled for control of the site, inducing severe tensions between its corporate and commemorative functions (Goldberger 2005; Nobel 2005).

These complicated processes underscore the complex interplay of agendas that inform the work of memory. As 11 September has been memorialized across diverse media, from different perspectives, in myriad locations, by multiple interest groups, it might be argued that something of a “hypertrophy” (Huyssen 2003) of memory has come to surround the events of 9/11. However, despite this apparent glut of memorative objects and narratives, it is possible to discern certain patterns in the commemoration of the attacks since 2001[1] – although these trends should be understood as a number of loosely overlapping movements, rather than as an exhaustive or determinative chronology.

The initial phase of commemoration lasted from the immediate aftermath of the attacks to the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. This period might best be considered as one of spontaneous diversity, in which posters for the missing, candles, prayers, and many different tokens were left across New York City. These weeks saw the first publications from what would later become Portraits of Grief (the series of obituaries published by The New York Times) and Internet activity proposing diverse designs for memorials at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. In literary and critical culture, this stage was defined by the swift publication of The New Yorker on 24 September 2001, offering a varied series of perspectives from critics and authors including John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, and Susan Sontag.

The outrage that followed Sontag’s suggestion that “[a] few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen” (Sontag 2001), marked the beginning of a more hostile and deterministic culture of memory. This second stage, lasting roughly from late 2001 to late 2004, saw a standardization of many of the narratives in the public sphere as representations of 9/11 coalesced around discourses of patriotism and freedom that accompanied the waging of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was during these years that the master-narratives of American exceptionalism, heroism, and triumphalism were most clearly established. The selection of Daniel Libeskind’s “Memory Foundations” as the masterplan for the reconstruction of Ground Zero, factoring amongst its proposed features a “Park of Heroes”, a “Wedge of Light”, and the infamous “Freedom Tower”, underlined the heavily emotive climate of American memorial culture at this time. The literary response in this period was largely confined to poems, short stories, or children’s books, several of which served an explicitly therapeutic purpose (see, for instance, Patel 2001; Roth 2001; Schnurr 2002). Many of the early critical responses to the attacks (Greenberg 2003) portrayed the events as a collective trauma, “an event with no voice” (Laub 2003).

The third commemorative phase lasted from 2005 to President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. This stage saw the publication of several full-length novels relating to the attacks (for instance, Foer 2006; DeLillo 2007; McInerney 2007; O’Neill 2008). With the exception of Hamid (2007), the novels of this phase tend to focus on the traumatized domiciles of white, middle class, liberal New Yorkers – doing little to facilitate the emergence of a heterogeneous culture of memory. By contrast, it was in this period that more nuanced and reflexive critical debate began to emerge from the American academy (see Simpson 2006; Rozario 2007; Sturken 2007). These accounts aimed to contextualize responses to the attacks within a broader cultural history and refute the politicized appropriation of the memory of 9/11. It was during this period that the Bush administration’s popularity began to decline significantly. The memorial project at Ground Zero also began to flounder badly, as corporate interests seemed to marginalize commemorative concerns, and in-fighting between Libeskind and architect David Childs led to severe compromises to the masterplan for the site.

With Obama taking office in 2009, a fourth phase of commemoration emerged, which lasted until 2011. Alongside the gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq, political activity in this period aimed to disassociate the White House from the increasingly chaotic construction process at Ground Zero, and neutralize some of the more polemic endeavours of the Bush administration. September 11, which had been celebrated as “Patriots Day” since 2002, was renamed “National Day of Service and Remembrance”, the Freedom Tower redesignated as “One World Trade”, and the War on Terror reclassified as the “Overseas Contingency Operation”. The tenth anniversary of the attacks saw the opening of the memorials at Ground Zero and Shanksville, followed, three years later by the somewhat controversial inauguration of the National September 11 Museum. The media coverage of the tenth anniversary ceremonies was notably more balanced in tone than in earlier years, with much mainstream commentary abandoning nationalist or partisan responses to thoughtfully reflect upon the events of the past decade. By the end of 2011, there was undeniably a sense of “closure” evident in many of the discourses surrounding 9/11 in the American public-political sphere. Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address appeared to draw a line under the “9/11 decade” following the killing of Osama bin Laden and the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. However, the recurrent controversies that have marked the pursuit of criminal justice during the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay since 2012 suggest that the attacks remain a highly emotive subject and their legacy continues to inform both geopolitical relations and cultural and political discourses within the United States.

Whilst the above chronology attests to the changing trajectories of the memory of 11 September in the American public sphere, one of the most notable aspects of the memorative discourses surrounding 9/11 is the way in which commemorative practices across diverse media have been inflected by the conceptual models of memory studies, underscoring the transferential relationship between the theory and practice of memory. From the immediate aftermath of the attacks, for instance, psychoanalytic paradigms of trauma dominated critical, cultural, and political discourses, with journalists, politicians, authors, and scholars framing 9/11 as a “national trauma”. Such contentions engendered divergent responses within the academy with some critics (Kaplan 2005) arguing for the need to extend orthodox models to acknowledge “secondary”, “media”, or “vicarious” modes of traumatization incurred by watching events at one remove (on television, via the Internet, etc), and others (Kansteiner 2004; Radstone 2003), cautioning that the unreflexive overextension of trauma can be both politically and ethically suspect in its occlusion of difference and its tendency to privilege the suffering of certain communities over others.

Indeed, as has been widely noted (Faludi 2008; Pease 2009), one of the most unfortunate and recurring tendencies of the commemorative discourses surrounding 9/11 in the American public-political sphere has been the way in which the memory of the attacks (and their victims) has been appropriated to reinforce, both implicitly and explicitly, the triumphalist – and heavily nationalistic – narratives of the War on Terror. Judith Butler (2004) contends that this instrumentalization of 11 September has exposed the deeply divisive “hierarchies of life” that structure contemporary geopolitical relations. In consequence, a number of critics (Rothberg 2009a; Gray 2011) have argued for a global reorientation of the memorial culture of 9/11.

Construing memory as comparative and not competitiveresonate strongly with the recent “transcultural turn” in memory studies (Bond & Rapson 2014), pioneered by theorists such as Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider (2006), Michael Rothberg (2009b), and Astrid Erll (2011). Recent years have subsequently seen a number of novels (Shamsie 2009; Cole 2011; Waldman 2011) that have attempted to open up the narrative of 9/11 by destabilizing the hegemonic culture of memory that dominated the American public-political sphere,  recontextualizing the attacks in relation to other atrocities, in order to undermine efforts to position 11 September as an exceptional historical rupture.

Far from signaling the “end of memory”, as suggested by Rosenfeld and others, the concomitancy between the theory and practice of memory that has been demonstrated in the aftermath of 9/11 suggests the emergence of a distinct mode of public memorative literacy, arising out of the discourses of the “memory boom” and the related “memory industry”. Viewed positively, this dialogic relationship between criticism and culture could help to establish a more reflexive attitude to the politics and ethics of memory, including the consequences of privileging particular communities of victimhood, and the related risks of over-identifying with, or appropriating, the suffering of others. However, there is also a danger that the convergence of theory and practice could facilitate the reification of memorial culture, foregrounding certain “frames of memory” (Bond 2015) whilst occluding the recognition of other perspectives, voices, and experiences. Perhaps, then, the challenge presented to the future of memory – in theory and in practice – by the events of 9/11 is to remain alert to, and reflexive about, the emergence of commemorative master-narratives that threaten to homogenize and hegemonize representations of the past.

[1] An extended version of the following chronology appears in Lucy Bond (2015). This extract is reproduced with kind permission of Palgrave Macmillan.