9/11: The Culture of Commemoration

David Simpson
University of Chicago Press ($14)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

September 12, 2001, was in some sense a moment of utopian potential; there appeared to be an awakening of international solidarity, global empathy, and planetary possibility in the world’s responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the previous day. Neighbors, communities, and strangers opened up to help each other and seemed ready to change the very way they viewed the world. It may have been the closest yet human beings have come to altering the relations between those we call “us” and those we call “them.”

That moment was sacrificed, though, in an act of revenge against Afghanistan and the illegitimate invasion of Iraq. The squandering of that potential global solidarity has cost the people of Darfur, Burma, New Orleans, and other places a good deal. Now, with the United States on the eve of another election year and the world on the verge of another catastrophic American military campaign against Iran, it may be time to remind ourselves of the lessons of 9/12 and of the potential we wasted. This is the force of David Simpson’s compelling book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration.

Simpson, a professor of English at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in Romanticism and literary theory, explored the social, legal, and academic consequences of the contemporary drive to describe our perspectives and simultaneously circumscribe the perspectives of others in his previous book, Situatedness, or, Why We Keep Saying Where We're Coming From (Duke University Press, 2002). In9/11, he returns to this cultural matrix of sociological, juridical, and institutional segregation to examine the complex and paradoxical treatment of the events and images of September 11, 2001, and after.

9/11 is a concise and keen analysis. Simpson poses four questions at the start—“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?”—and keeps them circulating throughout the book. He uses a fifth—“How can it be represented?”—to focus the other four in his analysis of the commemoration of September 11, 2001. He closely examines the particulars of “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,” and deftly considers how quickly we have acted to suture the disruption 9/11 caused. He also addresses how we remember and treat the bodies of 9/11—bodies of the dead, the injured, the warring, the friends and enemies, the foreigner and the homeland. And he compels us to see ourselves through other eyes, especially those of foreign theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Zizek.

According to Simpson, many things have changed since September 11, 2001. One of the most important has been the official policy toward obituaries, which he puts into a complex historical context in the first chapter, “Remembering the Dead: An Essay Upon Epitaphs.” Commemoration of the dead, especially those who are recognized as having died for a national cause, has historically been limited to people of high rank and military honors. Not until the middle of the 19th century were military deaths recorded “more or less democratically,” where “everyone who dies in combat is recorded or likely to be recorded” by name. Remembering civilian casualties has been a different affair. The New York Times’s “Portraits of Grief” marks the change: unlike past commemorations, it remembers those who died on September 11, 2001, as civilians, “but civilians who could be and were readily identified with a national cause.” In this way, Simpson argues, the consecration of our dead has reached an “unprecedented intensity,” especially when politically useful. Yet this change in our response to the deaths of our ordinary people has not led to an increase in sympathy for or with the deaths of other ordinary people. As we subsequently launched attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, and others outside the United States (as well as on many inside the United States via the Patriot Act), we strove more fully to divide the homeland from the foreigner, to secure the border between us and them. As much as our responses to those who died on September 11, 2001, have argued for their significance, our actions since have suspended the possibility of our “suffering with and for others.” We feel more than ever the need to bury our own dead but remain detached from an ethics of response to the burial of others.

In the second chapter, “The Tower and the Memorial: Building, Meaning, Telling,” Simpson shifts his analysis to the complications of reconstructing the World Trade Center site and creating the Freedom Tower. Perhaps this is where time is truly of the essence, since this commemoration will speak to “generations to come who do not have a living memory of 9/11.” Formal and informal debate on the design and its meaning began almost immediately: leave them fallen, rebuild them, replace them—but with what? Simpson reconnects this debate to the history of towers, cathedrals, railway stations, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, the naming of the United States, and contemporary disagreements about irony, polemic, and jingoism. He synthesizes a reading of the naming of the memorial and its adjacent spaces from cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s distinction between concentration and distraction and a consideration of allowing “the debate to continue,” asserting that the less determined this memorial remains and the less prescribed its message of “freedom,” the more profound it can become. The best hope for the reconstruction of the site and the memorial, according to Simpson, remains in an openness and unspoken signification, but he fears it will not happen, at least in the present historical context. “Hence, among other things, this book” and its plea that we take our time.

Returning to “Portraits of Grief” and other attempts at commemorating those who died on September 11, 2001, in the chapter “Framing the Dead,” Simpson locates the difficulty of these efforts in the dual meaning of “to frame”: to contextualize or historicize, but also to set up or blame. In light of this ambiguity, what might it mean “to frame” those who died on 9/11 and after, here and abroad, neighbor and foreigner? Simpson answers:

All those oddly imposed terms such as heroes and sacrifice and ground zero have been parlayed into an unjustified and internationally condemned military and political adventurism that not only arguably dishonors the dead in profound ways but also endangers the living across much of the world. The dead, in other words, have been framed to the purpose of justifying more deaths.

The dead, democracy, freedom—they have already been redacted for us, their meanings given. Exceptions have been disqualified: “Identification with or sympathy for the sufferings of others has always been hard to generate,” Simpson reminds us. Then, he turns to all the frames that have come after September 11, 2001: Afghanistan, Iraq, battles over “sacred ground,” Ted Koppel’s controversial reading of the names of the American dead in Iraq on Nightline, the expansion of the American prison complex, the publication of photographs of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force base, and especially the images from Abu Ghraib. Focusing on the Abu Ghraib photographs and how they interrupted the flow of the culture of commemoration, the tradition of suspicion, and the inertia of compassion fatigue, Simpson rehistoricizes the images, comparing them to World War II photographs, Vietnam War images, the Rodney King video, and postcards recording lynchings in the American South. Building on Susan Sontag’s observation that the photographs, surprisingly, “show ‘us’ among ‘them’” rather than simply showing the humiliated foreigner as the object of a controlling, distanced gaze, Simpson argues that the Abu Ghraib photographs profoundly differ from the other frames because they dramatically “narrow the gap between them and us.” They are the rare exception to official memory, exposing us to the suffering of others who are never shown, whose “Portraits of Grief” do not exist; they disrupt our objectivity, our self-assurance, and our certainty in judging, condemning, identifying. “They open a disturbingly ambiguous territory in between, where the question remains a question not yet resolved and not easy to resolve.” They are only a beginning, like 9/12, but they are necessary, if we are to take our time and consider what all these bodies mean.

In the final and most important chapter, “Theory in the Time of Death,” Simpson revisits the three threads of his book—the continued importance of theory, the necessity of taking our time, and the bodies of those who died as a result of 9/11—and critically reconnects them to questions of ethics, empathy, and the utopian potential of both 9/12 and Abu Ghraib. Theory remains indispensable because it “offers an important alternative understanding, outside the neoliberal consensus, of what may be entailed in moral vigilance and moral action”; Simpson notes that it is theory’s own immigrant status that makes this possible. It eschews both the melodrama of propaganda and the pornography of torture, and assesses the moral risk of a “rhetoric of urgency” that urges us to forget rather than commemorate, to believe we are right until we are proven wrong, and to sacrifice others for ourselves. Taking our time might make it possible for us to imagine a politics of compassion, following an ethics summarized by Slavoj Zizek in which “‘the only appropriate stance is unconditional solidarity with all victims.’” If 9/11 seemed to show the difference between “us” and “them,” then Abu Ghraib disabused us of so rigid a dichotomy. As Simpson asserts, every time we meet Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, we are reminded of ourselves; every image of the other reminds us that he is “one of our own.”

Ultimately, Simpson’s book is about the war in Iraq and the impending war in Iran. It provides one of the strongest analyses of how 9/11 has been represented and put to use, and its force lies in questioning decisions about who is with us and who is against us (much like the excellent independent film collections Underground Zero and 11’ 09” 01). Mr. Kurtz may be dead, but the horror of his postscriptum—“Exterminate all the brutes!”—remains scrawled in an unsteady hand across the contemporary landscape. In the end, 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration leaves us with one question: Can we stand by, ignoring the suffering of others, while yet another unjustified and internationally condemned military and political venture frames those who died for the purpose of justifying more deaths?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008