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9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

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The day the towers fell, indelible images of plummeting rubble, fire, and falling bodies were imprinted in the memories of people around the world. Images that were caught in the media loop after the disaster and coverage of the attack, its aftermath, and the wars that followed reflected a pervasive tendency to treat these tragic events as spectacle. Though the collapse of the World Trade Center was "the most photographed disaster in history," it failed to yield a single noteworthy image of carnage. Thomas Stubblefield argues that the absence within these spectacular images is the paradox of 9/11 visual culture, which foregrounds the visual experience as it obscures the event in absence, erasure, and invisibility. From the spectral presence of the Tribute in Light to Art Spiegelman's nearly blank New Yorker cover, and from the elimination of the Twin Towers from television shows and films to the monumental cavities of Michael Arad's 9/11 memorial, the void became the visual shorthand for the incident. By examining configurations of invisibility and erasure across the media of photography, film, monuments, graphic novels, and digital representation, Stubblefield interprets the post-9/11 presence of absence as the reaffirmation of national identity that implicitly laid the groundwork for the impending invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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1 From Latent to Live: Disaster Photography after the Digital Turn

ePub

Every time I press the shutter, the viewfinder closes. And

it happens so fast that what I’m mostly seeing is black. . . .

I didn’t know what was occurring in front of my lens.

DAVE BRONDOLO,

New Yorker, on photographing 9/11

Armed with a lens to inject between myself and the world . . .

GEOFFREY WOLF,

The Sightseer

 

ONE

From Latent to Live

DISASTER PHOTOGRAPHY AFTER THE DIGITAL TURN

As the first year that digital cameras outsold their analog counterparts, 2001 marked a tipping point in the digital turn, one that would forge a new relation between the medium and the spectacle of disaster.1 With its dematerialization into code and capacity for instant transmission, the digital format allowed photography, perhaps for the first time in its history, to satiate the desire for “live” images. As a result of this sudden acceleration of the still image, the cultural position and function of film photography would endure an equally profound redefinition. In an attempt to retain legitimacy in the face of what John Roberts calls the “intrusion” of digital technologies and a “defeated documentary culture,” film photography in the twenty-first century appeared to relinquish its hold on the now in favor of more reflective and distanced role.2 As David Campany explains, in ceding “the representation of events in progress . . . to other media,” the postdigital identity of the medium became bound to the role of the “undertaker,” that shadowy figure who “turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened” in order to document “the aftermath of the event” rather than the event itself.3

 

2 Origins of Affect: The Falling Body and Other Symptoms of Cinema

ePub

An excess of speed turns into repose.

ROLAND BARTHES

In 1900, the soul suddenly stopped being a memory in the form

of wax slates or books, as Plato describes it; rather, it was

technically advanced and transformed into a motion picture.

FRIEDRICH KITTLER

 

TWO

Origins of Affect

THE FALLING BODY AND OTHER SYMPTOMS OF CINEMA

During the stock market crash of 1929, it was widely circulated that disheartened financiers began jumping from the windows of their Wall Street offices in record numbers. A London newspaper described Manhattan pedestrians’ having to wade through bodies of jumpers that “littered the sidewalks.”1 Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco, who was in New York working on a mural for the New School, explained, “Many speculators had already leaped from their office windows, and their bodies gathered up by the police. Office boys no longer bet on whether the boss would commit suicide but whether he would do it before or after lunch.”2 Comedian Will Rogers claimed that “you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of,” while Eddie Cantor joked that hotel clerks were asking guests if they wanted rooms “for sleeping or jumping.”3 One imagines the scene on that day as a kind of perverse realization of René Magritte’s Golconda (1953), in which bankers in bowler hats and black suits fall en masse from the urban sky.4

 

3 Remembering-Images: Empty Cities, Machinic Vision, and the Post-9/11 Imaginary

ePub

P.S. As this issue went to press, we were still alive. – The Editors

A special 1954 issue of Life on the H-bomb

The thing seen doesn’t need [the operator/viewer] to be there to be seen. The photograph is precisely . . . [a] “world seen without a self.”

ANN BANFIELD

 

THREE

Remembering-Images

EMPTY CITIES, MACHINIC VISION, AND THE POST-9/11 IMAGINARY

From the early perspectival diagrams of the Renaissance to the modern models of city planners, the image of the empty city has historically operated as what Barthes calls “a pure signifier,” an empty sign “into which men put meaning.”1 In this capacity, such images provide the “degree zero” of the built environment, that substrate of underlying possibilities from which the city is reimagined from a seemingly omniscient viewpoint. Despite the interventions of theory in the postwar era, it was the popular culture of the nuclear age that compromised the apparent neutrality of the image of the empty city.2 Cold War sci-fi films such as The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), Five (1951), On the Beach (1959), Target Earth (1954), and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) recast the emptiness of such images as the aftereffect of a horrific event rather than the condition of possibility for a perfect legibility of space, and in the process intertwined the narrative of progress with an unimaginable violence. While “the bomb” has since moved to the back burner of collective anxieties, the motif of the empty city has persisted, accommodating more timely forms of disaster such as climate change (The Day after Tomorrow), biological warfare (I Am Legend), global infertility (Children of Men), drug-resistant viruses (The Andromeda Strain), and, most recently, terrorist attack. Throughout this varied history, the image of the vacant city has forged what Vivian Sobchack refers to as an enduring “iconography of emptiness . . . [which] marks the American cinematic imagination of the post-holocaust city.”3

 

4 Lights, Camera, Iconoclasm: How Do Monuments Die and Live to Tell about It?

ePub

Monuments . . . are . . . born resisting the very premises of their birth.

JAMES E. YOUNG

 

FOUR

Lights, Camera, Iconoclasm

HOW DO MONUMENTS DIE AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT?

The World Trade Center was targeted on 9/11 not so much for the number of casualties it would produce or the damage to the infrastructure it would inflict, but rather for the larger symbolic statement that the destruction of this iconic structure would make. As the architectural centerpiece of the economic capital of the world, the triumphant verticality of the Twin Towers succinctly embodied the global reach and self-assuredness of postwar American capitalism. Their unnerving gigantism implicitly guaranteed a future where such structures, though grossly oversized for the present, would eventually be the norm as the fruits of capitalism flowed into U.S. accounts. This narrative was reaffirmed by the fact that the primary residents of the towers were banks, insurance companies, and the leaders of the money market. With their operations running in parallel with the nearby New York Stock Exchange, the towers served as both apparatus and shrine to late capitalism. Fluent in this logic of expansionism and dominance, the terrorists bargained that the destruction of this nexus of power would, if only momentarily, rattle the symbolic stability of this world order.1 As the editors of Architecture Week summarized on September 12, 2001, “The terrorists chose carefully. They discerned those skyscrapers as the cathedrals of our age and aimed at the heart.”2

 

5 The Failure of the Failure of Images: The Crisis of the Unrepresentable from the Graphic Novel to the 9/11 Memorial

ePub

The extermination of the Jews of Europe is as accessible to both

representation and interpretation as any other historical event.

SAUL FRIEDLÄNDER

I do not think that the Holocaust, Final Solution, Shoah,

Churban, or German genocide of the Jews is any more

unrepresentable than any other event in human history.

HAYDEN WHITE

 

FIVE

The Failure of the Failure of Images

THE CRISIS OF THE UNREPRESENTABLE FROM THE GRAPHIC NOVEL TO THE 9/11 MEMORIAL

For the first hundred years of their existence, comics functioned as an art form whose abbreviated shelf life rivaled the ephemerality of modern media such as television or radio.1 Born out of the nineteenth-century “circulation wars,” their serial format was aimed at transforming the casual reader into the regular customer and as such betrayed not only an incompleteness at the level of narrative, but a material disintegration which fueled the urgency of their consumption. However, as the form has gained credence among collectors, scholars, and artists in the last several decades, the planned obsolescence of yellowing newsprint has given way to a new sense of permanency. The emerging “graphic novel” not only jettisoned the serial format (a transformation which can be traced back to the arrival of the comic book in the early 1930s) but also enjoyed high-quality printing (and correlative high prices) alongside a more sophisticated mode of address.2 Despite the shift from “disposable pulp to acid-free archival paper” that has accompanied the elevation of the art form in recent years, an enduring connection to the medium’s prehistory appears to partially determine the medium’s cultural position.3 At least, this seems to be the implication of the unique status that the graphic novel assumed in the wake of 9/11.

 

Conclusion: Disaster(s) without Content

ePub

These are the days after.

DON DELILLO,

Falling Man

Terrorism and the “war on terror” are parts of [the] new media regime, but they are not its basis, not even its primary focus. At most, they are catalysts: they intensify and speed up the emergence of new media forms, and of their corresponding new modes of subjectivity.

STEVEN SHAVIRO,

Post-Cinematic Affect

 

Conclusion

DISASTER(S) WITHOUT CONTENT

While the immediate aftermath of 9/11 saw Hollywood pull virtually anything from distribution that vaguely resembled the experience of that day, five years later in 2006 the event would be front and center in films such as United 93 and World Trade Center. Writing in February of the same year, Julian Stallabrass noted, “There is . . . a vast outpouring of 9-11 merchandise that surely seeks to heal the image wound: posters of heroic firemen against the backdrop of the fallen towers, badges, caps, T-shirts, magnets and memorial candles.”1 The cries of “too soon” seemed to have rescinded and the concomitant return of the image appeared to form something of a bookend to the reconstitution of the visible that took place in the wake of the disaster. As W. J. T. Mitchell observes, “the spectre of 9-11” was supplanted by the global financial crisis and the killing of Osama bin Laden. For Mitchell, the latter is especially important, as the sense of closure it enacted was the product of a kind of double negative within the spectacle which canceled out the power of invisibility: “It is significant that the War on Terror that began with a massive spectacle of erasure on 9-11 should end with the erased image of someone who had been reduced to little more than a hollow icon of a widely discredited movement.”2 In these terms, the killing of bin Laden not only redresses the constellations of invisibility outlined in this book, but also recuperates an earlier image of absence which would mark the beginning of the “war on terror.”3 A similar symbolic transference was performed in almost ritualistic fashion in a press conference held on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

 

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