There is an elephant in the room. We have danced around it all semester, but it is time to take stock. I am talking about the former World Trade Center.
For many, the World Trade Center is primarily associated with an event: that fateful day in 2001 when the twin towers collapsed. When asked to think about the World Trade Center, many will respond with a narrative: where they were when they heard the news, or, how it affected them (or their loved ones). There is a tendency to personalize the events of September 11. People appropriate the World Trade Center as part of a personal history. It ceases to be a pair of buildings or even an event in its own right and becomes a player in a drama of identity construction. There is something very telling about this response. It betrays a coping mechanism; one that is infinitely revealing in its machinations.
In the first place, the internalization of the event that brought down the twin towers codifies the World Trade Center as an event. But, at the same time, it is equally an impossible event: it could not have happened (1). By making it our own, we take from the event everything that might constitute it as an independent occurrence. It does not exist outside of us. It did not happen, but to us. We could pass this off as a coping mechanism; a repression of sorts that never escapes in the abreaction that gives voice to it. However, I don’t think that’s quite it. The World Trade Center, as an event, can be universally internalized precisely at the point at which it ceases to be an event. Two buildings did not fall; all of American hegemony fell. Thus, it did affect everyone. It affected us in a manner in which we explain away with a story about two buildings falling.
The World Trade Center also ceases to be a thing at the point where it becomes an image. In “The Spirit of Terrorism,” Jean Baudrillard highlights the role that images played in commodifying the destruction of the World Trade Center. Baudrillard says:
“The role of images is highly ambiguous. For, at the same time as they exalt the event, they also take it hostage. They serve to multiply it to infinity and, at the same time, they are a diversion and a neutralization […]. The image consumes the event, in the sense that it absorbs it and offers it for consumption. Admittedly, it gives it unprecedented impact, but impact as image-event.” (2)
In our ability to absorb its tragic demise and in our fascination-repulsion for it, the World Trade Center is a fetish. At the heart of the event there is indeed a thing and, as such, it is consumable. However, that thing is an image; a spectacle; almost a fiction (3). As such we are desensitized to its violence. In our storytelling—our personal reiterations of the event—the brutality of the terrorist attack is indeed neutralized. It figures marginally, if at all, in the versions I’ve heard. We can observe the same process at work in the crystallization of the images of the live television broadcast, which instantaneously offered up the image-event for consumption.
Perhaps it is because I am an art historian—a chronicler of images and things—that my gut reaction is to think of the World Trade Center as an image. The first place I go is to film. It is a natural link; the moving images of the image-event have conditioned us to this type of portrayal of the World Trade Center. As Petar succinctly pointed out a few weeks ago on this blog, we, as a culture, have become ravenous for images of Manhattan under the duress of disaster. Post-9/11 Hollywood movies have turned the image-event of Manhattan’s destruction into a lucrative commodity.
To end on a lighthearted note; maybe that’s the best we can hope for. My image of the World Trade Center is a little different. I picture it in a moving helicopter shot, swooping in from the south just as the credits are about to role on a film or television series from the 1970s or 80s. I have latched on to a mythic past World Trade Center. The primal scene. That’s my coping mechanism. What’s yours?
Tuesday November 23 at 6:30, artist-in-residence at Apexart (291 Church Street, Tribeca) Donghyun Min will discuss the vision of New York he garnered from the movies and how that vision has tempered his experience of the city. I will be going right after class if anyone wants to join me.
(1) This is suggested by Jean Baudrillard in the essay “The Spirit of Terrorism.” My commentary is here is influenced Baudrillard’s multiple essays on the World Trade Center. See Jean Baudrillard. 2003. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Translated by Chris Turner. London; New York: Verso.
(2) Ibid., p. 27.(3) Ibid., pp. 29-30.