The Nostalgia of 9/11

9 09 2011

Here we are nearing the middle of September, a time when, once again, we start to see a buildup in cultural production—television programming, radio interviews, news commentary, etc.—centered around the topic of remembering the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.  This year, marking the tenth anniversary of the event, has the familiar commemorative speeches, memorial services and monument dedications that we have come to expect.

The further away we get from the date of those attacks, and the more memorializing that happens concerning them, the less impact the events seem to have.  The iconic images are, by now, quite familiar—the video shots of planes hitting the towers, the collapse of each, almost in slow motion, the people fleeing from the onrushing cloud of dust and debris, the thousands walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, the photo of the firemen raising a flag on a damaged and twisted flagpole.  The repetition of those images, especially over time, begins to obscure our own personal memories, our own personal experiences, of that day.

Jean Baudrillard argues that the attacks, to most of the world, were in fact a non-event.  I was living in Spokane, Washington, nowhere near New York City, Pennsylvania, or the Pentagon.  My experience of that day was through the images, not in the events themselves.  The attacks did not really happen to me.  But in a hyperreal world, “factual” experience isn’t the end of the story.  While the physical attacks had no bearing on my experience, the symbol of the attacks did.  The images that were repeated over and over again that day, and in the weeks and months that followed, on television, radio (if  you’ll remember, all radio stations switched to whatever news-format they were affiliated with for about a week), and the internet.  The images were re-born in conversations between friends, family, and acquaintances.  The violence did not happen to us, but the symbol of violence did.  As Baudrillard states, “Only symbolic violence is generative of singularity.”  Rather than having a pluralistic existence—each person with their own experience and understanding of any given topic—our collective experience is now singular.  Nine-eleven didn’t physically happen to me, so it’s not real, but it is real. It’s more real than real.  It’s hyper-real.

But in the ten years since, the hyperreality of the attacks seems to be fading into something else.  As the vicarious (for most of us) experience fades into memory, the singularity of that symbolic violence is shifting into one of nostalgia.  The events as historic fact are replaced by our contemporary ideas about that history as it reflects our own time.  Nostalgia films of, say, the 1950s aren’t about the ‘50s.  They are about how we view the ‘50s from 2011.

The 1950s scenes in Back to the Future don't show us the 1950s. They show us the 1950s as seen from the 1980s.

We’ve seen this nostalgia as early as the 2008 Presidential campaign, which included many candidates using the shorthand for the attacks (“Nine-eleven”) to invoke the sense of urgency or unity or the collective shock of that day.  The term “nine-eleven” no longer just refers to the day and attacks, but to everything that went with them and to the two resulting wars and nearly ten years of erosion of civil liberties.  What happens with this nostalgia is that details become muted and forgotten, and we end up molding whatever we are waxing nostalgic about into something we want to see—to a story we can understand and wrap our heads around.

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This morning I listened to a radio interview of a man who carried a woman bound to a wheelchair down some 68 floors of one of the towers on the day of the attacks.  He was labeled a hero, but in subsequent years, slid into survivor’s (or hero’s) guilt and general cynicism.  He looked around the United States in the years after the attacks and saw the petty strife, the cultural fixation on celebrity trivialities, and the partisan political divide seemingly splitting the country in two.  He longed for the America of the time immediately following the attacks, “Where we treated each other like neighbors,” the kind of attitude, as suggested by the interviewer, that led him to offer to help this woman he did not know in the first place.

Certainly, there was the appearance of national unity after the attacks.  Signs hung from freeway overpasses expressing sympathy for those in New York.  Flags hung outside every house in sight.  People waited for hours to donate blood on September 12, just to try to do something to help.  The symbols of unity were abundant, but division abounded as well.  Many were still angry, skeptical, and suspicious of George W. Bush, who had been granted the presidency by a Supreme Court decision which, to some, bordered on illegal.  Within communities, fear and paranoia led to brutal attacks on Muslim (and presumed-Muslim) citizens.  Fear led to post offices and federal buildings blockaded from city traffic.  In Boise, a haz-mat team was called due to suspicious white dust, feared to be anthrax, on the steps of the post office.  It turned out to be flour placed there to help direct a local running club on their course. The flags were still flying, but the supposed sense of unity and “neighborhood” was, in actuality, suspicion.

To look back at September 11th, 2001 and view it as a time of unity in comparison to the contemporary political divide is nostalgia.  The view is not of the historical time period, but what one wants that time period to have been that then acts as an example of what the present “should” be.  Perhaps nostalgia is inevitable.  As time passes and memories fade, the repeated symbols of any given time or event become re-purposed, gain new meaning from the reality (or hyperreality) from which they are being viewed.  The goal for many regarding the attacks is to “never forget.”  The repetition of the images keeps us from forgetting, but it also contributes to the memory changing.

Sources:  Baudrillard, Jean.  “The Gift of Death.” originally published in Le Monde, Nov. 3, 2001

Here and Now (radio show).  “A Reluctant 9/11 Hero Looks Back.”  Airdate:  Sept. 9, 2011




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