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Carnage in the Eye of the Beholder: On Postmodernism and Nine Eleven


In the 1980s, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard asked, ‘Why does the World Trade Center have two towers?’1

The towers functioned, before Nine Eleven, as parallel surfaces mirroring one another. They became a symbol for the irrelevance of difference in a post-political world where acts disappear without consequence. A one-dimensional society. The symbolic eliminates difference in value between real and imaginary, signified and signifier.

This flattening of the political and cultural realm removes the possibility of change, creating a system of apolitical violence. Within this system, terror is not seen as a product of hostility. Rather, it is seen as a product of listless and apathetic forces exposing the metaphysical prejudice at play in all objective valuations.

The 1972 demolition of Pruitt Igoe, a housing development in St Louis, Missouri, is cited by cultural theorist Charles Jencks as the day modernist architecture died and postmodernism officially began.2 The development was constructed in accordance to modernist principals, form following function, utopian minimalism and social engineering exemplified in public housing. The architect, Minoru Yamasaki, later went on to design the Twin Towers.

Postmodernism posits the illusion of meaning and knowledge, rejecting the meta-narrative in favour of fractured skepticism and moral fluidity. It argues for the extinction of the real, whereby any attempt at meaning is credible, truth is relative and morality is constructed. Postmodern thinking removes certainty, replacing it with multitudes of interpretation; it thereby stands in opposition to the neatly planed and uniform modern space.

American critic Edward Rothstein, in a 22 September 2001 op-ed for The New York Times, argued that Nine Eleven would cause the death of postmodernism: ‘This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective. And even mild relativism seems troubling in contrast.’3 Rothstein forecast a shake at the foundations of intellectual life, a rejection of relativism.

Many academics and cultural critics shared Rothstein’s sentiment. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that Nine Eleven revealed the ‘substanceless character of postmodern studies, their lack of contact with real life.’4

The postmodern worldview suddenly became hollow and nihilistic, its preoccupation with the end of history and recycled originality fell flat in the face of this event strike. Intellectuals would have to acknowledge the real as real. Ambiguity is immoral.

Taken to its logical conclusion, postmodernism’s rejection of universal values left little room for an unqualified condemnation of the attack. Such a rubric could not be supported. Critical theory is pale in the face of the immense referentiality of the World Trade Center collapse. For a time, Nine Eleven seemed to force the world back into the pacifying arms of a make-believe modernist dichotomy of good versus evil.

In the immediate wake of Nine Eleven, the West, long sheltered from the consequences of United States' imperialism, watched images of bodies fall. A state of destructive sublime took hold, an uncanny global reality generated by a localised event. The American President at the time, George W. Bush, boldly proclaimed, ‘freedom itself is under attack.’5

Most viewed the event through a screen, unfolding as a spectacle or Hollywood disaster film, functioning in the realm of Baudrillard’s hyper-real where identity is lost amongst the rapidity of real time information and the cascade of images. Nine Eleven is one of the most photographed events in world history. Every moment from the penetration of the Twin Towers to the collapse was captured on film. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen proclaimed Nine Eleven ‘the greatest work of art.’6

Sombre critics held cultural relativity responsible. Passive nihilism would not suffice in the age of unprecedented geo political struggle. A rejection of academic abstraction took hold.

The desire to see fixed ethical valuations will not produce them. False universals should be rejected. The face of evil did not attack the United States. The men who hijacked United Airlines flights 11 and 175 acted within a rationality of grievances and objectives. This is a neutral statement.

In April 2004, CBS News published photographs depicting abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, a United States Army detention camp that operated in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. The images detail torture, rape and smiling guards. Eleven soldiers were convicted of crimes related to the events. All of them are free now.

The Bush administration’s official response to the images insisted the events were not representative of the conditions of the prison and showed a handful of sadistic guards acting on their own. A legal brief prepared for Donald Rumsfeld, then American Secretary of Defence, in March 2003 states that, due to national security threats, any ban on torture need not be applied to the war in Iraq.7 Al Qaeda and the Taliban should be considered outside the Geneva Conventions.

Proclamations for transcendent ethical perspectives were not made. Relativity was applied.

As per American literary critic Fredrick Jameson, postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism. The towers collapsed and Bush told Americans to ‘go shopping’; an attempt to re-establish the American machine. Conceptually significant is a comparison of the historicisation of the World Trade Center to that of the Pentagon. The latter has been erased from cultural discourse.

This erasure can be viewed as symptomatic of the desire to relativise and shield. If post-Nine Eleven cultural discourse was to address the Pentagon, it would have to address what the Pentagon represents. It would force the acknowledgment of decades of United States imperialism and military action.

Former leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, in his Letter to America, explicitly states his opposition to the United States as a reaction to continued military attacks in Palestine, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. By removing the attack on the Pentagon from cultural discourse, this fact can be ignored. Government bodies can continue to perpetrate a human versus monster narrative, granting legitimacy to continued military operations and creating public apathy towards the inhumane treatment of people read as the enemy. Relativity is applied.

Before its collapse, the World Trade Center functioned as a locus of international economic hegemony. A symbol of the power of late capitalism, the American century and globalisation. When the planes hit, the centre of economic homogeny was threatened, the centre of capitalist loci erased. No such thing happened at Abu Ghraib.

Nine Eleven did not kill postmodernism. It ushered us into yet another realm of power structures and symbolic transference within the ideological wasteland. The official War on Terror narrative, via the political class and the journalistic organs that transmit its message, was one of duality and Manichaean allegory. A fight between the good, spiritual world of light, and the evil, physical world of darkness. The narrative functions to dehumanise people seen in opposition to the world of light, denying their status as human beings and justifying violence.

It is worth noting that public reaction to the images produced at Abu Ghraib suggest the subject was American army personnel rather than the victims of their torture. The faceless men in these photographs have largely been forgotten, whereas stories of shame and subsequent redemption are applied to its subjects.

Rumsfeld said he did not want the photographs ‘to define us as Americans’.8 Conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly argued the photographs should not be shown publicly as they would lead to anti-American sentiments. The subject of those photographs was the United States.

In the spectre of Abu Ghraib, the moralistic reasoning and nationalistic wave that followed Nine Eleven is shown as nothing bar an attempt to hold on to hegemonic power and domination. The world of light versus the world of dark reasserts the United States’ traditional ideological and racial commitments.

Don Dale Youth Detention Center, a facility for juvenile detention located in Berrimah and managed by the Northern Territory Correctional Services, is a maximum-security prison. On 25 July 2016, ABC’s Four Corners aired Australia’s Shame. The episode showed graphic footage depicting abuse of child prisoners, including Aboriginal boys being assaulted, shackled to chairs, stripped naked, tear gassed and held in isolation for seventy-two hours with no running water, a violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment.

Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a Royal Commission into the abuse the following day. A report, released in 2017, made over 200 recommendations, including the closure of Don Dale. The Northern Territory Parliament heard in 2018 that female detainees were forced to shower under video surveillance. The facility is still in use. Relativity is applied.

Flashbulb memory, a concept credited to psychologists Roger Brown and James Lulik, claims dramatic events function as a flashbulb, imprinting themselves on our minds and informing cultural shifts. Events that surprise and have excessive levels of consequentiality trigger the brain, creating a permanent and vivid record. Nine Eleven acted as a collective flashbulb. Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?

The concept has linguistic and conceptual links to photography. The advent of the personal camera gave photography, and image making more broadly, a significant space within our collective understanding of events. Photographs work to simultaneously inflame passions and provide evidence. Our political and ethical beliefs function largely within the epistemology of photography.

Falling Man (2001), perhaps the most iconic image of Nine Eleven, was purchased by the Australian War Memorial in 2017 for an unspecified amount. An article from the Australian War Memorial website detailing the purchase of the Richard Drew photograph opens with:

For those of us who were adults on September 11, 2001, our lives are divided into two halves- the one we lived before these events and everything that has happened since.9

Falling Man can be read as symbolic of a perceived impending threat to Western hegemony and imperialism. The subject, explicitly gendered as masculine, is falling from his station at the seat of the empire. The image is seared into the collective conscience as it highlights an impeding, anxiety-inducing restructure of the world order. Leaders capitalised on this anxiety to defend their nations’ place atop the global hierarchy.

A photograph on its own does not hold the power to move; it requires the kind of political context largely provided by those that hold power. Fallings Man’s status as an iconic record of atrocity illustrates the selective nature of photography and interpretation. The images from Abu Ghraib and Don Dale can be forgotten, mere footnotes in the pursuit of a greater good. Falling Man, on the other hand, was purchased with money from the Australian Government’s military budget and displayed in a national monument. Don Dale continues to detain children. Relativity prevails.

The Manus Regional Processing Centre, an offshore immigration detention facility situated on Los Negros Island in Papua New Guinea, was opened in 2001 under then Prime Minister John Howard’s Pacific Solution Policy, citing offshore processing as a refugee deterrent. The Pacific Solution was implemented until 2007, before being reinstated in 2012 under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Reza Barati was murdered at the Manus detention center in 2014 during an attack on inmates by guards. Hamid Khazaei died of sepsis the same year after cutting his foot. Queensland coroner Terry Ryan marked Khazaei’s death as preventable, a direct result of the health care provided by the detention system. Between January 2010 and January 2019, thirty-seven refugees have died in Australian detention facilities.

Images published by The Guardian in December 2014 show the sewn-together lips of four asylum seekers detained at Manus—an act of protest against their indefinite detention and concentration camp conditions. Amnesty International described the conditions on Manus Island as ‘tantamount to torture.’10

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a trophy on his desk shaped like a boat. The inscription reads: ‘I stopped these’. This year, after the death of 1,260 civilians during the battle of Mosul in Iraq, Morrison said the events were difficult and tragic, but it’s unclear whether Australian bombs were responsible.

Nine Eleven and its associated discourse highlights the function of norms that establish who is entitled to human rights and whose death is grieved publicly. It renders visible holes in the good versus evil narrative. Both sides claim goodness, justice, truth and virtue. Bin Laden’s construction of Americans mirrors Bush’s construction of Al- Qaeda. The mirroring unites both forces in the face of asymmetry. A symbiotic relationship exists in line with Baudrillard’s conception of the towers: ‘they did it, but we wished for it.’

Comparing the political and cultural reaction to Nine Eleven with that of Abu Ghraib, Don Dale and Manus stresses the role of relativity. The images of abject horror produced by Abu Ghraib, Don Dale and Manus did not prompt the same flashbulb; the inconsistency therein reveals the existence of arbitrary power structures and value systems derived from an unequal distribution of power and resources. The assertion that Nine Eleven would usher in a new era of objectivity is incognisant to such structures.

The current United States president’s distasteful manner of speech attracts more media attention than his policies. Australian media talks for weeks about pill testing at festivals while the top four banks continue to finance companies responsible for illegal land grabs in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Relativity is applied.

Rather than returning to the mythical state of objectivity and universal judgments, postmodern hyper-reality has been ramped up. In December 2018, Amnesty International published a magazine with a cover image of a half-naked model lying on a bed of orange life jackets. The image provoked internet outrage. Both the American and Australian military are still in Iraq.

Holly Keys is a writer based in Naarm. Her work is primarily concerned with hyper-reality and political fiction.

1. MJean Baudrillard, Simulations, Semiotext(e), 1983.
2. Charles Jencks, The Language of Postmodern Architecture, John Wiley & Sons, 1977.
3. Edward Rothstein, 'CONNECTIONS: Attacks on U.S. Challenge the Perspectives of Postmodern True Believers,’ The New York Times, 22 September 2001: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/22/arts/connections-attacks-us-challenge-perspectives-postmodern-true- believers.html
4. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Verso Books, 2002.
5. George Bush, ‘President Bush Addresses the Nation,’ Session of Congress. Session of Congress, 20 September 2001, Washington DC.
6. Anthony Tommasini, ‘Music; The Devil Made Him Do It,’ The New York Times, 30 September 2001: www.nytimes.com/2001/09/30/arts/music-the-devil-made-him-do-it.html
7. Jess Braven and Greg Jaffe, ‘Rumsfeld Approved Methods For Guantanamo Interrogations,’ Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2004: www.wsj.com/articles/SB108682697155933408
8. Judith Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 25, no. 6, 19 April 2007.
9. Cynthia Piromalli, ‘September 11, World Trade Center Photographs Purchased by Australian War Memorial,’ Australian War Memorial, 19 May 2007: www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/september-11-photographs-purchased
10. Claire Mallinson, ‘Australian Government Must Immediately Bring People to Safety,’ Amnesty International Australia, 25 September 2017: www.amnesty.org.au/evidence-clear-australian-government-must-take-responsibility-evacuate-centres-immediately-bring-people-safety/

Filed under Article Holly Keys