Remembering 9/11 - Politics of Memory
Starts : TV news “it does not appear that there's any kind of effort up there yet… Oh my God! We just saw a plane circling the building… The other tower of the World Trade Center has just collapsed the sheer panic in the street… many people are running…
George Bush : Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.
Rudy Giuliani : We have to cry and we have to mourn and we have to feel terrible and awful… And on the way over here I cried in my van because I had to go to the morgue to identify someone. But the tears have to make you stronger. Every time you cry, you have to remember that we are right and they are wrong.
Marita Sturken : I’ve always been interested in the politics of memory : how do cultures remember things, the debates around remembrance and how we can understand something about national identity through that.
After September 11 people began to talk about a memorial very, very fast, almost the next day, even before the numbers of dead were known. And I think that is a response of grief, it is about thinking about this as an event that can be contained : we can think about memorializing it because it’s over, we’re not at war… But it was very, very striking, that that discussion of memory happened so quickly.
1.The official memorial : a tragic response
There were many very moving spontaneous memorials built around the city in Lower Manhattan, especially at Union Square. So there is this pressure on the government, the governor of New York State and members of other parties to begin a memorial process very quickly.
And it was very difficult for people to talk about renewal, to talk about what it would mean to rebuild this section of the city for the future and there was a lot of policing of the kinds of things that could be built there and the kinds of speech that they might enable.
There is a sense then that something must happen quickly. And I think one of the things that’s most striking that happened then was the idea that the footprints of the Twin Towers were sacred space. And there wasn’t a lot of history that would make that clear. The Twin Towers sat on top of this large underground shopping mall, no one really had a sense of their footprints… But it was a symbolic thing that mattered to people, and so it became sort of locked in to what could be done at the site, this idea that nothing could be built on those footprints. They’re very, very big : each one is the size of a city block. And so the memorial design, after much debate and contestation, that was chosen, Michael Arad’s design Reflecting Absence, turns those two footprints into voids, and fills them with water. So when you go to the memorial now, part of what you experience is this strange scale. There are names carved on the sides of the pools, but then there are these two enormous, vast pools of water with water cascading down in them. And that… the vastness of those voids makes it very difficult to have an intimate experience there. But I think it also shows us something about this event, and this event in American culture, the sense that the size of the memorial could convey the epic size of the event in American history. I think ultimately it will not wear well over time and the sort of pulling out of these two voids of the urban landscape… is a really tragic kind of response to an event like this.
2. Kitsch and tourists of history
I called my book Tourists of History because I’m interested in thinking about this as a kind of metaphor for American culture. I am thinking about the ways in which conventionally, a tourist is someone who stands outside. When you define yourself as a tourist and you’re visiting a place, part of that definition is about saying that you are an outsider looking in at something. There is something of a distance : you are a distanced observer.
So I was interested in this question of how Americans see themselves as distanced from world politics, and that allows us to operate in a kind of state of disavowal about our foreign policy and our… the complex that we have engaged in, and how the rest of the world sees us. And so, to a certain extent I feel there is a very, very, long history of that in American culture, and there are lots of ways in which we can point to in American history, where Americans have thought of themselves as exceptional and also as different and distinct from other world powers. But there is a certain kind of inflexion of it that’s taken place in this particular moment.
And part of what I was interested in looking at here is the way in which our relationship to consumerism is an intrical part of that. So, very soon after September 11th, the vendors in Lower Manhattan began to sell souvenirs about what had happened, to sell snow globes. Very soon thereafter, official organizations began branding teddy bears to be sold to the public. The exchanges of teddy bears was a truly remarkable, instantaneous aspect of the event. And so we have all these industries, some of them quite officials some of them informal, that are about a kind of consumerism of the grief and loss and the memory of this event. And on one hand I think this is part of what people do : they go to visit a site like this, they are mourning, they are also a tourist : those practices are not necessarily in contradiction. But when someone goes to a site of loss like that and purchases a souvenir, I think we need to examine what that practice means. And in some ways, I would like to argue that people make different types of meanings in those places, but on the other hand, I think those objects themselves restrict the kinds of things that one can do with it. If you buy a teddy bear that says FDNY on it, and it’s not a child object, it’s an object for adults, then the message is that we want you to feel better. It’s not a message that is possibly about thinking about political change, it is not an object that you could feel angry with. This is why I think of it as an object of kitsch : it is meant to convey and encourage in its user a particular emotional range that is very prescribed and contained.
If you go down now to the gift shop of the museum, you can buy coffee mugs, you can buy tote bags… there’s all sorts of implications to that. On one hand it is about raising money, for the memorial and the museum, and on the other hand, it is about reducing a kind of cataclysmic event, in which thousands of people were killed, and a city and a nation traumatized, and that engendered two wars… containing that in a household object, in an object that’s intended to be carried around in someone’s daily life.
There is a long history in American culture of a kind of equation of American identity with innocence. The reason why I think there is something a little bit distinct about American kitsch and American kitsch in its relationship to memory, is precisely the way in which it evokes this position of innocence. And to a certain extent, I think that the project of American empire, which most Americans do not have a very powerful narrative about, in a way that would have been quite different, let’s say, at the height of the British Empire, when it was part of British national identity to have a sense of the project of the British Empire. In American culture, we have never actually thoroughly embraced that notion of American empire. During the Bush administration, some politicians were actually willing to say it and embrace it but most American political discourse and popular view is that any kind of war that we participate in in the United-States are in our own defense or in the defense of others, rather than imperial wars. And so the project of American empire is I believe not that palatable to the average American, and so it has to be counter-balanced by other narratives. The narrative of innocence is very, very important to that. So you could say after September 11, most Americans believed very fervently that this had come out of the blue, that we had just been attacked, and that we were undeserving of that. Most Americans were pretty uninformed about the history of American foreign policy that had led up to Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States. So the narrative of innocence was quite powerful there. It is a little contradictory because a narrative of innocence makes a nation seem vulnerable and weak, and certainly that is not the self-image that the United States wants to have. So it’s precisely in that kind of contradiction between power, defensiveness and innocence that I think we can see how an event like this, in the way in which it is memorialized, reveals aspects, many contradictory, of national identity in a context like this.
So one of the reasons I was interested in trying to unpack the meanings of kitsch memory culture, say for instance in relationship to 9/11, is precisely the ways in which it creates this culture of comfort, that allows us to feel reassured. And that allows us to not confront the larger questions, about the project of American empire, about the project of national identity, about our priorities and our values as a nation, and about the kind of sacrifices that we have demanded on those serving in the armed forces, those who were serving in national guards, who were sent off to wars that they had never signed up to go to, and all of the ways in which many families and many communities were really devastated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You see that is looming in many difficult ways in American culture and people don’t want to confront it.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Marita Sturken, Claire Richard, "Remembering 9/11 - Politics of Memory", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2014. Consulté le 03/10/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/problematiques-contemporaines/remembering-9-11-politics-of-memory