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9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

I remember the week after September 11, 2001, when the subway from Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan was back in limited service, getting off at Broadway-Lafayette and feeling somewhat disoriented when my usual landmark indicating south, the World Trade Center, was missing from the downtown skyline. The specter of the World Trade Center was soon enough evoked by Art Speigelman in his September 24, 2001, New Yorker magazine cover of the Twin Towers as black silhouettes against a black background. The Twin Towers haunted the New York skyline again a few months later in the Tribute in Light installation of 88 search lights configured in the buildings’ original footprints and projected upward into the night sky.

The tremulous memory effects of the World Trade Center is the subject of Thomas Stubblefield’s 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster. It examines, on the one hand, the cultural industries‘ attempts to put the World Trade Center disaster down the memory hole by erasing its image in media representations while, on the other hand, galvanizing its persistence as a kind of visual undead with deep ideological significance in the collective consciousness.

Underlying the text is the assumption that our reception of the events of September 11 and its aftermath have been profoundly shaped by the military-entertainment complex and its culture-industry forebears. Hollywood cinema, particularly Cold War dystopias and science fiction; various photographic genres from fine art to journalistic to robotic surveillance; and social psychology constitute the fertile ground from which the cultural meanings of September 11 and its imagery have sprouted and grown.

According to Stubblefield, there have been two main ways of interpreting September 11 from the academic perspective, one primarily European and the other basically American. The former extends the critical analysis of spectacle society, i.e., laying bare the alienating effects of mass media under capitalism; the latter involves the more pragmatic discipline of trauma studies, the therapeutic response to dealing with disasters both natural and man-made. Stubblefield endeavors to steer a path between the two.

First and foremost is the role of the camera in representing September 11. The year 2001 was the first time digital cameras outsold film and September 11 is believed to be the most photographed disaster in history. Ironically, a good portion of the archive was not recorded on digital media but on film, especially from disposable cameras purchased after the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Another significant database of images was recorded by what in contemporary parlance we might call optical drones — security cameras, webcams, and other imaging devices of the Panopticon. In both cases, the dialectic of morbid fascination, the lure of the spectacle on the one hand, and the bracketing off of horrific experience, the need to hold trauma at bay on the other, produces what Stubblefield calls “non-seeing,” a situation in which the apparatus of the camera at the same time enables us to maintain distance in space and time from actual events while ostensibly reaffirming their reality through the captured image.

And yet the reality theoretically being captured is itself up for debate. Stubblefield examines two well-known examples of supposed diffidence (what sociologist Georg Simmel terms the “blase” attitude engendered by modern culture) in the face of the September 11 disaster. The first is Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker’s A Group of Young People Watch the Events of 9/11 from a Brooklyn Rooftop (2001), an image of five hipsters apparently basking in the autumn sun as black smoke from the collapsed towers billows across the East River. The photograph was cited by Frank Rich in The New York Times as representative of the American public’s failure to learn anything significant from the September 11 attacks, a state of denial held to begin even as the horrific event was taking place. Withheld from publication until the fifth anniversary of September 11, the meaning of the photograph was almost immediately contested, not the least by its subjects who confessed to actually being in “shock and disbelief” about the attack rather than nonchalant as Rich asserted.

The other is Tim Soter’s Self Portrait (2001), showing the artist, also on a Brooklyn rooftop, looking straight into the camera as smoke pours out from the Twin Towers in the distance behind him, an image posted for its perceived opportunism on the “wall of shame” as part of the “Here is New York” exhibition mounted in a vacant SoHo storefront not long after the attacks. Professed on one level by the photographer to provide a document of himself within the historic event for the future sake of his grandchildren, Stubblefield reads it as a prime example of photography’s mechanically reproduced “euphoric blindness,” its penchant for separating the photographer from the photographed.

Stubblefield doesn’t cite it, but this distancing in space and time, and the slippery nature of photographic signification, is central to Siegfried Kracauer’s under-appreciated 1927 essay “Photography,” in which he discusses the difference between the photograph and what he terms the “memory-image.” Kracauer writes: “Compared to photography, memory’s records are full of gaps.” A photograph captures what is within the camera’s mechanical view while the memory-image is highly selective based upon an individual’s perception.

But a photograph is in essence only a specter of the reality it represents, a trace of a fugitive moment that is gone the instant it is captured. The gap between the photograph and the memory-image increases over time with the signifying value of the physical trace eroding as the years go by. “The truth content of the original [photograph] is left behind in its history,” Kracauer notes, opening up the possibility of broader significance through what might be termed the collective memory-image, in this case as a signifier within the visual culture of the disaster of September 11.

Contributing to the social imaginary of September 11 representation is the history of American popular and visual culture, especially as it evolved after the Second World War. Stubblefield organizes each chapter of the book by providing a genealogy, a prequel as it were, of films, photographic images, and other cultural references to frame various representations of September 11, from falling bodies and their subsequent disappearance from the public eye, to abandoned cityscapes in various post-Apocalyptic mise-en-scenes, to the erasure of the Twin Towers in media depictions of the New York City skyline.

As much as the events of day were captured visually, it is the void left behind by the collapse of the Twin Towers that reveals the ever-widening gap between the initial photographic record’s truth content and the metamorphosis of the collective memory-image over time. The book’s penultimate chapter is the most powerful one, dealing with failure of non-representation as exemplified by Spiegelman’s graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) and Michael Arad’s 9/11 memorial Reflecting Absence (2011). In both cases, the semiotic dialectic of presence/absence is ostensibly reversed — rather than the presence of the sign marking the absence of that to which it refers, the shadows and voids of the World Trade Center’s silhouette and footprint are vestiges of a  wound that refuses to completely heal. This reversal constitutes a space for institutionalizing what Stubblefield terms a “national trauma” (and what we might term a pathological collective memory-image), a psychological state that early on facilitated the march to war and now continues with “counterinsurgency” measures such as NSA warrantless surveillance, CIA drone assassinations, and the militarization of the domestic police force.

Instead of heralding a new political reality or the occasion for national reflection, Stubblefield concludes, September 11 seems to have provided the impetus for continuing business as usual, only now with a vengeance. The American Imperium carries on, most recently through what Naomi Klein terms “disaster capitalism.” And in that sense, Frank Rich appears to have been right.

This article was first published in Motown Review of Art.

Vince Carducci

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