A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

6.2: The Art of Disorientation

The Art of Disorientation: Image, Event, and the Politics of Response in Three Films about 9/11

Kelly McGuire, Emmanuel College

Enculturation 6.2 (2009): http://enculturation.net/6.2/mcguire

“The World Trade Centers did not die.  They created more space.  And we may be lost, but that’s because that disorientation is life.”   Timothy “Speed” Levitch’s words at the beginning of Richard Linklater’s Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor, delivered as the camera pans the New York City skyline with its conspicuously absent towers, typify his irreverent philosophical take on 9/11.  His discourse in this short documentary, as well as in the 1998 cult favorite The Cruise, is peppered with political parable, architectural history, personal anecdote, statistical speculation, and psychedelic cause-and-effect reasoning.   A scene near the end of The Cruise, which documents Levitch’s stint as New York City’s most creatively perverse tour bus guide, features the twin towers.  Part ecstatic dervish and part giddy child, Levitch spins on the World Trade Center plaza between the two massive structures.   As Levitch lies down, the viewer anticipates but never fully sees the dizzying visual that the exercise purposefully produces—the illusion of the towers spinning and falling down toward the lens.  Although not an official stop on the tour, Levitch “highly recommends” that his passengers reproduce this disorienting experience themselves. For Levitch, being disoriented, being lost is being “very precise about your place in the world” (Shiva). The scene, in retrospect, is eerily prescient.  Levitch’s imaginative experiments, however, are no more prophetic than they are mere Zen shtick.  As he obsessively seeks to demonstrate in the written chronicle of his walking tours, Speedology: Speed on New York on Speed, disorientation is better experiencedif only through playful illusionthan it is theorized. [1] The collapse of the World Trade Center towers represents the collapse of a capitalist hierarchy that had replaced, for Levitch, intimacy with the transaction or the “most mediocre form of human intercourse” (Speedology, 24).  His antidote to the lethargy of the system is live participatory performance.

The imagined visual of the towers spinning and collapsing near the end of The Cruise captures one man’s personal image event, but one Levitch encourages others to reproduce for themselves in order to imagine radical change.  This moment in the documentary communicates Levitch’s ideology of interactivity as a method of social and political change and challenges the dominant ideology of capitalist culture through image. For the viewer watching the film after 9/11, the scene is inevitably rendered a benign anticipation of image event on a grand scale—the suicide bombings at the World Trade Center.  An image event is typically conceived as a staged and documented action that achieves political force through a persuasive image. [2] The image, made powerful through its dissemination in popular media, embodies a social or political movement’s ideology and constitutes a radical questioning of the dominant culture’s system of beliefs.  The rhetorical strategy includes action but relies on a visual record of that action for its persuasive weight.  The difference between Miller’s visual statement and the typical image event, besides one being tucked into a counter-culture documentary and the other being widely disseminated to the mainstream public, is that the former is promoted as one to be actively produced and the latter is documented to be passively received.  The passive reception of the visual documents associated with an image event can lead to a change in consciousness on a personal level and gradually on a cultural scale, and this is the successful strategy of certain grassroots movements such as Greenpeace. [3] The active production of the image event by Al Qaeda represented a challenge. The passive reception of visual documents of the New York terrorist acts on the World Trade Center led to national confusion. 

Since 2001, responses to 9/11 have shifted from descriptions of the day to discussions of its impact, usually conceived in terms of permanent alteration.  Conference panels and journal articles with post-9/11 in their titles address everything from television to teaching practices, from cinema to the role of language.  In academic writing, response proliferated from initial reaction by theoretical superstars such as Jean Baudrillard to multiple responses to those reactions. [4] The bombing and collapse of the World Trade Center have been categorized as an image event, as spectacle, and even as a work of art.  This response, first and foremost, seeks to understand the suicide bombings of the World Trade Center as image event.  Within the image event, the aesthetic and the political collide.  As Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe point out in Crimes of Art and Terror, images of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan are now easily understood as art.  Images of the attacks and the attacks themselves, however, are less readily perceived as something we might call, as composer Karlheinz Stockhausen infamously did, art.  Stockhausen’s provocative remark—the attacks on the World Trade Center (especially) constitutes the “greatest work of art in the cosmos”—is less interesting for my purposes than the onslaught of responses to it. I am particularly interested in the supplemental evidence of what happened on the “real” day and what now stands as the signified for so many discourses—the images of the attacks, of those experiencing the attacks in “real time,” and of the sanctified space of the aftermath, Ground Zero.

The official response to Stockhausen as summed up by classical music critic turned political analyst, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times, is both a lesson on aesthetics and a dogmatic lecture on political and social responsibility. Whatever the attacks may be, according to him, they must never, can never be called art. Lentricchia and McAuliffe show that this criticism against Stockhausen relies heavily on Aristotelian concepts of art. [5]  (Crimes 8-9, 11-13) For Aristotle and for Tommasini, art provokes a contemplative pleasure precisely because it is removed from reality.  Tommasini declares Stockhausen a madman on the grounds that the composer has confused art with reality but then goes on to describe the images of the attacks and of ground zero as “horrifically compelling” (Crimes 8-9).  This reaction against Stockhausen reinforces traditional aesthetic theories that ensure mystification of both the aesthetic and the political. Tommasini rejects the idea that the transgressive acts themselves can be called art on traditional liberal humanist grounds: art must always be humane and humanizing.

When Lentricchia and McAuliffe originally wrote Chapter One of Crimes of Art and Terror, “Groundzeroland,” in Spring 2002 as an article in the South Atlantic Quarterly, we did not have images of the attacks artistically packaged in documentary film.  This did not stop them from imagining video footage of New York City on September 11 as art:  “How difficult is it to imagine—all that shocking footage artfully edited to become a truly absorbing short film?” (Groundzeroland 353).   We now have the artfully edited footage within carefully constructed documentary narratives such as the Naudet Brothers’ 9/11.   We have footage deliberately occluded in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.  We have the long shot of the new New York skyline and a half-visible Groundzeroland as tourist attraction in Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor.   Images of 9/11 were also indirectly deployed as the hidden center, source, and origin of the narratives that would drive the Bush Administration’s domestic and foreign policies.

In examining three 9/11 documentaries—one that achieved mainstream popularity, one used by television networks to commemorate the six-month and one-year anniversaries of the day, and one independent short—this essay both adds to the response to 9/11 images and offers an understanding of the politics of response surrounding 9/11. Following Baudrillard, I analyze the role of the image in its ambiguous relationship to event to consider Baudrillard’s own response as drawing primarily on a theory of postmodern aesthetics. This leads to my analysis of the most widely known film, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which refuses the image to allow for narrative humiliation.  In my examination of the Naudet Brothers’ 9/11, I consider the attacks and the images associated with them in relation to the hyperreal and narrative. Finally, I return to Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor as presenting a more positive or progressive form of humiliation—something we might call a sublime humility that relies on the generative and the performative.  Taken as either “art,” in its connection to contemplative pleasure, or as narrative, in the form of a morality tale necessarily involving humiliation, these films may ask from the viewer a humbled or humiliated response that could be considered an ethical end in itself. This ethical end ultimately worked to bolster Bush’s war and anti-terrorism campaigns. If analyzed as image event and in terms of performative aesthetics, the terrorist attacks and representations of 9/11 allow for a variety of dialectical possibilities.


Deadly Rhetoric: 9/11 as Image Event

By calling the attacks on the World Trade Center an “event,” we locate it within a frame. By referring to the suicide bombings as “attacks,” we render the event political, an act of war.  By declaring the day one of “tragedy,” we verge on entering the discourse of aesthetic genre even as we place terrorist activity into a category of mystified political reality.  The extensive media coverage on September 11 included verbose commentary from newscasters and witnesses but was generally characterized, repeatedly and explicitly, by a loss for words. Soon after the American Airlines Flight 11 hit the south tower, however, we had images as the signifiers of the “unspeakable” signified. [6]  Any response, therefore, became in part a response to image. Because of the mission’s design, we were guaranteed cinematic images of planes crashing into skyscrapers.  The most powerful image, what Baudrillard calls the “strongest symbolic shock,” is the delayed and doubled collapse, reinforcing the impact of the mirror hits and exceeding the expectations of both experts and terrorists (L’Esprit 405). Speaking about September 11, 2001, in whatever way we choose to speak of it, constitutes a response to death and destruction on a grand scale. From the start, words were deemed inadequate. What immediately ensued, however, was an obsession with response.  That obsession continued but almost always with a refusal to understand the attacks as a radical form of persuasion.  

To call the attacks on the World Trade Center an image event is to conceive of the rhetorical act at its deadliest, but such a designation also allows for valuable interpretation and critique of the attacks. The violent nature of the acts and the mass devastation they caused work to overwhelm their rhetorical value. Image events are usually associated with progressive political movements focused on positive and peaceful outcomes. Any consideration of the rhetorical value of the terrorist acts on September 11 is perceived as a validation of terrorism—a taboo immediately instituted and officially reinforced by the Bush administration. Bush prohibited analysis of terrorist motives in early speeches.  His “if you are not with us, you are against us” statement, delivered in addresses to the Congress, the nation, and the United Nations, amounted to censorship of any possible discourse that addressed terrorist strategies on any level. In June 2005, Karl Rove reinforced the taboo at a Manhattan fundraiser steps away from Ground Zero by criticizing “liberals” for their attempts to “understand our enemies” (Hernandez). Those who sought to understand the attacks as a persuasive attempt to challenge hegemony were disparaged as wanting to “offer therapy and understanding for our attacks.”  For Rove and for the White House, which defended his remarks and refused Democrat senators’ appeals for an apology, conservatives responded to the “savagery” in what they deemed to be the only appropriate way, by preparing for war. From this limited perspective, the acts hold one mystified value—terror. Baudrillard, “terrorism’s theoretical guru” (Butterfield 17), examines 9/11 as a highly charged rhetorical deployment of images that demands a response within a politics of “symbolic obligation” (L’Esprit  409). Baudrillard theorizes the New York terrorist act as image event, in both conception and reception.  In his formulation, the act “has at once resuscitated images and events” in order to deliver the “unimaginable” event as image event (L’Esprit 413).  He works to demystify terror by analyzing the terrorist imagination—a dialectical force shared by both terrorists and those in the culture targeted by terrorism—and by examining the relationship between image and event.


Pure Event:  9/11 as the Primal Scene

Baudrillard somewhat poetically describes the World Trade Center attacks themselves as a production of the terrorist imagination that constitutes “the absolute event, the ‘mother event,’ the pure event that concentrates in itself all of the events that never took place” (L’Esprit  403).  The non-events within this pure event are symbolic manifestations of an imagination that dreams of “the destruction of a power that has become hegemonic to such a point [that it] is unacceptable for Western moral consciousness” (L’Esprit 404). Because of its attendant images, the pure event is no more “real” for Baudrillard than the imagined ones that precede and coalesce within it: “The role of the image is highly ambiguous, for while it exalts the event, it also takes it hostage.  The images play like an infinite multiplication, and at the same time they play like a diversion and neutralization” (L’Esprit 411).  Because of the diversionary and neutralizing force of the image, event loses its reality as event.  The infinite multiplication of the event through images stalls the motion of the event within the hyperreal. [7] Within this formulation, image event becomes politically impotent except in terms of a sentimentalizing morality.  The image renders the event static, and the event loses its mobilizing ability.  For Baudrillard, the exalted status of the event works to increase fascination with the image, which ends in the passive nihilism that characterizes the postmodern human condition. [8]  Even or especially when non-events are embodied within the pure event that is 9/11, images will result in a paralyzing fascination and stultifying systematic nihilism.

Even as Baudrillard posits the event as immobile and impotent, he explains 9/11 as an event with powerful causes, both symbolic and material, and with effects, both desired and actual.  The terrorists' “symbolic strategy” involves the presentation of a binding and perverse gift that demands a singular response in exchange. [9]  This symbolic exchange is only possible after “the effacing of Communism and the global triumph of deregulated market forces” (L’Esprit  408).  Only at this stage of moving toward a single world order can hegemonic dominance, which had previously played out along lines of antagonistic forces such as European supremacy, Nazism, and communism, and its imaginary strategies, be radically deconstructed. The symbolic, sacrificial deaths of the suicide bombers require an “equal or superior death”—the complete collapse of the hegemonic system (L’Esprit  409).  This symbolic strategy trumps the “imaginary strategy” of the global system, built on maintaining a balance of power with force (L’Esprit  409).  Attempts to pay the symbolic debt with force, by declaring war—either on terrorism or on its perceived enablers—for example, are futile.  Baudrillard does point out that the project has partially achieved its aims, at least in terms of ideological warfare.   Falling short of the symbolic obligation of full collapse, the United States, as the “epicenter” of globalization (L’Esprit 406), has nevertheless internalized its own defeat by repressing its “entire ideology of freedom:”  

This repression has reached such a point that the idea of freedom, a new and recent idea, is already effacing itself in mores and minds, and free-market globalization is in the process of actualizing itself in an exactly inverse form: a globalized police state of total control, with a security terror” (L’Esprit 414).

This effacement is the material result of a symbolic misrecognition for which the image event is in part responsible.

The stasis of the event and the impotence of the image in the face of a numbing fascination are partially overcome by Baudrillard’s own performative theory.  His strategic performance has long been as the intellectual terrorist, leveling his attacks on theoretical and aesthetic grounds. [10]  Despite the ennui that characterizes “L’Esprit du Terrorisme,” Baudrillard’s insistence on closely examining the “pregnancy” of the New York images implies that their power to “radicalize the world situation” also holds radical possibilities for positive change (412).  His analysis of action and reaction on a symbolic level demystifies their symbolic value in normative discourses and partially works to turn the destructive power of the terrorist imagination toward normativity.  By articulating the ways in which the attacks are situated within the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real, Baudrillard forces us a recognition of the attacks in their material and historical reality.  That reality has become hyperreal, but recognizing the performative quality of power and its articulations at least partially inhibits the hegemonic system from “absorbing and reabsorbing all crisis and negativity” (408).  The terrorists’ symbolic strategy forces the superpower onto a new playing field by enacting, through spectacular images, the one crisis it cannot reintegrate—its own death.  The spirit of terrorism is the resistant streak at the center of globalization.  Hegemonic domination invites its own destruction. Baudrillard’s own terrorism enacts a generative performativity or theoretical resistance to the system of domination.  His strategy seeks to disable the very discourses that allow systematic oppression to operate.  For Baudrillard, the September 11 images and our fascination with them “constitute, like it or not, our primal scene” (412).   Baudrillard’s strategy suggests that we can continue to replay that primal scene or we can recognize the scene as such in order to grasp the traumatic origins of the current global situation.


Representing Terror: Trauma and the Screens of 9/11

No such awareness characterizes the ways in which images of the attacks, of those experiencing the attacks in “real time,” and of Ground Zero enter into normative discourses at the level of political and aesthetic narrative.  Lentricchia and McAuliffe focus on Ground Zero and its viewing platform as an attraction that connects “tourists to their history at a site that perfectly conjoins terrorism, patriotism, and tourism” (15). Ground Zero also provides objects that will be gathered by collectors and curators and classified as art, with official and public support:

Collectors and curators “relying on aesthetic judgment,” randomly but not accidentally, select objects to be stored for future exhibition. They call them “artifacts,” artifacts of terror, and by virtue of their selection and acquisition, the city of New York in effect lends credibility to Stockhausen’s perception of the terrorist attack as [art]. (15-16)

The collection and preservation of artifacts do lend credibility to Stockhausen’s perception but in a specific way—the attacks work as source, as occluded origin of art. The origin or source—the attacks—must remain hidden. Ground Zero itself serves as a screen for the acts.   It is a hypermediated space linked to the attack and collapse of the towers, which in itself exists as a mediated event for most of those standing on the “viewing” platform viewing blank space.   In this case, a void serves as the screen. From that void comes artifacts or that which can be displayed.  Nothing but a hole in the ground is displayed on the “actual” screen of Ground Zero.

 I use  “screen” in two ways.  First, a “screen” is literally the primary mode of viewing and perceiving the world in the twenty-first century.   The world is delivered through television screens and computer screens, which in turn provide the dominant media-metaphor of communication.  Whatever is seen on the other side of the viewing platform at Ground Zero is a product of the screen.  In their provocative discussion of the possibilities of symbolic protest violence as an effective means of activism in a hypermediated public arena, Kevin DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples introduce the term “public screen” in its crucial difference from “public sphere,” the term widely adopted from Habermas by social theorists (133-135).  Whereas the concept of the public sphere privileges rational dialogue as the principle force of democracy, the idea of the public screen recognizes a discourse of images as a powerful vehicle of participatory democracy.   Ground Zero is acknowledged as a screen through which something “real” can be apprehended, not as one of the many mediations that operate within the public screen.  The mediated experience of Ground Zero, like the mediated experience of a theme park such as Disneyland, must be made manifest and must be kept invisible. [11]  Ground Zero provides an interface through which the visitor experiences 9/11.  The interface must be rendered invisible in order for the experience to be meaningful, but it also must provide a distance. A screen is also a protective barrier or that which obscures or blocks.  In its denial of its own hypermediacy, Ground Zero functions as a screen in this second sense, as a mask.

In both of these senses, Ground Zero works in much the same way as other screens do—including the screen the camera or the eyes themselves as trained by cinematic representation.  Documentaries, or artistic accounts of “reality,” can serve as screens of screens, providing another layer of distance from the attacks themselves as “art.”  In different ways, both Ground Zero and documentaries produce art, but this production is based on a denial of the terrorist acts as a highly effective visual production on the public screen. The acts themselves remain in the Lacanian real, inaccessible from but generative of symbolic representation. [12]

Zizek explains 9/11 in the context of both a “passion for the real” and a resistance to political reality. For Zizek, the New York terrorist acts appear in the Lacanian “real” as “nightmarish unreal spectre” (19).  The twentieth-century passion for the real—a lust for authentic experience—ends in theatrical spectacle or the “pure semblance of the spectacular real” (10).  He argues that the New York terrorist acts did not bring the real into our comfortably hyperreal reality; rather it brought the apparition into our reality:  “It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine how we experience reality)” (16).  After the attacks, according to Zizek, we sought to repress our own awareness of the real as fantasmatic.  Zizek entertains the idea that collapse of the World Trade Center towers serves as the climax to this passion.  The hypothesis is supported by our compulsion to replay the images in order to experience “jouissance at its purest” (12).   This is the compulsion to repeat that allows us to repress the fictional elements of reality. As long as the event remains in this “real,” it remains foreclosed from yet drives imaginary and symbolic representation.   Zizek suggests that we “traverse the fantasy” not to realize that all event is image and all image is fictional but to realize the “part of fiction in ‘real’ reality.” (19)  “Traversing the fantasy” involves identifying with the fantasy and is ultimately a performative gesture that recuperates both the power of image and event.  Zizek’s own theoretical traversing shares with Baudrillard’s theoretical terrorism an attention to the aesthetic. Rather than claiming that the collapse of the World Trade Center towers provides one more image to prove that we live within the inertia of the hyperreal or that it overcomes the hyperreal, Zizek argues that the event provides a way to recognize and to accept our own disorientation.


Refusing Image, Reinforcing Trauma: Moore’s Morality Tale

Fahrenheit 9/11 both refuses and mystifies disorientation.  Its visuals and narrative structure work to reinforce trauma, while its missing images engender the compulsion to repeat. It ultimately fetishizes what it does not show. Most conspicuously absent in Moore’s film is video footage of the planes colliding into the World Trade Centers.   The audience is presented with a visual void for nearly a full minute.  We hear jet engines, the impact of a plane, disembodied voices of radio announcers, sirens, the screams of bystanders or possible victims, and the sound of a jumper’s body as it hits the ground. With sound and only sound we are prompted to get the picture. We know what the sounds mean.  We have heard them before.  We know how to distinguish between the sounds of a plane’s impact and a body’s impact. We automatically project our own visuals onto the blank screen.  The disembodied and terrified voices produce an uncanny effect.  As Joshua Gunn explains in his analysis of the “spectral voices” associated with 9/11, the uncanny for Freud is a specifically “aesthetic” creation produced by a failure to repress (which is for Freud an “event”) and by a feeling of negativity (106). Moore’s artistic choice, his aesthetic reproduction of 9/11, is the uncanny production made manifest.   The blacked-out screen forces the audience to experience the visuals of 9/11 as a repression—as something that we only indirectly see even as it produces feelings of negativity, for example, an uninvited anxiety.  We are asked to conjure the double of the visual scene.  In Freud’s view, this type of doubling invites terror.  The audio provides the failure event—the failure to repress that which has been seen before (Gunn 106). In the end, the uncanny works as a compulsive obsession with the traumatic.

Moore’s choice involves a refusal—a refusal to exploit the images of the attacks, even though he has no problem exploiting American soldiers, Lila Lipscomb, and ultimately the viewer through narrative humiliation. In its narrative thrust, Fahrenheit 9/11 is essentially a morality tale. Moore, acting as both trickster and cultural hero, most obviously targets George W. Bush as the source of power who needs to be taught a lesson. Bush, shown impotent and childlike in his tiny chair in the Florida classroom on the morning of September 11, is most explicitly humiliated.  American soldiers are also depicted as “pumped-up” frat boys naively but viciously enjoying “the ultimate rush.”  They are represented as enthusiastic warriors, engaging in a ground combat mediated to the point of including a soundtrack, blasted from the tanks’ Charlie boxes.  The soldiers slowly come to realize that this war “is more real and true than a video game” and begin to question its validity. But this comes at the price of narrative humiliation and death.  Only after showing the dead bodies of American soldiers will Moore show soldiers with any awareness of the brutality of war.  The grief process and political transformation of Lila Lipscomb, the patriotic mother of an army sergeant killed in Iraq, is painstakingly documented and narrated by Moore.  She transforms from military matriarch determined not to let her flag touch the ground as she hangs it each morning to a vehement defender of the peace movement resolved to place blame at the steps of the White House.  As she sobs for her son and laments the “ignorance of people,” the audience is made painfully aware that she is ashamed of her own former ignorance.  Any viewer who identifies with Lipscomb, if not through her politics but through the force of sympathy, shares in her humiliation.  The preferred viewer is one who gains pleasure, however unconscious, in her humiliation. The audience is therefore encouraged to follow with satisifaction Lipscomb’s and the soldiers’ pattern of moral development.  Ironically, Moore’s story and its moral are as driven by erasure as those he criticizes.

Moore’s refusal to use images of the New York terrorist acts adheres to the unwritten “rule of invisibility” followed by the media in the year after the attacks, after replay of the images had reached a saturation point and the public had objected to their seemingly endless repetition. The rule of invisibility resulted in a taboo that placed the acts in the traumatic ineffable, foreclosed from but driving narratives of trauma. After Moore presents his audience with the blacked-out screen, he offers footage of the witnesses on the streets. The voices are connected to bodies for a moment.  Just in case we did not catch the meaning of the last sound, a crying woman tells us, “Oh my god.  They’re jumping.”   After this, the “real’ audio is replaced by a moving musical score as we view slow shots of faces—distressed and shocked faces, young and old, looking above the camera and our point of view, looking up at what the audience has had to visualize on its own.  These faces act as screens or mirrors in which we view ourselves viewing the images and reacting to the scene.  We have experienced faces of witnesses as mirrors before in the television coverage of the day, but in this case they are particularly anchoring after we have been faced with an all too-present absence.  They teach us how to react to what we have seen but not seen in 48 seconds of darkness. At the same time, the mirrors ask us to judge our own relationship to trauma. Do we feel more or less than the couple on which the camera comes to rest--still and iconic, kneeling, evocative of a statue, eyes down, forehead to forehead? Is this a shared trauma?  Is this the beginning of a shared grief process? 

 Just after we are plunged into an unsteady identification with eyewitnesses, Moore moves on to nearly black-and-white, slow motion footage of people running, of debris falling, of papers caught as much in the stirring music as they are in the updrafts.  We then get the familiar collage of images of the missing on display and Moore’s voiceover returns to articulate fully the scene’s symbolic significance.  The camera comes to focus and pause on one poster of a woman holding an infant. In it “World Trade Center  #1” serves as the caption or the signifier for the image of smiling mother and child. The image—only partially hidden by a flying drawing of what appears to be the angel of death—is an image of the missing, the lost signified that is now both tower and mother.  Moore legitimates his claim to the images of the missing and his right to render the scene with poetic visuals by telling the audience that those killed in the towers included his colleague, pictured smiling, holding a birthday cake. His aesthetic choices are thereby justified by his personal share in the trauma, the source of which he refuses to display. [13]

Through this artistic manipulation of September 11 images, Moore does as much to mystify the events as his conservative enemies. Rather than considering the power of the September 11 images as image event and theorizing the uses of spectacle within politics, Moore crafts his own sentimental moralistic tableau.  Moore does break invisibility codes to show corpses of both Iraqis and Americans but only as evidence of an international tragedy.  The film’s more lucid insights about poverty and the system’s reliance on war as a continuous method of maintaining its hierarchal structure are all but lost for the viewer as he or she is forced to accept humiliation, grief, and trauma as proper ethical responses.  The film succeeds in eliciting anger at the Bush administration, which can be considered a progressive, generative, and empowering response.  This anger, however, is somewhat overshadowed by the humiliation of Bush.  In the film he becomes a pathetic albeit dangerous schoolboy.  In this way, his accountability is undermined.  In order to achieve satisfaction through this narrative, viewers are encouraged into the preferred subject position of the adolescent triumphing over the bully’s exposure, the preferred object position of the humiliated, or both.  While potentially satisfying, this is nevertheless a somewhat lame response to a film with the potential to equip the public with a theoretical understanding of war on the level of the symbolic. Many of the film’s images—the iconic couple, the wall of missing posters, and flag-draped caskets of American soldiers—work to support the less enabling responses of grief, humiliation, trauma, and even morally righteous rage.  In their stasis, the images are profoundly disconnected from image event in its mobilizing potential. Their very emotive power within a moralizing narrative is in fact based on refusal of event as anything other than hyperreal.


Hyperreal Possibilities:  Resisting the Images of 9/11

Refusal of the visual differs from resistance to the visual—a resistance that is uneasily, selectively, and artistically overcome in the Naudet Brothers’ 9/11.  The Naudet Brothers began shooting the documentary—originally intended to follow a rookie firefighter through his first year on the job at New York’s Engine 7—in the summer of 2001.  The narrative thrust of the story inevitably changes when the brothers capture the attacks and the firefighters’ actions in and around Tower 1 on September 11. 9/11 contains two films in one. The outer narrative essentially works as a bildungsroman in which a rookie grows from a boy drawn to “saving lives” to a man resigned (as he explains it) “to go kill” for his country.  For the rookie, this decision is based on “what he saw” during his long-awaited first “fire” on September 11.  The outer-frame’s conservative, pro-war tone is reinforced by patriotic spectacles such as memorial services and solidified by its final five minutes, which are devoted entirely to the camera’s slow panning over fallen firefighters’ photographs artfully arranged on American flags.  The inner-frame narrative, which consists primarily of the footage shot by each of the Naudet brothers on September 11, has a very different feel.  

As the core of the film, it changes the drive of the outer narrative completely. The audience is eventually manipulated to believe that the raw footage in and around the towers serves to illustrate the place where the rookie has died.  The rookie is the last to return to the firehouse and, until his return, we are made to assume the worst.   Before this, however, we are suspended with the brothers in the inner-frame.  Here, there is a suspension of the outer narrative and the story becomes the story of Gedeon and Jules Naudet, the story of filming, and the story of the camera.  Jules, the less practiced cameraman, points out in voiceover that the day for him started as  “basically camera practice.”  This lends a kind of authenticity to the rawness of the footage inside the tower. Interestingly, the film is promoted as the only document to contain footage from inside the towers on September 11. What we are seeing is amateur video, less polished, more “real.”   Jules’s struggle on that day becomes the struggle of the fledging cameraman, and he is as hyperaware of his camera as he is of the catastrophe he films, maybe more so. After the first tower collapses and the crew and their cameraman escape, Jules remarks on his “strange preoccupation” with cleaning the lens as perhaps a strategy used “to stay away from the horror, from reality.” Just before this, we see Gedeon’s slow approach to the tower.  He also focuses on the mediation of the camera but, given his greater expertise, he knows what he has to do: “let the camera man take over.”

            Gedeon’s drive to “document what was happening” archives the present as it is happening.  Jules’s obsession with cleaning—with keeping the picture as clear as it can possibly be—reduplicates the real as the hyperreal.   As Gedeon passes the first barrier to a restricted zone, a police officer tells him to stay away, not because he is in danger, but because he has a camera and “This ain’t fucking Disneyland”—a remark that gains ironic significance as Jules’s visuals and his commentary track the collapse of reality into hyperreality.  Jules will later comment on the compulsion to repeat involved in showing or watching the images on television.  He is grateful when the power goes out in the firehouse, stopping the endlessly compelling replays of attack and collapse.  Whereas the lens provided a necessary screen for him and for the viewer in the moment, the return of the hyperreal on a new screen brings with it an awareness that the lens will have to be perpetually wiped clean to keep what really happened at bay.  Jules and the film’s inner-frame narrative seem to recognize the effects of mediation on experience and to explore the relationship between image and event.  The refusal of the endless multiplication of images on the television screen, which is shown in the outer-frame narrative, brings us back to the inner-frame in which both attacks and attempts to mediate them are shown.  Although both brothers use the lens to distance themselves from what is occurring in and around the World Trade Center, they do so self-consciously.  The inner-frame portion of the documentary alone could serve as a compelling theoretical contemplation of the screen as a concept and on September 11 as the most highly contested image event ever to play on the public screen.

DeLuca and Peeples define “contested image event” as a site of struggle for meaning by several groups. Their example is the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, the meaning of which was contested by the government, corporations, and several different activist groups (137).  They persuasively argue that a component of violence serves to increase the dissemination and influence of certain image events.  Because they are more likely to be widely disseminated, image events containing violence are more likely to be contested.  The political stakes of controlling the meaning of a widely disseminated image event are much higher.  The Naudet Brothers comment on the function of the screen as both epistemological lens and protective barrier.  Gedeon’s urge to capture as many images as possible and Jules’s desire to limit replay of the images on the firehouse television are both attempts to control the dissemination of images.  Implicit is the recognition of the power of the public screen and of 9/11 as image event.

The narrative drive of the entire film nevertheless relegates what “really” happened to a hidden center.  Even if attention to the infinite multiplication of images momentarily brings attention to our experience of the event as hyperreal, the image is brought under the control of satisfying narrative—for example, the narrative that brings the rookie home and reproduces the scene at the towers as not the scene of our hero’s death.  The present is made impossible by placing those images in the safety of the archive with its “comforting logic of progressive temporality” (Gunn  99).  As is made hyperbolically evident as we scan the faces captured in the archival photographs and we hear an a cappella version of “Danny Boy,” we remain trapped in the trauma, fingering the wound, testing its force and depth but never its source.  To do so would be to risk our place in the presumably shared grief process or to realize what we are repressing is not even ours.  An obsessive focus on trauma ensures that the traumatizing—the cause or the origin of trauma—goes unexamined. September 11 as primal scene ultimately remains repressed as the power of its images are aggressively dismissed.


Contested Space:  Image, Performance, and the Symbolic Stage

In these mainstream documentaries, there is no embodied knowledge—no lived, expressive performance. Linklater’s film and its philosopher-narrator speak of the attacks in terms of the generative and the performative. Indeed, they spectacularly appear “live” to perform a dance of death and rebirth, the dance of the Hindu deity, Shiva. With some irony, Levitch radically seeks to replace trauma with fun. At the end of Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor, Levitch is comically perched on the Wall Street Bull as he delivers his proposal for rebuilding Ground Zero.  From this vantage point, he declares all current plans for Ground Zero to be “bullshit” and suggests covering the “sixteen-acre haunted zone” (Speedology 114) with free-roaming buffalo.  His offbeat idea comes with a rationale.  The park would necessarily provide interesting office views and would force those working in the financial district to compete for space.  These privileged spaces would offer a view of the buffalo, a living symbol of that which America as a nation keeps killing. Levitch imagines the space as a fun park with a living memorial whose “heartbeat” resists traditional ideas about archival memory. Ground Zero as a site of fun rather than a site of trauma also resists using Ground Zero itself as the zero signifier from which all discourse on 9/11 will proceed.  Such a signifier acts as the blank space masking the real, the irreducible variable that will always replicate the sum of all meaning to “zero,” prohibiting any access to the real that it supplements, in short—the screen. The other documentaries, or artistic accounts of “reality,” I have discussed serve as screens of screens, providing another layer of distance from the attacks.  Linklater’s film engages with the attacks themselves as performative. 

 Levitch’s somewhat glib response to September 11 generated both critical acclaim and disdain.  Film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mike LaSalle, walked out 17 minutes into its premiere at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.   Since the film is only 21 minutes long, his exit was not exactly hasty.    Although he cites it as his “least favorite movie” at the festival that year, his walkout constitutes a gesture of protest and not a genuine lack of interest.  His objection is on political grounds, not aesthetic:  “[Levitch’s] description of the Twin Towers as having been lonely and in a struggle with each other for dominance is not poetic—it’s just idiocy, a monumental tragedy funneled through one man’s baseless self-absorption”  (LaSalle).  Whereas each of the other films mentioned in the Sundance review receive some attention to formal merit, Linklater’s short is deemed “insufferable” on content and content alone.  The formal qualities of the film, including Linklater’s typical penchant for character over plot and for attention to response on the edges of the hand-held camera’s frame, are also ignored by those who praise the film.  In explaining the judges’ last-minute decision to give the short a special commendation at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival, jury member Sandra Bernhard focuses on its importance as “a testament without ideology” (Tribeca).  While noting that it “captures a fervent, radiant vision of a once and future New York,” she praises it primarily for “saying everything that needs to be said about 9/11.”  Because no testament can exist as such outside of ideology, the official reaction from the Tribeca judges might better be understood as expressing approval to a formal statement about 9/11 that lacks the typical morally earnest rhetoric and conservative ideology associated with mainstream responses. From both sides of the critical spectrum, then, this 9/11 film essay is ultimately judged in terms of its propriety as a response to tragedy.

Critical rejections of the film are similar to the reactionary responses to Stockhausen’s remark. LaSalle, for example, cannot even bring himself to discuss the aesthetic elements of the film. Bernhard’s comments come a bit closer to the mark in recognizing its aesthetic and performative tactics, which are intimately connected. Stockhausen sees the acts themselves as “art” precisely because his aesthetic theory relies on art as event—a performative event that displays cycles of destruction and rebirth, the same cycle that Levitch and Linklater explore. These constructions allow us to rethink the connections between the political and the aesthetic and to consider the dialectical possibilities that could result.  By suggesting that the “World Trade Center did not die,” the film does not imply that the terrorist acts did not result in real deaths. The focus is merely shifted from those deaths to creation, an opening of “more space,” both literal and theoretical space.  The space is symbolic, and the prescribed theoretical position toward it is one of recognized disorientation.  The proposed plan for the literal space—the dream of the buffalo—is purposely ridiculous.  It is a creative theorization that asks its viewers to recognize that the present and future site is symbolic ground and to imagine resolving struggle by confronting the symbolic in live form.   The film’s last long shot of the opened skyline includes barely visible images of Ground Zero from above, but the accompanying upbeat score overcomes any attempt to exalt the absence in a passionate celebration of its traumatic appeal.

The alternative, remaining stuck in the “debilitating awe” (Zizek 142) that the narrative of national trauma provides places the attacks outside of comprehension, analysis, or response in the form of progressive action.


The Art of Disorientation: Terror and the Image Event

We must consider image events, then, as visual philosophical-rhetorical fragments, mind bombs that expand the universe of thinkable thoughts.  Image events are dense surfaces meant to provoke in an instant the shock of the familiar made strange. . . . [The image event] punctures to punctuate, to interrupt the flow, to give pause. It punctures by making the mundane malevolent, the familiar fantastic. 

DeLuca and Peeples,  “From Public Sphere to Public Screen"

            The September 11 terrorists knew that images of a destroyed World Trade Center would be disseminated worldwide.  They could be fairly certain that images of at least the second aircraft shattering the façade of one of the towers would be captured and replayed ad infinitum by the Western media.  Their purpose undoubtedly was to challenge the dominant ideology of a global power.  Like the image events of the WTO protestors described above, the events of 9/11 can be seen as the terrorists’ self-conscious effort to participate in and to “puncture” the endless flood of images on the public screen.  Resistance to the terrorists’ political message did nothing to decrease the “ visual philosophical-rhetorical” power of this staged event.  

The “ symbolic violence” (DeLuca and Peeples 138) of activist vandals shattering a Starbucks window in Seattle can be more easily contemplated as a kind of political performance art than can the events of 9/11, in their purposeful mass destruction of human life.  The consequences of considering such symbolic violence in aesthetic terms would certainly be less harsh than those suffered by Stockhausen for his public ruminations on 9/11 as art.  The great art that Stockhausen imagines 9/11 to be is in fact the performance piece that punctures the boundary between artificial and real, the beautiful and the sublime, and the aesthetic and political. Both art and the image event succeed by rendering the familiar strange or fantastic.  By this definition, the terrorist acts in Manhattan succeed as both image event and art.  The image of a plane colliding into a skyscraper has a strange familiarity. Its appearance on the public screen, where Hollywood movies also appear, was not strange.  Its reality rendered it strange.  More importantly, the event rendered the public screen visible.  We do not need to embrace the message of radical fundamentalists or disregard the importance of the individual lives lost on September 11 in order to recognize the progressive possibility of the disorientation engendered by this potent image event.  Only through a recognition of this disorientation are the political realities of a post-9/11 landscape rendered precise.


Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “L’Esprit Du Terrorisme.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002): 403-412. 

___ . Simulacra and Simulations. Trans. Sheila Faira Glaser.  Ann Arbor: U of Michigan  P, 1994.

___ . Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage, 1993.

Bukatman, Scott. “Terminal Penetration.” The Cybercultures Reader. Ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy. London: Routledge, 2000. 149-174.

Bernhard, Sandra.  Special Award Presentation. Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor. Dir. Richard Linklater. 2003. Aspyr Media, 2003. Tribeca Film Festival Awards Ceremony.

Butterfield, Bradley. “The Baudrillardian Symbolic, 9/11, and the War of Good and Evil.” PMC 13.1 (2002)

DeLuca, Kevin Michael. Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.

DeLuca, Kevin Michael and Jennifer Peeples. “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle.”  Critical Studies in Media Communication 19.2 (June 2002): 125-151.

Fahrenheit 9/11. Dir. Michael Moore.  Lions Gate, 2004.

Gunn, Joshua . “"Mourning Speech: Haunting and the Spectral Voices of Nine-Eleven." Text and Performance Quarterly 24 (April 2004): 91-114.

Hernandez, Raymond.  “Democrats Demand Rove Apologize for 9/11 Remarks.”  The New York Times, 24 June 2005.

Lacan,  Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

LaSalle, Mike. Rev. of Fahrenheit 9/11. Dir. Michael Moore. San Francisco Chronicle Online 24 June 2004. 15 June 2005. http://sfgate.com/cgibin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/06/24/DDG357AP2J1.DTL&type=movies

___ . Rev. of Sundance Film Festival. San Francisco Chronicle Online 2 February 2003. 23 March 2005. http://www.sfgate.com/cgibin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/02/02/PK118280.DTL

Lentricchia, Frank, and Jody McAuliffe.  Crimes of Art and Terror. Chicago: U of  Chicago P, 2003.

___ .  “Groundzeroland.”  The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2: 349-359.

Levitch, Timothy. Speedology:  Speed on New York on Speed. New York:  Context Books, 2003.

Lexis-Nexis Universe:  News Transcripts. Online. 19 June 2005.

Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor. Dir. Richard Linklater. Aspyr Media, 2003.

9/11. Dirs. Jules Naudet and Gedeon Naudet. Paramount, 2002.

The Cruise. Dir. Bennett Miller, Artisan, 1998.

Tommassini, Anthony . “The Devil Made Him Do It.” New York Times, September 30, 2001.

Wilcox, Leonard. “Baudrillard, September 11, and the Haunting Abyss of Reversal.” PMC 14.4 (2003)

Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real.  London: Verso, 2002.

[1] Much of the material in Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor comes directly from Speedology. Levitch began giving New York City walking tours soon after he left Gray Line Bus Tours.

[2] I rely on Kevin DeLuca’s definition of image event as developed in Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism.   DeLuca explains that his  “deliberate” use of the term differentiates it from Boorstin’s “pseudo-event,” Katz and Dayan’s “media event,” Debord’s concept of the spectacle, and Gronbeck’s “telespectacle” (165).

[3] DeLuca notes the use of “tactical image events” in Greenpeace’s many successful environmental campaigns (3).

[4] Jean Baudrillard’s “L’Esprit du Terrorisme” generated responses such as Bradley Butterfield’s “The Baudrillardian Symbolic, 9/11, and the War of Good and Evil” and Leonard Wilcox’s “Baudrillard, September 11, and the Haunting Abyss of Reversal,” both of which contextualize Baudrillard’s analysis of 9/11 within his earlier work.

[5] See Poetics 2.1.

[6] In the twenty-four hour period between the afternoon of September 11 and afternoon of September 12 alone, at least twenty-five separate news sources referred to the suicide bombings of the World Trade Center and their results as “unspeakable.”   (Lexis-Nexis)

[7] See Simulacra and Simulations (1981) for Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal.  I use the term here according to his definition to signify that the event exists independent of any reality and as its own pure simulacrum. The “pure event” can be seen as a hyperreal event containing and concentrating all such simulacra.

[8] Baudrillard develops his theory of the postmodern condition in relation to images in Simulacra and Simulations (1981)

[9] In “The Baudrillardian Symbolic, 9/11, and the War of Good and Evil,” Bradley Butterfield connects Baudrillard’s concept of the gift in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign to Baudrillard’s analysis of 9/11 in terms of symbolic exchange.

[10] Baudrillard develops his ideas on theoretical terrorism in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) and Simulacra and Simulations (1981).

[11] Baudrillard discusses Disneyland in relation to the hyperreal in Simulacra and Simulation. For a discussions of Disneyland as a cyberspace with an interface “so effective that most users are unaware of the interface at all” (170), see Scott Bukatman, “Terminal Penetration,” in The Cybercultures Reader (London: Routledge, 2000) 149-74.

[12] For Lacan’s most extended analysis of the real’s relationship to the symbolic and the imaginary, see “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” (Ecrits).

[13] San Francisco Chronicle film critic, Mike LaSalle, who hails the film as “passionate and persuasive,” connects Moore’s refusal to his aesthetic prowess:  That Moore is becoming an artist is evident in the way he depicts the World Trade Center attacks. Instead of going to stock news footage, he blacks out the screen and makes us listen to the sounds of Lower Manhattan on the horrible day.”  I will discuss LaSalle’s negative review of Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor later in the essay.