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The Promise of Violence in the Age of Catastrophe

Since September 11, we have been conditioned for resilience – to expect vulnerability to violence and catastrophe rather than imagine a future of security and community.

New York City skyline before a storm. (Photo: Dan Nguyen)

Ours is an age of catastrophe. New Yorkers understand this better than most. To live there is to be forever in danger. From terror to weather and everything in between, its pasts and futures collide as the city is haunted by the spectral promise of violence. Such a reality is at odds with the narrative through which the city has attempted to rebrand itself. Manhattan is said to be a safer, more inviting, cleaner and less-seedy environment. Sections have been renamed. West Harlem is now Manhattanville, as if to indicate a clean break from the past in terms of the city’s identity. Much of the change is positively attributed to the zero-tolerance policing implemented during the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, resulting in a notable decline in recorded violence and homicides. Indeed, the possibility of a return to the grittier New York so often dramatized during the ’70s and ’80s, continues to frame contemporary political debates, as shown in the police policy of stop-and-frisk.

If its streets are no longer mean, they are nevertheless spaces of vulnerability. New York is a paradigm that suggests spaces of all kinds are fundamentally insecure by design.

Something dramatic occurred in the decade after September 11, 2001. It was common to write about the events of that day as something exceptional. It was “the day the world changed forever” as Tony Blair told us, the global broadcasting of mass violence that brought us all together for the first time in a shared sense of planetary grief and outrage. This notion of the exceptional moment became a rallying cry on the the right and left, evidenced most clearly in the revival of the work of Carl Schmitt. Some insisted that the old rules of war needed to be scrapped because the nature of the threat was like nothing we had witnessed before. Others bought into the idea of exceptionalism and extended it to the abuse of sovereign power, most evident at Guantanamo Bay. This was expected. Such a retreat at least offered some sense of security and certainty.

True to form, as Schmitt would have appreciated, representations of the violence of 9/11 in the mass media were notably uniform. They reprinted, to the point of monotony, images of the exploding towers, leaving no doubt that a state of war was in effect. Such analysis, however, gradually unraveled as the decade went on. Not only was it increasingly clear that power and danger needed to be understood in planetary terms, the politics of exceptionalism led to the disastrous war in Iraq.

Let us turn to a more unsettling image of that day: Richard Drew’s infamous sequence of the Falling Man. Only a handful of media outlets initially published these difficult yet serene compositions. Critics argued that publication disrespected the victims as the final moments of their lives were presented in horrifying detail. Why did these images meet such a backlash while the images of the towers’ destruction became accepted? There is undeniably a personal dimension at work here that these images force us to confront. Had any of us happened to visit Manhattan that day, a trip to the World Trade Center could have been on the itinerary. How would we have reacted in such a terrifying predicament? Perhaps these images were more contentious because they focus on the human aspect of the tragedy. Unlike exploding towers that evidently function in a militaristic way, depicting a state of spectacular warlike devastation, the Falling Man shifts the analysis from material destruction to the more personal, which is complex and indiscernible.

Fast-forward to a few months after the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Here we witness a remarkable shift in attitudes. The fifth season of “Mad Men” was launched with a series of images that depicted silhouettes of a suited businessman falling from a building. The comparisons with 9/11 were all too evident. So what did these images reveal about the political moment? We arguably were in a different period that revealed the limits of time and the simplicities of exceptionalism. The image of a falling person, it seemed, was no longer sacrosanct; it was, as the producers insisted, simply advertising. It wasn’t that “the terror” had been defeated. The enemy is, after all, unbeatable by definition. The discourse simply had become part of the everyday lexicon. Such a condition is better described as “terrifyingly normal,” in which the normalization of violence overwrites the need for critical examination. In the terms of the falling businessman, as Matt Weiner, the creative director for “Mad Men” pointed out, there was a need to have a more nuanced understanding of the history of catastrophe and the human response: “I hate to say it, but a businessman falling out of a window is a symbol that far precedes that event.”

None of this is incidental to the dominant theories on the nature of contemporary life. The falling subject embodies the contemporary liberal subject. It is a life form that is assumed to be vulnerable because the complex order of things produces systems that are “insecure by design.” It is a life that must accept the inevitability of another disaster. The dream of lasting security belongs to a bygone era. To be politically astute and socially responsible requires an acceptance of the age of catastrophe and its assumptions about the fleeting order of things. As Juliette Kayyem, policy adviser on homeland security to the Obama administration and Harvard academic, puts it:

One day it will be acceptable, politically and publicly, to argue that while homeland security is about ensuring that fewer bad things happen, the real test is that when they inevitably do, they aren’t as bad as they would have been absent the effort. Only our public and political response to another major terrorist attack will test whether there is room for both ideologies to thrive in a nation that was, any way you look at it, built to be vulnerable.

This brings us directly to the problem of resilience, which is the new dominant trope for thinking about life and its environment. It is worth dwelling here on the events of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. A few days before the commemoration, media outlets started reporting on the possibility that New York may be targeted. The nature of the event always raised this prospect. By September 8, Mayor Bloomberg announced “credible,” but “unconfirmed” details of the impending attack. While newspapers such as the Daily News headlined in the most tragically Orwellian way “9/11 Terror Threat,” CNN encouraged New Yorkers to be “vigilant.” Vigilant against what? How can one be vigilant when the threat was unknowable in nature? What remains is to be suspicious of everything. No sooner had the threat shifted from white vans to the water supply; it was then the turn of the subway to be the site of possible danger. This prompted then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to publicly ride the subway that day. Showing what he proclaimed to be the spirit of New Yorkers, he embodied the hardened resilient subject who wasn’t afraid to face the enemy on its terms. While, in the end, no attack materialized, this episode also made clear that the nature of the threat was, in fact, ubiquitous. It was integral and hence indeterminable from the lived environment.

Like threat, the doctrine of resilience was ubiquitous. Newsweek set the tone with a cover feature of a passenger jet against cloudless blue sky, headlining with an increasing font size “Ten Years of Fear: Grief: Revenge: Resilience.” The image used was painfully reflective in its normality. Time magazine was equally reflective as its “Beyond 9/11” cover, designed by Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda, co-creators of the original “Tribute in Light” memorial. The rationale being, as Time’s managing editor, Richard Stengel, noted, was to represent “Something that literally and figuratively moved beyond 9/11.” Whereas People magazine’s emotional tribute was the “Legacy of Love – The Children of 9/11 – Portraits of Hope,” which showed photographs of those who lost fathers that day. It read, “Their fathers died on that terrible day, before they were born. Today, these 10 kids and their moms have triumphed over tragedy.” The spirit of the nation was defined by its ability to bounce back from the catastrophe.

Battery Park in Lower Manhattan offered another scene of survivability. Surrounding Fritz Koenig’s partially disfigured “The Sphere,” which was formerly at the Austin H. Tobin Plaza (between the Twin Towers), 3,000 whitened flags that featured the names of the deceased symbolically memorialized the past while celebrating that it is possible for certain things to emerge if slightly transformed in design, meaning and political resonance. “The Sphere” became a living symbol of resilience because it literally provided an optimistic center for reflection in a sea of tragic memory. Perhaps, however, it was Marco Grob’s “Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience” exhibition in the Milk Gallery and various additional public spaces across Manhattan that proves most revealing. Featuring stark black-and-white photographs of the 40 faces said to encapsulate the spirit of recovery, so resilience is ubiquitously framed by politicians, the major, the admiral, the general, the military hero, the CIA covert operative, along with the CEO, New York firefighters, artists and everyday survivors. The messages here were poignant. Resilient life is fully inclusive. It made no distinction. Catastrophe had strengthened the resolve. We learned more about ourselves by living through the terror. Shared experience of trauma brought a people together. Despite vast differences in lifestyles, not to mention wealth, the resilient subject was universal.

What remains of interest to us are the political stakes. A visit to the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero proves most instructive. Michael Arad’s design is poignant in its symbolism. By footprinting the Twin Towers, the past is drawn into the present as the names of the victims are etched into the granite. This is accompanied by a cascading symmetrical flow of water in keeping with what Zygmunt Bauman calls the “liquidity” of our modern times. Descending some 30 feet into a darkened void, it also can be seen as representative of the black hole phenomena so often associated with theories of catastrophe. Everything is drawn into this void. Nothing escapes. Such memorialization thus emphasizes the trauma by making visible what is no longer there. And it draws into sharp relief the central void, which reminds visitors that the unknowable horrors of the experience lies inaccessibly beneath the surface of the memorial’s fixed frames.

Beyond the symbolism of the memorial, visitors are left in no doubt as to the closure of the political. Upon entering the site, all are immediately reminded that the memorial is “a place of remembrance and quiet reflection.” This is accompanied by another sign warning against political or religious discussions of any kind. But if the world truly changed on that day, surely more time should have been spent debating the significance of the event and the consequences of any actions that followed. Reflection is a substitute here for the incontestable demands of quiet acceptance. The truth of the event is not open to public discussion. Neither should we confuse the reflective moment with any notion of political sensibility. Why it mattered is inconsequential. The undeniable message is that a catastrophe occurred and that there remain dangers still lurking on the horizon of future possibility.

The militaristic dimensions to this are evident. We have noted how resilience offers a new social morphology that transforms everything from the nature of neoliberal governance to the way the military is rethinking the entire practice of engaging with the problems war brings. Indeed, while it is tempting to focus on the doctrine of resilience as originating within ecological circles, the humanities and social sciences reveal something more about the implicit political stakes. One of the more perverse cases of this doctrine’s symbolism is found in the recently “christened” USS New York. “Forged from the steel of the World Trade Center,” this latest warship evidences the most potent expression of “bounce-backability.” As New York Gov. George E. Pataki explains, “We’re very proud that the twisted steel from the World Trade Center towers will soon be used to forge an even stronger national defense. … The USS New York will soon be defending freedom and combating terrorism around the globe, while also ensuring that the world never forgets the evil attacks of September 11, 2001 and the courage and strength New Yorkers showed in response to terror.”

While resilience for many appears to be common sense, our argument is that it actually leaves people “dangerously exposed.” More than simply accepting the inevitability of future catastrophe, it preaches the folly of even thinking we might resist danger and, instead, accept the necessity of living a life of permanent exposure to endemic dangers. Indeed, not only does it expose us to the possibility of the violent encounter before it happens such that we may be more responsive should it arrive, it promotes our adaptability so that we are also less of a threat politically. Accepting the imperative to become resilient means sacrificing any political vision of a world in which we might be able to live free from dangers, looking instead at the future as an endemic terrain of catastrophe that is dangerous and insecure by design. Resilient lives are forced to embrace an art of living dangerously that can imagine the future only as occupied by the ruins of the present. It is fully compatible with the neoliberal model of economy, its promotion of risk and its emphasis on care for the self to the evacuation of the social state. Without the confidence that the world may be transformed for the better, what remains are vulnerable subjects forced to partake in a world that is catastrophically fated unto the end. How we might break from this demands a new political imaginary and poetic sense of spatial belonging.

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