"...the categorical division of body and voice is by the act of casting the molten calf for a moment greatly threatened, and it is in part to reestablish and reemphasize those categories that the people of Israel are now made to experience the physical ground of their existence more intensely...
"...'And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men'..." (Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 208)
With its feet on the ground and its head in the clouds, the Tower is like the human body itself, unable ever to guarantee that its bargain with time, supposed to be carried out in the slow gradations of age and death, will not suddenly be undone tomorrow. Each course of brick, stone, or steel is a minor prophesy, turning gravity against itself, bringing errant natural tendencies to heel that, absent our contrivance, our cunning, our endless subterfuge, would work in concert to pull it down. Its collapse has been written into it from the beginning, a nucleus of unacted desire; the wonder is that it there at all. The destruction of the World Trade Center, then, wantonly discharged, as fission discharges, the immense accumulation of human and material energy that went into its making--a waste not only of lives but of Life.
Can the destruction of the World Trade Center be counted an act of speech, of political, religious, or any other kind? Was it in some sense "articulate?" What preoccupies and disturbs is that at the heart of its ghastliness, its "moral stupidity" (as Scarry says of torture), its faceless (is there another kind?) brutality lies (a "work of art?") the unmistakable configuration of verbal intelligence, a kind of syntax. The World Trade Center was "dispatched" in the way verbs dispatch their subjects, converting them into objects: the Towers (subjects), converted by a transitive (and transporting) verb (airplanes, jet fuel) into a completed utterance, the ruin of the World Trade Center, creating a void--physical, historical, emotional, spiritual--that can only be filled by another utterance, which is in instance turns out to have been, on the one hand, a war, and on the other an outpouring of speech, both "predicated" on the identification of a speaker otherwise silent--the one to obliterate him, the other to make him morally, politically, and historically intelligible, that is, in both cases, to convert him into a subject.
In the weeks and months following September 11th we lived collectively in a permanently altered world, but one altered in a particular way, in which the formerly benign and innocent structures of our diurnal life--airplanes, tall buildings, and whole cities, the mail, the food supply, even nondescript rental trucks potentially armed with "crude radiation bombs"--somehow seized and mastered by a invisible worldwide brotherhood bent on our destruction, had been transformed into instruments of a capricious and gratuitous calamity we were virtually helpless to anticipate, against which we had only the most inadequate of protections, and which seemed destined to be indefinitely prolonged. The world had become, in other words, just what until very recently, historically speaking, most of the world's people had understood it to be, the scene of a slender and precarious existence of people utterly at the mercy of an inscrutable Power--a world that it was therefore obliged to conceive, because it could not conceive the universe in other than its own terms, either as the scene of afflictions that gods or a God had chosen to inflict or not to inflict, of blessings that He had chosen to grant or not to grant us; or else as a human invention, actual or illusory, amenable to human remedies: that is, of God as self, or God as Other.
In the days and weeks immediately following September 11th, especially in close proximity to Ground Zero, and not the least of course among those people immediately affected by the disaster, all the visible surfaces of the historical world had been palpably transformed. None of us had either been there or done that. A looming sense of collective insecurity, a lurid fascination with the sheer physics of the collapse, a creeping horror, a compulsive imagining and reimagining of the experience of the victims and casualties; wonder and admiration for the many acts of altruism, generosity, self-sacrifice, and heroism attending it and the feeling of gratitude and consanguinity across ethnic, religious, and class boundaries; a resurgent love of country in a generation thoroughly unacquainted with such feelings or the circumstances that might inspire them-all of it seemed to spell the end, and certainly in some limited sense did spell the end, of what for nearly thirty years has been the curious spuriousness, shallowness or "depthlessness," what more vividly emerges for us as the outright dishonesty, of what we now recognize as the triumph of global capitalism.
Under the massive weight of death, the formerly "dead subject" seemed suddenly to come back to life, her voice restored intact and capable, indeed compelled, to speak; vast commodity inventories of deracinated styles, traditions and practices, or the images of them, seemed for the moment at least to return to their specific social and historical home addresses, and those addresses themselves to resume their historical and political alignment relative to one another; even place itself, in a world suddenly reoriented around the smouldering pyre of tortured steel at Ground Zero, not only in New York but everywhere in America, seemed to recover its aesthetic density, so much of it now evidently "out of" the traditions of representation by which place is endowed with the flush and rotundity of its own cultural making. The strata of history had shifted to expose, as Edmund Wilson once said of the 'twenties, the "stupid gigantic fraud" of the previous decade. What had violently ended, or seemed to have ended, a way of life, now seemed to be the renewal of another, perhaps an earlier life, the one that postmodernity had appropriated; what had been stolen away and sold back to us as simulation now seemed to be again within our grasp, not perhaps in its old form, but in some as yet unperceived new form around which, in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, something like the shape of hope, and the impulse of charity, were springing unmistakably from a new sense of purpose.
All this--the renewed sense of collective purpose, the sense of national solidarity, of charitable fellow-feeling, the renewal of meaning, the elevation of heroes and the many commemorative acts--is thoroughly compatible with what has been both the official and popular understanding of the World Trade Center attack , not to mention the interpretation of the attackers themselves, who saw themselves as martyrs in a holy war. The four-pronged, precisely coordinated and administered character of the mission, the public, monumental, and symbolic character of the targets (said to have included the White House), as well as the devastation itself, visited upon us from the air, insofar as they could be understood historically and politically in the succeeding hours and days, could be imagined as a coup d'etat or else a unilateral act of nationalist aggression like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Wars are contests between nations, involving massive death, injury and destruction to armies as well as to civilian populations. In war, Elaine Scarry writes, systematic injury to embodied persons, and of their material culture or "self-extension as persons," are the "means for determining" which of the two sides will undergo damage, perhaps irrecoverable damage, to its "immaterial culture, aspects of national consciousness, political belief, and self-definition." (114) Much of the speech compelled by the collapse of the World Trade Center has turned precisely on these issues--on the extent to which the attack can be understood as war and in what ways, therefore, might our military, political, and juridical response reflect the international rules and protocols of war. Insofar as we have been able to conduct an effective military response at all, it has been almost exclusively within the limits of war, albeit through what is apparently neither a national contest nor a civil war but a postcolonial ethnic and territorial struggle for power.
Still, the collapse of the World Trade Center, by hastening our economic recession, temporarily crippling the operations of our global trade network, disrupting airline travel and bankrupting or nearly bankrupting several airline corporations, certainly compromised our various "self-extensions as persons" as well as our material culture--but can it be said to have undermined to any extent the foundations of our "national consciousness, political belief, and self-definition?" Semantically considered, the attacks were referentially exact, symbolically and to a limited but measurable extent actually destructive of the three pillars of the state, military, political, and economic. But let us look again at the "syntax" of the attack, a "turning" of the worldwide transport-communications-financial system against itself, particularly at its game-like aspect that like child's play dislodges powers and elements from their formal (which is to say, their conventional, socially directed) relationships into new, often destructive, relationships: let's play "airplane." "Office tower." Or better (and for parents of young children, especially boys, more plausible), "airplane crash," or "falling towers."
Play is a form of experiment and discovery, a coaxing of essences out of forms, which like Heidegger's hammer reveal their nature only in the act of being broken. Playing in, at, and with the implements and structures of the global transport-communications-financial system, the attackers induced within the body of global capitalism a kind of auto-immune disease, called "terrorism," whose destructive power derives from that of the global system itself, and not that of an opposing state with its standing armies and arsenal of nuclear weapons. The al Qaeda soldiers literally bought their way into the system with credit cards (the sources of their funding remains an interesting question, whether from legitimate construction and oil companies, business firms, Islamic charities, or the illicit international weapons and drug trade), and sustained themselves in it with studied performances in the signs, practices, and techniques of global consumption, where they exhibited the peculiar genius of children, that springs from social disqualification and na´ve understandings.
In these senses the World Trade Center attack conforms to the fiction of torture, that inserts (as Scarry explains) into the space of our eradicated world the sign of weapon-as-power, bringing into commensurability the immensity of the former with our imputation of the latter. "These physical realities, an annihilating negation and an absence of negation, are therefore translated into verbal realities in order tomake what is taking place in terms of pain take place in terms of power." But as she points out, torture outwardly inverts these relations, positing a voiceless people, desperate in their voicelessness, who systematically abuse captive and culpable (not innocent or helpless) victims in order to elicit a confession of historical guilt, transforming them (us) into the ultimate perpetrators. Moreover they conspicuously, even spectacularly, convert the artifacts of human extension (Scarry's examples are humble beds and chairs, bathtubs and telephones; ours are magnificent jet airplanes and office towers), into hideous weapons, through which "objectified pain is denied as pain and read as power,"(28) lending to that conversion an aspect of diabolical play--games of "bathtub" or "telephone" becoming games of "office tower" and "airplane," as if capable of endless repetition according to specific rules.
And what of the torturer's interrogation? None was necessary; no sooner had the buildings fallen than we had begun to interrogate ourselves: "why do they hate us?"--a question which, once the syntax of the attack has been understood, because experienced as torture, contains (which is to say, elicits) its own answer: "because we are hateful." Hence the entire dialogue suggests our desire to figure the attack as punishment, rather than as aggression, our gesture of submission to an attacker, or rather to his power, this instinctive ducking of the head, reflecting our sense of continuing insecurity, vulnerability, and danger.
But, again, the terrorist attack was neither a clash of armies nor the vicious retribution of the state upon an individual. It is closer to an act of sabotage--a fact which returns us to the realm of commercial fantasy, computer games, and particularly to the flight simulator (the Microsoft version I think actually includes a "collision" with the World Trade towers). The saboteur uses the machinery of production to cripple production-throws his wooden clogs, or a monkey wrench, into the works. The saboteurs of September 11th laid hold of one of the principal tools of global capitalism--fantasy--in this case a widely-promulgated, even a familiar fantasy, to throw into the actual machinery, which is a human machinery, of its production. The office tower has always been, from the earliest experiments with the architecture in Chicago, a human information processing and retrieval device, a human computer, now the core instrument of the capital networks stretched around the globe in Saskia Sassen's "global cities." As sabotage, the attack, a simulation made real, arrested, or actually reversed, the direction of the machinery, which had been from history into pseudohistory, event to pseudoevent. Though journalists had made much of the television images themselves, overanticipated by Hollywood films and in some sense perhaps ordained by them, the specular character of the World Trade Center collapse seemed not to be its most salient aspect but rather an eerie moment of transition, the proverbial wake-up call to end all wake-up calls; though its images were instantly dispersed around the word, real destruction had been done, and real lives lost. The postmodern spectacle appropriated and ventriloquized us; its self-destructive act exposed history's ground zero and opened a space for its rebirth in the real lives of real people.
As such the attack of September 11th is not explained by the race, the ethnicity, the citizenship, the language, or even the class and sex of the saboteurs except insofar as these locate them in the no-man's-land between global capital and the new rootless global proletariat, Hardt and Negri's "multitude," summoned by it out of the undeveloped world. The saboteurs, or their leadership, were young men well equipped, but for reasons connected to Cold War foreign policy, the economics of oil, and the American-sponsored despotisms of the Middle East, without either reasons or opportunities to function in the global system; young men exposed and vulnerable to the libidinal promise of capital, but, swept up in the fundamentalist reaction to globalization itself, prohibited from embracing it except in the form of an erotic Paradise to which martyrdom offered to commute them. Hence the fitness of an adolescent fantasy--planes directed into buildings--carried out in fact: fantasy in this case a representation of irresolvable ambivalence and thus a fountainhead of destructive rage. "What is the power you have to hold me, when I most need to free myself from you? What is it that attaches me to you, when I repudiate everything you are?" Are these not questions we ourselves might ask, and have asked, of the world that has displaced the world that shaped us?
The threat to the "absolute distinguishability" between voice and body, material and immaterial, Scarry writes, belongs to a divine "rhythm of events" that may be either some form of idolatry, "the humanly sponsored blurring of body and voice," or from the opposite side, from "attempts to disembody the human body by increasing the power of the human voice or the capacity for cultural self-transformation through artifice" that inevitably bring down divine retribution, "a reaffirmation and intensification of their categorical separation." (209) The men who destroyed the World Trade Center were not gods, even if we were collectively inclined to attribute godlike mobility, ubiquity, and foreknowledge to them, possession of every imaginable "weapon of mass destruction," and supernatural prescience, perhaps invulnerability, to their leader bin Laden. But in the void opened by their own silence, the voices of gods, projected out of our own terror and anxiety, seemed to speak in the clouds and thunder that the collapse sent rolling through the streets of lower Manhattan. We felt ourselves thrown back upon our ancient human prerogatives: either to set about at once to reconstructing the idol that drew down divine wrath to begin with, or to strive most urgently to find the means of attending to the voice of that Power to which our suffering has reawakened us, so far as possible to fathom and to enact its will, preserving the mystery of the "absolute distinguishability" between the disembodied voice of God, source of all power, and the errant, mortal, suffering body of humanity upon which all power is produced. Our own idolatry, the golden calf of global capitalism, as embodied and symbolized in the World Trade Center, has brought down upon us a catastrophic reaffirmation of the category of the body by a force so terrible that it was not content merely to wound, sicken, incinerate or dismember but actually to obliterate and abolish us and, in the Towers themselves, to abolish our collective body, opening us to the voice of an unalterably unbodied and unrepresentable God, wellhead of all sentience, extension, and meaning.
© Robert Cantwell 2002
Back to t h e SOUNDING BOARD
- from Deborah Kapchan:
That no one as of March 17th has responded to Bob Cantwell's contribution may signify that there is no appropriate response to well-articulated anguish except a listening and attuned ear. Yet I am struck by the use of pronouns in Bob's meditation. As in most of the written responses to the attacks of September 11th, Cantwell speaks not just for himself, but sometimes for the nation, sometimes for humanity, sometimes to "us", sometimes to "them," sometimes (it seems) even to God. In the process, the "other" is also defined and circumscribed.
The need for one's personal voice to include and ally itself with a larger voice is overwhelming in moments of collective grief. In the context of examining "voice/overs", however, it is worth asking, Whose voice is speaking here? Who is the "we" in his/this discourse? In the post-modern world that we inhabit, is it only in response to tyranny and torture that history once again grants authority to say "us" and "them" and assume there is a referent, a "real" sign behind the signifier?
Responding to Galit's paper, Dorry says that the "complementary notions of ventriloquism and possession... seem to presume an alienable and therefore a potentially authentic self." She asks, "Can we find a way to theorize that self again?"
This question is particularly poignant in the context of Bob's meditation. Is an authentic self assumed in "Heidegger's Hammer", or does Bob rather provide the proof that such a self is not able to be theorized, not, in fact, able to be traced at all?
Bob employs some of the very techniques that Dorry delineates in her response to Galit: he "personifies" the perpetrators of the tragedy (1). He employs "ventriloquism" (2); he "incorporates" the voice of the other (3). He also "appropriates" the discourse of political objectivity at times and the very constructed categories of us and them become thereby "invisible".
Whose voice is it, for example, that asks, "What is the power you have to hold me, when I most need to free myself from you? What is it that attaches me to you, when I repudiate everything you are?" It is here that Bob's authorial voice most poignantly tries to ally itself the voice of the other(s) by voicing a question that seems to resonate on all sides of the divide. Ironically (and no doubt deliberately), it is also here that the limits of impenetrable (and pronominal) difference become most pronounced.
1) "The saboteurs, or their leadership, were young men well equipped, but for reasons connected to Cold War foreign policy, the economics of oil, and the American-sponsored despotisms of the Middle East, without either reasons or opportunities to function in the global system; young men exposed and vulnerable to the libidinal promise of capital, but, swept up in the fundamentalist reaction to globalization itself, prohibited from embracing it except in the form of an erotic Paradise to which martyrdom offered to commute them") and thereby grants them 'voice'. " [back]
2) He asks, in "their" voice, "What is the power you have to hold me, when I most need to free myself from you? What is it that attaches me to you, when I repudiate everything you are?" [back]
3) "And what of the torturer's interrogation? None was necessary; no sooner had the buildings fallen than we had begun to interrogate ourselves: "why do they hate us?"--a question which, once the syntax of the attack has been understood, because experienced as torture, contains (which is to say, elicits) its own answer: "because we are hateful." " [back]