America’s Narrow Politics of Tragedy?

These thoughts are fairly scattered and they deviate a bit from my normal purpose on this blog, which is to follow threads from my course readings and discussions that can interestingly connect to my immediate scholarly interests. But, today, I just want to talk about politics and 9/11 without connecting it in any way to the early modern period or feminism or any of my usual soapboxes.

U2 and Bono paying tribute to 9/11 at the 2002 Superbowl several months after the event. Is this the only kind of tribute that becomes okay for our country to display?

In his contribution to the “Forum on Theatre and Tragedy: A Response to September 11, 2001,” Harry J. Elam, Jr. references an article by Arthur Miller on tragedy and the common man. Most importantly, Elam says, Miller’s article articulates a desire “to find meaning within the horror…and thereby articulate a politics of tragedy that moves beyond pessimism to action” (“Forum” 102). Miller’s proposed way to find this meaning directly implicates the audience of the tragedy – “tragic acts benefit the gathered community of spectators, as tragedy reflects on the indomitability of the human spirit” (“Forum” 102). But I don’t know if this way of looking at tragedy can result in the kind of “politics of tragedy” that both Miller and, through him, Elam hope can come out of an event like 9/11. Elam problematizes Miller’s statement by pointing to the exaggerated display of nationalism that emerged after 9/11 – “flags drape virtually every business; they adorn houses and cars, and every congressperson, news anchor, and politician now wears a Stars and Stripes lapel pin” (“Forum” 102). This display, he argues, may seem to provide the kind of unity in continued optimism that Miller believes is crucial to tragic experience, but it also serves to produce an overt atmosphere of American absolutism (“Forum” 103). By defining “us,” as we mentioned in our performance theory class discussion on 9/11, we automatically define a “them.” And because America is such a diverse nation in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion, the “them” can be found within the limits of the same country we are trying to unite as “us.”

The politics of this particular tragedy, then, have proven increasingly problematic. As one of our instructors mentioned in class, much of the problem with gaining a critical distance on the events of 9/11 comes from an unnecessary binary between “those who support the government’s reaction” (and, therefore, truly understand the tragic event and respect our country’s need to fight back) and “those who don’t” (and, therefore, must not acknowledge the intense loss our country experienced because they feel its unnecessary to fight back). This black and white version of the calls for war and peace that emerged after 9/11 makes it incredibly difficult to position oneself outside of these two categories.

I think we saw evidence of this problem in our class discussion of 9/11 this week. The discussion proved interesting and intellectually stimulating, but I was disappointed that ultimately we didn’t seem able to situate ourselves at a comfortable distance from the events of 9/11 – a distance that allows for the kind of critical eye that our instructors seemed invested in producing and which, I believe, is important and beneficial to our perspective on the event and our memorialization of it. We broached the idea of analyzing the terrorist attack itself as a spectacular performance, enacted with the intention of a global audience, but shied away from the analysis almost immediately by discussing major media figures that were temporarily silenced for doing just that. Several of my fellow classmates’ blogs and some of the assigned readings for our discussion talked about the fact that it might be easier for “non-Americans” to document and memorialize (and, ultimately, critically analyze) this event. The French documentarians, Jules Clément Naudet and Thomas Gédéon Naudet, it was suggested, are the only ones who have thus far successfully produced a productive memorial and perspective on the event.

That seems unfair to me. If anyone has the most to gain by a productive critical perspective on this event, it’s Americans (ALL Americans). And if anyone can produce the type of respectfully emotional yet still critical analysis this event seems to call for, it should be people in the country most directly affected by the events. Unfortunately, what the event seems to have produced (somewhat ironically given the “big metaphor” of the falling of the Trade Center Towers) is a source for major political opportunism. The government is the only entity that seems to have successfully served the public a unified (and politically biased) version of the events along with overt suggestions about how we should interpret them. And, it seems, the only thing the public audience can do is either say, “yes we’re with you” or “no we disagree.” But can’t we get some kind of critical eye on the spectacle of the political response to this event? What about the responses in other countries? Has anyone looked at those yet to think about how this terrorist performance was received on the world stage? If anyone knows of books, articles, or anything else that has started to look at the event from a politically critical perspective (both the performance of the terrorists and the American/world responses to the event), please comment with some titles.

I’m not going so far as to suggest how we can begin to find a place between or outside of the war/peace reaction binary. But I think that starting to find a way in our class discussion would have been a helpful beginning and I just don’t know if we quite got there. It seems to me that performance studies is a particularly important and charged space for these discussions to begin. Is it possible that by putting the label “performance” on the events of 9/11, we can distance ourselves enough – pull the wool over our own emotional reactions – to start having a productive and forward-thinking conversation about “America’s tragedy?”



  1. Ellen MacKay · · Reply

    Whitney, I appreciate your frustration. And yet the point of our discussion was to bring out the fact that critical distance has always been available to us, but that for reasons that seem to me to be largely but not solely political and ideological, that distance has been systematically foreclosed. Performance Studies helps us see the manufacture of a kind of anti-dedoublement–a state of total rawness that prohibits self-reflection, self-consciousness, and of course, critical examination. Whether we can now produce art and criticism that steps into that disallowed distance is another question–even in our slightly milder political climate, it remains dangerous to seem dispassionate on this subject, or to try out analogies and surrogates when the language of incommensurability is still so strongly in use. But if we can see the falsity of 9/11’s universal spectatorship, then we are free to tell different stories about it. In sum, I think our readings give us the means to recognize the construction of 9/11’s unspeakability. What remains to be seen is who will speak, and what will be said.

  2. Fascinating post.

    I wouldn’t describe the government’s official narrative of 9/11 as ‘unified’ myself ….more like ‘insistent’. I suppose you could say the mainstream media’s *support* for this narrative is unified, but that’s slightly different. Maybe that’s what you meant…?

    As for the narrative itself though….. well, it’s certainly quite a ‘yarn’. I don’t think anyone (including Bin Laden himself) was ever formally charged, or found guilty in a court of law for the crimes of 9/11.

    In fact the FBI, when asked by journalists why they My favorite blogging platformhadn’t indicted OBL for 9/11 and why his ‘most wanted’ page on the FBI website did not even mention 9/11, replied (words to the effect of) “… we simply don’t have enough evidence to connect him to 9/11”

    I think it’s obvious that the terrorist attacks were designed to be a pure theatre (a “performance” as you say). They were first and foremost a *psychological* operation, designed specifically to traumatise the nation (and the world) by creating a real life disaster movie and having it play out on live TV all over the world.

    There are plenty of ways to kill more people and cause a lot more damage. 9/11 was clearly designed to create the most heightened feelings of terror, shock, fear, outrage in the public. It’s a well known fact that when we are in a state of shock and trauma we become highly suggestible.

    But the media/ government *response* to the attack was (and continues to be) pure theatre too. The government’s political use of the attacks (specifically their own narrative of the event) raises some very interesting questions about the nature of terrorism itself.

    “…If anyone knows of books, articles, or anything else that has started to look at the event from a politically critical perspective (both the performance of the terrorists and the American/world responses to the event), please comment with some titles….”

    The most critically accomplished analysis of 9/11 to date is the work of Dr Judy Wood Ph.D

    “Anyone declaring WHO did what or HOW they did it before they have determined WHAT at was done is merely promoting either speculation or propaganda.” – Dr Wood

    Here is a presentation of the main evidence she has gathered.

    And here is a fascinating discussion regarding the wider social / political implications of 9/11 (and our collective response to it over the last decade).

    This may not be exactly what you were asking for but I guarantee you will find the evidence compelling. You might wonder why this physical evidence (which is not theory) is not generally known and never discussed (not even by the so called “9/11 truth movement’).

    Surely the order of investigation into an event like 9/11 should follow something along the lines of:

    Physical evidence > perceptual / psychological > media/ social > political.

    Attempting to start at the wrong end requires numerous assumptions to be made, which is always a recipe for disaster…….. and 9/11 is too important an event to risk that.

    1. Thanks so much for the suggestions, Abandon TV. I’ll definitely take a look at Wood’s book as a starting point. I think you’re right about the government’s response being more “insistent” than “unified.” And it seems to me that part of that insistence was played out in a vague connection between OBL and the events. While the FBI and other official agencies, after some research, may not have been able to directly implicate him in the attack, the media (and, presumably, the government behind them) allowed the public to very explicitly make that link. Which is probably what allowed for the amassing of public support behind the Obama administration after his death – we had finally avenged our “tragedy” and the villain of our horror/action film was dead.

      I like your comment about the order of investigation, too. That seems really insightful and it’s obvious how starting from the wrong end would inevitably present serious barriers to anything remotely resembling “truth.”

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