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.
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?”