A Moment of Quiet, Please, the Disaster Would Like to Say Something[1] / Ariella Azoulay

“The attack on the World Trade Center is the first post-Cold War attack. Whoever its perpetrators may be, they have ushered in a new era in terror, which has absolutely nothing in common with the recurring blasts that from time to time horrify Ireland and Britain. Actually the important aspect of this attack is the fact that its objective was to destroy the World Trade Center building, or in other words to cause the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people […] This isn’t simply a remake of the movie The Towering Inferno, as the media outlets in their search for images repeatedly exulted, but a strategic event that confirms before the eyes of all the change of the military order at the end of this century” (Paul Virilio).[2]

These remarks were made by Paul Virilio, French sociologist and cultural critic. His diagnosis of the attack on the Twin Towers as a turning point, the start of a new age, or a moment of radical change has been reiterated by most of the articles written by cultural critics, sociologists and philosophers in the early days following the collapse of the Twin Towers on September eleventh, which were disseminated mainly over the Internet.[3] Some of the writers even went so far as to characterize the event as “a new language” that calls for renewed thought about all of culture: words, signs, tools, images, procedures. In the articles and reports published in the wake of the disaster in the printed and the electronic media, the event was also depicted as deviant. Extensive use was made here of the term “trauma” to characterize the event, and emphasis was placed on its deviancy relative to “ordinary” attacks and terror operations or other cases of disaster.

The way in which the event occurred, its scale relative to the place (New York City, the United States), the circumstances (a terrorist attack on the land of a superpower), and the cost in human lives (thousands of casualties in a single “pinpoint” strike)—all these do indeed single out the event as deviant, and it is not surprising that many writers saw it as a seminal turning point. However, Virilio’s remarks with which I opened this essay were written more than eight years before the collapse of the Twins, in March, 1993, after the first attempted attack on the towers. Then too, his remarks make clear, the event was of a magnitude that required wholesale reevaluation. Virilio may well already have been right then; however, since the attack on the Twin Towers in ’93 there have been many “strategic events” whose occurrence ostensibly ushered in a new era, and various systems—political, communications, economic or cultural—have moved in to isolate them and point to them as turning points of historical significance. It seems that the cultural place of an event, which signifies change while at the same time causing or accelerating its occurrence, was prepared in advance prior to the attack of September eleventh—which, at least in this sense, wasn’t one of a kind but one in a series of singular events that confirm the appearance of a new order. Therefore, I would first of all like to ask: What are the functions of the act of signification that distinguishes and the cultural practice that constitutes the conception of such events? How do they shape the logic of a strategic event? And what is the relation between such events and those who become their spokespersons?

Event is synonymous with occurrence, but not every occurrence is an event. For many years the subtitle of Israeli television Channel One’s weekly news wrap-up was “The Weekly Journal of Events.” The events that were included in the wrap-up weren’t an arbitrary collection of occurrences but a selection of occurrences that the editors believed to be of importance to the public agenda. So then, in everyday language an event is synonymous with an occurrence whose very existence, likewise reports about it and its ramifications, concerns all or part of the public. In everyday language, however, an event can also refer to a celebratory family function to mark a turning point in the lives of the family members—a circumcision or wedding, for example—or to a cultural activity or sports competition that draws special attention, etc. What is common to all these different uses of the term is some activity that draws people together around it. People’s degree of partnership to and participation in such events, as well as the intensity of the experience that they generate, may vary from event to event and from framework to framework (passive participation watching the news on television versus the participation of the crowd at a rock concert or demonstration) according to their degree of proximity to the heroes of the event (a relative getting married, a close friend appearing onstage, etc.), according to its results (win or loss in a game), or according to its quality (a stultifying concert or the excitement beyond the event itself following a sterling performance). All the same, the activity is generally predictable, customary, volitional, intentional, managed, and planned. However, any such event can suddenly deviate from the mold in whose framework it appears and cast its audience into a chaotic condition as a result of an unexpected occurrence such as the collapse of a wedding hall dance floor or fans rioting at a football stadium. Then it turns into an event of a different order, which I shall discuss below.

In trying to define an event, Jean François Lyotard employs the metaphor of the painter facing the landscape. His model is the painter Paul Cezanne, who made it a practice of his to contemplate the static landscape of Mount St. Victoire: “To become sensitive to their quality as actual events, to become comptent in listening to their sound underneath silence or noise, to become open to the ‘it happens that’ rather than to the ‘what happens’—requires at the very least a high degree of refinement in the perception of small differences.”[4] As far as Lyotard is concerned, the event is an elusive, almost intangible matter, and its appearance is dependent on the powers of observation of the addressee facing it. Like Freud, who in his technical writings instructs therapists how to draw the right kind of attention to their patients—on the assumption that hidden among their words lies an event, or that saying the words is in itself an event—Lyotard too requires the observer to completely renounce “its culture, its wealth, health, knowledge and memory” (Ibid). Both the therapist (Freud) and the painter (Lyotard) must have intention towards the event in order to bring it to light. Lyotard, then, transfers the emphasis from the everyday meaning of an event as something public, the details of which are planned and the conduct of which is predictable, to its meaning as something private that is dependent on the observer or listener and could not exist without them. Whether according to the everyday use of the term, or in the meaning that Lyotard gives it, an event is the object of intention or choice —even if this choice is the outcome of convention, training, or practice. In either case, those who participate in an event can generally also choose to get out of it.

The event that I’d like to talk about is of a different order, and it is also distinguishable from Lyotard’s conception. I’m talking about a deviant occurrence that is not the outcome of choice, intention or planning, even if certain dimensions of this occurrence do have a single author or several of them.[5] Furthermore, those caught up in the event, at varying degrees of proximity—from being physically present at the site of the event to watching it on the television screen—have not chosen to participate in it but have been thrown into it, as it were, trapped by it. I’m talking, then, about an unexpected occurrence the eventuation of which dazes everyone it overtakes, situating them as addressees of the event, who are not always able to elude it or its ramifications. The “Rabin assassination,” for example, was an event, while the act of murder itself was not an event but the execution of a plan of action. The event, in contradistinction to the act, is that moment at which the meaning of acts and occurrences is suspended, thus interrupting the routine operation of various systems—political, cultural, or social—that generate the symbolic orders. Of this kind too, for example, was the encounter between Yigal Amir and amateur photographer Ronny Kempler—not Amir’s planned encounter with Rabin—who was at the site of the murder by accident and unwittingly played a role in the actualization of a murder planned long before by Amir.[6] Rabin’s first handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn is another example of an event that reshuffles the cards. The handshakes that followed, though they may have entailed further excitement and surprises, were no longer an event in the sense that I’m trying to give it here. In other words, I’m talking about an event as an occurrence that upsets the symbolic order, the political order, the media order and the cultural order and puts its addressees in a state of chaos, consternation, loss of orientation, confusion or shock. It is an occurrence that cannot be integrated in the existing orders, an occurrence that acts like a blow, which all of a sudden—with the roar of a jet airplane (or two)—causes a radical suspension of routine activity and exposes if only momentarily the boundaries and limitations of the existing orders.

In his Theses On The Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin relocates the event from the occurrence that is being faced to who is facing the occurrence. But contrary to Lyotard’s depiction, Benjamin is talking about an event that traps its addressee using violence, until “his eyes are staring, his mouth is open.”[7] An event is an occurrence that induces a state of shock, a moment of absolute suspension, a situation in which the operation of mouth and eye is halted, frozen, and these organs remain unable to resume their ordinary activity, not even minimal reflex activity such as closing or relaxing the mouth or shutting the eyes. Benjamin identifies the event with catastrophe—destruction, ruins, remains—and grasps the addressee’s relation to the event and his/her experience of shock as an indication of its very existence. A catastrophe or disaster is undoubtedly a paradigmatic instance of an event, but it’s not the only one. The event, as Lyotard puts it, is never “what occurred” but the very fact that it was eventuated, i.e. the situation in which whoever facing it is reduced to a chaotic condition, loss of words, dumbfounded silence, blank gaze, revulsion or horror. These states are a necessary condition for the existence of an event, but not necessarily for the incidence of disaster, murder, or a shift in political or social processes. Without such moments of dumbfounded silence and shock, different activities and occurrences are immediately integrated in the data handling facilities of the different social systems that process them both for the benefit of the individuals who experience them as well as for the public arenas in which they are represented and discussed.

In the reality of the early twenty-first century, when various systems—political, social, media, religious, and the like—are in readiness and prepared to assimilate any and all events, the suspension that I have defined as a necessary condition for the existence of an event is constantly getting shorter, at times only a split second, or to the point where the event becomes intangible. Different machines that are responsible for manufacturing and distributing words and images—some of which even turn into operational plans—accelerate their pace and pounce on the event in order to cast into familiar molds. In most cases they force the event into their prepared molds and immediately assimilate it into the cycle. In other words, the presence of the event itself is intolerable, wherefore the different machines perform their duty: to eradicate the event by making it meaningful, so that the mouth of whoever is facing it may resume functioning—it will close, of course, in order to reopen again in that same split-second in order to continue to produce speech, and the eyes will resume alternately shutting and opening in order to allow the views to continue to be recorded. The eradication of the event, then, is tantamount to the rehabilitation of the orders that have been disrupted. The eradication and rehabilitation is performed by demarcating the event, giving it a name, and turning it into a defined object that can be signified, represented, interfered with and distributed.

An event of this nature has two kinds of spokespersons. I would like to distinguish between them according to the nature of their approach to the eventuation of the event. The first approach, which I shall term the grading approach, attempts to capture the elusory event by categorizing, classifying and grading it in relation to other events of its kind. When an event of a different and extraordinary magnitude occurs, those who advocate this approach would like, by means of determining the event’s relative location, to reflect its intensity and point to it as a deviant event in a series of events, and so one that makes a difference.

The second approach, which I shall term the traumatic approach, points to the event as a singular and unrepeatable occurrence, which has no meaning outside itself, and which in consequence cannot be captured except under the headline of an event “beyond all imagination,” which “cannot be represented” and “words cannot describe” and “cannot be compared to anything else.” In effect this approach would ascribe to the event an enormity leaving it beyond any comparison and outside the field of representation, thus branding in advance any attempt to represent it as inferior and flawed—not only because such attempts necessarily fail, but because they foster the illusion that such an event can be represented.

Those who advocate the grading approach would signify the event using terms of degrees of intensity, innovation, difference, deviation or absolute otherness (which paradoxically is dependent always on comparison with previous events, because it is only on the basis of comparison that one can determine the impossibility of comparison). By means of these descriptions they attempt to express the moment of suspension, but always after they have already overcome it; they express the mouth hanging open and the eyes gaping wide, but always after these organs have returned to functioning normally. The grading approach is a past perfect approach: it always describes the suspension as a moment in the past that is gone and concluded. For their part, those who advocate the traumatic approach would point to the total disruption the event has caused, casting its incomprehensibility and its lack of structure into the familiar mold of trauma. Trauma, writes Freud, is caused as a result of an accidental blow that disrupts the routine operation of the mental and emotional economy, which prior to the accident was in a stable and balanced condition. “Within a short time,” says Freud, this blow adds “such a powerful increment of sensation, that it cannot be assimilated or processed in the normal way, whereby constant disruptions in the energy economy are mandated.”[8] Since the traumatic moment hasn’t been assimilated, says Freud, it continues to exist “as an actual mission that hasn’t been fulfilled” (Ibid). The traumatic approach is a present continuous approach: the present goes on and never stops to be present for even a moment, and it is for this reason exactly that it can never be gotten rid of once and for all.

The grading and traumatic approaches compete among themselves to heal the rip or fracture that the event has sundered in the system of symbolic tissues by means of which we interpret the world, tell it, and conduct ourselves in it. Even though they ostensibly are competing approaches, I think they are both part of a single, common exchange economy, which seeks to capture and eradicate the event. The two approaches operate at one and the same time at two different levels that make each other possible. At the first level, the level of meaning, they give meaning to what has sundered the symbolic order and eluded all meaning. The grading approach gives meaning by ascribing the event to an origin, to direct intention, to an “author,” and by incorporating it into causal sequences that explain it and justify what emanates from it. Thus, for example, already in the first few minutes after the attack on the Twin Towers, the printed and electronic media hastily identified the perpetrator of the event as Osama Bin-Laden.[9] The causal sequences into which the various commentators incorporated the collapse of the Twins led to the rapid completion of the pieces of the puzzle. In the eyes of most, Islamic fundamentalism was grasped as a hothouse for terror and a real threat to the West, which justifies comprehensive war against it. These descriptions paved the way not only for the war currently being conducted in Afghanistan, but for all the accompanying activities that strike directly at the civil rights of specific minority groups in the U.S.A. Other commentators, outside the consensus, traced the causal links from the continuing exploitation of the Third World to the attack on the Twins in a way that explains—and perhaps even justifies—the event in terms of revenge. The traumatic approach also operates at the level of meaning, this by labeling the event as a trauma, or in other words incorporating it into a familiar and managed mold of that which lacks meaning.

At the second level, the level of order, the event is depicted as unprecedented, a departure from everything that came before it, beyond any measure or degree formerly determined and beyond comparison (according to the traumatic approach) or bigger, more expensive, more violent, and more destructive than anything else of its kind (the grading approach). Here too a predetermined niche awaits the event. This niche is part of an overall cultural order, a sort of museum of horrors, in which an empty niche is always kept waiting for the next event that deviates beyond anything the museum already has and is characterized by exactly this deviation, for it is connected to everything in the museum by deviating from it all and negating it with its own intensity. Such a niche makes it possible to both acknowledge what is beyond representation and represent it, to admit that deviation is absolute and contain it at the same time.

And so these two approaches, each of which is acting to sort out the event at both levels, of meaning and of order, take part at one and the same time in ritually hallowing the event and in ritually divorcing it, in containing it and in distancing it. The two courses of action complement one another and eventually turn the event into a familiar product, a legitimate part of the system. From now on the event appears as an element in a series: in one case as a link in a causal chain, in the second as an element in a series of traumas that chase one another, replace one another, and extend into one another.

A moment of quiet, please, the event would like to say something. To allow it to speak, what is required from the addressee is the same as what was required from Cezanne: to be entirely devoted to the new thing that is appearing, to what is being eventuated and hasn’t yet been given meaning, to the fragments that can’t be incorporated into an overall picture. This devotion to the event does not mean taking an impartial position, renouncing one’s cultural positioning or passivity, but taking responsibility for the event in a way that allows it to retain its otherness for a while and elude the language of interested parties. Towards this end we would do well to learn from Cezanne the art of devotion to an event, which begins with postponing its conceptualization or comprehension and mainly consists of carefully and industriously collecting patches whose meaning hasn’t yet been determined or clarified and placing them one next to the other, in such or other series, and in devotion to the outlines that arise from them, even though these be crude, partial, or faulty. Such disorderly compositions may not necessarily advance the FBI’s search for the culprits; they may not help the American government justify the fighting in Afghanistan or the American economy understand the new workings of the Third World, nor assist the military in drawing up a profile of the new breed of terrorist. They may not provide cabinet ministers with the means to draw up assessments for next time, racists with proof of the division between the enlightened West and the dark and fundamentalist Third World, nor government critics with evidence of the failure of its economic policies. We should and must ask the Cezannesque observer to collect especially those fragments that haven’t yet turned into signs, whose meaning hasn’t yet been determined—those traces that seemingly refuse to be incorporated into the existing causal systems, mainly because they lack an author and their call does not lead to intentions, desires, or plans, but teaches us something about the culture in which they are created. These traces disturb our repose; they are attempting to say something, even if this is nothing other than the making of the statement itself.

The attack on the Twin Towers is a distinctive example of an event in the sense that I have defined and described above. I myself am trying in a way that isn’t naïve to take Cezanne’s position and to think, using him as my inspiration, about the collapse of the Twins, but taking care as best I can not to explain it, not to decipher its essence. I am trying to ferret out that something about the event that hasn’t ceased disturbing my repose since I first watched it and now as I look at its representations: that gaping divide between picture and sound, between the seen and the heard, which speech seems to be trying to bridge, to erase. This speech, not all of it, is threatening. It is threatening because its power to enlist followers in routine times is nowhere near as intense as when the addressees of the event are shocked, upset, lost, disopriented and inattentive. My discussion isn’t concerned with “first-degree” addressees of the event (survivors, rescuers), nor with second-degree addressees (victims’ relatives, etc.), but with third-degree cultural addressees, those who consume the disaster along with other cultural products that reach their homes through the television screen.

That addressee is me. I can’t say that as an addressee of this disaster I had formerly a static mental/emotional/cultural economy, the equilibrium of which the disaster only disrupted violently and in a deviant way, as would be required, for example, by Freud’s definition of trauma. I am, after all, a constant addressee/consumer of disastrous events of various kinds: famine, massacre, war, occupation, rape and ethnic cleansing, nuclear proliferation, biological warfare, bombing of civilian populations, etc. The list is long. Such events have become identified with certain place-names—Chernobyl, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Nablus, Ramallah, Kurdistan, Iraq, Kabul, Kandahar—whose purpose seemingly is to cram the event into a delimited territory and thus protect all the rest from contagion, as if the name of the city or country were enough to contain the disaster area and manufacture and maintain the viewing distance. If one can speak of a static and balanced situation with respect to the addressee of these catastrophic events, it’s exactly the other way around: it is the disaster that consistently continues to reach me and maintain the “balance of horror,” fixing it as a static situation, in order to forestall any vacuum in my consumption of horrors, to ensure that the system which consumes horror is not left unoccupied for even a moment, thirsting for the next catastrophe yet to come.[10] This stimulation-rich economy expresses the postmodern conditions, in the framework of which the grading approach and the traumatic approach exist simultaneously—a framework of competitive and complementary relations. These conditions change the structure of trauma and transform it from a unique event, which lies outside the exchange economy and organizes its activity, into a serial event, which is subservient to the modes of action of the exchange systems. The mission that trauma dictates is therefore not to keep worshiping the moment of accident in the past, as though it were a fixed and unchanging point inserted in parentheses that lies outside the subject’s range of comprehension (a sort of psychic-dynamic translation of the Kantian thing in itself); in postmodern conditions, the mission is each time to manufacture anew the parentheses into which the event can be inserted and graded as an unprecedented event, to redefine that niche which the museum of horrors keeps prepared for the unprecedented, for what is deviant beyond measure and no model of representation can adequately contain. And so, even with the niche newly demarcated, the mission is still not completed and dictates a search for a new, more powerful object—different from all its predecessors—that will perform the deviation even better. In other words, the event that is outside any economy is quickly displaced and loses its standing to the next event; thus, the whirligig of interpretations is no longer powered by the specific weight of a singular event but by the specific weight of the currently exceptional. However, the meaning of the event remains elusive and unstable, and its peregrination from one sign to the next, which seek to capture it, makes it possible only to determine its place in a differential chain of meanings that is based on comparison and gradation.[11]

This competition between two interpretative models does not lead to the victory of one and defeat of the other, but to the intensification of the competition. This is because in most societies that are termed developed, competition itself is part of the conditions—insufficient, of course—for the appearance of the disaster as an event (in the sense herein defined). In such societies skilled technologies of reportage, documentation, colloquy, assistance, management and handling are always prepared to receive the next event. These conditions are part of the stage management and mise en scene of the disaster, which awaken a desire for more and more of the lethal potion and make possible the unfolding of the fantasy as a pattern of changing positions, a sort of game of musical chairs among spectator, victim, and the disaster’s perpetrator(s).[12] Viewing the horrendous event follows a pattern that is analogous to the aural model of the work of art, as described by Walter Benjamin: “The unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.”[13] Horror, despite its proximity to postmodern viewers, leaves them outside. Much as horror may approach them, much as they may try to capture it, it remains outside their scope,[14] unless they themselves take the position of victim or perpetrator, descending into the condition of someone already beaten, someone already wading in the horror, someone who has already become a part of it in mind and body.

The movement between the positions of spectator, victim and perpetrator is part of what fuels the disaster’s mise en scene, its phantasmagoric structure in the framework of its postmodern conditions of consumption. The repetition of the disaster also takes place in the framework of a phantasmagoric structure, not as the repetition of an event out of the past that has already occurred, but as the repetition of an event that hasn’t yet occurred. The past is insufficient, it is always embedded in a certain economy that robs the event of its essence—namely its standing outside any economy—and emphasizes its inferiority. A short essay by Roland Barthes on “Shock Photos” can serve as a symptom of the economy of horror that I’m trying to describe here. Confronting horrific photos, Barthes hands out grades of an aesthetic order that explain insensitivity of an ethical order. Barthes shares with readers/viewers his feelings why the horror right in front of our eyes is inferior, unsatisfactory and barren. This barrenness elicits a desire for horror of an even more effective order, which, of course, is bound to be further intensified due to not being able to be satisfied: “Most of the photos that have been collected here make no impression upon us, exactly because the photographer tried too generously to put himself in our places in shaping his subject: He has almost always over-constructed the horror he’s presenting us […] One of them, for example, positions one next to the other a band of soldiers and a field littered with human skulls; one shows us a young soldier standing and contemplating a skeleton […] And yet, none of these overly skillful photos really touches us.”[15] In this context Barthes criticizes several kinds of photographs and accuses their makers of being over-stylish, artsy, opinionated, and judgmental. In fact he’s accusing them of not being capable of exciting, stirring, and arousing viewers. In other words, he’s expressing the closed circle of intensification of horror, as if the horror as we see it before our eyes weren’t enough, and in order to horrify us it must deviate from what is already familiar to us, either by means of changing the object—an image of a more severe order—or by means of changing the location of the addressee relative to the object. The event that confronts us, the material event that is already over cannot satisfy the desire. Desire yearns for an event of a different order that can be defined as a pure event, what has-already-occurred-and-yet-hasn’t.[16] It is a desire for an event in the raw, which will be cleansed of its mundane signifiers and appear at last in its purely refined form. Desire for a pure event is part of the desire to be released from earthliness in order to rise, become elevated, to take off. One can take off in an airplane, or one can climb to the top of a skyscraper. The skyscraper and the airplane—the main heroes of the drama of the Twins—are two modern instruments that make it possible to transform the world seething with life down below into a two-dimensional picture, into an image, thereby also making possible abstract interventions in this space, as though it were only an image whose composition can be changed according to some or other plan. In the Twins disaster, these two instruments were expropriated from the Americans, which left them at the disaster site armed with only their cameras, upon which was placed the onus of rehabilitating the view from above—that abstract, distant, refined view, which takes the event to its zero point.

The television stations broadcasted an endless loop of similar versions of the image of the collapse, which was shot from a suitable distance to deprive the event of any chaotic dimension—which it undoubtedly had—and make it appear as a pure event. The repetitive broadcast, which brought viewers into contact with mass death while hiding it from their eyes at the same time, the orchestrated appearance of the term “ground zero,” the cleanliness of the TV screen, the erasure of the human dimension—all these are signs left by the event, which, exactly because they lack an author, enable us through them to see unexpected connections to similar signs left by two prior events. The first of these took place at the end of the World War II: the atomic bombing and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans. The second occurred a decade ago: the Gulf War. In both cases the United States caused destruction on a vast scale. In both cases American action was guided by a hierarchical conception of America and its enemies and an American feeling of moral and technological superiority. The enemy under attack appeared so lowly that in the attackers’ eyes—and later in the eyes of most spectators of the horror—he looked like an immaterial image, a target marked with an “X”. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki the attack was so effective and complete that, in a single moment, it turned a world seething with life, a three-dimensional universe, into a blank picture, a starting point, or ground zero, to use an expression first coined at Hiroshima. The same ground zero repeated itself fifty-six years later in the Twins disaster, in an even greater and more spectacular show, which included a real-time demonstration of the collapse of the three-dimensional into a picture. In Japan, in the years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American occupation authorities imposed censorship on the gathering of information and documentation of the horror from close up, making the remains of the victims and the survivors inaccessible. A similar situation was repeated as if of itself, without having to be imposed by a foreign conqueror, in the Twins disaster. Scant days after the collapse of the Twins, the cameras were kept far away from the site of the event, again and again manufacturing the same image of smoke rising skyward—just like the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. There were two reasons for distancing the cameras. One stemmed from the nature of the event, in which everything was ground to a fine dust, buried beneath ground zero in a collapse that drastically limited any possibility of gathering information about what was left buried under the zero. The second stemmed from the consistent policy of American administrations since the Vietnam War—to control the televised presentation of horrors involving American victims and screen the images of horror. As a result of this policy the site of the Twins was sealed off for a long period, and viewers were denied whatever information might yet have been rescued from the dust and ashes of the ruins.

It wasn’t only information that was buried in the Twins disaster. Buried also were the bodies—the vanished and unnumbered bodies. The bodies there hadn’t been at Hiroshima because they’d dematerialized in the atomic blast, as well as the bodies (200,000 according to most official estimates) there hadn’t been in the Gulf War thanks to the smooth operation of “smart bombs” and television monitors from afar—all these vanishing bodies reappeared in the Twins disaster. I’m not speaking here about a metaphorical disappearance, a failure to count the bodies, or their being kept away from the cameras, but about their actual disappearance, having been pounded until nothing was left. This disappearance took place in the course of a “surgical strike,” which wiped 4,000 people off the face of the earth leaving no trace of them except for a halo of smoke and stink that don’t stop marking the erasure and refuse to disappear themselves. The disappearance of the bodies, like their replacement by an amorphous sign that is persistently present, cannot be attributed to the intent of an author—who, in any case, has also been eradicated by the event—in a way that dictates turning the disappearance itself into a sign as well.  In 1991 Jean Baudrillard contended that the Gulf War didn’t take place, arguing that it did not meet the first condition of war—the existence of an enemy. The Gulf War was not a case of two sides conducting a war between them.[17] The Americans came and left Iraq at will; they conducted the Gulf War as they saw fit and in a manner that wasn’t dependent on any other side’s actions. They carried it out from their studios and control rooms (war rooms that had become newsrooms and vice versa), and at a certain moment they decided to conclude their mission—whose horrific nature, and at least part of whose objectives, were systematically kept from the public’s view—and went back to where they came from. In other words, in the Gulf War the Americans sufficed unto themselves to conduct a war—an autarchic war. In the Twins disaster the Americans were deprived of the ability to put the enemy under wraps because the enemy himself had cancelled the state of war,[18] disappeared at the moment of the crash itself, and destroyed himself with the bodies of his victims, leaving no traces. The possibility of a war without an enemy was immediately dredged up, but, as mentioned above, from the very first moment the Americans—and most of the Western world with them—joined forces to rehabilitate the enemy, or at least to give back to the West its monopoly on putting the enemy onstage as well as removing him. 50,000 items have been collected in FBI offices in order to reconstruct a necessary route—necessary for the conduct of a war, of course—from the local enemy who actually perpetrated the disaster and destroyed himself in it to the archenemy who assumedly stood behind it. However, this collection of signs, which could fill several floors of a museum, still hasn’t led anywhere (as of the writing of these lines).

In turning the disaster into a spectacle that is separate from its material dimensions, a pure event unsullied by an enemy or bodies, the enemy—who was depicted as fundamentalist, backward, and inferior—demonstrated a greater ability than what formerly only the Americans could boast of. That same enemy beat them in a field in which the Americans had acted as though they had a monopoly since the Gulf War (with the possible exception of an Israeli echo in the Middle East)—the field of “surgical strikes” with its “smart bombs” and its euphemistic discourse that wraps up the horror and puts it out of mind, if not actually justifying it, by means of aesthetic appreciation of the wonders of technology. The attack on the Twin Towers, it must be admitted, was carried out impeccably: a precise strike at the target, destruction of the population designated as an objective and no others (except for 300 firemen who died due to lack of judgment on the part of their American superiors), in observance of the boundaries of the disaster area and subservient to the original plan to attack the World Trade Center. This surgical strike was made possible only due to existing American technologies—the skyscraper and the airplane—and all the means of navigation and communication that make it possible to connect them. The attackers brought these technologies, which make possible the view from above and the reduction of the enemy into an immaterial target, to a new pinnacle of simplicity and accuracy.

The appearance of an event such as the Twins disaster in the heart of the culture, in a place that plays a central role in managing the exchange relations of horror (media, financial and humanitarian assistance, worldwide “policing actions,” and intervention in sovereign states), in a national territory that has never before been attacked from outside, raised questions in regard to the continuity between the disaster zones of the Third World and regions in the First World that had been considered relatively immune to disaster. Advocates of the traumatic approach saw this as a turning point, i.e. “America will never be secure again.” Advocates of the grading approach immediately pointed to new kinds of continuities between the two worlds. The former assumed that the boundary between America and the disaster-stricken areas is fixed and stable; the latter sought to demonstrate how fluid, porous and penetrable that boundary is. In their opinion too, however, there are reasons and explanations for the penetrability of the boundary (such as, for example, the fabled war between the Light and Darkness, which even President Bush has disseminated, or the story about the revenge of the Third World, which was disseminated by spokespersons of the radical left), which also take part in stabilizing the boundary.

With the collapse of the Twins the field of vision has changed. Some of the central figures that appeared in it before—part of the boundaries and lines of separation, and the figure of the super-cop delegated to protect them—now appear in a new light. The figure of the super-cop stood at the basis of America’s feelings of security and superiority; it was supposed to defend not only America and its client states but also the boundaries and lines of separation between the First World and the Second (communist) and Third worlds. For years America has consistently taken action to create and maintain the divides between itself and its two others: the Second and Third worlds. Complex exchange relations have subsisted between the First and Third worlds, but on the whole they have maintained a clear-cut boundary, its management delegated to the First World. The Third World, which has been a source of raw materials and cheap labor for the First World, has also served as its backyard, in which the spectacles of horror routinely go on: famine, poverty, exploitation, commerce in women, ecological destruction, wars, massacre and killing.[19] Under the patronage of the First World—which has played the enlightened role of reporting and documenting the horrors, disseminating their representations, and providing assistance to their victims —these horrors have turned into merchandise that is marketed to the entire world. This division of labor between the place of horror, namely the Third World, and the site of its representation, namely the First World, contributed to the false sense of security that dissipated on September eleventh. It dissipated not because terrorists succeeded in crossing the border and striking at the heart of New York and Washington, exposing the vulnerability of the boundary, but exactly the other way around: because the attack exposed the fact that there is no boundary, or at the very least that the existing boundary is discontinuous and unstable.

On September eleventh it became apparent that the Third World is not the outside of the First World. The First World has no outside. The terrorists’ sophisticated use of capitalism’s most widespread tools—air transport, population concentrations in tall buildings, synchronized timetables, photographic coverage everywhere and at all times—turning them against their makers, has exposed the disappearance of the boundary between the First and Third worlds. The terrorist is the product of the capitalist system as much as he is its exploited backyard victim, rising against it with the inferior resources at his disposal. The terrorists who carried out the attack weren’t ignorant and famished Afghanis but affluent, educated, and sophisticated Arabs. They functioned inside the system, from within it, thus exposing its logic. Their spirit has been hovering over it for a long time already. The Twins disaster, which looked like a picture out of a horror film, demonstrated that it is only in Hollywood films that the terrorist stands outside, threatening to penetrate and strike at America. What has been increasingly disclosed since September eleventh is the ramified integration of the other inside, in America’s heartland. The terrorist cells were established in America and throughout Europe; the terrorists became citizens of America, used its services, and in effect led a double life there. The suspect profile of the sender of the Anthrax letters has also gradually become clear: he now appears to be a “true” American. This finding can serve as an allegory for the main issue that’s becoming clear: the enemy, which America had imagined to be outside, is actually inside. In other words, in the Twins disaster the outside was found to be not that which penetrates inside, but that which for some time already is no longer outside. What became clear in the Twins disaster is that America no longer has an outside.

The terrorists used a routine, civilian Western technology and turned it into their weapon. They didn’t suffice with that but relied on additional American refinements to complete the job: the rigorous architectural design of the Twin Towers, which ensured the perfect collapse of the buildings upon themselves with relatively little damage to the surroundings, maintaining the surgical precision of the strike; the distancing of the bodies from the screen; the creation of an enduring icon of the disaster, which was broadcasted in an endless loop. The icon of the Twins disaster—alternately showing each of the towers flaming at their tops, then collapsing upon themselves and producing a great cloud of dust and smoke, rising to the sky—was quickly awarded a monopoly on the representation of the event. This was an American attempt to replace the view from above—the view that oversees the space—with a view from afar, the panoramic view that functions like a stop-sign and prohibits unwanted foreigners from approaching, peeking into, and poking around in the bowels of the disaster. There was only one amateur video, shot by a doctor who happened to be at the site, which challenged the immaculate representation of the event, the classicism of the towers’ collapse seen over and over again by television viewers. This video conveyed chaos, rapid movement, vibration, an intermittent field of view, obscuration, panic, and especially the deafening, intolerable noise of the crash. Broadcasted about ten hours after the event, it exposed the mechanism that created the icon—the elimination of the image’s acoustic dimension, to be replaced by a soundtrack made in the studio. The noise recorded by the amateur photographer in effect demonstrates how the icon of the collapsing towers voided any possibility of a non-panoramic image of the disaster and saved America from the collapse of the image of the disaster itself. This icon depicts America as the best and the ultimate, even when it comes to disasters; America’s rating stays highest in the world, even when the disaster isn’t an “original production.”

A moment of quiet, please, the disaster would like to say something.

This article was originally published on: the journal of culture and the unconscious , Volume 2, Number 1, pp. 1-18, 2002

[1]              A paraphrase on Natan Zach’s poem: “A moment of quiet please / I would like to say something”.

[2]              From Virilio, Paul, 1996. Un Paysage d’événement, Paris, Galilée.

[3]              Among others, see: Dion Dennis, “The World Trade Center and the Rise of the Security State”, in Ctheory; Vol. 24, No. 3, Saskia Sassen, “A Message from the Global South”, in Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2001; Slavoj Zizek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”, in Indymedia; and Paul Virilio, Interview, in Swiss Weekly.

[4]              Jean Francois Lyotard, Peregrinations (1988), p. 18.

[5]              The terrorist attack of September 11th was planned, of course, but the event of the Twins Towers’ collapse cannot be reduced to the terrorists’ design.

[6]              See Ariella Azoulay, 2001. Death’s Showcase, MIT Press.

[7]              Thus Benjamin describes the angel of history. See: Walter Benjamin, 1978. Illuminations , New York, Schoken Books, pp. 257.

[8]              Sigmund Freud, “The Fixation of Trauma”, in Collected Writings, Volume 1, Tel Aviv, Dvir, p. 188 (in hebrew).

[9]              This, even though up to the present time American intelligence agencies have failed to produce sufficient evidence pointing to Bin-Laden with certainty as the perpetrator.

[10]            Here we could point to the similarity between the consumption of horror and the consumption of Coca Cola, following Slavoj Zizek and his analysis of Coca Cola consumption in similar terms. The more we drink Coke, the thirstier we get; the thirstier we get, the more concentrated we want the drink to be. The same thing can be said of horror: “Each satisfaction opens the door to ‘I want more.'” See: Slavoj Zizek, “On the Superego and Other Ghosts” (2000).

[11]            For more on the logic of meaning, see: Gilles Deleuze, Logique du Sens (Minuit, 1968); and Ariella Azoulay & Adi Ophir, Concern for the Meaning (to be published shortly).

[12]            I am relying here on Laplanch and Pontalis’ interpretation of the Freudian concept of phantasm. See: Laplanch & Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la Psychanlyse (PUF, 1997).

[13]            Benjamin, 1978, 222. For a discussion of the aura in the context of the production of death, see also:  Azoulay, 2001, Chapter 2.

[14]            The horror may remain outside the scope of spectators but it nevertheless leaves its imprint upon them. These relations of proximity and distance are the key to understanding the postmodern subject, the consumer of horror.

[15]            Roland Barth, “Shock Photos”, in Mythologies (Babel, Tel Aviv, 1998).

[16]              I am relying here on Gilles Deleuze’s concept of a pure event, which hasn’t been actualized or will be actualized in any specific way, but functions in its original form, which includes all the possibilities of its actualization (see note 9 for reference).

[17]            See Baudrillard’s book on the Gulf War.

[18]            In this context it is interesting to note the rapid replacement of the subtitle of the CNN broadcast from “America under attack” to a different phraseology hinting at war.

[19]            On the relations between the First and Third worlds, especially at the economic level, see Saskia Sassen (reference, note 1).