9/11: The Culture of Commemoration
  • 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration
  • 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration

9/11: The Culture of Commemoration

by David Simpson

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After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a general sense that the world was different—that nothing would ever be the same—settled upon a grieving nation; the events of that day were received as cataclysmic disruptions of an ordered world. Refuting this claim, David Simpson examines the complex and paradoxical character of American public

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After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a general sense that the world was different—that nothing would ever be the same—settled upon a grieving nation; the events of that day were received as cataclysmic disruptions of an ordered world. Refuting this claim, David Simpson examines the complex and paradoxical character of American public discourse since that September morning, considering the ways the event has been aestheticized, exploited, and appropriated,  while “Ground Zero” remains the contested site of an effort at adequate commemoration. 

In 9/11, Simpson argues that elements of the conventional culture of mourning and remembrance—grieving the dead, summarizing their lives in obituaries, and erecting monuments in their memory—have been co-opted for political advantage. He also confronts those who labeled the event an “apocalypse,” condemning their exploitation of 9/11 for the defense of torture and war. 

In four elegant chapters—two of which expand on essays originally published in the London Review of Books to great acclaim—Simpson analyzes the response to 9/11: the nationally syndicated “Portraits of Grief” obituaries in the New York Times; the debates over the rebuilding of the World Trade Center towers and the memorial design; the representation of American and Iraqi dead after the invasion of March 2003, along with the worldwide circulation of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs; and the urgent and largely ignored critique of homeland rhetoric from the domain of critical theory. 

Calling for a sustained cultural and theoretical analysis, 9/11 is the first book of its kind to consider the events of that tragic day with a perspective so firmly grounded in the humanities and so persuasive about the contribution they can make to our understanding of its consequences.

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Editorial Reviews

The Bloomsbury Review - Reamy Jansen

"[An]incisive and knowledgeable critique of the political and rhetorical effects of 9/11...[a] brilliant and illuminating book."

Journal of American History - Jay Winter

"Simpson's book is thoughtful and brave, probing the social contract implicitly framed after 9/11 to portray the victims of the attacks as heroes and the site of the World Trade Center as sacred ground. We are told what and how to remember, and, thus, we become complicit in the politics of revenge that led to the invasion of Iraq."
Rain Taxi - Brian Bergen-Aurand

"[This book] provides one of the strongest analyses of how 9/11/has been represented and put to use, and its force lies in questioning decisions about who is with us and who is against us."
Toronto Globe and Mail

"Within our collective consciousness, 9/11 is regarded as a cataclysmic disruption of the ordered world, the day after which nothing would ever be the same. Simpson dares to refute this claim, examining the ways in which 9/11 has been exploited in American public discourse, from the debates over how to commemorate the Ground Zero site, to the rush to invade Iraq."
The Bloomsbury Review
[An]incisive and knowledgeable critique of the political and rhetorical effects of 9/11...[a] brilliant and illuminating book.

— Reamy Jansen

Journal of American History
Simpson's book is thoughtful and brave, probing the social contract implicitly framed after 9/11 to portray the victims of the attacks as heroes and the site of the World Trade Center as sacred ground. We are told what and how to remember, and, thus, we become complicit in the politics of revenge that led to the invasion of Iraq.

— Jay Winter

Rain Taxi

"[This book] provides one of the strongest analyses of how 9/11/has been represented and put to use, and its force lies in questioning decisions about who is with us and who is against us."—Brian Bergen-Aurand, Rain Taxi

— Brian Bergen-Aurand

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
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By David Simpson The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-75939-5

Chapter One

Remembering the Dead

An Essay upon Epitaphs


Among the many things that changed after September 11, 2001, was the policy on obituaries in the New York Times. For weeks after the attack on the World Trade Towers the newspaper printed fifteen or so brief remembrances a day of some of the almost three thousand people who died in the towers, in the airplanes, and during the rescue efforts. The leaders of corporations, entertainers, politicians, and other more or less public figures whose place in the world would have ordinarily assured them a place on the standard obituary page continued to appear there. The additional full pages of photographs and memorials were for the ordinary people, the firefighters, window washers, janitors, and waiters whose lives and deaths would normally have gone unrecorded by the most widely circulated newspaper in the United States, the newspaper of record for much of the nation. Here they were arrayed alongside the company executives and corporate leaders who also died on September 11; all were accorded the same size photograph and the same number of column inches. The Times was declaring itself at this most tragic time as a paper for all New Yorkers and all Americansand attempting to pay proper homage to the ubiquity of death and the mournful democracy of grief. A parallel series of memorials to those killed in the attack on the Pentagon also appeared in the same newspaper, part of the separate section devoted day after day to the events of September 11 and their ongoing consequences.

The "Portraits of Grief" were nationally syndicated, and readers across the country found these brief notices, with their blurred images of smiling, living people photographed at mostly happy moments, to be very moving and meaningful, powerfully evocative of what had happened and could never be forgotten. One wrote a letter suggesting that they should be made part of a formal memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. Another responded to their recording of a significant number of transnational and cross-racial couples and of functional families in which many of the parenting obligations were fulfilled by the men, seeing these as impressive paradigms of the new civil society: America works. The notices were not in fact straightforward obituaries, because they preserved a rather decorous ambiguity, a hope that some might still come out alive or be found wandering the streets of Manhattan; so they were called "glimpses of some of the victims" or "glimpses of some of those who have been declared dead." In the book that appeared in 2002 with a permanent record of the 1,910 portraits thus far published, they are called "snapshots of lives interrupted as they were being actively lived" or "anecdotes, tiny but telling details that seemed to reveal something true and essential about how each person lived." As such they were intended as "concise, impressionistic, their power at least as much emotional as intellectual" (ix). They did not seek to present the sort of total summary of a life that would be expected of a traditional obituary. Above all they did not set out to decide on the worth of any of these lives in the recognized public sphere: "they were utterly democratic" (ix).

Democracy, in the words of Howell Raines, the chief editor, is above all beautiful and inspiring: "when I read them, I am filled with an awareness of the subtle nobility of everyday existence, of the ordered beauty of quotidian lives for millions of Americans, of the unforced dedication with which our fellow citizens go about their duties as parents, life partners, employers or employees, as planters of community gardens, coaches of the young, joyful explorers of this great land and the world beyond its shores" (vii). The record of tragically truncated mundane lives appearing day after day-this person enjoyed vacations in Florida, that person loved her nieces and nephews, this person sent money home every week to South America, that person loved to cook-began to make us realize, day after day, and in a more than abstract way, just how many lives constitute approximately three thousand, and how indiscriminate death, all death, really is. The notices recalled the simple things in life, presumably the things that the bereaved wished to report about their loved ones. At first it seemed unlikely that everyone could be remembered in this way. But the notices kept coming, day after day, week after week. The sheer enormity of the effort to personalize this many deaths made us feel that everyone and everyman was here, or could be here. The names and faces and life stories were indeed those of ordinary people, not the notables who have traditionally provided the content of the obituary columns. And yet powerful as they were, read in batches of a few at a time, the collective impression of these snapshots was and is troubling. They were clearly being put to work in the cause of a patriotic momentum that Raines's words make very clear. None here cheated on her spouse or abused his children, or was indifferent to community activities. One tends of course to speak only good things of the dead, but even within the expected bounds of memorial decorum, the notices seem formulaic. They seem regimented, even militarized, made to march to the beat of a single drum. I will return to this.

But the notices are indeed democratic in the simplest and most minimal sense: everyone is there, or everyone whose nearest of kin wanted them to be there (many did refuse). The alphabetically organized book version of the "Portraits" includes in its first few entries the expected investment bankers and executives but also a cleaner, a restaurant worker, and a foreign tourist. Each snapshot is roughly the same length: there are no distinctions of class, income, or ethnicity. It was not always thus in times of suffering, terror, or war. In the distant past, when kings were kings and ordinary people held to be worthless or beneath acknowledgment, there was no effort to remember commoners. In a famous passage at the end of the fourth act of Shakespeare's Henry V, the young king asks his herald to report details of the English dead at Agincourt. The herald hands over a paper, and the king reads as follows:

Edward, the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire; None else of name; and of all other men But five and twenty. (IV.viii. 105-8)

The French have lost 10,000, of whom all but 1,600 were persons of "blood and quality" (line 92). There is debate over the degree to which Shakespeare intends irony at the king's expense at this point in the cycle, but there is only a slim case to be made for Henry's being here exposed as an insensitive elitist (esquire of course takes its older sense and specifies a person of substance). Only four English notables have died, along with twenty-five others. They are not of name and so pass unnamed.

Starting sometime in the nineteenth century, the need to commemorate the deaths of ordinary people began to be felt in Britain. In the United States it seems to have been in place somewhat earlier. By 1918, as those brought up in British and American towns and villages know all too well, the scope of commemoration of the military dead had extended to all ranks, and all are named. Their names are legion-90 men (and boys) in my hometown in England, a town of no more than 3,000 or so in 1914. I used to think that this list must include the dead from the neighboring villages, which, perhaps, did not erect monuments of their own (since they were paid for largely by public subscription). But four miles up the road, the next village has its own war memorial, its own list of 43 dead in the Great War of 1914-18. A total of 54 "boys" from my old school, a small country grammar school, "gave" their lives in the two wars. Eleven thousand Norfolk men and boys, 2.5 percent of the population of the county, died in the Great War alone. The figures are numbing, and they remain so as one moves to the larger towns and cities. York Minster commemorates the deaths of 8,814 men of the York and Lancaster Regiment and the more than 9,400 of the Yorkshire Light Infantry who fell in the First World War.

In Britain it is in the nineteenth-century memorials in the great cathedrals that one can begin to plot the passages of those of "no name" taking on names. York Minster records all names and ranks of the regimental dead in the South Africa War (1899-1902). So it does for the dead in the Russian War (1854-55), the 42 who died in the Sudan (1884-87), and the 40 who perished in the New Zealand Wars (1845-66), though here only death in combat merits a name; there are "also 126 from other causes." The Indian Wars of 1871-84 list only 9 officers by name, but the 18 men who died at sea in June 1854, aboard what I assume was a naval transport ship, are all named in a monument erected in 1858. The earliest monument naming all ranks is that put in place in 1855 to the dead of the Burma War of 1852-53. There is a memorial to those who died in the "Wars of 1808-15," which lists 40 or so officers of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry by name and goes on to mention that 610 men of other ranks are commemorated on a scroll in the depository. But it turns out that the memorial tablet itself dates from 1913, which perhaps explains its punctilious reference to the ordinary deaths recorded in the archive. These records are indeed derived from regimental lists kept at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which must have been in response to a directive apparently issued by the Duke of York to his commanders in 1797, the first of its kind, to report all of the war dead by name. But no formal or bureaucratic mechanisms seem to have existed for getting that information back to the families of the dead. And because the French wars evolved into battles between huge fleets and enormous armies, with massive casualties, that would not have been easy. De Quincey's anecdote of riding with the mail into "some little town" after the battle of Talavera in July 1809 makes the point. When he meets the anxious mother of a soldier in a regiment he knows from his newspaper to have been decimated in the battle-only one in four surviving-he does not have a list of the names of the dead. At Waterloo in 1815 there were approximately 70,000 in each of the French and allied armies facing one another; thousands died in a day.

The hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, has been many times remembered for apparently referring to his soldiers as the scum of the earth, not a sentiment that seems to be indicative of any newly discovered respect for the lives and deaths of ordinary people. Nonetheless, Lukács has argued that the European wars of the Napoleonic period were indeed the first to involve citizen armies on such a grand scale, and that this circumstance was responsible for the development of a national consciousness and a "mass experience" among those formerly deemed not worth naming, the rank and file. This seems to have taken some time to become translated into funereal ritual. The process of cultivating respect for the corpses of ordinary people, and the habit of recording their names in public places, seems to have been at best uneven. Here is an entry from the London Observer of November 18, 1822:

WAR AND COMMERCE.-It is estimated that more than a million of bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighborhood of Leipzic, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and of all of the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and of the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull, and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone-grinders, who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery, for the purpose of reducing them to a granulary state. In this condition they are sent chiefly to Doncaster, one of the largest agricultural markets in that part of the country, and are there sold to the farmers to manure their lands. The oily substance gradually evolving as the base calcines, makes a more substantial manure than any other substance, particularly human bones. It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment on an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for ought known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact, that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe, and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil!

The passage is mind-boggling-so much so that we are bound to be radically doubtful. Perhaps this is some Swiftian satire on the insensitivity of the modern agricultural economy? A piece of journalistic invention, quietly inserted into the "Miscellaneous, Chiefly Domestic" column and designed to embarrass the nation into doing something about the bodies buried on the battlefield? Or perhaps it is an accurate record? Already we seem to be in the unsettling world of virtuality that so preoccupies our contemporary theorists of the postmodern, a world in which nothing can be assumed to be what it seems-video, photograph, eyewitness account-and in which everything can be called into doubt as mere propaganda by those who have an interest in so doing. Poets such as Byron made much of the fertilizing functions of the Waterloo dead, and elegists such as Tennyson have taken comfort in the appearance of spring flowers over graves. But bone grinders? Manure? Big business? There is nothing in subsequent editions of the Observer for 1822 to give us a sure sign of how we are to read this passage: no follow-up. If a true account, this train of events suggests that in 1822 Britain still had some way to go before the sanctity of battlefields and places of mass annihilation was established. Presumably the notable dead had by then been removed from the earth on which they fell and properly buried in Brussels, or in their local churches and country houses. But who knows if an officer or two might not have been lying with his men? Where man and horse are ground together, it seems absurdly fastidious to inquire into the differences between the ranks. Writing in 1845 under the pseudonym of Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Thackeray protested the indifference to ordinary men in the commemoration culture after Waterloo:

I felt very much disappointed at not seeing the names of the men as well as the officers. Are they to be counted for nought? A few more inches of marble to each monument would have given space for all the names of the men; and the men of that day were the winners of the battle. We have a right to be as grateful individually to any given private as to any given officer; their duties were very much the same. Why should the country reserve its gratitude for the genteel occupiers of the army-list, and forget the gallant fellows whose humble names were written in the regimental books?

Waterloo was a tourist attraction even while the battle was going on, as the fashionable and curious rode out from Brussels to watch the events unfold. Human remains were not uncommonly among their souvenirs.

Contrast Lower Manhattan in the days and weeks after 9/11, when tourists were strictly forbidden, curious onlookers sent packing, and even journalists and professional photographers pushed away by angry firemen and other workers with the declaration that they were trespassing on "sacred ground." Human relics, even the tiniest fragments of human bodies, were painstakingly excavated from the enormous piles of rubble, carefully documented, and put through DNA testing in hopes of being able to send something, however small, to the families of the dead for conventional burial. One family received no fewer than three separate shipments of body parts, each of which was duly interred at a funeral service. Among the reasons for the unarguably futile outpouring of donated blood from the general population (responding to a Red Cross appeal) must surely have been a fantasy that somehow there would be survivors, and that those survivors would be repairable, merely wounded, whole enough in body to be topped up and sent on their way. It was not so. Little remained, so that bodies and body parts became absolutely precious and were accorded unprecedented levels of respect and attention. There were no bone merchants lining up their carts-there would have been little for them to have collected if there had been.


Excerpted from 9/11 by David Simpson Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Simpson is professor of English at the University of California, Davis. Among his many publications are Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt against Theory and The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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