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LIFE BETWEEN TWO DEATHS, 1989-2001 U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties
By PHILLIP E. WEGNER
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
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Chapter One THE TWO DEATHS OF THE 1990S
"We are the dead," he said. "We are the dead," echoed Julia dutifully. "You are the dead," said an iron voice behind them. GEORGE ORWELL, Nineteen Eighty-Four
WALTER BENJAMIN SUGGESTS that history be understood as a series of repetitions. These repetitions are not, however, signs of a modern phantasmagoric stasis or of a mythic eternal return, the latter embodied for Benjamin in the "always new, always identical 'heathscapes'" produced by the painter Titorelli in Franz Kafka's The Trial (1925). Rather, they are the motor of historical movement itself: paradoxically, Benjamin maintains, only in the repetition of what has already occurred do things actually change. In the pages that follow, I will show how a similar notion of repetition is fundamental to understanding both the deeper significance of September 11, 2001, and the 1990s as a distinct historical period.
Some of the issues at stake here are brought to the fore in the work of the contemporary Scottish artist Ross Birrell. Birrell's project "Envoy" (1998-2002) takes as its central concerns the task of the work of art, the role of the artist, and the nature of utopian imaginings in the present. "Envoy" involves the undertaking of a journey, usually by Birrell himself, to a specific site to perform one or more of a number of different acts: throwing a sealed package or symbolic object into a body of water (a copy of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World into the river located on the former Cold War border between Norway and Russia); reading a text in a certain location (Henry David Thoreau's Walden in the forests of Lapland); or delivering a "gift" to a major international institution (a copy of Thomas More's Utopia to the International Court of Justice in The Hague). Each of these actions is recorded, the photographic or video images that result forming the basis of Birrell's exhibitions. In part taking its inspiration from Jacques Derrida's The Postcard, Birrell's project interrogates the double nature of the envoi both as the messenger (or the artist) and as the object dispatched, in this case, the work of art. In this way, "Envoy" stages Derrida's central insight about the nature of telecommunication: that there is no guarantee that the contents-the message, the meaning of the work-will arrive at their intended destination, or even that such a destination can be determined.
At the same time, the relationship between the detailed logistical planning involved in making the journey and the chance images produced (this is especially true in the case of the thrown objects, where there are no repetitions or rehearsals of the act, the captured image then high-lighting its contingent nature) might also be understood as an allegory of the work of the utopian texts that make up many of the packages in Birrell's project. Whereas much intellectual energy is involved in detailing the various institutions, practices, norms, beliefs, and so forth of each utopian community-the pleasures of working in the form being those, Fredric Jameson suggests, "of construction ... of the garage workshop, of the home-mechanics erector sets, of Lego, of bricolating and cobbling together things of all kinds" and of "miniaturization: replicating the great things in handicraft dimensions that you can put together by yourself and test"-there is no way to determine in advance the effects this or that particular vision will have when it enters into the world. Innumerable utopian fictions have come and gone stirring very little interest, while a handful (Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Sébastien Mercier's L'an 2440, Étienne Cabet's Voyage en Icarie, and, of course, Thomas More's founding work) transformed their worlds, often in unexpected ways.
Perhaps the most remarkable of Birrell's envoys took place on November 5, 2000. On this day, Birrell voyaged to New York City to do two things. First, as in the The Hague intervention, Birrell gifted a copy of More's Utopia, this time to the United Nations. In addition, Birrell took a trip on the Staten Island ferry and, at the moment the ferry was directly across from the Statue of Liberty, he tossed a U.S. flag into the harbor. All of this was recorded on videotape, and both the tape and a number of captured images were used in subsequent exhibitions. One of these images is especially striking: a black capped and jacketed Birrell has his arm extended straight out across the railing of the boat, a crumpled Stars and Stripes suspended in the middle of the frame, caught on the wind before it crashes into the water. Framing this image are, on the far left, the Statue of Liberty, and, on the far right, the skyline of downtown Manhattan. Soaring above the latter are the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the late fall sun setting their façades aglow (figure 1).
Of course, it would not be until the events of the following fall, with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings, that the real force and significance of this image became evident. I did not, in fact, view this image for the first time until the spring of 2004 and was immediately struck, as were most others in the audience, by the ways it seemed to both prefigure and speak so much about 9/11 and its aftermath. Even the luminescence of the building in Birrell's image has an uncanny prefigurative effect: in the opening panels of his In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), Art Spiegelman notes, "I still see the glowing tower, awesome as it collapses." Spiegelman then uses throughout his subsequent work a visual image of the glowing tower, which fades to black only with the final panels of the work.
Moreover, that Birrell's original intervention took place on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day in Great Britain, adds additional resonance to it. Guy Fawkes Day marks the anniversary of the infamous 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a plan to blow up the English parliament with thirty-six kegs of gun-powder stashed under the House of Lords on the day King James I was to open sessions. (The notoriety of this event and the widespread anxieties it produced also left their mark on Shakespeare's Macbeth, first staged the following year and referring to the events and actors of the plot in a number of ways.) The conspirators were English Catholics outraged by the government's continued mistreatment of them, even after vague promises by James before his recent ascension to the throne to better their conditions. Yet doubt lingers to this day as to whether these men were actually responsible for, or even capable of, placing the explosives under the parliament buildings; indeed, some commentators maintain that the entire plot, as well as the late October letter to Lord Monteagle that first exposed it, were elements of a setup by the government, used to justify the elimination of leading Catholic dissidents (although the soldier Guido Fawkes was not the most important conspirator, he was the one first captured, and so the day is named after him). The surviving conspirators were rounded up, detained for extended periods, and tortured to provide evidence, some of it spurious, about the extent of the conspiracy's membership. Even more significantly, the plot was used as an excuse to launch a violent assault on the Jesuit leadership in hiding on the island-with the goal "to separate loyal and moderate Catholics from the mad extremists of the Plot"-including the execution of its then head, Father Henry Garnet, even though he had no involvement in the plot and in fact worked to prevent its occurrence.
The parallels between these events and those following September 11, especially the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq, are striking. Antonia Fraser in her 1996 popular history of the Gunpowder Plot writes of the conspirators, "They left, having decided on a course of action which would cause them, in the late twentieth century, to be described as terrorists." The book's dust jacket further exclaims, "And in examining the lengths to which individuals will go for their faith, she finds in this long-ago event a reflection of the religion-inspired terrorism that has produced gunpowder plots of our own time." A more recent volume makes the link even more explicit: "In our time we are haunted by 11 September 2001. The equivalent date for the Jacobean English-a date still commemorated in England-was 5 November 1605." Religious fundamentalist "terrorists," weapons of mass destruction, assaults on central institutions of power, failure to strike at the legislative seat itself, spurious conspiratorial links used to justify state violence, the effort to distinguish "good" from "evil" members of a religious faith, extended imprisonments, the use of torture to gather intelligence, suspicions about the state's real involvement: in short, 9/11 and subsequent U.S. actions seem to repeat crucial aspects of the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath, albeit shifting its framework from a then only recently unified nation to our emerging global reality. (The resonances between Guy Fawkes and early seventeenth-century England and the post-9/11 world are explored further in the 2006 film adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's Thatcher-era graphic novel V for Vendetta [1982-88].)
Such interpretations are, of course, the products of retrospection, the owl of Minerva once more only taking flight at dusk. Or to put it another way, the true meaning of this image emerges only in repetition, in its viewings following 9/11, viewings that cannot after September 11, 2001, help but be repetitions, even if the spectator is seeing the image for the first time. The spectral or uncanny effects it generates are the by-products of what Derrida calls the "repeatable-iterable" dimension of any sign ("whether pictographical, hieroglyphic, ideographic, phonetic, alphabetic"), its capacity to be reproduced "in the absolute absence of the receiver" and "grafted" in a variety of contexts, "cut off from its putative 'production' ororigin." It is in these repetitions or iterations that the possibilities of meaning that I have been tracing out in Birrell's image arise.
Which brings me back to the central concerns of this book. All the works I examine here foreground in their very form and content issues of repetition, iterability, and doubling. They are examples of the Hollywood genre of the remake, as in the case of Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991); or they play with or repeat the familiar conventions and expectations of popular genres, such as Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996) and Jim Jarmusch's diptych, Dead Man (1996) and Ghost Dog (1999); or they contain the classical figure of the doppelgänger and engage in the narrative operation Sigmund Freud calls "splitting," as in Cape Fear, David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), and the Terminator films (1984, 1991, 2003); or they refer explicitly to "repeated" events, as does the opening chapter of Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997); or they contain allegorical restagings of past events, such as the conflicts provoked by desegregation (Cape Fear) or the Vietnam War (Independence Day and Joe Haldeman's Forever trilogy [1975, 1997, 1999]); or, finally, they form extended serial texts that continuously revise their own narrative contents, as do the Cape Fear texts, the Terminator films, the Forever trilogy, Octavia Butler's two Parable novels (1993 and 1998); and Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).
Moreover, a number of the later texts attempt to make sense of a specific history, namely, that of September 11 and its aftermath. This is very much the case in the allegorical codings of the two works that I discuss here that appear after the fall of 2001, the final Terminator film (2003) and the last two seasons of the Buffy series (2001-2 and 2002-3). Even more intriguing, however, are those works that, like Birrell's New York "Envoy," seem to prefigure, in essence repeating before the fact what occurs on September 11, 2001. We see this in the images of falling twin towers in the conclusion of Fight Club and in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center in Independence Day; in the unanticipated terrorist attacks on the United States in Independence Day and in Forever Peace; and in the haunting cover image of Underworld (this last becoming the topic of much Internet conversation in the weeks following September 11). Once again, as will become evident in the pages that follow, the true significance of these images emerges only through their repetition.
These various forms of repetition raise fundamental questions about our understanding of history, of the nature of events, of beginnings, and of endings. One of the concerns at the center of my project is how we might understand the event that we now refer to as simply 9/11. Should we take this date as signaling a historical break and the inauguration of a new epoch in global history, or as part of an unbroken historical continuum? Already infamous as the day in 1973 that the Augusto Pinochet-led military overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Chile, September 11 represented for some, like Chris Marker in his great film A Grin without a Cat (1977), an earlier such break, in this case with the radicalism and utopian possibilities of the 1960s. Derrida argues that September 11, 2001, "announced theatrically, or media-theatrically confirmed" the closure of the brief epoch of the "rogue state." And for the members of the Retort collective, 9/11 marks a mutation in neoliberalism from "from an epoch of 'agreements' and austerity programs to one of outright war" (at the same time, they note that the subsequent "invasions and occupations are, for the most part, of a piece with an almost unbroken line of imperial American military interventions, stretching back almost two hundred years"). I, too, argue in this book that 9/11 marks both the ending of one historical situation and the opening of another; however, I do so in a somewhat different way.
To begin to unpack the real historical significance of 9/11 it is first necessary to make clear what I mean here by the term Event. In the pages that follow, I use the concept in the sense given by Alain Badiou: an Event is something that happens "that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in 'what there is.'" "It takes place in a situation but is not of that situation," and hence the Event is the "void of the situation, that aspect of the situation that has absolutely no interest in preserving the status quo as such." Or as Slavoj Zizek formulates it-in a way that also recalls the related concepts of Derrida's hauntology and Ernst Bloch's utopian horizon-"the Event is nothing but its own inscription into the order of Being, a cut/rupture in the order of Being on account of which Being cannot ever form a consistent All." In short, the Event is the very possibility of a radical new beginning, the inauguration of that which was unexpected, unknown, and uncounted. Since language itself is so deeply embedded within the known, an Event cannot, Badiou argues, "be communicated." Rather, it is encountered: "It is an Ethics of the Real, if it is true that-as Lacan suggests-all access to the Real is of the order of an encounter." And yet, if it cannot be anticipated, it nevertheless must ultimately be recognized and named for the potentiality it opens on to be seized and realized.
Excerpted from LIFE BETWEEN TWO DEATHS, 1989-2001 by PHILLIP E. WEGNER Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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