Friday, September 05, 2008

Culture or politics?

Slavoj Zizek, writing about the two 9/11 movies, United 93 and World Trade Center (WTC), made the observation that: ‘both films restrain (sic) not only from taking a political stance about the events, but even from depicting their larger political context.’ All we see, he observes, are:
the disastrous effects, with their cause so abstract that, in the case of WTC, one can easily imagine the same film in which the Twin Towers would have collapsed due to a strong earthquake. Or, even more problematically, we can imagine the same film taking place in a big German city in 1944, after the devastating Allied bombing.

It is, he says, a bit like Sherlock Holmes’ curious incident of the dog in the night-time: ‘"But we see no terrorist attack." "That was the curious incident..."’ The films could not locate the events of 9/11 in their wider context, to provide their cognitive mapping.

This, I would suggest, reflects a wider cultural and societal inability. The literature based on 9/11, too, fails to provide any semblance of an attempt to understand what happened and, more importantly, why. There are some questions, it seems, which may not be asked.

Zizek’s comparison with Dresden is apposite. Jonathan Safran Foer makes exactly the same connection in Extremely loud and incredibly close, a story which toys with metafiction in an attempt to conceal that at its heart it is a turgid domestic drama. The father of one of the WTC victims is a survivor of the Dresden bombings, and remembers that attack at one stage in the narrative. We are also treated to a reminiscence (I only read this two nights ago, but already I’ve forgotten how it was introduced to the plot) about Hiroshima. The little boy who is the main character, peculiar to the point of autism, is called Oskar – Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum, anyone? A sane little boy trying to make sense of the insane world of adults? Foer’s point is clear: wars and bombings and civilian attacks are nasty, nasty things. They make orphans of us all. But nowhere is there any attempt by Foer to properly contextualise these events. Rather, he uses 9/11 to ratchet up the emotional intensity of what is, essentially, a straightforward story of childhood bereavement. It’s 9/11 as emotional porn, with a bolted-on liberal, anti-war message. In this, he is not alone. Claire Messud, William Gibson, Stephen McAuley, Don DeLillo, Ken Kalfus et al, they have all used 9/11 in, to varying degrees, gratuitous ways.

Zizek, in his discussions on the response to 9/11, focuses on the political dimension. ‘The lesson,’ he says, ‘is thus that, in combating terror, it is more crucial than ever for the state politics to be democratically transparent.’ Fair point, but it is less the state politics that interests me than the national culture, because the only way we will change the state politics is through galvanising the national culture. Zizek says: ‘we live in a post-utopian time of pragmatic administration, since we learned the hard lesson of how noble political utopias end in totalitarian terror.’ Indeed. This is why I think it is curious that Zizek’s focus is so strongly on the state and not on the ‘anti-state’ – the culture, those men and women of the arts who should be playing their part in rolling back the dogma of pragmatic administration. Why are they writing prissy little domestic dramas with 9/11 as a stock emotional wallpaper designed solely to invest some pathos to proceedings?

The actions of the 9/11 terrorists introduced what Zizek calls (after Hegel) a “dimension of absolute negativity’. This dismal intrusion was made all the worse because the US (and the west) was still in its ‘holiday from history’ after the fall of Communism and the ascendancy of the unipolar power. Zizek’s analysis of those first few days was that the US was reacting in the manner of an individual whose entire set of core beliefs had been attacked. What frequently happens in such instances, of course, is denial, a retrenchment, perhaps even more fervent expressions of certainty in those now-questioned beliefs. (That, after all, is how many of the terrorists find themselves in such extreme positions in the first place. Those with the greatest apparent ‘belief’ are often those who actually harbour the greatest doubts: only extreme action can persuade others and, more importantly, themselves, that they haven’t wasted their lives in pursuit of something they no longer believe.)

I understand all of this, and it is entirely rational: an entire people were so shocked by events that they underwent a form of mental stasis: they were traumatised, many found themselves reduced to watching the footage over and over, over and over. That is a very human response, and it deserves our sympathy and understanding.

But it feels to me that so much of the literary response to 9/11 is still stuck at that stage of shock. It hasn’t overcome the moment. DeLillo’s novel is Falling man – ie, the focus is on the images of that day. Foer’s novel, likewise, uses a falling man as its final, visual scene, when it creates a tricksy flipbook showing one of the falling men apparently rising again. The literature is rooted in that day, in that moment, and in its immediate aftermath.

But it is what happened after those early stages of trauma or, rather, what didn’t happen that is important. It is this mental stasis that I think Zizek is referring to when he characterises the American response to 9/11 as a sense of awe at ‘the incomprehensible malignity of our attackers’. The first result of this, Zizek notes, was the inability of any commentator to voice an opinion that differed from the prevailing national mood: he or she was immediately set upon. That condition has gradually dissipated, but it appears to have been replaced, instead, by two things.

Firstly, the return of denial. 9/11 happened, it was a terrible thing, we must never forget but, more importantly, we must never discuss. Especially, we must never discuss how we came to be so hated that people would do this to us; and especially, we must never discuss how to ensure they don’t do it again, other than in macho militaristic or doom-laden homeland-security contexts.

Secondly, a state of guilt. We must have done something wrong, we tell ourselves. This is punishment. Of course, the lunatic religious right – Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell et al – started saying this from day one but, gradually, the guilt-trip liberal left have been swinging in that direction, too. DeLillo writes in Falling Man of the ‘narcissistic heart of the west’. Stephen McAuley writes in Alternatives to sex: ‘Struck from above by a dastardly enemy and the response is an encouragement to visit Disneyland, buy bigger cars, and then launch an attack on a country unrelated to the problem’. Get the message? We brought this on ourselves. The cult of tolerance which lies behind our attempts at multiculturalism (Zizek’s ‘post-political liberal project’) is taken to its extreme in the way we begin almost to identify with the mindset of our attackers. The west is sick, they and we say, and we ignore the sharia law, the Taliban, Hizb-ut-Tahrir proselytising and preaching hate in our universities, the abuses of human rights and human dignity characterised by the regimes of those who presume to criticise us.

And so we are in a position where the cultural body appears not to have progressed very far from the initial state of shock and incomprehension; and, when it has, it has regressed into denial and self-doubt. Its writers and artists are not doing what they should. They are not, as Vonnegut declared they must, acting as ‘agents of change’. They have not, like the modernists in response to the industrial-scale carnage of World War One, begun to develop new tools and techniques with which to lay bare the soul of society. They have not, like Vonnegut and his fellow counter-culture writers of the sixties, found the reserves of ironic detachment required to make serious observations out of seeming frivolity. Neither our writers and artists, nor American and western society in general, have yet begun to assimilate the lessons and to enunciate a response. America is still peering behind Zizek’s ‘fantasmatic screen’ which lies between it and the real world.

But Zizek calls for a political response. I do not believe we can trust the politicians to act in anything but a two-dimensional way (‘axis of evil’, ‘war on terror’). They will only ever be able to trade on base instincts of fear and the group siege mentality. (Only last night, John McCain’s acceptance speech for the Republican nomination was punctuated by chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’: a classic example of entrenched group-think at work.) The corollary is clear: if we look to politics we will fail. It is, therefore, the role of the artist to intervene. Only when Americans can be persuaded, simultaneously, to say ‘we will protect ourselves from of our enemies’ and to NOT say ‘God bless America’, will they have a hope of reclaiming happiness: in other words, to fight for what they believe without imposing what they believe on those who do not. Politicians may be Januses, but, alas, they do not have the subtlety to understand that this twin-faced approach is essential to peace and human harmony.

Shantih shantih shantih

No comments: