9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

Synopsis

The day the towers fell, indelible images of plummeting rubble, fire, and falling bodies were imprinted in the memories of people around the world. Images that were caught in the media loop after the disaster and coverage of the attack, its aftermath, and the wars that followed reflected a pervasive tendency to treat these tragic events as spectacle. Though the collapse of the World Trade Center was "the most photographed disaster in history," it failed to yield a single noteworthy image of carnage. Thomas Stubblefield argues that the absence within these spectacular images is the paradox of 9/11 visual culture, which foregrounds the visual experience as it obscures the event in absence, erasure, and invisibility. From the spectral presence of the Tribute in Light to Art Spiegelman's nearly blank New Yorker cover, and from the elimination of the Twin Towers from television shows and films to the monumental cavities of Michael Arad's 9/11 memorial, the void became the visual shorthand for the incident. By examining configurations of invisibility and erasure across the media of photography, film, monuments, graphic novels, and digital representation, Stubblefield interprets the post-9/11 presence of absence as the reaffirmation of national identity that implicitly laid the groundwork for the impending invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Excerpt

The collision of the jet passenger planes with the Twin Towers, their subsequent collapse into nothingness, the ominous absence within the smoke-filled skyline, the busy streets of Manhattan turned disaster movie – these scenes were images as much or more than actual events. the hard truth of this realization came less than a week after the attacks when Karlheinz Stockhausen described the disaster as “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos” and once again on the eve of the one-year anniversary of 9/11 when Damien Hirst expressed his admiration for the terrorists’ ability to create such a “visually stunning” piece of art. With the remains of the dead still being sifted out of the rubble at Ground Zero and the Tribute in Light beaming into the night sky as a daily reminder of the horrific events of the day, it was all but impossible to see through the callousness and publicity-driven nature of these remarks at the time. Eventually, however, as references to the Hollywood disaster movie and the rhetoric of the sublime reverberated throughout popular discourse, the realization set in that the eerily photogenic quality of the event was not a coincidence. Rather, as Stockhausen and Hirst suggest, the attack was aimed at and made for the image.

As a result, the disaster appeared tailor-made for a familiar postmodern discourse. in a discussion with Jürgen Habermas held only days after the attack, Jacques Derrida catalyzed this response by noting that the shared interest of “maximum media coverage” between the perpetrators and victims of 9/11 reflected a pervasive desire to “spectacularize the event.” Not long after, Samuel Weber diagnosed the “theatricaliza-

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