Academic journal article Liminalities

"Terror as Theater": Unraveling Spectacle in Post 9/11 Literatures

Academic journal article Liminalities

"Terror as Theater": Unraveling Spectacle in Post 9/11 Literatures

Article excerpt

Marvel's 2012 summer blockbuster The Avengers describes in simplicity the way that terror and performance are related. In the following excerpt, Iron Man (Toni Stark) and Captain America discuss Loki, legendary bad guy, demi-god, and brother of Thor's plan to defeat them. This plan, Stark explains, is built upon a foundation of performativity:

Toni Stark: [Loki] wants to beat us; he wants to be seen doing it. He wants an audience.

Captain America: Right, I caught his act [before].

Toni Stark: Yeah, that's just previews. This is opening night. And Loki, he's a full-tilt diva, right? He wants flowers. He wants parades. He wants a monument built to the skies...

Here, Stark describes Loki's strategy to capture earth and force human kind to bend to his will. The locus of the attack? New York City. The stage? Stark Tower-Toni Stark's new skyscraper and clean energy beacon situated downtown. From images of New York City's destruction, flying spaceships knocking into buildings, temporary memorials for the lost and dead, and an imminent "foreign" threat (quite literally alien in Marvel's film) The Avengers is just one of many adventure films that draws out post 9/11 anxieties of attack and terror in the crowded NYC. What is particularly engaging about this moment, though, is Tony Stark's realization that Loki's act of terror is a performance-one that needs a stage in order to be effective.

Such stages have been set in other, more recent terror attacks as well- many of which have been fetishized by the media. Most recent in Western cultural memory are the attacks in Paris, France. The assaults at the Stade de France and the Bataclan theatre-both places with stages and audiences-were attacks that were doubly performed though assailing the literal audience members with bombs and bullets, and figuratively attacking a global audience through the constant barrage (and perpetuation of terror) via media coverage. And though it would be problematic to suggest that the media itself is to be blamed for terrorism, it is worthwhile to interrogate the ways in which media culture feeds into 21st century terrorism's underpinnings, and how other art forms have responded to such a culture.

These conversations have built up in the decade in a half since the international terrorist incident of 9/11, and theorists have revisited the various frameworks used to consider both the event and the culture following it. One major point of discussion among scholars is spectacle theory-a framework articulated in Jean Baudrillard's The Spirit of Terrorism (2002). Baudrillard posits that as a spectacle, 9/11 exists outside of experience: "The terrorist violence here is not, then, a blowback of reality, any more than it is a blowback of history. It is not 'real.' In a sense, it is worse: it is symbolic" (29). The "symbolic" is problematic for Baudrillard because it distances spectators from the spectacle, and the "reality" of the event. Spectacle theorists also approach 9/11 with the understanding that it was a mass-consumed event that was waiting to happen as it was patterned after American fascination with disaster movies, a fascination that continues with The Avengers franchise, as well as other contemporary thrillers.1 As such, 9/11 cannot be conceptualized in the "real" because of its profound root in "the image" which is static, removed, and cinematic in nature. These theoretical discussions are showcased by Hollywood's continued re-use of loaded images that remind audiences both consciously and subconsciously of 9/11.

Given this fascination with the spectacle, both the image and the excessive violence of 9/11 are consumed by viewers through media representations of terror. This relationship between spectacle and the spectator is tricky, as most viewers remotely view the damage via film or TV screens rather than actually experiencing the event. The relationship between cinematic representations of 9/11 and 9/11 anxiety seems to be the obvious connection here. …

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