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101.2jameson Dialectics of Disaster

101.2jameson Dialectics of Disaster

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Published by Emily McAvan

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Published by: Emily McAvan on Jan 14, 2013
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Fredric Jameson
The Dialectics of Disaster
L
ooking back at September  discloses a dis-sociation of sensibility, in which on the one handwe remember unrealistic visuals, of a specialeffects or computer graphics type, showing air-planes striking tall and massive edifices, and onthe other we recall an amalgamation of mediasentiment and emotion, which it would be in-exact to call hysterical, since even this hysteriastruck many of us, from the outset, as beingutterly insincere. To get at the real historicalevent itself, you feel, one would have to stripaway all the emotional reaction to it. But even toget at that emotional reaction, one would haveto make one’s way through its media orchestra-tion and amplification. People don’t appreciate atheoretical discussion of their emotions (Are youquestioning the sincerity of my feelings?). I sup-posetheanswerhastobe,No,notthesincerityoyour feelings; rather, the sincerity of all feelings.There is a famous moment in Proust when thenarrator, seeking to enhance the grief he feels athis grandmother’s death, suddenly finds he feelsnothing at all: the famous ‘‘intermittencies of theheart,’’ which the existentialists dramatized byasserting that, whatever the feeling in question
The
South Atlantic Quarterly 
:, Spring .Copyright ©  by Duke University Press.
 
298
Fredric Jameson
(anger as well as grief, love as much as hate), we never feel enough; theemotion is never full enough; it comes and goes.So the media hype, and the subsequent media patriotism—which onecan surely qualify as obscene without too much fear of contradiction—isgrounded on some lack of being in the heart itself.The media is, to be sure,an organism with its own specific biological requirements—to seize on astory of this kind and milk it for all it’s worth to exhaustion; hopefully then,asinthiscase,sublatingitintoanewstorywiththesamerichpossibilitiesof development.Thehumanindividuals(announcers,newspersons,talk-showhosts,etc.)arethenpartsofthiscollectiveorganismwhoeagerlycollaboratein its developmental processes and service its wants.But something needs to be said about the public’s reaction; and I thinkit is instructive to step away for a moment and to deny that it is naturaland self-explanatory for masses of people to be devastated by catastrophe inwhich they have lost no one they know, in a place with which they have noparticular connections. Is nationality really so natural a function of humanor even social being? Even more than that, is pity or sympathy really so in-nateafeatureofthehumanconstitution?Historycastssomedoubtonbothpropositions. Meanwhile, think of the way in which a psychologically dis-tressedindividualsometimesfixatesonsome
 faitdivers
fromadistantplaceor country—a bizarre accident in Kansas, for example, or a peculiar familytragedy in China—which the sufferer cannot get out of his head and onwhich crystallize all kinds of intense and troubled feelings, even though noone else seems interested at all. Is the only difference some media affirma-tion of collective unanimity, of a vast tidal wave of identical reactions? Onecan say these things now, despite media intimidation and the scapegoatingof the unpatriotic nonmourners, because even the bereaved families havebegunpubliclytodenouncetheghoulishness’ofsucharrangementsasthe‘‘viewing platform’’ lately erected on the Twin Towers site.It is not particularly difficult to grasp the mechanics of a collective delir-ium of this kind, and of what we may technically call a collective fantasywithout meaning to imply in any way that it is unreal. Aristotle already de-scribed it, in accounting for the peculiar effects of a unique collective spec-tacle of his day. Pity and fear: fear comes from putting myself in a victim’splace, imagining the horror of the fire and the unimaginable height outsidethe windows; pity then sets in when we remember we are safe ourselves,and think of others who were not. Add to all this morbid curiosity and the
 
The Dialectics of Disaste
299
soapoperastructurethatorganizessomuchofourpersonalexperience,andyou have a powerful vehicle for producing emotion, about which it is diffi-cult to say when it stops being spontaneous and begins to be systemicallyused on the public.When that happens, is one to suppose that a real eventhas imperceptibly been transformed into a spectacle (Guy Debord) or evena simulation and a simulacrum (Jean Baudrillard)? That is, to be sure, an-other offensive way of ‘‘doubting’’ people’s sincerity. But once a namelessand spontaneous reaction has been named and classified, and named overandoveragainsoinsistentlybyalltheactorsofthepublicsphere,backedupby thinly veiled threats and intimidation, the name interposes a stereotypebetween ourselves and our thoughts and feelings; or, if you prefer (Sartre’sidea of seriality), what we feel are no longer our own feelings anymore butsomeoneelses,andindeed,ifwearetobelievethemedia,everybodyelses.This new inauthenticity casts no little doubt on all those theories of mourn-ingandtraumathatwererecentlysoinfluential,andwhoseslogansonealsofindseverywhereinthecoverage.OnemaywellpreferProusttotheseobliga-tory appeals to mourning and trauma, which have been sucked so deeplyinto the disaster news as to make one wonder whether, from the psycho-logical descriptions and diagnoses they purport to offer, they have not beenturned into a new kind of therapy in their own right.Therapy is, to be sure,an old American tradition; and I can still vividly remember the suggestionof a clinical psychologist on the radio, not only that the survivors neededtherapy, but that all Americans should receive it! Perhaps it would not beany more expensive than George Bush’s tax cut; but in any case the thera-pistwillnowhavebeenreassured.AllAmericansarenowreceivingtherapy,and it is called war (or more officially, ‘‘the war on terrorism’’).Onecanrestrainone’sparanoiaandstilladmirethetimelinesswithwhichtheseeventsrescuedwhathisadvisorscall‘thispresidency.’’Myirreverencefor the media goes so far, I have to admit, as even to doubt the fundamen-tal lessons it has sought to draw for us: that America changed forever onSeptember , that America lost its innocence, that things will never be thesame again, et cetera. The history of the superstate is as bloody as anyoneelse’s national history; and these observations about innocence and experi-ence (they were also affirmed during the Watergate scandal) have more todo with media innocence than with any personal kind; more in commonwiththewidespreaddiffusionofpublicviolenceandpornographythanwitha private cynicism that has probably existed since the dawn of human his-

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