After Trauma: Thinking American Culture beyond 9/11 More than a decade after September 11th 2001, the terrible

events of that day have become enshrined in US culture as a unique collective trauma. Applied widely and loosely, trauma provided the first decade of this century with one of its organizing metaphors and shaped what I call America’s post-9/11 ‘injury culture’ in what follows. Meanwhile, trauma’s evocation of rupture and repetition has provided critics of American culture with the terms of debate ever since. Did 9/11 mark an abrupt break, or did the emphasis on the attacks as traumatic rupture mask more important continuities?1 Trauma’s affective dimensions, finally, framed much that was to follow. As George W. Bush tried to convince the nation in his address to Congress on 20 September: ‘Our grief has turned to anger.’2 Yet despite the dominance of trauma in post-9/11 culture and criticism, its wider implications have often remained hidden from view. The reason for this lies, in good part at least, in the narrow confines of a cultural climate that has naturalized the designation of the attacks as traumatic. Where the merits of such loose cultural diagnosis have been questioned, scholars have pointed to the limitations of a national framework for trauma. Such a framework has tended to exclude the suffering of migrant populations at the same time that it fails to connect the consequences of violence at home to large-scale violence abroad.3 Critics of contemporary trauma theory, in turn, have drawn attention to its tendency to view all history as traumatic and its construction of the traumatized subject as an individual and intensely passive victim.4 Where the former usually accept 9/11’s traumatic nature as given, the latter rarely engage with the specificities of contemporary US culture. The first part of this talk attempts to bridge this gap in thinking today’s narratives of trauma by connecting them to wider regimes of subjectivity. A dominant understanding of 9/11 as collective trauma, I submit, helped facilitate the shift from grief to aggressivity pursued in the aftermath of the attacks. But as I argue in part two of this talk, American authors have increasingly reworked post-9/11 trauma culture in recent years. They explore trauma’s discontinuous 1

7 In turn. unmediated experience prior to signification – is absolutely severed from human agency. Where healing can be thought. Despite thinking discontinuity in its attention to catastrophe and accident. Echoing the fear and chaos of autumn 2001. writers such as Cathy Caruth absolutize history as the history of trauma. The model of subjectivity implied herein can initially be analyzed in terms proposed by Wendy Brown in her study of 1990s identity politics. the real of history – its raw. Such developments beyond 9/11 will take various forms and include attempts to reinforce a social authority hastily re-established after the attacks. In other words. trauma theory thus precludes novelty. Caruth understands ‘the formation of history as the endless repetition of previous violence’. Temporality is restricted to the traumatic break and its repetition. it is imagined as a cure from history.5 But this a very particular history. The subject of such violence remains caught in what Caruth calls the ‘irreducible singularity’ of a suffering that reduces him or her to a passive individual victim. Modelled on the mass violence of genocide. trauma theory heralds the return to a direct engagement with history and ethics in the humanities. In the central text of contemporary trauma theory. Thus. and thus set out to preclude such novelty in the first place. It is in a narrative like Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Footnotes in Gaza that I locate the emergence of narrative forms that go beyond a decade dominated by 9/11. As Susannah Radstone has written. I. here emerges precisely from within a discourse that conceived of history as the repetition of violence and the remembrance of the past. trauma theory permitted the humanities to move beyond the crisis in knowledge induced by so-called poststructuralism. alongside Footnotes in Gaza I read Stephen Soderbergh’s recent disease thriller Contagion as a symptomatic narrative of ideological renewal.temporalities and transformative experience of the real in ways that challenge dominant notions of victimhood and individuality. Cultural novelty. I contend. States of Injury. Contagion renews a threat that last surfaced during the ideological shifts of the 1990s.6 History here is not made but suffered.8 As 2 .

3 . I would argue. Firstly. the liberal construction of sovereign subjects and the denial of the structural injuries enacted under advanced capitalism delimit a specific site of blame for suffering. however.9 Instead of constructing its own political power. or in the form of an internal exclusion from the nation. The investment in victimization as political identity then always depends on this short-circuit: the divorce of one’s own injury from the injury suffered by others. as specific affects directed at a culprit held responsible for them. ideologically. this subject becomes dependent on a history of suffering it adopts as its identity. takes up and modifies the liberal politics of injury analyzed by Brown. in the words of president Bush. 11 The subject position inhabited by the sufferer of 9/11 as collective trauma.12 But in contrast to attempts by minorities to be compensated for discrimination. the attachment to past wrongs often comes into conflict with the construction of a future that demands a measure of emotional disinvestment. But the national frame of the trauma of 9/11 facilitates a different form of forgetting – what might alternatively be described as an exclusion from recognized suffering. Injury politics consists in a continuous investment in past suffering. via the conduit of the state.Brown writes. into anger.10 Individual wounds bear the weight of structural wrongs. Secondly. is that an identity politics of victimhood conceives of the state as a neutral authority called upon to settle a dispute: ‘[it] casts the law and the state more generally as neutral arbiters of injury rather than as themselves invested with the power to injure’. the severance of a violent event from its historical context. the subject of injury invests its agency in existing authority. The state is constructed as an arbiter of injury and grief transformed. Two aspects of Brown’s account are decisive for my purposes here before it can adapted in the light of post-9/11 US culture. the liberal subject of injury is defined by the resentment it feels in reaction to its perceived social and psychological suffering. the site of blame is easily identified as lying outside of the nation – geographically. But they are also enacted. As a consequence. What is decisive.

‘It all seemed a matter of false distinctions. Rather than seeing this sentence as the representation of individual emotion. Keith punches a man in a department store.Let me now turn to the transformation of grief into anger. his mother-in-law Nina falls out with a partner who is critical of US policies. But the hidden meaning of their aggression amounts to a reinforcement of authority seen to be under threat. now. fast. Lianne and Keith attack a perceived enemy. then’. as a loss of the subject’s temporality: as DeLillo writes. DeLillo’s characters here reproduce the logic of the ‘war on terror’ by way of its affective embodiment. Rather. they amount to what Jacques Lacan calls ‘acting out’ – not true acts but the individual enactment of a social logic. it should be read as enacting injury culture’s fundamental transformation of affect. therefore. slow. however. Secondly. The understanding of 9/11 as rupture and break has made it difficult to think of a beyond. protagonist Keith Neudecker escapes from the World Trade Center on 9/11. and it would be too easy to understand these reactions simply as individual outbursts.’ How does DeLillo’s protagonist re-establish his bodily integrity and subjective temporality? What most critics have failed to acknowledge is how grief and mourning go hand in hand with a constant undertone of aggressivity in Falling Man. Bush’s utterance of this statement as individual subject and the nation’s leader marks precisely the passage from individual to state actor that encourages the shift from a community’s grief to a nation’s aggression. A decade on. For the sake of brevity I will make do with a brief example. where he was supposed to be. In Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. as a dislocation of the self: ‘Things inside were distant and still. to ask what may come after what I have 4 . In their seemingly unmotivated violence. II. DeLillo is careful to emphasize the pre-meditated nature of this anger. his wife Lianne assaults a neighbour who listens to what she perceives as Arab music. Firstly. the fear of terror has lost much of its ideological power. The same can then be said of Bush’s statement that ‘Our grief has turned to anger’. It seems pertinent. DeLillo describes his trauma primarily in two ways.

I will draw on Badiou’s account of historical emergence to think two such sites of novelty within American culture. the faithful subject. The threat that gives the film its momentum is a classic staple of the Hollywood imagination. In Logics of Worlds. From Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets to Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak. where Badiou speaks of courage and 5 . the premise of contagion and containment has provided a staging ground for the disintegration and renewal of social authority. constitutes the unconscious of the subject of denial. I focus on Stephen Soderbergh’s disease thriller Contagion before considering Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza in my final analysis. I believe. to which trauma theory owes so much. In the remainder of my talk.13 As befits a film that played in US cinemas on the tenth anniversary of the attacks.14 Photographs of the missing and recently diseased recall the makeshift memorials that sprang up around Ground Zero. Conservative reconstructions of a wounded America as the closed body of the nation present a clear case of such obscurantism. Contagion’s references to that day are as unmistakable as they are subtle. roadblocks and military trucks echo the militarization of Manhattan after the attacks. and obscure subjects who try to obliterate the present by the allegiance to a dogmatic ideology. Contagion can only imagine the restoration and not the transformation of authority. Opposed to a subject faithful to an indiscernible truth stand two types of reactive subjects: a subject of denial that insists on the futility of change. who is traumatized by the sudden loss of his wife and son.analyzed as post-9/11 injury culture. and the main character Mitch Emhoff. Turning now to the subject of denial and its emphasis on the futility of change. The impact of injury culture is visible throughout: in the medical notions of infection and shock. Like these earlier films. with its belief in historical novelty. Thus. As Badiou suggests. History here remains a history of catastrophe and life ideally the avoidance of history. Badiou presents a tri-partite schema of subjectivity. But Contagion partakes of injury culture only to stage a renewal: an ideological development beyond 9/11 that successfully re-arranges basic co-ordinates for a new decade.

The ideologeme of professional expertise partly accounts for this: as one character says. It traces the architecture of laboratories. never historical.15 The fearful location of the virus’s origin in China and the betrayal of the World Health Organization by Chinese officials remains true to a sub-genre that traced disease to Chinese trading ships in Panic in the Streets and the rain forests of Central Africa in Outbreak. But Contagion’s gaze may not persuade those who. like Michael Rothberg. Contagion cannot but gesture towards the global. finally. The future. Like its precursors. But I would argue that Soderbergh’s trademark multi-linear plot functions in a similar fashion: what may be read as a narrative of transnational border crossings also constructs a panoptic power surveilling global flows. Contagion begins with a caption reading ‘Day 2’ and proceeds to count the days since the outbreak. is resolved in a sentimental epilogue that sees his daughter and her neighbourhood sweetheart reunited on prom night. Yet it remains within the safe borders of the US once it has contained their unimaginable beyond. is not subjective invention but sexual reproduction. Soderbergh’s communities are merely biological. Contagion reduces virtue to evil. and affect to instinct. and the constant use of multiple splitscreens. Like all of Soderbergh’s recent films Contagion is impressive in the detail of its observation. have criticized its tendency to assimilate the unfamiliar into familiar structures. the genetic analysis of the virus and the search for a vaccine. salvation is the achievement of ‘a remarkable few’. Contagion’s temporality subordinates subjective time to the stability of the count.solidarity. In other words. American culture since 9/11 has increasingly looked beyond its borders. Its only break with linearity denies the potential of excess in the certainty of origin. The parallels between the countdowns in Contagion and 24 are apparent. I think. only to return us to ‘Day 1’ at its end. Those of you who watched the popular TV show 24 will surely remember two things: the visualization of its race against the clock. In its denial 6 . But this attention to detail also extends to the measurement of time and the biopolitical mapping of populations. Mitch Emhoff’s individual trauma. their collective agency is voided in panic and aggression. alas. Constituted solely by fear.

gaze of its subjects. But they can achieve a startling effect by the sudden disruption of sequence in the single panel of the flash page. The book places a survivor in the landscape of his memory.16 The contrast to Sacco’s graphic novel Footnotes in Gaza could hardly be more pronounced. Footnotes locates itself outside America and returns to it only in the sometimes longing. Footnotes repeatedly visualizes personal recollections as the respective invasion of past and present. Comic books then depend on the viewer’s willingness to turn these isolated images into a continuous narrative. sometimes angry. Critical of both the Israeli occupation and Palestinian parties.of collective potential the film’s contemporaneity remains limited to what Badiou aptly terms a negative present. In exact opposition to Contagion. They lie down to relive the last minutes of their dying brother on a mud floor. Such performative repetition goes beyond trauma’s unity of shock and recurrence in the difference of the real’s subjectivization. comics are defined by their hybrid visual and textual 7 . Sacco encounters Palestinians who trace the wounds of the past with the help of its bodily re-enactment in the present. At the same time.17 Sacco’s narrative hardly pauses at such notions of injury. however. As one survivor. Sacco’s interest in Footnotes. It rejects the purity of victimization and revenge in equal measure and always already subjectivizes suffering. Again and again. Footnotes is an investigation of historical trauma. But unlike Contagion. Sacco’s narrative emphasizes the sudden irruption of a subjective real over the measured regularity of linear stability. tells him: the massacres ‘”left a wound in my heart that can never heal”’. Or they stand up from their office chair to retrace the lucky steps that helped them escape a sure death. In doing so. In his foreword Sacco notes an earlier trip to Gaza that first alerted him to the two massacres Footnotes recounts. I would argue. lies not so much in a writing of history but in the bringing to the present of a past. now a Hamas official. Sacco makes clever use of two formal features: the sequential structure of comics divides what we usually perceive as the uninterrupted flow of time into bordered panels of static images. or stages the unmediated opposition of temporal planes.

What sustains suffering beyond the passivity of victimhood in Footnotes is no longer the enthusiasm of resistance but a grim courage and the faith in an unwritten future. Sacco’s earlier book Palestine had portrayed the occupied territories as a space handled by the Israeli military as an uncontrollable excess of people and emotions. Sacco refuses to incorporate the unfamiliar into familiar structures.18 Over-crowded. His comic looks beyond 9/11 by daring to look back at America through the eyes of those it rarely sees. It is from within this situation that Sacco retraces the event of the first intifada – the sudden appearance and enthusiasm of grassroots struggle.form. The trauma he encounters as Bush announces the invasion of Iraq in the background is not singular but seems uncountable: an endless trail of death and destruction. In fusing the performative subjectivity of new journalism with the satirical cartoon and cinematic perspective. Thus. photographic gaze and novelistic voice. Sacco’s art may help us shift the terms of another binary. Footnotes insists on the inability of image and text to isolate us from the real and calls upon a subject without which there is neither history nor novelty. But the fact that image and text are usually both present means that through the sudden absence of either – their subtraction from the narrative – Sacco can once again suggest the subjective encounter with the real. desperately poor and reeling from the destruction of lives and homes. It is no coincidence that Sacco’s comic art is both an exercise in formal inventiveness and a look beyond an America defined by 9/11. What sustains the bodily subjectivizations of the real visualized by Sacco beyond the single individual? It is here that Sacco’s book can be understood as a journalistic investigation of what Badiou calls an ‘evental site’. Sacco returns a decade later to find the people of Gaza betrayed by their own leaders as much as by Israeli promises of peace. 8 . What scholars of American culture have debated as the relative importance of break and continuity after 9/11 may then be rephrased in a critical perspective that destabilizes their opposition in its focus on the excess of historical emergence.

8 Wendy Brown. 4 See. Judith Greenberg (Lincoln. pp. p. p. Journal of American Studies 45 (2011). 18 Alain Badiou. 1 9 .128-151 (pp. Politics. ‘”How Do We Write about This?” The Domestic and the Global in the Post-9/11 Novel’. 2003). 9 Brown. 2009).60-66. pp. 2011).52. Dir.717-731. 7 Caruth.11. ‘Address to Congress’.html [27/1/2012] 3 Ann Cvetkovich. NE: University of Nebraska Press.51-68. and Susannah Radstone. Paragraph 30 (2007). and History (Baltimore. p. 13 Contagion.27.55. p. 12 Bush.134).washingtonpost.63. 6 Cathy Caruth. ‘Foreword’. 5 Radstone. Unclaimed Experience. for instance: Stef Craps. pp. American Literary History 21 (2009). 16 Badiou. in Trauma at Home: After 9/11. p.For a recent argument for the latter see: Catherine Morley. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma. 15 Richard Gray. ‘Wor(l)ds of grief: Traumatic memory and literary witnessing in cross-cultural perspective’. ‘Open Doors. Stephen Soderbergh (Warner Bros. NJ: Princeton University Press. States of Injury. States of Injury. 11 Brown.27.9-29. p. 17 Joe Sacco. Textual Practice 24 (2010). Being and Event (New York: Continuum. ‘Trauma Ongoing’. 14 Contagion was released to US cinemas on 3 September pp. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton. ‘Trauma Theory: Contexts. ed. pp. p. ‘Address to Congress’ (20/9/2001) <http:// http://www.173-177. 1995). Closed Minds: American Prose Writing at a Time of Crisis’.55. ML: Johns Hopkins University Press. in Footnotes in Gaza (New York: Holt. Narrative. 10 Brown. Bush. 1996). Logics of Worlds. p. States of Injury. ‘Trauma Theory’. pp. 2 George W.ix. 2006). Ethics’.

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