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When Signifiers Collide: Doubling, Semiotic Black Holes,

and the Destructive Remainder of the American Un}Real

Deems D. Morrione
Cultural Critique, 63, Spring 2006, pp. 158-173 (Article)
Published by University of Minnesota Press
DOI: 10.1353/cul.2006.0021
For additional information about this article
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Cultural Critique 63Spring 2006Copyright 2006 Regents of the University of Minnesota
Deems D. Morrione
By a paradox that is only apparent, the discourse that makes people believe is
the one that takes away what it urges them to believe in, or never delivers what
it promises.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
Many things have become linked to the events of September 11,
2001, as a bifurcated semiotic chain of destruction, but at least one
aspect of it has not yet been thoroughly investigated, that of its excess.
In fact, one could argue that the excess is imbricated in the event itself
and is therefore impossible to see. This is because a conventional semi-
otic doubling posits the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade
Center and that on the Pentagon as two separate and discursively equal
events. However, the attack on the latter has become enfolded by the
destruction of the former and has been thereby eclipsed. The attack
on the Pentagon has become the excess of the Twin Towers; except
for this excess, one might call it a pure act of obliteration whose con-
sequences, though immanent in 9/11, have yet to be mapped semi-
otically. An important purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how
the bombing of the Pentagon is semiotically linked to the destruction/
doubling of the Twin Towers. Also, how the Twin Towersevents
become the alibi for the seemingly unending excess generated at the
Pentagon. Further, it seeks to elucidate how the excess of this semi-
otic implosion has further compressed and recapitulated a wide array
of iconographic analogues, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor on
December 7, 1941, and the Reichstag Fire of February 27, 1933, into
its own signifying nexus.
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In his work The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers, Jean
Baudrillard presents a semiotics of doubling that explains both the
symbolic importance of the Twin Towers and why their destruction
should be read as two separate events (and it is on this basis that I
will argue that the attack on the Pentagon is a third event, the excess
of the other two). The devastation of the Towers is, of course, para-
doxical. It is both singular and double. It is singular in the sense that
the destruction of the Twin Towers has left one large semiotic black
hole in the center of Manhattan (not simply a void, for that phenom-
enon is without discursive gravitational pull) and double in that it
was accomplished by collapsing two parallel events/structures. Bau-
drillard explains the importance of this dual action as well as the sig-
niWcance of the doubling of the Towers themselves:
Perfect parallelepipeds, standing over 1,300 feet tall, on a square base.
Perfectly balanced, blind communicating vessels (they say terrorism is
blind, but the towers were blind toomonoliths no longer opening
onto the outside world, but subject to artiWcial conditioning). The fact
that there were two of them signiWes the end of any original reference.
If there had been only one, monopoly would not have been perfectly
embodied. Only the doubling of the sign truly puts an end to what it
According to Baudrillard, the aesthetic duplication that the Twin
Towers comprised was an obscenity of form, a conWrmed perfection,
a solidiWcation of arrogance. In classical semiotics, singularities rep-
resent failure; only duplication conWrms the idea of the original.
Baudrillards framework, this is a mise en abyme for Americas over-
all hyperreality, found in the paradox of utopia achieved, where the
notions of dream and reality collide into singular form.
This is more serious than it may Wrst appear. As Perry Miller, the
founder of American studies, averred, America was established by
people who believed that they had a political covenant with God to
create a shining beacon to the rest of the world, a city on the hill
that embodied Gods divine will on earth.
The Twin Towers destruc-
tion radically unstitches the entire fabric of this national metaphor.
The effectivity of this allegorical system depends upon the outside
conWrmation of Baudrillards paradox of utopia achieved;
this is in
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fact what fuels it. If Americas national purpose is to serve as a model
to be emulated by the rest of the world, it needs the Other to conWrm
this, or at the very least not to challenge the proposition. (And as
many political theorists and philosophers have noted, isnt this one
of Hegels more important lessons, that the master is much more de-
pendent on the slave than vice versa?) Not only did those responsible
disconWrm this paradox, they conWrmed its failure. This fact did not
escape Senator John Kerry, who, when speaking of responses to 9/11
in his acceptance speech for the Democratic Partys nomination for
President, stated, We need to make America once again a beacon in
the world. We need to be looked up to and not just feared.
This is, then, what was actually destroyed on September 11, 2001:
the ability of America to serve as the symbolic center of global politics
for itself and the Other. Baudrillard argues that the Twin Towers can be
seen to have committed suicide because they could not longer bear
the weight of this responsibility. In a sense, one could also argue that
the Twin Towers imploded because the Other was no longer willing
to conWrm their un/paralleled perfection. In short, the Other was no
longer able to tolerate the twin notions of cultural narcissism and
economic arrogance and sought to end them the only way it could, by
striking at metonymic sources.
This is why the events are catastrophic semiotic collisions: the
Other, meant to take inspiration from the iconography of postWorld
War II modernity embodied by the Twin Towers, ruptured the symbols
of technological perfection with its own tools. By hijacking passenger
airplanes, themselves testament to the ability to traverse spatial points
in a way not before seen in human history, and ramming them into
the symbolic center or anchor of modernitys systemic interplay, the
skyscraper, the Other played a trump card. Recalling the news footage
of these events, played over and over again on the evening news as if
it were on a continuous feedback loop, one cannot help being struck
by the trauma of the disappearance of modernity itselfthe collision
of two of its great technological achievements, seized from their mas-
ters and utilized to bring about their own destruction. The collision
resulted in a compression of the planes, the Twin Towers, and the
empty spaces within to a single point of wreckageit was almost as
if all the air had been let out, and what was left was the popped bal-
loon of an age gone by.
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Beyond the duality of the Towers and their symbolic utility, dou-
bling is further important in understanding the effects of their destruc-
tion. Baudrillard explains that, had only one plane demolished a single
Tower, it could have been read as an accident. The second plane con-
Wrmed the Wrst as an attack. (He further cites the Queens air crash a
month later as an unknowable event, since it remained a singular act
of destruction. Was it terrorism? Was it an accident? Sadly, we will
never know because semiotic conWrmation never came.) Again, the
semiotic paradox: only repetition conWrms singularity.
Obliteration, however, is not the end of doubling. Doubling is not
merely destructive; it is also creative, as it produces a remainder. As
Barthes, Derrida, and others have demonstrated, writing itself is a
kind of violence, one that, using Deleuzean/Guattarian terminology,
reterritorializes a space in order to disrupt its solidity/meaning.
is not unique to discursive phenomena, as semiotic events also pos-
sess this capacity. When the Third World Others smashed into the
First World parallelepipeds, the semiotic events rendered in the visual
media could have been part of a 1970s-style disaster Wlm (with 1990s
terrorist plot twists) entitled When Signifiers Collide. And as fatal object
theory demonstrates, such events invite the production of banal strate-
gies which attempt to detoxify the calamity and bring its meaning to
an end. (The irony of this is, as Barthes points out, that In speaking,
I can never erase, annul; all I can do is say I am erasing, annulling,
correcting, in short, speak some more.)
Though Baudrillard does not fully explore the excess suggested
by my hypothetical disaster Wlm When Signifiers Collide, he does allude
to it in his work on the Twin Towers:
Even in their failure, the terrorists succeeded beyond their wildest hopes:
in bungling their attack on the White House (while succeeding far be-
yond their objectives on the towers), they demonstrated unintentionally
that that was not the essential target, that political power no longer means
much, and real power lies elsewhere.
Baudrillard alludes here to the attack on the Pentagon, the uninten-
tional but apt target of the third plane crash. The Pentagon-event
provided only a location for semiotic excess; the extra event added to
the Wrst two. However, it was also exposed, if brieXy and accidentally,
as attached to but not part of the Twin Towers attacks. This is one
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reason why the Twin Towers attacks and the Pentagon attack do not
sit on a semiotic axis with parity: the Wrst two are understood to be
intentional, the second, a mistake. However, these events are semiot-
ically related, bound to the Twin Towers attacks by Al Qaeda, the pre-
sumed culprits of both. It is quite logical that the Pentagon attack has
been subsumed under the destruction of the Twin Towers as the ofW-
cial sign of the tragedy. Not only were the Wrst two attacks discursively
mapped as intentional, the result was the obliteration of the Twin
Towers. The Pentagon was merely an attack. It is still there and has
been repaired. The Twin Towers were destroyed and plans have been
made to rebuild over the wreckage. Excess abounds in this situation,
but one might say that the singularity at the center of the black hole
created by the destruction of the Twin Towers can be located at the
Why a semiotic black hole? This phenomenon is most effectively
mapped in the context of a geopolitics of space-time and signs, not of
geography, topology, or climatology. The Twin Towersevent is not
about the old boundaries of pure spatiality where classical deWnitions
of nationality and sovereignty held sway but one that involves the
velocity of signiWcation and the ability of the Other to defy the anchors
of meaning. This method of understanding the semiotic-discursive uni-
verse takes into consideration a non-Euclidean politics that involves
general relativity: there is a curvature to our view of the world, one
that often forces causes to rebound on themselves and events to scat-
ter and develop purposes that are difWcult to map using conventional
political language. It just may be that we are witnessing an event that
obeys the laws of physics on a semiotic-discursive scale. This new
geopolitics concerns the semiotic gravitational tug of objects on the
fatal scale, those that do not wait passively for interpretation by sub-
jects. These objects have discovered a will of their own.
Much has been made of the great power of fascination and attrac-
tion associated with fatal objects; they are capable of absorbing atten-
tion lavished on them by devotees because of their association with
some traumatic event, resulting in what Baudrillard and others have
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recognized as an obesity of presence.
The characteristic that makes
them fatal is what affords them an intense discursive gravity: they
are catastrophic semiotic ruptures that come to be sutured to particu-
lar objects and/or events. By contrast, banality is the realm of cri-
sis and law, whereby problems are identiWed, solved, and forgotten;
most of what is reported on the evening news is the province of banal-
Banal objects reveal themselves only when their low-frequency
presences are detected by the already interested, like the astronomers
at SETI using giant antennas to Wnd the faint voices of ET among so
much celestial chatter. Whereas fatality needs the high energy of the
gamma-ray end of the spectrum in order to register singularity, banal-
ity hides in the dull and ubiquitous hum of radio. Diane Rubensteins
discussion of the death of Princess Diana posits the fatal object as a
radical fetish of virtual reality, a move beyond alienation to a prin-
ciple of otherness raised to technical perfection that can refract every
interpretation into the void.
The fatal object is the paradigm of this
framework: its excess is a virtual remainder, the fait divers that en-
courages a process of fetishization on its behalf.
The semiotic black hole is the next step in fatality; it is the destruc-
tion of the whole sign, an obliteration of a massive totemic paradox
(in this case, utopia achieved). It is not merely a fait divers that comes
to be seen as traumatic, it is a perfect catastrophe, a shocking, ineluct-
able event that radically transforms the socius, possessing a gravita-
tional pull that has the power to massively reshape and remotivate
even the political (long assumed to be dead, it now has been jolted
into virtual activity as a spectral showof poll numbers, morality plays,
and special effects). Unlike the usual fatal object/event, which refracts
its banalities into the void while still sutured to them, the semiotic
black hole has the power to reconWgure the geopolitical universe while
leaving little or no trace of its inXuence. Fatal objects rely on overt
metonymic, synecdochal, and hyperreal ties to their banalities in
order to literalize them; Princess Diana has a foundation, Megan Kanka
has her own law. We do not refer to the Department of Homeland
Security as the 9/11 Memorial Bureau for Consolidating Intelligence
Gathering by U.S. Spy Agencies; it is not necessary to do so. The Twin
Towers have made it possible to elide discussions about due process
and spying or even about extant terrorist threats; the banalities gener-
ated after an event of this magnitude have their own self-justiWcations
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and therefore need little connection to the originary trauma. For ex-
ample, the major objection of most Democrats to the creation of the
Department of Homeland Security was related to the lack of unioni-
zation afforded to its employees and not to due process/constitutional
issues such as respecting the zones of privacy, proper procedure
for trying the accused, or proWling. The semiotic black hole, then, is a
collision of a fatal event and a perfect object that not only results in
the multiplication of banal discourses and events under one sign such
as Princess Diana or JonBenet Ramsey but a restructuring of the geo-
political universe in which the event takes place.
If we accept Einsteins theory of general relativity, we understand
gravity to be the geometric composition of space-time. Black holes,
because of their intense gravity, warp the fabric of space-time around
them (all matter in the universe does this, but black holes do it with
such extreme force that whatever falls into them becomes destroyed
by the singularity within and only later Wnds its way back into the
universe in mangled form). Following this logic, the implosion of the
Twin Towers may be the event horizon (or entrance) to a black hole
whose inner gravitational nexus (or singularity) is centered south of
New York in Washington, D.C. The Pentagon, on a semiotic axis with
the Twin Towers linked by Al Qaeda, is the gravitational center of
this black hole. It therefore warps the geopolitical space-time around
it by deWning, displacing, and destroying the matter it affects. It could
not have been destroyed by the Al Qaeda attack because it is the force
of destruction (one can hope, as Stephen Hawking says, that black holes
eventually dry up, but that is another discussion).
As with all black holes (both physical and semiotic), the event hori-
zon is the site of the rupture in space-time in which it was created. Here,
the rupture of the paradox utopia achieved by the semiotic collision at
the site of the Twin Towers created an angry point of cultural-political
Xux that coalesced into a singularity of intense gravity at the center. In
this case, the singularity is the Pentagon. This is the case for two rea-
sons: First, for the reasons already explained, it is the site of excess, of
failure. Second, it is the avenging excess of the Twin Towersevents.
The ubiquitous War on Terror, the Pentagons response to 9/11, has
led to wars inAfghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the curbing of civil
rights in the United States through the passage of the USA PATRIOT
Act. To understand this more fully, one should recall that, after all the
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other explanations for the war in Iraq evaporated (WMDs, uranium,
centrifuges), the one rationale on which the Bush Administration
steadfastly refused to budge was the claim that Saddam Hussein indi-
rectly participated in the events of 9/11 through his mysterious con-
nection to Al Qaeda. The Pentagon, then, is the dense point in which
the geopolitical space-time of the Twin Towersevents is being warped.
What, then, is the geometric composition of this force of nature
centered in Washington, D.C.? There is, of course, the obviousthe
Pentagon is, after all, a geometric object par excellence. In addition to
being the largest ofWce building in the world, it has a large pentagonal
void in the center, almost as if its builders knew that the tension of
Wve concentric rings of concrete wall would exert so much pressure
on the center space that only our earthly version of quantum residue,
a park, could exist there. Yet it is so much more. The semiotic black
hole in the center of Manhattan has intensiWed its gravitational pull,
enabling the Pentagon to assume the position as its singularity that
cannot be seen but is still able to warp our geopolitical landscape. An
ironic question one might pose is: does anyone remember the major
news stories prior to 9/11? For that matter, what about big headline
events that occurred afterward? It would be difWcult to maintain any
kind of static memory in the face of such a phenomenon, as singular
events have fallen in, as it were, and have been destroyed by the sheer
power of the geopolitical gravity generated at the Pentagon and an-
chored to the national universe by the Twin Towers.
Two of the events destroyed by the Twin Towers semiotic black
hole deserve particular attention, as they themselves could be con-
sidered fatal. Discussing other fatal events in the context of a semiotic
black hole demonstrates not only the sheer power it has to warp the
geopolitical universe as such but also the ways in which it changes
and compresses the particularities in its vicinity. This is important here
because fatal events are themselves prodigious semiotic-discursive
phenomena; only something extremely powerful should be able to
either shut them down or reconstitute them as part of a larger event.
First, Election 2000. If ever a recent political event could claim
fatal status inAmerica, this is it (along with the Kennedy assassination,
Watergate, Iran/Contra, and the Ken Starr crusade). And although
one can quibble over hanging chads, illegal ballots, and the importance
of undervotes and overvotes, it is difWcult to argue that Septem-
ber 11, 2001, had no effect (if retroactive) on the event itself. As Gore
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Vidal points out in a critique of The New York Times article entitled
In Election Review, Bush Wins without Supreme Court Help, the
events of 9/11 put an end to all questions about Election 2000.
takes the Times to task for attempting to provide an untenable para-
dox simply for the purpose of political stability; he notes that, while
the articles main focus is on proving that Bush won the election, it
(inadvertently?) admits that he did not. In the end, the Times is forced
into a mealy compromise: its difWcult to know who won, so, lets
call the whole thing off.
Vidals disgust with the Timess article is telling because he is
not simply making the obvious point that the results of Election 2000
are questionable. Every American knows that. The important point
with regard to the Twin Towers semiotic black hole is that this ballot-
counting gesture is entirely excessive and that its timely intervention
compressed a fatal event with serious political consequences into an
inconsequential blip on the radar (or as is said in political science
parlance, it was reduced to the banality of the outlier). Since former
Vice President Gore had conceded the election, there was no reason to
investigate the results further. However, a consortium of news orga-
nizations (spearheaded by The New York Times) decided in December
of 2000 to investigate and recount the votes themselves.
Two months
after 9/11 and near the Wrst anniversary of the contentious election,
Americas newspaper had a kind of hyperreal moral high ground
on which to end the dispute. The New York Times is near the event hori-
zon of this black hole; as only Nixon could go to China and only
Clinton could bring about welfare reform, only the Times could pro-
claim the election Wnally over. Yes, it was fraught with problems, but now
we have more important things to worry about . . .
And second, the collapse of Enron et al. Bigger than S&L, Teapot
Dome, and Crdit Moblier, the Wnancial scandals of the past few years
involving Enron and several other megaconglomerates, with regard
to their inXated stock values and their leveraging of debt on subsid-
iaries, also seem to be fatal casualties of the Twin Towers semiotic
black hole. Not that nothing has been done; quite the contrary. Check
The New York Times business section during any given week, and you
will likely Wnd stories about various investigations into this persons
dealings or that subsidiarys violation of commodity trading rules.
The fatal event itself, the collapse of Enron, has fractured into a mil-
lion banal particularities and is no longer front-page news.
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The Enron collapse is a good example of a fatal event that occurred
after 9/11 but was unable to remain so for very long. One might have
assumed that, because members of the extant Presidential Adminis-
tration were implicated in the scandal, its fatality might have been
severe enough to at least merit Iran/Contrastyle hearings, but the
ubiquitous War on Terror (the gravitational pull of the Pentagon) has
reduced the collapse of Enron to the status of a fait divers. An excellent
example of the compression of this event into banality is found in the
personage of one Mr. Thomas White, former Secretary of the Army for
the Bush Administration. Asenior executive at Enron for eleven years,
it has been suggested that he may have participated in the manipula-
tion of power prices in California, that he may have engaged in insider
trading to dump his Enron investments before the company tanked,
and that, also during his tenure at Enron, he attempted to secure lucra-
tive deals for the now-defunct Wnancial behemoth to supply energy
to the Army. When this scandal broke, many journalists and pundits
called for his resignation and Senators Feinstein and Boxer of Califor-
nia asked the Justice Department to investigate his ties to the failed
energy megaconglomerate. Despite the controversy, Mr. White contin-
ued in his job at the Pentagon throughout much of the Wrst George W.
Bush Administration.
Being at the gravitational center of this semi-
otic black hole does have its advantages.
The power of this semiotic black hole to destroy and reconstitute
events even on the fatal scale is not limited to the present or to the
recent past / near future. In fact, this event literalizes a compression
of history as well; if it is capable of absorbing both accidents and
intent-laden events, there is no limit to its affect on old, dead forms.
Since this warpage of our geopolitical universe is able to nullify irony
as it recapitulates what passes for the real before our eyes, it should
be no surprise that seemingly opposite events can be compressed
into singularities, prequels to the Twin Towers events.
One of the more interesting discursive gravitational effects of the Twin
Towers semiotic black hole and its pentagonal singularity at the cen-
ter is historical in nature. I refer to the compression of two seemingly
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autonomous and opposite events: the bombing of Pearl Harbor and
the Reichstag Fire. In fact, one could argue that the Pentagons gravita-
tional doubling has reconstituted these events as a singular historical
prequel to the destruction of the Twin Towers. The Pentagon singu-
larity has been able, because of its alibi in Manhattan, to reform and
reconstitute not only day-to-day reality but historically based chains
of truth (or in Foucauldian terms, epistemes) that have become
caught in the gravitational nexus of this phenomenonand the Pearl
Harbor bombing is one of these casualties (and along with it the Reich-
stag Fire), as one Wnds with the great number of parallels made be-
tween the events in the press. This type of retro doubling makes a
great deal of sense in the context of Baudrillards refusal to say the
real has returned, that we still live in a virtual universe. If an
event can absorb both intentionality and accidents, truth and Wction,
what sense does it make to discuss the return of the real?
Baudrillard argues in his 2002 work on the Twin Towers that we
have not experienced a return of a real event, that in fact reality
has absorbed Wctions energy, and has itself become Wction.
major point is that in order to have a real event, one needs a reality
principle, not a catastrophe, to arbitrate verity.
Baudrillard further
refutes claims that September 11 not only represents an ascendance
of the real over the virtual but that it also proves Fukuyama-lovers
wrong, that history has somehow returned. If we can conceive of the
Twin Towersevents as having opened up a rip in our geopolitical
space-time, it may be worth considering why the temporality of his-
tory cannot withstand its gravitational effects.
There are two historical examples that can serve to illustrate how
this absorption of fact and Wction has been accomplished and why it
is emblematic not of a return of the real but of history eating itself
through the Ouroboros of the present. How is it that the 9/11 destruc-
tion of the Twin Towers has absorbed history itself? For one thing, it
allowed for the mobilization of the iconography and energy of Pearl
Harbor and the Reichstag Wre under one sign. This is not as odd a
notion as it may Wrst appear; the reconciliation of opposites is one way
doubling reduces seemingly irreconcilable events into singular form.
The phenomenon of 9/11 is also an example of doubling that eliminates
the necessity of history as such: it absorbs both traditional historiog-
raphy and the inconvenient existence of ahistorical narrativesi.e., it
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has compressed both history and ahistory under one sign. (If you
doubt this, I urge you to turn to Fox News at almost any given time.)
Baudrillard might describe this as an example of ahistorical nar-
ratives absorbing the energy of historiography. In this case, it has
an added layer: the temporal remapping of spatiality such that the
uniquely American breed of equality nulliWes details and sets unlike
with like.
It is therefore important to avoid facile historical comparisons that
attempt to tie only the events of Pearl Harbor to 9/11 in a semiotic-
discursive parallel. This is a mistake for two reasons: Wrst, it ignores
the level of spatial-temporal interplay that must be acknowledged,
and second, it cannot account for the importance of the Reichstag Fire
as Pearl Harbors historical and semiotic analogue. Only a discussion
of both of these events (themselves having been compressed into a
singular prequel to 9/11) can illuminate the warpage of history occur-
ring at the event horizon of the Twin Towers semiotic black hole.
The spatial-temporal axis of this parallel demonstrates why the
watershed/fraternal twin events of Pearl Harbor and the Reichstag
Fire serve well as the prequel to 9/11 and how this warpage of our
geopolitical space-time has compressed these two separate historical
points into a singularity. It probably does not go unnoticed by most
that the Twin Towers attacks are signiWed by the singular sign 9/11
but that the Pearl Harbor attack subsumes its date. This is also true of
the Reichstag Wrefew people actually know the date, but the place
and event are self-evident.
There are any number of ways to unpack the spatial-temporal
angle with regard to the events of September 11, 2001. However, I will
direct the readers attention to an extremely leading questionnaire
entitled Remembering Pearl Harbor & September 11, 2001 Survey
posted by the on-line Opinion Center.
Beneath the title appears a
laughable violation of social scientiWc survey collection methods: One
is a location, the other a date. Understand the importance of this! If
one is unable to comprehend the importance, rest assured that ques-
tion three will end the uncertainty:
3. About Pearl Harbor & 9/11/01:
One is a location, the other a date. Do you think there is signiWcance in
this obvious fact?
___ No.
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___ Yes, of course: One was a carefully planned precision military strike.
9/11 was a collection of erratic attacks likely consisting of more than
four attempts with probably the majority ending in failure.
___ I never thought about it.
No doubt, this on-line poll would lead us to believe that the prime
difference is in the mechanics of the civilized wars of yore, where
spatial referents had signiWcance with regard to military targets and
that obeyed the classic rules of engagement. It does point to something
else, however. As de Certeau suggests, there is a relationship between
spatiality and proper names in that the connection allows for a utopic
space, an ability to dream a future.
In the context of Pearl Harbor,
one might see the importance of spatiality as a managerial crisis that
inspired anxiety over the loss of control it represented (representation
itself being a semiotic arrangement whereby the real and its stand-in
are perceived to have equivalence).
After all, nearly the entire
PaciWc Xeet was concentrated at the naval base on Oahu. One could
imagine that the American nation feared a future of Japanese domi-
nation of the PaciWc, a troubling prospect for U.S. trade and for the
security of its borders. Likewise, the Reichstag Fire, still in the arena
of representation, dealt in prevarication (in order to have a lie, one
must also have a concept of truth).
It is accepted by most historians
now that the Nazis set the Wre themselves in order to generate sup-
port for Hitlers consolidation of governmental power. The burning
of the German Parliament, then, became an enabling device for the
Nazi dream, a Third Reich. Both Pearl Harbor and the Reichstag Fire
elicited strong military responses; both dealt with the loss of control
(or the perception of loss); both posited spatially marked enemies
for the Americans, the exteriorized Axis powers of Japan and Ger-
many; for the Germans, the interiorized Communists, homosexuals,
and non-Aryans.
The attacks on the Twin Towers, as the on-line pollsters want us to
understand, are marked temporally by the signiWer September 11,
2001 (or its various other numerical renderings). In fact, one might note
that the uncivilized character of these attacks is a marked disrespect
for spatiality: the scattershot approach is an attack on proper names as
such; it disallows their uniqueness, deprives them of individual iden-
tity. Worse, the enemy deWes classic military logic by embracing the
Heisenberg uncertainty principle: not only does it demonstrate that it
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can choose velocity over position but also that it may favor unknowa-
bility to precision. The disrespect for spatiality is further demonstrated
by the fact that the attacks were undertaken by a nonlocalizable enemy.
Al Qaeda deWes the classic spatially anchored enemy position by tak-
ing the uncertainty principle in another direction: it reserves to itself
the right to select whether it will occupy spaces of interiority or exte-
riority and has proven quite effectively that it can and will make such
choices without prior notice.
Attacks signiWed by a singular temporal point like 9/11 are more
than horriWc, they are rude in the extremethey deny dreams. In de
Certeaus logic, the anchor that spatiality provides is what enables a
bridge to be built between destinations. This is because movement
between two spatially anchored points is always a utopic gesture
one is never sure that one will reach the intended destination; it is a
risky proposition to leave one place to go to another. Temporality does
not work in the same way. To map temporally is to choose velocity
over position; to take motion as a starting point, not an effect, is to
table the possibility of the future. As Baudrillard argues of speed in
his work America:
Speed creates pure objects. It is itself a pure object, since it cancels out
the ground and territorial reference-points, since it runs ahead of time
to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and
obliterates that cause by outstripping it.
It is the opposite case with spatiality: movement is possible between
spatially deWned points because it is concerned with referents and
territoriality; motion is possible because there is at least a perception
of nonmotion. Temporality is constant motion; to mark a point in time
is to freeze only that moment, to celebrate impression and deny ex-
pression. An important point about the Pearl HarborReichstag Fire
analogue is that both represent forms of expression. They are spa-
tially marked events and consequently provide access to a mourning,
which acknowledges the passing of a dream, a realization that a crisis
can be overcome. Temporally marked events, however, are concerned
with impression, as a they totemize trauma and shock, what I term
elsewhere hyperpathetic mourning, a form of abreaction characterized
by a hyperreal form of pathos, which attaches banal gesture after banal
gesture to a wound so that it never closes.
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The temporal marking of the Twin Towersevents is an acknowl-
edgment of the rupture of the Baudrillardian paradox mentioned ear-
lier, utopia achieved.
Not only has the semiotic black hole created
by the destruction of the Twin Towers unstitched the paradox of a
major national metaphor, it has deprived the populace of the ability
to dream a future where this is the case. It has forced Americans not
merely into a national denial of the indelicate suggestion that Amer-
ica has no future but into a frozen state where only trauma matters.
Worse: it says that Americans are as subject to the uncertainty prin-
ciple as everyone elsea type of democracy Americans Wnd most
Many thanks are due to Julie Webber, Diane Rubenstein, and the anonymous read-
ers for their extremely helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
1. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers,
trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 2002), 43.
2. A. J. Greimas and J. Courts, Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictio-
nary, trans. Larry Crist et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 95.
3. Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1988),
4. See Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belk-
nap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956).
5. This is easy to understand when one considers that, because of World
War II, the United States was able to radically reshape the world as a global sys-
tem in its own image. America, both as notion and nation, was able to make itself
the model of human rights, democracy, and the free market for the rest of the
world. The Twin Towers, according to Baudrillard, are the embodiment of this
6. This is, in fact, a paradox within a paradox. If America is a city on a
hill, it shouldnt need conWrmation of this reality from the Other. In fact, response
from the Other should be irrelevant because the purpose of a lighthouse is self-
referentialthe point is to guide ships to the proper course, not be guided by
them. Yet, in order for a lighthouse to serve its purpose, there must be lost ships
at sea.
7. John Kerry, We Are Here to Make America Stronger (http://www.
Kerrys conWrmation of the rupture of this paradox is found not only in his use of
the beacon metaphor but in the fact that he is speaking in the past tense; he refers
to a noble history wherein the United States was a city on the hill, a position
that has been lost and must be recovered.
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8. See Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berke-
ley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986); and Gilles Deleuze and
Flix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia trans. Brian Mas-
sumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
9. Barthes, 76.
10. Baudrillard, Spirit, 50.
11. Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. Philip Beitchman and W. G. J.
Niesluchowski, ed. Jim Fleming (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Semiotext(e), 1990). See also, Jean
Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1996); and
Diane Rubenstein, Thats the Way the Mercedes Benz: Di, Wound Culture, and
Fatal Fetishism, Theory and Event 1, no. 4 (1997): 18.
12. Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, 26. See Baudrillards distinction between
anomie (banality) and anomaly (fatality) for further clariWcation.
13. Rubenstein, 1.
14. In this context, I refer to such banal events/discourses as police investi-
gations, the institution of foundations, the establishment of laws, the creation of
Web sites, and so onall of those things, with some signifying attachment to a
sign, that spiral outward into the discursive universe because of some fatal event.
15. I should also note that some quite odd banal events have also occurred
as a resultthree in particular. First, the fact that the Twin Towers semiotic black
hole has enabled the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which,
among other things, has been able to act as a go-between for the various intelli-
gence gathering agencies of the U.S. government, thereby defusing some of the
historic rivalries between them and giving them avenues for greater cooperation
(of course, when it isnt being asked to monitor the whereabouts of members of the
Texas state legislature). Second, the gravitational pull has attracted Hollywood,
not simply by encouraging them to generate patriotic-themed Wlms but to shelve
those that may be read as critical of U.S. foreign policy. For example, Miramax
cochairman Harvey Weinstein admitted in The New York Times to having delayed
the release of The Quiet American because he said it was unpatriotic (see Jon
Wiener, Quiet in Hollywood, The Nation 275, no. 21 [December 16, 2002]: 6). And
third, one cannot ignore the most ridiculous of banalities, that of the House of Rep-
resentatives Administration Committee, which ordered the cafeterias in its build-
ing to change its menus to freedom fries and freedom toast to reXect current
displeasure toward France for refusing to support preemptive action in Iraq.
16. Gore Vidal, Times Cries Eke! Buries Al Gore, The Nation 273, no. 20
(December 17, 2001), 1315.
17. These organizations consisted of the following: The New York Times, The
Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Tribune Company, The Palm Beach
Post, The St. Petersburg Times, and The Associated Press. See Ford Fessenden, How
the Consortium of News Organizations Conducted the Ballot Review, The New
York Times, November 12, 2001,
18. Interestingly, Whites eventual resignation from his position as Secretary
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of the Army came not because of his Enron dealings but, according to conserva-
tive editorialist Robert Novak, for being on the wrong side of Rumsfelds strug-
gle with the Army high command (Don Rumsfelds Army,, May
1, 2003). This sentiment was echoed/lamented by Joan Claybrook, president of
Public Citizen, who argued that White should have been Wred for his activities at
Enron and that his resignation came far too late and for the wrong reasons (Bet-
ter Late Than Never: Administration Should Have Fired Army Secretary Thomas
White Long Ago,, April 28, 2003).
19. Baudrillard, Spirit, 28.
20. Ibid.
21. As a model for this, I have in mind the notion of reverse discrimination.
It used to be that racism was conceived as something historical, tied (at least in
the United States) to the various forms of oppression experienced by nonmajority
ethnic/racial groups (particularly African Americans and Native Americans).
However, after the various Civil Rights Acts were passed, it became au courant to
equate any type of discrimination with a racial/ethnic overtone as racism. Now,
even a George W. Bush could claim racial discrimination if, while walking by
an African American on the street, that person called him cracker, whitey, or
proof of the failure of the Caucasian race.
23. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 1024.
24. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 6.
25. Ibid.
26. Although, of course, the Nazis blamed the nearly blind Dutch commu-
nist Marinus van der Lubbe for the Wre itself, the rhetorical point here concerns
the utility of creating interior enemies for political gain.
27. Baudrillard, America, 6.
28. Deems D. Morrione, Sublime Monsters and Virtual Children, PhD thesis,
Purdue University, 2002, 13637.
29. The new building designed for the site does not reenergize the paradox
of utopia achieved, it is merely excess created by the Twin Towersevents. If this
paradox had not ruptured, who would be talking about a new building on this
site? And what newnational metaphor is instituted through having the tallest ofWce
building in the world? If it does represent some new cultural-political paradox, it
is different from what was ruptured on September 11, 2001.
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