How shall we commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, now that ten years have passed? This question has been plaguing cultural and academic institutions, news organizations, as well as individuals and families for months. “Media Strive to Cover an Anniversary Without Seeming to Exploit a Tragedy,” read a New York Times headline earlier this week. One television executive is quoted as saying that “a week almost isn’t enough” to do justice to the event, while the editor of a major magazine planning the inevitable commemorative issue wonders if she is capable of being moved again, ultimately reassuring herself that “my ability to be moved by this still is profound.” Will the public be interested to watch, listen, relive the events of the day? Will the new books on the subject find a readership?
The appropriate scale of the commemoration seems to pose the greatest challenge: How can the immense local loss of some be honored, even as we acknowledge the disastrous effects the 9/11 events have had on our civil and political institutions, the perpetual wars that have followed and the other massive disasters, some directly related, that have marked this decade across the globe?
As the anniversary approaches and I ask colleagues how they feel in anticipation, I mostly get shoulder shrugs in response. We don’t seem to know how we feel. Is it because we are shielding ourselves from recalling the impact of the event—the shock, the fear, the loss? Or are we already expecting media oversaturation, exploitation for jingoistic purposes, American victimization and exceptionalism—all as a renewed alibi for continuing wars? Have we been so thoroughly silenced and demoralized by the massive surveillance to which we are being subjected, the terror alerts, and the economic crises caused by military spending, that we have jettisoned critique for anomie?
The “Engendering Archives” working group of Columbia’s Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference has for the last year been discussing alternative conversations we might stage during this anniversary period. “Engendering Archives” studies the way in which archives shape the stories and lives that a culture remembers and those it suppresses or forgets. We planned a conference around this anniversary precisely to think critically about the narratives, the images, and the practices through which the events of 9/11 are remembered and about how they might be mobilized for more progressive political use. We felt that the conference could not be held in immediate proximity to the anniversary—a moment that seemed too personal for those directly and intimately affected to open itself to intellectual and political debate. Nor could it be centered on New York alone: it had to reach across borders to place the events of September 11, 2001, in global context, to assess their impact on other cities and other lives. And, it had to feature one of the largest archives of a mass disaster in the United States, Columbia’s Oral History Center’s “September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project.”
“Injured Cities/Urban Afterlives,” to be held on October 14 and 15 at Miller Theater and Wood Auditorium, will look beyond New York to how cities respond in the aftermath of catastrophe. Narrators and oral historians will present individual stories that illuminate the conditions of vulnerability that make some lives more worthy of recognition than others. Artists Walid Ra’ad, Shirin Neshat, and Dinh Q. Lê, architects Clive van den Berg, Eyal Weizman, and Teddy Cruz, writers and journalists Nina Bernstein, Ann Jones, and Anne McClintock, and theorists Saskia Sassen, Karen Till, and Ariella Azoulay will explore the artistic and political aftermath of urban disasters in cities like Cape Town, Johannesberg, Tehran, Kabul, Gaza, Beirut, Hanoi, Los Angeles, and New York. Mapa Teatro, a theater group from Bogotá, Colombia, will bring their performance of the destruction of a city neighborhood, “Witness to the Ruins.” The Neiman Gallery will be holding an exhibition of photographs by Lorie Novak, “Encounters in the Aftermath,” that embody the fragility of private loss in the era of “photographic interference.” We hope that these stories and conversations will initiate a new collective memory of September 11, 2001, one that reflects the effects of social difference on wounded cities and their inhabitants. The only responsible memorialization is one that balances mourning with critical and visionary exploration: exposing the workings of political structures that exploit disaster for war and profit even while imagining more life-affirming modes of social life for the future.
The author is the William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Professor in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the second vice president of the Modern Language Association of America.