Post-9/11 American Terror: An Assault on Subjective Phenomena

For one of my critical theory classes, we read Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No Towers. The references to (Melani) McAlister are from “A Cultural History of the War without End,” published in The Journal for American History in Sept. 2002 and the references to (Ernest) Renan are to his “What is a nation?” lecture, delivered 11 March 1882, translated by Martin Thom. This blogpost is one submitted to our class forum on Tuesday, Feb. 9 2015 for class credit.

In his opening two pages about the process of getting these images to paper and print, Spiegelman talks about how 9/11 becomes a disaster that marks a collision for him of world history and personal history (Spiegelman 1-A). The unfolding of his next eight pages is his experience, as a liberal GenX American Jew witnessing–experiencing, forever–that disaster, noting, “Disaster is my muse!” (Spiegelman 1-B).

It makes me think about my own life, my own collision, as a millennial, of world history and personal history.

The September 11th attack was not a quote-unquote ‘defining’ moment for me because it happened so early in my childhood. I was in first grade when 9/11 happened. All of my views about the event, about the terror, about the survivors and the loss (the #NeverForget coinage) have been disassociated from their original phenomena and from their original phenomenees, the feelers of those phenomena, in much the same way McAlister talks about the folkloric JFK-assassination-isms that this event creates, containing its own new oral histories (McAlister 439).

This Spiegelman piece, though, put in place a more subjective, a more real, experience for me of 9/11 in ways other things have not and, really, could not, by refusing (or at least grappling with the trouble of) any sort of consolidation of national identity caused by terror, which McAlister quotes Benedict Anderson as saying will happen like amnesia (McAlister 440).

For one, I feel betrayed — by my history teachers, by growing up in what Spiegelman might call “The United Red Zone of America” (Spiegelman 7), by my parents (GenXers themselves who never told me about this deafening, perception-shattering event in any more than a 150-character spoken tweet or blurb about the evils of the world and the trust we must have in “leadership”).

I was robbed, and maybe this is my own fault for remaining so ignorant all these years, of knowing about all of the controversy surrounding this war when what was told to me was that it was a no-brainer, retaliation and justice served in honor of the validated “he did it first”-ers, itself a sort of American identity.

In “Weapons of Mass Displacement” on #9, Spiegelman notes, “Remember how we demolished Iraq instead of Al-Quaeda.” Given that knowledge and the notion of a collision of personal and world history, this piece seems to be, at least in part, in conversation too with the Renan “What is a nation?” piece and his thesis that a nation is a union based on forgetfulness and even of historical error (Renan 11).

And I feel robbed again, not knowing any of this we-attacked-the-wrong-people story until extremely recently (as in winter break of this year). I almost feel like a despicable millennial — my generation, we value/prefer/require fuller, more complex narratives. Because we are more secular, we prefer truth and inclusion to any mythologies of uneven or negotiated history, which even Spiegelman seems to have contradicted when he says “disaster was my muse!” (1-B).

However, what I notice as much in that phrase as ‘disaster’ and ‘muse’ is the word ‘my,’ a reclaiming of his subjective phenomena from the hands of name-makers, those political poets that confirm a “culture is a crucial site for the negotiation of political and moral values for an often uneven and contested public understanding of history” (McAlister 441).

And as Spiegelman notes, 9/11 had become just that — a public understanding. He says, “My subconscious is drowning in newspaper headlines” and “The killer apes learned nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima” (Spiegelman #8).

I think that’s what’s so beautiful and real about this piece. Our narrator, whether this is memoiric for Spiegelman or not, is shedding light on a truer (or at least longer-running) terror that is inflicted on subjective phenomena in times of crisis.