9/11: The value of memory

Mourners at the New York 9/11 memorial on tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. AAP

This past weekend, whole sections of the United States community felt something like a duty or desire to attend sites linked with the events of 11 September 2001.

The public memory ceremonies at these sites were solemn, sentimental and ritualistic. And they all looked great on TV. They were recognisably modern commemorations.

Why is it that people turn up to commemorative events like those at Ground Zero, Shanksville and the Pentagon?

Mostly, people turn up to be with others. Perhaps the defining feature of commemoration is that it is remembering with others. It is a mediated form of memory, routed through texts and speeches, as well as through rituals and gathering.

These mediations are effective only in the presence of others. On 364 days of the year, individuals around America — and beyond — may privately recall their relatives lost in 9/11.

A time, a place, a memory

But it is their gathering in a particular place on a significant date that makes this a commemoration: a public occasion, anchored in place.

By bringing together people who may live at the opposite ends of the United States, the emotionality of these commemorative events is important in linking those individuals who may otherwise struggle to find common ground besides shared national territory.

No doubt there were many who gathered to remember lost brothers and fathers, sisters and mothers — for such people the event may be a grander version of other private rituals of grieving on birthdays and wedding anniversaries. But all the people gathering for these commemorations — even those not directly related to victims — were looking for a sense of communal belonging.

The presence of innumerable, flapping Star Spangled Banners — that fetishised symbol of one of the biggest communities, the nation — alerts us to this.

As residents of the United States, the commemorators have invested themselves — and their psychic energy — in the ideology of the nation and all it represents. They need not be jingoistic or patriotic.

But there are more and less legitimate ways of being an American, of being at home in America: the nation is one particular and one dominant way of structuring enjoyment, “our way of life”. (This is not to say that America is alone in this — Australia and Bolivia and Germany and Mali each have their own ways of enjoying, their own ideas of what is a “legitimate” ideology and feeling.)

Public gatherings such as those around the commemoration of 9/11 take place with an understanding, derived from the predominant ideology, that these commemorative events are proper ways of showing one’s appreciation for what the ideology claims are the freedoms offered in the United States today.

Doing it for an audience

US troops in Afghanistan attend a 9/11 commemoration ceremony at Bagram Airbase. AAP

This is also why the 9/11 commemorative events slip from evocations of the grotesque churn of bodies in the falling buildings and aeroplanes to the “spirit of community” said to be evident in the clean-up operation and across the nation in the days that followed.

9/11, for all its carnage and loss, momentarily brought together a frayed community where the unleashed market forces of Reaganism and neoliberalism had made forms of belonging and community seem quaint and irrational, but also longed for and comforting. Here it was: the American way of life, the neighbourly togetherness, the spirit of the nation. There it goes.

Thus the “9/11” which is commemorated does not stop on its headline date, but slides on through the weeks that followed. It is a multiple event. The attack is at once a fall and a rallying point.

This is why the commemoration is marked by easy, hackneyed contrasts of innocence and corruption: Mayor Bloomberg spoke, with reference to 9/11, of the day “a perfect blue sky morning turned into the blackest of nights.” But the commemorative event also rallies citizens by summoning up “Freedom,” “Democracy,” “Liberty” — ultimately undefinable words that symbolise not a reality, but a hope for the United States which may come (again).

There are two obvious attempts to stabilise the meaning of terms like “freedom.” The first is the relation to an enemy from without — Bin Laden, al Qaeda, Islamic fundamentalism. These are symbols of all that stands opposed to American life, therein defining what America stands for.

Secondly, the transposition of the victims of 9/11 into “heroes” suggests their role in figuring an ideal of the nation. By simply going to work or catching a flight that day, these “ordinary Americans” both embodied the day-to-day functioning of liberal societies and somehow pre-emptively defied the existential threat which came to shape American life in the decade since 9/11.

A town called Hope

A New York police officers marks the 8th anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks. AAP

It is notable that the events this year ended with a “Concert for Hope” in Washington. For those attending the commemorations, there is the hope that something felt to be lost in 9/11 and briefly present in its aftermath could return: an America that, momentarily, embodied its own ideals.

Not just in America but across liberal democratic societies, there is today a sense that all political subjects grope amid shared symbols for the lost purpose and unity of our communities.

This search is a doomed quest: our political community can never be as smooth or consistent as it appears in our myths and ideologies. Nevertheless, commemorative events come around again — and so we try, again. Although we may not believe in ghost stories, we nevertheless gather in commemorations to “body forth” a haunted presence. This gathering stirs intimations of the past in the present, a revenant memory.

Traumatic events

These commemorations are influenced by the nature of the originary traumatic event on 9/11. There is a sense in which the meaning of 9/11 will never be clear. The commonplace understanding of trauma has it that the traumatic event is one that is only understood belatedly.

At the limits of known experience, these traumatic events burst into our lives with no clear coordinates for understanding. The commemoration delivers us to such events again, recalling the “open” situation that they instated.

But they remind us just as much of the attempt to fit it into known narratives: 9/11 was positioned as both an act of war and an act of terrorism, although these two things had long been said to be distinct, if not opposed forms of legitimate and illegitimate violence.

One way to “get at” the traumatic event is to multiply the narratives around it. The hope here is that the many expositions of the event will amount to a total coverage or understanding. This is why there is an apparently endless supply of memoirs and biographies dedicated to the events of 9/11.

This tendency toward an individualised remembrance culture is redoubled by the liberal capitalist emphasis on the individual. It is unsurprising, given our valuation of individual experience, to find that the individual is emphasised in remembrance and commemoration. For 9/11, this focus on the individual begin immediately, as when the New York Times began its series of short biographies of each of the victims of the attack. Likewise, the ceremony at Ground Zero saw every name read out by a series of relatives, moving down the list of victims like relay runners, halting the incantatory list for a brief personal note (“you are sorely missed, dad”), before passing on to the next speakers.

This focus on the individual has carried through to the physical memorialisation at all of the 9/11 sites, where names of the dead are listed. It was not always this way — we can date to 1982 the shift away from enormous all -encompassing monuments: this was the year that saw the unveiling of Maya Lin’s controversial Vietnam Veterans memorial, with its lists of the sixty thousand American dead.

Being there

What’s more, stories of people travelling to New York from Florida or from the UK are evidence both of a desire to get to the bottom of the “incomplete” event as well as the importance of being there, at the site of homage. This suggests the way the ceremonies of commemoration help us to remember: the texts, the rituals and the music seem to intensify our remembering. But it is also the communal gathering of commemorators that is important.

In being together under the sign of 9/11, whatever people were thinking — wherever their thoughts drifted and whatever their flow of affect — they were together, commemorating. It is possible, for example, that all of the family members gathered at Ground Zero simply remembered their own relative, disregarding the pain and existence of others, as well as the meaning of the broader event.

This is plausible, no matter how unpalatable that idea might be.

The power of many

Ultimately, though, their individual thoughts are of little import to the ceremony. Their presence at this site with these rituals means that whatever they are thinking, objectively they are commemorating.

The agglomeration of people means that individual thoughts may drift, but commemorators can remain content that other people around them are attending to the commemoration in the proper way: with full mindfulness and attention.

This is why commemoration works, despite the myth of “undivided attention.” We are all, always, divided subjects: the unconscious throws up into consciousness many unwanted thoughts.

We have all experienced the “shocking” and “shameful” coming to mind of inappropriate thoughts during funerals, lectures, concerts, sermons. Explicit remembrance is a fleeting moment: a state of mental vacuity is more common than full awareness.

Nevertheless, the texts and rituals, just as much as the others who look so solemn, guarantee that remembrance is taking place, no matter what we may be thinking moment by moment.

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