INFOinterventions # October 7, 2001
9.11: Images, Imaging, Imagination
Annick T.R. Wibben, Assistant Director, ITWP
This week's theme is an investigation into the role of images in the experience of trauma, the reporting of the events, the production of meaning in the aftermath, and the (re)constitution of the US nation in response. We all have images stored in our eyes (how does this differ for those who saw the events on TV and those that were in NYC or DC?). We are bombarded by ever more images by the media (how does the replay and information overload numb us to the effects of particular images?). The politicians and the media are busy filtering information to support selected meanings, imaging some events but not others (death is present in numbers, and symbols, but we don't see any bodies, though there are reports of body parts). The media moves from reports from "ground zero" to testimonials, memorials, and affirmations of a nation rallying around its flag ("the only thing we all have in common is the flag") thus imagining the "us" (or US?).
We were all there, but yet we weren't. We saw it, but saw nothing. We kept uttering this isn't real, while knowing that it was. We witnessed death, yet we saw no bodies, no blood. Thanks to information technologies we became participants in 9.11. This confronts us with a new responsibility and a chance of becoming investigators of global terror.
A variety of questions arise as a consequence of 9.11: Is the trauma more real when you're in the midst of destruction or does real-time TV make the trauma real for the audience too? Of course the trauma of those at the scenes of the attacks is different in scope, but then again, isn't it also different for each one of us? What then are the effects of striving towards closure and thus assigning a single meaning to the events (however elusive it might be)?
For the first time terror has hit "home" for the US on such a massive scale. Can the US accept its vulnerability? How does this lead to new points of connection with people around the world? Even in East Timor, about as far away from the attack sites as one can get, the events were broadcast live and touched people. Many people throughout the world have had to live with terror for a long time and understand all too well the devastation of 9.11. Can this lead to a new "solidarity of the shaken"? Will the US make use of the historic opportunity to build new coalitions? Or will it lead to more children being taught how to hate (as continuing violence does in Northern Ireland or in the West Bank)?
Can and should we try to recapture reality? How could we, if we aren't even sure what reality means at this point? In many ways it seems that the distinction between fiction and reality is blurred by an event that at first glance looked like Hollywood's newest entertainment gimmick (but this time the scene was real, wasn't it?). In a culture where 'events' depend for their actuality on being captured by the camera, it is seems only natural that, in an attempt to recapture reality, we turn to images for the truth (why else, if not to substantiate the reality of the event, do we watch CNNs blurry night footage from strikes against Afghanistan?). Whereas it has been argued that the moving image leads toward a kind of amnesia, a forgetting, photography seems to retain immediacy of events; Kaja Silverman notes "the subject whose photograph is in the process of being taken fantasizes that ... it will capture and immortalize his or her 'essence'."
We tend to think of images as representations of reality, yet they never quite capture what we see, they only capture what the lens is pointed at, they select a piece of three-dimensional reality and place it in a two-dimensional frame. Images can be manipulated (as in the case of a tourist photo supposedly taken on top of the WTC with the approaching plane in the background). We can simulate reality through the use of imaging techniques (and why do we keep watching?). In this respect, it might be better to take a different angle on the question of images. Roland Barthes, for example, explores the experience of photography as a wound: "I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think." What if we began to think less about fiction vs. reality and more about the effects of images (however manipulated)?
Images are always contextual. They have immediate meaning for each on of us (even if we are not able to express it), but they also slot into a structure of meaning that is provided by our culture (and these might well be at odds with each other). When we are confronted with events for which we have no frame of reference we turn to "experts" to provide it for us. In the age of modern information technologies, news media commentary is one of the main ways in which the context for images is provided. Often the media is as lost as we are, notable during the first day of media coverage on 9.11. Nonetheless, their commentary "makes sense" for us and, if only by virtue of being circulated and repeated widely, imposes meanings on events which are at least partial, often highly selective, and sometimes plainly false.
Take the context provided for military deployments: Images of the USS Theodore Roosevelt as it leaves Norfolk, VA have been cast as showing the military taking immediate action in response to the crisis. What is not noted is that the Roosevelt's deployment was scheduled prior to the attacks, as part of a constant US presence in the Middle East (and what does this imply as to whether it is part of a solution or part of the problem?). Elsewhere, after having just interviewed the commanding officer who pointed out repeatedly that they were leaving for a routine deployment to replace another squadron, a reporter noted that these special forces were now going out to fight the war on terrorism (which they probably are, but what were those they are replacing doing before 9.11?).
Further - in the DoD
briefing directly after the attack we can observe the attempt of casting
the strikes on Afghanistan as a humanitarian operation: Rumsfeld kept
stressing that, while strategic targets (after it has been repeated for
weeks that there are almost none in the country) were attacked with Tomahawk
cruise missiles, F 14s, F/A 18s, B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s, this was done
so two C17s could drop 37.500 rations on Afghanistan (a country
where millions have been displaced by decades of war) and few reporters
were questioning the logic of this representation.
This week's feature essay by David Campbell discusses how imaging, specifically through photography, affects the effects that images have on us (and also how it might fail to). Other essays describe the experience of trauma and point towards ways of approaching it creatively. Overall, the essays featured in this week's INFOinterventions elaborate how what we see may fail us because there is no one meaning. When bombarded with images and interpretations, we need to keep a space for contesting views. While it is clear that images do not stand alone, they are certainly powerful in varied ways. The challenge that is facing us right now is to educate ourselves about their effects, to challenge prevailing interpretations provided for us, and to use our imagination to develop alternative contexts.