When Liberty Island reopened to the public three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, tourist information plaques on the island still needed to catch up with the altered Manhattan skyline. A vacancy had appeared where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood. “Amid the glittering impassivity of the many building across the East River,” John Updike wrote in The New Yorker a few days after the attacks, “an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails.” Even three months after the events, one of those tourist plaques, situated just at the edge of Liberty Island where visitors could get a breathtaking view of the tip of Manhattan, still featured the ‘old’ Manhattan skyline in which the two towers stood proudly intact.
The disparity between reality and representation was haunting. It placed the two instances, the old and the new, in a relation of simultaneity, of coexistence. This dialogic simultaneity between reality and its representation gave an ominous aura to “that day”,as 9/11 came to be called in its aftermath, and it reflected a state of mind. It was a showcase of before and after akin to shampoo TV commercials or those brain-fitness puzzles that askplayers to spot the differences. Yet, it indicated something else as well, a shift not just in terms of landscape. The gap in the “glittering impassivity” of Manhattan’s skyline needed more than concrete and hard physical work to be sealed.
The plaque on Liberty Island was not the only one to proffer such uncanny commentary on the changing scenery. In November 2015, while I was staying in New York City, during one of my morning runs in Astoria Park, I stumbled across a similarly ominous plaque. Situated on the sidewalk, approximately halfway between the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and the Hell Gate Bridge, the green plaque faces the East River and, beyond it, Manhattan’s skyline. It does not contain any images, yet the weather-beaten plaque tells the story of the 1904 General Slocum Disaster, which involved a steamboat that sunk in the East River along with its 1,300 people on board. Out of all those people on board only about 280 managed to survive. However, that was not the information that caught my eye as I was skimming the long commemorative text. What drew my attention was the last sentence of the first paragraph, which tells its readers that “prior to September 11, 2001, the burning of the General Slocum had the highest death toll of any disaster in New York City history.” Besides the seemingly innocuous comparison that this piece of information offers, which is most likely meant to help New Yorkers and tourists get a sense of perspective with regards to the death toll and the importance of such an event, I could not help but think how the plaque is incidentally much more about what happened on and in the aftermath of 9/11 than about the General Slocum Disaster.
The two events, akin to the two versions of Manhattan’s skyline, were also placed in a dialogic simultaneity. Yet, in this case, the comparison between the two was no longer about forceful changes in an otherwise recognizable landscape but rather about how certain events are dethroned by culturally resounding ones in a city’s cultural memory. It somehow chronicled the degree to which 9/11 turned into a watershed moment in the city’s history since most people will not remember a steamboat that sunk on a Sunday afternoon due to “organizational and leadership failings.” The comparison also offered 9/11 as a unit of measurement for the perception of that other disaster, as if the General Slocum Disaster could not have been understood without bringing 9/11 into the picture, and maybe even the other way around.
Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, was making a similar, albeit unconscious association when, while speaking about how violent events are almost always preceded by unremarkable circumstances, she brings together the “ordinary Sunday morning” of Pearl Harbor and the “ordinary beautiful September day” before 9/11 happened. Yet, the mental levelling Didion succumbs to in her comparison is not far-fetched. Akin to Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was an act of unswerving aggression perpetrated on the homeland, and Didion was surely not the only one to shed light on the connection. David Ray Griffin, an American professor and political writer, declaratively entitled his book on the Bush Administration after 9/11 The New Pearl Harbor, and in the days following the attack, politicians of all colors resorted to the same association in their public speeches. In this sense, it is as if there is a transfer of ‘cultural weight’ between these events placed in dialogic simultaneity: the steamboat incident offers the death toll, 9/11 offers the attitude and the solemnity the former somehow fails to trigger, while Pearl Harbor legitimizes a military response.
This transfer of cultural weight could be easily explained and understood in psychological terms by invoking such notions as the “availability heuristic.” If applied, the notion would reveal that whoever conceived the text for the plaque offered readers a mental shortcut by relying on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating, for instance, the death toll of the General Slocum Disaster. Yet, such an approach is limiting, to say the least. It reveals more about the authors and the readers of the text, as well as about the post-9/11 atmosphere, than about the nature of the events themselves, if such nature could ever be graspable.
On this line of reasoning, it is my contention that this dialogic simultaneity indicates a modification in the world’s primal scenes and constitutes a symptom of how 9/11 and the ensuing wars have created a ripple effect from a cultural point of view. “Many people”, George Packer argues in The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, “allowed historical analogies to do their thinking for them.” In the case of the ‘war on terror’, triggered by the events of September 11, the two primal scenes, or mental shortcuts, were the Second World War and the war in Vietnam and many people funneled their perception of the new wars along those lines. However, the General Slocum commemorative plaque indicates a further development inthat mental process. The plaque seems to suggest that, in terms of casualties, 9/11 has become the primal scene for the understanding of the General Slocum Disaster despite the chronological primacy of the latter.
By taking into consideration both fictional and non-fictional texts as well as other cultural artifacts coming from different fields, this article looks at how culturally resonant occurrences such as the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’ tend to become ‘selfish events’. As this paper will argue, this transformation is particularly fruitful when these artifacts enter processes of dialogic simultaneity with those artifacts that have “circulating signifiers” and whose cultural frames could be exported to fit new contexts. To this purpose, by looking at Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue as well as other texts pertaining to the discourse(s) of the ‘war on terror’, the paper tries to argue that such dialogues result in ‘violent’ interpretative intrusions not only at the level of succeeding cultural discourses but also at the level of preceding discourses. However, the notion of dialogue employed in my argument does not inherently imply intertextuality. Albeit their authors do acknowledge some writerly debt to other cultural artifacts and authors, the degree of influence is never stated specifically within the texts themselves. ‘Dialogue’ hereby implies simultaneity and is most observable when these texts and cultural artifacts are brought together in interpretative processes and their overlaps are pinpointed and discussed.
One way to go deeper into this process of transfer to understand it better would be to look for other instances in which this dialogic simultaneity and transfer of ‘cultural weight’ occur, and post-9/11 literature offers plenty of revelatory examples. One of these moments of cultural transfer is accurately documented, for instance, in Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World. In terms of narrative tactics, the novel strategically builds the story using different points of view thus permitting the reader to see the issue from dissimilar angles. After having lived for so long in the shadow of her art-connoisseur-dealer husband, Harriet Burden, the protagonist of the novel, decides to conduct an experiment by concealing her female identity behind three male artists who agree to present Burden’s work as if it was their own. The purpose of the experiment, as explained by the protagonist herself in the many journal entries included in the novel, was to show the degree to which the art world was biased against female artists, the latter being portrayed as victims of a ‘phallocentric’ perception of art. What interests me most however, is the way in which one of Burden’s art installations, titled suggestively “The Suffocation Rooms”, was perceived simply because it was mounted in the aftermath of 9/11:
The show was mounted the spring after New York was attacked, and the little mutant that crawled out of the box had the haunting look of a damaged survivor or a new being born in the wreckage. It didn’t matter that the work had been finished well before 9/11. The increasing heat in the rooms contributed to the interpretation; the last, hot room felt ominous. At the same time, my debut was an insignificant casualty of the falling towers.
Yet, in Hustvedt’s fragmented narrative, Burden’s art installations are not the only ones that fall prey to the cultural violence of the ‘falling towers’. The works of another artist, who goes by the name of Rune and who later becomes one of Burden’s male fronts, are subjected to the same kind of interpretation with the only exception that his works are exhibited well before the events of September 11. The narrative thus chronicles how after 9/11 Rune’s ‘colored crosses’ took on an entirely different meaning. “Modeled on the Red Cross symbol in different colors,” one of the narrators explains, “they could have been an ironic reference to the whole history of Christianity or to the Crusades. After 9/11 they looked prescient: East-and-West conflict, civilizations at war. Or were they just a shape?”
In a similar vein, the novel also accounts how after 9/11 artists themselves felt compelled to change their own aesthetics. Culturally resounding events such as September 11, the novel seems to suggest, not only contaminate interpretation but also engender a need for aesthetic shift and a commitment on the part of the artist that transcends the boundaries of representation. They formulate an ethos of art production and perception, one that must necessarily acknowledge the presence of these events as regulatory ‘primal scenes’. This double shift even became the topic of a 2012 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Entitled September 11, the exhibition gathered a series of artworks most of which were not necessarily connected to 9/11 but were close enough to force the audience to come to terms with the idea that while the works themselves had suffered no alterations in the meantime their perception had in fact changed in the aftermath of the events. “The exhibition”, as Michael H. Miller notes in the Observer, “is more about how September 11, 2001 changed the experience of viewing art after the fact, and less about the day itself. This new kind of context gave certain works a more menacing appearance.”
A similarly striking example can be found in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man, where a still life painting by Giorgio Morandi, showing a series of household items (boxes, biscuit tins, and bottles), appears to be weighed down by the same artistic prescience with regards to 9/11. It is worthwhile to note that Morandi’s paintings, much like Rune’s ‘colored crosses’ from Hustvedt’s novel, had been conceived and exhibited more than fifty years before 9/11:
Two of the taller items were dark and somber, with smoky marks and smudges, and one of them was partly concealed by a long-necked bottle. The bottle was a bottle, white. The two dark objects, too obscure to name, were the things that Martin was referring to. ‘What do you see?’ he said. She saw what he saw. She saw the towers.
The two dark objects in Morandi’s painting could have been any two household objects as the series itself suggests. Yet, after September 11, their obscurity and lack of a definite signifier takes on a precise meaning. The mere resemblance to the Twin Towers makes them appear as representations of the towers themselves and the dark implications that come with that interpretation. In a similar manner, George Segal’s sculpture titled “Woman on a Park Bench” mounted as part of MoMA PS1’s September 11 exhibition corroborates the same kind of interpretation process. When the show was mounted at MoMA in 2012 the artist had been dead for more than ten years, and his artwork first came to the light of day well before 9/11. Yet, the woman in the sculpture, of complete whiteness as if covered in white powder, could have been easily seen, akin to the “little mutant” in Burden’s art installation, as one of the survivors who had fled the clouds of dust coming from the falling towers.
The same process of dialogic simultaneity becomes apparent even in the case of the discourse(s) surrounding the American ‘war on terror’. To include even examples from popular culture, consider for instance the atmosphere of government surveillance portrayed in Netflix’s original series Stranger Things released in July 2016. Though set in 1983 the audience of the series could only perceive this atmosphere from the point of view of the Edward Snowden leaks and the ensuing surveillance scandals that dominated the mass media immediately after. When Mr. Wheeler, the oblivious dad from Stranger Things, tells his wife to trust a pack of shady government officials because the government is always on their side, somehow that does not ring true anymore considering recent events. Much like the works of art in Hustvedt’s and DeLillo’s novels, these images become prescient and almost an admonition directed at those who, in their daily ignorance, ‘had not seen it coming’ even in the 1980s.
Now, taking these examples into consideration one might begin to see a connecting thread. Even though these representations do not make specific references to the events of September 11 or the ensuing ‘war on terror’ along with their subordinate discourses, they do tend to have “circulating signifiers” that can be easily exploited by a culturally dominating event or a ‘selfish event’ (following Richard Dawkins’ notion of the “selfish gene”). This interpretative intrusion occurs not only at the level of succeeding cultural discourses (consider, for instance, the examples from Hustvedt’s novel) but also at the level of preceding cultural discourses (consider, for instance, the Morandi painting in DeLillo’s novel), up to the point where even cultural artifacts that previously bore no inherent connection to the events themselves begin to gain new significance in the aftermath of the occurrence of those events. These become prescient in a bizarre kind of way.
Such was the case for instance of an episode from Van Partible’s American animated television series Johnny Bravo that was aired on April 27, 2001, on Cartoon Network. Entitled Chain Gang Johnny, the episode innocuously shows in the background of one of its scenes a movie poster that features a burning tower. Ominously enough, the movie poster vaguely states that the burning tower is “coming soon”. The movie featured in the poster does not have a title, which further fueled the imagination of conspiracy theorists around the world. The theory was later dismissed as mere coincidence.
Even more ominously and somehow ironically, on September 10, 2001, on a stage in Vegas, George Carlin, the comedian, performed a “red-hot closing bit he planned to use for his latest HBO special” in which he told his audience that he enjoys “fatal disasters with a lotta [sic]dead people.” It is worth noting that before this closing bit of the show Carlin had also joked about Osama bin Laden and airplane explosions due to excessive flatulence. The HBO special was released only fifteen years after its initial recording. Carlin had supposedly withheld the release on matters of taste. The Quiet American, a movie based on Graham Green’s novel with the same title, “had been ready for distribution just after September 11, but Miramax’s fears that the movie might be thought unpatriotic delayed the release for more than a year.” Like Burden’s and Segal’s works of art, these cultural artifacts would have become casualties of ‘the falling towers’ if they had been released on time.
To put it differently, culturally resounding events such as these have the capacity to contaminate cultural artifacts that happen to be in their proximity and change the way they come to be interpreted by an interpretative community, a contamination that is never unidirectional from a chronological point of view. When cultural artifacts with “circulating signifiers” are placed in dialogic simultaneity, be it temporal or spatial, with these ‘selfish events’ they tend to be absorbed within the discourse of those events, especially when the events have not yet had the time to form a stable discourse of their own and they are still ‘cultural stumps’. Like Dawkins’ “selfish machines” they will stop at nothing to preserve their cultural subsistence. To push the concept even further, one might say that such ‘selfish events’ ultimately perform a‘cultural appropriation’ of sorts. Their ‘cultural stump’ enters a dialogue with fully formed cultural artifacts and they appropriate some of their features up to the point where they even contaminate those artifacts. By extension, and due to this ethos of appropriation that ultimately becomes the signature move of culturally selfish events, the cultural artifacts that further stem from this kind of events will tend to replicate that signature move. But cultural appropriation can be a tricky thing. To appropriate one cultural artifact or at least some of its features impliesstepping away from one culture, shedding the characteristics that separate it from the others, and plunging into another. Such appropriation also infers that boundaries between cultures are always clearly set and accessible by intellectual means.
This last assumption is probably what drove Elliot Ackerman, “whose five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan left him highly decorated”, to write his first novel, titled suggestively Green on Blue. Set in Afghanistan and told from the perspective of an Afghan soldier who desperately fights to maintain his wounded brother’s manly dignity, Ackerman’s novel has been repeatedly described by literary critics as performing an act of ‘cultural appropriation’, an audacious act unheard of at least in the genre of war writing. True, novels about the enemy are common in times of war, but Ackerman does more than that. Green on Blue lets readers linger, at least for the duration of the reading, in the very mind of the enemy, who, in the end, is not much of an enemy after all, but the peon caught in the vicious whirlpool of a war in which money has become a “weapons system”, to use a phrase from Phil Klay’s Redeployment.
Yet, besides the typical reactions that a novel narrated from the perspective of the ‘enemy’ could ultimately trigger, and besides the ideology of the conqueror/winner lurking in the backstage of such denunciations of ‘cultural appropriation’, it is my contention that Ackerman’s novel also offers precious insight precisely into how discourses surrounding such historical events as the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ‘war on terror’ perform these interpretative intrusions by setting up a dialogue between two cultural artifacts. One way to assess the degree of this intrusion would be to bring two other cultural artifacts, one pertaining to and imbued with the culture of the one performing the ‘cultural appropriation’, namely Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, and the other pertaining to the culture of the ‘enemy’, namely Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq.
Though Ackerman explicitly stated that “while the American West wasn’t ‘front and center’ in his mind while writing, ‘the American counterinsurgency campaign was, and so by default, the Indian Wars became a layer in understanding how Americans behave in these types of war’.” Worth noting from this point of view are the novel’s frequent covert references to the American West and the Indian Wars, which, besides being pertinent because of the similarities between the Afghan landscape and that of the American West, also attest to a cultural recognition of preexisting narratives. In fact, a great number of vets identify McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as the novel that best describes Afghanistan for several reasons that are not as striking as they look.
The resemblance is mostly visible in the way the landscape is described in Ackerman’s and McCarthy’s novels. On one of his first missions with the Special Lashkar, a military group supported with American money to maintain a balance of power and influence in the region, the narrator, Aziz, describes the Afghan mountains in animalistic terms, giving them the characteristics of a mouth that “swallows” the convoy, the ravine that “rolled out like a sloppy tongue”, descriptions that recall some of those present in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “the cotton eye of the moon squatted at broad day in the throat of the mountains.” From this point of view, both Ackerman’s Green on Blue and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seem to portray a geography whose constitution is imbued with fear, a feeling prompted by a nature that refuses to be something other than a stubborn force, that refuses to accommodate human presence. In both novels, nature has its own impenetrable rhythms, it follows cycles and unwritten rules.
Along the roads travelled by the protagonists of the two novels, one can almost hear the same sounds, the same barking dogs, see the same “low mud houses”, and sometimes even encounter the same characters. Consider, for instance, the old hermit whom ‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian encounters towards the beginning of the novel, an old man who is so much like Mumtaz from Green on Blue, both offering comfort to the protagonists. “The family of itinerant musicians” who “were dressed in fools’ costumes with stars and halfmoons embroidered on” reemerge under a similar guise in Ackerman’s novel as “travelling musicians looking for work.” There is even something in Aziz’s demeanor that reflects the behavior of‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian. Both protagonists are young and unknowing, and their education, or lack of it, is not aligned with the violently changing political environment, an aspect which in turn reinforces their malleability. Yet, the references to the American West are at their peak of visibility particularly when the narrator tells of how their military company had been divided into two groups with revealing names, the Tomahawks and the Comanches. The split, Aziz explains, had been done not only for strategic purposes but also because their American sponsor, the ghostly Mr. Jack, “had a great affection for the American West”.
Yet, it is my contention that this is the issue with Ackerman’s attempt at ‘cultural appropriation’. Though the novel is written from the perspective of an Afghan soldier, Aziz is still the beholder of an ‘American gaze’, or, to put it more bluntly, an ‘Americanizing gaze’. Aziz inherits some parts of that myth of the self-made man. This is particularly visible towards the end of the novel, where Aziz emerges triumphant as a spy in an American spy movie, as someone who has reached a superiorunderstanding, despite his limited education, of the very war he had been fighting in and of the forces that come into play. His ‘Americanizing gaze’ is also visible when he goes back to visit his maimed brother under the guise of deceit to tell him that he had been apprenticed to a merchant in Kabul and that he was doing the work of an honest man. Aziz acts like an American when, while still fighting for the Special Lashkar, he pounds on the top of the car to let the driver know that they are all ready to go. The gesture, somehow an awkward imitation of Hollywood action movies, has the same hollow ring as the scene in which ‘the kid’ from Blood Meridian enters a bar and all the men inside “quit talking when he entered”. Most importantly, that presence of spirit is there when he tells his imagined readers that Mr. Jack wrongly assumed that they, Afghans, “did not understand what it meant to be named after the Indians of his country, but we understood. To us, it seemed a small but misguided sort of insult. For our tribes had never been conquered.” For an uneducated Afghan soldier, Aziz seems to know an awful lot about Native Americans.
Still, the novel’s cultural appropriation works best particularly when members of the US occupation forces come to be portrayed throughout the novel. Besides the occasional American soldiers that appear in contrast with the Afghan soldiers due to the size and shape of their bodies, the only instance of American presence that somewhat strikes a chord is that of Mr. Jack, whose ghostly presence matches in tone the almost carnivalesque appearance of the Comanches and the Apaches in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Mysterious, coming and going only during the night in a pitch-dark vehicle, Mr. Jack stands out chiefly because of his blinding white teeth, his ridiculous wardrobe, “his shalwar kameez [that] still held the creases from where it’d been folded in plastic packaging,” and his American way of speaking Pashto.
One way to test the accuracy of this instant of cultural appropriation would be to look for similar textual instances in narratives written by those within the culture that is being appropriated and see how they engage in dialogue with each other. The example that comes nearest to that of Mr. Jack is the representation of “the blonds” in Hassan Blasim’s short story “The Madman of Freedom Square”, included in The Corpse Exhibition. Albeit the narrative does not specify overtly that the two blonds are American, their narrative seems to follow a prescribed structure: two blonds, most likely a reference to the color of their skin and hair, come to town and suddenly everyone is getting a raise, the town’s infrastructure develops, the usual tropes of American financial support within the discourse of the ‘war on terror’. Soon enough, akin to Mr. Jack with his blindingly white teeth and eyes drained of color, the blonds acquire a certain mythical aura around their presence. “The local women”, the narrative goes,
attributed to the baraka or spiritual power of the blonds the fact that their husbands, who worked sweeping the streets or as school janitors in the city center, had all received pay raises. The husbands, who had been skeptical about the baraka of the two men, soon stopped scoffing, when the government decided to install electricity at the beginning of winter.
The very presence of these two men bears an uncanniness akin to the presence of Mr. Jack in Ackerman’s Green on Blue. This mode of describing American presence, however, has apparently turned into a trope and is not limited to fictional representations. In The Assassins’ Gate, while describing a formal meeting between American officials and Iraqi exiles that took place at the London Hilton Metropole in 2002, George Packer resorts to the same vocabulary. “Sprinkled among them”, Packer notes the contrast, “palely lurking, were the Americans. […] These Americans moved through the throng of Iraqi exiles with the glowing and watchful fervor of missionaries among the converted.”
Going back to the notion of ‘selfish events’ and trying to give an answer to the question as to why interpretative intrusions such as these occur, it is my contention that any such event, due to the immediate effects of its occurrence, does not have the time and the cultural resources to create a discourse that could explain the complexity of that event, and as such it resorts to cultural artifacts that happen to be in its proximity so as to sustain its cultural presence at least until a separate discourse, of its own, has been created and culturally reinforced. This process is most visible for instance, in the kind of comparisons that politicians, and other figures that retain high amounts of cultural capital, make in the immediate aftermath of violent and sudden events. Such is the case, just to give an example, of how the attacks of September 11 were frequently compared to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. At that point in time, 9/11 lacked an eloquent discourse that could make it culturally sustainable and therefore it needed another, more eloquent discourse, to act as cultural scaffolding. And until the ‘war on terror’ does not form its own eloquent discourse it will keep resorting to other discourses for cultural sustenance. For the time being, it thrives only within this constant dialogue between cultural artifacts, images, ideas, texts.