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Flanerie at Ground Zero: Aesthetic Countermemories in Lower Manhattan

From: American Quarterly
Volume 58, Number 2, June 2006
pp. 269-299 | 10.1353/aq.2006.0053

Abstract

Although five years have passed since Manhattan's Twin Towers were destroyed, rebuilding projects atop the ruins remain mired in an ideological tug-of-war that offers an exemplary window into how memorial aesthetics and public art become constituted into national mythologies. Ground Zero has been commodified into t-shirts, patriotic coffee mugs with the slogan "Never Forgive, Never Forget," and sundry tourist bric-a-brac; director Oliver Stone's current thriller in the making, the eponymous Ground Zero, promises to further cloud the space with the simulacra of Hollywood spectacle. Amongst all this media alchemy, both 9/11's pretext (the mounting factors that led to such terrorism) and post-text (the consequence of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan) have been virtually dissolved. This essay argues for a radical intervention into these visual politics by reading Ground Zero through the work of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin remains one of most perceptive writers on the intersection between aesthetics and the flow of signs in capitalist society; his unfinished masterpiece, the Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), articulates an especially useful mode of "dialectical seeing" which provides a framework for critiquing Ground Zero's nationalist inscriptions.

This essay will follow the mode of Benjamin's flâneur - a type of urban, meandering visionary where seeing is an exercise in archeology, a peeling off the surfaces of things – to explore artworks that lie on the periphery of Ground Zero. These various public sculptures and art projects, largely made before 2001, speak critically to America's own complicity in the events of Sept. 11th while suggesting several effective memorial possibilities that have been lost in subsequent hubris. The burgeoning literature on Ground Zero memorialization has unjustly neglected these adjacent artworks, and to bring their forgotten aesthetics into the overt politics at Ground Zero's center further ignites what Benjamin called a "profane illumination," a disjunctive break that shatters religious and political continuums. More than ever, Ground Zero stands with an untouchable halo of the sacred. Powerful lobbying groups for families of 9/11 victims have successfully demanded that the foundational footprints of the towers be kept open "from bedrock to infinity" in the Reflecting Absence memorial at the site; such lobbies have also effectively expelled two intended cultural centers at Ground Zero for being "outrageously un-American" and "sacrilegious." As will be demonstrated, these other artworks can interrupt this monocular focus by forcing our gaze to thread the ruins with other, profane representations - from the unsettling torture photographs that have emerged out of Abu Ghraib prison to the ongoing absence of Iraqi dead in the American press – and thereby undo the reconstitution of memorial aesthetics into the logic of war.