Radical History Review 85 (2003) 82-93
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Reflections and Reports
Reflections on Language and Space
Since September 11, new words have entered our everyday lexicon as though they have always been there. Ground Zero and homeland constitute especially salient and evocative spatial metaphors, which in public discourse do not appear metaphoric at all, but as literal descriptions of actual places. I am interested in how these words frame, interpret, and produce meanings—and preclude other meanings—both for the events that have come to be known as 9/11 and for changing images of U.S. nationhood and its relation to the world outside it. In contrast to the highly charged—perhaps even sacred—spaces of Ground Zero and the homeland, there exist other key locations around the globe that have new political uses and meanings, but for which there seems to be a dearth of public discourse and language. One of these locations is Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I look at how these three spaces are represented and what the relations among them might be. My reflections explore the relationship between language and space, how words map, blur, and reconstruct the conceptual, affective, and symbolic borders between spheres once thought of as distinctly separate—as either national or international, domestic or foreign, "at home" or "abroad."
Let me start at ground zero—not with the site of carnage in lower Manhattan, but with the meaning of the words, which have a temporal as well as a spatial dimension. Like the use of 9/11, Ground Zero is a highly condensed and charged appellation [End Page 82] that has come to represent the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC), the physical location itself, the experience of untold suffering, as well as the absence of the twin towers, the people, and the corpses to bury. We can learn something about this term before September 11, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. First the date it entered the English language: 1946. Then (1) "the point directly above, below, or at which a nuclear explosion occurs"; (2) "the center or origin of rapid, intense, or violent activity or change." This definition, more metaphorical than the first, moves from a single point of spatial impact to the unleashing of vast repercussions over time. Definition 3: "The very beginning, square one." 1 We often use ground zero colloquially to convey the sense of starting from scratch, a clean slate, the bottom line. This meaning resonates with the often heard claim that the world was radically altered by 9/11, that the world will never be the same, that Americans have lost their former innocence about their safety and invulnerability at home. This way of thinking might be called a narrative of historical exceptionalism, almost an antinarrative, claiming the event to be so unique and unprecedented as to transcend time and defy comparison or historical analysis. Even though it describes cataclysmic change, it also conveys a traumatic sense of time standing still, which denies the reality of change, that is, if we think of change as a process of transformation with both continuity and discontinuity to what came before and after. Furthermore, another political implication of ground zero as the point of origin is that the illimitable response to terrorism must itself start from square one, from this original perpetration of evil. The response must match the full power of this traumatic rupture, for which no prior guidance, historical limits, or wider political context seem appropriate.
As Marita Sturken has shown, this narrative of unprecedented trauma in fact has many precedents; it is an oft-told story of America's fall from innocence, one that in its repetition reaffirms a double meaning of innocence—as not guilty and as naively trusting. 2 (Thomas Friedman has even attributed the colossal failure of U.S. intelligence prior to September 11 to the trusting good nature of the American character that could not conceive of such evil). 3 Historical exceptionalism, I would argue, is intimately related to a long-standing tradition of American exceptionalism, a...