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  • A World Neither Brave Nor New:Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11
  • Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the muttering of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality.

Lyotard 1984: 82

On ne peut pas écrire sur ce sujet mais on ne peut pas écrire sur autre chose non plus. Plus rien ne nous atteint.

Beigbeder 2003:18

The End without Ending: The Intrusion of the Real

9/11 has been imagined before in countless hijack or terminal disaster films such as Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and Independence Day. Slavoj Žižek presents the TV coverage of 9/11 as the Hitchcock moment of horror that is actually happening; it is the intrusion of the real into fiction. This is what made similar scenes in horror movies unscreenable in the immediate weeks after 9/11 and sent the CIA scurrying after Hollywood scriptwriters in order to try to understand the terrorists. It is an intrusion, Žižek argues, that is the ultimate marker of the "passion for the Real" (2002: 16-20). One instance of this intrusion occurs in the film The Matrix (1999) when the hero awakens from what he thought [End Page 151] was "real" into the "real reality" and sees a desolate landscape littered with the burned ruins of Chicago after a global war. The hero then encounters resistance leader Morpheus, who utters the ironic greeting: "Welcome to the desert of the real."1

This essay explores how our imagining of future disaster in dystopian literature is re-visioned and revised by the after-image of the disaster that has actually happened. If there has been a change in our reading of literature and film since 9/11, this change may not be quantifiable (a measurement beyond the scope of this essay and possibly beyond feasibility), but it may teach us something about the way in which the afterimage of the disaster that has actually occurred affects our reading in the would-be anterior future of imagined terminal catastrophe, the imagined end of society, of time, of the story. A similar process of reinterpretation happened after the 2004 tsunami disaster in Asia, which seemed to outdo the scenes in the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) of a submerged New York. Each of these events challenged the human ability to control history and the environment.

Both natural and man-made disasters leave deep impressions on the imagination and on philosophy. For example, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake destroyed an imperial capital equivalent to the size of prewar London and made a laughing-stock of Leibnizian optimism in Voltaire's Candide. Yet natural disasters do not usually have political, military, and historical significance and, unlike 9/11, are rarely thought of as marking the end of an era. 9/11 was an intrusion of the real that made it impossible to un-imagine dystopia as nightmare or fantasy. It is not a matter of whether or not utopian thought is still sustainable or practical, but of what has happened in postmodern fiction under the impact of a real collision of reality and imagination. This destruction was not just another demonstration of a culture of after-images but a singular event, perhaps an ur-event, which showed that the world was in a permanent state of unending disasters.

What could looking backward from after 9/11 mean for our reading of dystopian texts? We do not have in mind mere "foreshadowing" (cf. Bernstein 1994), or Jacques Derrida's delineation of nuclear-holocaust [End Page 152] discourse as an entirely fictional genre (since it had not happened and could not happen without erasing all record, all archive, of its having happened).2 Rather, the effect of reading any dystopian text post factum, when history has given chilling new meaning to the original context in which the disaster was imagined, reverses the relationship between fiction and reality and raises unsettling postmodern suspicions of the "real" as something that can be known otherwise than as an aesthetic artefact. We are always, when reading narratives, looking forward, in all senses, to the end, but...


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pp. 151-179
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