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  • Virtual TraumaThe Idiom of 9/11
  • Marc Redfield (bio)

There can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero. . . .

—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

. . . unterm

Datum des Nimmermenschtags im September . . .

—Paul Celan, “Huhediblu”

Although no event releases its full historical dimensions to those who endure it, the fact that the terrorist attacks of September 11 left a mark on ordinary language offers a hint of their historical force. A society keyed to spectacle is necessarily an intensely if narrowly verbal society, and it is above all as a name that September 11 has become part of everyday American cultural life. The array of images—photographs and video recordings—remain on call in the archive, forever ready to reappear in the media or to be accessed via the Internet; but far more available, endlessly and unavoidably available, whether for purposes of quotidian communication or political manipulation, are the keywords themselves: the name-date, “September 11” or “9/11,” and, shadowing it, an atomic-era military idiom, “ground zero,” turned toponym. Speakers of American English can no more evade these newly minted proper names than they can the metaphysically and historically overburdened phrase “war on terror,” which, in the name of “September 11,” has provided the official gloss for so many acts of US state violence since the fall of 2001.1 More localized linguistic fallout from the attacks also exists, and may or may not turn out to hold interest for cultural analysts or historians.2 But no cultural study of the September 11 attacks and their aftermath, whatever the methodology or emphasis, can afford to ignore the rhetorical and political work performed by this event’s loomingly proper names—particularly [End Page 55] the name-date itself, for which no synonyms exist and which anchors all talk and all analysis of “September 11” to a powerful, haunting catachresis.

These names reiterate the trauma to which they point, and a close reading of them will help us approach the difficult question of how and why September 11 registers as a cultural trauma. That the attacks inflicted a shock of historical scale seems clear, but the shape and scope of this wound is not. The pain and damage suffered by survivors, victims, and the relatives and friends of victims of this atrocity is of course unquestionable: such suffering demands infinite respect and not, except in the privacy of the clinic, analysis. But if we try to conceive of trauma on a cultural level things become more ambiguous, above all in the case of the 9/11 attacks. They were not of a society-threatening scale (as warfare, genocide, famine, or natural cataclysm have been for so many human societies), and the literal damage they did to the military and commercial orders symbolized by the Pentagon and the World Trade Center was miniscule; it is of course as symbolic acts of violence that they claim culturally traumatic status. But even here the symptoms are complex. In targeting and in one case destroying two prominent architectural symbols of a superpower, the terrorists seem to have managed to do some local damage to the process of symbolization itself. Their violence would thus have produced a “silence that is not mere mutism but intricately related to representation,” to recall one of Dominick LaCapra’s reflections on historical trauma (in this case, the Shoah) [LaCapra 220].3 Trauma involves blockage: an inability to mourn, to move from repetition to working-through. It is certainly plausible that hyperbolic commemorative efforts such as those on display in “9/11 discourse” (as I shall call it) are in fact testimonials to blockage; for that matter it is plausible that a public sphere as saturated by consumerist and military interests as that of the present-day United States has no viable mechanisms for effective public grieving. Yet to say this is also to say that in such a context the very notion of cultural trauma becomes somewhat spectral and uncertain. Wherever one looks in 9/11 discourse, trauma and the warding-off of trauma blur into each other, as the event disappears into its own mediation. All traumatic events arguably do this; but as many have commented, there is something...