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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002) 297-304
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The Dialectics of Disaster
Looking back at September 11 discloses a dissociation of sensibility, in which on the one hand we remember unrealistic visuals, of a special effects or computer graphics type, showing airplanes striking tall and massive edifices, and on the other we recall an amalgamation of media sentiment and emotion, which it would be inexact to call hysterical, since even this hysteria struck many of us, from the outset, as being utterly insincere. To get at the real historical event itself, you feel, one would have to strip away all the emotional reaction to it. But even to get at that emotional reaction, one would have to make one's way through its media orchestration and amplification. People don't appreciate a theoretical discussion of their emotions (Are you questioning the sincerity of my feelings?). I suppose the answer has to be, No, not the sincerity of your feelings; rather, the sincerity of all feelings. There is a famous moment in Proust when the narrator, seeking to enhance the grief he feels at his grandmother's death, suddenly finds he feels nothing at all: the famous "intermittencies of the heart," which the existentialists dramatized by asserting that, whatever the feeling in question [End Page 297] (anger as well as grief, love as much as hate), we never feel enough; the emotion is never full enough; it comes and goes.
So the media hype, and the subsequent media patriotism—which one can surely qualify as obscene without too much fear of contradiction—is grounded on some lack of being in the heart itself. The media is, to be sure, an organism with its own specific biological requirements—to seize on a story of this kind and milk it for all it's worth to exhaustion; hopefully then, as in this case, sublating it into a new story with the same rich possibilities of development. The human individuals (announcers, newspersons, talk-show hosts, etc.) are then parts of this collective organism who eagerly collaborate in its developmental processes and service its wants.
But something needs to be said about the public's reaction; and I think it is instructive to step away for a moment and to deny that it is natural and self-explanatory for masses of people to be devastated by catastrophe in which they have lost no one they know, in a place with which they have no particular connections. Is nationality really so natural a function of human or even social being? Even more than that, is pity or sympathy really so innate a feature of the human constitution? History casts some doubt on both propositions. Meanwhile, think of the way in which a psychologically distressed individual sometimes fixates on some fait divers from a distant place or country—a bizarre accident in Kansas, for example, or a peculiar family tragedy in China—which the sufferer cannot get out of his head and on which crystallize all kinds of intense and troubled feelings, even though no one else seems interested at all. Is the only difference some media affirmation of collective unanimity, of a vast tidal wave of identical reactions? One can say these things now, despite media intimidation and the scapegoating of the unpatriotic nonmourners, because even the bereaved families have begun publicly to denounce the "ghoulishness" of such arrangements as the "viewing platform" lately erected on the Twin Towers site.
It is not particularly difficult to grasp the mechanics of a collective delirium of this kind, and of what we may technically call a collective fantasy without meaning to imply in any way that it is unreal. Aristotle already described it, in accounting for the peculiar effects of a unique collective spectacle of his day. Pity and fear: fear comes from putting myself in a victim's place, imagining the horror of the fire and the unimaginable height outside the windows; pity then sets in when we remember we are safe ourselves, and think of others who were not. Add to all this morbid curiosity and the...