- Life between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties
Philip E. Wegner's title presents "two deaths," one to begin the period, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one to close it, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. However, it is the collapse of the World Trade Center that is of particular symbolic interest to Wegner, marking as it does the repetition of the previous fall. This bookending suggests the long 1990s as a distinct historical period but one that functions as an elongated transition from the end of the Cold War to the beginning of the war on terror. The book's cover, showing the rubble and space left by the Twin Towers, perhaps raises false expectations or fears; this is not a book that attempts to reason or explain 9/11, if ever a book could or should. Wegner never attempts to deny the significance of the terror attacks and is quick to stress that 'to describe 9/11 as a repetition rather than an Event is not to deny its significance' (25); nor does he suggest that it was, as a repetition, necessary or inevitable. Instead, for this book, its role is to provide an end date for the period and a prefiguring image that will be located and noted in Wegner's specific cultural analyses.
In his book, Wegner approaches a number of cultural texts from across the era, including literature, film, and television, and identifies the use of allegory to represent social utopias and political ideologies. Perhaps one noticeable absence in Wegner's book is music; Wegner certainly includes a breadth of cinematic and literary material [End Page 259] but engagement with the musical obsessions of the 1990s, such as boy bands, grunge, and rap, might also have added an interesting dynamic to discussions of gender in particular. Using a cultural studies methodology and addressing both fiction and theory as equally meritorious, useful, and indeed interrelated, he endows his choice of cultural texts with political and social import. However, despite the range of texts discussed, Wegner does not consider the relative critical weight or mass media appeal of the titles; in a book that prizes the message and the impact of media, it seems somehow odd not to note the audience who consumed the cultural output.
Framing his focus as the long decade between two deaths signified by collapsing man-made structures, Wegner highlights repetition as a defining motif within the texts he analyzes. Alongside other recent titles such as Samuel Cohen's After the End of History (2009), Wegner designates the 1990s as a distinct historical period; he establishes it as a time frame that was ripe for possibility because, while the nation transitioned from a Cold War identity to a post-terror event identity, there was a strange vacuum of defining socio-political cultural character. Thus, Wegner showcases texts that engage with the openness of the 1990s (itself a repetition of a similar freedom felt in the 1960s), and also highlights those that anticipate its end in violence.
In the two initial chapters, Wegner first establishes the critical framework of the period, using Žižek, Butler, Badiou and Jameson, among others, and then raises issues of periodization through an exploration of Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997). This novel, he argues, narrates a historical period at the same time as critiquing the notion of periodization. Questions of beginnings and endings that emerged through the discussion of the critics in chapter 1—"How do we know...when a period begins? And equally significant, when can it be said to have come to its conclusion?" (48)—are illuminated through a discussion of the novel. Wegner argues that one of DeLillo's primary concerns was to imagine what event would finally conclude the Cold War period, effectively prefiguring 9/11 as the denouement, especially given the importance of the World Trade Center in his narrative and its prominence on the dust jacket.
Chapters 3 to 6 highlight big-budget Hollywood...