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Prelude: curating trauma
The traumatic nature of the September 11th terror attacks shook most Americans to the core. US vulnerability had been exposed for the first time since Pearl Harbor, reigniting sentiments of insecurity and paranoia unparalleled since the Cold War, and a nostalgia for ‘safer times’ no longer discernable through the dust of the fallen buildings. The events transformed New York City into a “wounded landscape” representative of a collective cultural loss (see Harvey 2003; Till 2012), newly symbolized by missing buildings and people, and a fractured skyline. As this collective sense of grief emanated outward, reverberating from Lower Manhattan to the regional, national, and global audiences that watched on, establishing an appropriate memorial became a necessary first step toward mending this collective wound (see E. A. Kaplan 2005).
Michael Arad, the winning architect of the World Trade Center memorial design competition (held 2003-2004), recalled what inspired his design. Reflecting Absence, in a public speaking engagement. Arad reminisced about staring out toward the Hudson River from the roof of his apartment building, days after the terror attack, lamenting the massive voids where the Twin Towers once stood. Articulating his vision for the memorial pools as “voids never filling up where the surface of the water was torn open," where a “secondary void yawns forever, remains forever empty" so that “you cannot see the bottom,” Arad conceptualized the commemorative site as both an architectural and emotional wound (Arad 2012, italics mine).
The twin voids in New York City manifested as a wound on the national body-politic and collective, cultural psyche. According to Western etymology, trauma was first conceived as a physical wound on the body (Greenberg 2003). Modern psychologists have since theorized trauma as emotional, or psychic, wounding (see Caruth 1996). Traumatic wounds, according to Cathy Caruth (1995), manifest as unknowable voids, unassimilable into the psyche. Arad’s aestheticization of the former Trade Towers transformed ‘unknowable voids’ into a “traumascape”: space of and for encountering the traumatic past (Tumarkin 2005), marking a significant step in the official curation of the cultural trauma known as “9/11.”
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is one of the highest-profile cultural destinations in recent memory, yet remains one of the least theorized.1 Charged with preserving the traumatic events of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, honoring and remembering its nearly 3,000 victims, and forging a collective, cultural memory, the cultural institution located at “Ground Zero” is imbued with national significance. With its memorial publicly dedicated in September 2011 and its museum in May 2014, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, also known as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, has since welcomed more than 50 million visitors to collectively ‘bear witness’ to the violence of the attacks and mourn its victims, to understand the threat of global terrorism, and to learn the history of the 9/11-terrorist plot against the United States government. But how does this cultural institution represent an event that has been called ‘unrepresentable’ by so many? How does it assist a community, a nation—still reeling in a ‘post’-September 11th wake—to make sense of something that, for many, remains nonsensical? What does it mean to remember ‘9/11’ amidst an ongoing war, a war that is effectively waged in its name?
This book begins with the creation of a world-class memorial museum in Lower Manhattan and the politics of curating traumatic memory at the mnemonic site. The emergence of memorial museums in late modernity marks an important culmination in Western practices of cultural remembrance. In these hybrid institutional spaces—part memorial, part museum—curating traumatic memory is an institutional raison d’être achieved through new museal practices favoring implicit, emotional learning—what this book theorizes as affective heritage.
Affective heritage arises from a shift in contemporary memorial aesthetics following World War II and the US war in Vietnam. Unlike its mnemonic predecessors, affective heritage relies less on authoritative narratives and official rhetoric to shape and sustain meaning at commemorative sites. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dominant modes of memorialization relied heavily on monumentality. This aesthetic and mnemonic genre served to preserve historical memory in place'. You are here because this place is important; this place is important because you are here (see Nora 1989). Limits to monumentality came, however, in that it, as an immobile, static manifestation of collective memory within the landscape, performed the work of cultural remembering on its own (see Young 1993). Put otherwise: Why remember if we have places that do it for us?
War memorials, for example, have historically functioned more “as staging points for mourning and reflection than as destinations that explain the [cultural] significance of an event” on the present historical moment (Williams 2007, 6). Late-modern memorial aesthetics, however, are less concerned with drawing historical conclusions or tidily communicating emotional closure for visitors. Rather, they aim to challenge the notion of historical finality itself, asking: How is this history relevant now? As monuments became graveyards of collective memory over time, places for memory to live and die, the late twentieth century saw the emergence of new memorial aesthetics favoring ‘anti-monumentality’ (see Carr 2003).
Breaking with the rules of traditional memorial design, including figuration, iconography, and doctrinal elements, the anti-memorial favors abstract, spatial, and experiential elements of memorial architecture. This trend prioritizes spatiality and the affective dynamics of memorial design in generating emotive experiences for site visitors (think Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). Prioritizing embodied, sensual experiences of place, these affect-oriented designs rely less on cognitive, didactive storytelling to facilitate public learning. Rather, visitors learn the cultural significance of places of memory through the generation of visceral sensations and embodied feelings that, when effective, communicate the resonance of the past—a conduit for accessing and processing unresolved histories (see Gordon 1997). Although monumentality has never been fully abandoned in Western practices of memorialization, this shift toward affective heritage has become commonplace in the foremost postmodern memorial type: the memorial museum (see Gurian 1995; Linenthal 1995; Landsberg 2004; Williams 2007; Savage 2009; and Sather-Wagstaff 2011).
Signaling an important shift in mnemonic modes of pedagogy, the indoctrination of affective heritage within memorial museums redirects public learning at places of memory toward embodied, emotional learning. Such experiential designs require critical
thinking about the [affective] spaces of heritage ... shifting from the static ‘site’ or ‘artifact’ to questions of engagement, experience and performance.... These are all multi-sensual sites, alive with intense and often lingering sounds, smells, and sights. (Waterton 2014, 824 and 830)
This is especially true of these hybrid mnemonic sites given their primacy in memorializing difficult or traumatic pasts. Here, the ‘more-than-representational’ spaces of these mnemonic landscapes are vital to representing that which is ‘unrepresentable’ and unknowable: trauma itself (see Freud 1939, 1955b; Felman and Laub 1992; LaCapra 1994,2001; Brown 1995; Caruth 1995, 1996).