Desktop version

Home arrow Political science

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

/11 memory and the “trauma economy”

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein outlines a form of economic liberalism bred in the wake of “catastrophic events” (2007, 6). Opening her text with the auctioning off of post-Katrina New Orleans, Klein reveals the state’s role in profiting from the exploits of human suffering as it treats “disasters as exciting market opportunities” to accumulate new market shares through public-private capital investments (2007, 6). As the author describes, “orchestrated raids on the public sphere” in the aftermath of crisis produce a political economy of “disaster capitalism” (2007, 6).

Klein’s conceptualization of disaster capitalism is grounded in what she terms “the shock doctrine,” or state practices of privatization—“selling off” public goods and services to private investors—that are accelerated while citizens are “still reeling from the shock” (2007, 7). Utilizing “moments of collective trauma to engage in radical social and economic engineering” (Klein 2007, 9), the state harnesses crisis to circumvent political opposition to its own reconfiguration of representational democracy. This psychologically driven, neoliberal mode of governance is the brainchild of Chicago school economist Milton Friedman. In Friedman’s words, the role of the state is “to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizens: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets” (Friedman 1982, 2). Entrenching state sovereignty with laissez-fair reasoning, this neoliberal mode of governance foregrounds global capitalism in political life under postmodernity.

Klein’s analysis of “shock politics” illuminates trauma’s intimate relationship to the state in late modernity (Klein 2007). Designed to confound both the economy and bewildered population further into submission, times of crisis enable the state to utilize traumatizing events to dramatically reorganize social life outside of liberal democracy. According to Jenny Ed-kins (2003, xiv), trauma constitutes a rupture within the state’s otherwise ‘business as usual’ politics; it disrupts normative scripts of order and control conferred through sovereign rule, such as political rights, security, and safety. Moments of traumatic rupture, or “shock disorientation,” as Klein later characterizes them (Klein, Smith, and Patrick 2008, 583), produce fertile conditions for both social reinforcement and revolution.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, the affective power of post-traumatic shock—feelings of powerlessness, numbness, and vulnerability among the citizenry—enabled the state to enact socio-economic reforms only possible in the context of so-called disaster “recovery,” such as heavily expanded surveillance, rendition, and special registrations. Governmental power to enact major societal, economic, and political reform—including the suspension of democracy itself (i.e., the right to trial, right to privacy, protection against warrantless search and seizure, amongst other protections)—is, according to the logics of disaster capitalism, rooted in the state’s capacity to capitalize on trauma. “Only a crisis—actual or perceived— produces real change,” as Friedman himself confirms (1982, xiv). According to Friedman’s logic, the management of trauma is essential to reestablishing sovereign power and neoliberal state control in the wake of disasters, real or perceived, natural or man-made (see Edkins 2003, xiv; also see Perera 2010). Exercising disaster capitalism, the state seizes upon moments of cultural trauma, or shock disorientation, to rapidly generate private profit and reestablish sovereign authority through inscription of the post-disaster social order, where, as Klein puts it, “fear and disorder” are strategically mobilized as “catalysts for each new leap forward” (2007, 10).

Building upon Klein’s conceptualization of shock politics, this chapter analyzes the post-9/11 “trauma economy” (see Tomsky 2011). Defined as “a circuit of movement and exchange where traumatic memories ‘travel’ and are valued and revalued along the way” (Tomsky 2011, 49), the trauma economy is essential to disaster capitalism after 9/11. For Tomsky, “representations of trauma,” which include practices of memory and memorialization, “circulate in an international system” where powerful states ‘cash-in’ on the affective economies of traumatic memories to wield their power geopolitically (2011, 53). Operating as a kind of global marketplace for transnational flows of cultural memory and trauma, these “affective atmospheres” (Anderson 2009) subconsciously inform global sensibilities, beliefs, and emotions about past or present-day experiences of national security, personal safety, and cultural suffering, thereby reshaping political subjectivities in the present.

Throughout the post-9/11 decades, the cultural trauma known as “9/11” has become meaningful in ways that not only reinforce the amalgamation of state and market interests in waging military operations—$6.4 trillion in military spending to date1—but also capitalize on post-traumatic shock to buttress the surveillance state and demolish both civil and human rights. Post-traumatic shock is a neurological and physiological response to insidious or acute threats of violence. Whether directly exposed to the threat of injury or death during wartime, or indirectly exposed to the horrific suffering of others—including the slow destruction of communities, intergenerationally—lasting feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, numbness, and vulnerability can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD (see Yehuda 2002, on PTSD). The phenomenon was first identified as “shell shock” in soldiers returning from battle at the end of World War I (Edkins 2003, 1), but it was not until 1980, in the aftermath of the Vietnam

War (and involuntary military conscription), that the American Psychological Association introduced PTSD into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Today, the medicalization of PTSD signals the broader acceptance of catastrophe in daily life throughout late modernity and its association with war-related trauma, yes, but also the systemic trauma of childhood sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, forced assimilation, racism, cultural erasure, and other forms of trauma. It also attests to an increased recognition that trauma persists in individual and collective psyches through negative sensations, flashbacks, or memories that trigger the resurfacing of “old wounds” (see Caruth 1995). With regard to major cultural events—events like September 11,2001—collective memories of the cultural trauma can actually “proliferate a continuing sense of collective injury that keeps the trauma ‘alive’” (Hutchison 2016, 27). Promoting a politics of wounding, where “the wound is a sign of [cultural] identity” (Ahmed 2004, 32), the “‘structures of feeling’ that ensue from an ongoing sense of victimization and suffering” often rationalize state action in the name of disaster management (Hutchison 2016, 27). Lived experiences of the 9/11 attacks, as well as the event’s subsequent remembrance, are, therefore, vital to the reestablishment of US sovereignty and geopolitical power in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

This chapter theorizes the affective atmosphere of 9/11 memory and its role in reestablishing sovereign power and national security at the expense of more complex narratives of loss. To this end, I argue that the mobilization of traumatic memory throughout the post-9/11 trauma economy institutes an emotional regime whereby the usurpation of cultural suffering enables particular configurations of disaster capitalism following the attacks. Here, disaster capitalism exercises the transformative power of 9/11-ruin in significant ways. First, the deployment of 9/11 as a transcultural meta-trauma, that is, the framing of 9/11 as a local-global event, is imperative for imposing and maintaining the primary post-9/11 disaster economy: the war on terror.

Cultural understandings of 9/11 as an ongoing crisis, or ensuing state of shock, merge the neoliberal and imperial tendencies of the US state. Here, disaster capitalism re-secures the state’s role as the premier benefactor of terrorism through budding economies of war and disaster recovery. Forged in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks as creative destruction’s conjoined twin, disaster capitalism regenerates the wounded economic and geopolitical reach of the US state through foreign contracts, transnational aid, and new security markets. Second, the post-9/11 trauma economy capitalizes upon 9/11-ruin through the erection of causal economies of perpetration and victimization. Here, memory of the attacks is in itself a cultural artifact and commodity, valued and traded in the global exchange of political culpability and international sympathy.

Collective memories of cultural suffering were radically transformed amidst emergent ideologies of human rights following World War 11. As the international community reckoned with war crimes and held culpable

9/11 memory and the “trauma economy’’ 119 governments accountable, narratives of perpetration and victimization circulated globally as states and non-state actors vied for international legitimacy in the post-war world order (see Levy and Sznaider 2006, 2010; Rothberg 2009). Indicative of the postmodern shift from history to memory, this rejection of hegemonic historical narratives simultaneously constructed historiographies vis-à-vis the collection of personal memories or eyewitness accounts of harrowing events (see Young 1993 on “collected memory”). As recollections of human rights violations politicized cultural suffering within newly constructed categories of protection under international law, memories of war-related atrocity were revalued as global commodities for states to ‘cash in on’ in the wake of massive geopolitical restructuring following the war. In these conjoined emotional economies of perpetration and victimization, multiple histories of trauma—past and present-day—were recycled through Cold War and postcolonial discourses alike to justify, or deny, political legitimacy in the emerging new world order.

As the previous chapter discussed, the transnational appropriation of Holocaust memory confers this particular cultural trauma with interpretive power over a wide range of contemporary political affairs. By imposing a “moral reading” on contemporary international conflict, Holocaust analogies provide justification for political and military action to both national and international publics. When the Israeli state compared its regional enemies to Nazis during the Arab-Israeli wars (see Chapter 3), for example, it discursively positioned its actions to be understood in accordance with international law under the just war doctrine: war in self-defense. Military actions taken by, or against, the Jewish state are, in these contexts, interpreted through a post-Holocaust rubric of national sovereignty and cultural genocide. This politicization of Holocaust memory not only explains the Arab-Israeli conflict to international audiences by reducing the complex history of the now decades-old Middle East conflict to a single cause, namely Arab anti-Semitism, but it also justifies settler colonialism as a rational, even necessary response to global anti-Semitism. As memories of Jewish suffering have come to explain present-day territorial and border conflicts, memories of cultural trauma have become critical forms of soft power, exerting geopolitical influence in postmodernity.

As recent literature on collective memory and international relations asserts (see Bell 2006; Auchter 2014; Resende and Budryte 2014, amongst others), the role and usefulness of memory—especially memories of trauma—to the state, has intensified under modernity. The symbolic power of traumatic memory as a catalyst of modern-day political community garners strength through the generation of “affective bonds” and “a sense of belonging” to the nation (Bell 2006, 5). According to Hutchison, “atrocity and its memory” generate emotional bonds that bind individuals together through “shared emotional understandings of tragedy” (2016, 4). Experiences of cultural trauma “influence not only how individuals and communities interact and define themselves, but also how ensuing political outlooks and policies are formed” (Hutchison 2016, 1). Following the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, for instance, spontaneous vigils were organized across the country and throughout much of the world in a show of support for the afflicted communities and to pay tribute to the missing. It seemed as though a powerful moment of international cooperation and self-reflection had emerged to address disparities in global economic policy and US-Middle East relations. Yet, as quickly as this newfound fellowship and self-awareness had emerged, public sentiment was quelled by concern for state sovereignty and military responsiveness. In his speech to the United Nations, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani expressed the following sentiments shortly after the attacks:

The determination, resolve, and leadership of President George W. Bush has unified America and all decent men and women around the world. The response of many of your nations, your leaders and people, spontaneously demonstrating in the days after the attack your support for New York and America, and your understanding of what needs to be done to remove the threat of terrorism, gives us great, great hope that we will prevail. (Giuliani 2001)

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Giuliani capitalized on the international support and global empathy directed at both the City of New York and the US nation-state to cement geopolitical alliances as well as justify the state’s unfolding military agenda. The former mayor’s comments worked to sanction US military action while undermining any critical dissent of the looming war—a trend that continues well into the post-9/11 decades.2

While the neoliberal and imperialist nature of the war on terror has been substantially theorized (see Smith 2001; Gregory 2004, 2009; Roy 2004; Chomsky 2005; Grewal 2005; A. Kaplan 2005; Al-Ali and Pratt 2009; Morrissey 2011), the affective atmosphere of 9/11 memory and its role in upholding the war on terror has not (see Gilney and Gokcan 2010; Bond 2011; Tomsky 2011; Paliewicz and Hasian 2017; and Sodaro 2018 as notable exceptions). My analysis, therefore, concerns itself with the second tenet of the post-9/11 trauma economy: the creation of causal economies of perpetration and victimization. In these “affective economies” (Ahmed 2004), memories of trauma circulate transnationally to restructure geopolitical histories and knowledges of the September 11 attacks through popular scripts of good and evil. Here, states and non-state actors alike vie to control the representational “frames of reference” used to explain international terrorism to transnational audiences (May 2003, 38). Such “representational and non-representational” experiences of this traumatic past are then internalized by international publics through the transnational circulation of memory discourses, affecting political communities from the inside out (Grayson 2018, 54).

The amalgamation of trauma and memory as influential modes of popular geopolitics—or ways of learning complex world politics through memories of peoples, places, and cultures—has led to the global proliferation of “victim nationalisms”, or “specific forms of nationalism that rest on the memory of collective suffering” to establish relativist historiographies of international relations under postmodernity (Lim 2010, 139, emphasis added). The synthesis of Holocaust and 9/11 memories in the public imagination following the September 11 attacks, for example, secures an affective economy of cultural suffering whereby both allied states—the United States and Israel—operate against a common geopolitical threat (see Chapter 3). In this transnational trauma economy, geopolitical hierarchies of suffering are established to favor Western-dominated narratives of memory and trauma. Within such logics, violence enacted against American or Israeli lives is conceived as inhumane and intolerable. Conversely, the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi, and Arab civilians—and even of allied security forces—are neither constituted as crimes against humanity, nor valued like their First-World counterparts. Third-World deaths are morally and politically constructed as acceptable deaths by framing them as those of “enemy-combatants” or, in a best-case scenario, the unfortunate cost of (international security— read: “collateral damage.” In other words, Third-World lives become “un-grievable lives” within the post-9/11, disaster-capitalist trauma economy (see Hyndman 2003, 2007; Butler 2004).

As the ongoing politicizations of Holocaust and 9/11 memories demonstrate, nation-states—and their willing transnational publics—propagate memories of collective suffering and victimization to elide subaltern claims of state-based aggression and preemption. Here, the geopolitical stakes of collective memory and cultural trauma are concealed—or rather revealed— through institutional efforts to exploit violations directed at the state to build zwiernational community, while strategically forgetting violence the state itself enacts against its imagined ‘others’ in the name of retributive ‘justice.’ As Cvetkovich astutely observes,

the amnesiac powers of national culture, which is adept at using one trauma story to suppress another .... can be used to reinforce nationalism when [trauma is] constructed as a wound that must be healed in the name of unity. (2003, 16)

In other words, collective memories of cultural trauma profoundly shape transnational attitudes throughout twin economies of disaster recovery and trauma’s remembrance.

As argued in Chapter 2, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum entrenches traumatic memory in the collective national body vis-à-vis affective heritage. As cultural trauma is spatially reinforced by architectural performances, or “space stories” (Yanow 1998), encoded at the museological site, the attacks are rendered meaningful to patrons through embodied, emotional experiences of place that dovetail with post-9/11 discourses of (international security. Here, discourses of xenophobia and Islamophobia violently reinforce spatial experiences of “inclusion-exclusion, security-insecurity, and violence against or care for certain bodies” at the site (Fluri 2014, 795). In a visit to Lower Manhattan in the spring of 2015, for instance, I overheard two men loudly vocalize their disapproval of a Muslim woman’s presence at the 9/11 memorial during their visit to the site earlier that day (the two men were no longer at the memorial). This field observation is representative of larger patterns of xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racial epithets recorded at or near the site between 2010 and 2019. Actions such as these not only perform various types of inclusion-exclusion based on racialized and gendered taxonomies of post-9/11 citizenship, but they also reproduce hierarchies of suffering that dispel Muslim homage to the site and disavow narratives of Muslim victimization. Such evocative experiences of place reaffirm the (bio) political bond between state and citizen in the aftermath of crisis, but at the expense of those excluded from post-9/11 discourses of national belonging.

As the above example reveals, the affective atmosphere of 9/11 memory in situ is vital to sustaining the emotional power of this traumatic memory ex situ. In the post-9/11 trauma economy, the neoliberal state both generates and utilizes these emotional responses to 9/11-ruin to underwrite its capital and imperial ventures in the burgeoning economy of global terrorism and international security. Here, the affective atmosphere of 9/11 memory is vital to sustaining the trauma economy of endless war, emotionally. In an interview, Naomi Klein argues that disaster capitalism arises from declared states of emergency that help produce a “philosophy of power” (Klein, Smith, and Patrick 2008, 582). As she expands:

I am talking about ... using a crisis to limit democracy, to declare a democracy-free zone because it’s a state of emergency.... The feeding-off of crisis and shock disorientation in these democracy-free zones and states of emergency challenges th[e] narrative [“that free peoples and free markets go hand in hand”] head on. (Klein, Smith, and Patrick 2008, 583, emphasis added)

As this quote suggests, the modus operandi of the post-9/11 trauma economy is much more disconcerting than economic, political, social, or even legal control over traumatized populations. In the trauma economy, the jurisdiction of the state extends post-traumatic shock to the management of collective emotion, creating an “affective turn” in governmentality. As Staiger, Cvetkovich, and Reynolds assert: “Perhaps we truly encounter the political only when we feel” (2010, 4, emphasis in original).

I now turn to the work of political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998, 2005) and his theorizations of the “state of exception.” In the declarations of emergency following the September 11 attacks—an act that both sustains and forecloses the initial injury—the apparatus of the neoliberal state is rendered visible. This next section theorizes how the amalgamation of state, sovereign, and market power comes to supersede democracy itself in the wake of crisis. My analysis begins at the creative intersection of life and death, emergency and exception, memory and forgetting. I then turn to the work of visual artist Pritika Chowdhry to illustrate Agamben’s concept of “bare life” as it exists in the post-9/11 trauma economy before returning my analysis to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum itself. These sections work together to reveal the affective power of 9/11 memory to codify strategic narratives of victimization that exclude those marked as “others” from its community of victims.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics