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Un/grievable lives

Throughout the post-9/11 disaster-trauma economy, reconfigurations of neoliberal capitalism have produced certain lives as more precious and deserving of state-protection and safety in the broader global security nexus. “Precarious life” (Butler 2004, xiii-xv), on the other hand, is more vulnerable to the risk of death, and, like bare life, is also reduced to bare death: life unworthy of living and remembrance. As Hyndman explains in her analysis of Iraqi body counts,

The deaths of militarized soldiers are officially counted, described, and remembered ... the deaths of [Iraqi] civilians are not .... Casualties [of the war on terror] might be thought of as masculinized (soldier) and feminized (civilian) sides of the body count ledger amassed by both official and unofficial sources. (Hyndman 2007, 38)

For Hyndman, civilian body counts are abstracted, disembodied practices that neither reclaim the humanity of noncombatants, nor make the material impacts of war tangible to unaffected populations in the global North (Hyndman 2007, 38). Furthermore, both official and activist body counts fail to disrupt the thanatopolitical workings of the neoliberal state and its power to render certain deaths more memorable or forgettable in the disaster-war economy (Hyndman 2007). This leads Hyndman to conclude that the promise of commemoration is politically limited to a select few under global capitalism, demarcated along classed, racialized, and gendered axes of First-World-Third-World, American-Iraqi, soldier-citizen (2003, 2007). Practices of collective memory and memorialization thus gain newfound significance under thanatopolitics. Revealing the state’s biopolitical power to determine

9/11 memory and the “trauma economy” 127 bare life alongside bare death, life unworthy of remembrance reflects the state’s desire to let live on in memory or die out in oblivion. Such necropolit-ical constructions of memory and forgetting reveal the state’s monopoly on violence—material and discursive—as it subjugates new categories of bare life to the power of bare death, stripping life of its postmortem right to be remembered.

In her installation Ungrievable Lives 911112011, feminist artist Pritika Chowdhry critiques hierarchical formations of collective memory and cultural trauma as they circulate throughout the discourses surrounding the US-led war on terror. The scale pictured above, for example, holds the time-honored 9/11 victim on one side and unknown casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the other. Tilted in favor of “grievable life” (see Figure 4.1), the scale visually affirms what Butler (2004) teaches us: that human suffering is unevenly valued under postmodernity. Here, the weighted side of the scale favors the “9/11 victim,” a ubiquitous symbol of global grief and empathy used throughout the war to redraw legalities at home and abroad. Symbolized in the above image as a bar of gold, the 9/11 victim is “worth more” than the relational pile of unknown carcass (see Figure 4.2), which, unlike its counterpart, cannot be recognized and mourned as grievable life—or even a human life at all (see Butler 2004).

Exhibited in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks, Ungrievable Lives offers a counter-memorial to the global

Ungrievable Lives 9UU2011. Installation view, mixed media. © Pritika Chowdhry

Figure 4.1 Ungrievable Lives 9UU2011. Installation view, mixed media. © Pritika Chowdhry.

“Bare life, aerial view.” Ungrievable Lives9HH2011. ©Pritika Chowdhry

Figure 4.2 “Bare life, aerial view.” Ungrievable Lives9HH2011. ©Pritika Chowdhry.

ascendancy of an official or dominant narrative of 9/11 memory. Offering an alternative curatorial intervention in the historiography of September 11, 2001, Chowdhry’s work challenges exceptionalist narratives of US victimization and its inherent uniqueness by explicitly depicting the carnage of subaltern victims in the war on terrorism and positioning their deaths as interrelated. Disrupting the erasure of Third-World victims from the post-9/11 trauma economy, Chowdhry’s work is additionally instructive in its aesthet-icization of Butler’s questions in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004, 20): “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? What makes for a grievable life?” In the artist’s words,

the 9/11 victim has been eulogized and glorified to the point that they have become the gold standard of a grievable life... The piece in no ways tries to invalidate any kind of death ... the piece only seeks to question that hierarchy of death. (Chowdhry 2011, emphases in original)

Ungrievable Lives thus tasks audiences to consider the geopolitical limits of collective memory, specifically whether public sympathies can be extended to the non-Western victims of war and terrorism.

Chowdhry’s installation reveals the relational politics of memory and forgetting throughout the post-9/11 trauma economy by illuminating how narratives of American victimization continue to usurp Afghan and Iraqi

9/11 memory and the “trauma economy" 129 experiences of suffering, delimiting global empathy along First-World-Third-World lines. Here, subaltern memory-claims directly challenge this uneven application of victimhood as well as the perpetuation of additional violence that is directly built on this very unevenness and justified in memory’s name. As I have argued elsewhere, subaltern memories “recover those memories” that have been “suppressed, removed, or denied entry from official national archives, or have otherwise been overshadowed by studies of memory located in the global North” (Micieli-Voutsinas 2013, 34, expanding upon Legg 2007). Locating subaltern narratives alongside US-centric frameworks of memory and memorialization, Chowdhry’s curatorial intervention into this post-9/11 archive of trauma and memory attempts to disrupt the transnational dominance of 9/11 memory as it obfuscates competing narratives of victimization outside the global North. Memories of 9/11 are thus not only extensions of the US trauma economy, but they also provide a key ingredient for the neoliberal state to successfully regain control in the wake of traumatizing events: public empathy.

Victims of the September 11 attacks were nationals of more than 90 countries. However, the rendering of non-American victims through US-centric frameworks of cultural suffering classifies all 9/11-related deaths as extensions of the US nation-state. Those deaths rendered legible by the national project were collectively mourned to generate shared empathy for the attacks’ victims, which was subsequently leveraged to garner global support for an international war effort amongst the United States and its allies. Reverberating throughout the post-9/11 trauma economy, 9/11 memory thus sets the bar for which (Western) histories of trauma constitute valid forms of human suffering in the new millennium and which are subsequently met with global sympathy. As Butler similarly writes,

Some lives are grievable, and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable and grievable death? (2004, xv)

Chowdhry’s allegorical bar of gold, which is stamped to read “One grievable life. 9.11.2001. Made in America, 2001. 1 of 2983” (see Figure 4.3), denotes an emerging (thanato)political economy of death and its relational exchange rate on human suffering. In its commodification of traumatic loss and the emotional labor used to sustain it—visualized in the sewing machine and flag-making, or memory-work, exhibited in the piece—the neoliberal state transforms tragic death into sentimental surplus. Here, the US nation-state mobilizes 9/11-ruin to chorale public sentiment and harness its political power to enact violence—in the name of the state and its dead—elsewhere. As such, grievable death becomes the commodity, more powerful than life, for acquiring global empathy and validating emergency rule.

“One grievable life, 9.11.2001. 1 of 2,983, Made in America, aerial view.” © Pritika Chowdhry

Figure 4.3 “One grievable life, 9.11.2001. 1 of 2,983, Made in America, aerial view.” © Pritika Chowdhry.

The metaphorical strength of Chowdhry’s installation hinges on its proverbial scale of justice to determine the value of death posthumously (Figure 4.1). Following Agambennian theories of the sovereign “ban,” or those excluded from the political community (1998, 104-106), Chowdhry’s allegorical 9/11 victims conversely act as extensions of sovereign power. Despite experiencing civilian death, victims of the September 11 attacks achieve sovereign immortality: like sovereign heads-of-state, they will be remembered indefinitely (also see Agamben 1999, 66-67). Contrastingly, Third-World lives are routinely denied access to a political life under Westphalian citizenship, rendering their lives and deaths meaningless. Like homo sacer, they are the forgotten—included through their exclusion. The “American” lives remembered and memorialized in places like New York City, Washington, DC, and Somerset, Pennsylvania, thus become extensions of sovereign power, phantom limbs of the national body-politic necessary for collective memory and grief. In contrast, the lives of Iraqi and Afghan dead are necessarily pushed beyond the (bio)political reach of US remorse and grievability. As Butler similarly postulates, “Is a Muslim life as valuable as legibly First World lives? Is our capacity to mourn in global dimensions foreclosed precisely by the failure to conceive of Muslim and Arab lives as lives?” (2004, 12).

In an effort to answer her own question, she concludes: “They cannot be mourned because they are always already lost or, rather, never ‘were,’ and they must be killed, since they seem to live on, stubbornly, in this state of deadness” (Butler 2004, 33). A life that cannot be mourned never existed. Those without access to a grievable (read: biopolitical) life seem to suffer death on three accounts: corporeal death (death of the body), political death (death of the civilian), and ontological death (death of the human being) (see Butler 2004, 31-35).

As Chowdhry’s Ungrievable Lives 9UH2011 demonstrates, trauma and memory are integral extensions of sovereign power and its corresponding jurisdiction over life and death, war and peace. In the context of the war on terrorism, the moral compass has been calibrated toward Western victims of collective suffering. The power of traumatic memory to therefore conceal or reveal histories of suffering transforms biopower into thanatopower, making death meaningful—or meaningless—under postmodernity. I now return to the site of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and its usage of affective heritage to reveal or conceal hierarchies of suffering, locally and globally. I begin my analysis with the “green”, or living, memorial elements of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Here, affective heritage suspends life and death, memory and forgetting, in dialogic narratives of place.

 
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