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Beyond trauma

The history of alternative political formations is important because it contests social relations as given and allows us to access traditions of political action that, while not necessarily successful in the sense of becoming dominant, do offer models of contestation, rupture and discontinuity for the political present. These histories also identify potent avenues of failure, failures that we might build upon in order to counter the logics of success that have emerged from the triumphs of global capitalism. (Halberstam 2011, 19)

In Trauma and the Memory of Politics (2003), Jenny Edkins conceptualizes the management of trauma as essential to reestablishing sovereign power and state control in the wake of crisis. Trauma, according to Edkins, 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 (2003, xiv). As Edkins expands,

Trauma takes place when the very powers that we are convinced will protect us and give us security become our tormentors: when the community of which we considered ourselves members turns against us or when our family is no longer a source of refute but a site of danger. (2003,4)

Trauma occurs, in other words, when perceptions of identity are shattered.

The events of September 11, 2001 shattered notions of American global dominance and the expectation of its citizenry for a life free from the violence of war, according to Edkins’s logic.4 The trauma of the attacks also revealed the government’s failure to protect the nation-state and its citizenry against threat and vulnerability. In the wake of such failures, mnemonic practices significantly aid in restoring faith in state institutions and in shaping national identities in the wake of traumatic events. As Edkins expands,

[T]he production of the self and the state ... takes place at the traumatic intersection between peace and war, inside and out.... Forms of statehood in contemporary society, as forms of political community, are themselves produced and reproduced through social practices, including practices of trauma and memory. (Edkins 2003, 10-11)

Similarly, Cvetkovich also argues that trauma is “a central category for looking at the intersections of emotional and social processes along with the intersections of memory and history” (2003, 18). Consequently, how catastrophe is remembered, if it is remembered at all, plays a significant role in restoring faith in the nation-state and shaping national identities in the wake of traumatic events.

Remembering 9/11 beyond state narratives of trauma and memory requires centering subjugated histories of pain and loss. As Caruth importantly argues, “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own,... history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas,” as each violent archive affectively recalls the other (1996, 24). Yet, “trauma challenges common understandings of what constitutes an archive. Because trauma can be unspeakable and unrepresentable and because it is marked by forgetting and dissociation, it often seems to leave behind no records at all” (Cvetkovich 2003, 7). The material and psychic effects of trauma often go unacknowledged in contemporary records, particularly when trauma is stigmatized as shameful or a form of weakness. Excluded from official cultural archives, these subjugated histories are often omitted through deliberate processes of forgetting, erasure, and silencing.

Over the past two decades, feminist and queer scholars have traversed the more ‘shameful narratives’ underpinning the September 11 attacks and its ensuing “War on Terror” (see Hawthorne and Winter 2002; Tickner 2002; Eisenstein 2004; Pettman 2004; Gopinath 2005; Grewal 2005; Murdock 2005; Puar 2005, 2006, 2008; Riley, Mohanty, and Pratt 2008; Anker 2012; Riley 2013; Lugo-Lugo and Bloodsworth-Lugo 2017). The digital proliferation of images of a reconstructed World Trade Center giving “the finger” to its attackers, for example (Figure C.2), speaks directly to the gendered and sexual anxieties implicit within such acts of political violence: the ability of foreign adversary to penetrate the nation, feminize its economy, and emasculate its military power and geopolitical prowess. Such knee-jerk responses to give the finger back, which came to fruition in the now notorious Iraqi prisoner “sexual abuse scandal,” mark September 11, 2001 as a “trauma of national sexual violation” in the US psyche (Puar 2006, 69). The anonymous middle finger image is, as a result, entrenched within particular misogynist and queerphobic responses to forget the shameful (sexual) violation of 9/11 and violently reclaim it as a narrative of (hetero)national domination and vindication.

The stakes for anti-imperial interventions remain high in the post-9/11 world. Interventionist frameworks now also include the fight for global “gender equality” and LGBT “human rights” advancements in the name of national security and counterterrorism (that is, in addition to democracybuilding, development, freedom-fighting, and humanitarianism). Fashioning counter-narratives of 9/11 memory will therefore mandate a conscious turning away from nationalist narratives that foreground notions of strength, security, resilience, and retribution to justify American militarism. It will instead require emboldening narratives of weakness, vulnerability, shame, and failure—“failures that we might,” as Halberstam suggests, “build upon in order to counter the logics of success that have emerged from the triumphs of global capitalism” (2011, 19). By focusing on non-violent responses to the events of September 11, 2001, this conclusion advances counter-archives of 9/11 memory with approaches to trauma and collective healing that drastically differ from dominant accounts of the attacks and their aftermath. Such counter-hegemonic practices of memoryretrieval seek to build alternative communities of care and responsibility rooted in shared experiences of loss and vulnerability beyond those recounted by the Westphalian state. Within these archives, weakness and vulnerability, death and pain, are mobilized to promote intergroup dialogue and foster cross-cultural healing, by culling their affective power to generate an alternative politics of wounding.

As Cvetkovich importantly argues, “affect is a way of charting cultural contexts that might otherwise remain ephemeral because they haven’t solidified into a visible public culture” (2003, 48). Challenging hegemonic archives of 9/11 memory, I conclude Affective Heritage by imagining alternative responses to state narratives of threat and violation that exclusively advocate for political communities of vindication. Here, re-membering 9/11 reveals affectual connections with other peoples, cultures, and places, fostering ephemeral communities of care and responsibility beyond the Westphalian state and its official curation of memory and community after 9/11. As such, the book’s conclusion consciously moves beyond an analysis of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum as the mnemonic site—at least in its current iteration—fails to prioritize such stories. Focusing instead on the work of 9/11 families’ organization Peaceful Tomorrows, I conclude Affective Heritage by positing narratives of 9/11 memory and trauma that resist state-centric cycles of violence. It is in this spirit that I leave the reader with alternative political agendas and communities of care emerging out of the collective trauma known as 9/11, where each point of connection carries the hope to inspire a more just, more peaceful tomorrow.

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