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«Introduction by wiLL Brooker, editor S eptember 11, Jacques Derrida observed, had by October 2001 already become “a date or a dating that has taken ...»

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IN FOCUS: The Long Shadows of 9/11

Science Fiction, Thrillers, and the War on Terror


by wiLL Brooker, editor


eptember 11, Jacques Derrida observed, had by October 2001

already become “a date or a dating that has taken over our pub-

lic space and our private lives.” The very process of naming

transformed the attacks of the previous month into “an event

that truly marks, that truly makes its mark, a singular and... unprec-

edented event.”1

Ten years later, the terrain has changed. It is harder now simply to repeat the mantra “9/11,” like a recurring nightmare or a conjuring spell, “over and over again as if its singularity were so absolute that it could not be matched.”2 Two important recent books on the im- pact of September 11 on film and popular culture—Stephen Prince’s Firestorm and Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula, and Karen Randell’s Re- framing 9/11—demonstrate even in their subtitles that the single date is no longer enough to capture the complexity of the United States’ relationship with terror over the past decade, and that the black-and- © 2011 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713 white signifier of “9/11,” its digits so neatly recalling both the phone

–  –  –

It is now difficult, and rightly so, to talk of 9/11 as a singular, monumental, unprecedented, and unmatchable event—an event so unique and unnameable that it lies beyond words and can only be gestured to through numbers. Prince declares in his opening pages that he will study not just the attacks on the United States in 2001 but their “legacy—the Iraq War, controversies over warrantless domestic surveillance, forcible rendition, Abu Ghraib and policies of torture—how did American film respond to and portray these issues?”4 Reza Aslan’s foreword to Reframing 9/11, similarly, argues that the “simple story of us versus them has become muddled. Wiretapping. Waterboarding. Constitutional violations. The narrative that Americans constructed to help make sense of 9/11 no longer seems as straightforward and uncomplicated as it so often does in the movies.”5 From these opening gambits, both volumes introduce a third factor into the dynamic. They will explore not just the relationship between the swift, shocking horror of the 2001 attacks and the United States’ more sustained, but arguably no less brutal, response, but also the relationship between this contemporary cultural territory and the stories it tells about terror: the relationship between the horrific theater of September 11 (which so many observers described as feeling “like a movie”6), the official and unofficial narratives of the subsequent “war,” and the popular fictions that articulate, reflect, negotiate, and even inform these real-world events.

That relationship is, as may already be clear, equally complex and open to debate.

Prince presents it in terms of cinema’s response to political issues: he describes the “imprinting of the post-9/11 world onto American film,” the “absorbing” of “9/11 into existing story conventions,” and the ways in which a TV show “translates into popular culture the political stance of the Bush administration.”7 The implied model is of popular narrative as a willing, receptive medium, a cultural Silly Putty onto which real-world events transfer themselves. Aslan suggests a politically loaded process of transference, arguing that popular narratives translate and simplify to serve the dominant interests: “[I]t was cinema, and popular culture in general, that... helped cast the disturbing events of 9/11, and the even more disturbing events that followed, into an easily accessible, easily digestible story, one in which everyone had a role to play, as either hero or villain, good or evil, ‘with us’ or ‘against us.’”8 Yet other accounts suggest a two-way dynamic. Director Robert Altman blamed Hollywood for setting a template for the terrorists of September 2001 to follow, claiming that “these people have copied the movies.”9 Lance Rubin’s essay on adaptations of Philip K. Dick after 9/11 argues that “the films... are not simply reflections of events and conditions but participate in shaping audience judgments.”10 Other scholars see 4 Prince, Firestorm, 2.

5 Reza Aslan, foreword to Birkenstein, Froula, and Randell, Reframing 9/11, xii.

6 See, for instance, Karen Randell, “‘It Was Like a Movie’: The Impossibility of Representation in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center,” in Birkenstein, Froula, and Randell, Reframing 9/11, 141.

7 Prince, Firestorm, 285, 308, 246.

8 Aslan, foreword, xii.

9 Robert Altman, quoted in Aslan, foreword, xii.

10 Lance Rubin, “Cultural Anxiety, Moral Clarity, and Willful Amnesia: Filming Philip K. Dick after 9/11,” in Birkenstein, Froula, and Randell, Reframing 9/11, 183.

146 | | Cinema Journal 51 No. 1 Fall 2011 popular culture as a space of conflict and negotiation. John G. Cawelti’s afterword to Reframing 9/11 credits the preceding chapters as “a vital part of that ongoing work” to “understand the ways in which dominant discourses prevail and alternative voices can be heard.”11 Alex Evans, in the same volume, suggests a metaphor closer to the combat zone than the negotiating table: a territory riddled with fault lines that create cracks in hegemonic meaning. “There are political battles of reading,” he proposes, adding, “I suspect they are so often so ferocious because it is realized that this is one very promising place where cultural change may happen.”12 To map that minefield of conflict, interaction, and negotiation—the relationship between “9/11,” the “war on terror,” and popular culture, over a ten-year period—is well beyond the scope of this In Focus. Rather, this collection of six short essays has a more modest purpose: to examine closely a series of case studies from the science fiction and thriller genres (and from the overlap between those categories), across both film and television (again, with a significant overlap in texts like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), in the context of the September 11 attacks and their sociopolitical legacy.

These essays are short, targeted bursts, carefully aimed and tightly focused.

Through close analysis of individual texts, they offer a provocative engagement with the broader issues raised above. Derek Johnson’s study of 24 (Fox, 2001–2010) refuses any easy answers—that the show is a reflection of post-9/11 anxieties, a product of conservative media, or, indeed, an influence on attitudes toward terror and torture— recommending instead that we “recognize a host of interrelated social, industrial, and historical phenomena in which culture emerges.” Bob Rehak, similarly, identifies a matrix of factors that shaped the reimagined ending of Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009).

Like Watchmen itself, Rehak’s conclusion remains open to multiple possibilities, rather than closing down the interpretive options.

The other essays share an interest in popular fictions that engage with the ethical

dilemmas of the past decade through various degrees of allegory, disguise, and remove:

from the spacebound religious conflict of Battlestar Galactica (SciFi, 2004–2009), through the near future (and recent past) of The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox, 2008–2009), to the more “realist” contemporary thrillers A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) and the Bourne trilogy (Doug Liman, 2002; Paul Greengrass, 2004, 2007). These narratives place their viewers in the gray area between polar antinomies of good and evil, right and wrong, “us” and “them.” They leave us in the fog of Jason Bourne’s memories, a fog which, as Vincent M. Gaine suggests, clears only to reveal his own (and our own) guilt, and in the silent, strained family reunion at the end of A History of Violence, which, as Liz Powell notes, problematizes not just the protagonists’ present and future but also what we and they presumed of their previous lives. The Sarah Connor Chronicles plays explicitly with temporal loops, flashbacks, and flash-forwards that whittle away certainty into a multiple-choice, multiple-perspective view of truth and history. Many of the other stories considered here also recognize the repetitive nature of trauma prompted by the events of 9/11, and the experience of being caught between past 11 John G. Cawelti, afterword to Birkenstein, Froula, and Randell, Reframing 9/11, 212.

12 Alex Evans, “Superman Is the Faultline,” in Birkenstein, Froula, and Randell, Reframing 9/11, 124.

–  –  –

terror and the fear of greater terrors yet to come. As Derrida noted, the trauma of September 11 was rooted not so much in a “past aggression” as in “the unpresentable future” and the sense that the worst could still lie ahead.13 Derrida, of course, would remind us that apparently binary oppositions and hierarchical pairings can be exposed, destabilized, and unbalanced: in the case of the Bush administration and its “with us or against us” war on terror, he suggests that the United States contributed to the attacks on its territory, both by welcoming, arming, and training the hijackers who would then strike against it, and more broadly by creating the politico-military circumstances that would shape those hijackers’ allegiances and harden their resolve.14 The terrorist acts of 9/11 were, in turn, countered by a war on terror that attempted to justify its own violations by instilling and perpetuating a culture of anxiety and impending threat. “Terror” was countered not by its opposite but by state-imposed fear (including “shock and awe,” “harsh interrogation,” forcible rendition, and domestic surveillance).

As Derrida notes, the dominant power picks the terms, legitimizes the vocabulary, and decides the official interpretation.15 The “other” terrorizes while the US fights terror. But the film and television narratives under consideration here work to question these assumptions. Not only do they force their characters, and by extension the audience, into a morally gray zone, they also show the interchangeability of the opposed positions on either side, switching black with white and white with black until any fixed binary seems arbitrary, its labels exposed as political convenience.

Thus, Jason Bourne wavers in his own perception between patriot and criminal;

Tom Stall of A History of Violence splits into two men, his double identity questioning definitions of “good” and “evil”; and an interrogation scene in Battlestar Galactica suddenly shifts its polarities, associating its white, blonde heroine, Starbuck, with a musical theme resonant of “Islamic threat” stereotypes. The direct challenge that ends Karen Randell’s discussion of this scene—“Are you rooting for the wrong side?”—only echoes and amplifies the question implicit within the text itself.

Comic artist Art Spiegelman titled his graphic memoir of 9/11 In the Shadow of No Towers. The absence of the World Trade Center, and everything its absence signifies, has cast a long shadow, a shadow at least ten years long. On every anniversary since 2003, though, the towers have reappeared, spectral but radiant, as twin searchlight beams stretching from Ground Zero to the sky. May these essays, casting their brief but intense illumination, stand similarly as a small monument to all those lost in the shadows of 9/11 and its legacy. ✽ 13 Derrida, interview with Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 98.

14 Ibid., 95.

15 Ibid., 105.

–  –  –

Neoliberal Politics, Convergence, and the Do-It-Yourself Security of 24 by Derek Johnson M any scholars have been rightly skeptical about arguments that deploy the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as a means of understanding media texts, concerned that they too often fall into the trap of identifying a singular catalyst for culture instead of developing more nuanced claims that recognize a host of interrelated social, industrial, and historical phenomena in which culture emerges.

Premiering in the immediate wake of 9/11, the Fox network television series 24 (2001–2010) provided a lightning rod for such arguments and concerns. As it repeatedly rehearsed a “ticking clock” scenario, in which hero Jack Bauer prevents an imminent terrorist attack on American soil, 24 tempted many to read it as the urtext exemplifying the relationship between television, post-9/11 America, and the so-called war on terror.

From this perspective, 24 has been commonly and often too simply understood as either a direct reflection of American anxieties, a piece of propaganda serving the interests of the conservative institutions driving American security response, or a shaper of American opinion and behavior in the course of that war.

For example, in depicting struggles between American protagonists and terrorist antagonists on television—and finding continued Nielsen ratings success between 2001 and 2010—the series has been claimed to tap into a consensus of fear, and a shared desire for decisive action, encouraging a popular acceptance of torture.1 The simplicity of such a claim lies in misrecognizing partial, selective representation as reflection, and in ignoring that while the ongoing series was certainly influenced by the war on terror, the development and production of the program began significantly earlier than September 11, 2001; 24 was not invented as a specific response to post-9/11 conditions. Of course, Bush administration officials and other conservatives very much wanted Americans to see the series as the social truth of a post-9/11 world, with Homeland Security’s Michael Chertoff arguing that 24’s presentation of counterterrorist action “reflects real life.”2 Combined with the public visibility of 1 See, for example, “The Real Abu Ghraib Whitewash: ‘24’ and Public Acceptance of Torture,” Ethics Scoreboard, May 11, 2005, http://www.ethicsscoreboard.com/list/24.html.

2 Chertoff made this statement while participating in a forum called “24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?” moderated by Rush Limbaugh and hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, June 23, 2006.

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