Memorializing Absence

It has been said quite often since September 11 that Americans are standing at a juncture of history, that, on that date, the world changed forever into a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ Such proclamations of radical breaks in historical consciousness have happened before, of course. Writing in 1924 about the experience of modernity, Virginia Woolf stated, “on or about December 1910, human character changed.” Many years later, Theodor Adorno wrote, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” implying that cultural production would never be the same in the wake of the Holocaust. There are many good arguments to reject the current version of the shock of history insofar as it is a particularly American-centric and provincial one, one that awards traumatic events in the U.S. more historical weight than those in the rest of the world. Yet, the feeling persists, that this date will be forever be understood as one that marks the end of one era and the beginning of another, indeed that September 11, 2001 will be remembered as the beginning of the new world of the 21st century.

In many ways, this before/after can be attributed to the aspects of this event that were so unanticipated, so unimaginable: the image of one plane, and then another, colliding into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and the shock of the buildings’ collapse, so quickly and so controlled. As millions of witnesses watched, from Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and throughout the nation and the world on their television sets, the shock of the spectacular image of the plane’s impact was replaced by an equally unbelievable image – the absence of the twin towers in the skyline, the erasure of the two massive buildings anchoring lower Manhattan. How instantly had those two towers changed meaning, for never had they signified more than in their absence. Standing untouched, the World Trade Center had been invested with many meanings in its duration of almost thirty years – the folly of oversized public building projects, the banal glass towers of modernity’s fading years, the symbol of New York tourism, and, later, the arrogance of American capital. Yet, once fallen, their absence spoke more profoundly than their presence ever could. To look at the skyline now is to experience the shock of absence; all images of the towers have now taken on a poignancy that was, before September 11, unimaginable.

In the face of absence, especially an absence so violently and tragically wrought at the cost of so many lives, people feel a need to create a presence of some kind, and it may be for this reason that questions of memorialization have so quickly followed this event. It seemed as if people were already talking of memorials the day after, when the numbers and names of the missing were unknown and the search for survivors still the focus of national attention. What, we might ask, is behind this rush to memorialize and to speak of memorials? Could we imagine people talking of memorialization after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, or the bombing of Hiroshima? Or, for that matter, that the people of Rwanda talked of memorialization after the massacres that killed hundreds of thousands there? Throughout history, collective and public memorialization has most commonly taken place with the distance of time. After wars have been declared over, towns, cities, and nations have built memorials to name the dead and those sacrificed. Historical figures, such as Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt, became the focus of memorials many decades after they died. Many of the most important memorials in the United States took many decades to build, each the product of bureaucratic wrangling and conflicting agendas. In recent years, it is true, this process has accelerated. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built seven years after the end of U.S. participation in the war, and even then it was considered to be long overdue. The Oklahoma City National Memorial was opened five years after the April 1995 bombing that killed 168 people, and it was in many ways a memorial sped into existence by the presence of a powerful group of family members and survivors who participated in the memorialization process. Now, the question of memorialization of September 11 has focused on what is called “ground zero” in New York City, completely overshadowing the sites of destruction at the Pentagon and in Western Pennsylvania, making it clear that this site is the symbolic center of this tragic event.

In 1984, French philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote in his essay “Walking in the City,” that the observation deck of the World Trade Center promoted a god’s eye view of the city, one that fulfilled “a lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.” De Certeau contrasted this view – in which “the gigantic mass [of the city] is immobilized before the eyes” – to the many meaningful acts that take place at street level, to the “speech acts” of pedestrians that make meaning of the city’s landscape. 1 In many ways, the discussions that have taken place about how to memorialize the events of September 11 in New York City have furthered this split view of the city – the contrast between the towering skyscrapers and the smaller acts of meaning created at street level. In this sense, the memory of this event already indicates the conflicting visions of the monumental and the individual, more intimate rituals of griefs.

Much of the discussion of memorialization has been preoccupied by the powerful absence of the god’s eye view from the World Trade Center and the gap that remains in the New York skyline. Discussions about what to do with the site have been tied up inevitably with feelings of concern about what the absence of the World Trade Center signifies, that is, the belief that to leave the skyline absent of its form is an expression of weakness and defeat. (To the best of my knowledge, the New York Times was the only publication to note that the World Trade Center already had a memorial in it that is now lost in the rubble, to the six people who were killed in the 1993 bombing there.) 2 Stunningly, a bevy of modern architects such as Philip Johnson and Robert Stern and MoMA architecture curator Terrence Riley stepped forward to embrace the idea that the two towers should be rebuilt as they were, in the words of Bernard Tschumi, the Dean of Columbia’s architecture school, only “bigger and better” 3 – an idea that disregards some basic tenets of psychology (no one would want to work in a new terrorist target) as well as some historical and economic ignorance (the towers were built with public money by a public institution in a very different era of government funding) and disregard for safety (tall skyscrapers are notoriously difficult to evacuate). Only architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio remarked upon the power of the skyline’s transformation as its message: “Let’s not build something that would mend the skyline, it is more powerful to leave it void. We believe it would be tragic to erase the erasure.” 4

Yet, many of the concepts of memorialization that have been put forward in the last few weeks have been specifically about memorializing the towers themselves. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggested that the jagged fragment of the building that hovered over the destruction should be preserved and form part of a memorial. 5 In fact, this has been an aspect of many memorials in the past – most notably the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which incorporates the skeletal ruins of a building, and many World War II memorials, such as Coventry Cathedral in England, that speak to history in their preservation of the ruins of destroyed structures. For the most part, these memorials use the shards of the past to convey a warning and a bitter message about the human capacity for violence. For de Montebello, this fragment was not only a icon of survival, but already a “masterpiece” – not only, one suspects, because it has created the haunting image of a modern ruin, but because it looks already like a work of art.

Others have turned to the shadow of the towers’ presence in the skyline for inspiration. Art Spiegelman created a cover of the New Yorker in which the towers were barely visible as black shadows on black, an image haunting in its somber familiarity. More recently, Towers of Light, a collaboration by two sets of artists and architects to recreate the twin towers in light, has received significant attention and support. 6 As imagined, the light will create “phantom towers” like votive candles that seem to reach skyward. What makes this project compelling is both its capacity to trace the shadow of the towers’ memory, to evoke both their presence and absence, and the project’s own inevitable ephemerality – that it too will become simply a memory, that it will not attempt to replace the towers but rather only temporarily to evoke them, and hence to evoke life before September 11.

This preoccupation with memorializing the twin towers has displaced to a certain extent the profound loss of life that took place there. In the end, whatever memorial is built on the site of Ground Zero will be a memorial not to the twin towers of the World Trade Center but to the ordinary people whose lives were arbitrarily caught up in history on September 11, and whose bodies are lost there. The fact that this site is inescapably a graveyard must factor into any memorial design. It is most likely that the push for a memorial will focus eventually not on replacing the skyline but on rendering present the individuals who died there.

This marking of the individual has already been a part of the rituals surrounding those who died on September 11, with the lists of those lost published in full-page ads by corporations and in the ongoing portraits of each one in the New York Times. However, it was the posters for the missing that first transformed the cityscape into a space for remembrance. Flyers hurriedly made with photographs and descriptions were posted near hospitals, rescue centers, and on the streets of lower Manhattan, each reading first like a declaration of personal statistics – date of birth, place of work, clothing worn, where last seen, and unique physical characteristics – that was a desperate call for recognition of the individual lost. These were initially messages of hope, yet they became very quickly messages of loss. The photographs soon became artifacts of prior innocence, each image testimony to a time “before” when those photographed could not have imagined the unimaginable – nor for that matter could they have imagined the talisman that the photograph itself would become, conveying the pressing belief that a loved one is not gone but simply “lost.”

These posters were the first stage of many small, individual acts of mourning and memorialization that have taken place throughout the city. Individual rituals of mourning and tribute to the dead, such as leaving objects, notes, and flowers and spontaneously building shrines, have been practiced outside of the national arena for many decades at cemeteries or at road-side shrines and became an aspect of national culture when visitors to the Vietnam Memorial began to leave things there. At the bombing site in Oklahoma City, people were drawn to the site from the beginning to look at the destruction and they began to leave things at a chain-link fence there: photographs, key chains, license plates, T-shirts with names written on them, and tributes to those who had died. The fence was then publicized in media accounts and photos, and when the memorial was completed, it was incorporated into the memorial’s design.

In New York City, small and spontaneous memorials sprang up around the city, in Union Square Park and at numerous fire stations, and more widely on numerous web sites, as people felt the need to perform some kind of ritual to mark their loss. To leave flowers, write messages, and light candles are declarative acts that also serve to individualize the dead. As such, these objects and messages resist the transformation of the individual identity of the victims into a collective subjectivity, and thus resist the mass subjectivity of disaster in general. The destruction of the World Trade Center, like all events of mass injury, has created an image of injury to a mass body, what Michael Warner defines as “an already abstracted body” that is symbolized by the image of the destroyed towers. 7 The mass body of disasters, Warner writes, such as natural disasters, airline disasters, and, inevitably, terrorist acts of mass destruction, is represented as a singular entity. The small gestures of remembrance in the face of mass destruction are attempts to prevent the absorption of the individual dead into a larger, singular image.

Spontaneous memorials that provide comfort to people in the aftermath of traumatic events often become codified over a period of time, and, inevitably either fade away or become regulated when part of official memorials. The letters and objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, many of which are quite cryptic and anonymous messages to the dead presumably left by Vietnam veterans, are now placed almost immediately in plastic bags, gathered at the end of each day by the National Park Service, and relegated to a government archive. At the Oklahoma City Memorial, which has become a major tourist destination and already has an enormous archive, an elaborate set of rules governs the placement of objects on the memorial chairs and the chain-link fence. People now know before coming to these sites the role these objects of remembrance play. In New York, the media coverage of these rituals of mourning has begun already to make them sites of curious fascination and tourist documentation. 8

The most successful national memorials have been those that allow visitors a wide range of potential interactions and rituals, and, most importantly, allow them to create a space where people can speak to the dead. These memorials facilitate a conversation with the dead in part through naming those who died, and, in so doing, separating them out as individuals from the mass body of disaster. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, people touch the names and make rubbings of them to take away, and leave objects and letters to the dead with the sense that the dead receive them. At the Oklahoma City National Memorial, each victim is represented by a bronze chair with a lighted base, providing a place for families to visit and for strangers to reflect on the meaning of an individual life. The chairs effectively evoke both the absence of the dead as they sit unoccupied, yet their presence as well, as families come to speak to their loved ones there. 9

Ultimately, it is important that any process of memorialization confront what memorials do well, and what they don’t do. National memorials traditionally have been built with dual purposes: to act as forms of pedagogy about the nation and historical figures within it, and to honor the dead. Philosopher Charles Griswold has called them a “species of pedagogy.” 10 Yet, this pedagogy is highly limited. Memorials do not teach well about history, since their role is to remember those who died rather than to understand why they died. One can visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Oklahoma City National Memorial without understanding, for instance, the fraught history of the Vietnam War and the reasons why American lives were lost in Vietnam or what aspects of American society gave rise to the right-wing ideology that bombed Oklahoma City. It is important that the sites that are created to mourn the dead do not foreclose on discussions about why their lives were lost.

The memorials that resonate within a culture are those that allow those debates to continue, that don’t try to contain history and memory but create a space where they are generated in all their conflict. The challenge in New York will be to create a memorial where the World Trade Center once stood that provides a place to grieve for and speak to the dead, yet which also does not allow for a smoothing over of the search for meaning, or attempt to bring closure to an event that should not and cannot have closure.

  1. Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 91; 92.
  2. Jim Dwyer, “The Memorial That Vanished,” New York Times Magazine (September 23, 2001), 81.
  3. “To Rebuild or Not: Architects Respond,” New York Times Magazine (September 23, 2001), 81.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Philippe de Montebello, “The Iconic Power of an Artifact,” New York Times (September 25, 2001), A29.
  6. The artists are Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda, who were working on an art project about the World Trade Center before the attacks, and architects John Bennett and Gustavo Bonevardi, who had also conceived a similar idea. They are now working together with support from the Mayor’s office and Creative Time, a public art organization. See the cover of the New York Times Magazine (September 23, 2001);  “Update” New York Times Magazine (October 7, 2001), 12.
  7. Michael Warner, “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” in The Phantom Public Sphere, edited by Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 248.
  8. Columbia University has already established the Columbia University World Trade Center Archive Project for documents related to September 11.
  9. One family held a wedding at the Oklahoma City Memorial with a photograph of the bride’s father, who was killed in the bombing, on the chair that bears his name.
  10. Charles Griswold, “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Mall: Philosophical Thoughts on Political Iconography,” Critical Inquiry 12 (Summer 1986), 688-719.