The photographic record that emerged from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 depicts human suffering the likes of which Americans rarely have occasion to empathize with directly. As Americans, we naturally feel obliged to do right by the victims; we put ourselves in their impossible situations and imagine how we might have fared in their place. Empathy is unpleasant business, however, and over time we engage in processes that allow ourselves to mitigate the fear and sadness these images evoke. Susan Lurie argues that one such process involves re-establishing “safe spectatorship,” which allows Americans to “[recover] a sense of national identity” after 9/11 by “[transforming] the horrifying sights” into “reassuring ones” by re-contextualizing such images through various means. By drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s aesthetic ontology, and Umberto Eco’s reflections on the distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, I argue that the particular sort of ugliness on display in the 9/11 photographic record defies re-contextualization; that these images cannot be transformed into reassuring sights simply by altering their content or revising the narrative to which they correspond. On the contrary, I argue that revisionism a la “safe spectatorship” obstructs catharsis, and that efforts to re-contextualize these images (work to) subvert — and will continue to subvert — our conception of a stable national identity.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, media outlets were faced with the unenviable task of deciding whether to print photographs of men and women leaping from the top floors of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Richard Drew, a photographer with the Associated Press, garnered particular notoriety among newspaper editors for the skill with which he captured an anonymous man in free-fall. Divorced from its context and on strictly compositional grounds, Drew’s photo, titled simply, The Falling Man might aptly be described as ‘beautiful.’ The anonymous man is positioned neatly in the center of the frame; he is traveling through the air head-first, such that his downward-tilted body runs parallel to the dark vertical lines created by the North Tower’s girders; he appears calm, with his arms flat at his sides, creating the illusion that he is in control of his descent.
Almost ten years later it still seems perverse to consider The Falling Man irrespective of its gruesome and tragic implications. Drew’s image becomes brutal, horrifying and ugly as soon as we bear in mind its context. In the days following the attacks, propriety demanded that the media repress the urge to re-contextualize the content of such images and tell the story straight; for the most part, newspaper articles used committee-approved images of the twin towers expressly to chronicle the day’s events and to help narrate the escape stories of survivors (Kratzer and Kratzer, 31). Nevertheless, the urge to re-contextualize exists. As Susan Sontag observes in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, “attraction to such sights is not rare,” in part because images depicting great violence generally lie outside the realm of our every-day experience. Sontag also writes that the things we find attractive about these images are “a perennial source of inner torment” (Sontag, 96). When presented with pictures like The Falling Man we feel obliged to do right by the victims, so we put ourselves in their impossible situations and imagine how we might have fared in their place. Empathy is unpleasant business, however, and over time we engage in processes that allow ourselves to mitigate the fear and sadness these images evoke.
Susan Lurie offers an explanation of how such processes might work in an essay appearing in Terror, Culture, Politics. Re-establishing “safe spectatorship,” according to Lurie, allowed Americans to “[recover] a sense of secure national identity” after 9/11 by “[transforming] the horrifying sight of falling people, which compels intertwined empathic and threatening identifications, into reassuring sights” (Lurie, 46). Lurie suggests that by reinforcing our aesthetic consciousness — that is, by positively re-contextualizing images like The Falling Man through the creation of artwork, memorials, etc. — we were able to construct a new national identity that appropriates the terrorist attacks and weaves them into the fabric of our collective narrative as Americans, thereby re-constructing a sense of stability and national security.
I argue, however, that we are no more capable of looking at images like The Falling Man as safe spectators than we are of turning back the clock and preventing al-Qaeda from carrying out their assault. By drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, and Umberto Eco’s text On Ugliness, I will show that Lurie’s notion of “safe spectatorship” amounts to self-deception akin to the artificial intelligibility of the Apollonian aesthetic and the simplification/falsification of the “real” in Nietzsche’s aesthetic ontology. After explicating the tragic, Dyonisian element in Nietzsche’s scheme, whose role is to challenge the constructed authority of the Apollonian, I will argue that national catharsis need not involve the sort of revisionism implied by Lurie’s notion of “safe spectatorship.” On the contrary, by explicating the uniquely tragic nature of the ugliness on display in The Falling Man and other images from the 9/11 photographic record, I argue that revisionism à la “safe spectatorship” obstructs catharsis, and attempts to re-contextualize the message that these images subvert – and will continue to subvert – our conception of a “stable” national identity.
Nietzsche’s Notion of the “Real”
My aim is to demonstrate that the particular sort of ugliness presented in the 9/11 photographic record defies re-contextualization — that the images cannot be transformed into “reassuring sights” by altering the narrative in which they are situated. I argue that any effort to do so amounts to what Friedrich Ulfers calls a “falsification/simplifaction” of the “real” world in Nietzsche’s aesthetic ontology. Before identifying how Nietzsche’s scheme bears on Lurie’s notion of “safe spectatorship,” however, we must first work to understand the metaphysical logic that governs Nietzsche’s aesthetics. This requires a brief discussion of Nietzsche’s process philosophy: a holistic cosmology that synthesizes philology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics with the aim of revealing the limits of human understanding and underscoring the unknowable nature of the “real” world.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche presents the state of nature, or the “real,” as a “primordial unity” among all things. For Nietzsche, each thing in the world is at heart irreducibly complex and unique from every other. This is not because of some inherent quality individual things possess in and of themselves, however. Drawing on the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose cosmology relies on a logos, or principal cause, of inexorable change, Nietzsche designed his “primordial unity” to reflect a constant and unyielding process of becoming (Ulfers, Law of Contraries Lecture). In a way, this “primordial unity” can be thought of as an absolute equalizer, if we understand the state of equality not as a kind of sameness but rather the conditions that ensure a total and uncompromising uniqueness. In other words, no one thing in Nietzsche’s scheme is or can ever be privileged over another because the world is in constant flux. Each constituent of the “primordial unity” is therefore cast as excessive, or overfull in its being, charged with limitless potential to become something more or less than what it is at any given moment. Nietzsche labels this dynamic potentiality as the tragic in his scheme; a sort of Heraclitian logos “seated amid this excess of life, suffering, and pleasure, in sublime ecstasy” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, 123).
Nietzsche paints his logos as tragedy not least of all for its aesthetic implications. Indeed, for Nietzsche the process of coming into being and not-being is best described in terms of creating a work of art. Artistic enterprise is fueled by contradiction and double meaning, which makes aesthetic language better-suited to articulate the excesses of the “real” than scientific language, whose expression relies on conceptual abstraction and oppositional/hierarchical binarism (Ulfers, Bildung Lecture). At center in The Birth of Tragedy is the great Apollonian and Dionysian divide, which can be understood as an ontological struggle between two “artistic energies which burst forth from nature herself, without the mediation of the human artist” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, 38).
On the surface, the Apollonian and Dionysian seem to have little in common. Apollonian art, according to Nietzsche, reflects the drive to create fixed representations — exemplified by architecture and sculpture — of idealized concepts. Its goal is to lessen the blow of the chaotic, ever changing world of the “real” by imposing on it a formal intelligibility and calm:
With his sublime gestures, [Apollo] shows us how necessary is the entire world of suffering, that by means of it the individual may be impelled to realize the redeeming vision, and then, sunk in contemplation of it, sit quietly in his tossing bark, amid the waves (Birth of Tragedy, 45-6).
The Dionysian aesthetic, on the other hand, works to rip apart the false comforts of the static, “constructed” Apollonian art by revealing the world as it really exists —- that is, as infinitely and irreducibly complex, excessive and tragic (50).
Yet the contradictory Apollonian and Dionysian art forms, “in new births ever following and mutually augmenting one another,” complement each other as distinct yet interdependent poles of Nietzsche’s “primordial unity” (47). Together they amount to a duality that feeds and propels the world of the “real” into infinite diversity rather than a dualism indicative of rigidly defined abstract quantities. Thus, what is tragic — again, characterized as the excess, or run-off, of a world constantly coming into being -— is expressed as the interplay between the Apollonian building-up and the Dionysian tearing-down, a “contradiction…spoken from the very heart of nature” (46).
The Falsification/Simplification of the “Real”
As in Heraclitus’ scheme, the way Nietzsche’s one true world expresses itself is through the logos of strife, or through the embattled Apollonian and Dionysian forces that make up the complementary, yet contradictory “primordial unity.” This “primordial unity” is the crux of Nietzsche’s aesthetic ontology and, as such, amounts to Nietzsche’s understanding of the “real” world. Nietzsche identifies another world, however; a false world of purely Apollonian design constructed by man to negate the “real” and affirm the static artifice of intelligibility. This, for Nietzsche, is man’s great project. And while it may yield positive pragmatic consequences for man’s survival, it remains wholly unnatural, like an oil slick not yet dispersed by the raging river flowing beneath it (Ulfers, Bildung Lecture).
In order to understand the ways in which the “real” is falsified/simplified by the human project, we must first assess the principal lens through which we view the world: namely, our grammar. In his essay, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche argues that while language forms the bedrock of any epistemology we might generate, its primary effect is to deceive. To this point, Nietzsche begins by distinguishing between metaphor and concept, arguing that the way in which we translate external phenomena into meaningful experience is, at heart, an artistic process:
To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor… It is this way with all of us concerning language: we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities (Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies, 82-3).
Metaphor for Nietzsche constitutes the critical first step our intellect takes in the formation of knowledge. It is an artistic rendering of the “real” world, or a referential tool that is useful insofar as it allows us to distinguish between the things we perceive. Even so, it is wholly incapable of articulating anything essential about the “real” content of external phenomena.
The Lose Weight Exercise of the man’s efforts to build an intelligible world, however, rests on the meditated formation of concepts, which is distinct from the instinctual formation of metaphor in that it implies systematization. As Nietzsche observes, through abstract thinking and by implementing conceptual language we build on our metaphorical intuition and come to “know” that the leaves on trees are all the same color when, in fact, no two leaves are ever an absolutely identical shade of green (83). How can they be if the “real” world to which they belong is constantly changing? In creating concepts, man “forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves” (86). Because what is “real” is in a state of ongoing flux, the metaphysical principles on which the formation of concepts rely —- namely, systematic, binary methods of abstraction — must be erroneous:
A word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases — which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether equal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things (83).
Thus, the formation and application of concepts toward the goal of creating an intelligible world constitutes a falsification/simplification of the “real.” Nature, which is at heart overfull in its being by virtue of the “primordial unity,” cannot be known to us by making equal what is fundamentally unequal and in constant flux (Ulfers, Bildung Lecture). As translational, referential tools, both metaphorical and conceptual language amount to deception for Nietzsche; but where “each perceptual metaphor is individual and without equals and is therefore able to elude all classification,” conceptual truths “are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins” (Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies, 83).
Despite their illusory nature, however, concepts, and the false Apollonian intelligibility they imply, have social utility in Nietzsche’s eyes. Because the world to which human science and metaphysics actually correspond is processual, it is impossible for us to gain any essential knowledge of it by employing static modes of abstraction. Nietzsche argues, however, that the intelligible artifice we impose on the “real” world has practical value for us as a species; it helps to ensure we survive the world by making possible the formation of communities, which rely on the shared experience of their constituents (Ulfers, Bildung Lecture). Universal systems of grammar, which amount to little more than the trafficking and exchange of concepts, are nevertheless able to create the conditions for communal interactions, which in turn allow for socio-political organization. Diego A. von Vacano observes in his book, The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory that politics, like all other forms of Apollonian art, creates
[An] appealing sheen and veneer [to distract] our attention from the cold, bleak realization that life is about isolation, suffering, and the tragic outcome of most events. Yet we exist nevertheless, and this existence can be made fruitful and salutary if we embrace the deceptiveness of art (Vacano, 147).
Statecraft, like every other human endeavor in Nietzsche’s scheme, is an art form that relies on the falsification/simplification of the “real” world and, as such, is best understood in Apollonian terms. And like all permutations of the Apollonian aesthetic, the modern state — whether a democracy, monarchy or dictatorship -— serves to order an otherwise discordant set: the plurality and variability of human sentiment and behavior. Likewise, national identity and the various histories, biographies and mythologies that contribute degrees of nuance to its richness, amount to a kind of Apollonian narrative — an art form with tangible, pragmatic social value. As such, it will prove useful to take stock of the varieties of aesthetic experience — that is, the things we deem beautiful and ugly — before exploring how “safe spectatorship” reflects Apollonian deception and the falsification/simplification of the “real” through re-contextualization.
Beauty and the Subversive Nature of Ugliness
At first, Umberto Eco’s book On Ugliness may seem an unlikely text to help explain why the photographic record of 9/11, and the particular kind of fear such images inspire in viewers, defies re-contextualization. I believe it is suited to the task, however, because Eco’s definition of ugliness draws heavily on Nietzschean aesthetic ontology. By exploring Eco’s work and its relationship to Nietzsche’s, I will show that the ways we construct beauty in the abstract — and the pleasures we derive from art that we deem beautiful — are akin to the constructed sense of stability we enjoy as citizens of a modern democratic republic: essentially, that they are two sides of the same Apollonian coin.
Eco’s definition of ugliness embodies a subversiveness that is best understood as Nietzsche’s tragic, or excessive, Dionysian aesthetic, whose role, as I have shown, is to subvert Apollonian authority. In his introduction to On Ugliness, Eco discusses beauty as a concept whose meaning varies depending on its historical and cultural context. At the same time, Eco maintains that for centuries the tendency among artists and aestheticians in the West has been to define beauty “with respect to a stable model” (Eco, 15). Since Pythagoras, artists have designed their work around idealized forms that adhere to strict standards of mathematical proportionality. Naturally, these standards have changed over the years, illustrated by Eco’s observation that,
…a medieval philosopher would think of [ideal] dimensions in the form of a Gothic cathedral, while a Renaissance theoretician would think of a sixteenth-century temple, whose parts were governed by the golden section – and Renaissance man saw the proportions of cathedrals as barbarous, as the term ‘Gothic’ amply suggests (10).
While the tastes and conventions of different cultures have led “the beautiful” to take on various appearances over time, Eco argues that the urge to measure beauty, to understand it “with respect to a stable model,” acts as a constant in the Western artistic tradition. Of course, that human beings are driven to construct idealized models to make sense of our perceptions of the world — leading us to judge the beautiful as desirable and the ugly as undesirable — is hardly a new idea. The sophist Protagoras famously bestowed on man the status of “the measure of all things” four hundred years before the birth of Christ. And as I have shown, Nietzsche echoed Protagoras, though in much more radical terms, in his essay On Truth and Lying, arguing that man is incapable of knowing the “real” world. For Nietzsche, the permutations of intellectual abstraction that have come to define human civilization — language, mathematics, and most forms of art — reflect our efforts to mitigate the anxiety we feel when faced with nature’s one, terrifying truth: that the world is unknowable because it is constantly changing, and that humanity’s efforts to impose on it an “intelligible stasis” through abstraction amounts to self-deception.
Citing Nietzsche, Eco identifies two distinct yet inter-related definitions of ugliness: one that corresponds to the Apollonian aesthetic — that is, to an abstract and stable model — and one that fits a more Dionysian paradigm. The stable model on which his first definition of ugliness relies is beauty. Here, ugliness amounts to an absence of beautiful qualities. In his Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche deals out a rather heavy-handed characterization of the nature of beauty and ugliness in Apollonian terms. He writes,
‘When it comes to beauty, man posits himself as the norm of perfection’ and ‘he worships himself in this… At bottom man mirrors himself in things and sees as beautiful all things that reflect his image… Ugliness is seen as a sign and symptom of degeneration… Every suggestion of exhaustion, heaviness, senility, fatigue, any sort of lack of freedom, like convulsions or paralysis, especially the smell, the color, the form of dissolution, of decomposition… all this provokes an identical reaction, the value judgment of ‘ugly’… What does man hate? There is not doubt about this: he hates the twilight of his own type’ (15).
For Nietzsche, the condition of lacking beauty implies an ethical deficiency as well. The existential fear created by what is displeasing usurps the governing authority society bestows on what is deemed beautiful, healthy, good and stable, underscoring the world as it “really” exists: that is, as a fundamentally hostile environment that is in a constant state of deterioration.
The second definition Eco uses in his analysis relies on what Karl Rosenkranz calls “an autonomy of ugliness,” where ugliness is considered not as a deficiency of beauty, but rather an abundance of something else (15). To this point, Eco observes that the language we use to describe both naturally occurring and artistically rendered examples of unappealing phenomena is often more diverse than the sort we use to describe the beautiful. He writes,
If we examine the synonyms of beautiful and ugly, we see that while what is considered beautiful is: pretty, cute, pleasing, attractive, agreeable, lovely, delightful, fascinating, harmonious, delicate, graceful, enchanting, magnificent, stupendous, sublime, exceptional, fabulous, wonderful, fantastic, magical, admirable, exquisite, spectacular, splendid and superb; what is ugly is: repellent, horrible, horrendous, disgusting, disagreeable, grotesque, abominable, repulsive, odious, indecent, foul, dirty, obscene, repugnant, frightening, abject, monstrous, horrid, horrifying, unpleasant, terrible, terrifying, frightful, nightmarish, revolting, sickening, fetid, fearsome, ignoble, displeasing, tiresome, offensive, deformed, and disfigured (16).
His list is hardly exhaustive, and that it fails to account for metaphorical descriptors is problematic. Still, Eco’s point is clear enough: because words synonymous with ugliness imply more diverse visceral reactions than synonyms of beauty, Rosenkranz’s notion of an “autonomy of ugliness” — again, that ugliness is a distinct form of aesthetic experience on par with the beautiful, not inferior to it — must hold water.
Consider the following example in light of the list above: a portrait of a beautiful woman painted by an artist’s apprentice might be called “attractive” if it entices a viewer to approach it, while a portrait of the same woman painted by the apprentice’s master, whose experience and technical expertise exceed those of his protégé’s, might lead a viewer to linger awhile and assign to it the stronger designation “compelling.” The words “attractive” and “compelling” correspond to qualities that both portraits share — namely, that they are both inviting and pleasing to viewers. We recognize a difference in the degree of pleasure a viewer receives from each, and employ weaker and stronger modifiers accordingly.
Now consider Eco’s claim that there exists a wider set of modifiers to describe aesthetically displeasing phenomena than pleasing ones in light of his first definition of ugliness. It stands to reason that the anxiety we feel when facing an unpleasant image is rooted in the fact that we have no abstract model of ugliness to reference. Given our Apollonian proclivity for abstraction, it makes sense that the lack or disregard of form in an artwork’s composition would be unsettling.
But when we find ourselves disgusted by a portrait, we are more likely to identify the particular thing about it that repels us — the crook of a nose, the curl of a lip, etc. As a result, ugliness as a generalized concept does not travel well from one image to another; that is, the things we might identify as ugly in two poorly executed portraits of the same woman will likely differ. This is not to say that two ugly portraits that break with similar socially prescribed metrics of beauty cannot look alike. I only wish to assert that we are more likely to take note of, and dwell on, the differences between two ugly things than two beautiful things.
As the example of the artist and his protégé illustrates, differences in beauty are measured by degree, while differences in ugliness are measured by kind. It seems odd, for example, to call one portrait “more hideous” than another. Because ugliness lacks an abstract governing model, it provides us with a plurality of highly discrete aesthetic experiences. Compared to beauty, a concept bounded by cultural standards and practices, the form of ugliness is best characterized as excessive. Understood in Nietzschean terms, ugliness reflects the tragic element of the “primordial unity” because there is no abstract model to which it is meant to correspond, and as such works to subvert the Apollonian aesthetic in all its forms, whether it manifests itself aesthetically, linguistically or politically.
The Myth of Safe Spectatorship
Before discussing how the re-contextualization of graphic imagery à la “safe spectatorship” reflects the artificial intelligibility of the Apollonian aesthetic, we must first define “safe spectatorship” in Lurie’s terms. In her essay, “Falling Persons and National Embodiment: The Reconstruction of Safe Spectatorship in the Photographic Record of 9/11,” Lurie attempts to narrate the cathartic process undergone by the American people after the terrorist attacks by studying the public’s relationship with images like The Falling Man. She argues that the “intolerable vulnerability” U.S. citizens felt as a result of being attacked at home, took the form of a “traumatized spectatorship,” and that, “post-9/11 “safe” spectatorship cannot be achieved without paying attention to the peculiar horror of seeing Americans threatened on U.S. soil” (Lurie, 47).
Lurie’s essay challenges those individuals who criticized media outlets for running graphic pictures in their publications in the days and weeks following the attacks. She argues that these critics conflated the need for restraint on the grounds of “respect and appeals to good taste” with the desire to keep unseemly images out of the public eye. Citing Susan Sontag, Lurie writes that, “we in the U.S. are accustomed to feeling compassion for atrocities by looking at ‘the grievously injured bodies shown in published photographs…from Asia or Africa’ and from ‘remote and exotic’ places generally” (47). Because of the attacks’ close proximity to American hearts and minds, coming to grips with the horrifying reality these images depict is an essential part of restoring “safe spectatorship,” and Sontag and Lurie agree that doing so requires more than “simply eliminating the trapped and falling people from the photo record, or by displacing them with seeing old or new atrocities in other lands or by mobilizing them to inspire support for war.”
Sontag believes that the sheer availability of the images to an empathetic public fuels catharsis. This is akin to what Marianne Hirsch calls “deferred viewing and understanding,” which analogizes the process of taking a picture with living through and surviving a traumatizing event (53). Once the event has run its course, and assuming that the photographic record is accessible to the public and in a reliable (uncensored) state, we naturally begin to cope with the event’s fallout as time moves on. Taking a picture — that is, pointing the device and snapping the shutter open and closed — is an active process that requires work, just as living through a traumatic event requires that we work either to extinguish or evade a threat. Reflection, in both cases, is more passive. Re-contextualization with the aim of re-establishing “safe spectatorship” in the case of “deferred viewing and understanding” implies that our empathic connection with the victims in 9/11 images naturally subsides; over time, we learn not to recognize victims as human beings, but as something else. Consider Thomas Dallal’s photograph of the very top of the Northern Tower, which depicts a dozen or so people hanging out of the windows while smoke billows from the roof. Lurie writes, “The sympathetic horror a spectator feels upon looking at this image can be mitigated by this formal dimension, which, as I observed earlier, seems to objectify the falling man — to suggest to the spectator that he is somehow part of, just like, and conceptually bound to the doomed building that constitutes his entire landscape” (54).
Lurie breaks with Hirsch and Sontag on this point, however, suggesting, that restoring “safe spectatorship” requires something more:
On that day we saw those who live in the U.S. unprotected from foreign attack and suffering extremely terrifying deaths… The 9/11 photos that solicit a patriotic faith in restored national power make safe spectatorship a matter of seeing the transformation of horrifying sights into reassuring ones (47).
One example of “the transformation of horrifying sights into reassuring ones” appears in the photo series One Nation, where firefighters, police officers, soldiers and other aid workers were photographed at Ground Zero using lighting, filters and other effects to make them appear “larger-than-life” (Lurie, 59). Their bodies tower over the wreckage, each of them striking a confident, though somber, pose. Lurie writes, “Endowed by photographic technology with superhuman bodies, these figures are indeed sights for sore eyes that endured the threatening sight of people unmoored from the support of tall buildings” (59).
The effect of such images, according to Lurie, is vastly different than the one that passively washes over us via “deferred viewing and understanding.” In the case of “deferred viewing,” we acknowledge the horrible reality that faced trapped and falling people and objectify them through the “visual assimilation of their bodies to the buildings,” which attempts catharsis by linking the inevitability of their demise with the destruction of the towers (57). Lurie argues that in taking an active role in the presentation of such photos — re-contextualizing the images from the photographic record using reassuring sights — we are able to alter their meanings. She cites pre-9/11 photos taken of the Statue of Liberty with lower Manhattan and the twin towers in the distance and compares them to photos of the statue taken after the attacks, with the towers conspicuously missing. She writes, “Because we know that the statue is still standing and the buildings are not, these images insist that the towers take their ultimate significance from, as they live on in, this massive, indestructible, symbolic national body” (59).
While Lurie acknowledges the significance of the “peculiar horror” present in the 9/11 photographic record, she skirts the fact that the ugliness these images portray draws its uniqueness — its Dionysian, or tragic qualities — from the attacks themselves. No matter how hard we work to re-contextualize these images, their content remains the same. Photographs of the event that have been made to fit a narrative of perseverance and healing still depict the same terrifying aftermath. They continue to resonate with us because they correspond to a uniquely tragic event in our American history, not because we have revised them in a way that makes that tragedy easier to bear. Granted, the Apollonian urge to re-contextualize these images is just as human as our Dionysian impulse to recoil when we confront them. But we ought to be skeptical of such revision, if only because revision, when taken to the extreme, can yield just as tragic and unacceptable an outcome: that we might forget the “real” conditions of the tragedy altogether.
The content of the 9/11 photographic record serves as a reminder that our conception of what a nation ought to be and how it should be governed — in essence, the things that amount to our American identity — are themselves subject to revision. What makes these photos ugly is not only the gruesome detail with which they depict human suffering, but also, and perhaps more significantly, that they testify to our vulnerability, and that there exist agents apart from us capable of challenging — and changing — our nation as we have conceived it.
This is not to say that memorializing the event is not good and important work. Catharsis and national identity-formation in the wake of the terrorist attacks can only occur through thoughtful, context-oriented reflection. But Nietzsche and Eco help us to see that the drive to revise an image like The Falling Man is both political and aesthetic: to alter its meaning in a way that aids the restoration of “safe spectatorship” is, effectively, to beautify it — to ascribe an arbitrary standard to it and hide the ugly truth of the matter away. If we adopt a Nietzschean view of the world, one rooted in a process-oriented aesthetic ontology, then “safe spectatorship” reveals itself as a manifestation of our Apollonian drive seeking to falsify the “real” through artificial, and therefore deceptive, means. The undeniably Dionysian content of the 9/11 photo record defies re-contextualization, however, because our Apolloninan pretenses — American industry, security, and military might — were in that moment revealed not to be as inviolable as we once thought.
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