As a counterpoint to Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of September 11th – the World Trade Centre Twin Towers as symbols of “virtual capitalism” and “the stark separation between the digitised First World and the Third World’s ‘desert of the real’” – I would like to suggest that the Towers be considered as a kind of collective body armour. The buildings seemed (or now seem) to be emblematic of a repository for that which was repressed: namely, a geopolitical perspective denied to North American consumers of news media. September 11 saw the unleashing of that denied perspective, specifically, that “information” that US foreign policy could somehow bounce back onto US soil. This new geopolitical perspective realigned borders: US-Palestine, US-Afghanistan, US-Iraq, US-Pakistan. Thus, in releasing “the information” via the destruction of the towers, the terrorism was, in a sense, a ‘situationist’ gesture. As Karlheinz Stockhausen immediately understood, it altered perceptions, worked in a conceptual way – representing a white noise assault of the real against the unreal. And this occurred in the media – the very arena of the unreal and the real.

The explosive breaking of the body armour defies the neo-capitalist order. Neo-capitalism has somehow produced something that exists outside its own system, throws into question fundamental facets of itself. A central 1970s preoccupation of Godard in the ’70s – capitalism as anality – can now be revisited. We have witnessed a visual metaphor for an impossible act of procreation: the silver phallus penetrating the petrified sphincter; an anal orgasm. The gaze of the Medusa is undone; what was once frozen into stone is now alive. Oedipus is un-cursed, his sight restored. And what are the realms of this impossible (or at least improbable) sexual fulfilment? The exotic, colonial fantasies of the natural, “dark” sexuality of the uncivilised sons of the deserts.

The American media has provided a barrage of faces to fit the type, as well as back stories conforming to such colonial projections. It is a nineteenth century foundation for an ‘infinite’ phase of neo-colonialism disguised as the necessary neutralisation of possible terrorists for the security of civilisation. Only Osama bin Laden’s genuine good looks seem to have outflanked this projection – he is a desired object in every conceivable sense of the word.

Images of people jumping to their deaths are the preferred pornography of the world media. Images of military force shore up collapsing markets, re-asserting American military and economic supremacy, regenerating the world of the WTC towers – an impossible Strangelove strategy, a re-assemblage of body armour. Will anyone ever have Cocteau’s ‘blood of the poet’ and play the exploding, jumping, crumbling, collapsing footage backwards for us? That would be the only apt visual metaphor for the current geopolitical re-assemblage.

No matter how bereft of “entertainment,” irony or post-modern frivolousness, current media reactions can still be interpreted through conventional frameworks, especially as soap frameworks (as Robert Turnock demonstrated in his analysis of the media in relation to the death of Princess Diana). Is this an index of the way in which, essentially, things remain the same? Has unreality successfully, methodically repelled the onslaught of reality? The WTC isn’t a post-theory event, just a testing of the media configurations of neo-capitalism. Did the actual reality of the event threaten to overwhelm the processes of media configuration? Not from the moment it was reported and made “sense” of, altered through analysis (of the type Pier Paolo Pasolini once termed “the criminal stupidity of television”), censorship (BBC news reports removing the exclamation of “Holy fuck!” from camcorder footage of the second collision), and plain untruth (the claim that Air Force One was under attack). Where the media feel a real frisson of potential failure, an inability to report the eminently reportable because language, no matter how spun, would fail it (say, the genocides in the former Yugoslavia, as they were “in process”) they look away, outmanoeuvring reality.

And unreality? The all-channel reportage may have made channel surfing akin to re-editing the closing moments of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), but as the events made reality of a hundred Hollywood blockbusters (suddenly perceived to be endless dress rehearsals for the real thing), we can assume that film is safe. It is the language of film (fictional images as an event) that allows us to make the real unreal in our comparisons of the explosions to glossy Hollywood carnage. Film is the only language that can write unreality with the language of reality (to paraphrase Pasolini). Film – at least, North American popular film – is the saviour, eradicating the rude intrusion of a geopolitical perspective as distressing as those glimpses of falling bodies. The relationship between cinema (as part of the media in general) and reality did not change on September 11th: reality simply hastened a process already on-going. Thus, the question “Why?” need not be answered. Soon, it will not even need to be asked. Expect more comedies.

Works cited

Barker, Howard, Arguments for a Theatre; John Calder, London 1990; p. 27

Shakespeare, William, Henry V; Penguin Books, London 1968

Karlheinz Stockhausen at Press Conference, Hotel Atlantic, Sept. 16 2001;

Turnock, Robert, Interpreting Diana: Television Audiences and the Death of a Princess; British Film Institute, London 2000

Žižek, Slavoj, The Desert of the Real: Is this the end of fantasy? in In These Time, October 29 2001

About The Author

Benjamin Halligan's critical biography of Michael Reeves is published by Manchester University Press.

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