One need not be a psychologist or a semiotician to recognize that the destruction of the World Trade Center’s arrogant Twin Towers was a symbolic castration, annihilating the world’s most widely known symbol of international commerce and capitalist hegemony. And it was an actual emasculation as well, accompanying its metaphorical social-cultural-political statement with the horrifically real destruction of human life, property, and security. Riveted to their TV screens—watching more of the domestic coverage that has largely displaced crucial overseas reportage in recent years—Americans saw an instant amalgamation of war movie, science-fiction epic, horror film, disaster flick, and documentary. Their president saw it mainly as a war movie, which may have more disastrous repercussions in coming months.
Film and other branches of popular culture have long capitalized on the instability of Western culture’s self-aggrandizing confidence in a way of life rooted in physical potency and materialistic comforts rather than spiritual values and humanistic aspirations. The reported cancellations of a new Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller and an eagerly awaited Spiderman spin-off are trivial in themselves, but speak volumes about the changes in socio-cultural expression that will surely spring from the psychological traumas of recent days.
The symbolic import of Sept 11’s cataclysm represents not just an attack on America and the American way of life, but an assault on the forward-looking, short-term, money-fuelled mode of thought that is the driving force behind the Western entertainment industry. Perhaps this fact, coupled with the ungraspable enormity of the tragedy, will now compel us to look beyond Hollywood for our narratives and metaphors. Attempts to evoke the magnitude of the horror demand a return to the more primitive, magical modes of thinking more characteristic of early art, literature, and religion. Who needs Schwarzenegger when we have the terrors of Dante and Hieronymous Bosch, or the infernal nightmare revealed to St. John in his original vision of the Apocalypse?
If this appalling tragedy does lead to significant shifts in the nature of popular entertainment, the open question is how long these changes will last. Will it be a few months while the culture industry regroups its forces and rejiggers its ideas for new ways of exploiting a public hungrier than ever for comforting fantasies? Or will a reconfigured set of psychological needs and social demands produce new, relatively enlightened approaches to mass-marketed diversion and the effects this inevitably has on popular mindsets?
The first, more cynical answer is more likely, although the appalling novelty of these terrorist attacks may produce upheavals more lasting than we can currently predict.
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A different version of this essay appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on September 28, 2001.