I switched on the TV soon after the planes hit, and there were the twin towers smouldering like giant cigarettes. As I watched this ‘live’ spectacle unfold from the safe distance of my lounge room in Melbourne, Australia, it felt as if what had been destroyed was not only a building, some ideological assumptions, and thousands of lives, but the formal system of television itself. Minute after minute went by with no cutaways and no changes in camera angle: just the one grey distant shot of the towers in the morning, the panicked voices of the announcers, and the billowing smoke. For the short but endless-seeming period before both towers collapsed, the image seemed immobile, as if already framed for tomorrow’s front page. It wasn’t long before someone on the TV suggested that the scene resembled a movie, perhaps The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin & Irwin Allen, 1974). Personally, I was thinking more of Empire (Andy Warhol, 1965), and of Albie Thoms’ testimony to the stretched-out, eerie, inadvertently avant-garde effect of the earliest worldwide TV satellite broadcasts in ‘real time’: Nixon in China, or “those fantastic Warhol shots transmitted by the astronauts from the moon.” (1)
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Part of the horror of the attacks was that from a certain perspective (like mine) these images were too good, too resonant, too easy to think with. In the same first moments in front of the TV, something else that came to mind was the well-known chapter on “Walking In The City” from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice Of Everyday Life, which starts off by discussing the experience of looking down from the top of – that’s right – the World Trade Centre:
On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production … The 1370 foot high tower that serves as a prow for Manhattan continues to construct the fiction that creates readers, makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text. (2)
Now the ‘text’ of Manhattan has been forever altered; but so has de Certeau’s. The above passage ‘reads’ the Trade Centre allegorically (in the same way that tourists on its observation deck were once able to ‘read’ the city) as an emblem of US capitalism, imperialism and the like. For de Certeau, the tower acts to impose a totalising understanding that denies the possibility of alternate readings of the urban text. The shock is that those responsible for the September 11 attacks appear to have conceived the same allegory in more or less the same way. However grotesquely, the attacks conform to the notions espoused by de Certeau and others of a practice of resistance that writes with (and on) the urban landscape, refashioning meaning by turning existing resources to purposes other than those envisaged by their planners.
Commentaries on the attacks as imagery have already noted that this imagery is strongly reminiscent not only of Hollywood action blockbusters (an issue that deserves further analysis), but of the strategies of detournement recently favored by Western anti-globalisation protesters. (3) Obviously, this is not to equate protesters with terrorists; rather, it points to what might be called the artistic problem of hegemony. The fact that no-one has felt the need to claim credit for the attacks suggests they were designed on some level as a (successful) form of rhetoric, communicating a message without need for verbal speech. In the face of journalistic attempts to declare the terrorist mindset entirely alien and unknowable, doesn’t this rhetorical success testify that all sides in the conflict have a language in common – that we’re all forced to borrow our metaphors from the same global image bank, even while we invest them with very different emotions and meanings?
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Watching global news events from a distance, as we do in my country, is a little like looking down over a city from a tower, or seeing an action sequence play out on a cinema screen. In all these cases, what’s being contemplated could well be understood as a spectacle in the limiting sense: a set of images that become readable, and pleasurable, only because the spectator presumes on his or her own non-involvement. It would be foolish (not to mention cowardly and racist) for those who have previously valued the spectacular qualities of cinema to change their minds because of the September 11 attacks. However, as I argue elsewhere in this edition (in my review of Jane Mills’ The Money Shot) it is equally foolish, and always has been, to defend action and horror movies against ethical critiques by claiming they offer mindless or purely formal pleasures entirely separated from the real world.
After all, it would be naive in the extreme to assume that scenes of horror and mass destruction are necessarily escapist fantasies – as if such scenes did not occur in real life. In fact the briefest glance at the history of cinematic spectacle, from revolutionary Soviet montage to Cold War spy thrillers to post-nuclear Japanese monster movies, shows that its development has been deeply bound up with the world-historical conflicts and traumas of the twentieth century. It’s also important to note that a ‘spectacular’ cinema, one that thinks in sounds and images, is not confined to popular genres such as action and horror. Spectacle is equally integral to the forms of cinematic realism that ‘see’ historical events and processes not from a lofty, totalising distance, but from the point of view of those caught up in them – letting us perceive the moment-by moment functioning of systems of oppression, and the struggle against these systems, as physical practices taking place literally at ground level, on the street. (Two recent, justly praised examples are Rosetta [Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 1999] and The Circle [Jafar Panahi, 2000].)
Typically, the ethical critique of spectacle (or rather audiovisuality) proceeds on two flanks. First, it’s alleged that spectacle brings us too close to particular events, and hence prevents us from thinking through their broader implications (as with the familiar claim that TV news bulletins offer ’emotive images’ rather than analysis). The second complaint is just the opposite: spectacle distances us from violent events, rendering us indifferent to the suffering of their victims. The case for cinema as a machine capable of representing our current historical condition in all its complex materiality has to combat both charges at once, by stressing the possibility of bringing together such incommensurable perspectives – of connecting the long shot and the close-up, the global and the local. Indeed, there’s no way we can begin to understand the current (ongoing) horror without making such connections. Part of the value of cinema is that it can fictionally show us both the undoubted excitement and pleasure of watching (and causing) destruction from a distance, and the unthinkable individual suffering such destruction entails up close. Rather than settling for these stark oppositions, however, it can more radically work to collapse the distinctions between thought and emotion, near and far, ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Spectacular events like those of September 11 may seem entirely ‘other’ in their rupturing of the world we know. But there’s never been a lack of everyday horror and destruction all around that world, if we have eyes to see it – even in Melbourne, Australia.
- Albie Thoms, “Alternate Television: 1972” in Polemics For A New Cinema (Glebe: Wild & Woolley, 1978), p. 291
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice Of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 1984), pp. 92-93
- Naomi Klein, “Signs Of The Times,” The Nation, October 22 2001