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Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror” by Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula, Karen Randell (eds.)

by Enrica Picarelli
22 Aug 2011 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review of: Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula, Karen Randell (eds) (2011) Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the ‘War on Terror’. Continuum.

A section of Brian Massumi’s essay on fear, “Everywhere you Want to Be” (1993), is entitled “What, in the Real, Takes the Place of the Possible?” The section goes on to analyze the strategies by which power solidifies into actual practices of hegemony. Questioning the relationship between the real and the possible, Massumi contends that, in a time marked by “the eternal return of the disaster,” governmentality aims at controlling and deterring the unfolding of potentially devastating accidents. The scholar’s interest lays in understanding what dispositifs and techniques facilitate the passage from abstract power to biopolitical governmentality. What forms does the “possible” acquire when it actualizes into the “real”? What kind of relationships interlink the former with the latter and what about the discontinuities that forestall the enforcement of control measures performed over hypothetical events?

This discourse on virtuality and possibility, sameness and difference appropriately introduces the review of Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror.” Indeed, although Massumi’s work was published before the terrorist events of 2001, it anticipates some of the reflections that the contributors to the volume raise as they attempt to historicize 9/11 on the year of its tenth anniversary.

At the heart of Reframing 9/11 is an investigation of the processes of cultural formation unfolding within a system of power which takes as its object the coming into being of the subject, that is, the whole of the processes by which we develop an understanding of ourselves and represent it to the world through semiotic means. This is the regime of biopolitical sovereignty that informs the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) referred to by different contributions to the volume as the background and ideological foundation of George W. Bush’s policy of global domination. In “Avatars of Destruction: Cheerleading and Deconstruction the ‘War on Terror’ in Video Games” (Chapter 8) by David Annandale, the PNAC inspires design strategies that dress with violence, racism and murder the video games imaginary of productions like Ghost Recon and Full Spectrum Warrior which the author dubs the “ideological allies” of the “cheerleaders of the ‘War on Terror’” (p. 98) created in actual cooperation with the Armed Forces.  “Here [...] one sees a particularly detailed effort at physical simulation that incorporates a specific brand of ideological simulation.  Even as they reflect social fear about terrorism and envisage horrific scenarios, these games are often paradoxically optimistic as they present a fantasy that is a corrective to the messy reality in Iraq and elsewhere” (p. 98). Inviting user’s engagement, these games operate on the emotive dimensions of cultural subjectivation, striving to provoke an identification between the player and the American ‘heroes’ of the global fight for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’

Indeed, as also underlined by Rachel Pain and Susan Smith in Fear: Critical Geopolitics and Everyday Life (2008), in the last decade perceptual stimulation, especially fear, has become a motif for the human condition. The instantiation of Bush’s hypersecurized regime of control shows that the actualization of abstract power into new forms of sovereign governmentality takes place within an ecology of alertness where subjects are recognized as sources of potentially disruptive affects such as panic, fanaticism and anarchism. The three sections in which Reframing 9/11 is divided, “(Re)Creating Language,” “Visions of War and Terror,” and  “Prophetic Narratives,” effectively stress that popular culture was at the forefront of a biopolitical attack to American lifestyle. Reverberations of the culture of fear inform the theoretical background of the volume’s critique of the military-industrial complex which, in Chapter 1, David Altheide approaches as the paradigmatic apparatus of formation of contemporary subjectivities. In “Fear Terrorism and Popular Culture,” which delivers the editors’ intentions to deconstruct Bush’s epistemology of terror and Americanness, Altheide maintains that the post-9/11 cultural climate was saturated with a state-sponsored promotion of fear and uncertainty whose object shifted from general crime to terrorism.

The scholar concentrates on the mechanism of affective capture that characterizes post-9/11 politics, emphasizing the alignment of established media (especially broadcast television) with Bush’s vision of retaliation and indiscriminate prosecution of America’s enemies. Employing media messages as weapons of a psychological and informational war, Altheide comments that the governmental investment in cultural production was part of a biopolitical tactics of modulation which translated perceived feelings and desires into accepted cultural norms and codes of behavior. The media “lent support to an emerging national identity that was commensurate with moral character and a discourse of salvation of ‘seeing the light’ to guide our way through the new terrorism world” (17).

This argument encapsulates the operativity of the mechanism of passage from virtuality to materiality that Massumi discusses in relation to biopolitical governmentality. It foregrounds the processes of translation that mediate the collective apprehension of unanticipated events as dangerous accidents and their consolidation into cultural memories. Moreover, within a state of emergency, the translation of generalized uncertainty into state-sponsored fear implies that different occurrences, from natural disasters to epidemics, be collapsed into the elastic category of the threatening event.

One of the merits of Reframing 9/11 is that it offers an up-to-date analysis of the processes of cultural mediation and archiving that power sets in motion in its unfolding as bio-politics. The representation of 9/11 as the first “global event” is paradigmatic in this respect, since it stresses the role that mass media and popular culture played as weapons of hegemonic subjectivation and counter-subjectivation. In the introduction, Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula and Karen Randell underline that “the visual and the poetic”  (p. 3) dimensions of popular culture, expressed by cinema, television, literature etc., are arenas of negotiation where the urge to archive the memory of 9/11 as a “singular, commodified incident” (ivi) is resisted. In place of a self-enclosed apparatus of knowledge about the attacks, the editors maintain that popular culture presents itself as a site of “anxiety and discussion” (p.2) where memory is turned inside out by the pressures of an “ongoing excavation” (p. 2) for language and meaning. “In ways both real and intangible, the entire sequence of events of that pivotal day continues to resonate in an endlessly proliferating aftermath of meanings that have changed and continue to change” (p. 2).

Following in the trail left by the passage of multiple representations and re-evocations, Reframing 9/11 journeys through spatio-temporal experiences of displacement and shock, providing insightful commentary on a number of cultural productions which seem to subvert accepted interpretations of 9/11 and America’s role on the global horizon. As previously mentioned, the aim of the volume is to put 9/11 into perspective and develop a “constructive post-traumatic language” (p. 3) that would be able to express the shock provoked by the attacks. The choice to turn to the kaleidoscopic universe of popular culture aids in the effort to bring together a chorus of different voices. Following in the footsteps of other collections on the same subject, such as Winston Wheeler Dixon’s Film and Television after 9/11 (2002) or Steven Chermak, Frankie Bailey and Michelle Brown’s Media Representation of 9/11 (2003), Birkenstein, Froula and Randell profess their dissatisfaction with political debates and their enthusiasm in the “creative space” that popular culture offers to opinion-making and civic participation.

Reframing the argument about television’s role as “public sphere” advanced by Lynn Spigel in “Entertainment Wars: Television Culture After 9/11” (2008), Stacy Takacs, in “The Contemporary Politics of the Western Form: Bush, Saving Jessica Lynch and Deadwood” (Chapter 13), shares Birkenstein, Froula and Randell’s desire to engage entertainment media productions as a “cultural forum.” Writing about HBO’s show Deadwood and the made-for-TV movie Saving Jessica Lynch, Takacs observes that “by constantly re-articulating the central beliefs of the society, [TV] gives individuals a chance to assess the validity and efficacy of those tenets and to imagine alternatives. While the radical effects of any single TV program are likely to be limited, the medium as a whole testifies to the constructed nature of social priorities and, in doing so, suggests they might be amenable to reconstruction” (p. 162).

The hegemonic construction of social priorities in post-9/11 popular culture is also analyzed by Jonathan Vincent in Chapter 4: “Left Behind in America: The Army of One at the End of History.” Vincent analyzes Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s bestselling Left Behind book series, contending that its apocalyptic tale of catastrophe, inspired by John of Patmos’s Revelation and Old Testament prophesies, produces a symbolic constellation of meanings rooted in an exalted nationalism. The author contends that the series encodes a set of values and believes of the evangelic fashion into a narrative that abstracts historical narratives, replacing them with Biblical rhetoric and motifs. On the literary pages, war and the political reality of the present lose their contours, morphing into something akin to an “original disease infecting a corroded world rightfully spinning toward its necessary conclusion” (p. 51). Mythology’s ellipticism here helps to place the ideology of a new Christian nationalism, that brings together the opposing ends of neoliberal individualism and neoconservative mytho-historical belonging, into a shared structure of feeling where fanaticism encodes a distorted vision of the present, leaving no space to interrogation and critique.

Turning respectively to music and cinema, John Mead’s “9/11 Manhood’s Mourning, and the American Romance” (Chapter 5) and Jeff Birkenstein’s “An Early Broadside: The Far Right Raids Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (Chapter 6) face the attack’s “aftermath of meanings” through the mediation of male figures and their bonds with the forgotten spaces of modernity. In both essays, masculinity stages the post-9/11 displacement as the crisis of a supposedly homogeneous national identity that is cast off to zones of crisis and negotiation, such as Ground Zero and the Pacific Ocean. “The figure of the man in the wilderness” recurs in Mean’s reading of William Langewiesche’s three part series “Ground Zero,” published by the Atlantic Monthly, and Bruce Springsteen’s post-9/11 album The Rising (2002), as well as in Birkenstein’s study of Peter Weir’s 2003 movie Master and Commander to encapsulate a discourse about impotence, restoration and the right to a supposedly just war. Although Springsteen’s desolate vision makes no room to the crowds of “beleaguered, tough-talking, set-jawed [...] strong-willed men” (p. 61) which populate Langewiesche and Weir’s narratives, it nevertheless delivers its message through the crushed physicality of recurring images of empty hands, evoked at the end of the album and of the song “My City of Ruins.”

The symbolism of the corrupted body is also present in Terence McSweeney’s “The Land of the Dead and the Home of the Brave: Romero’s Vision of a Post-9/11 America” (Chapter 9) where the army of zombies of Romero’s 2005 movie articulates an ambiguous vision of racial and cultural purity. McSweeney’s contribution enumerates some parallels between the fictional world of Romero’s Fiddler’s Green and post-9/11 America, foregrounding the issues of socio-economic protectionism and surveillance as essential to the director’s critique of the War on Terror and, by extent, of American global dominance. The collective body of the disenfranchised proletariat that surrounds the utopian enclave of Fiddler’s Green, along with the outcast zombies, outnumbers the elite which, however, employs military and technological superiority to ensure its protection. When, by the end of the Land of the Dead, fortifications break down, the encounter between the oppressors and the oppressed stages the deconstruction of the cultural myth of American immunity, representing contamination as the only possible outcome of a forced encounter between America and its Other.

A further investigation of the zombie imagery in cinema is articulated by Anna Froula in “Prolepsis and the ‘War on Terror’: Zombie Pathology and the Culture of Fear in 28 Days Later… ” (Chapter 16). Froula’s essay shares McSweeney’s interpretation of the figure of the zombie as symptomatic of cultural uneasiness, making references to other examples of a proliferating new wave of cinematic and televisual productions of the zombie/infection horror genre, such as Stir of Echoes II: The Homecoming (2007) by Ernie Barbarash and an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series also entitled “Homecoming.” The author argues that in post-9/11 times, the walking dead becomes a metonym of the system of racism, detention and torture that sustains the ideology of the just war, but also a tool to prophesy the destruction of global powers. The apocalyptic epidemics represented in 28 Days Later… thus “warns of the inevitable consequences of empire and how quickly even a former empire can be reduced to ‘third world’ conditions as a consequence of social rage in the age of globalization” (p. 206). To this end, Froula analyses the cinematic aesthetics, placing a special emphasis on the movie’s accelerated pace (suggested by the movements of hand-held cameras) and its exploration of the materiality of contagion which it often associates to shots of dark, tortured skins.

The aestheticization of fear and terror is also foregrounded in the essays comprising the second section of Reframing 9/11, “Visions of War and Terror”, operating as the theoretical base to address the allegorical dimension of cultural tropes and images. Indeed, as noted by Adam Lowenstein in a quotation reported by Froula, allegory answers to the need of fixing meaning in the face of traumatic events that resist explanation, dwelling “between being and appearance, between subject and object, between life and death” (p. 200, italics in the text). In this light, allegory proliferates in the cracks of dialectics to expose, and at the same time secure, the inefficacy of absolute oppositions and the cultural norms that sustain them. The already mentioned chapter by Takacs on recent cultural revisitations of the Western points in this direction, taking the resurgence of narratives of salvation inspired as a symptom of political stagnation and the questioning of cultural conventions.

Indeed, the tendency to address post-9/11 anxieties through acclaimed cultural genres, such as the western, emerges as a strategy of securization which turns to familiar conventions of storytelling to domesticate the shock of displacement and absorb it within a serialized repertoire. Corey Creekmur’s “The Sound of the ‘War on Terror’” (Chapter 7) draws attention to the acoustic dimension of movies dealing with terrorism, like Peter Markle’s Flight 93 (2006) and Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave (2006), maintaining that they also respond to the conventions of a form of “aural Orientalism” made up of the “sound of cultural difference mediated through questionable forms of expertise and ideological control” (p. 91). Sounds made of undistinguished gibberish (a status to which audiovisual productions often reduce languages alien to the American audience, such as Arabic, Farsi or Urdu), chanting, like the adhaan, the Muslim call to prayer heard in the abovementioned movies, or screaming, as well as sound effects like the dramatic shifts in volume which accompany outbursts of violence, stereotype otherness, communicating dreadfulness and hostility and conventionalizing Muslim culture through strategies of generic repetition. Creekmur contends that the pervasiveness of such aural conventions mutes the real sounds of violence, combat, fear and panic that “remain unheard by critic and audiences,” (p. 85 italics in the text) preventing a thorough engagement with the materiality of suffering that accompanies the war on terror.

Creekmur’s focus on aural suggestions returns to the issue of perceptual modulation and the aestheticization of terror that Altheide describes as the dominant tenet of Bush’s hegemonic effort to trap collective feelings into the mesh of biopolitical governmentality. It also seems to inspire John Cawelti’s “Afterword” to Reframing 9/11 which correctly stresses that the volume was published within the changed atmosphere of Barack Obama’s presidency. In the place of “Shock and Awe”, of terror and fear, the new course of American politics markedly emphasizes “hope” and “change,” opening an affective gap with its immediate predecessor. More importantly, Cawelti demands renewed scholarly attention to the transformations of the infotainment complex as it expands and incorporates communication technologies and platforms of social aggregation into new strategies of social engagement and control. His closing words are an auspice for the contributors and readers of this volume to keep an ear out for new actualizations of the process of biopolitical becoming in which contemporary cultural production is implicated. The hope is that the findings published in works such as Reframing 9/11 may aid in future research focused on the intense entwining of culture and politics, as the consequences of 9/11 show that the popular remains a highly contested ground in matters of subjective formation and hegemonic control.

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Enrica Picarelli has received her Ph.D in Cultural and Postcolonial Studies of the Anglophone World at the University of Naples, "L'Orientale". She has recently discussed her thesis about post-9/11 American science fiction television shows. Her research interests bring together cultural theory, media theory, postcolonial studies and gender studies, touching upon questions of representation and affect transmission. She has published essays about cultural theory as well as the American shows Battlestar Galactica, Flashforward and Mad Men. She is currently working on an essay about the science fiction novel The Space Merchants (1952).
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