The Chronicle Review


August 07, 2011

The great paradox of the post-9/11 decade is that a traumatic event that should have made us all more aware of the world outside our borders has instead given birth to a curious insularity—an inward turn where the personal has once again become the political.

Threatened from without by forces seemingly too overwhelming to control, and besieged by endless talk of surveillance and security, many of us have turned with some relief to the local—to what might make us feel better.

The very language of the decade expresses our anxiety about the outside world. Talk of the "third world" and "emergent nations," expressing as it does a first-world confidence and sense of control, has given way to the ubiquitous "our planet," as in, "saving our planet." A dec­ade ago, under the sign of the Baudrillardean "simulacrum" and Derridean "difference," postmodern representation and ambiguity would never have tolerated a noun as generic as "planet." It would have been dismissed as hopelessly essentialist: How could we know the planet, much less call it "ours"?

When most Americans talk of saving our planet, they have a myopic view: They mean the environment they witness every day, with its SUV-clogged freeways, plastic-bottle glut, and absurd excesses of electricity and water consumption. In this context, a session at Whole Foods Market may feel comforting, but what about those places on the planet where there is not enough electricity to speak of excess or where there are no paper diapers to clog landfills? Better not to think about them, and to focus on such issues as childhood obesity (Michelle Obama's cause) or the relative effectiveness of the various sunscreens on the market.

The language of the new animal studies is another case in point. In her "Guest Column: Why Animals Now?" for the special animal-studies issue of PMLA (March 2009), Marianne DeKoven wrote that the interest in animals is "based on a more broadly generalizing premise: the idea, or conviction, that the human species is destroying and perhaps has irretrievably destroyed, the planet."

"I think that many have turned away from our own species in dismay at what it has wrought and turned toward other animals as a locus both of the other who calls us to ethics and of many of the things that, in our various modes of ethics, we value: purity of affect, unselfish altruism, absence of genocide and infrequency of random, unmotivated violence, and connection to what is for us a source of powerful spiritual experience."

I sympathize with the pain and disillusion with politics that could lead a thoughtful critic to such conclusions, but such apocalyptic talk of the human species destroying the planet is predicated on the curious denial of both history and geography that is characteristic of our post-9/11 moment. DeKoven knows very well that, in fact, we cannot just turn away from our species in dismay and give our attention to other animals, seemingly less violent and more altruistic than ourselves. It is a manner of speaking used to dispel the nagging suspicion that America is no longer No. 1, that our vulnerability to attack is an index of the loss of power that is rapidly bringing other nations to the forefront.

And then there is the question of language itself. In the wake of 9/11, there was much discourse about the need to learn the language of the attackers, specifically Arabic. According to statistics from the Modern Language Association, more than 20,000 people in America enrolled in Arabic-language higher-education programs in 2006, double the number who signed up from 1998 to 2002. The need for Arabic-speaking professionals was held to be essential for security purposes. But the statistics are deceptive. According to a representative of the National Resource Center at Brigham Young University in 2007, of those 20,000 students, "not even 5 percent are likely to graduate with functional speaking proficiency." And at the elementary and secondary levels, the dropout rate in Arabic programs was estimated at 75 percent.

Why? According to the report, Arabic is an extremely difficult language, especially for those who have no other language training. Then, too, there is, to date, a shortage of trained Arabic-language teachers in America. But I suspect that the real cause is elsewhere. In the course of the past dec­ade, a vague desire for a quick language fix has run into the insular conviction that English is, after all, the global language and, hence, sufficient. Note that on-the-scene reporting—say, in Egypt—increasingly relies not on the simultaneous translation of interviews with foreign diplomats or politicians, but rather on the reports of American "global" newscasters like Anderson Cooper, a pundit who, despite the epithet "360," is largely dependent on what people with a smattering of English want him to hear. As for academe, the big news by the end of the decade is how many comparative-literature and modern-language programs have been downsized or simply eliminated.

It is usual to blame the weak economy for such cutbacks. But the current insularity was in place before the economy went sour. Indeed, when we look back at the past 10 years, we will recognize it as the decade when America slept, mired in security concerns (Will I let the airport agent touch me?) and revenge (Which Al Qaeda leader is our target today?), its citizens so absorbed in personal issues that they ignored the plain reality that power was rapidly shifting elsewhere—not to the demonized Middle East, but to those new powers like China and South Korea and Brazil.

I just spent an amazing week in Rio de Janeiro, attending, among other events, the book launch for André Vallias's beautiful Portuguese edition of the poetry, correspondence, and essays of the great German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine—an event covered by the major Brazilian papers and TV. Brazil, a country now wholly energy-independent, exudes an enviable affluence, optimism, energy, and cultural dynamism.

Perhaps, now that a decade has gone by since 9/11, it is time for us once again to look outward. The increasingly tedious discourse of self-reflection—based on the assumption that we are the leaders of the "free world"—must give way to a more accurate sense of who and where we are in relation to the developing nations and cultures in our "global" backyard. Language study—not just of "foreign" languages but also of our own—will help us to deal with the reality that, as Wallace Stevens put it, "we are not / At the center of the diamond."

Marjorie Perloff is a professor emerita of English at Stanford University and the author of Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (University of Chicago Press, 2010).


Also in this special issue:
Charles Kurzman asks: Where are the Islamic terrorists?
Evan R. Goldstein explores an oral-history archive.
Jacques Berlinerblau reflects on Ground Zero.
Peter van Agtmael captures images of 9/11's aftermath.