After 9/11 — What? A Historian Contemplates the Future of Memory

September 10, 2011, 10:46 am

Commemorations of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and of those murdered on a third plane brought down in western Pennsylvania, began long ago and will culminate tomorrow. Here at Tenured Radical we have promised you no commemoration. Other media have a grander scope than we do, and ours will be trivial by comparison, even though memories of that day occasionally cause us to tear up unexpectedly. We also believe that life can sometimes become so saturated with commemoration that as citizens we become besieged by memory and unable to recall what it is, exactly, we experienced.

September 11 2001 is perhaps as fine an example of the role of simultaneity in generating nationalism as Benedict Anderson, or any American Studies scholar teaching Anderson, could invent.  As I drove up to Northampton yesterday, where la famille Radical is spending the weekend, I was listening to an episode of “Where We Live,” a Connecticut Public Radio show, whose host had gathered together Connecticut officials, reporters, and politicians to talk about their experiences on that day.  Some of them are astonishingly similar.  For example, an overwhelming number of 9/11 memories begin with a telephone call that moves the narrator towards a television and a mesmerizing view of a previously unthinkable disaster that has to be assimilated in a matter of minutes.

An event like 9/11 is, of course, no longer unthinkable, especially to those of us in the East who had particularly immediate connections to the event. For example, although I knew no one who died on that day, I knew two people who lost friends or family members (one, whose relative was buried in the rubble, received faint cell phone calls from that person’s cell phone for several days after the event.) Because the Radicals were commuting at the time, and had a New York apartment, we were the recipients of numerous frantic phone calls trying to ascertain our whereabouts (we were, respectively, on Cape Cod and in Zenith.) And although my first thought was that my relative, Urban Exile, who lived in Harlem at the time, was safe, days later when we were finally able to make contact, it turned out that she had had business downtown that day.  She emerged from the subway in time to see the towers burning above her, and made it far enough north to be safe when they fell.  But she did not escape the vision of people flinging themselves out of the building to their death on the plaza below.

Some day historians will ask the question:  how did we experience 9/11, not as a nation, but regionally and locally?  For those of us in the Northeast, and around Washington, it was an entirely different, and less mass mediated, event than it was elsewhere.  Class also mattered.  You could be absolutely sure, for example, if you taught at a private college like Zenith, that there would be students who had lost parents and siblings. Furthermore, as a caller pointed out on NPR yesterday, there are an extraordinary number of both wealthy and working-class people who make round trips of up to five or six hours to work in New York each day.  Hence, places like central Connecticut, suburban Philadelphia and communities in Pennsylvania’s Poconos anxiously awaited casualty counts and phone calls just as New Yorkers did.

Of course, there were also people in places like Minneapolis, Oaxaca, Bankok, Mumbai and Beijing who waited for word on 9/11: that local documentation is important too.  In the sense that I have just described, 9/11 was a national and an international event whose scope has yet to be even minimally accounted for.  Memory is far more powerful, and the generation of memory an ongoing event. We don’t even need official memorials to connect to that day:  we are surrounded by memorials that are now part of ordinary life.  All of us relive 9/11 in a residual sense when we go through a security line to get to an airline flight, when we present a photo ID to get on a train to Boston, when we are reminded to “see something, say something,” when we face the frustration of the new xenophobia that is playing such a pivotal role in politics nowadays. We relive some version of the event every time we are lectured by our politicians that bombing the $hit out of the northern provinces of Pakistan is more important than feeding, clothing and educating poor people in the United States and in Pakistan.  We relive it every time we fail to protest a Republican agenda, and Democratic acquiescence to, a fiscal agenda that promotes corporate profits over the interests of ordinary people, most of whom are too anxious and battered to contemplate a jihad.

As a citizen, I am tired of memory:  I want to move forward.  But as a historian, I want a critical appraisal of how 9/11 stopped our society dead in the water, allowing the Madoffs to rule the roost while the government bled money into a wild goose chase in Iraq and Afghanistan. Understanding this requires the assembling and collation of government documents (many of which we do not yet have access to); and it requires an assessment of how new modes of spreading information (Wikileaks) have emerged at the same time as new modes of concealing information (the USA Patriot Act.)

However, it also requires the assembling and collation of memory.  To this end I recommend to you the September 11 Digital Archive, a collaboration between the American Social History Project (CUNY) and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (read a review by Tenured Radical here.)  I also recommend the 9/11 Oral History Project at the Columbia University Center for Oral History.  Another project yet to be addressed to the best of my knowledge is exploring how 9/11 has been rendered in literature and culture, both realistically and allegorically (go here for a post from Tim Burke on the World Trade Center in comic books prior to the attacks, and the eerie message these mags deliver.)

This resources point up a lesson not yet learned by much of the history profession after 9/11:  that too few of us are interested in assembling archives at critical moments of contemporary history.  In the case of both projects, historians mobilized immediately to send researchers into the streets with voice recorders and cameras.  At Columbia, where I was doing research at the time, I returned as soon as the trains began to run again, and archivists had already set up collection boxes so that people could drop off material memories of that day: scraps of paper, flyers, cassettes from telephone answering machines and the like.

How many of us are prepared to respond in this way?  I certainly wasn’t. We have too few institutions in our universities devoted to collecting the stuff of contemporary history and prioritizing the preservation of public memories.  Such institutions mobilize individuals as a collective when they might not be able, or know, how to mobilize themselves as individuals.

In this vein, tomorrow Tenured Radical will be in the streets of Northampton (where there is a weekly gathering of anti-war protestors, as well as Tea Party counter-protestors) taking pictures. Historian Matthew Frye Jacobson writes:  ”If you find yourself in ANY public setting where the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is being marked and observed this weekend, I hope you will consider taking a cellphone photo of the proceedings for the Historian’s Eye.”  As you can see, this is a digital startup based at Yale University that relies on all of us for the collection it is building.  Take pictures and upload them by flickr as per the instructions on the website, or send them to historians

And with that, as part of this archival project, Tenured Radical invites readers to submit their own memories of 9-11-01 in the comments section of this blog.  You need not leave your name, but in the spirit of usefulness for the future, tell us where you were, geographically and in your life, at the time.  You might also want to reflect on how that day changed your life, if in fact you think it did.

Aggregator Update: reflection from Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time, with a link to her fifth anniversary post; Michelle Moravec at History in the City (who is also in the comments section); Flavia, also with a link to a prior post, on exasperation; Historiann escapes the trauma narrative by asking why, despite the expressed desire to do so, we do not learn from studying history; Jeffery Brodi on the 9/11 collection at the Postal Museum at Smithsonian Blog (courtesy of Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe’s Historian Daily); Sepoy reports on Islamophobia and the German far-right at Chapati Mystery; and Paul Harvey on “Fear Itself: Literary Reflections on 9/11,” which has even more wonderful links at Religion in History.  See also an article in Al-Jazeera on low-wage workers, many undocumented, hired to do early clean-up on the toxic WTC site (hat tip).

Just in at 12:00:  A wonderful reflection by Brian Ulrich, assistant professor of Middle Eastern History at Shippensburg University, on how the actual suffering of Muslims communicated in a changing media environment is part of the historical context of 9/11:  see Community in an Age of Hatred.  See also Christiane Wilke, professor of law and human rights at Carleton University, Ottawa, on how 9/11 altered an intellectual trajectory and Urban Exile, who was on the scene and lived to tell a beautiful tale of the day’s effect on her life.

Keep commenting and sending your links :  I will update throughout the day.

9/17/2011:  Better late than never, Roxie’s World — thanks for this.

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