The line, the skyline, between then and now

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. – Walter Benjamin

NYC skyline (from the ferry), Feb. 2001

In a hugely absorbing (but disappointingly under-attended) session on Imperialism and Culture at the 2008 Socialist Studies conference, I suggested that the attacks of September 11, 2001, marked a line between past and present that feels uncannily like the kind of line described in science fiction, a line that sharply divides one’s lived and felt experience of time in its unfolding. (Think of Lionel Verney’s reflections on life before and after the plague in The Last Man, or Offred’s reflections on life before and under Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale…or Cayce’s reflections on life after September 11 in Pattern Recognition.) The session presenters suggested (and rightly so, I think) that to represent the attacks of September 11, 2001, in this way is to reproduce the kind of cultural imperialist ideology that has driven not only a lot of popular culture since, but also a lot of dubious-to-disastrous foreign policy decisions.

Point taken, and a fair enough one at that.

Lines of tragedy and trauma divide and sometimes dismember everyone’s lives, whether on the personal scale or the sociopolitical. Walter Benjamin observed that the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule. As witnessed by the helpless and horrified hindsight of Benjamin’s hypothetical angel, history is illuminated as a grim palimpsest of such lines, like a whip-scarred back: West African nations after slavery, the First Nations after colonization, Japan after August 1945, Rwanda after 1994. (This isn’t to homogenize different traumas and tragedies, only to suggest how they mar and mark time.)

Memorial mural, NYC, Apr. 2002

So it is perhaps not despite but because of this knowledge — knowledge of history’s lacerated hide, and of the military-entertainment complex that feeds greedily on it –that one still feels so keenly this line, this skyline, cut down through the lived experience of time in its unfolding.

Or its collapsing.

Such a strong storm buffets the angel of history, it’s impossible to tell which.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations (1940). Trans. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969. Rpt. in Simon Fraser U http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html

Forsyth, Scott and John McCullough. “Imperialism and Culture.” Society for Socialist Studies annual conference, U of British Columbia, 4 Jun. 2008.

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