Traumascapes: The Case of the
9/11 Memorial

Patrizia Violi

“9/11 Memorial” by John Sonderman

No other time in history other than the present seems so concerned with the memory of trauma, and no other time seems to have so many memorials and memory museums dedicated to tragic, traumatic collective events. The number of such places has grown exponentially over the last few decades, both in Europe and in the United States, although a more accurate analysis of which traumas appear to be worth memorializing is quite another story. In the United States there are certainly more memorials of the Holocaust—an act of genocide that did not happen in that country—than there are of the genocide of Native Americans, on which the very foundation of the nation itself is grounded.

But what exactly is the role of memorials in terms of constructing, transmitting, and defining a collective memory of the events they claim to commemorate? Which story do they tell, which social functions do they fulfill? These are questions we should ask ourselves when visiting the memorials that are more and more often becoming a part of our urban landscapes. At first sight a memorial appears to be merely a place to ‘conserve’ and store a memory of some given event. There is first an event, then the decision to remember it, and then the memorial, often resulting from merely maintaining the precise place where the event occurred, thus transforming that space into a place of worship, something between a sacred space and a tourist attraction.

But if we look more closely, things appear less straightforward, and the relationship between event, space, and memory less linear. Rather than just maintaining a record of the past, memorials and monuments actually contribute to its reconstruction in precisely those actual forms and modalities selected for its memorialization. What, at first glance, has appeared to be a pure trace of the past becomes the actual origins of its current meaning. Thus, memorials are not only places of remembrance, they are also places where history becomes rewritten, transformed, sanctified, and sometimes, too, normalized.

If wars are not only carried out on battlefields, but also through the many-faced articulations of war propaganda, history too is not only written through history books, but rather by the numerous and various social narrations that contribute to our perceptions of the past. Historical memory is not something well defined once and for all, but rather something that is changing continuously over time: the actual events themselves are remembered differently, according to the different discourses, texts, images, symbols, and gestures produced in relation to them. Even the Holocaust is not remembered in the same way today as it was 50 years ago, in Germany, in Israel, Poland, or the United States, before or after the well-known Holocaust television series of the late 1970s.

Memorials are yet another of those ‘texts’ that influence our current ways of understanding the meanings of past events, each contributing in its own way to consolidate these according to the actual forms chosen for their material constitution. In this way, they could well be seen as a key element of the cultural stabilization of memorialization processes: their own way of rewriting history becomes what we then perceive as history itself. Memorials and monuments play a crucial role in the actual construction of events, by delimitation of their boundaries and, more than anything else, by their stabilization into new forms that we then come to perceive as ‘given’.

It is precisely this form of ‘rewriting’ that I would like to problematize in relation to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, a very complex site of memory that includes both a Memorial and a Museum – two quite different forms of memorialization in both their aims and functions. Many things have been already written about this place of memory, which has been criticized from both right-wing and left-wing factions, for different, and occasionally opposing, reasons. Indeed, contradictions are bound to permeate a place that is at the same time a mass grave and a vast commercial center, a place of mourning and a tourist attraction. Even the extremely fastidious security apparatus that regulates the entrance—although it might well be indispensable—appears somehow incongruous in a place that is supposed, after all, to celebrate the value of freedom against the cruel blindness of terrorism. One is reminded of the security procedure of an airport check-in, which turned out to be so inefficient in the actual case in question (and indeed in the museum, one can see the displayed security video taken at the airport on the morning of September 11, 2001, where the terrorists can be seen passing through without any problem at all).

In this discussion I focus primarily on the memorial itself, and the ways in which it contributes to defining and ‘freezing’ the September 11 event. My reason for this choice builds on the fact that the memorial appears to be the real core of the whole Ground Zero memory complex, and that which is most likely to remain imprinted in the hearts and minds of visitors.

The emotional and aesthetic core of the memorial is the two chasms that have been opened up in the very place where the twin towers once stood, two empty holes where the gaze of the visitor dissolves in the endless cycle of the waterfall. The intensity of this place is certainly partly due to the visual effect of water falling into a void and evoking, in a reverse mirror effect, the collapse of the two towers and the almost 3,000 lives lost during the event (as the names inscribed in the borders of the two chasms remind us). But this is only one part of the story. The most powerful aspect of the memorial stems from the indexical nature of the two chasms, since this space is precisely where the traumatic event itself took place. An index, according to American philosopher and semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, is a sign that exhibits a direct, causal link to the actual event that produced the sign, and which the sign itself, in its turn, signifies. Indexical signs are thus material traces of the past, with direct spatial links to it, and this endows them with a very unique type of meaning effect: the two chasms themselves would be far less powerful if they were not actually situated in exactly the same place as the two foundations of the twin towers.

There also seems to be an especially strong, almost mysterious, connection between death and the actual place of its occurrence, turning it somehow into a sacred space, with a quite unique evocative, and symbolic, power. We feel the need to return there, making it into a place of pilgrimage, bringing flowers to mark it, as is often the case in many countries in the world where small roadside memorials are erected at places where fatal road accidents have taken place.

But where does such need, or perhaps desire, come from? Why do we want to actually “be” in the same space where the deadly event happened? I think this might well have something to do with a deep need to share something with the victims, a desire, as Vikki Bell has observed, “to put oneself in the place of the other, not just to understand it from the point of view of the other, but from the very place where the other once stood.” If so, then indexicality does not only characterize places, but also, in a way, the actual experience of visiting them. Here is where the events happened, and it is here where we as visitors are now standing and experiencing just being here. A similar double indexical anchoring installs a strong link between the present of the actual visit and the past of the event, activating a powerful emphatic participation in it, if not a kind of identification with the victims. We could define the memorial as an affective architecture in that it indexes not only the physical space of the event, but also the actual experience of the visitors while being there.

But what exactly is the ‘event’ that the twin tower chasms commemorate through their anchoring of this particular space to the past? At first sight, the question might seem preposterous: obviously they are there to remember the event of September 11, 2001; that is, the collapse of the towers. The idea that September 11 actually is the event, and coincides fully with that actual moment in time, is something so fully assumed that it appears difficult to question it. But is this really the case? Perhaps events are of a more complicated nature, so that they, and their temporal definition, are more open to questioning.

Today, there is a broadly shared understanding that events are not ‘natural’ phenomena independent of the various ways in which they are reconstructed, narrated, and memorized. According to Robin Wagner-Pacifici, events are restless, unstable entities, complex mobile social processes unbounded in their temporal delimitations.5 Events are restless because they are continuously being interpreted, framed and reframed by the discourses, images, words, and texts that construct and reconstruct their very meanings, in an endless process of interpretation that reminds us of what Umberto Eco referred to as “unlimited semiosis.” In this perspective, events can be seen as “shape-shifters” or “relays of signs and symbols” that can range from treaties to television series, from gestures of condolence to institutional speeches, from images to monuments. This extremely heterogeneous set of semiotic configurations and social narratives constitutes what Aby Warburg once called the “afterlife of events”– an afterlife, I would like to add, that actually has retroactive effects on the events themselves, thus redefining their very nature.

The afterlife of September 11 is certainly one of the most arresting of our time, since this event was the beginning of something new (an infinitely more worrying and destabilizing story than those we were previously used to), the story of our now frightening present apparently opening up for a even more horrendous future. Indeed, as pointed out by Wagner-Pacifici, in the case of September 11 it is no small issue to determine where the event actually begins and where it ends. Is it defined by the moment the twin towers collapsed in New York City? Does it encompass the attack on the Pentagon and the plane crash in Pennsylvania? Is it confined to 9/11 or does it include the days immediately after, with their dramatic search to identify victims? What about the longer-term consequences of an event that in many aspects changed the history of our time, from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and perhaps up to and including the more recent spreading of terrorist attacks all over the world, the diffusion of ISIS and the apparent increasing militarization of everyday life?

At first sight, all this has little to do with a memorial. We cannot expect a memorial to capture the complexity of an event of this magnitude, or account for the whole chain of events that followed the initial, principal trauma. In a way, we could even say that monuments and memorials are erected precisely to memorialize a given event by fixing it in time, by putting to rest the inherently restless nature of the event, and thus playing a very important role in stabilizing and privileging certain readings of the past over others.

Because, if it is true that events are indeed ‘restless,’ there are nonetheless, at the same time, forms of retardation and stabilization within this seemingly endless process of production and interpretation of meaning. Semiosis is thus unlimited only in principle: in the reality of historical processes there will always be moments where the process stops, though perhaps only temporarily, and meanings thus become stabilized. Peirce described such moments of inertia and consolidation of meaning as “habit:” a tendency to favor one particular interpretation over all other potential interpretations, and to behave accordingly. We certainly need forms of sedimentation in the dynamic of semiosis, forms of stasis where memories acquire a given shape, though not ever a permanent one. Memorials and museums are generally of one of these forms, commemorations are another.

However, just how memorials might accomplish such a goal is something far from universally recognized, especially when they are situated directly where the traumatic event happened (thus carrying with them a strong indexical link). In these cases memorials encompass physical traces that might appear endowed with an almost natural capacity to bear memories of the past. But it is not that simple: these memorialized traces are always subject to the interpretation of both the designer and the visitor. Over the last few years a very intense debate has taken place all over the world regarding how to conserve, memorize, or transform—that is, how to interpret—what I have defined elsewhere as “trauma sites,” a complex debate which involves not only the architectural design of such sites, but more crucially, the kinds of social and cultural functions they ought to fulfill. In Argentina, for example, a long discussion has developed over the years regarding how to conserve ESMA (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada), a huge military complex in Buenos Aires used previously as a place of imprisonment, torture, and murder by the military. While some associations of survivors and relatives of victims wished to conserve the place exactly as it was, thus maintaining the strong indexical links with the past, other associations, such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, for example, were in favor of using the place as a youth center. According to the Madres, the site should not take the form of a memorial that fixes and forecloses the past, but rather one that allows for a new future, by suggesting new forms of social and cultural life. The Argentinean debate shows how the very same traces of the events of the past can be interpreted and redesigned in very different ways.

The 9/11 memorial, with its cyclical and never-ending deluges of water into two stark black holes, evokes the image of the collapse of the two towers, thus freezing the whole event into that very last moment. The particular stabilization of meaning realized by the memorial is focused on the conclusion of the event; using a linguistic terminology we could say that the process is described from a terminative point of view, thus fixing the temporal boundaries of the event so that they coincide precisely with its conclusion. Independently of any consideration of the aesthetic values inherent in the memorial (which is not what I am concerned with here), other realizations would have produced different meaning effects. For example, the two rays of light emanating from the craters and diffusing into the sky, as designed by Libeskind, display a different system of topological oppositions (high instead of low, infinite diffusion instead of eternal circularity), which might easily be seen as opening up for different kinds of memorization.

There is also another aspect that should be taken into account when discussing the form that memorials contribute to commemorating traumatic events. Although memorials and monuments are architectural artifacts that typically do not change over time, they are nevertheless immersed in a living environment, and are, or might be, subject to different kinds of remembrance practices—often unforeseen by their designers—that have a noticeable feedback effect on the perceptions and overall meanings of the monument itself. Such was the case, for example, with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Here, the sober form of the monument was subsequently transformed through spontaneous practices of remembrance and commemoration, as relatives and friends brought flowers, flags, and other small objects to the monument to remember their own loved ones, thus changing the design’s overall profile.

Monuments are not isolated objects that merely stand in the void; they are often installed into an urban context that surrounds them and affects our understanding of them, as they become subjected to various kinds of remembrance practices. Within this perspective, it becomes particularly interesting to examine more closely the discussion that took place in late 2010, when a plan was announced to build an Islamic Center two blocks north of Ground Zero. The Islamic Community Center was supposed to include a mosque, a school, a pool, and a 9/11 memorial. Seen at the beginning as uncontroversial, in a few months it became a highly contested project, due to the potential proximity to Ground Zero of a mosque and a center for Islamic culture. The intense debate that followed, where family members of the victims as well as politicians and residents were involved, showed very well how the actual surroundings of a monument can be sensitive, and that the kinds of activities carried out around a memory place will play a major role in defining the overall sense of that place. Preventing the construction of a mosque nearby emphasized the sacralization of the memorial, freezing it into a time and space that is non-contaminable by other events, actors, or narratives. Moreover, it implicitly set out which religions were to be admitted to this place of memory and which were not, also reflecting somehow on who had the right to claim a legitimate status of victim.

These examples remind us that the meaning of a memorial is not only a matter of its actual design. How we read memorials can change in relation to their environments, and they may acquire different meanings over time, reflecting the various usages and practices carried out there. The ongoing transformation of the Lower Manhattan area may well influence the future functioning of the 9/11 memorial, as well as the different perceptions we have of it. And, in the long run, the surrounding environment may influence the very ways in which we remember the event itself. Memory is part of the event, and not its automatic consequence, so the choices we make regarding forms of memorialization will always have retroactive effects on our ways of thinking about the event itself.

Patrizia Violi is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Italy. She is also the Director of TRAME: Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Memory and Cultural Traumas at the University of Bologna. Her main areas of research include textual analysis, language and gender, and semantic theory, on which themes she has published numerous articles and volumes, including Meaning and Experience (2001). She is currently working on cultural semiotics and traumatic memory, in particular in relation to memorials and memory museums. On the latter theme she published Paesaggi Della Memoria: Il trauma, lo spazio, la storia (2014).

This article was published in LA+ Journal’s TYRANNY issue #3 (Spring 2016).

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