Cultural Responses to 9/11 and the War on Terror: Witnessing Trauma, Embodying Justice



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This thesis is an investigation into cultural responses to 9/11 and the War on Terror. My primary subject matter consists of government documents, public speeches, print journalism, and an exhibit entitled Astro Noise, curated by Laura Poitras, that was on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the spring of 2016. Using a framework of cultural trauma, I argue that each of these responses is an attempt to formulate knowledge about, or come to understand, the traumatic event, whether that be the 9/11 attacks themselves or the expansive war that has followed. Therefore, I analyze each response in terms of what kind of knowledge it produces, how it mediates that knowledge to an audience, and how the audience becomes constructed as a witness to the traumatic event. I bring together strands of literary, psychoanalytic, political, and anthropological theory in order to consider how these particular forms of knowledge production, mediation, and witnessing both depend upon and create normative subjectivities. I argue that state-sponsored responses, such as a speech from the President or a Supreme Court decision, rely on a strict separation and detachment between the subjectivity of the American self and that of the terrorist other. Even journalistic responses that aim to expose and push back against an ever-expanding field of executive power fail to disrupt this dichotomy. Contrastly, the artistic response of the museum exhibit constructs and makes obvious new relationships between the museum visitor and other implicated subjects in the War on Terror. Through the construction of embodied experiences, described in detail in the thesis, the exhibit can trouble the boundaries between the self and the other. This creates an awareness of intersubjectivity. I argue that a focus on the inherent relationality between subjects and events is necessary if we hope to reckon with the overlapping, complex consequences of the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror. Ultimately, this investigation leads me to a re-theorization of justice, not as a single act or an end result but as a particular way of coming to understand and relating to the (often traumatic) world.



trauma, witnessing, embodiment, museum, 9/11, War on Terror, justice