A Hostile Universe

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker

The singularity of grief challenges the sovereignty of the collective rituals of mourning and revenge. This is why the tragic events of September 11th cannot be allowed to exist outside of the scripted trajectories of the media. At first, this occurred by the careful control of the sampling of imagery -- dissolving the implosion of the World Trade Center into the controlling referent of images of the American flag. In times of crisis, whether private emotional or public political, the universal signifier of the flag with its explicit message of "America United" trumps, then assauges, the awful particularity of individual acts of mourning. A broader public purpose with its sustaining rituals of collective funerals is breathed into deaths which otherwise would be condemned to unanswerable questions concerning the randomness and arbitrariness of death. Fate is replaced by the polis.

The quick substitution of the virtualities of media mourning for individual grief is stage managed by the media, but only after the fact. Grief and mourning and sadness over the events of September 11th are expressed everywhere: individually, globally, intensely and instantly. A chorus of compassion that in its genuineness and its violent passions overwhelms the managers of the public script. All those flags flying from the roofs, windows, porches, and lawns in the American homeland, all those silent crowds of hundreds of thousands in many cities of the world, all those candle-lit vigils, are spontaneous and straight from the heart. In a gesture that resembles in its silence and intensity the first human hand clenched in solidarity and defiance against the unknown sky, this charisma of grief overwhelms everything in its path. It runs like a raging river through the empty canyons of the human heart. It is a rebellion of human mourning from below. It expresses itself in public acts of grief which with all of their flickering candles and moments of silence are so soul-felt because they exist in complete awareness of the abitrariness of fate. That awful scene of people jumping from the windows of the WTC could have been our family, our friends, our partners, ourselves. We are witnesses to death. We are witnesses to fate. In our private moments of grief we also rebel against the capriciousness of a hostile universe. A more primal code of human survival is already at work in the sympathetic heart.

And the children talk of "birds on fire" and "ghosts of smoke."

Terrorism of the Image

Terrorism enters the global bloodstream. It assumes the form of unforgettable images of human apocalypse stuck on a repeat-loop by an image machine mesmerized by its ability to shock, to horrify, to fascinate. The globalization of the image of terror.


Towers exploding in a miasma of violence.

767's slicing through the buildings like a primitive bird of prey.

Bodies falling.

Trapped office workers standing at blown out windows deciding between death by fire, by jumping.

Eeerie skeletal remains of the World Trade Center: a post-apocalyptic scene.

All the color of ash.

The earth turned to ash.

The streets turned to ash.

Bodies turned to ash.

The day the image turned to ash.

A woman interviewed on a TV talk show says: "I never want to experience in real life what I experienced through television."

The viral energy of the image. Hard realities of images of terror and disaster. Stories too painful to read. A flag that has been taken up as a symbol of comfort, fluidity, softness to the touch, quickly becomes a familiar symbol of the rhetoric of war.

Hyper-images that are terroristic because they work simultaneously in two languages: at first, evoking expressions of genuine human sympathy and shared solidarity. Here, the image-machine is a privileged witness to history, representing the suffering of the world to itself. But the image doesn't stay representational because the image matrix is always virtual, programmable and bored. Always a closed world of virtual imagery.

Cold images which also quickly conspire with the cold cynicism of power. Images which are present as witnesses to the evocation of human suffering quickly mutate into viral images supporting the hysteria of the war spirit.

The image mutates from visceral scenes of human victims to the traditional image of the American flag. A psychoanalytics of the image-repertoire: what Paul Virilio anticipated with his description of the coming century as a "cinematic derealization of the real" except now in opposite terms: life today in New York City as the immediate realization of the hyper-reality of the cinema. The flag has mutated into a backdrop for ads-- "God Bless America"--recorded to restart failing careers. Comfort food for the wounded psyche, images of the flag backlight the staged communications of celebrity grief.

So then, from cruel images of tragic individual fates to the tribal solidarity of the American flag. The wound must be closed. Vulnerability to fanaticism must be cloaked by the solidarity of the fused group. The last cell phone calls-- "I love you. I am trapped." "I can't breathe." "I'm going to jump, but I want you to know I am serene" must be psychologically compensated by the collective unity of the war pack.

Individual stories of the cruelty of human fate must be silenced by the despotism of the universal signifier. The festival of shared memories and flickering candles and unspoken and unspeakable words of parting that is Union Square in NYC must give way to the reassuring rhetoric and very real, coming violence that is Bush's speech to the Joint Session of Congress. Individual cells of terrorism must be liquidated by an equivalence of military cells of state terrorism.

With this emotional consequence. Direct psychological transference: from horror to comfort, from individual terror to the reassuring image of the American flag. The initial horrific images cannot be allowed to stand. They speak a language of instability, panic, terror and complete vulnerability. They are radically destabilizing. They are radically individuated. They are incommensurable. They are not propagandistic. They are witnesses to terror. Emotionally, they are impossibility.

Consequently, the terrorism of the image. From representations of human suffering to political cynicism, from an initial incommensurable space of human silence in the face of horror to the manipulatory media strategies of the war machine. From impossibility of response in the face of the psycho-pathology of evil to the cold relooping of image-memories as popular emotional support for a greater violence.

The image must be revenged in the history from which it first appeared. The image must be neutralized by an equivalent exchange of violence.

Images such as these which are truly iconic must in the end pay the price which from ancient times has been demanded by the gods. Iconic images require for their emotional expiation intense spasms of sacrificial violence. The political language of the scapegoat is the inverted sign of the individual language of the vengeful victim. An impossible fissure of political action with no real object and individual hurt with no easy compensation. The cycle is repeated. The codes of violence and counter-violence remain intact. The impossible wound is displaced, and then lost, in the collective rhetoric of political space.

Iconic images, then, as visual sacraments in contemporary history understood as a mass of the dead.

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are the editors of CTHEORY