The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

September 21, 2001

My friend Tom Zummer wrote the following, and has given me permission to
pass it on. I have always felt close to his thinking, even closer now. -


Some Notes On the Unspeakable
       11 September 2001

What recourse do we have, we who work embedded so deeply in language, when
words fail? When they fail so completely and utterly, in confronting tragedy
of such proportion. Is there anything which authorizes our speech, we who
remain outside the hole, the blank, utter, negation of those voices who
could speak, but cannot? No. That is impossible. For us and for them. There
is no possibility of speaking but from that position, and those voices are
silent. Where might hope lie for us? Circumscription, writing around a
wound, forms a cicatrice, a scar that forever marks the place of absence.
And yet there is the constant reflexive urge to fill this metaphoric hole
with language. Never mind that it cannot support such language, and that at
the same time such language occludes the space of horror, take its place,
and that this pure negation frames every language. Even our perceptions, as
they are before--or at least different from--language are compromised. I stood
on my roof watching through binoculars the fall of the northernmost tower.
For some minutes before it collapsed I saw what looked like dust. Like there
was dust crumbling from the edges of the building. It wasn't until four days
later that I realized that it was not dust, but people. So even at the very
moment of perception, or perhaps it is in that gap between perception and
cognition, where pure perception has not yet made itself into the world, not
yet entered into a relation with the possibility of knowing --when it is
attenuated, momentarily absolved from commitment to the horror--that we are
closest to the event. And for the rush of language that inundates that
space, how much of it is clich�, familiar tropes, truisms that order not the
event itself--which cannot be domesticated-- nor even our relation to it, but
rather our protection from it. When the first airplane hit, it was broadcast
almost immediately. Young children in one of the schools closest to the site
cheered and laughed, applauding this incredible image--how could they not?
The only precedent for such an image was in cinema or on television, where
everyone tacitly knows that, with all of the weapons fired, no one is really
killed. Moments later these same children witnessed, out the windows of
their classroom, the bodies of people who had jumped hit the ground,
literally exploding on impact. There is no way to suture these two events
together in any sensible way. They remain an aporia, an impossibility that
one cannot, and yet must, work through. The work of mourning. One of my
students asked if, within the framework of this intentional act of
terrorism, whether the composition of the act--a plane flying down 5th Avenue
into the first tower, with a second plane, from another direction, hitting
the second tower half an hour later--was not also intentional, so as to have
produced the clearest images of terror. I didn't know how to answer this.
Our city is already composed as an image, in a sense, there is something
cinematic from the start. Perhaps terror always composes itself as an image,
and that this was an opportunistic instance of that reflex. How many times
did we hear that it was 'like a movie,' or a 'special effect.?' And how was
it like a movie in the very moments that it unfolded? It is astonishing to
think of the network of people, stationary, fixed, in wahtever proximity to
the event, in front of their television sets. It was a movie, coextensive
with the horror of its actuality, a film or covering membrane, something
with which one could think, because any closer and thought too disappears.
The question of the precessionary comes up here. America has had its
'wake-up call' is another statement that we continue to hear. What does it
mean? That we have finally learned, in the worst way, the meaning of
'globalism,' and the hegemonic phantasm of our daily life now has to admit
that other hells punctuate the world, and have done so for a long time,
whether it be the thousands of people 'missing' in Latin America, or Burma,
or Algeria, and the list goes on. Have we backed into a world different
beyond our imagining? I don't know. The world is different, to be sure. The
etymology of the word 'aftermath' is useful to note: moving away, or moving
on. Is there a resonance of mathesis, or working, making (an image)? And not
only in images, but in judgements and acts? The wort theory in its original
sense authorized the passage from event into language such that the truth of
an event could be ascertained, judgements rendered and appropriate actions
taken. Our task is to think outside the event--there is no other place--and to
think through our judgements and actions so that this sort of thing, on any
scale, in any place, for any reason, cannot happen again. There will be the
inevitable retaliations, there is no question. And there will be
retaliations to retaliations. We have not only found ourselves within a
probabalistic total war--where unspeakable things can happen anywhere, any
time--but we recognize that we have been within a probabalistic total war for
some time now. What do we do? Adorno's chilling question, how does one write
lyric poetry after Auschwitz has haunted the last century, and has not
passed away. Lyotard speaks, and then writes �Discussion, or how do you
phrase 'after Auschwitz?'� It is in the phrases which circulate around
negation that the work lies. Discussion, dialektike, is the ground for
community, and it is within communities that the phrasing of events takes
place, takes up the task of mourning, which must be a positive task. Phrases
are mediated. On has only to reflect on the order of repetitions of images,
statements, phrases, to see an emergent pattern, a possible and perhaps at
times opportunistic persuasion. The notion of a 'cell structure' for
example, dates from the period of the Russian anarchists of the late 19th
century. Is this really how the perpetrators of this inhuman act worked in
our world? And under the necessity of our covert forces 'getting dirty' in a
commensurate fashion have we instituted a structure of secrecy which will
totally deconstruct the traditional freedom of the press? Does the reflexive
anxiety about this event, so close, produce a more and more normative
discourse about fighting another 'good war' which is greatly at odds with
the world as it is?  What do we do now?

--Thomas Zummer

Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact:

Generated by Mnemosyne 0.12.