Media Dreams of 9/11: An Essay

Visual media prepared us for the terror of the 9/11 attacks, but what did 9/11 do to media and the forces behind it?

   Warning: Graphic Content

   Written by: Taylor Dorrell
   Date: September 11, 2020

    ... she'd come through the door with a wrapped bottle under her arm, not even take her coat off, just go straight over and jack into the Hitachi, soap her brains out good for six solid hours. Her eyes would unfocus, and sometimes, if it was a really good episode, she'd drool a little. [...] He still harbored creepy feelings that some of the characters she talked about were relatives of his, rich and beautiful aunts and uncles who might turn up one day if only he weren't such a little shit. Maybe, he thought now, it had been true, in a way; she'd jacked that shit straight through the pregnancy, because she'd told him she had, so he, fetus Newmark, curled up in there, had reverberated to about a thousand hours of People of Importance and Atlanta. [...] Sometimes, when she was in a certain mood and had had the right number of nips, she still tried to tell him stories about his father. He'd known since age four that these were bullshit, because the details changed from time to time, but for years he'd allowed himself a certain pleasure in them anyway.1

    Virtual memories of real events, or pixels moving like history, are lazily stained in the memory of the brain. Flying through skyscrapers on a fuzzy square format television in Star Fox 64, car crashes in action films, destroying a civilian plane in Flight Simulator 98. The pixels of the simulations are the same seen in the CNN replays of the second tower being hit or the plume of dust sweeping the streets like an animated dark spirit. Plugged in from birth, ‘curled up in there’, the events, in simulation and reality, are too real. 
    I was a child sick at home in my family’s 3-bedroom apartment unit in South Carolina when I confusedly watched the towers being hit on Fox News’ instant replay like a sports highlight reel. I confused the word terrorist with tourist as my mother dried her hair and called my father as I pictured French burret wearing tourists hijacking the planes with cigarretes and striped shirts. Would french tourists attack our apartment complex? I was 6 years old and I’d seen the same footage in countless movies and videogames before. I’ve had to grow into understanding that they were real and devestating events.

Flight Simulator 98
Flight Simulator 98

    In the beginning of the 2019 show Euphoria the main character Rue narrarates Gen Z as being born during 9/11 (showing images playing on a stack of televesions), growing up through the 2008 financial crisis and pressenigly aware of the climate crisis. Now they are of course experiencing the pandemic with an economic crisis as they finish college. Hyperaware of every event due to the excessive drive of media, the media landscape is intertwined with history and the physical landscape. But it appears to have the same effect that film and video games had on me, which is a cloaking process that completely detatches the historical and social context, flatenning everything onto the same level of competing stimulation. What did we (the young Millenials and Gen Z) miss?

Like a Movie

    The attacks of September 11, 2001 are rightly compared to our prior media fixation on these exact kinds of events. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag said, ‘[t]he attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, was described as "unreal," "surreal," "like a movie," in many of the first accounts of those who escaped from the towers or watched from nearby.’Ritchin observed that, ‘[a]s to the hijackers, when they commandeered airplanes to destroy the World Trade Center towers on a bright September 11 morning, they also hijacked the visual language of Hollywood, using the imagery of action films that the United States had exported throughout the world.’3 It was as if we were preparing for such an event through film. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek put it:

    Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested - just remember the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. That is the rationale of the often-mentioned association of the attacks with Hollywood disaster movies: the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and that was the biggest surprise.4

Michael Bay’s 1998 film, Armageddon. This scene was removed for the broadcast TV version of the movie after 9/11.

    There was a back and forth between our fantasies and their embodiment in culture and media. Sontag wrote, ‘[a]fter four decades of big-budget Hollywood disaster films, "It felt like a movie" seems to have displaced the way survivors of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through: "It felt like a dream."’5 It appears as though movies and media have become synonymous with our dreams and desires. 


    ‘But to what Beauty does the absurdity of death by car accident testify, and to what splendor does banality point?’6

Steven Meisal’s State of Emergency editorial for Vogue Italia, 2006.

    In Steven Meisal’s controversial 2006 Vogue Italia editorial, State of Emergency, we see what appears to be the ultimate merger of media fantasies. Fred Ritchin commented that ‘[i]t did not take long for the pain of others to be reflected in the selling of merchandise.’7 But is this not the epitome of the very media fantasy we would expect to see in a depoliticized culture? The supposedly tone deaf implementation of current events as visual references for aesthetic familiarity to sell products through images. John Berger spoke of this very theme in the context of publicity, saying that:
    According to publicity, to be sophisticated is to live beyond conflict. [...] Publicity is essentially eventless. [...] Publicity is the life of this culture - in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive - and at the same time publicity is its dream.8

  The editorial is a reminder that no culture or event can be omitted from exploitation for commerce, but Meisal’s editorial is uncomfortable because the images acknowledge the formula media uses: the infusion of a weird sexual/violence induced stimulation that is captured and put out in mass. The late Mark Fisher wrote about the editorial, comparing the images to the hypersexualized and violent aspects of J.G. Ballard’s sexually explicit and violent stories, claiming that the images ‘are uncomfortable and arousing in equal measure because they reflect back to us our conflicted attitudes and unacknowledged libidinal complicities.’9 When Jean Baudrillard spoke of the 9/11 footage, he said said that the experience through media was ‘on par with pornography.’10 
    Fisher went on to compare these images with the low quality photos that came out in 2004 showing the war crimes committed inside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by US soldiers. Why would the response to the terrorist attacks be to rape, sexually humiliate and torture detainees in the name of preventing future terror? The methods were not effective in producing sought after intelligence and would, after all, lead to a harsher response from the terrorists. Fisher points out that we condemned both the Vogue editorial and the Abu Ghraib images because they expose the same connection and contradictions of American ideology that we try to sublimate or supress. 

    Part of the reason that the Abu Ghraib images were so traumatic for a deeply conflicted American culture which combines religious moralism with hyper-sexualised commerce, and which is united only by a taste for megaviolence, is that they exposed the equation between military intervention and sexual humiliation that the official culture both depends upon and must suppress.11

    These cases are not simply visually stimulating - in a dark way - by themselves. We cannot divorce the sexualized violence from American ideology, which is precisely why Berger made the point that publicity has to separate the political and social context that exists in order for it to be successful. It’s also why Meisal’s editorial and the Abu Ghraib images were rejected by the mainstream. They were too connected to the political and social forces that produce the media that we consume. Abu Ghraib showed that the War on Terror could not translate its abstract intentions - terror is not a country - into the real world without exposing what’s underneath. Media doesn’t simply seek to fulfill our desires, media defines them, but, just like the 2010 film Inception, it has to be done in a way that we can digest ourselves - it cannot be propaganda, but seen as our own idea. Media does this through the very political and social forces it tries to hide.
    While the 9/11 attacks or the War on Terror appear to be limited to apolitically ruthless terror - Baudrillard says that ‘[w]e are far beyond ideology and politics now [...] [n]o ideology, no cause...’12 - this abstraction that tries to minimize the forces involved telling us to ‘not worry about the state or the corporations, this is about terror and terror alone’, is very clearly hiding something. Our desires are hidden in the same way beneath media. John Berger ends his seminal book Ways of Seeing as follows:
    Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.13

Desert of the Real

    In the US, especially today, the extreme inequality might be visually experienced in cities or in media, but the ultra rich are increasingly manufacturing their own bubbles to avoid any view of the ‘low life’ working class. Helicopters are constantly flying overhead from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens, dodging the traffic and public transportation to get the rich from financial centers to the airport. The rich can afford to live in mega yachts throughout the pandemic while the average American is forced to work and risk getting the virus or stay safe at home with an insultingly low unemployment check until being evicted. Zizek describes the same phenomenon taking place in Brazil:

    To insulate them­selves from the dangers of mingling with ordinary people, the rich of Sao Paulo prefer to use helicopters, so that, looking around the skyline of the city, one really does feel as if one is in a futuristic megalopolis of the kind pictured in films such as Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, with ordinary people swarming through the dangerous streets down below, whilst the rich float around on a higher level, up in the air.14

Total Recall, 2012.
Total Recall, 2012.

    Behind the media landscape is the sociopolitical and economic landscape which today reflects the cyberpunk science fiction movies and novels of the 1980s-1990s. Writers like William Gibson made these futuristic worlds based off the history and present they were living in. In the preface to Burning Chrome, a collection of Gibson’s short stories, Bruce Sterling describes Gibson as a ‘devotee of what J.G. Ballard has perceptively called “invisible literature”: that permeating flow of scientific reports, government documents, and specialized advertising that shapes our culture below the level of recognition.’15 But knowing that in Brazil, like Chile, a US backed right wing regime put the policies and ideology in place that led to the Sao Paulo of today, it’s clear that today’s inequality should not be depoliticized as the terror of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Cyberpunk was built on the speculation of what Reaganomics would lead to; a world of high tech and low life, of extreme riches for a handful and rags for the rest. This is what happened throughout Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. A back and forth between fiction and media with the sociopolitical landscape. The same thing happened after 9/11, but much more directly.

    The ultimate twist in this link between Hollywood and the 'war against terrorism' occurred when the Pentagon decided to solicit the help of Hollywood: at the beginning of October 2001, the press reported that a group of Hollywood scenarists and directors, specialists in catastrophe movies, had been established at the instigation of the Pentagon, with the aim of imagining possible scenarios for terrorist attacks and how to fight them. And this interaction seemed to be ongoing: at the beginning of November 2001, there was a series of meetings between White House advisers and senior Hollywood executives with the aim of co-ordinating the war effort and establishing how Hollywood could help in the 'war against terrorism' by getting the right ideological message across not only to Americans, but also to the Hollywood public around the globe - the ultimate empirical proof that Hollywood does in fact function as an 'ideological state apparatus.16

    What happened after 9/11 was a flip between media and reality. Not simply a blending of dreams and desires with media, but a casual dialectic, or a back and forth, between the two. 
   ‘We should therefore invert the standard reading according to which the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere: quite the reverse - it was before the WTC collapse that we lived in our reality, perceiving Third World horrors as something which was not actually part of our social reality, as something which existed (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen - and what happened on September II was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality).’17 

HyperNormalization vs The Shock Doctrine
   When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the event was completely unthinkable. The 5 year plans that were to lead to a classless society where the government ‘withers away’ didn’t seem to be actually working towards that goal at all, if anything it was moving away from it. The Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak described the collapse of the Soviet Union as an event that ‘was completely unexpected by most Soviet people and yet, as soon as people realized that something unexpected was taking place, most of them also immediately realized that they had actually been prepared for that unexpected change.’18 Yurchak called this social understanding that everything is failing while having no choice but to sustain it as hypernormalisation. This was the name of Adam Curtis’ 2016 documentary film where he argues that Putin has been using hypernormalisation as a tool to remain in power through mass confusion and manipulation of media then shows how Trump is doing the same thing in the US, sewing chaos into the everyday until 200,000 dead Americans is just another number, or a ‘hoax’, as Trump has called everything from Russia’s interference in the election to his impeachment and now justifying extrajudicial killings (referring to the protestor who shot a right wing Trump supporter at a protest who was later gunned down by undercover police).

Pizza Hut commercial in the Russia featuring Gorbachev, 1997.
Pizza Hut commercial in Russia featuring former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 1997.

    Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Like the collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody thought that the US could be attacked, yet at the same time we were conditioned for it through our movies and fantasies. Nobody thought the towers would actually collapse, but the surreal experience described by witnesses as being like a movie exposed that we were ready once it really happened, as so many visual effects had imitated similar tragedies for us on the screen.
    However, 9/11 wasn’t normalized. It was used as the spark for an invasion. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not result in any kind of normality. Both led to crisis’. Both were shocks that were exploited to push complete economic reform. What followed in both cases was what Naomi Klein called the ‘Shock Doctrine’. Exploiting a nation while they are worried about being bombed or being able to afford food to quickly transform economic policy to strip the people of any power held in the economy in favor of a handful of corporations or oligarchs and then utilize violence and fear to maintain these unpopular changes.

9/11 9/11
    On September 11, 1973 the democratically elected president of Chile was violently overthrown by a US-manufactured military coup. President Salvador Allende was a democratic socialist who nationalized essential industries, built homes for the poor and established a social safety net, all in spite of overwhelming repression from the US - who essentially created a counterrevolution from the ground up before Allende even got into office. The capital was bombed and rushed by the military coup. The US-funded military dictorship, ran by General Pinochet, went on to kidnap, torture, and murder thousands of Chileans - anyone who disagreed, or was suspected of disagreeing, with Pinochet’s regime was arrested.

From Fred Ritchin’s website

    Although Pinochet and the Chicago Boys were funded and supported by the US government, not to mention all of the other US backed coups in Latin America, it is largely left unaddressed here in the US. Even the photograph by Luis Orlando Lagos of the coup - listed as one of Time’s 100 most influential photographs ever taken - was taken by a staff photographer under Allende, but was credited as anonymous until 2007. The photograph that defined the coup was stripped of its gravity and credit, both by not crediting the photographer (although this was agreed upon by Lagos) and also the media coverage of the following regime and its legacy. Despite the lack of democracy, execution and torture of thousands, and brutal failure of the economy for the majority of Chileans, Pinochet’s Chile was labelled as an example of a capitalist success story. The US followed the same path violently blazed in Chile to completely transform Iraq’s economy. This time there was no need to force the policies through the middle man of a dictator, the US and all its private contractors were the dictators of Iraq. The War on Terror was exposed as a military expansion of the flow of capital. As George W. Bush put it, we couldn’t just let the terrorists frighten our nation to the point ‘where we don’t conduct business. Where people don’t shop.’19 There was the same devastation of the economy in Iraq as in Chile except on steroids, creating mass unemployment and poverty that led to increased resistance against the occupation. While the reforms did work tremendously well for those at the top of international corporations, the failures for the majority turned around to expose internal economic failures at home through the stagflation of the 1970s and the 2008 financial crisis. A repetition and inversion to reflect back at the occupying force.
    We now see very clearly that the desires manufactured by publicity, or capital incentivized media, are just as hollow as the apparatus’ that produce them. Yet, like the Soviet Union, it is easier to act like everything is working than pursue an alternative. This is the thinking behind Mark Fisher’s notion of Capitalist Realism, which points out that we have largely abandoned a project to imagine an alternative to capitalism. We think, as Margeret Thatcher proclaimed, that ‘there is no alternative’. But the chaos of this year alone has shifted the minds of the mainstream. Over the past 5 years a slew of books have come out pitching new alternatives to capitalism from Inventing the Future and Postcapitalism to Fully Automated Luxury Communism. The tides are starting to turn, but haven’t yet found a platform. In a piece titled For Now, Our Desire is Nameless, the late Mark Fisher perfectly articulates our current condition:
    At the moment, our desire is nameless - but it is real. Our desire is for the future - for an escape from the impasses of the flatlands of capital’s endless repetitions - and it comes from the future - from the very future in which new perceptions, desires, cognitions are once again possible. As yet, we can grasp this future only in glimmers. But it is for us to construct this future, even as - at another level - it is already constructing us: a new kind of collective agent, a new possibility of speaking in the first person plural. At some point in this process, the name for our new desire will appear and we will recognise it.20

  1. William Gibson, Count Zero, 1986.
  2. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003, p 22.
  3. Fred Ritchin, After Photography, 2009, p 79.
  4. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 2002, p 15-16.
  5. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003, p 22.
  6. Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography, 1996, p 35.
  7. Fred Ritchin, After Photography, 2009 p 80.
  8. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, p 150, 153, 154.
  9. Mark Fisher, Fantasy Kits: Steven Meisel’s State of Emergency, 2006. 
  10. Ibid.
  11. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, 2002, p 7.
  12. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, 2002, p 9-10.
  13. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, p 154.
  14. Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy then as Farce, 2009, p 5.
  15. William Gibson, Burning Chrome, 2003, p xiv.
  16. Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 2002, p 16.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Alexei Yurchak, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, 2005, p 282.
  20. Mark Fisher, K-Punk, 2018, p 587.