Remediating the apocalypse

Watching September 11

We all have our memories of those days in September 2001: where we were when “it” happened, how much of "it" we saw and how we reacted when we saw those images replayed again and again in the hours, days and weeks that followed. Our memories are distinct and personal but they occur in the context of what film maker Tom Tykwer calls the “aesthetic memory” of September 11.

Christian Hubert reminds us that for A.N. Whitehead, an event is both "process" and "pattern." It is unfolding, it is active, but it spreads across a particular space in a particular way.

For Whitehead, nature is a structure of evolving processes, and the realities of nature are the prehensions in nature, that is to say, the events in nature. (p.72) Using Leibniz' vocabulary, Whitehead claims that an event mirrors within itself modes of its predecessors, contemporaries, and aspects that the future throws back on the present. "There is in the world for our cognisance, memory of the past, immediacy of realization, and indication of things to come." (p.73)

He further contrasts this with a Deleuzian take on the event:

For Deleuze, ideas are events, lines of intensity which open up possibilities of life and action. They form a kind of screen, (like a formless elastic membrane, an electromagnetic field, or the receptacle of the Timaeus, which makes something issue from chaos, which is an abstraction inseparable from the screen. (The Fold, p. 76) For Deleuze and Guattari, an event requires extensions, intensities, and prehensions. (They explicitly refer to Whitehead's Concept of Nature and Process and Reality.)

“What is it about that scene of the falling towers that makes us want to look at it again and again?” a friend asked me recently. Neither of us could find a satisfactory answer to that question. But the answer has something to do with the fact that the crash and the collapse (and the cycle of the replay itself) are all so utterly familiar but in this instance so incredibly strange or should I say strained. Reality seems stretched because its primary reference becomes fiction, because the place we have seen this all before is at the movies.

We experience a certain deja vu because we feel we know the pattern but not the unfolding process. We recognise the line of intensity but not only from this event. We find our memories enfolded in its aesthetic prehensions.

When I uncharacteristically turned on the TV late on the night of September 11, it was immediately apparent that something big, catastrophic, awesome was happening. Then about five minutes after I tuned in, it happened: that scene, the crash, the confusion, and then the fall. I saw the second plane hit the tower, then I saw the tower collapse, then I saw it replayed again, again and again.

I sat glued to the television into the very early hours of the morning. My main emotion during that time was not horror but a type of shocked awe. I distinctly remember thinking, quite literally, in the first few minutes after I tuned in, before I had fully made sense of what was going on: “Oh my god it's the end of the world.”

I knew that it wasn't, but I had some sense that I was closer to that apocalyptic script than I had ever been before. After seeing that tower collapse, after the crosses backwards and forwards from the towers to the Pentagon, it was hard to imagine what would happen next. Suddenly these images made anything imaginable and anything imaginable possible. But of course this was not really the case: I had in fact imagined it all before.

The constant replay of the falling towers was only the first of a continuing cycle of repetitions that the events of September 11 set to play. The images of that morning are still constantly before us, not as they were back then, in real time or its immediate approximation, but in our memories, in the discourse of politicians and in the haunting resonances that we willfully or subliminally detect, construct or recognise in film, fiction and the news. In the domains of both popular culture and current affairs it often seems, nearly four years after the event, September 11 is still everywhere you look.

This web project is an evolving space exploring contemporary manifestations of the apocalyptic in current affairs and popular culture. It is being developed in association with my Ph.D. research and is both a research method and a presentation of that research. In exploring the apocalyptic I am particularly interested in mapping a series of multimodal mythic clusters that are evolving through a process of remediation which I identify as a key cultural logic for an age in which electracy is the new literacy of nomadic subjects. This hypertextual presentation foregrounds affiliational logic and although I hope the project accumulates meaning it does not seek to present a single, formal, linear argument. I have presented some of these ideas in more traditional academic formats in other places. Although the navigational choices are the user's own these tips may be useful. Feedback is very welcome.

Marcus O'Donnell 2005-2006