Fear and loathing: American culture in the shadow of 9/11

December 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Hijacking History: American Culture and the War on Terror. Liane Tanguay; $29.95 paper 978-0-7735-4074-3, 284 pp., McGill-Queen’s University Press

When the Twin Towers collapsed following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the 24-hour news stations appeared to show the footage on endless loops: the second plane slicing through the South Tower, the staggering fireball, the gasps of horror from the anonymous masses below. One refrain was heard over and over from people gathered around television sets watching in stunned amazement, a formulation that quickly took on the mantle of cliché: “It looks like a movie.” But not just any movie. What was unfolding on television screens around the globe looked specifically like a Hollywood movie, full of spectacle and special effects, choreographed for maximum emotional impact.

The connection is not lost on Liane Tanguay, external fellow of the York Centre for International and Security Studies at Toronto’s York University. Indeed, Tanguay points out that American popular culture had spent the decade prior to 9/11 perfecting the aestheticization of catastrophe to a degree not seen previously. Blockbuster disaster films of the 1990s, of which Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day may be the most financially successful example, presented scenes of ultra-realistic destruction that evoked Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime, which, in its dynamic form, “must be represented as exciting fear.”

Tanguay quotes Kant in order to forward the argument that the fear involved in the sublime is vicarious, cathartic, safely removed from the vicissitudes of reality –  a quality, Tanguay writes, that “no doubt accounts for part of the disaster genre’s appeal.” She goes on to suggest, “It is in part this feeling of exemption – enhanced by the sense of ‘control’ over one’s pattern of consumption, the fact that one can choose whether and when to subject oneself to such images – that comes to constitute in its endless repetition a sort of symbolic ‘mastery’ over the anxieties and fears such films elicit.” When this imagery forces itself into the real world, the veneer of “mastery” is rent and the vicarious fear bleeds into actual fear, something America, in all its millennial triumphalism, appeared unprepared for at the turn of the 21st century (and one good reason why Hollywood-style disaster films do not proliferate in the national cinema of, say, Israel or Serbia).

But equally important in the development of American pop culture during the post–Gulf War 1990s, Tanguay argues, is the tendency for what she refers to as “im/mediacy,” the positioning of the viewer as an active participant in events. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, with its scenes of urban warfare shot at low angles using a roving camera that puts the audience in the centre of the action, is a template for a new kind of hyperactive, first-person approach, which carries over into news coverage featuring “embedded” reporters filing stories from the front lines of American war zones. “The direct involvement of the journalist in the military action pre-empts any ‘mediating’ perspective he or she could otherwise offer, while the visual effect of the first-person camera comes to implicate the viewer in a ‘video-game’ presentation of the war. The new ‘realism’ is therefore both tightly controlled and compelling to a still greater extent because of the ‘self-replications’ it affords.” (This “self-replication” would reach its apotheosis with the cell-phone videos of G20 protests in Toronto and the Vanvouver Stanley Cup riot, all of which were instantly uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, shared widely, and subsequently co-opted by police and prosecutors in tracking down the perpetrators of violence or dissent. This observation is outside the scope of Tanguay’s analysis, but seems a logical outgrowth of her arguments.)

Placing the viewer in the “subject position,” while simultaneously promoting a culture of fear across both entertainment and network news platforms, created a post-9/11 climate that allowed the administration of George W. Bush to suggest that an open-ended and nebulous war on terror was necessary to preserve an American way of life structured around the liberal capitalist ideals that Francis Fukuyama identified as existing at “the end of history.” The irony, as Tanguay shows, is that the simplistic binary arguments of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”) helped foster a much less simplistic, more morally ambiguous cultural landscape in which films like Independence Day, with its noisy jingoism and xenophobic “us versus them” mentality, began to give way to more nuanced fare, such as Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Brian de Palma’s Redacted, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Tanguay overstates her case somewhat here: although she admits that Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film was less successful at the box office than James Cameron’s Avatar (which Tanguay asserts can be read as a kind of subversive, anti-corporate blockbuster – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), she largely ignores the inability of the more morally relative Iraq War–themed films to connect with domestic audiences.

Moreover, her book suffers from a too-narrow historical perspective, which precludes any illustration of how the cultural forces that allowed the war on terror to proceed unchecked have been the bedrock of the American psyche since at least the Second World War. Here, for example, is Tanguay writing about a pair of Gulf War documentaries, which she describes as though propaganda never existed prior to 1991:

Indeed, in CNN’s War in the Gulf and CBS’s Desert Triumph, images of oil-soaked seabirds – victims, allegedly, of Saddam Hussein’s ecological crimes – were invested with greater emotive value than those of dead Iraqi troops. The latter were shown as evidence of allied “victory” at the end of the ground war, while imagery of struggling wildlife was accompanied by a sentimental soundtrack designed to elicit pity and compassion. The dehumanization of the “inevitable” human victims of the allied war effort thus contributed to the sense of moral integrity on the American side while simultaneously containing the conflict within the symbolic framework of the simplest of Hollywood narratives.

None of this is inaccurate, of course, but neither is it any different from the approach taken in newsreels during the Second World War, not to mention the films of John Wayne. Propaganda predates postmodernism, whether Tanguay admits it or not. These objections notwithstanding, Tanguay’s book is a frequently energizing synthesis of political analysis and cultural critique, examining the ways in which a media-driven climate of fear combines with a consumerist imperative to create the perfect conditions for an entire society to lose sight of its core values in the pursuit of material comfort and peace of mind.

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