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Trauma's Gap. How the Recipient's Triggered Agency in Amy Waldman's novel "The Submission" and Michael Moore's Movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" Creates a New Pattern of Narrative Memory by Turning Ungrievable into Grievable Lives

Essay 2016 20 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Komparatistik



1. Introduction

2. The Medial Pattern of the Ungrievable Other: An Unsuccessful Working Through

3. The Submission and Fahrenheit 9/11: Turning “The Other” into a Grievable Human Being
3.1. Amy Waldman's The Submission
3.2. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

After the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, two major narratives emerged: The trauma of the US citizens and the defense against the evil other (Butler 5-7). Both are connected on a psychological and political level. The “us vs. them” dichotomy, the traumatized good Americans against the evil Muslims, existed before the attacks and was reinforced afterwards (Mamdani 766-768, Butler 9-10).

The trauma of the individual American was partly instrumentalized and militarized for political purposes (Butler 38, 148-151), leading to a perception of the Muslim other not only as evil, but also as ungrievable (Butler 30). Judith Butler discusses the notion of the “ungrievable other” in her publication Precarious Life. She sees the attacks as a chance to change the political and individual dichotomy of “us” and “the other”, and therefore of grievable and ungrievable lives (7). Butler argues that the “recognition of the other” (Butler 34-44) could prevent further terrorist attacks and wars by pursuing the notion of a two-sided vulnerability (Butler 19, 28, 40-43). By using Levinas' theory of the “face” she shows how failed representation of and failed identification with the other can lead to experiencing it as grievable by creating a difference or a gap in the relation of it to the self, synonymously the human-being that is recognized as such, the first-person- narrative, the “I” or the “us” (Butler 128-151).

Amy Waldman's novel The Submission and Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11 treat the other in particular narrative, compositional and structural ways that create this gap. Both works are perceived as in between fiction and non-fiction and were controversially discussed, thus creating an uncertainty in readers and viewers about their expectations, and putting them into a state of agency and action by demanding an opinion.

I am arguing that contrary to politics and news coverage both works are giving the audience the chance to not rationally understand, but to emotionally recognize the other as grievable within the representational gap that is created through the narrated relation of the “I” to the “face”. This emotionally recognized narrative of the other can become part of the narrative memory into which traumatic recall should be turned, and therefore also is more successful in the overcoming of trauma's gap than the public medial narrative.

2. The Medial Pattern of the Ungrievable Other: An Unsuccessful Working Through

According to Mieke Bal a traumatic recall differs from the everyday, narrative memory, which is social in nature, flexible, speakable, accessible and part of the formation of identity. Traumatic recall on the other hand is not integrated in one's life story, it is solitary and unspeakable, and can only be accessed by being confronted, repeatedly told and co-witnessed. This process is called the process of working through a trauma and is supposed to result in a transformation of the traumatic memory into narrative memory, into a coherent story line that “makes sense” (x).

Van der Kolk and van der Hart additionally argue that “[n]ew experiences can only be understood in the light of prior schemas” that are fundamentally linked to repetition (169-170). By quoting John Z. Young's expression “the pattern is the message” (170) a link is established to Marshall McLuhan's main argument “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 25). The integration of traumatic recall into narrative memory through coherent story telling follows a pattern of prior schemas; in the Western media-dominated society those patterns can be provided by media and the resulting social discourse. The authors also argue that action in the way of active participation in this story telling is needed for successfully working through (175).

In my opinion the news broadcast of the 9/11 footage mirrored the traumatic recall US citizens were experiencing. Certain images were repeated constantly and became iconic (Sturken 170-172). Elisabeth Anker explains how already on the day of the attacks the footage was altered with voice overs, music and cuttings in a melodramatic way. The repetitions, the melodramatic frame of predetermined emotion, the “good versus evil” concept (Anker 24) and the preexistent medial pattern of US supremacy (Butler 7) made the news narrative easier accessible than the own narrative memory was for the individual transformation of traumatic recall.

The later following broadcast of impressive images of the Iraq War from a first-person- perspective continued this narrative strand. Judith Butler describes it as numbing the senses and disabling “the very capacity to think” (148), making the viewer rather passive than active. It provided a causal story line beginning on the day of the attacks and not before it (Mamdani 766- 768), making the Americans forget the suffering of the other over the idea of resolution(Butler 29- 30). The trauma became speakable and social in a collective narrative memory, that constituted a national identity (Butler 34) that lacked the recognition of the other as grievable.

According to Butler this lack became possible because of two interdependent processes of normative power in the media, which are called the processes of symbolic identification and radical effacement (147). In the tradition of Levinas Butler uses the notion of the “face” to describe the ubiquitous relation to a human other every human being is aware of since the state of being a helpless infant (Butler 43). The “face” itself isn't necessarily a human face, it is addressing the “I” first and foremost by its abstract, omnipresent existence. This addressing can be put best in the idea of the utterance of suffering, a “cry” that makes the “I” become aware of the own vulnerability and the precariousness of the “face”. Because the face isn't primarily human, the “cry” doesn't function as identification, but as the process of being addressed by something or someone with the same dimensions of live and death, something that can be killed and can kill. Evoked by the “cry”, the difference between the “I” and “the other” and between “the face” and its cry lead to the creation of an identity in the “I” and the recognition of the “face's” identity: the “I” is not the other, identification and representation fail, but it defines itself and the other in the relation to each other, in the power to exercise violence and provoke grief. This makes the “face” almost more human than the “I” itself, because “the other” is the condition of the “I's” vulnerable existence alone by its relation to it (130-151).

Through the mentioned processes of normative power media allow presentation and identification: the “face” of the other is either represented as the inhuman (symbolic identification) or not represented at all (radical effacement), in both cases the other is not given the chance to address or to be addressed. If the “face” is congruent with the “cry”, it is a closed entity that can easily be subsumed under a symbol of evil. If it is simply not shown it can be assumed as non- existent. The lack of grievability becomes justified because of a lack of difference preventing recognition of the other as human and as equal to the “I” in an emotional and existential dimension.

The one-dimensional depiction of of Osama bin Laden, al-Quaeda, Afghanistan or Iraq in the news is an example of symbolic identification (Butler 143-147), the often used “shock and awe” strategy (Butler 148) of footage of explosions and bombings through the attackers eyes in night vision or aerial shots counts as radical effacement.

This visual reduction of the narrative memory to a one-sided story of defense, that formed a nation's identity not in the face of a recognizable other while at the same time disabling the individual citizen in his active participation in the story telling, impeded the process of working through. The gap between traumatic recall and narrative memory seemed to be bridged and the traumatic recall transformed by this co-witnessing medial story telling. But the gap was actually only deferred to a causal explanation in a first-person-narrative, that ignored individual life stories on the foundation of the recognition of the own identity in the face of others' identities.

I argue that the process of working through trauma therefore can't succeed through the medial trauma mirroring first-person-narrative. Since the “I” aims at successfully working through to reduce trauma's manifestations, for instance Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Brison 40), and to form a healthy coherent identity, it is willing too fill the gap between traumatic recall and narrative memory in a satisfying way. This can be accomplished by providing the individual with a more useful pattern of active participation in the narration of the own vulnerability in the face of the other. This active role can be triggered by an artistic translation of the events, preferably in a critical and controversial way. The success would not only be a more effective overcoming of the individual trauma, but, according to Butler, also possibly a prevention of further terrorist attacks by letting go of the first-person-narrative without the manipulation of the recipient, but by selfacquired recognition of the narrative of precariousness.

3. The Submission and Fahrenheit 9/11: Turning “The Other” into a Grievable Human Being

3.1. Amy Waldman's The Submission

The Submission from 2011 is Amy Waldman's first novel, and she considers it as fiction (Brown), but there are voices against this definite decision. Many reporters don't omit mentioning Waldman's former journalistic profession and its influences on the novel (Brown, Kakutani, Keeble, Shamsie). Referring to Kamila Shamsie, who suggests that Waldman “decided to tear up the contract” between fiction and non-fiction writers about how to handle 9/11, Arin Keeble even speaks about a “meta-fictionality” (185) of the novel.

The novel was also entangled in a real life controversy: when the Park51 Islamic community center should be built close to Ground Zero in 2011, the public discourse about it resembled the already finished novel in so many ways that Waldman had to rewrite passages to make the plot sound less like the real news reports (Brown).



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Universiteit Leiden
Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 Amy Waldman The Submission Judith Butler Grievable Lives



Titel: Trauma's Gap. How the Recipient's Triggered Agency in Amy Waldman's novel "The Submission" and Michael Moore's Movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" Creates a New Pattern of Narrative Memory by Turning Ungrievable into Grievable Lives