9/11 commemorations: ritualizing and celebrating civilization rhetoric

Yesterday the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was commemorated in New York. Yet the commemorations started more than one week in advance with newspapers, TVs and magazine building up the momentum. There is little need to summarize the incredible amount of special dossiers, reports, commentaries and documentaries which have been written during these days for a tragedy that happened ten years ago. The commemoration of 9/11 is becoming increasingly interactive with questions like: “do you remember 9/11?” or “share your 9/11” and similar collective archiving of personal memories, often shared every year for the past decade.Surely, what I call the 9/11 business, the monetary value of the commemoration, is stronger than ever – yet it remains undiscussed and under researched. In this post, however, I wish to discuss something different, starting from an anthropological perspective.

Before getting to the core of my argument, let me highlight some points about the commemoration of 9/11. First of all, I think it is important to realize that despite the impact that the fatal Tuesday had on our world history, 9/11 is remembered and has become an ‘event’ mainly through its mass media commemoration, which increasingly resembles a collective periodic ritual. Although not a scientific tool for statistics, Google Trends can help us to see such a reality: check 9/11 (or various spellings like September 11 or September 11th) and you will clearly see (at least since 2004 when Google Trends started) that 9/11 is exactly that: a ‘ritual’ performed each time for its anniversary. Beyond that, 9/11 (at least as shown in Google Trends), seems not to attract special interest.

Another important factor that we need to remember about 9/11 is that the commemoration is multiple, in a sort of meta-discourse. I wish to start from the ‘individual’ dimension. Although displayed as part of the ‘show’, 9/11 principally represents the pain and sorrow of the victims’ relatives. That date is full of real emotional, personal meaning for them. The fact that 9/11 also has, through the consequential War on Terror, claimed many innocent victims who will never be globally commemorated and whose names will never be carved in stone or steel, is beyond the argument of this post. Sadly, few really care about the personal dimension beyond, as I said, the apparent ‘show’ of public sufferance captured immediately on film.

Then there is, as I was mentioning, another less ‘individual’ dimension: the economic one. The commemoration of 9/11 has an economic value and not just for Rupert Murdoch and other mass media tycoons, but florists, organizational companies and many others, whom directly or indirectly make a profit out of 9/11. Finally, there is the political aspect: particularly for the US. For the US, in a time of poor image and damaged reputation, the commemoration of 9/11 and the sympathy that it attracts globally provides some much needed oxygen to an increasingly suffocated, economically, socially and in particular politically, Uncle Sam.

The fact that the global celebration of 9/11 has little, if anything, to do with the actual tragedy and loss of human lives can be easily demonstrated if you stop one of your local politicians taking part in the celebrations and ask him or her to name one of the nearly 3000 people who died that terrible day. I suppose, this is not new. That the actual global commemoration is not because of the high number of lives lost it is easy to show: have a look at the number of people killed by natural disasters in the world. Do we globally commemorate those lost lives?

Hence, I think that now I have enough grounds to suggest that the global commemoration of 9/11 has a very special position. Indeed, I suggest that what we celebrated yesterday, as during the past decade, is a collective ritual that is aimed at reinforcing and maintaining an increasingly worrying ‘civilization rhetoric’ in a historical time in which ‘the civilization’ seems to face strong challenges from all social-political and cultural domains. As such, 9/11 is a ritual which, through the symbolic value of the US as the new cradle of ‘civilization’ (the old one was, in this rhetorical discourse, of course Rome) reaffirms its centrality.

Sociologists, and then anthropologists, have devoted much time in attempting  to understand what rituals are. Durkheim indeed suggested that ritual is best understood as an internal act of a group that celebrates itself – or, in other words, a social narcissistic act which reinforces the cohesion of the group in particular during times of crisis.

The anthropologist Leach suggested that in ritual, in contrast to a music recital, ‘the performers and the listeners are the same people. We engage in rituals in order to transmit collective messages to ourselves’ (1976:45). But as other scholars have emphasized, this is not the only ‘function’ of rituals. Van Gennep (1960), an important author in the study of ‘rituals’, understood them as reformational or transformational actions that facilitate changes within societies, particularly during periods of crisis. This same idea is elaborated upon by another anthropologist, Victor Turner, who defined rituals as

“a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests. Rituals may be seasonal, hallowing a culturally defined moment of change in the climatic cycle or the inauguration of an activity such as planting, harvesting, or moving from winter to summer pasture; or they may be contingent, held in response to an individual or collective crisis” (Victor Turner)

Turner has suggested that during ritual people experience dimensions of space and time which are different from the ordinary and produce a liminal state. In such a state, the group starts to embody the polyvalent symbol in such a way that the ‘ritual leader’ can facilitate or impose a particular worldview, or part of it (such as a list of instructions in how to behave, what to believe and so on).

Turner has suggested that rituals are used to either elevate a particular person’s status or celebrate temporal cycles. The teleological function of rituals is to form communitas, in other words to transform the partakers into members of a cohesive group which remains meaningfully so even when the members go back to the normal, everyday post-ritual space and time.

Even from a classic anthropological viewpoint, it is not difficult to recognize in the commemoration of 9/11 a ritual that is repeated, from its New York epicenter, in different places. The worldview that aims to be imposed is the idea that ‘the civilization’ is challenged and ‘civilizers’ need to defend it. In a certain sense, the ghosts of the two twin towers are today the totem of such rhetoric. Interestingly enough, if bin-Laden’s intention was to hit the towers to symbolically destroy what he perceived to be a ‘Satanic’ civilization, he ended up opening a Pandora’s box of western ‘civilization’ discourse, starting a ritual, a myth and an ideological utopia of the West (Judeo-Christian in its imagined community) as ‘the perfect’ teleology of human morality and advancement.

Indeed, Bonnet (2004) in his book ‘The idea of the West’ has provided an interesting, and provocative, reading of ‘the west’ as a concept. He has suggested that the historical development of the modern idea of the West cannot be understood in isolation, but rather as part of the cultural and political effort to differentiate human society. The key, according to Bonnet, is to observe the change in fortune of another powerful European myth, the superiority of the white race. If today the expression ‘Western civilization’ is widely used and accepted, ‘one only has to look back some hundred years or so to find that something called “white civilization” was once also taken for granted’ (Bonnet 2004: 14).

Bonnet is very careful not to directly connect the decline of whiteness and white solidarity with the development of the modern idea of the West. He has, however, rightly observed that the fading of the former has made the latter central to the European discourse of superiority since, ‘the idea of the West helped resolve some of the problematic and unsustainable characteristics of white supremacism’ (2004: 36).

Starobinski has correctly observed that then, ‘Civilization itself becomes the crucial criterion: judgement is now made in the name of civilization. One has to take its side, adopt its cause. For those who answer its call it becomes ground for praise. Or, conversely, it can serve as a basis for denunciation: all that is not civilization, all that resists or threatens civilization, is monstrous, absolute evil’ (1993: 30).

In other words, the rhetoric of ‘civilization’, reinforced by the ritualization of  the commemoration of 9/11 produces a social myth – a kind of ‘social utopia’, which goes beyond rationality and becomes a real force that provides people with symbolic elements to form their idea of ‘our way of life’. Through the ritualization of 9/11, the ideology of civilization is normalized and transformed intp a powerful symbolic tool of moral superiority.

The ritual offers a way to overcome the crisis that western societies are facing by providing, through the ritualization, the creation of a new social order in which the concept of civilization not only remains central, but also empowers each partaker of the ritual to become a ‘civilizer’, an agent of historical development. As Starobinski has finally noticed:

“because of the connection with the ideas of perfectibility and progress, the word civilization denoted more than just a complex process of refinement and mores, social organization, technical progress, and advancing knowledge; it took on a sacred aura, owing to which it could sometimes reinforce traditional religious values and at other times supplant them. The history of the word civilization thus leads to this crucial observation: once a notion takes on a sacred authority and thereby acquires the power to mobilize, it quickly stirs up conflict between political groups or rival schools of thought claiming to be its champions and defenders and as such insisting on the exclusive right to propagate the new idea.” (Starobinski 1993: 17)

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