The World Is Old and New Again: Cultural Trauma and September 11, 2001
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This dissertation explores the emergent cultural aftereffects of September 11, 2001. I consider how popular US narratives from the decade following that day's events evidence an ongoing, pervasive struggle with certain of the hijackings' especially troubling features, manifesting September 11 as a cultural trauma. I distinguish cultural trauma as an intersubjective phenomenon from psychological trauma and its individualized emphasis. I also distinguish my approach from the dominant ways historical, cultural and literary studies have typically conceptualized trauma as a primarily Freudian-theorized, pathological reaction to extreme happenings. Rather, drawing on Janoff-Bulman's shattered assumptions model of psychological trauma, I define cultural trauma as a radical disruption of basic, common, taken-for-granted, culturally-generated and -structured beliefs about what constitutes a community's ordinary life. I focus on how the hijackings' shocking and well-publicized developments shattered assumptions fundamental to mainstream American understandings of daily life. To trace these shattered assumptions, I review ten popular culture texts: three popular press oral history collections - the 2002 September 11: An Oral History, the 2002 Never Forget: An Oral History of September 11, and the 2007 Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11 - as well as the 2002 Frontline documentary "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero"; the 2003 Tom Junod Esquire article "The Falling Man"; the mid-to-late-2000s television series Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and FlashForward; the 2008 Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight; and the 2007 Don DeLillo novel Falling Man. By assessing and comparing these texts' primary thematic concerns, I outline how each narrative, situated in varying media and genres, engages vulnerability in the forms of existential insecurity and the troubling of meaningful and ethical choice, exposing fragmented foundational beliefs in the wake of September 11. However, instead of reconstructing these fragmented pieces into an unequivocal new whole, these texts ambivalently instantiate that day's unresolved cultural fallout, serving to document the still evolving structures of feeling constituting this cultural trauma. Accordingly, this study evidences how popular culture serves as a site for recognizing and negotiating September 11 as a cultural trauma while suggesting how cultural trauma might be recognized and negotiated at other times of stark cultural change.