The 9/11 Effect

Many scholars begin their discussion of 9/11 with a personal account of witnessing the events, whether on the streets of New York City or on the television screen. I, however, do not have such a story to tell, as I basically missed 9/11; I was neither in New York City nor in front of a television set. Not until more than eight hours later (past midnight in local Dutch time) did I finally turn on the television. By then, the television channels had run out of new news, and instead contineously showed the same images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, over and over again, some with bombastic classical music as soundtrack, others just in eerie silence. Would I think differently about 9/11 if I had experienced it "live" - on the streets of New York City, or, as most people, in front of the television screen? As Slavoj Zizak has pointed out, "the 'terrorists' themselves did not do it primarily to provoke real material damage, but FOR THE SPECTACULAR EFFECT OF IT" and, as I would add, a spectacle that was meant to be televised - more specifically, the second plane made 9/11 live television. Without downplaying the actual impact on New York City and its inhabitants, the ultimate impact of 9/11 was through television, both the live coverage as well as the seemingly endless repetition of images. Even those who missed the event, like myself, are culturally affected by 9/11, as we remain aware of where we were and what we did when we first heard of the events.

(from my essay "Dreaming the American Nightmare: The Cultural Life of 9/11," in The Cultural Life of Catastrophes and Crises, edited by Carsten Meiner and Kristin Veel, De Gruyter 2012, pp. 177-190)

9/11 Moustache

In spite of the omnipresence of 9/11 throughout the film, New York is Eating Me & The Cactus Dance is still a documentary about moustaches. Filmmaker Jeroen Kooijmans, sporting an impressive moustache himself, interviews a wide range of men from different cultural backgrounds who talk about their moustaches, while the camera zooms in on their mouths and facial hair. Early on in the film, Kooijmans himself is interviewed. He too can be perceived as the American he never was, as he explains that he knows the American culture of New York from the movies. Then 9/11 happens, although the event is not directly shown from his apartment window but through the "breaking news" television images of CNN. Not all the scenes that follow, however, were shot after 9/11. The moustache documentary continues, focusing on both the machismo and the homoeroticism of facial hair, often connected to the masculine uniforms of the New York police and the New York fire department. At one moment, Kooijmans is shown standing on a ferry, dressed in a police uniform, with the New York skyline - including the Twin Towers - in the background. Although the scene obviously is shot before 9/11, the connotation with the terrorist attacks is clear. Not only are the Twin Towers a strong visible marker, reminding the viewers that they are no longer there, but also the police uniform recalls the rhetoric of the hero worship and courage that the policemen and firefighters came to embody in post-9/11 American culture. That Jeroen Kooijmans is wearing the uniform of the New York police now suggests a personal identification with both the victims and the heroes of 9/11, emphasizing the event's emotional impact on the Dutch filmmaker.

(from my essay "Are We All Americans? 9/11 and Discourses of Multiculturalism in the Netherlands," in American Multiculturalism after 9/11, edited by Derek Rubin and Jaap Verheul, AUP 2009, pp. 187-188, available in open access)

The Angry American

American pop culture responded to 9/11 in two distinctively different yet related ways. On the one hand, American pop culture took on the tough patriotic stance of the "Angry American" who was going to teach those terrrorists a lesson, a masculine rhetoric strongly present on the Fox News Network and arguably initiated by President George W. Bush when he described the American response to the terrorist attacks as if it were a Hollywood western, starring the USA as John Wayne: "[The terrorists] will try to hide - but we're not going to let them. They run to the hils; they find holes to get in. And we will do whatever it takes to smoke them out and get them running, and we'll get them." Popular country songs such as Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" echo Bush's cowboy rhetoric, warning the terrorists that "You'll be sorry that you messed with the US of A / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass / That's the American way." That such a sexualized and gendered (not to mention homophobic) threat was expressed not only in country songs has been observed by Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai: "Posters that appeared in midtown Manhattan only days after the attacks show a turbanned caricature of [Osama] bin Laden being anally penetrated by the Empire State Building. The legend beneath reads, 'The Empire Strikes Back' or 'So you like skyscrapers, huh, bitch?'" The expression of a possible American military retaliation in the language of American pop culture, whether exclaimed by the president, country singers, or anonymous street posters, reveals that there remains a connection between the nation-state USA and an imagined America inspired by Hollywood and television. On the other hand, however, American popular culture also took on an almost naïve stance of innocence, expressed by President Bush in his televised address to the American Congress: "Americans are asking, why to they hate us."
(from my book Fabricating the Absolute Fake, pp. 46-47)