Holding on to 9/11: The Shifting Grounds of Materiality

Holding on to 9/11: The Shifting Grounds of Materiality

Tanner claims that the shifting grounds of materiality complicate the experience of bodily location at every level from the perceptual to the political.

The author argues that shifting paradigms of embodied perception have redefined ways of knowledge and expanded how we experience connections through the body and space. As a result of the changing character of materiality, we are compelled to revisit our apprehension of the constitution of a “natural” response to an image event. In spite of the public’s reaction to 9/11 seeming to have appropriated the legitimate sorrow of mourners and survivors, people who were close to the event also perceived and experienced it “remotely”.

The movie, DeLillo brings out the fact that the effect of 9/11 event redefines the perceptual dynamics of embodied subjectivity, eroding conventional distinctions between materiality, space and time. DeLillo traces Keith’s perceptual shifts back to his 9/11 experience to bring out the significance of apprehending the event in a more virtual way (62).

According to Jill Dolan, members of the public were insulated from the event by the mediation of the screen (106). Consequently, they struggled to negotiate the sense of disequilibrium generated by their visceral reaction to a distanced event by registering the pressure of images in oddly materialistic terms. Knapp also supports this assertion, recounting that most of the people she saw and spoke to during the fateful day were insulated from the event and they were just spectators. Abel states that the fact that they could not feel the event caused people to collapse into self-referentiality, and thus returned to the peculiar limits of their own bodies. Accordingly, the desire to take hold of the elusive object materiality of the 9/11 disaster is a representation of one effort to regain footing on shifting perceptual ground (64).

Tanner warrants her claim and position by showing Americans’ struggle to apprehend as lived the experience of a loss that both was and was not virtual through their visit to the site and fingering the debris littering the ground. She uses Michael Martin’s distinction between the visual field underlying optic sensation and the intimacy of the sense field through which the subject relates to objects. According to Martin, there is a considerable phenomenological difference between touch and sight because properties of objects are measured through bodily contact. Nonetheless, objects still fail to bear the weight of the 9/11 moment. This failure is connected to the phenomenological, technological, and material dynamics of the 9/11.

According to Richard Schechner, the 9/11 attack was mediated from the outset and intended to be meditated. His argument is that the authors did not aim at conquering, occupying the territory or slaughtering many civilians, but staging a stunning media event, photo op, and real-life show. Friend also asserts that most people just saw the event on TV and did not deeply feel the impact of the event.

The Chelsea Jeans Company located near Ground Zero tried to preserve the dust and debris that coated some jeans in their retail outlet. The store section was exhibited by the New York Society, and encased in a clear box. Laura acknowledges Collins’ observation that the memorial is the only one established from material very perishable and very close to the events. According to Marks, the jeans symbolically stands for the 9/11 victims, while the thick walls of the exhibit prohibits the type of “particular, material contact”. The publicity related to the jeans exhibit rhetorically emphasizes the disaster and thereby the possibility of such contact.

Basing on Juhani Plasmaa’s observation that touch is “the sensory mode that integrates experience of the world with that of ourselves”, Tanner argues that the publicity of the Chelsea Jeans exhibit demonstrates the urgent desire of the viewers to supplement the visual and the representational with the immediacy of bodily contact. A crisis of representation resulting from the exposure of the 9/11 events increased the threat of toxicity required in affirmation of the possibility of contact.

Prior to becoming Ground Zero, the uninhabited spectacle of the World Trade Center location comprised of the foundational site of 9/11 as image. According to Marks, the World Trade Centre stood as dazzling and impenetrable surface, which was abstracted from everything but visual sensory apprehension. Basing on this, Tanner asserts that the unreal images of the 9/11 events demonstrate the perpetuation rather than initiation of a disembodied apprehension of a virtual reality played out on and as a series of images on a screen. She reinforces her argument using Jean Baudrillard’s words: “The real is added to the image as a bonus of terror”

According to Paterson, the location of 9/11 in a world of digital touch has shaped both the search for object witnesses and the public’s sensory and affective response to the events. In the digital era, the probability of touching distant objects changes the material and emotional scope of feeling. This change occurs through the reframing of “copresence” and revision of the definitions of immediacy and intimacy relied on by other authors such as Jamson to question the response of individuals experiencing a disaster in which they have not lost any person they know, or in a location where they have no particular connection.

Tanner observes that it is just until recently that critics started constructing metaphors which address the intimacy between human body and technological and virtual realms. This is in line with efforts made to define shifting paradigms of knowledge and connection in a culture of screens.

While attempting to name the ontological shifts attributed to new materiality definitions, critics have adopted images of layered amalgamation which try to place the effects of the digital-image culture in traditional bodily boundaries. This is achieved through metaphorically thickening the surface of the skin. According to Tanner, the failed quest to ground the apprehension of loss in object materiality can be attributed to both the naivety of the public in responding to rhetoric and image manipulation and an effort to negotiate the complexity of digital modes of lived experience, which consistently disturb the illusion that embodiment is “natural” or self-explanatory.

Tanner gives an account of some people who have failed to move beyond the virtual apprehension of a “public” image to regain intimacy with the site of loss. Her observation is based on Redfield’s account and DeLillo movie protagonist. Tanner’s argument is based on reliable sources, and she manages to clearly link her claim to the position.

The author has chosen his diction properly. She uses words which appeal to the reader’s imagination and appreciation of the 9/11 event. For instance, she uses the term “impenetrable” to demonstrate link the World Trade Center with the failure of the public to apprehend the 9/11 events as reality. Other relevant words include, but are not limited to, “intimacy”, “embodiment”, “virtual”, and “fantasy”. The author concludes that there is need to interrogate why 9/11 images produce visceral reactions in a public which tends to be impervious to the human effects of foreign American aggression.


Abel, Marco, “Don DeLollo’s ‘In the Ruins of the Future’ Literature, Images, and the Rhetoric of Seeing 9/11.”

Baudrillard, Jean, “L’esprit du terrorisme,” Hauerwas and Lentricchia 149-62.

Collins, Glenn, “9/11 Shrine, with the Tragic, Toxic Dust,” New York Times.

DeLillo, Don, Falling Man, New York: Scribner, 2007. Print.

Dolan, Jill. Personal Essay, Roman 106-07.

Friend, David, Watching the World Change, New York: Picador, 2007.

Jamson, Fredric. “The Dialectics of Disaster,” Hauerwas and Lentricchia, 55-67.

Knapp, Caroline, “Consciousness on Overload,” After-words: Stories and Repors from 9/11 and Beyond,” Comp.

Martin, Micael, “Sight and Touch,” The Contents of Experience: Essays on Perception, Ed, Tim Crane, Cambridge, 1992.

Plasmaa’s, Juhani. The Eye of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. West Sussex: Wiley, 2005.

Paterson, Mark, W, D. “Digital Touch,” The Book of Touch, Ed. Constance Clausen. New York: Berg, 2005, 431-36.

Paterson, Mark, W, D. The Sensesof Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies, New York: Berg, 2007.

Redfield, Marc. “Virtual Trauma: The Idiom of 9/11” Diacritics 37, (2007):55-80.

Schechner, Richard. “9/11 as Avant-Garde Art?” PMLA, 124,5 (2009): 1820-29.



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