Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mourning and Violence

I'm sure you were dying to know what the crack blogging team here at 2'23" thought about the cover for the Nonesuch recording of Steve Reich's WTC 9/11, the one that is causing such controversy on the social network of your choice.

Well, I'm glad you asked.

As a matter of marketing, I think it is basically in poor taste, and kind of a cheap trick. But it does sharpen our focus on the cultural politics of the work, and other 9/11 pieces like John Adams On the Transmigration of Souls.* For me, the essential question to ask of any of these works is that asked by Judith Butler in her wonderful book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. She writes
That we can be injuired, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of another, are all reasons for both fear and grief. What is less certain, however, is whether the experiences of vulnerability and loss have to lead straightaway to military violence and retribution. There are other passages. If we are interested in arrested cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war.

That about sums up my reaction: okay, so these pieces are about mourning an act of terrorism. What sort of mourning is it, and what is it supposed to accomplish? I don't think it is intended to be a triumphalist sort of mourning. Both works take their cue from the style of mourning popularized by Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, in which the traditional man-on-horse sculpture is replaced by stark absence and a cut into the earth, filled only with names. As good children of the sixties, I think that's the model in mind for both Reich and Adams, hence the use of pre-recorded tape fragments filled with seemly mundane details, the equivalent of soldiers's names to the black granite gash of the score. The use of the famous image of the smoking towers about to be hit by a second plane indeed puts one in the correct state of mind for this kind of mourning. It's not an image of resilience, of some politician triumphantly sitting on top of smoking rubble.

However, my favorite chapter of Butler's book (and again, if the only Butler you have read is Gender Trouble, check it out) is that titled "Violence, Mourning, Politics." The essay begins by asking a simple question: what makes for a grievable life? That is, why do we mourn some lives and not others? Why did the deaths in New York City (and, to a interestingly lesser extent, the Pentagon) that day strike many people so hard, even those with no connection to the city. Why grieve those lives, and not the many other tragic deaths around the world? The simple answer to that question probably has something to do with cultural proximity and the various ways we have imagined connections to others inhabitants of this nation. I remember feeling that way, two hours up the coast in Connecticut, the brief and in hindsight ridiculous feeling that morning that perhaps we were next, and the more lasting feeling that we must know somebody there.

Adams and Reich both trade on that familiarity, emphasizing the quotidian details like the busy phone signal that allow us to correlate our lives with theirs. Butler, however, sees that as exactly the problem. Mourning, she points out, becomes attached to familiarity. We only mourn the familiar, not the unfamiliar lives ended every day around the world, not even those of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives were taken to fulfill the particularly violent form of mourning the Bush administration (and many a Democrat) put into place after 9/11. Or more bluntly, as Butler puts it those lives are not grieved because our discourse (or an absence of it) has successfully dehumanized them. We could never build a Maya Lin-style memorial to the innocent victims of our wars because we don't even know their names. Eventually, mourning the unfamiliar is not just rare, but impossible, in our contemporary discourse.

Butler's point expresses something of my unease with these works, especially Reich--Adams has at least dealt more explicitly with these issues before, in Klinghoffer. Musical mourning can be extremely powerful when it is intensely personalized and emotional, but it is not easy to separate mourning from violence. I don't think I can do better than to quote what Butler writes about Daniel Pearl, who of course is the subject of one of Reich's most beautiful post-9/11 works, the Daniel Variations:
We should surely continue to grieve for Daniel Pearl, even though he is so much more easily humanized for most United States citizens than the nameless Afghans obliterated by United States and European violence. But we have to consider how the norm governing who will be a grievable human is circumscribed and produced in these acts of permissible and celebrated public grieving, how they sometimes operate in tandem with a prohibition on the public grieving of others' lives, and how this differential allocation of grief serves the derealizing aims of military violence.

So can you mourn something like 9/11 at all? Butler's answer is yes, of course we should; we just need to take it as an opportunity to expose our vulnerability, to recognize the extent of privilege in not facing such violence on a daily basis, and the corporeal commonality we share we others around the world. Ironically, this makes me appreciate the cover image more, for it shows a moment of extreme fragility and doom to the extent that I prefer not to look at it. But the music contained does not, to my ears at least, follow through.

*the neurotic musicologist in me knows that there have been a number of conference papers about this subject, but I didn't see them. So, apologies if this has all been said already.

Photo by Rob Crawley