“Witnessing Terror: Graphic Responses to 9/11.” Fear, Horror and Terror. 6th Global Conference.Inter-Disciplinary.Net. Mansfield College, Oxford. 7-9 September, 2012.
One of the most shocking instances of large-scale terrorism in recent history, and, simultaneously, the one most immediately distributed by a global media culture, the attacks on September 11th, 2001, necessitate considering anew the ethics of witnessing such events. How can cultural expressions which respond to this act of terror, traumatic to the individuals directly involved and firmly embedded into a discourse of national trauma on a more collective scale, be assessed as to their implications on the role of the witness, the construction of alterity, and their underlying aesthetic and ethical stance in relation to broader socio-cultural and political discourses about the attacks?
This paper approaches this problem through the prism of artistic, visually-graphic responses. Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers” exemplarizes one tendency here that foregrounds the generic potential of the graphic format to provide a specific metadiscursive space for reassembling meaning and identity in ways anticipated in models of cultural ecology (Hubert Zapf, 2002) and a politicized aesthetic (Isobel Armstrong, 2000). The experience of 9/11 leaves a shattering impact in these visually hybrid and intertextually charged cartoon panels; through this collapse, though, a form of witnessing emerges which metafictionally reflects on the limits of representing experiences of terror, re-evaluates prior certainties, and provides a position that re-integrates emotional upheaval and critical distance in the perspective of the traumatised author-protagonist. Other responses in the form of cartoons, and notably superhero comics such as the “Amazing Spiderman” 9/11 special edition, form a contrastive foil to this self-reflexive approach in that they do not so much acknowledge as displace the repercussions of the experience of terror, itself sublimated into an unspeakable beyond, by a rhetoric of heroism, unity and strength, which is further enforced by a clear construction of the terrorists’ absolute alterity.