On September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks swept seismic waves of vulnerability, shock and grief to a global audience watching aghast in front of television sets. As the sheer assuredness of the Twin Towers crumbled into ruin and debris, many of the first impressions captured by writers and artists show how the vulnerability of human existence suddenly resurfaced. It is therefore no coincidence that the most infamous photograph of the attacks, Richard Drew’s Falling Man, zooms in on the helplessness of human existence within collapsing technostructures.
For some time it might have seemed, therefore, that the footprint of the Twin Towers would become a site of vulnerability, pain and loss, and the 9/11 memorial that has been built since certainly respects this. However, this site is a more complicated palimpsest. It is inextricably entwined with the iconicity of the attacks, and the repetitive, flashback-like imagery of the planes hitting the towers detaches the event from its grounding in material reality.
Exploring trauma in a contemporary context thus means tackling the tension between the individual intimacy of suffering on the one hand, and the globalized networks of witnessing, politicizing and representing terror on the other hand. Trauma studies need to embrace the fact that trauma entails discourse. An aesthetics of unrepresentability or unspeakability cannot account anymore for the ways in which cultural forms respond to terror – and this is a simultaneously ethical and aesthetic challenge.