Collapsing Towers. Pictures of Power and The Power of Pictures

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In: culture and education, Münster 2002.

Collapsing Towers.

Pictures of Power and The Power of Pictures

Constanze Bausch

On September 11th the World Trade Center collapsed. The success of the attack would not have been so effective globally had the media not been so thorough in its representation of the collapsing World Trade Center. Within minutes of the catastrophe the image of the collapsing World Trade Center was propelled around the world, gathering a worldwide community of pictures and thereby creating a media-based global experience – not knowledge – a global experience of the contingency and insecurity of the modern world. This experience grew from seeing the destruction of something we thought would remain solid and secure for ever; from seeing something fall down that we never imagined would fall. On September 11th the assassins did not only attack one of the main symbols of the modern capitalist world, not only did they destroy them and thereby thousands of civilian lives, but what they really did was producing a collapsing symbol. To me this was the one real and main force of the attack.

I will not give an analysis of the attack or its media-reception. No doubt media coverage could certainly be more critical. For sure the media are producing and enforcing what is called war, yet again producing and enforcing a two-sided world with goodies and baddies, the civilized versus the barbaric. Theories of conspiracy are rising everywhere, and, just as in fairy tales, we do not really know how much is true about the story, how much is interpretation and how much manipulation. As we already knew and as we are realising again the media are storytellers. But for now I am not interested in the truth or falsity of the story. What I am interested in is the human experience of this attack, released by a flow of pictures around the world: Everywhere for everybody at the same time the same images of the falling symbols of the modern capitalist world, a global and simultaneous wiring of the international discourse focussed on one theme only.

I would like to outline three main points:

the merging of film and reality,

the simultaneous global connection through media, and the creation of a worldwide community,

the well-scripted choreography of the attack and the equally choreographed response of the American media.


On September 11th 2001 I happened to be reading “Critical Theory”, a powerful and sharp conception of the capitalist media society, in which human beings have become products and the way of seeing the world and being in this world is reduced to profit counting. In the middle of a sentence about the interdependence between capitalism and patriarchy the telephone rang. I was in deep thought when, by means of an electronic audio-signal a different time and a change of times entered my apartment, my body and my mind. A quite panicky voice was shouting into the telephone, breathless and shocked: “You haven’t heard? Where have you been? The world is not the same as it was three hours ago! ” The voice told me of a world where I am out of the game after three hours without communication, and it told me of the collapsed World Trade Center. The two highest buildings in Manhatten destroyed by hijacked airplanes. I can’t remember what the voice exactly said, but this one sentence stuck in my head: The world will never be the same.

After the telephone call my mind turned around in my body and my body turned around in my apartment. One phrase surfaced from the deep levels of my unconscious mind: The world is getting colder friends, we have to move closer. Later on I remembered that this phrase is a lyric from a song by Konstantin Wecker I had heard more than fifteen years ago – a melting together of my own and collective media history.

I felt a strong desire to be with people I had complete confidence in. Family. I went to watch television with both my sisters. The cold light of the black box of constantly changing pictures and sounds sucked me into their flow of information and time. In this very moment of the enlarged awareness of shock, I can hardly remember what was said, just that the pictures burned into my head, swirling without words, faces without voices, collapsing twin towers without noise. It was like Edward Munch’s “The Scream”: we see a person screaming, we hear the picture screaming, but the yell gets stuck in the throat. Without any control, powerful images well up inside me: the crying girl with clothes burned off running from a napalm attack in the Vietnam War; Rudi Dutschke with eyes like fire giving a speech on a demonstration in Berlin 1968; the advertisement of the Hollywoodfilm “Titanic”. I realised that the pictures of the foggy and collapsing towers in New York were already becoming part of this world of collective images.

After watching television we went to Berlin’s main cathedral for a spontaneous commemorative service: More than a thousand people had gathered to face the terror with calm, prayer and hymns. Flowers and candle light everywhere, light in the darkness, old ritual signs of peace, hope and reconciliation. The purity of the moment calmed my heart. Images of resistance in the third Reich and images of the peaceful revolution of the GDR emerged in my consciousness. This moment aroused a concentration and a reminder of what is essential.

And as I would like to enforce, not only did people look to the media much more than usual during the following days, the churches too were filled much more than usual.

Reality of Films and Films of Reality

In the following days the newspapers were filled with cinematic metaphors, life became a film, a horror film became reality, reality became worse than every film. The inner film, the cinema film and filmed reality melted together, grew into and out of each other. Life became unreal, and reality became unbelievable. This is because we have nothing in reality to compare with the event, yet we have a lot of action movies, especially about New York being attacked. These movies can give us a framework and an orientation to find words to express the emotions that come as result of the catastrophic event. But watching action movies provides the nice feeling that they are not reality. This security changed into fear, knowing - this is reality.

The author Kathrin Röggla (tageszeitung: Sept. 14th 2001, p. 7) wrote about her experience in New York: “The visual and the soundtrack have actually become disconnected in their effect on the psyche.” And the journalist Detlef Kuhlbrodt (idem: p. 22): “While continuously watching these scenes, familiar to us from action movies, we were waiting for more escalation, because a rising plot is part of dramatic films. ‚A Hollywood nightmare has become reality’, one news reporter said, and the unfolding events of this reality did not differ from a movie about the beginning of the third world war. Only the pictures of dead people were absent.”

But the difference between an action movie and the day of the attack on the World Trade Center is actually the chaotic presentation of information by the media, the mistakes in the presentation, the same camera angles over and over again - and the consternation and confusion in the faces of journalists and eye-witnesses. All these elements, especially the personal ones, make us realise: this is no film, no production.

Worldwide Media Performance

But we realize: This was a production, there was a script, a secret script of the assassins - the stage was the world. This unique performance was to be the biggest media show the world had ever seen. The script was so secret, not even known by the secret service. The performance was excellent and a total surprise, brought everywhere by the media. As we see by the number of spectators and the vehemence of public reaction, it was a real “success”.

For a moment in time the entire world was connected, focusing on the same thing, on the same picture, the picture of the collapsing World Trade Center. An unprecedented wiring of international discourse onto one theme occurred, an extraordinary creation of a worldwide community, simultaneously virtual and real, media-based, active and varied. Stemming from a multitude of communities, this community was based on a picture, on the global experience of the pictures of the collapsing “heart” of the modern capitalist world. For indeed, the shock of the attack changed the world into a village for a moment in time, everybody centred on the same subject, everybody discussing the same subject. Never in history had an event triggered a collective worldwide consciousness of such magnitude.

This new kind of international gathering and centring, rendered possible by the media, was brought about by the constant influx of information - pictures and words - about the attack, but in addition, the information released a profound need to be together and to speak together - by body, telephone, worldwide web... This inconceivable attack created never imagined signs of solidarity between humans, in neighbourhoods, cities, and all around the globe. At the same time, the world was divided in two: the bright versus the dark side, the good and the human fighting the dark and evil. But it is only this division which defines the identity of the seperate.

However, the attack not only forces the coming together of communities and community, it also elucidates the international worldwide information system. The worldwide flow of media information accommodates the worldwide economical and political network. This flowing network of power and information does not stop in front of crises, but is part of their creation, development and expansion. If the world is a body and the electronic network its nervous system, as McLuhan said, then everything is connected and the results of these interactions are only just beginning to emerge everywhere.
The Symbolic Power of Pictures

The picture of the collapsing World Trade Center went on and on on television for days. The image of the modern cathedral crashing down like a house of playing cards, four hundred meters of capitalist security, twice the height of the rest of the skyline, went down like a vertical play of dominoes by two petty and tiny airplanes, hijacked by even more petty and tiny knives...

The World Trade Center was the symbol of an economic system of power, an economic system which, at least after the Berlin wall came down, was not only on the way to victory, it was victory itself. The twin towers were the shaping of the dream of freedom by money and world wide capitalist trade, the condensation of the dream of success, the ascension to the heaven of money. A double phallus in the sky of possibilities. By deflowering America as a never before wounded country, and by the castration of the twin phallus of power and money in the capital of the country of “freedom” and capitalist trade, the assassins in one move struck two well placed and deep reaching cuts into the symbolic body of america.

By attacking the two outstandingly similar towers, one next to the other, by producing the giant explosions and succeeding in making the towers collapse with a time lag, the assassins produced not only a worldwide shock, but the feeling of a never ending shock. It was this repetition, the choreography of the collapsing towers, which was to enforce the real horror in the heads and the depth of the worldwide shock. This never ending shock was then increased and prolonged by the never ending repetition of the media re-presentation. A set of pictures about an up to now unimaginable event in one part of the world, transformed by media into something never ending, going on and on, collapsing and collapsing over and over again, everywhere in the world. The pictures went around the world bringing the dark Gospel everywhere with missionary zeal. In so doing they presented and produced the shock around the world like an explosive wave, growing bigger and bigger by reaching everywhere. With the collapsing towers symbolic power collapsed, with the symbolic power, securities collapsed around the world. In the mirror of the equally collapsing stock market we see collapsing power-towers bringing insecurities, insecurities bringing fear. This picture of the collapsing symbols of the success of the modern capitalist world has become a symbol for the insecurity of the modern and global world. These pictures have tremendous power on the inner world of images, this inner world, which creates the outer world - or at least so much of the outer world. Watching these collapsing towers of power over and over again on television has had a considerable impact on the collapsing towers within, the collapsing towers of beliefs in one’s own imaginary world. Collapsing towers in oneself destabilise inner securities, that is, one’s imaginary securities, bringing up the reality of unsecurity and the dirt and dust of the unconscious. Seen in this way, the explosion in and of the World Trade Center has released giant fireworks in the personal and collective consciousness.

The assassins made us feel the power of images. For indeed, apart from all the civilian lives lost with the material of the towers themselves, by producing a collapsing symbol they have destroyed an image. An image, which was three-dimensional and very living, an image, which now is in ruins and death. The image of America being invulnerable, a place of security and shelter, the image of world trade being untouchable, the image of the modern world being secure, at least for the white and the rich. But already now we can see a lot of pictures trying to help up against the fall. If the collapsing of power, money and success has destroyed powerful images in ourselves, we see the American flag held up strong, the fireman and the president standing up on the ruins, reminiscent of the lost vertical. But the film has not ended yet. As usual in American movies, the end has to be a happy end; the cowboy has to win; the civilized have to destroy the barbaric... Yet America can wage a thousand wars, build a host of new symbols - it will never be able to heal this destroyed picture. We can imagine her reaction being resolute, but it cannot be triumphant. The victory is already lost, for you can't cancel a castration, for you can't cancel a deflowering.

In fact the attack has shown a new way of making terror. For media presentation around the world is part of the game. Assisted by television the assassins were able to work directly on the inner world of images of every community and person around the world. This was a brilliant move by the assassins. As the media has brought the American way of life all around the world, so too has the media now brought the news of its fall all over the world. The assassins could never have found a better way of showing how shaky the modern world and the global system are, how easy it is to shake them out of balance. This experience was materialised in the way the event was shown. The world went out of balance by the weight of the crashed World Trade Center. The emperor has no clothes.

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