Staying Connected… (beneath the rubble): Temporal Vertigo and the Attack on America – Leonie Cooper

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The World Trade Center ‘incident’ accelerated the strange sense of temporal vertigo we are already experiencing as we try to live in this science-fictional world.

Journal Entry 101: September, 13th, 2001

…This world was just a dream we were sleeping
now we are awake …
in a moment we lost our minds here
And dreamt the world was round
A million mile fall from grace
Thank God, we missed the ground…
(“Run to the Water, The Distance to Here, Live, 1999)

In the light cast by the "incandescent acceleration of technoscientific production" Erik Davis argues that we must adopt science fiction as a "basic mode of being in the world, of being in our world"[1] No longer is SF the literary fiction of a Greg Egan or Iain M. Banks for, now, SF ranges from films like The Matrix (Wachowski Bros. 1999) to the Gaia hypothesis proposed by Sheldrake in The Physics of Angels[2]. On a globe encircled by soon-to-be-smart satellites, the retro-futurism of Tomorrow Land, the rocket ships that now transport tourists to outerspace and SETI’s ongoing attempt to discover if we are, in fact, not alone contribute a strange sense of temporal vertigo and feel as are already living science-fictional world.

If the almost "unfathomable transformations" that are taking place at an accelerated rate within our culture defy our ability to predict future events, let alone our capacity to describe the current contours of this time and place; if we are, according to Davis not only forced to think and write in a science fictional manner but to stand with one foot in the now and near and the other foot in the then and far, then couldn’t we say, therefore, that seeing two Boeing planes crash into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre was a science fictional event? Doesn’t the fact that the "Attack on America"[3] was (and still is?) ungraspable, unfathomable, unbelievable, unreal make it science fictional?

…This world was just a dream we were sleeping
now we are awake …
in a moment we lost our minds here
And dreamt the world was round
A million mile fall from grace
Thank God, we missed the ground…
(“Run to the Water, The Distance to Here, Live, 1999)

As the ‘live’ moment when the second plane sliced into the second tower and that moment after, when the first building imploded – sending up a plume of debris that was not unlike our collective image of a nuclear warhead – was repeated throughout the day/night it was as if our ability to record the actual event and replay it should have enabled us to understand why this event happened and, therefore, what it meant. However, viewing the footage over and over again (in replay), only served to remind us that we had seen it all before. And where? In science fiction. Weren’t these the same screaming crowds that fled down the streets of New York as the Empire State Building disintegrated into dust in Armaggedon (Michael Bay, 1998)? Yet, instead of turning fact into science fiction, extrapolating current trends in science and technology into the soci0-econonic world of the future, science fiction had become fact.

Wasn’t the ‘Attack on America’ the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy of our technological dreams?: we want to transcend the material geographical constraints of time and place, we want to reach and out and touch our loved ones, we want to move from here to there in the blink of an eye and now we can. The telecommunications industry has sold us a future where we can (always) reach out and touch someone and we trust that this technology doesn’t just transmit a signal, but transport us "there" in the presence of the other person and they to us. Now we can do more than just imagine ‘what it must have been like’ in that glass tower or in that plane turned missile, as the live coverage encouraged us to do. We can reconstruct the actual event: the cell phone enables a wife to ring her husband and a son, his mother, a cockpit microphone captures the jumbled voices of possible hijackers, digital simulations recreate the World Trade Centre’s collapse.

And wasn’t our response exactly the mood of "giddy detachment" or "fascinated horror" that for Davis permeates the fabric of our sciencefictional everyday (and isn’t it still)? Weren’t we watching the same kind of apocalyptic scenario prophesised in films like Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996)? But if this was a doom and gloom prophecy come true – a technological fiction appearing on our flickering television screens – how were we to cope when the prophecy was no longer in the future-then but the future-now. How many of us sat through the night/day transfixed by the unfolding of events, trying to stay connected beneath the rubble? How many of us felt the uncanny immediacy of knowing that there were people still trapped under the rubble; didn’t you feel as if it could have been you, calling your loved ones for a final goodbye?

A myriad of fragments caught within a technological web confirm what it must have really been like but, at the same time, they perversely, only (again) remind us of the fragile ground upon which such prophecy is built. How can we reach out and touch someone when they are buried beneath the concrete, glass and steel of a 110 story building? How can we understand that the loved one who calls us to tell us that they love us were, yes right at that very time, hurtling into one of America’s biggest monuments to our technological progress? Watching celebrity anchors struggle to articulate the chaos that surrounded them, seeing commentators attempt to fill in the black hole that had appeared in the Lower Manhattan nightline was an eerie reminder that, while the apparatuses of the communications and media industry brought the event "home" to us, right now, right here, they could not (ever) properly contain its elusive, ambiguous, science fictional meaning.

Wasn’t it strangely familiar then, that after watching the "live" event (though, for me, it was 13 hours after it ‘actually’ happened), after seeing the devastation ( didn’t it remind me of the surreal digital desolation of the post-apocalyptic city in Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sakaguchi: 2001)- but this wasn’t digitised was it?) after feeling like I was there, on the plane, on the streets, even under the rubble, that I turned to the telephone to try and comprehend what had happened – yes, maybe, even to touch someone? But wasn’t I merely tracing invisible footprints on virtual ground when I spent hours with my ear glued to this familiar piece of technological hardware, feeling the hot sun of an early spring on my skin but blinkered from the sight of the mountains stretched out in the distance so that I could send my self down that line, trying to be somewhere else, to stay connected, to be in touch?

Three hours from the city and alone in a country house, I felt as if my vision had telescoped to a point where I could not tell if this event had really happened and if it had, what would happen now? Call after call I searched for the answers: One friend told me that she immediately thought of missiles and bombs and stockpiling so they could survive out there in the mountains; another friend told me that she sat at Brunetti’s where at every table, people drank their lattes and re-told the stories, re-enacted the events. Yet, another recalled the missiles that devastated their own city and I could only imagine black-clad women like birds sheltering their children with outstretched wings from the moon dust that floated gently down upon the abandoned streets of New York city.

All different ways of trying to paint a bigger picture: a scenario within which we could paste that moving image (forever replaying), that inconceivable image, and hold it still so that we could analyse and rationalise and understand it. Yet, this goal remained (and remains?) forever unattainable: immersed in the gridlines and networks of the telecommunications industry, caught up in the glow of the prophetic simulations cast by our visual media that made this event science fiction (strangely familiar) I too validated its very science-fictionality by using the technology like a kind of "liquid crystal ball".[4] I, too, believed that the technology that, with its Janus face, showed me the destruction of a once-future apocalypse could also save me. If I persistently sent myself down that telephone line, if I peered hard enough through the glass, shouldn’t I be able to predict the probable future-shock of this ‘war on terrorism’. Then I’d know whether this trope – this war…on terrorism – would become more than a figure of speech and I could predict exactly when to turn away from the sight of more crumpled building and more bodies buried beneath the rubble. With this technology in hand, couldn’t I somehow manage the future so that we would all be warm and safe in our glass towers forevermore?

Are prediction, technology and science fiction all travellers on the same linear time-line to a future-perfect? Or didn’t this event, with its elusive aura of science fictional divination, send us a signal written in an indecipherable code, like the alien’s four-dimensional instructions for space travel in Contact? (Robert Zemeckis:1997) A signal that, even with our fractal geometries and hyperdimensional spaces, still tells us that the future is as difficult to chart as surfing quantum foam, that though we may feel like Ellie, hurtling down a digital wormhole faster than the speed of light towards a future written in hieroglyphics, we cannot expect, like her, to find the paradise we once imagined as children. Rather, along with Neo in the Matrix or Alice in Wonderland, we are merely living in a dream, but, as we hear on the sonic super-highway that dream is (always) real.

…This world was just a dream we were sleeping
now we are awake …
in a moment we lost our minds here
And dreamt the world was round
A million mile fall from grace
Thank God, we missed the ground…
(“Run to the Water, The Distance to Here, Live, 1999)

Notes

[1] "Don’t Look Back" http://www.levity.com/figment/tykes.html, accessed 17th August 2001, n.p. italics his. This brief article is indebted to Davis for his insights and his ability to exactly express the uncanniness of our sciencefictional culture.

[2] Matthew Fox & Rupert Sheldrake, The Physics of Angels: Exploring the Realm where Science and Spirit Meet, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1996. The theologian and the scientist discuss the question of angels, connecting the re-emerging belief in their existence to a post-mechanical, quantum cosmology.

[3] At the time of writing this short piece, ‘Attack on America’ was the current trope, which has since mutated multiple times to include ‘America Fights Back’

[4] Erik Davis, "Don’t Look Back"

Author Bio

Leonie Cooper is a Phd. candidate in the Cinema Studies programme, School of Fine Arts, Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne. Her research and teaching is haunted by phantom figures and phenomenal events: vampire slayers and silicon souls, astronauts and avatars, Moon landings and ghosts on Mars, solar flares and alien sightings…

She is part of the Refractory Team