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Teaching & Understanding Sept 11 Mark Hamm & Paul Leighton

9-11 and the Public Construction of Commemoration

Jeff Ferrell, Texas Christian University

Sept 11 candle 9-11 ribbon memorial

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The following series of in-class and out-of-class exercises offers students the opportunity to think critically and creatively about the tragedy of 9-11, and encourages them to explore a variety of broader issues in relation to the tragedy, including:

  • the social and cultural construction of grief and commemoration

  • the shifting boundaries between the personal, the social, and the political

  • the role of individuals and small groups in actively shaping the meaning of public events and public tragedy.

The following exercises are intended as a series of open-ended suggestions, not as a pre-set curriculum. Instructors are encouraged to utilize the series of exercises up to any stage in the series, or in any combination, that best suites their needs and those of their students. Similarly, instructors and their classes are encouraged to decide for themselves which combination of in-class discussion, in-class or out-of-class writing, and artistic/symbolic construction best assists them in exploring, and coming to terms with, the tragedy of 9-11.

Public Shrines and 9-11

Among the most immediate and poignant responses to the tragedy of 9-11 were the public shrines to individual victims, and to the victims as a whole, that were erected around New York City and the country. In New York City alone hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shrines soon emerged, many incorporating candles, photographs, poems, flags, and other objects of significance. Many of these shrines in turn came to serve as public gathering places where citizens could share grief and condolences in the days after the tragedy. But such public shrines also emerged in locations far from New York City. For example, in the city where I currently live--Ft. Worth, Texas--a small tree near a major freeway had some years before been transformed into an ongoing shrine to the homeless and other "lost souls," with decorations attached to it at Christmas time, and other decorations and signs attached to it throughout the year. Now, in the days after 9-11, the little tree was transformed once again, this time into a shrine to the tragedy's victims and to the United States itself, bedecked as it was with American flags, red-white-and-blue bunting, and patriotic slogans. (See photos Jeff has taken of road side shrines and commentary on car crashes.)

So, for students, some questions:

-Looking at images of the shrines that emerged in New York City and elsewhere (images to be provided by the instructor or students--see resource list below), what sorts of cultural imagery do you see? What objects or symbols seem to be included most frequently? Are there noticeable similarities in the way the shrines are designed or arranged? How would you "read" the shrines? That is, what do the shrines seem to say about the tragedy of 9-11, about our values in the United States, about patriotism, grief, public emotions, personal identity, and other key components of social life? Do the shrines seem to value some identities or emotions over others? If a person were visiting the United States for the first time and saw these shrines, what would they reveal to that person about our sense of safety, vulnerability, grief, or community? Most broadly, what do the shrines suggest to you about the boundaries between the personal, the political, and the social? What do they suggest about the historical and political context in which the tragedy of 9-11 emerged? 

-Did you notice shrines to the victims of 9-11 in your town, or on your campus, in the days and weeks after the tragedy? In what ways were they similar to, or different from, the shrines that emerged in New York City and elsewhere? Did you personally participate in constructing any shrines to the victims of 9-11? If so, what was the nature of your experience? 

How would you compare the 9-11 shrines to other public shrines, or manifestations of public grief? In what ways are they similar to, or different from, other attempts to display publicly grief and remembrance? Some examples: 

The Personal and the Political

The power and beauty of the shrines to victims of 9-11 comes, in large part, from their emergence out of personal grief and outrage. For the most part, the shrines in New York City and elsewhere developed not as official memorials, but as spontaneous, personal responses to the tragedy. In this sense, they exist as important windows into the public's response to 9-11, and as important reminders that individuals and small groups continue to take an active role in shaping the meaning of public events. For this reason it seems appropriate--perhaps even unavoidable--that we come to terms with our own emotions and perspectives if we are to begin to understand the emotions and perspectives of others affected by the 9-11 tragedy. 

So, again, some questions for students--questions that are more personal, and therefore perhaps a bit more difficult and troubling, than those above: 

  • If you were to construct your own shrine to the victims of the 9-11 tragedy, what would you include in the shrine? What would you omit? Why?

  • If you had been killed in the attacks of 9-11, what would you hope would be included in a shrine to you? How could friends and family best commemorate your life, and symbolize its importance? How would you want them to strike a balance between your personal identity, and larger social or political issues?

  • What do you suppose an al Qaeda fighter killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan would want included in his shrine? Would such a shrine be appropriate?

With the election heating up, questions are now raised about the use of 9-11 images in Bush's campaign ads. Consider the following comments: The president, who ignored the al-Qaida threat before 9/11, who diverted public attention in that horror's aftermath to the nonexistent threat from Iraq, and who has stonewalled the investigation of 9/11, now seeks to exploit that tragedy as a reelection gimmick. [From Exploiting tragedy: The White House is making political hay out of 9/11 -- even while it's stonewalling a full investigation of the national tragedy. Salon.com]

Constructions of Commemoration

As time allows, students (either individually or in groups) can be assigned the project of designing and planning public shrines, and encouraged as part of this project to consider carefully the symbols and images to be included in the shrines, to anticipate public responses to the shrines, and to evaluate the shrines' role in negotiating the boundaries between personal and public grief. Possible projects might include: shrines to particular individuals, or shrines that students would want constructed upon their own deaths; shrines to the victims of 9-11; and shrines to larger issues of freedom, democracy, justice, or the United States itself.

More ambitiously, students (again, either individually or collectively) can be assigned the task of actually constructing these shrines. Most broadly, a public installation of these shrines can follow, as a basis for wider community involvement and discussion, campus teach-ins, and other activities designed to assist students and other community members in working through the tragedy of 9-11.

Selected Resources

Martha Cooper and Joseph Sciorra, R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Esther Kaplan, "Keepers of the Flame," Village Voice, January 29, 2002.

Leslie Linthicum, "Crosses to Bear," Albuquerque Journal, June 6, 1993, pages C1, C2.

Public Art Review (twice-yearly journal of public art)

Cultural Criminology.org is an excellent source for thinking about the broader contexts Jeff discusses in this article. The website has a section for key papers that include several definitions of cultural criminology. 




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