Monday, November 5, 2012

Horror, then and now

When I watched the footage, scenes I hadn’t seen since I was 11 and watched them live, my body shrank. Ahmed associates this shrinkage, or recoiling, with both fear and disgust. I was horrified, but I don’t know what I was afraid of. There was no clear threat of this happening to me, at that moment. Ahmed locates fear in the future, “an anticipation of hurt or injury.” Perhaps it was the realization that such a thing was possible, and as it has happened once, it could happen again. But horror is a combination of all many emotions, of fear, but also of disgust, pain, all emotions of moving away. Horror also includes shock, an inability to move, even away from that which is threatening. It has also been spread thin over many stimuli: a horror movie, or something in bad taste that is simply horrible. 

According to the telethon, the underlying feeling was, or needed to be, love. The inclusion of Muslim children expressing a desire for normalcy and shots of men in turbans holding American flags—this sticky sign of coherence—is an example of Ahmed’s notion of multicultural love, in which the love is not directed toward each other, but rather toward the nation as love object. Ahmed states, “The over-valuation of the nation as a love object—as an object that can reciprocate one’s love—hence demands that migrants take on the character of the national ideal” (134). Judging people by how they look, by their bodies, is, according to Lucy Liu, not American. But if it is not difference that we love, not “history, culture or ethnicity that binds the multicultural nation together,” but rather “It is not ‘having’ the right emotion that allows one to pass into the community: in this case, by displaying ‘my love’, I show that I am with ‘you’” (135).

The flag as a sticky sign reminds me of a Joan Didion article written a little over a year after the attacks, “Fixed Opinions,or the Hinge of History” in the NYRB. She recalls returning to New York and seeing this cohesion, at least in certain areas: 
I came in from Kennedy to find American flags flying all over the Upper East Side, at least as far north as 96th Street, flags that had not been there in the first week after the fact. I say “at least as far north as 96th Street” because a few days later, driving down from Washington Heights past the big projects that would provide at least some of the manpower for the “war on terror” that the President had declared—as if terror were a state and not a technique—I saw very few flags: at most, between 168th Street and 96th Street, perhaps a half-dozen. There were that many flags on my building alone. Three at each of the two entrances. I did not interpret this as an absence of feeling for the country above 96th Street. I interpreted it as an absence of trust in the efficacy of rhetorical gestures.” 
Didion sees the lack of flags as a lack of trust in such signs, but Ahmed’s notion of such a sticky sign might lead us to believe that the decision to not display the sign, to intentionally opt out of the coherence, demonstrates a recognition of the power of rhetorical gestures. While the holding of flags gave some bodies more space, as if the flag were a way in to an American community, not displaying the flag “could be read as a sign of a lack of fellowship, as a reading that has obvious risks” (74).

If we can love Muslims who claim America as a home, the construction of this “fellow feeling” seems to make impossible the acknowledgement of those from whom we are turning away. Lawrence Eagleburger immediately drew the connection that Didion acknowledges as terrorism = state. From within the comfortable confines of our nation-based fellowship, there is an apparent need to see the “other” in that same form. Fighting terror as an emotion, or, as Didion calls it, a technique, seems impossible, but once an object is identified, that which impresses upon us, that object can be fought. A state can be fought, if fear cannot. In this line of thinking, we see metonymy employed as Ahmed describes: “The work done by metonymy means that it can remake links—it can stick words like ‘terrorist’ and ‘Islam’ together—even when arguments are made that seem to unmake those links” (76). Emotional discourse, then, seems to preclude any sort of productive discourse. The telethon seeks to argue against the linking of Islam and terror, but in creating an us, there is necessarily a them. Muhammad Ali claiming that his Islam is not bad entails that some form of Islam is. As we recoil away from the other and turn toward ourselves, we both create the other, and perpetuate it. To do otherwise, as Susan Sontag attempted to do, would be “disgusting.” 

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