This article was written on 12 Sep 2014, and is filled under Theory.

The Architecture of Mourning

By Sailko (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

9-11 Memorial, South Tower. Photo by Sailko [CC-BY-3.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

This September marks the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and three years since the official opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, located in the footprint of the former World Trade towers. Braving endlessly flowing summer crowds to glimpse the endlessly flowing water, we can share moments of stillness and awe, straining to imagine if not to see where the waters flow to, and placing our fingers in a few of the bottomless cutouts of the 2,983 names inscribed on the fountains’ rims.

The Memorial is mesmerizing and beautiful; it is also unsettling, and not only for the reasons listed by Adam Gopnik in a thoughtful critique published in the New Yorker this summer:

The site contains more contradictions, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable, than any other eight acres in Manhattan. A celebration of liberty tightly policed; a cemetery that cowers in the shadow of commerce; an insistence that we are here to remember and an ambition to let us tell you what to recall; the boast that we have completely started over and the promise that we will never forget—visitors experience these things with a free-floating sense of unease.

This cascade of contradictory impressions, Gopnik implies, themselves all flow from a primary source: the ill-suited nature of the Memorial itself for memorializing.

Although officially described as ‘reflecting pools,’ they are not pools, and they leave no room for reflection. Wildly out of scale with the rest of the site in their immensity, they are subterranean waterfalls—two huge sinks spilling chlorinated water from their edges, which then flows up and over a smaller platform at their center, and down the drain, only to rise and be recycled. Their constant roar interrupts any elegiac feeling that the list of engraved names of the dead which enclose them might engender.

Indeed, the recourse to a massively mechanical installation—one of the architects admitted that the pumps might only last “thirty to forty years”—seems to belie the eternalizing premise that underlies the very idea of a memorial. But what if the source of these apparent contradictions is not the Memorial’s flawed design, but our own contradictory and conflicted relation to the task of mourning? If this is the case, Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s design could turn out to be disarmingly prescient, a unique insight into a struggle our age and culture has with time, memory, and loss.

What do we do when we mourn? The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan ventured an answer by turning to a literary patient, Hamlet, whose indelible influence on our culture stems, he claimed, from his inability to mourn. In his discussion of Hamlet and Laertes’ conflict at Ophelia’s grave he writes, “The one unbearable dimension of possible human experience is not the experience of one’s own death, which no one has, but the experience of the death of another.” Lacan describes the effect of this loss as opening of “a hole in the real,” and he locates in our rituals of mourning a community’s attempt to repair that hole by, in essence, filling it up with words.

Still, he insists, “there is nothing of significance that can fill that hole in the real…. For it is the system of signifiers in their totality which is impeached by the least instance of mourning.” The least instance of mourning undermines the entirety of language. When faced with profound loss, words fail. Entirely. And yet, the work of mourning, despite its epic and foregone inadequacy, is not only undertaken by all cultures and communities, it is necessary. In its absence, madness blooms.

In mourning we fill with words, with meaning, a hole in the real. Yet the 9/11 Memorial inverts this formula. In the most literal sense it fills words, the names of the dead in this case, with voids—turning the litany of inscriptions so canonized by Maya Lin’s Wall into hollow stencils, themselves echoing the roaring holes in the real that they silently border. Everything is inside out: instead of fixity paying tribute to a sacred list of names, fixed names frame and open out onto incessant loss, movement, churning.

This inversion is powerful, not because it locates something entirely unique in the disaster of 9/11, but because that disaster and our subsequent attempts to mourn it reveal profound reversal in our relationship to time and loss. At least since the rise of modern nation states in the sixteenth century, western culture has made a practice of commemorating communal disasters by inscribing them in stone. In this sense the Holocaust Memorials that after a generation of effort and consciousness-raising have been built in most of Europe’s capitals—and here we think immediately of Rachel Whiteread’s massive, tomb-like Nameless Library of inverted books that addresses the statue of Lessing across Vienna’s Judenplatz—continue a lineage born of the statues commemorating victims of the bubonic plague that rose like mushrooms across the ravaged face of Europe’s decimated cities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What plague statues, like Holocaust memorials, are meant to do is to eternalize in stone the memory of the departed, thereby attesting to a confidence that, while bodies and events pass, the spirit, essence, or truth of those who are gone remains. Stone becomes, then, the closest emblem of what permanence we can muster in a passing world. That stone would be used to represent both permanence and passing, the inanimate reminder of an animate being, found its ideal expression in the same period that saw an explosion of such public art, the period that produced the famously “tortured” style we know today as baroque. Indeed, it was this style in sculpture that inspired Lacan to say of its material, stone, “to the extend that we … erect it, and make of it something fixed, isn’t there in architecture itself a kind of actualization of pain?”

It is no coincidence that this style emerged during the first age of what we call inflationary media—when the scope of media’s representation of the world outgrows the confines of their culture’s prior notions of reality. This first age, spanning the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, saw the mass production of books, the proliferation of perspective in painting, and the emergence of an urban mass culture centered around public theater. The exponential increase in exposure to these media began to attune European publics to thinking of the copies they encountered in books, painted images, and on stages as referring to ghostly, unchanging things hovering behind those copies—Plato’s heaven of forms adapted to the modern media age.

Today, though, in the throes of a new, second age of inflationary media, this formula has been subjected to a curious reversal. Today our culture has lost faith in the eternal things that our copies were supposed to refer to, and instead we have begun to invest our desire for eternity in the copies themselves. This is the phenomenon Walter Benjamin referred to when he wrote, in his influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.”

In our current media age, what were once mere copies—books, performances, specific events in time—have been “reactivated,” turned into the originals underlying an infinite reproducibility and, as such, have become imbued with the authority and presence of original things. Consequently, our monuments, once tasked with memorializing something ephemeral by connecting a traumatic moment in time with the eternal soul of the departed—are now tasked with eternalizing the ephemeral itself.

Hence our struggle, a contradiction to be found in all modern memorials and museums dedicated to historical catastrophes, but one we feel is brilliantly attested to by the 9/11 Memorial Museum: while an eternal spirit is something we can represent, a disaster, a horror, a profound loss is not. It has been said of criticism that the only way to respond to a work of passion is through another work of passion. Perhaps the same must be said today of our attempts at public mourning: that the only way to memorialize great loss is with a work of loss.


-David Castillo and William Egginton

Comments are closed.