Thursday, May 14, 2009

Foreclosure on the Wall

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall confronts the media blitz that occurred in the days directly following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Characters routinely find themselves “in front of the TV. Watching the thing happen over and over.” The media is portrayed as ubiquitous, repetitive, and impossible to escape as the infotainment genre takes hold of its audience. Even “in a coffee shop on the boardwalk the TV was on, no escape even at the edge of the sea.” The seductive images become more and more real in their repetition and people confuse reality with the media representation. Renata, the novel’s protagonist, falls prey to the media “fantasies, she didn’t see [9/11] happen, although she’s seen it so many times since that it feels like she saw it.” The footage substitutes for her experience in that it shapes reality and ultimately becomes her perception of reality. She too is drawn in by the bright colors and music in which the news is packaged and by the horrific carnage of the footage. As a New Yorker, it is her environment that forms the backdrop for the media attention that effectively forecloses any and all reaction other than a return to the routine of everyday domestic life and blind acquiescence to authority. Schwartz focuses on the powers that define 9/11 by confronting the media aesthetic that confuses and distracts, allowing meaning to be foreclosed by a simplistic rhetoric of good and evil, vengeance and national pride. A linguistic dichotomy is formed between the simplistic explanations that basic terms offer and words that contain greater nuance and allow for a more meaningful engagement.

In The Writing on the Wall, Schwartz questions the media foreclosure and approaches the mediated trauma in a different way, by acknowledging how it takes away the voice of the victim. She allows meaning to come to the event through understanding over time instead of through a media spectacle that fills in the silence with endless voices, each a parody of the other. The ubiquitous media continues to flood the background throughout her novel to demonstrate how it shapes the American consciousness after 9/11 and influences all aspects of society. The media exists as a constant reminder of how literature needs to crack the all consuming nature of the spectacle and interrupt its influence in order to allow ethical response.

19 comments:

Jessica said...

Could this also be understood by taking a look at Renata's wall of lost children? Is she also in essence making the wall "... ubiquitous, repetitive, and impossible to escape". She places the wall next to her and constantly has to look at it, it reminds her of what has happened and she almost sees the stories take place even though she wasn't there because she reads them so often

MRF said...

The idea of literature cracking the "all consuming nature of the spectacle" can also be linked with language in general. In Renata's study of various languages--including, importantly, Arabic--she gains more than an understanding of language, but of the greater situation. Her ethical response to the event (and pretty much her life in genera) takes time, but it has provided a chance for perspective. Her study of Arabic helps her to study the media influence in Arab countries as well, so that she can understand that aspect of it, as well. While all the characters find solace in the news, it is evident that its all consuming nature forms the American conscious. As the central "victim" of the novel, Renata breaks free of the entrapment of her life, and in this way, Schwartz has given voice to the victim, through language and literature.

D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D said...

I think it also criticizes that response to 9/11, how people did just "return to the routine of everyday domestic life" and whatnot. It even seems ridiculous that people would simply go back to what they were doing before, that they would use something so tragic as 9/11 for small talk, like with Celeste Holloway: "So Celeste switches into another mode. The 'isn't it terrible what happened?' mode" (275).

Danielle Moyer said...

"Gianna" is a perfect example of the victim who loses their voice after the tragedy. Could Schwartz have been more obvious? If the constant references to watching television in a zombie-like state wasn't enough, Schwartz throws the reader a bone with Gianna! The repetition of the events that occurred in Renata's family life play a pivotal role in her acceptance of the cards she is dealt. Renata not only loses sight of reality surrounding the attacks but she creates an alternate reality for her personal life as well. She becomes an excellent storyteller once she meets Gianna and does not view her actions as irrational. She creates a false relaity and relies on that reality as truth. It is like telling a lie one too many times; after a while you forget the truth and start to believe the lie to be the truth. But I think Renata portrays a different type of character than those we have witnessed in the other novels. She is the first to ask questions and react naturally towards the words spoken by the president on television. Although she can speak many languages, it only takes one language to decipher fluff from fact. This novel moves beyond hinting to the reader to "ask questions", and provides a character that does exactly that for the reader. Although the media forces images to act as experience, there is still a need to process the information and wonder if what you are seeing, hearing, etc. is true.

Katherine said...

While I tend to agree that the media contributes to the foreclosure of discourse on 9/11, I find the constant criticism of the media unfair and dramatic. People are able to analyze and form opinions on their own despite what the media says and using the media as a scapegoat for our intitial reactions to 9/11 is easy to do in hindsight. However, had the media refused to air footage of the crash or only played it once or twice, people would be in an uproar and blame the government and cite censorship as the cause and go on rants about civil liberties and such. Thus, the media gives the public full access to the footage and the freedom to analyze and view it all they want and they get blamed for that as well. It is a no-win situation for them. I think the responsibility for and "blame" for reactions to 9/11 should be placed on the individual who did not take the time to educate themself on the events leading to 9/11 and the political, religious, and social factors involved. Blindly following authority and its ramifications are the responsibility of the individual- the media can be advocating for one particiular side all it once but that does not take away the ability for people to use their brains. My family, for instance, watched the news constantly after 9/11 yet not one time did they ever support the war overseas.

Katherine said...

oops i noticed some typos in my post

near the end: *all it wants

Jessica said...

I have a question about Writing on the wall? So in the novel Jack is repeatedly known for getting around the "Red Tape", but cant you also say the terrorist got around "Red Tape"? In essence didnt they get around America's "Red Tape"? What is the author saying about America and the fact that everyone, even its citizens are getting around it's boundaries and what is the author saying about Jack?

Katie said...

Schwartz's novel gives a great depiction of how the media was portrayed in the real life drama of 9/11. The event made our oridinary lives seem unordinary because it took us all, including Renata, out of our element. While Renata struggled with piecing together her disruptive past, the media only instigated her life. The media defined everyones self worth and perfected and performed its task to the T. They displayed images and video of the carnage at end keeping everyones focus on the tragedies. These images and theories would replay in everyones mind like a bad horror movie. I think that The Writing on the Wall in this book was truly the essence of Renata's journey toward finding herself and not seeing all the warnings, or writings, along the way.

Steph* said...

I agree with what Katherine is saying about the media giving the public what they want to see, so it's unfair to completely blame the media. I do feel that the media foreclosed the argument about the meaning of 9/11 by trying to answer all the questions right away, but they were also doing the research that the American public is too lazy or uneducated to do. That's why so many people felt the attacks were unprovoked, because they didn't know the history and context involved. I think the media initially did their job through their reporting of the event in progress, however, once their investigations started, I think too much of their coverage was based on hypotheticals and trying to find an answer, rather than simply reporting. The investigations were what most viewers (except if they had the original tape) saw after the event, and the repetition of it on the TV permeated into the cultural memory because the viewers turned to the media for answers, and the media gave them what they asked for, and in the process, foreclosed the debate. I agree that the debate shouldn't have been foreclosed like that, but the media isn't completely at fault for this. American dependency on the media, and laziness, also contributed to granting the media the authority to act in that way.

D said...

In response to Jessica's second post:

I don't think the terrorists only got past America's "Red Tape." They basically got around everything--our "national defense," our pride, our sense of security. Moreover, "Red Tape" refers more to the layers of governmental restrictions that governmental officials face--agencies like the FBI have chains of command and whatnot they have to follow. So I really think that the book is showing how 9/11 disrupted people's lives, how the combination of excessive media coverage, personal trauma, and general fear/hysteria affected people, forcing them to confront their own issues.

Additionally, the whole boundary thing seems like a reflection of the chaos following 9/11 - how Ground Zero was a frenzy of rescue workers and people looking for their loved ones.

Or, you could be completely right and the novel could be criticizing America's lack of organization following a disaster like that. If someone like Jack managed to get through the "boundaries" set up by the officials at the scene, then we were exposed. We were vulnerable. Hopefully we've changed, though...

Janika Mohan said...

Not to undermine the very existence of English 178 at UCLA but I think Mr. Thane Rosenbaum may take issue with what we do biweekly with thes texts in our class. Firstly, let me say I'm not advocating or agreeing with Mr. Rosenbaum at all...
Thane Rosenbaum's articles, reviews, and essays appear frequently in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post among other national publications ( thanks Wiki). He deals almost exclusively with issues related to the Holocaust, and postmemory. He did take the time to write " Art and Atrocity" on the subject of 9/11 and the art it inspired . The following interview shows Rosenbaum's stance on art after 9/11 ..if only he could see the "sickening" ekphrasis we may be engaging at this very moment! But, in all seriousness, are these questions we should be asking ? Do our novels, which are art after all, foreclose in some way just like..Fox news might ? If so, is this a positive kind of foreclosure? A necessary one? Does Mr. Rosenbaum have a point here? I don't know if anybody has read Jonathan Safran-Foer's book but I think Rosenbaum might be a little more accepting of it's childlike , " safe" probing ito the healing process, while wanting to punch Jess Walter's in the jaw ( kidding).Finally let's remember that artist Damien Hirst, the one who called 9/11 a "visually stunning" work of art then had to apologize.What do you guys think? I think that obviously killing is not art- but to close something down from art, to force art to stay at a safe distance is scary to me .I would like to ask Thane Rosenbaum if he does not see the value that will come from these novels as cultural relics, think what function they might be able to serve in 50 years. Art ,and fiction writing is inherently different from news media in that it deals with an alternative kind of interpretive permanence . Creative fiction and visual artistry are simply put- not "factual" in the same way the news reports are " factual". Anyway here is the interview for your consideration: ( oops had to put it in another following post because I'm getting a blog spot error message)

Janika Mohan said...

Q. In your 2004 essay "Art and Atrocity in a Post-9/11 World," you write about the problems inherent in traumatic representation. You're a novelist, a child of Holocaust survivors, and a New Yorker: given this curious subject position, what do you see as the writer's responsibility in narrating the events surrounding 9/11 and its aftermath?
A. I think it is simply way too soon for writers to imagine, conjure, or reinvent the events of 9/11—even its aftermath. I don't believe it can be processed properly, or fairly, and the impulse to want to, to my mind, is misguided. People really forget how many decades had to pass before the Holocaust was taken on as a subject for the artistic imagination. To the extent to which there is ever going to be a great 9/11 novel, we won't read it for many years to come. As Primo Levi wrote in an entirely different context—even though both Auschwitz and 9/11 fall into the category of atrocities, 9/11 is a considerably lesser one—"No words can be used to describe this offense: the demolition of a man." The point is, words will fail to transmit the horror and transport the reader to the scene of the crime, and therefore any attempt to do so will end up trivializing the representation, because the representation will not present the event fairly or accurately. No writer is up to the task.
Q. Then there's Oliver Stone, no stranger to controversial subject matter, and his film World Trade Center. What are your thoughts on that?
A. Again, if you want to distort and twist the Kennedy assassination, that's one thing. But once you start messing with the ghosts of 9/11, you're really trampling all over much more profound sensitivities.
Q. Do you think that mediums other than the novel might lend themselves more easily to representing 9/11? I'm thinking, for example, of Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" or Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers.
A. Hard to argue with the Boss; I'd rather take issue with Art. The song really is terrific, and perhaps a pop ballad offers possibilities—due to three minutes of intense creative compression (and the fact that it is not trying to do too much)—that a novel, or film, or illustrated book, simply cannot. I just don't understand why the impulse to wait holds so little value, and why modesty and humility in the face of unspeakable, unwritable tragedy carries even less currency in the modern world.

Janika Mohan said...

Q. What are your issues with Spiegelman and his representations of 9/11?
A. None, really. It would be the same point that I would make about Maus. Any attempts to depict life in the camps are trivializing, regardless of the aesthetic form. Any attempts to address the fall of the twin towers and the horrors within them would be equally desecrating. I don't know whether Art has done that in his latest book.
Q. One thing that you and Art Spiegelman have in common is being the children of Holocaust survivors. Even though you represent the Holocaust and its aftermath in vastly different ways, both of you are working from historical (and familial) fact. Are you annoyed when readers assume that what you are writing is more memoir than imagination?
A. I'm not sure people realize what they are reading when they pick up a novel. In light of the popularity of daytime confessional talk shows and the shrinking boundaries between public and private lives, most people believe they are entitled to know about someone's private life, or that people are open to revealing their private affairs, so that a novel is surely a memoir in disguise. This kind of thing never happened with Faulkner, I'm sure; people didn't raise their hands at readings and ask him whether his father ever burned a barn. The Holocaust makes this blurring between the imagination and reality even more pronounced, since it takes a certain moral authority to write about the Holocaust in any form, so that people readily assume that one must be writing from a literal truth rather than an emotional one. Once you tell someone that you are a child of Holocaust survivors, and your novel deals with the post-Holocaust universe, they can't seem to read it as if it isn't a voyeuristic experience. The problem is that these attitudes completely discount the imaginative realm, cheapen the value of a [End Page 24] novel, and ultimately distort truth, because people are reading novels believing that they are reading about history, which is not the novelist's burden.
Q. But don't you believe that novel-writing is a form of history or way of capturing historical truths—or inversely, that historical accounts have more in common with fiction than most people believe?
A. I think it is wrong if not dangerous to read fiction as if you are reading history. The only truth that exists in fiction, when it's good fiction, is emotional truth. Literal truth has nothing to do with fiction, and history is first and foremost an exercise in seeking out literal, factual truths. Let's not underestimate the value of emotional truth. We would all be better off if we could get introduced to emotional truth more often in our day. The world would be a much better place. And the novel is one of the best places to get your fix. The problem is, is anyone addicted anymore?

Janika Mohan said...

Q. What do you see as the responsibility of the novelist in relation to historical truth?
A. Make sure your readers are reminded that they are not reading history, that when the book jacket reads "novel," it means a work of fiction. The best way to avoid the confusion is to try not to retell an atrocity as if it is happening on the page. It's one thing to write about its aftermath—and those people living in the shadow of it—from a removed distance. But it's quite another to set it up as if the reader is entering the world of the atrocity itself, being falsely transported to the scene of the crime, as if there is a live feed or a simultaneous hookup. In an age of CNN and Survivor, people get confused and believe they are reading the equivalent of reality TV.
Q. How do you see the larger role of the novelist in contemporary American society and culture?
A. Unfortunately, America doesn't have such a role for the novelist (isn't even aware that the novelist can even play such a role), and that's one of the reasons why the novelist, and the novel of ideas, is [End Page 25] such an endangered species in this country. There was once a time when ideas mattered, and many ideas came from the minds and imaginations of novelists. In other countries, this is still true. In fact, many countries look to their novelists not just for art, but for art that illuminates and provides for a better comprehension of the world. Writers are often recruited as electoral candidates. Could you imagine that in this country? People around the world look to the novel, and the novelist, for a coherent moral philosophy. In America, most everyone is impressed only by money, and not ideas, which makes material wealth the only currency of value. And so captains of industry remain our role models even as they engage in unethical, fraudulent business practices. And everything seems to revolve around celebrity and entertainment. There is little room for or excitement about ideas.

DJ said...

I think that novelists have a place in our culture, but not necessarily novelists writing about 9/11. We have plenty of authors that become huge (think Dan Brown and JK Rowling) but I am not sure if 9/11 novelists can reach that kind of popularity in America. Of course, you could argue that the big-name novelists are simply providing America with fleeting entertainment without much substance, but the point that fiction novels (if Harry Potter could be considered a novel) have not faded away still stands. Either way, I feel like the trauma event itself is still either too raw, or simply too recent for the American audience to really embrace. The topic that the novelists are writing about is simply too REAL. Although the novels we have been reading in class have helped us reopen the topic and approach it in new ways, the majority of America is content with the foreclosure of the 9/11 attacks, and I am not really sure if there is any way for the mass public to rethink the event, be it novel or not. I am not really sure if the public even wants to go back and review the past. Because of the direct impact of this event upon our lives, I feel that it will not be our generation, but the generation following us who will begin reading 9/11 literature and rethinking the event. There is plenty of World War 2 literature and Holocaust literature that is studied in school, but these are not events of our generation. Likewise, I think a generational gap is required before America is able to go back and reevaluate the events of 9/11.

Janika Mohan said...

DJ, I agree about your comment that in a few generations these novels will be more valuable to those trying to understand the event. The safety provided by the distance of a generation will
allow more debates to be opened, and these works may be invaluable to ethnographers and English majors trying to recreate what the "9/11 experience" was like. Yet when I read Rosenbaum's view it seems like he is saying novelists are doing futile and meaningless work when they write about the atrocities of 9/11 or create art about something so CLOSE and so REAL. Conversely I think that if novelists of the 9/11 generation decided not to approach art and fiction people would be sadly misguided in a couple hundred years. Yes, these novels may be the first baby steps toward future comprehension, acceptance , healing but I think they are the initial steps that should be applauded.It boils down to the fact that yes we are taking this class to open debate, to re-examine the debate and a decade has not even passed yet, obviously it is still fresh, but with risk of sounding callous, if novelists don't start poking the issue now the scab may dry too hard and scarred for the next generation to re-open , the bone could set wrong? I'm sort of ranting, i apologize. I just think it's interesting that Kalfus and Walter in particular treat the event with a kind of rough around the edges dark humor making it seem " less untouchable" than the Holocaust at times...( using divorce, sex as juxtaposing mirroring devices) and throwing around governmental ineptitude freely..I wonder how this will be viewed in 100 years..

ashley said...
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ashley said...

I agree with Janika in response to DJ, and have this to add: While the events are still fresh and real to us regarding 9/11, it is important to record our experiences. Yes, historical literature from the past is popular today (as you pointed out, Holocaust literature especially). Holocaust literature is greatly composed of personal experiences and much of it comes in the form of memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies done through interviews. What is important to observe about that is who wrote that literature and when - Elie Wiesel, who is a very popular Holocaust writer - wrote three books: Night, Dawn, and Day which were published in 1958, 1961, and 1962. World War II ended in 1945, and his memoirs were widely read and published just 13 years later. Another work of literature from the Holocaust period that is HUGELY read is Anne Frank's diary, which she wrote during the Holocaust period and which was published in 1950 - a personal record of the event just 5 years afterwards. It was very popular and helped many people understand the personal experience of being a Jew in the Nazi occupation. Yes, we read these things today, but they were widely read right after the event and provided a fuller understanding to the public of what occurred and still inform us today.

We need to be recording our personal experiences for the future, even if they are in the form of novels, because the experience of the author regarding the event is still written into them. Observations about the media's effect on our views and it's portrayal of 9/11 are written into these works, as well feelings and perceived feelings of America. Literature is one medium of observing and storing history - the media itself is another. Do we want 9/11 remembered solely through the media for future generations? How will they compose literature of grasp a firsthand understanding of the event and its effect on our country if they were not here or old enough to experience it? It would be secondhand and based on research, interviews, and guessing - it is SO important for us to not let these issues lay to rest because they are too "real" or "too soon" - we need to challenge our minds and the portrayal of the events by the media to gain a better understanding of things. As this class has shown, through thinking about this stuff and through reading it we can get an idea of the big picture, which can even inform or alter your political ideas and views and how you act in the world towards other cultures.