The day following the astonishing and tragic devastations in NYC, Washington and those countless scattered geographical outposts that received tremors through TV screeens and radio broadcasts, I went to work at the community college where I teach to continue in the helpless—and eerily perverse—task of teaching composition skills to 26 North Vancouver students. We engaged in the unavoidable and necessary discussion about the previous days events, seeking some sense of an agreed-upon version of the reality and the current state of the narrative as it had been given to us by journalists and eyewitness accounts. The room was clearly loaded with a grim confusion, a complex angst fueled by a combination of participation in the story despite our geographical remove from the events. One student remarked how she felt as if she lived in NYC all day, watching the recurring collapse of the WTC, but didn’t have any immediate reality beyond the TV confirming her participation in the tragedy. Another commented how he felt he ought to “run or something” but, instead, we are in school learning about thesis statements, the only perceivable repercussions so far being a paralyzed airport and some initial hints at a “harmonized” immigration policy between the US and Canada. We didn’t run, we pressed on and considered the day’s readings about disability and language. Pertinent, but not planned. Their confusion and concern continues.
In my office, after class, I received, along with my other colleagues, a rather unsurprising voice-mail: “All faculty are to be aware that should students need assistance in dealing with the trauma of yesterday’s events, grief counselors are available in the counseling services department.” Something to that effect. Fair and reasonable enough, I think, but I have some concerns for my students not registered in this plan.
What interests me about this voice-mail is how it reproduces or imitates the pathology of rhetoric in the day-after journalism. I woke up the following day to questions about how eyewitnesses “felt” about what they witnessed, what was going through the minds of survivors as they pressed to exit the WTC stairwell while firefighters and emergency response teams pressed to climb the same clogged and unimaginably panicked stairwell. I heard testimonials about the horror and unreality people in places like Langley and Surrey, BC, felt as they continued to watch CBC in hopes the fact of the event would sink in. There is no question these testimonials are important and revealing and undeniably painful. The question I have when, say, Sheilagh Rogers asks a CBC correspondent what the feeling around the Washington crash site is, or how students at a local Canadian high school felt when they first heard the news, the question I have is where this story is being moved, where it is being asked to play itself out.
Within a day, it appears, NYC was arrested as a complex material event, attached to and participant in a history of global economics, nationalisms and particular world events. The rhetoric of journalism—for the most part, at least a disconcerting degree—was not pushing its nose into that complex set of complicit forces but, rather, moving NYC into the individual psyche, circumscribing its reality with the rhetoric of individual “trauma”. There’s no dismissing that trauma, and it would be insulting to do so. But it seems equally insulting not to give the full reality of this disaster its place and reach beyond a psychologized response.
Trauma, of course, is etymologically related to “dream”. There my students were, traumatized, in a state of surreal confusion and shock, surrealism (another popular media description) being the jarring and unnatural presentation of natural phenomena. A clock by a ship in a desert of sand. A plane in the side of a building. Part—not entirely—of emerging from trauma is to compose a narrative which resolves the unnatural presentation—to make sense of the dream-like organization of fragments and juxtapositions. Grieving is essential, sure, but not entirely the instrument by which that narrative begins to emerge. NYC needs, for my students and myself, to move back into the world and reveal its complex reality, its influences and history, its causes and vocabulary. That’s where it belongs, and that’s another strategy through which journalism could begin to build the connections felt between, say, NYC, North Vancouver and places/organizations/events beyond. Without those connections we remain in English 100 quoting Kurtz’s paralyzed horror.
posted September 14, 2001, 743 words