Cultural response to 9/11 reveals deeper meaning

Benjamin Smith

It was the 2009 National Book Award winner “Let the Great World Spin” by Irish author Colum McCann that served as the impetus for UT lecturer David Junker’s neoteric pursuit.

As head of the College of Communication’s Senior Fellows Honors Program, he’s developed a course for this semester that attempts to examine September 11th through the “backdoor” of popular culture.

“In a way, it [“Let the Great World Spin”] sort of helped me reconceptualize the Twin Towers,” Junker said. “To sort of come back at what that event meant, September 11th, that act of terror — what that sort of meant in a longer kind of cultural trajectory.”

“Let the Great World Spin” tells a story about the lives of 11 different New Yorkers on a single day in August of 1974.

The single unifying image of that novel is “funambulist” Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Petit’s daring stunt was also the focus of the 2008 Academy Award-winning documentary, “Man on Wire.”

Neither the book nor the documentary make any mention of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, instead they focus on the beauty and ingenuity of human creativity that was exhibited by Philippe Petit for 45 minutes on a brisk Autumn morning in 1974. They exist as counterpoints to the death and destruction of the events that occurred on that same site 27 years later, fitting into a larger cultural scheme that Junker says attempts to help us process 9/11.

“The present, you know, allows us that chance to step back,” he said. “Part of that act of reconstruction requires a lot of imagination and so these different responses through film, novels, etc. give us a chance to examine those things and compare them with our own.”

His hope is that by looking at the event and understanding how different communications media interact interdependently within the cultural discourse that has formed in the wake of the attacks, he might be able to bring a moral and intellectual clarity to 9/11.

He admits that this is difficult to do, mainly because of the simplistic view of 9/11 often reinforced in news media. It’s a dialogue he describes as destructive rather than didactic.

“Sept. 11 so neatly maps onto really simplistic binary views of the world as being divided into good and evil,” Junker said. “These are really kind of archetypal narrative forms and so it’s really easy to look at this and filter it through a really kind of narrow and simplistic view of the world.”

Though the attacks on September 11, 2001 are purported to be the most extensively photographed and documented events in human history, because of the role the media has come to play in shaping the reality of those events by breaking them down into a repetitious stream of constantly narrowing complexity, there exists an informational vacuum that Junker believes can only be filled by careful analysis of the cultural response.

“There’s all kinds of these stories that we’ll never know right — about the people who died in that event — and so these sloganistic tributes to me are in a way inevitable,” Junker said. He described the current commemoration of the event in the media, such as Life magazine’s anniversary photo book that features an overtly sentimentalized picture of a fireman clutching an American flag, as well-intentioned but largely misguided. As a faculty member of the advertising and public relations departments, Junker said he understands the need to market, promote and eulogize sometimes.

“But if that’s all we get, we are really impoverished as a culture, as a nation and as a people.”