[An earlier version of this article was originally published on Morphizm, and syndicated on HuffPo, on September 11, 2006. Nothing much has changed.]
"What is real?" Morpheus asked Neo in the epochal tech-noir The Matrix, to the laughter of cynics and critics everywhere. Not that they didn't respect the film's intelligent if extrastylized velocity, which riveted pop culture and killed at the box office. It was the seeming anachronism of Morpheus' metaphysical question, one a jaded American '90s, well past its more earnest philosophical hunger of the '60s, felt it had answered several times over.
And not that the film's bullet-time exploration of our unfolding new millennium didn't explode: It did, and everywhere. Its convincing tentacles crept into every commercial and artistic enterprise looking to make a buck on a world quickly coming apart at the seams, where films with loaded titles like Armageddon aroused mallrats rather than scaring the hell out of them.
Which seams were splitting? Which else: Those separating reality and hyperreality.
Some would argue the seams split much earlier, perhaps after the popularization of Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation or Frederic Jameson's tome Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. What else was Jameson's late capitalism but our disaster capitalism, one that has since emerged victorious during the Bush administration's 21st century wars of destruction and reconstruction?
Its knotted symbiosis finds kinship in the tension and erasure of the line between reality and hyperreality, and why not? Both have raised the stakes on the human thirst for what Donna Haraway explained in her influential "The Cyborg Manifesto" as the U.S. military's C3I: command, control, communication and intelligence. That primal drive reaches back farther than dominant theologies of any religion, whether it belongs to Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson. But that is for another column.
This column is concerned, like The Matrix and William Gibson's Neuromancer, which gave The Wachowkis dystopian remix its space and name, with perception and reality.
Because that is what today is about, as it was after 9/11, five years ago, where I struggled to make sense of the violent madness in a rant called "Morphizm, which I launched on Independence Day (2001, where our postmodern Odyssey begins) to critique our unraveling political and cultural landscape. Five years ago, I surveyed not the real ruins of the World Trade Center but, like the majority of the world, its mediated simulations on television and the internet, surmising that "the longer the anti-terrorist campaign wears on, the more it resembles a cultural and religious obsession, especially within the terms that the offending parties will comprehend, a Manifest Destiny for the new millennium."
And nothing since Osama bin Laden's fundamentalist line drawn in the sands of the Saudi Arabia, via the Manhattan skyline, has altered my perception of the situation -- or its reality. Bin Laden and fundamentalist Islam's professed holy rage at the advance of what they perceive as an unholy Western culture -- also, its very real military bases -- unleashed the most unholy of assaults. One that has radically changed the geopolitical landscape, and our conception of reality itself.
Those who have made it this far into the column by now have sifted through its infrastructure enough to know that they cannot roll their eyes at that last sentence. Just as those who rolled their eyes at Morpheus' inquiry misread the demise of its answer many times over, mostly by underestimating -- or "misunderestimating," as President Bush is wont to say -- not only the exponential advance of technology but also its light-speed democratization. Like the agents of The Matrix who would be killed only to regenerate or replicate, capitalization on rampant technological innovation by not only its producers but its consumers relentlessly complicated attempts to suppress or schematize it.
The blog you are reading now is an example of the process at work, a personal revolution built from the code up, one that has forever changed the definition of once-fortified concepts like "journalism," "journalist," "news," "propaganda" and forever onward. With the reign of material media (magazines, CDs, DVDs, and the like) stubbornly fighting off extinction, more consumers than ever are turning to the Internet to give themselves .... well, everything. They no longer need to sit at the altar of truths handed down from dominant culture. Instead, they can manufacture, promote and capitalize upon their own truths.
One needs look no further than the fifth anniversary of 9/11 to see this process laid bare. And there is no finer example than the current controversy over a fictional narrative masquerading as an accepted truth since skewed strange in the age of networked personal communication.
The culprit? The Path to 9/11, a purported origin story of Osama bin Laden's animus towards America -- as well as a made-for-television docudrama (a self-canceling term if there ever was one) by an avowed evangelical Christian called David Loren Cunningham. He is named for his father, Loren Cunningham, who founded the conservative evangelical missionary organizations Youth With A Mission and University of the Nations. That University of the Nations' most famous graduate is controversial creationist Forrest Mims is one of a multitude of layers surrounding The Path to 9/11's probe of the 9/11's tender core. More important is the intense wrangling over the film's narrative strands, as represented by the clamor for veracity from Clinton politicos like Sandy Berger as well officials from the 9/11 commission that investigated bin Laden's brutal attacks on
America's psychology and economy.
The tension at the center of The Path to 9/11's hypernarrative, born equally of reality and hyperreality, finds its apotheosis in the words of cultural studies heavyweight Leo Braudy. When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times about the controversy two days before 9/11's anniversary, Braudy identified the problem as not one of competing ideologies but fictions, born not from polarizing differences between Republicans and Democrats, or hawks and doves, but instead the real 9/11 and its ceaselessly looping simulations, represented by network and cable television news and talk programming, amateur video (so far the most valuable byproduct of the democratization of internet tech) or market-conscious film productions capitalizing on the 9/11 anniversary's Oscar season like United 93, World Trade Center and more.
"The 9/11 commission comes out with one narrative, which no one reads. Then movies take a piece of it -- there's United 93 and World Trade Center. The Bush administration is pushing its own narrative of the meaning of 9/11 as justification for its policies. And now a miniseries comes into being that creates a narrative in a semi-documentary, fictionalized manner, which is very persuasive. Suddenly people who felt they know what really happened are being preempted by this fiction. Naturally they are going to be upset about it. Narrative creates closure."
Sometimes it does. But sometimes narrative, especially one as contentious and explosive as 9//11, only creates more narrative, as its initial reality (the event itself) gives way to time and the infinite reproductions of media.
And so here we are, five years later, wondering how to situate, contextualize, memorialize and, most importantly, capitalize on 9/11. That search speaks of anything but closure, and indeed that is all it is met with. Every year, we decide in September to remember, but remember what? That, as always, depends on whose narrative you decide to invest in. And even when it comes to Ground Zero, the American people have not found common ground. They have become more polarized than ever, and not just because the "real" source of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, has been effaced and replaced with minor geopolitical actors like Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Fidel Castro and, to a certain extent, Hugo Chavez. (He's a player in his own right, but the game just hasn't caught up to him yet).
No, there is no closure when it comes to 9/11 and narrative, just as there was no closure on the Gordian knot of JFK's assassination. That the same director -- the cerebral, political Oliver Stone -- tackled both narratives in film is not instructive. That that his '90s film JFK spiraled outward into fractal narrative, while his 9/11 film World Trade Center eschewed geopolitics altogether, is. As the comedian David Cross funnily explained in his live album It's Not Funny:
"I don't think Osama bin Laden sent those planes to attack us because he hated our freedom. I think he did it because of our support for Israel, our ties with the Saudi family and our military bases in Saudi Arabia. You know why I think that? Because that's what he fucking said!"
All of which is a particularly (un)funny way of looking back at the calamity that created our War on Terror, not as a narrative steeped in heroism and binarism, but as one full of mundane realities that play better as polished hyperrealities. How else would a blanket but charged generalization like "The terrorists hate our freedom" turn into a very real policy designed to destroy with extreme prejudice everything resembling a terrorist -- a loaded term that still lacks an accepted definition -- and not by accident, I might add -- until there are no bodies or funds left. Our reliance upon these fictions of patriotism, terrorism and freedom only empower their opposites, the real bullets, bombs and other technologies of destruction and reconstruction that exact bracing punishments on those we can never see or feel.
Instead, we feed on their simulations, satisfied that we know the entire story. But that story is fragmenting and recombining as we sleep, just like the menace within and without our increasingly polarized, fragile society. Whether we wake up from our consensual sociopolitical hallucination, to mangle Gibson's Neuromancer, in time to awake to the material evidence of a collapsing fantasy of environmental stability is another Gordian knot needing attention.
For now, we must settle with a constant deferral of the closure we seek, as we make our way through the hall of mirrors, wondering which hosts the reality we are pursuing, and which host nothing but phantoms. How will we feel when we find, soaked in our technocultural cocoons of imagined wholeness, that they were never separate at all? That they were all inextricable strands of our so-called truths, formed into being by our optimistic but misplaced reliance upon master narratives like good, evil, God, justice, the American way?
How will we feel if we find that we cannot unplug from the matrix, that the visceral impact of 9/11 -- and what it has been used to enact -- caused us to move only further inward, to build walls around our borders, hide from the Other in a fit of paranoia? Will we will find that it is too late to change, and therefore survive this newly born millennium?
Only the narratives we leave behind will tell our conflicted, complicated story. And they themselves will birth competing fictions that upend the meanings of their predecessors, and the machine will hum on. For that is what 9/11, years later, has become: a machine for meaning. Limitless, polarizing, and exponentially propagating.