The WTC Memorial Debate and the End of the Age of the Big Target

(Warning: Reality is never as neat and clean as theory, I’m afraid, but humans are inherently theoretical animals. So bear with me. The following may be a tad obscure in places, but it’s going somewhere worthwhile.)

University of Texas-Dallas Professor Frederick Turner has penned an interesting take on the current WTC memorial debate, and makes some very well-considered arguments about how the whole process is off the mark. In short, he believes the current proposals “express, as clearly as if it had been written all over them, that America was defeated by the terrorists,” and asserts that we should take this opportunity to erect something “more splendid, more beautiful and more truly symbolic of New York and of America than its predecessor.”

To his credit, he offers his own proposal for the memorial, complete with a nice set of sketches illustrating how it would look from various vantage points around the city. I have to say I’m impressed with the power of his vision, especially as it addresses the basic tenets of his larger argument.

However, I also believe his core assumptions reflect a neo-Modernist mindset that exalts the dead past over the living future in potentially self-defeating ways. I’m sympathetic to the motivations driving his proposal, but we need to take this opportunity to face the coming century, not the last one.

Part of what made the WTC such a ripe target was its size. And not just its physical size (although when you’re looking for sitting ducks, bigger is clearly better), but its psychic size. The terrorists were dead-on in understanding the symbolic magnitude of the WTC – it stood as a massive monument to capitalism, American style, and as organizing ideological principles go, that’s as big as it gets in contemporary global society.

Postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard (and pay attention here, because you don’t catch me quoting French intellectuals very often) talked about the importance of “metanarratives” in shaping cultures, and defined metanarratives as the “big beliefs” that give meaning to our lives (and I’m paraphrasing here, because you don’t want to read all this in his words, I promise you). Things like Christianity, democracy, freedom, capitalism – these are the powerful ideological belief systems that have shaped the course of collective and individual life over the last several decades. And more often than not, metanarratives are closely aligned with large social institutions – Christianity with the Church, democracy with the Government and the Educational System, and so on. When it comes to wreaking both physical and psychological mayhem, then, the World Trade Center was about as undiluted an opportunity as a terrorist could hope for.

The Modern Age – from roughly the end of World War I to the ‘60s, although we could be here all night arguing the point – was all about large institutions, the rise of new empires (superpowers) and the dominance of the conventional principles underpinning these institutions. It was an age of the monolithic.

Postmodernism witnessed the steady erosion of these institutions and their authority to dictate truth and meaning (and all you have to do to understand the basics of this dynamic is to consider what has happened to organized religion in the last 40 years). Of course, Modernism did not go gentle into that good Postmodern night, did it? The “big” impulse is still with us and always will be, and the WTC itself was constructed during the height of the Postmodern. Anyway…

As I sat and watched the horror of 9.11, I realized that Postmodernism had ended. One of the biggest things going, this twin-towered Babel clawing at the belly of Heaven in a spectacular prayer to commerce, had just been ripped from our collective assumption of normalcy. The monoliths are no longer safe – none of them (they hit the freakin’ Pentagon, too, and but for a handful of very brave folks on Flight 93 Mr. and Mrs. Dubya would currently be living out of suitcases at the Holiday Inn while their new house was being built). The Age of the Big Target just ceased to make any sense at all.

Enter Professor Turner’s proposed memorial, which would be every bit as awesome as the fallen towers it remembers (and would certainly stand as a worthy tribute to the legions of heroes who gave their lives that day). As beautiful and estimable as his monument would be, however, it would also be a reactionary and stubborn restatement of the era of the big institution, an age that we have collectively examined and spent the past several decades slowly dismantling in favor of smaller, more localized assertions of meaning.

The organizing principle of Modernism was the monolith. The response of the Postmodern was deconstruction, an active disorganization of the now-untenable and dysfunctional dogmas that ushered us into global war, then into decades of pig-headed brinksmanship that nearly led, on a couple occasions, into self-annihilation.

I expect the organizing principle of the coming age – the era that began on September 12 (and I’ll let you know if I come up with a suitable name for the reconstructivist period we’re entering) – will be the distributed network, and we already have some early indications of what this period might look like. The decentralized potency of the Internet is a perfect metaphor in so many ways, and al Qaeda itself provides an apt demonstration of the character and power of the distributed network. First it was able to organize in semi-autonomous cells, where we believe few of the key players (and probably none of the “soldiers”) even knew people in other cells (imagine an army where the soldiers don’t even recognize each other as soldiers when they’re standing in line for a hot dog). Then, the damage done, they retreated into the woodwork, leaving their victims looking desperately for something to attack. As our ill-prepared military has discovered, it’s hard to kill something you can’t find. Thank goodness for the Taliban, eh?

Stay tuned, because I’ll have more on this subject in the coming weeks. For now, though, I’d simply like to suggest to Frederick Turner that we consider framing the WTC memorial in terms of the next world, not the last one. This is an odd thought, since on the face of things we tend to imagine memorials as backward-looking. But in fact, even our tributes to long-dead heroes reflect not the values and motifs of history, but our hopes for the present day and dreams for tomorrow.

Instead of pumping massive resources into a prodigious homage to The Big Target that is itself a big target, why not memorialize the victims of September 11 in terms that demonstrate to those who’d like to destroy us that we get it, that their one free shot not only failed to take us down but it made us smarter, and that we will no longer exalt the very kind of symbolism that made the WTC such an easy target in the first place?

In other words, let’s make sure our first major architectural statement of the 21st Century says something about our next victory, not our most recent defeat.

Linear vs. Tragicomic: Turner Responds

Professor Frederick Turner offers a response to my comments on his WTC memorial concept.

Many thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent response.

I am sympathetic to many of your points, and indeed have criticized both modernism and postmodernism in similar terms. For example, these remarks from a piece I did on environmental restoration:

:a major transition in our basic cultural model of the human relationship with the rest of nature. To try to sum it up in a clumsy sentence, it is a transition from a heroic, linear, industrial, power-based, entropic-thermodynamic, goal-oriented model, to a tragicomic, nonlinear, horticultural, influence-based, synergetic, evolutionary-emergentist, process-oriented model. The heroic model postulates a human struggle with nature culminating in human victory, while the tragicomic model postulates an ongoing engagement within nature, between the relatively swift and self-reflective part of nature that is human, and the rest. The linear model imagines one-way causes and effects; the nonlinear model imagines turbulent interactions in which the initiating event has been lost or is at least irrelevant. The industrial model requires a burning; the horticultural model requires a growing. The power-based model’s bottom line is coercion; the influence-based model’s is persuasion and mutual interest. The entropic-thermodynamic model involves an inevitable and irretrievable expense of free energy in the universe and an increase of disorder when any work is performed; the synergetic-evolutionary model seeks economies whereby every stakeholder gains and new forms of order can emerge out of far-from-equilibrium regimes. The goal-oriented model imagines a perfect fixed or harmonious state as its end product, and tends paradoxically to like immortal open-ended narratives; the process-oriented model knows that nothing in this universe is ever perfect and immortal, that death comes to everything, that the function of an ending is to open up new possibilities, and it prefers beginning-middle-end narrative structures.:

:Another way of describing the transition is in terms of the crucial distinctions each paradigm tends to make. For the old industrial regime – which includes its dialectical antithesis, puritan environmentalism – the essential distinction was dualistic, between the natural and the human, the genuine and the artificial, the organic and the technological. For the new paradigm, the distinctions are no longer absolute ones of kind, but relative ones of degree, within scales running from linear to nonlinear, power to beauty, simplicity to complexity, statistical to unique, isolation to feedback, nature as thermodynamic decay to nature as evolutionary emergence.:

:The transition itself had three historical phases as regards its attitude toward progress: the modernist, the postmodernist, and what I would call the natural classicist. In the modernist phase, progress was linear advance toward a goal. Politically it tended to be state-driven. In the postmodernist phase, progress was denied or opposed as an evil or an illusion. Politically the state came to be used as a defense against progress, and what drove events were ideological communities united around such things as gender or race. In the natural classicist phase, progress was reconceived and redefined on the model of the market – bottom-up, nonlinear, based on human classical tastes, using a sophisticated tweaking of existing natural processes to achieve its intentions, and submitting itself cheerfully to the consequences as part of the ride.:

Your critique applies well to the old WTC, but ignores the two most important features of the proposed replacement: the arch form, and the memorial garden. Arches have always symbolized interdependence and synergy as opposed to freestanding self-assertion. And the garden is surely the core symbol of the values you rightly praise: the reconstructivist distributed network, etc.

The term “reconstructive postmodernism,” by the way, was a coinage by me and David Griffin some years ago. In my books The Culture of Hope and Rebirth of Value I refuted the basic ideas of poststructuralism and deconstructive postmodernism, demonstrating them to be attenuated versions of early modernist ideas. I believe we are in a new era, whose ideas I have called “natural classicism.” The memorial design I put forward is in a sense a graphic diagram of how technological modernism (which is going to be providing the infrastructure of our civilization for a long time to come – at least until advanced biotech and nanotech) will evolve and grow and flower into a different world vision. I believe we share that vision.

If you would like to air this reply, you are very welcome.

Thank you for the opportunity for an interesting discussion.

Reply to Turner: 99% Agreement

Let me first say that Professor Turner has thought long and hard on these subjects and says more in his brief response than some people I read in my doctoral program said in their entire lives (not that this is necessarily a huge compliment, I realize). When I can find a little time to read – something that’s in desperately short supply these days – I plan on having a look at the two books he mentions.

I do have a few specific comments in response.

1: I tend to see Turner’s “linear” vs. “tragicomic” models more in terms of the Judeo/Christian ethic, which places humanity outside and above the natural order, depicting nature as a resource to be exploited, vs. a pre/non-Judeo/Christian model which sees humanity as an organic part of nature and which depicts spiritual actualization as attaining harmony within that order. In a sense, the Judeo/Christian dogma, which we see first articulated in Genesis 1: 27-29 (with the repeated assertion of man’s dominion over nature), is the primary driver of modernity and our Western ideologies of Progress. (I can go on about this ad nauseum, and actually did just that in my dissertation, which the really bored amongst you can download here.)

At any rate, while we use different languages to describe this opposition, (I would even go so far as to associate his non-linear model with a neo-pagan or Gaian mindset), I believe we are wholly in agreement about its structure and dynamics.

2: The term “natural classicist” seems to inherently conjure a sense of antiquity (as a result of “classicist”) when in fact what Turner is describing is the future, not the past. However, I think he’s dead-on in envisioning a next phase that’s so thoroughly organic (when he talks about it being “bottom-up,” and “nonlinear” I can’t help thinking about Complexity theory’s descriptions of emergent processes, as well as Gaia theory, memetics and my recent discovery of Howard Bloom’s Global Brain). I have suggested in the past that once postmodernism has stripped high institutional modernism of its dysfunctional biases, we might do well to begin rebuilding around a more enlightened pursuit of classical values. In the modernist/fundamentalist dialectic I describe in the aforementioned dissertation Turner’s natural classicism would be the next iteration of the Romanticist impulse in the cycle.

3: The term “reconstructive postmodernism,” though, does no service at all to the argument Turner makes, because its very wording inevitably bogs it down in the postmodern. And what he’s talking about is decidedly beyond pomo.

In essence, though, I agree with Professor Turner almost completely in my conception of the social dynamics of the past and coming eras.

4: However, back to my original argument, which was that his WTC memorial design is an artifact of Modernism’s grand building impulse, and is more reflective of the Age of the Big Target than it is of one governed by principles of the distributed network.

At the end of the day, the symbolic character of the arch and memorial gardens in his WTC memorial design fails to address what I see as a basic reality: intended symbolism notwithstanding, a massively large duolith that explicitly recalls the WTC is physically very like what it replaced. When I suggest that the structure is symbolically x, I’m not saying that it was conceived with symbolic elements historically associated with x, but rather that it embodies symbolism in ways that transcend the fine touches envisioned by the architect.

Put another way, the WTC was a big target. Professor Turner’s proposed memorial would likewise be a big target, regardless of its intended symbolic elements. I hate to get all reductionist when he has done such a beautiful job crafting a thoughtful design, but at some level we have to see it through the eyes of the “sub-theoretical masses” (and the gods have mercy on my simple country populist soul for even uttering those words).

All this being said, I’m impressed enough with the scope of Turner’s conceptualization that I’d like to see his idea get a hearing with the folks making the decision on the WTC memorial.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s