How to handle 9/11 is, from a writerly perspective at least, a tricky business. It’s too big to shove into an “oh yes, this happened too” paragraph in another story. We’re not doing City of the Dead, the book that came out in September of 2001, and even if we were, it would derail that entire entry. And yet it’s too hard to get one’s thought around it to give it its own post as such. We’ve finally hit the point where the events we’re trying to cover are too recent. There isn’t enough distance to historicize. There are still too many different 9/11s to talk about its impact.
There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that this means that 9/11 hasn’t been wrapped up in the comforting bunting of fiction yet. We can still remember the actual event. I was still in undergrad at the time. It was two days after my birthday. I remember calling airlines for a friend who was scared that her uncle was on one of the flights. I remember taking the substantial leftovers from my big birthday dinner two nights earlier and heating them up for the people gathered around the television in the basement. I remember my roommate calling me to wake me up with the news, and clambering out of bed to put on the news and start sifting through the Internet. I remember mentally collating data from a dozen websites, trying to find out what was going on. The visceral feeling of the information starting to flow. The separate track of news as it emerged from my parents in Connecticut: how were they telling students at my sister’s school? The texture of 9/11 as a lived event, outside the master narratives.
But to say that it’s not historicized yet isn’t quite true. It’s been historicized. It’s just that its master narrative is still too hotly contested. 9/11 is still the justification underpinning a host of arguments, both from the right and from the neoliberal consensus. We’re still reeling in the affect of it. Still, let’s sketch out the basic Guardian-reader perspective, if you will. The basic illusion that the world is a stable, safe place was eviscerated. The idea that the systems that hold up the world are a secure foundation on which to build one’s life crumpled. Which, admittedly, they do on a regular basis for large portions of the world, but this was America. New York. The New York City skyline felt like one of the most immutable and permanent images in existence. And yet a couple bastards with box cutters turned out to be able to level it.
This, of course, led to horrifying overcorrection. It does that. Reveal to people that the structures that keep their world running are fragile and easily severed and they begin to create a bunch more to make themselves feel safe. London did it in 1992 in the wake of years of IRA disruption, whacking up a bunch of CCTV cameras that do little to actually secure the city and lots to make it a paranoid police state. The US, of course, is compelled by its nature to do everything bigger. And so instead of working up a nice domestic surveillance system we decided on a permanent state of war against a hazily defined enemy that justified extraordinary domestic law enforcement measures essentially in perpetuity because we were in an eternal state of emergency and crisis.
Which is exactly what you’d expect the cowboy aristocracy of George W. Bush to give us. It was the larger fear about the idea of a Bush Presidency come up against what was, in essence, the worst possible situation for him to be in. Every one of the plethora of worst instincts and worst tendencies of his particular notion of power and duty was exacerbated by the need to respond to 9/11. The result was, in fact, disastrous on a global scale.
The relationship between 9/11 and the eschatological obsession of the 1990s is difficult to evade. If nothing else, there’s the fact that it coincides so well with the millennium. Everyone expected the world to end for the millennium, and they were only twenty-one months off. For the grumpy folks who wanted to insist that the millennium was 2001, it was even closer. It is in a strange sense the payoff to a decade of fruitlessly searching for an end of the world: a searing, defining historical moment in which the shape of the world comes crashing down forever. One of those events where the world divides cleanly into a before and after. But we still don’t have the shape of after. We’re still reeling around in the affect of the tragedy, even as we’ve allowed the details to blur into a master narrative. The jury is still out.
So let’s return to first principles. One of the major threads of this blog has been the history of utopianism since 1963. And 9/11 marks a major shift in that. In one sense, obviously, its effects were to further batter utopianism. It was the pretext for an aggressive ramping up of paranoia and suspicion. A sense of perpetual disquiet settled over large swaths of the world. And it’s yet to go away. Every time you drives across a major bridge in America you see signs exhorting you, “if you see something, say something.” We are all informants now, all with a duty to raise a flag if anyone or anything suspicious happens. The reaction now to any tragedy is “more security.” There are those who were surprised by the right’s response to the Sandy Hook shootings, namely calling for armed guards in schools. But really, it’s the exact response you’d expect after 9/11. It is, after all, the way we responded to every single tragedy or threat. Or, for a UK example, consider the missile batteries on tower blocks for the Olympics. What, exactly, these missiles were intended to accomplish was never clear. Nor were how snipers were going to aim properly from helicopters. It didn’t matter. The Olympics were coming to town, and that was unthinkable without a militaristic presence. The paranoia implicit in that formulation dwarfs anything from the 1990s. The X-Files is almost a parody in the face of post-9/11 America – and indeed, it limped to an unsatisfying conclusion in 9/11’s wake.
But there was, if you will, a counter-reformation that went on around the same time. It had pre-existing momentum, to be sure. Frustration with the eschaton started bubbling up in the mid-90s. But 9/11 changed the landscape here. Partially because some reaction against the pessimism implicit in security fetishism was necessary. Partially because waiting for an apocalypse seemed silly somehow after one had already happened. Or possibly because in the wake of the world not ending at the end of 1999 a rejection of eschatology was inevitable, and 9/11 wasn’t enough to kill it in its cradle.
In the past, this is how we’ve handled historical events like this: we’ve bundled them into television shows. So let’s invert that slightly. Having set up 9/11 as something that the tools of this blog just aren’t capable of tackling, let’s quietly move into the realm of television reacting to 9/11. Specifically, let’s go ahead and do The West Wing, a show whose four seasons straddle 9/11 exactly.
We should actually talk about The West Wing first and foremost from a technical perspective, as it went a long way towards confirming the utility of some televisual techniques that Doctor Who absolutely depends on in the new series. The main one is a fundamental realization about the way in which viewers parse dialogue. And it’s a big one that’s had huge impact on what you can do with television. The gist of it is this: it’s actually not a big deal if the audience has no clue what people are talking about so long as it’s clear what the characters themselves are doing.
In The West Wing this results in a barrage of quickly-delivered dialogue among people who know what they’re talking about, or, at least, know as much about what they’re talking about as Aaron Sorkin does. By default Sorkin tends to spend a fair amount of time with characters talking about a thing without explaining it before finally getting to an exposition scene, and even with an exposition scene the show’s ostensible content assumes that its audience not only passed high school civics, but remembered the bulk of it. And even if this rather high-context dialogue does parse, you’re still dealing with the fact that it’s all going at an unusually high speed of delivery.
And yet it works. And not just in a high-level “it’s aesthetically successful” sense, but in the sense that this was massively popular television that millions of people watched. And in working it illustrates an important principle: the audience doesn’t need to understand something, they just need to be persuaded that it makes sense and be able to tell how all of the characters feel about it. This is how The West Wing typically dealt with its peculiar method of revealing plots. Before it’s explained what a given crisis actually involves you get several scenes of characters talking about it, revealing who’s stressed about it, who’s being blamed, and who’s on what side of the issue. This, it turns out, is the important material.
Likewise, when the exposition does come up it sounds like it’s sensible. This is a particularly key trick. Because The West Wing consistently acts like it’s making any sense the audience assumes that it does, and is perfectly willing to paper over any seeming gaps in the narrative by just saying “Oh, I bet that would make sense if I had seen the last few episodes/knew more about American government.” It turns out you can understand a story without understanding all of the component parts.
A secondary consequence of this is that you can dramatically increase the density of what’s going on. Because, of course, it doesn’t really matter if the audience understands all of it. What you need is the illusion of sense and coherence. The actuality of it is an optional extra. And so you can ratchet up how much dialogue and how much event you have more or less with impunity, because audiences are far, far better at filling in narrative gaps than people give them credit for. This, as a technical matter, is absolutely crucial to modern Doctor Who, which goes terribly fast and relies on pseudo-explanations all the time. (Indeed, under Moffat the practice of speeding up the narrative has become de rigeur, with the show often seeming to try to figure out just how far it can go in this direction.)
But beyond the technical matters, The West Wing is telling in terms of how it handles the idea of utopianism. Fundamentally, The West Wing is a show that is more interested in exploring the idea of things working out than in things going wrong. It’s an intensively utopian show inasmuch as it portrays a fundamentally optimistic world. And, tellingly, it doubles down on this in the wake of 9/11. It introduces a terrorism plot and gives Bartlet an obvious Bush clone to run against for re-election. And then it has Bartlet clean up on both fronts. He takes bold and controversial action against the terrorists, showing that just because he’s an exceedingly liberal man he’s not soft, and then he trounces his Bush-clone opponent because it’s better to be smart and capable than dumb and charismatic. It’s pure wish fulfillment.
But it’s telling that in the wake of 9/11 one of the most popular shows on television was doing “it really could all be OK.” Yes, there are problems. It really is just an endorsement of the center-left flavor of the neo-liberal consensus. It fetishizes the institutional structure of American democracy, falling into exactly the same sort of American exceptionalism that provided the moral justification for Bush’s worst excesses. And it values compromise as inherently worthwhile practice in a way that is problematic to say the least. But the basic nature of the show is still tremendously optimistic.
It is, of course, impossible to credit a reaction to 9/11 for this optimism. The West Wing, after all, predated 9/11 by two years. The move towards a new sort of optimism and utopianism was already underway. But as much as 9/11 prompted a new spike in paranoia, it didn’t interfere with the turn against apocalyptic obsession that was taking place. If anything, it fitted well with the turn away from eschatology and paranoia, inasmuch as it made the post-apocalyptic the day-to-day norm of things instead of something looming over the future. Who cares about the eschaton after it’s happened? Well, lots of people. But equally, lots of people didn’t. The West Wing was hardly alone here. Grant Morrison spent 2001 writing New X-Men, a comic with a decidedly credulous view of the prospect of a utopian future. Alan Moore was in the midst of Promethea, which would eventually actually bring about the end of the world, only to then have everybody wake up and still have to go to work the next day. And, you know, barely two years after 9/11 the BBC would decide to revamp a ropey but rather pleasantly utopian sci-fi show that petered out in the 1980s.
And for our purposes, at least, this is the more interesting legacy. Not the depressing slide into paranoia and police states, but the way in which utopian optimism unexpectedly sat up on the slab in the face of that slide.