On the morning of September 11 2001, the people of New York City had woken up to what appeared to be a ‘normal’ day. By midday, New York City was in chaos as the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers burned in the aftermath of the planes crashing into the two towers. The people of New York City watched in sheer horror as their fellow citizens, their fellow city residents jumped from the buildings as the Twin Towers crumbled, or they imagined the fear that those who couldn’t get out felt as the buildings collapsed. When I arrived home from school that day the only thing on television, on all channels was the news about the planes hitting the towers earlier that day. South Africa had interrupted all its viewing, on the traditional networks that is, to carry up-to-the-minute news about something happening in America. In retrospect the scale of importance, that the event has been lent is what brings to the fore the very idea of culturing as well as the usage of the notion of culturing for political ends as it has been implemented in America in the aftermath of 9/11.  

David Simpson’s book 9/11 – The culture of commemoration (Simpson, D. 2006) argues that this sense of looking at the event as the be-all-end-all, the cornerstone of traumatic events the world over is nonsensical. David Simpson’s argument in its examination, counters the way in which the event is viewed as a cataclysmic disruption to the way the world should be. David Simpson’s account utilises Derrida’s notion of deconstruction to prove his argument. Deconstruction as understood by Derrida is a concept that calls for the questioning, exposure and debunking the complexities of ideas that we come across. Therefore, deconstruction as Simpson applies it in his book, is about taking what society accepts as the norm, thus pre-packaged opinions and ideas and thereby not being afraid of questioning them. Simpson employs the notion deconstruction through the aspect of questioning the idea of taking time to understand events to support his argument.

Derrida explains during an interview with Giovanna Borradori, a few weeks after the 9/11 events that, “We do not in fact know what we are saying… we do not know what we are talking about” (Borradori, G. 2003). This statement is important to Simpson’s account because it forms the very basis of his argument and the manner in which he goes about deconstructing the idea of commemoration and how it has been implemented in the remembrance of those who died on that fateful September day. This essay will use the concept of haunting and hauntology to exemplify the notion of culturing, and the role it plays in the way the commemorative culture of 9/11 as an event, is established in the American public discourse.  This essay will look at the concept of haunting and hauntology only from the aspect of its definition and not its historical context as in Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (Kamuf, P. 1994). The essay will first discuss the concept hauntology, as it will be employed before moving on to contextualising the concept and the role it plays in looking at the relationship between Simpson’s account in 9/11 – The culture of commemoration (Simpson, D. 2006) with relation to Jacques Derrida.


Haunting as a figure, forms part of a hypothesis by Jacques Derrida known as hauntology (Royle, N. 2003)and these further link to the notion of the spectre. According to Nicholas Royle the spectre is definable ‘not only as the ghost but also as the figure of what is always about to return, to revisit, and reappear’ (Royle, N. 2003). The implication here will then be that there is therefore inherently a moment of expected return of the spectre, the ghost. The word haunt itself borrows an understanding to the concept that implies the imminent omnipresence of something unknown: the spectre, the ghost, the thing that is unknown and causing impending fear, which in this case is the notion of terrorism.  The word hauntology borrows from the language of medicine. It is formed from the combination of the words haunt and ontology thereby, playing on the word ontology, which according to Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, is defined as “the branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of existence”(Hornby, A. S. 2005). The play on word in this sense, is derived from the idea that ghosts haunt, that as much as they ‘exist’ they do not exist to the point that they can be seen, touched, etc.

In Giovanna Borradori’s Philosophy in a time of terror (Borradori, G. 2003), Derrida explains that,

“Like the Cold War, the spectre of global terrorism haunts our sense of the future because it kills the promise upon which a positive relation with our present depends. In all its horror, 9/11 has left us waiting for the worst. The violence of the attacks…has revealed an abyss of terror that is going to haunt our existence and thinking for years and perhaps decades to come” (Borradori, G. 2003).

This quote supports the notion that in the shaping and culturing of the event itself, the American government has succeeded in keeping its citizens in a state of fear and terror through embodying the very idea of hauntology. The embodiment finds its precedence in the face of the constant fear of another attack. Because “The subject that haunts is not identifiable, one cannot see, localize, fix any form, one cannot decide between hallucination and perception, there are only displacements; one feels oneself looked at by what one cannot see” (Kamuf, P. 1994). David Simpson’s argument against the notion of the culturing of the event and the effect that the culturing of 9/11 especially regarding hauntology as in his book 9/11 – The culture of commemoration (Simpson, D. 2006) is based on Jacques Derrida’s account of the spectre.

“The spectre of terror has taken the place of the spectre of communism, and it sits on the back of another massive “disadjustment of the contemporary” (Derrida’s account of the force of the spectre)” (Simpson, D. 2006).

The way in which America has decided to treat the attack is another reason as to why there is this inherent fear within the American society. By monumentalising the grounds on which the towers once stood and even more so by naming the event,  there is an agency being undertaken which furthermore only works to accentuate  the feeling of the attack to the point that the attack takes precedence over the human response  to traumatic events and exaggerates it even further. Therefore, the notion that the foundation hauntology instils for the accounts of both Jacques Derrida and David Simpson is vital in understanding the way in which the 9/11 events are being commemorated and the idea of culturing commemoration being problematic.

David Simpson sees ‘hallowing’ and the ‘hallowed’ as Lincoln used them as paradoxical because it is contradicting itself. Lincoln says he cannot hallow the site because the blood of those that died on its grounds hallows it yet in saying, exactly that he is indeed hallowing it (Simpson, D. 2003). The hallowing in itself places the dead on a pedestal because it refers to them as being holy and sanctifies them. It brings to mind the thought of someone playing god in the sense that they give it upon themselves to suggest that the dead will be forgiven for their sins just because of the circumstances in which they died. This is problematic because some of them would probably not have wanted to be there and which then makes their presumably patriotic deaths not so patriotic after all. Simpson explicates further in saying: “The event has been and will be made to mark a new epoch, and as such it is already generating a mythology and a set of practices of its own. This process is not autonomous but, precisely, cultured, in the sense of cultivated, and monitored and produced with specific possibilities of consumption in mind.” (Simpson, D. 2006). This then further highlights the notion that the culturing the event has experienced and still is experiencing, shape the conception of the event as one that has been appropriated for means other than strictly those of commemoration.

The event has been aestheticised, constructed, to fulfil purposes, which it should not have had to fulfil. One such purpose is the fact that the attack on the twin towers resulted in the invading of Iraq. The reasoning, which lay in the statement by then American president George Bush in saying the invasion, was to be perceived as ‘a war on terrorism’. David Simpson points out in 9/11 – The culture of commemoration (Simpson, D. 2006) “… the dead of 9/11 have been made to figure in grander narratives of national futures and civic virtues than any of them could probably have imagined or perhaps desired.” (Simpson, D. 2006). This grand narrative is that their deaths became used as a reason to invade Iraq and later Afghanistan in ‘the war against terrorism’. This ‘war’, which constituted looking for ‘Al Qaeda’, an unknown terrorist group that according to the American intelligence worked underground in these countries. This notion brings to mind Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology in the sense that Americans, through the way that the event 9/11 has been shaped, fear a thing they have not seen and thereby rush to commemorate those who died as though they won’t get it done in time, before something else horrendous happens. On this basis, Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction plays itself out in Simpson’s account. In Borradori’s account, Jacques Derrida sees this as an important action because it means even when things are cultured and shaped in a particular way as to draw wool over one’s eyes you can see through it and still be able to question it instead of being powerless,

Derrida claims that the deconstruction of the notion of terrorism is the only politically responsible course of action because the public use of it, as if it were a self-evident notion, perversely helps the terrorist’ cause. Such deconstruction consists, as if it were a self-evident notion, in showing that the sets of distinctions within which we understand the meaning of the term terrorismare problem-ridden. In his mind, not only does war entail the intimidation of civilians, and thus elements of terrorism, but no rigorous separation can be drawn between different kinds of terrorism, such as national and international, local and global. By rejecting the possibility of attaching any predicates to the supposed substance of terrorism, we obviously deny that terrorism has any stable meaning, agenda, and political content. (Borradori, G. 2003)

Furthermore, through the intensive usage of media and emotional reportage from those who survived, lost someone, or even just empathised with the New Yorker’s the grasp of fear and manipulation of the event became possible. This political manipulation of the event largely constitutes the very idea of the culturing of the event because the event becomes a product that is packaged and sold to the society that is in mourning as a way of dealing with the memory of the event. Simpson points out that, “Many people across America, not only those who knew one of the dead or someone who knew someone, reported feelings of acute personal anxiety and radical insecurity, but there was never a point at which this response could be analysed as prior to or outside of its mediation by television and by political manipulation.” (Simpson, D. 2006). Simpson’s account also points out that the deaths of those people became something ‘hallowed’ much in the way that their remains have been “painstakingly collected” (Simpson, D. 2006) so that they can built into the memorial.


In a recent New York Times article titled ‘Out of Context’, Caroline Alexander brings to the fore this very notion of not taking time. The article is about the plans for the 9/11 memorial and the memorial inscription that has been chosen for the memorial. The chosen inscription is from Virgil’s Aeneid “nulla dies umquam memori vos extiment aevo” which means ‘no day shall erase you from the memory of time’ (Alexander, C. 2011). The article goes on to explicate the context of the chosen inscription, which is not really about the general thought of the epic. Alexander explains that although the epic is about Trojan hero Aeneas who flees from Troy with the remains of his family and people, the particular chosen inscription is about two Trojan warriors, Nisus and Euryalus, whose relationship in the epic is depicted in a homoeroticised manner. When they die the poet, Virgil, directly addresses them saying: “Fortunati ambo! Si quid mea camina possunt, nulla dies umquam memori vos extiment aevo” (Alexander, C. 2011). When placed within context the inscription then lends a strange understanding to the deaths of the people who died during the 9/11 attacks. It loses its profundity, which if one had taken time to place it within a context would have known that the inscription is inappropriate to the task of memorialising the deaths of those people. In a bid to exemplify the need to know what we are talking about before saying anything about something Alexander concludes the article by saying “There is an easy mechanism, also time-hallowed, for winnowing out what may be right from what is clearly wrong: it’s called reading.” (Alexander, C. 2011).


In Simpson’s account, he says; “The everyday assumptions about the neatness of rhetorically declared oppositions, them and us, create a climate for blatant political manipulation of binaries of the sort we have been seeing since 9/11. The passage from one entity to an unrelated other – from Osama to Saddam – under the guise of “enemy” follows a traditional logic of scapegoating at the service of a ruthlessly presentist political opportunitism.” (Simpson, D. 2006). Through creating a recurrent sense of fear in Americans for something even worse, something even more sinister, relates back to the conceptculturing. If one questions, and deconstructs the ideas and information that they encounter allows them to differentiate between real and non-real information and allows them to be able to debunk the culturing of information and events thereby breaking the power force of the ‘culturer’. Giovanna Borradori sees the notion of questioning events, and the way they are presented as an important one much as Simpson and Derrida. Her interview with Derrida highlights the notion that by being aware of the relationships, if any, that existed between any two ‘enemies’, one is able to understand the event as a whole and how the way it has been cultured and how that culturing benefits the ‘culturer’.

“Derrida exhorts us to be vigilant about the relationship between terrorism and globalised system of communication. It is a fact that, since the attacks of 9/11, the media have been bombarding the world with images and stories about terrorism… By dwelling on the traumatic memory, victims typically try to reassure themselves that they can withstand the impact of what may repeat itself. Since 9/11, we all have been forced to reassure ourselves, with the result that the terror appears less a past event than a future possibility. Indeed, Derrida is stunned at how naively the media contributed to multiplying the force of this traumatic experience. Yet, at the same time, he is also disconcerted at how real is the threat that terrorism might exploit the technological and information networks.” (Borradori. G. 2003).

The culturing of an event such as 9/11 – whether by naming it in the way that 9/11 has meaning inscribed to it by way of the date and nothing else plays a large role to the Simpson. Another important element against this culturing that Derrida highlights by way of the relationship between the ‘victim’ and the ‘terrorist’ is one he regards as autoimmunity. The discourse of culturing that 9/11 as event has experienced and continues to experience tied to the idea of autoimmunity. According to Jacques Derrida, autoimmunity is definable as ‘a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunise itself against its own immunity’ (Borradori, G. 2003). Autoimmunity as Derrida explains has three moments, three reflexes, three reflections. These three are namely that; it is “The Cold War in the head”, “Worse than the Cold War”, “The vicious circle of repression”. Each of these moments is vital to understanding the notion of culturing as it has been implemented in American discourse since 9/11.

In the first instance, America is ‘guarantor of world order’ and represents the ‘ultimate presumed unity of force and law, of the greatest force and discourse of law’ (Borradori, G.2003). This then becomes the ground basis of a suicidal autoimmunity as according to Borradori suggestion, a double death. Firstly, that of the people who are targeted in this sense the Americans and then secondly the death of the terrorist who has to carry the bomb with which he kills the Americans. The notion that these terrorists were trained by Americans, and also that the Americans played a key role in bringing about the social, political and economic context in which the act would occur, adds to the notion of the suicidal autoimmunity. In the second instance, the fear of other attacks prevails that of attacks with biological or nuclear warfare. Derrida exemplifies this notion in saying; “There is traumatism with no possible work of mourning when the evil comes from the possibility to come of the worst, from the repetition to come– though worse. Traumatism is produced by the future, by the to come, by the threat of the worst to come, rather than by an aggression that is “over and done with”.” (Borradori, G. 203). Much like the concept of hauntology, this second instance of autoimmunity is about the fear that arises from an unknown threat. During the Cold War, the threat was counter-balanced by the notion that the enemy was always known. With this aspect of threat, the enemy is unknown and can attack at any given time without warning. The blindness is what makes the fear aspect of it even more inherent in its existence. The third and final instance extends from the notion that George Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ notion only works to bring to the fore more violence rather than end the violence because what it does is “work to regenerate, in the short or the long term, the causes of evil which they claim to eradicate.” (Borradori, G. 2003)


With regard to the idea of hauntology, culturing and the way it has been implemented it can then be said that the idea of culturing occupies the space of fear within the human experience. Simpson’s account finds it relevant for his argument to have criticisms by Derrida to support its basis. This is vital to Simpson’s argument because Derrida regards the notion of time to be an important one in the aspect of commemoration and that by culturing the commemorative process one has to implement the principles of commodifying the commemorative process and the event commemorated. Derrida points out the notion of cultivating and shaping fear towards a particular end as follows: “one day we will look back at 9/11 as the last example of a link between terror and territory as the last eruption of an archaic theatre of violence destined to strike the imagination. For future attacks – as would be the case with chemical and biological weapons or simply digital communication disruptions – may be silent, invisible and ultimately unimaginable.“ (Borradori, G. 2003). Therefore, in conclusion, the role that Derrida plays in Simpson’s account as a theorist, is one of great importance to the argument because it makes Simpson’s argument against the culturing of 9/11 a concrete argument.


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