Saturday, September 17, 2011

9/11 : Ritual In Perpetuam?

As the tenth anniversary came and passed I hesitated within myself how to approach the topic.

I did not join my voice to those who mourned the victims or mourned the missed opportunities for peace, or both. I am not insensitive to either. Of course not. The anguish for the people in the Towers touches everyone in New York. Everyone knows someone who had a friend there or who was herself in the immediate area. Then came the wars, and their anguish is ever and overwhelmingly present, the defining U.S. narrative of the 21st century.

But there is a dimension to the whole thing that happened that day which has always exceeded the standard ritual commentary, and which has continually bothered me. How could I voice it evenly, or intelligibly, when the whole world was weeping?

Only now perhaps when thoughts and emotions have settled into the everyday, and yet the commemorations still echo, may I propose a small unsettling postscript...

"Ritual commentary," and right there I said it. Not everything human beings do is spontaneous. In fact very little is. A great deal of it is programed by the group, by responses the group models to us and expects from us. Ritual is a broad and rich name for this collective programing. One of the huge things about Jesus is the way he talked and the way he acted broke across this programing, like a rip current breaking against a tide, creating enormous historical disturbances and counter eddies. Perhaps what Jesus did was the only truly spontaneous event in history!

When the first plane struck the North Tower at 8.46 a.m. I was on my way to teach a class in the Department of Religion at Le Moyne College, Syracuse. The title of the class was "Ritual Performance." I heard the news on the car radio and at that point of time, probably a few minutes after it struck, there was still speculation that this could be a small private aircraft that had veered badly off course. When I arrived at the college I remember saying immediately to a colleague, that I hoped it was indeed an accident and not a terrorist attack. He shook his head down at his desk as if I were idiotically naive. At 9:03 a.m. the crash of the second aircraft into the South Tower proved him entirely correct.

Classes were canceled for the day, as numerous students and teachers began anxiously checking on friends who may have been in Lower Manhattan. Other students and professors stood around the hallways watching events unfold on the T.V. monitors. And there perhaps was my first clue.

As the course syllabus said, "The central question of this course is the value or power of ritual today." We were using a book called "Liberating Rites" in which the author, Tom Driver, argued ritual was a basic form of ordering and re-ordering the world and which did not depend on a prior rationality. It creates its own reason. "Rituals are primarily instruments designed to change a situation. They are more like washing machines than books..."

As people drifted about in a state of half-disbelief and the T.V. relentlessly screened the towers falling, people fleeing, firemen fainting, the crashing of two more planes, it felt just like that: we were in the middle of some wildly beating laundry machine that had erupted from the sky and whether we liked it or not we were being shook. showered, rinsed, spun, wrung out, and we would never be the same. All that was left was to expect the continual repetition of these events, in imagery, in words, in memorials, and the full scale reality of a world-making ritual was upon us.

My special contribution to the course was an attention to movies. Again according to the syllabus: "Movies act as a kind ritual, in some ways far removed from ritual and yet highly ritualistic in phenomena they present." What I meant, and of course presented to the class, was the violence of movies, the unquenchable stream of blood and death in so many films. Rituals provide us with a repertoire of primary signs, so often rooted in violence, and movies continually exploit and re-energize those signs. So, again the images on T.V....on-screen intense moving signs of planes and fire, of fear, destruction, death.

Returning home that day my overpowering sensation was "This was cinematic, far too cinematic..."

The choice of city, the Big Apple, famed New York, setting of hundreds and hundreds of movies... The attack on the WTC and its Twin Towers, symbols themselves of modernity, the Western economic and cultural system and the heaven-scaling character of its architecture... And the weapon, a plane! The icon of international power and success, yet always containing an element of fear, now turned entirely into a threat, a missile. There were direct echoes of the 1996 movie, Independence Day, in which giant spaceships flown by hungry nomadic aliens vaporize skyscrapers and whole cities, and the White House, the target of the fourth 9/11 plane. Or the 1998 movie Armageddon, in which a rain of meteorites the size of "Basketballs and Volkswagens" unleash disaster on New York city, including a shot of the Twin Towers themselves, one of them on fire with its top blown away.

All of 9/11 represented a coding, a dense, sophisticated, electronic set of signs whereby some of the things most dear to Americans, to their self-image--and the images of that self-image and to those images already under threat within themselves--all of this got replayed in real time and living history as real catastrophe. How could this fiercely cinematic ritual not embed itself like a multiple barb in the national psyche? How could it not infect us like some devilishly designed mental virus loaded with fear, pain and anger? And how could it not provoke the re-ordering of everything in unhesitating retaliatory violence?

These were my thoughts, confused, jumbled, inchoate, but very, very real. I was asked to speak on a panel of religious figures hastily assembled by some churches. I tried to express myself in these terms, but I don't think anyone understood. Perhaps they still won't. But the forces that brought about the attack in this sense of a total event, its mise en scène of the truly terrible, were truly intelligent in their ability to reorder our world. And it is precisely this intelligence I resist in the spontaneous counter-current made possible only by Jesus!

Driver quoted Shakespeare's King Lear, suggesting the possibility of terrible violence done by humans for its own sake. "I will do such things,--what they are yet I know not,--but they shall be the terrors of the earth." In Driver's view killing is the performance of something absolute which is also a ritual beginning and a beginning of ritual.

René Girard goes deeper and his thought was also a key part of the course. Girard tells us that we don't have ritual or performance first and then killing. Human culture, humanity itself, is birthed out of catastrophic violence that creates a sacrificial victim that creates a ritual that creates a world. Both Driver and Girard would agree that 9/11 was a ritual beginning but Girard would be more systematic, seeing it as "the renewal of sacrificial resources". And Girard goes further still. He teaches that Jesus and the gospels manifest that whole process back to us. They shine a light on it. So that we know it and can choose an entirely different way, a nonviolent way, of ordering a world--a riptide of grace founding the world in compassion, forgiveness, peace, life.

But part of the gospel's shining a light on the process is that human beings have to a lesser or greater extent all become knowledgeable of what the whole thing is and how the whole thing works. And that is why the terrible intelligence that actually designs a total event like 9/11 is possible. In some fearful appalling way 9/11 is a radically Christian event. The violent manipulation of our symbolic space in order to produce a new ritual resource could only happen in a Christian universe. It could only happen in a world where Satan had to some extent been demystified so that Satan now acts with a devilish degree of conscious designer cunning. As the movie has it, "The devil wears Prada." Or, to say it another way, in the 21st Century Satan is also Christian!

But then that also means, in Ignatius of Loyola's famous discernment advice, he must leave his tail sticking out. The intelligence, the design, shows. We are no longer blind pawns in a primordial eruptive event, participating without consciousness. For if Satan is conscious all of us are! Satan can't outsmart Satan. We know, deep down, we are being played, and the fury of reaction that often follows when something like this is suggested, shows that those invested in the ritual know it too.

Jesus with his counter tide of grace has set us free from a universe built on founding violence. Whatever and whoever the particular agents of 9/11 the cosmos birthed by Jesus does not conform to its twisting of the world into a new sacrificial framework. Jesus said "I have seen Satan fall like lightning" and his revelation continues to destabilize all violent ritual, including this one.

It is not a comfortable situation for the world in general or the U.S. in particular, and I believe the progressive destabilization of the North American political space flows from an already-punctured attempt to give it a new sacrificial foundation. There is no other political way forward except a new shaping of society on the gospel pattern of compassion, forgiveness, peace. The ever more desperate movement to negate these values politically is itself a last frenzied attempt to shore up a Jesus-embarrassed archaic world order.

There can be no longer any ritual in perpetuam. There is only the blessed disturbance of grace.

Tony Bartlett