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A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11

Efraim Sicher Natalia Skradol

Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, Volume 4, Number 1, January 2006, pp. 151-179 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by Curtin University of Technology at 10/07/10 8:17AM GMT

A World Neither Brave Nor New:

Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11

Efraim Sicher

Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Natalia Skradol
Tel Aviv

Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the muttering of
the desire for a return of terror, for the realization

of the fantasy to seize reality. Lyotard 1984: 82 On ne peut pas crire sur ce sujet mais on ne peut pas crire sur autre chose non plus. Plus
rien ne nous atteint.


The End without Ending: The Intrusion of the Real

9/11 has been imagined before in countless hijack or terminal disaster films such as Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and Independence Day. Slavoj Zizek presents the TV coverage of 9/11 as the Hitchcock moment of horror that is actually happening; it is the intrusion of the real into
fiction. This is what made similar scenes in horror movies unscreenable

in the immediate weeks after 9/11 and sent the CIA scurrying after Hollywood scriptwriters in order to try to understand the terrorists. It is an intrusion, Zizek argues, that is the ultimate marker of the "passion for the Real" (2002: 16-20). One instance of this intrusion occurs in the film The Matrix (1999) when the hero awakens from what he thought
* This essay is dedicated to the memory of Philippa Tiger, who first suggested the rereading of Auden. The authors are grateful to Dr Yael Ben-Zvi, who first pointed out to us the reversal of reality and fiction in Matrix. Special thanks go to Peter Hutton and Joel Meyerowitz for kind permission to use their work. Partial Answers 4/1 (2006)


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

was "real" into the "real reality" and sees a desolate landscape littered with the burned ruins of Chicago after a global war. The hero then encounters resistance leader Morpheus, who utters the ironic greeting:
"Welcome to the desert of the real."1

This essay explores how our imagining of future disaster in dystopian

literature is re-visioned and revised by the after-image of the disaster

that has actually happened. If there has been a change in our reading

of literature and film since 9/11, this change may not be quantifiable (a measurement beyond the scope of this essay and possibly beyond feasibility), but it may teach us something about the way in which the afterimage of the disaster that has actually occurred affects our reading
in the would-be anterior future of imagined terminal catastrophe, the imagined end of society, of time, of the story. A similar process of reinterpretation happened after the 2004 tsunami disaster in Asia, which seemed to outdo the scenes in the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) of a submerged New York. Each of these events challenged the human ability to control history and the environment. Both natural and man-made disasters leave deep impressions on the imagination and on philosophy. For example, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake destroyed an imperial capital equivalent to the size of prewar London and made a laughing-stock of Leibnizian optimism in Voltaire's Candide. Yet natural disasters do not usually have political,

military, and historical significance and, unlike 9/11, are rarely thought
of as marking the end of an era. 9/11 was an intrusion of the real that

made it impossible to un-imagine dystopia as nightmare or fantasy. It

is not a matter of whether or not Utopian thought is still sustainable or practical, but of what has happened in postmodern fiction under the

impact of a real collision of reality and imagination. This destruction

was not just another demonstration of a culture of after-images but a singular event, perhaps an ur-event, which showed that the world was in a permanent state of unending disasters.

What could looking backward from after 9/11 mean for our reading
of dystopian texts? We do not have in mind mere "foreshadowing" (cf. Bernstein 1994), or Jacques Derrida's delineation of nuclear-holocaust
' See Zizek 15. Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers makes a similar point
when he has a billboard for Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage displayed against the background of the real terrorist scenario of the burning Towers (2004: 2). On the delayed release of Collateral Damage and the post-9/11 reception of war films see
Lowenstein 2003.

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


discourse as an entirely fictional genre (since it had not happened and could not happen without erasing all record, all archive, of its having

happened).2 Rather, the effect of reading any dystopian text post

factum, when history has given chilling new meaning to the original context in which the disaster was imagined, reverses the relationship between fiction and reality and raises unsettling postmodern suspicions of the "real" as something that can be known otherwise than as an aesthetic artefact. We are always, when reading narratives, looking forward, in all senses, to the end, but in this case the "end" precedes our reading of past narratives that imagine the future. Superimposed on our interpretation is the disaster having already happened (quite apart from any meaning the disaster's may have in itself as a discrete historical, political, or physical event). We shall see that a further stage has been reached when dystopian fiction has become a fact, no longer a cautionary tale of the imagination. But then destruction is embedded in Western culture. Satirized by Don DeLiIIo, postwar America had become a site of catastrophe before
disaster struck; the destruction of New York must also be seen in terms

of postmodern aesthetic theory expounded by Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Finally, Frdric Beigbeder, Ian McEwan, and Jonathan Safran Foer respond to 9/11 in novels that grapple with what 9/11 and its aftermath imply for representation and for the novel form. What 9/11 has shown is that the relationship of the real and the imagined in dystopian fiction has been reversed, since hypermediated image has eclipsed the event and fiction has become lived experience. There is an uncanny sense of an end that has been almost predestined, like Winston's feeling of dj vu in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four when he enters the Golden Country and makes love with Julia in a Miltonian Paradise, a scene he has dreamed. Indeed, the topos has been reworked enough times in literature to be uncannily familiar. Read
in this context, T. S. Eliot's remark in "Tradition and the Individual

Talent" about the duty of any true artist to "live ... in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past" (1976: 22) acquires a new and sinister meaning. If the Christian promise of an apocalyptic end was repeatedly disappointed, it could be argued that "the typological repetitions that punctuate the more linear apocalyptic mythos entail a different sort of
2 See Derrida 1984, as well as Saint-Amour 2000.


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

negotiation of identity and difference, one... whose disconfirmation (or the failure of the attainment of apocalyptic closure), far from discrediting or invalidating the defining mythos or promise, serves to propel the
mythos forward, often in a redefined and expanded form" (Robson

1995: 62). In narrative terms, such repetition is built into an American cultural discourse that can be traced back to the Pilgrim Fathers, who
believed they had arrived in the postapocalyptic promised land. In a sense, the end was always there, since utopia presumes that something (the rotten state of society, human corruption, gender difference, or life on earth) must first come to an end. Seen this way, apocalyptic visions, in the Christian scriptures or in revolutionary socialism, build terminal disaster into eschatology, so that the repeated non-fulfillment of the promised salvation implies a constant repetition of catastrophe. Worse, when disaster is not followed by a brave new world, all that remains

is a permanent state of disaster. Dystopian fiction is thus implicitly

postapocalyptic. At the same time, spatio-temporal repetition may be built into cultural texts, such as music (see Lyotard 1988: 165), and Paul Ricoeur reminds us that literary plot is in essence repetitive (1980: 178). It is a familiar paradox, moreover, that when we begin to read a novel, the end

of the story has already been written, so that the future has already been
imagined as the past in narrative time; in history the story is always retold when we know the ending, even if we cannot know its meaning. Therefore the dystopian future is always past tense, retold and revised. But if dystopia can no longer be imagined except in the already past future, the story can only be repeated as a continual end, a disastrous writing in Maurice Blanchot's terms. Speaking of Auschwitz (a disaster incomparable, least of all to 9/11 ) in The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot remarks that we live after the unthinkable has been thought. Although it does not actually touch us physically, we live everywhere under its

threat: "The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything
intact" (1986: 1). In any case, we can barely express the feeling of being unable to write after the disaster. If all representation is inadequate, then reading after disaster substitutes for an act of representation.

Some of the implications of reading literary dystopias after 9/11

may lie in the definition of dystopia and confirm what we have long known, namely that there is no return to innocence because there was none. Utopia and anti-utopia have always been two sides of the same coin: "As nightmare is to dream . . . anti-utopia has stalked utopia

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


from the very beginning. ... As in Freud's theory of the unconscious, the very announcement of utopia has almost immediately provoked the mocking, contrary, echo of anti-utopia" (Kumar 99-100). Dystopia (which should be distinguished from anti-utopia) is not so much an argument against utopia, as its obverse, a utopia that will inevitably go wrong; it is utopia discovered to be the "bad place" (see Booker 1994; Moylan 2000:111-99). John Stuart Mill mocked his opponents as "dystopians" or "caco-topians" because, he declared, "What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they

appear to favour is too bad to be practicable."3 Surely there has always

been a dystopian streak in Utopian writing, especially if More's Utopia

is read ironically, as both u-topia and eu-topia, as a critique of what is

wrong with England's social and economic situation that is followed, in the second book, by a demonstration, through the unreliable narrator (a veritable "speaker of nonsense"), of a perfect society that is impossibly "No-Where." Nevertheless, the satires directed at ideal societies by Swift, Johnson, or Voltaire did not deter Utopian thinkers in America or Europe from planning and occasionally building utopias based on ideals of universal reason and happiness. Typically, these Utopian projects can be brought about only by transforming human nature, whether by social and genetic engineering (Brave New World), eugenics (The Coming Race), genocide (Mein Kampf), behavioral conditioning (Waiden 2), mind control (Nineteen Eighty-Four), or the banning of literature (Fahrenheit 451). There is something inhuman (and thus potentially dysfunctional or dystopian) in the idea of a utopia which requires that human society as currently constituted be replaced (whether through natural selection or coercion) by a social order based on different (implicitly non-human) characteristics. These characteristics are usually based on uniformity, conformity, and unanimity - the very values that brought the downfall of the biblical Tower of Babel. In his critique of the inhuman absolutism of Utopian projects which allowed only one possible solution to social ills, forced on people dogmatically, Isaiah Berlin quoted Immanuel Kant's dictum that

"out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made. "4
Berlin detected the seeds of revolt against the Utopian construction
3 Speech to the House of Commons, 12 March 1857; quoted in Kumar 447, note 2. 4 "[A]us so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz
Gerades gezimmert werden" ("Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte weltbrgischer Absicht" [1784], quoted in Berlin 19).


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

of universal harmony in German romanticism and in Promethean Byronic heroes (Berlin 44-45). Lewis Mumford, too, in his salutary preface to the 1962 edition of The Story of Utopias, declares that the eighteenth-century Utopians were mistaken in thinking that human nature was malleable and society perfectible (3). Like Berlin, Mumford maintained his faith in the latent possibilities that could lead to a better world if the warnings of Utopian projects were heeded, despite the dent that World War I made in those hopes when it "suddenly reversed the currents of our life" (2). In a passage that reads quite ironically now, Mumford dreamily looked out of his tenement window over the rooftops of Manhattan, seeking inspiration for the Utopian potential of the present and relief from its ugliness in the "pale tower with its golden pinnacle gleaming through the soft morning haze" (25). Literary dystopia gives a negative appraisal of the here-and-now, a satire of what is already possible but not desirable, as distinct from fantastic science fiction set elsewhere, which may be desirable but not realizable. In the century of communism and fascism, the revolutionary Utopian movements offered the implementation of ideals, while dystopia mocked the tyranny of idea (see Kumar 125). The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev predicted that utopia was only too possible and intellectuals would have to fight to prevent it, a prophecy Aldous Huxley used as the epigraph to his dystopian novel, Brave New World (1932). Berdyaev, writing at the beginning of Soviet rule before he was expelled by the Bolsheviks, saw that the border of reality had been crossed when Utopian theory had become totalitarian practice and dystopians would have to imagine a resistance to this scourge out of Dostoevsky's The Possessed before the West became infected too (see

Berdiaeff 262-66).5 The End in the Beginning: Disaster as a Cultural Norm

Cet vnement a exist, et on ne peut pas le raconter. Beigbeder 19 The reasons why 9/11 seemed to repeat a dystopian scenario have to do with a paradigm in Western culture. Despite the conclusion of the commission investigating 9/11 that there had been a failure of
5 See also Hoyles 120-21.

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


imagination in the intelligence community,6 in popular culture the all too

familiar scene of destruction seemed incredible because it was, indeed,

all too familiar. The common comparison with other disasters that delivered a fundamental psychological shock and served as historical or epistemological turning-points, such as the sinking of the Titanic or the attack on Pearl Harbor, underscores the paradoxical unexpectedness and predictability of the event. The more the catastrophic end becomes mythologized in collective memory and popular culture, the less we expect it to happen as a "real" event and the more predictable it seems to be when it has happened. Susan Sontag once commented (1966: 209-25) that science fiction films and novels are invariably more about disaster than science since they go back to the oldest plots of heroes battling evil against all odds and reenact the destruction of great cities (such as Babylon in D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance). The "ruins of time" motif (a poetic tradition from Edmund Spenser to Robert Lowell) helps keep in mind the seeds of destruction on which Britain built its imperial project, as Rome had done before. Social critics from Carlyle to Ruskin envisioned the future ruins of the capitalist empire, the new Tower of Babel/Babylon. Gustave Dor's vivid 1872 etching of "The New Zealander" presents a vision of the ruins of London 150 years later, visited by an aborigine tourist. The collapse of temples and towers is at the core of our cultural sensibilities - whether they represent belief systems, military power, or global commerce - and it was science, identified with progress and rationality, that has perfected the means of efficient lethal destruction. Beginning with the American

Civil War7 and the Franco-German War, writers imagined the war to
end all wars. A memorable example is H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds (1897),8 which, in Orson Welles's radio rendition on October 30, 1938, caused panic in America. Toppling towers and alien invasions have long
6 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, August 21, 2004,
www.9-1 339^-7.

7 In his 2004 discussion of the poverty of literary responses after 9/11, Christopher
Merrill notes that the American Civil War marked a loss of innocence which inspired Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to create a new poetics of grief (70-77). His point is that Whitman and, in his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln were able to articulate a future for the American nation in a way not matched by President George W. Bush after

8 See Kumar 65. Kumar names Sir George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871)
as the first work of this kind.


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

been the staple of science fiction plots, though since World War II no hero trying to save the world could be innocent about the global threat under which we all live, a collective trauma of a global destruction which has already happened (see Sontag 215, 225). So, to a Western public, the targeting of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon might have seemed (however falsely) a scenario already previewed, prescribed, pretexted... We live in a continual disaster zone and therefore, in rereading the modernists, we recognize that for them the apocalypse was present tense, not an eschatological future. Sitting in "one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid," W. H. Auden smelt the

"unmentionable odor of death" that "Offends the September night."9

On that other September night, under the collective strength of the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Auden despaired of the false hopes of a "low dishonest decade," yet put his faith in the individual affirmation of fidelity. Auden could not see the coming end that T. S. Eliot described in "Little Gidding." He could not see what that poetic fire-watcher saw in the Dantean inferno of the Blitz. However, Yeats, the ghost who walks the dead patrol with T. S. Eliot, knew that after the war to end all wars, the Great War of 1914-1918, the next war was coming, and that if nothing "drastic" was done, airplanes and Zeppelins would flatten

the city.10 Written in July 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, a year
before Guernica provided Picasso with an image of modern war, "Lapis Lazuli" is not so much a prediction of the coming global conflagration amid hysterics and playacting, as an acknowledgment of the ancient wisdom of the Chinese and the gaiety in their wrinkled eyes which have seen and outlasted the fall of many empires.
Countless novels and films have assumed that disaster would lead

to the end of America's liberal democracy. In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1989), for example, an ecological catastrophe has taken place, the President and Congress have been gunned down (for which "Islamic fanatics" are blamed), and the United States has been transformed into a dystopian patriarchy based on a fundamentalist Christian right-wing hierarchy that enslaves women. British dystopias are no safer. In A Clockwork Orange (1962) Anthony Burgess imagines the introduction of sadistic mind control based on Soviet techniques.
9 "1st September 1939" (Auden 1945: 57). These lines were often quoted after 9/11
(see Merrill 69-70).

10 "Lapis Lazuli" (Yeats 1958: 292).

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


In another novel, 1985 (1978), he imagines that an Islamic republic has been proclaimed in the United Kingdom. When the planes hit the Towers on September 11, 2001, despite some tottering of stock markets, the global superpower, the United States of America, did not collapse as was feared. Nevertheless, the vision of the monuments of empire crumbling in a few moments exceeds our capacity to imagine worst-case scenarios. At the same time, the failure to confront the preexisting possibility of the disaster and to find adequate cultural responses to 9/11 seems to say something about a postapocalyptic culture which has already imagined the final disaster. James Berger wrote his 1999 book After the End during the millennial high alert before that moment when New York moved from the list of cities of culture (Paris, Vienna, Prague) to cities of destruction (Jerusalem, Nineveh, Babylon). Perhaps for this very reason, Berger's observation remains true: we are always writing after the end that
has been written into Western culture - from the Book of Revelation

through Vonnegut, Pynchon, and DeLiIIo. After the worst has already happened (the Bhophal disaster in India, Chernobyl, 9/11, or the SARS epidemic), the future can be imagined as a replay of disaster scenarios, in which we compulsively repeat past imagining of the future. This is a distinctly postmodernist marker of an end to the Western tradition of looking forward to the terminal transformation of the world either into a prelapsarian edenic state (a regression to a primeval paradise) or into a radically new political reality (a revision of history or rewriting the future). The occurrence of the foreseen catastrophe lends an uncanny inevitability to history. Kurt Vonnegut parodies this backward reading of history in Timequake ( 1997) when he describes the "clambake" in February 2001 which reverses time and returns the free will that has been lost to the inevitability of history's rerun. Airplanes on autopilot are crashing and the fact that this unending disaster is dreamed up by a science fiction writer called Kilgore Trout does not prevent us from realizating that this fantasy of the future has happened before. In Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Billy Pilgrim, who is living a Kilgore Trout fantasy of visitors from outer space, complains that he cannot change the past, present, or future. There is no human freedom except to press the destroy button. History is a series of destructions. The replay backwards of a movie of the Allied firebombing of Dresden is a reprise of the point that there is no why in history. Moreover, in the novel, the historian David Irving's


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

revisionist account of this incident is taken more seriously than Bill's own personal memory of being there as a witness. In Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), the screaming of the V-rockets repeats previous disasters and promises a spectacle as great as the destruction of the Crystal Palace, the glass monument to the triumph of the capitalist utopia at the center of the 1851 Great Exhibition (it burnt down in 1936): A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it with now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it's all theatre. . . . He's afraid of the way the glass will fall - soon - it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible

We start at Absolute Zero, where Wernher von Braun 's rocketry links Nazi total war with the NASA space program in an apocalyptic vision of erotic fantasies of sadomasochistic ecstasy. This reminds us that "ground zero" derives from the atomic testing grounds in Alamogordo (see Davis 2003); the Manhattan Project is a code name for destruction that, in a macabre twist, has, as it were, struck home. The endgame dates from World War II, Vonnegut avers in Timequake, when the first atom bomb was dropped on Japan. Other literary dystopias show how much the imagined end in American fiction has become an essential element of postmodernist poetics. Don DeLillo's White Noise (1984) is about the imperceptible presence of death which has been invisibly introduced into the lives

of ordinary Americans (as the Chernobyl fall-out would do a year or

two later, an unseen disaster whose damage could not be contained by the habitual lies of the regime). The Airborne Toxic Event slides imperceptibly, namelessly, into the daily emergency routine of the crowd waiting anxiously to be told that the authorities know what is happening - waiting to be transported, processed, evacuated. But the difference between simulation and a real emergency has been eroded
" Pynchon 1975: 3. Quoting this passage, Anustup Basu notes the proximity of event
and phenomenon; failure to distinguish between these two categories of thought has made it possible to present 9/11 as a crisis situation without understanding "that which allows the screaming to both recur in a calendar of disasters, and at the same time, have an untimely and incomparable aspect to it" (2003: 11).

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


(a SIMUVAC official explains that they are using the real thing as an exercise!) In White Noise, moreover, the afterimage makes us think that we are seeing the real thing. This is as close as you can get, only we need to get closer: "Come on hurry up, plane crash footage." Then he was out the door, the girls were off the bed, all three of them running along
the hall to the TV set. I sat in bed a little stunned. The swiftness and noise of their

leaving had put the room in a state of molecular agitation. In the debris of invisible matter, the question seemed to be, What is happening here? By the time I got to the room at the end of the hall, there was only a puff of black smoke at the edge of the screen. But the crash was shown two more times, once in stopaction replay, as an analyst attempted to explain the reason for the plunge. (DeLiHo 1986: 64) The event is no longer an event but its afterimage, like the clip, endlessly replayed, of the second plane penetrating the World Trade Center. Zizek sees the repeated shots of the second plane crashing into the WTC as approximating the appeal of a snuff movie, the ultimate sadistic act endlessly repeated and prolonged in virtual reality (5-6,11). Every image of disaster, even if broadcast live by satellite, becomes an afterimage once it has happened. The afterimage of the disaster, Baudrillard tells us, feeds an insatiable hunger for worse, for a Bataillean excess: "Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping" (Baudrillard 2002: 11). In much the same way, the protagonist of Crash (1973) by J. G. Ballard, the science fiction author of a number of terminal apocalypses, is constantly on the lookout for
victims of more and more atrocious car crashes.

That America and especially New York can be understood only as images is the sustaining device of DeLillo's Mao II ( 1991 ), a work that
links international terrorism with the art of the novel in a metafictional

dystopian here and now. Even before the afterimage of their downfall
in real life, the Twin Towers exist only as an image, seen from the studio of Brita, a professional photographer who is turning her mental image of the writer Scott into publicity images: Out the south windows the Trade towers stood cut against the night intensely massed and near. This is the word "loomed" in all its prolonged and impending force. (DeLiIIo 1991: 87)


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

As in White Noise, the crowds are fixated by mass death. The mass

weddings of the Moon cult, Islamic fundamentalists greeting Khomeini, and the funeral of Chairman Mao are televised images that reflect the complete loss of individual human identity, as well as of community, of emotional connection. Everything is done by remote access and
routine. A bomb explosion is something that really happens, but it can

only be perceived in a fragmented image of a shard of glass, or as

a press event. Freedom is a concept tied to the media announcement

of a hostage's release. So powerful is an image that the photo of a corpse may be more important to the terrorists than any exchange or
deal. The Russian revolutionary slogan adopted by a German neo-Nazi group, "the worse the better," sums up the cynical state of affairs in

which only when you are killed are you noticed; prime-time ratings go
to mass killers and suicide bombers. While his hooded captors leave the kidnapped poet only images to grasp, another protagonist, Karen, discovers New York's own Beirut, a tent city of disaffected homeless drug addicts and illegals. DeLiIIo warned that hostage-taking was a rehearsal for mass terror, but his scenario of midair explosions and crumbling buildings, "the new tragic narrative" after Beckett (1991: 157), is, since 9/11, no longer a dystopia of the future. In a 1986 essay on New York (1989a: 13-24), Baudrillard likewise noticed the total isolation of the individual that makes relationships outside gangs unthinkable. The world's capital has reached a degree of atomization and crowdedness that has outstripped the agglomeration that baffled Friedrich Engels in the streets of London. The New York

Marathon, that "end of the world show," brings a message not of

victory but of catastrophe because each of the 17,000 runners suffers alone for the sake of the achievement of saying "I did it" (19-20). "I did it" sums up the mystical decadence of a vibrant and totalized city, its cold architecture, the animal attraction of skin color, and above

all the exhaustion of its Utopian projects, such as the space program,
once they, too, have been implemented. Further, "America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it

is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it

were already achieved." America has, indeed, become the "perfect simulacrum" (28).

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


The End before the End: Imagining the End of the World
Tout gratte-ciel est une utopie. Beigbeder 26 Another way of looking forward to the future end was to wait for the barbarians. The Greek poet from Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), mused on what would happen if the long expected
barbarians did not arrive: "So now what will become of us, without barbarians./ Those men were one sort of resolution."12 But these

necessary barbarian Others are no good if they are already here. As

Morris Berman, author of The Twilight of American Culture, writes in "Waiting for the Barbarians" (2001), the parallel between the fall of Rome and America after 9/11 is impressive because the decay caused by inner barbarism does not take account of the destruction

from without.13 The chronically bored hospital guard on duty in the

movie The Barbarian Invasions I Les Invasions Barbares (dir. Denys Arcand, Rmy Girard, and Stphane Rousseau, Canada, 2003) is not

particularly impressed by the repeated footage of the 9/11 catastrophe;

like T. S. Eliot's Tiresias, he probably feels he "has seen it all before," in the invasion of the civilized barbarians within his own society, in his own hospital, right by his desk. What in the title of his essay on 9/11 Don DeLiIIo calls the "Ruins of the Future" is a continuing disaster, precisely in the Utopian mass circulation of virtual goods and information: In the past decade the surge of capital markets has dominated discourse and shaped global consciousness. Multinational corporations have come to seem more vital and influential than

governments. The dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of

the internet summoned us all to live permanently in the future, in the Utopian glow of cyber-capital, because there is no memory
there, and this is where markets are uncontrolled and investment

potential has no limit. According to DeLiIIo, this is a disaster that literally ruins the Utopian future and demolishes social constructions of technological progress
12 "Waiting for the Barbarians" (Cavafy 2001: 93). 13 Merrill cites Cavafy's poem to make an argument for the power of literature to bring
empathy (2004: 74-79).


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

and endless happiness, leaving us with nothing to look forward to, only the memory of an end. The destruction from without is not the revolt

of the repressed and the needy against globalization but a force totally
Other and incomprehensible to the mind of the empire, untouched, as DeLiIIo tells us in his essay, by the woman in the supermarket, yet touching every aspect of the capitalist utopia, from its skyscrapers to
Palm Pilots.

It has been suggested (Abel 2003) that DeLillo's "The Ruins of the Future" may question our capability to respond because its rhetoricity determines the understanding of what 9/11 means. In other words, the imaging of the event may defer, though not totally suspend, any judgmental position, and the aesthetic statement of this dilemma impedes getting at the essence of what happened. A good illustration is the manipulation of the viewers' political stance through visual interpretation in Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11 (2003). Cinematic imaging prevents us from seeing the event itself, while hypermediation shapes public belief. DeLillo's real-time scenario of a Third-World country in which people wander helplessly in dust masks, clutching photos and descriptions of the disappeared, concludes with a surprising affirmation of a counternarrative to the Cold-War arms race or the Bush administration's

declaration of a (fourth) world war on "the evil ones." DeLiIIo speaks of the power of American technology, its own "astonishments," combined
with the multiethnicism of New York, to survive mindless attacks. Jean

Baudrillard sees it differently, as a millennial burst of terminal events that began with the death of Princess Diana and culminated with the mother of all events, 9/11.u The fascination with images of destruction imparts a desire for destruction embedded in the power structure itself, which enacts our dreams of its happening (see Baudrillard 2002: 5-6). The twin

destruction rules out accident and goes beyond any ideology,

energizing the absolute and irrevocable event: a zero-death game that
14In his 1989 essay "The Anorexic Ruins," Baudrillard announced that in a sense
the year 2000 would not take place because there were no more events; the end had been played out so many times that the postapocalyptic world was a rerun of a spectacle, while history, culture, and truth were absorbed by the simulated image. In Baudrillard's America this end of ends was located in the trajectory from the old culture of Europe to the utopia of America, where everything speeded to a terminal end. This postapocalyptic topos itself partakes of the apocalyptic myth of the Pilgrim Fathers (see Hefferman 171-72).

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


defies interpretation. The terrorists hijacked the media, in Baudrillard's analysis, because the "image consumes the event, in the sense that it absorbs it and offers it for consumption" as an "image event" (27). The fixation on afterimages of the event blocks out interpretive strategies that would "fit" this event into some historicizing, ideological, or ethical pattern, perhaps even into Baudrillard's own postmodernist antiallegories of counter-meaning. The striving for rational progress, for Utopian happiness, would then have to be reread as a premonition of an end that has already "happened" and is now being experienced in
what Baudrillard sees as a radical and violent reintroduction of a real

event into the proliferation of simulacra and banal images of pseudoevents. It is in this sense that "[t]he structure of the spectacle . . . 'revokes' the very Utopian desires . . . that its images 'provoke.'... It is this contradiction that is expressed by postmodern myth's perpetual oscillation between utopia and dystopia" (Durham 5).

The End of the End: The Postmodern Dystopia

En anglais, "end" ne signifie pas seulement la fin mais aussi l'extrmit. Beigbeder 20 Rereading dystopian fiction must contend with the loss of favor of utopianism in a consumerist mass-culture which values instant gratification and fetishizes material objects of desire. The egocentric meanness of "me-ness" stresses the individual at the expense of shared ideological goals. Family ties, group identity, or the collective tend not to be feelgood experiences in the global fastfood McDonald's empire. When power is in the hands of multinational corporations, Lyotard tells us, an anything-goes eclecticism characterizes a zero degree of culture, and "knowledge" is relegated to TV trivia games (1984: 76). Party or organized socialism has been widely discredited, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall many "isms" of all kinds have lost their hold, resulting in the collapse of the myth of progress (see Jacoby 1999: 1-27). In Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (2000), Susan Buck-Morss comments that Walter Benjamin's Traumwelt (dreamworld) of early commodity capitalism has been replaced by Adorno's diagnosis of "absolute reification of the


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

world" (see Adorno 1991,1: 40). Buck-Morss's reading of Benjamin's dreamworld and catastrophe as two "extremes of mass utopia" (2000: xi) disregards an essential aspect of Benjamin's concept of historical dynamics. For Benjamin, catastrophe is not opposed to dreamworld but is present already at the moment of the appearance of dreamworld images, since "every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself.

... we begin to recognize the monuments ... as ruins even before they
have crumbled" (Benjamin 1999:13). What Benjamin said of bourgeois
collective fantasies can be extended to the modern Western culture of

consumerism. Dreamworld carries the catastrophe within itself. But the formula can also be reversed: the catastrophe is an announcement
of a dreamworld of the future, if dreamworld is to be understood as

an assemblage of collective fantasies. Buck-Morss considers there to be little difference between Soviet Russia and America in this respect and points to a parallel vision and disillusionment in Russia and

America in the twentieth century: King Kong straddling the Empire

State building is contemporary with Stalinist monumental architecture

(Buck-Morss 17488). Tatlin's vision of mechanization of the body,

as in his Letatlin flying machine (1929-1932) or his constructivist design for the never built Monument to the Third International (1920), conveyed the futuristic dimension of technological utopianism that remained, however, no more than a dream for the masses (see Stites 1989). But Stalinist towers and palaces, symbols of totalitarian power, cannot be compared with the prominence skyscrapers in the American

dream, which consigned those excluded from them to the poverty of

the ghetto: no expression of opposition to Stalinism in any form was tolerated - and the day of avant-garde futurism in the Soviet Union was
all too short.

Seen from after 9/11, the twentieth century marks the twilight
of utopia. Dystopia has finally arrived because, on the one hand, the reconstitution of society seems impossible while, on the other, technology threatens basic concepts of individual freedom and of human life. It may be that modernity is simply a state of fatigue, as it was for Nietzsche, and that the world is slipping into idleness - the perpetual leisure that makes any other form of utopia unthinkable. Writing in 1888, Nietzsche asked: "Where does our modern world belong - to exhaustion or ascent?" His characterization of the epoch by the metaphor of fatigue was symptomatic of a general fear shared by the

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


European middle classes that humanity was depleting its "accumulated

energy" and falling into that sleep, which was "only a symbol of a much deeper and longer compulsion to rest."15 Against the background
of the pessimism that grew out of the wholesale slaughter of World War

I, Oscar Spengler 's Decline of the West (1918) and Freud's Civilization
and its Discontents (1930) can be seen as strong anti-utopian key texts. As for the more futuristic projects of modernism, their inebriating

Utopian spirit generated an expectancy curtailed by the trench warfare

of World War I and paradoxically suggested a future that would cancel

both the present and modernism itself.16 It is hardly surprising that, following the liberation of Europe in 1945, which revealed the Nazi concentration camps, and under the perceived threat of communist
invasion, there was a marked increase in new horror tales that depicted

impending, terminal disaster overtaking the mightiest nation in the

world (see Kumar 380-88).

Utopia was, of course, far from dead. Yet, despite renewed hopes of
scientific redemption, ecotopias, feminist utopias, suicidal millennial cults, and New Age ashrams, America continues to be the final dystopia in DeLillo's White Noise, while in Martin Amis' Time's Arrow (1991), which borrows Vonnegut's reversal of time to trace absolute evil to the black hole of Auschwitz, postmodern America has developed into a commodity-fetish culture producing garbage - a dystopian vision approaching Adorno's vision in Negative Dialectics of total reification in his critique of a society that constructs death factories. Postmodernism comes after, and it comes after disaster. Narrative time can no longer maintain the fallacy of linear progress toward a future-oriented better world. Benjamin's angel of history, as he read Paul Klee's ngelus Novus (1920), has its back to the future

and its face to the past: "Where we perceive a chain of events, he

sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon

wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The Angel would like to
stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them" (1973:
15 The Will to Power quoted in Rabinbach 1990: 19.
'6On the constructs of the future in modernism see Kern 89-102. Jean-Franois Lyotard has written of a similar paradox in a postmodern "rewriting" of modernity ( 1984:


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

259-60).17 In this revision of progress, a single disaster always faces the

angel of history as he is propelled backwards into the future; therefore, apocalypse should be seen not as the eternal return of a mythical end

that will always happen, but as the postapocalypse which has always
already happened and in whose ruins we live (cf. Robson 1995). Reread from this side of 9/11, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot explain an act of total violence for its own sake. O'Brien nevertheless convinces us that all totalizing systems may ultimately be invincible, or at least unbeatable by conventional means such as persuasion, diplomacy, negotiation, and military force. We recall that in "Shooting an Elephant" (1970, I: 265-72), Orwell tells us how, as a British policeman in Burma, he smelled the pure hatred of the crowd and knew that what would come after imperialist rule would be something worse than colonialism. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, terror and fear are means and objects of power. Orwell, who held the common post-World War II belief that an atomic war was about to begin, may also have sensed correctly that the superpower conflict would develop into an endless series of wars over disputed territories. He could not have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, though it has been suggested that the Truman Doctrine of endless global conflict was revived in the war on terrorism (Merrill 83). Nor does Orwell's dystopian world model foresee that the challenge to global capitalism might come from dormant cells of armed Islamic fundamentalist insurgents. Huxley, for his part, did not suspect that the Pleasure Dome might itself carry the seeds of its destruction in the

liberty and individual freedom that DeLiIIo parodied in White Noise.

Margaret Atwood has come to more hopeful conclusions. Tracing her own interest in English fantasy romances, such as Hudson's The Crystal Age (1867), she states (2004) that her dystopian fiction, The Handmaid's Tale, was begun in 1984 and was very much influenced by Orwell's novel (though written from the point of view of a character who corresponds to the seductive woman in Zamiatin, Huxley, and Orwell). Atwood (mis)reads Orwell optimistically, because the epilogue (the essay on Newspeak) leaves the retrospective impression that the regime

is a thing of the past and we can now speak of what went wrong. From a
1 ' Lyotard distinguishes between Benjamin's view of the Angel, who sees only disaster in the past, and a Hegelian approach, in which it is the "re-view" that "dis-asters" the past (1993: 146).

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


different cultural and historical perspective, Raffaella Baccolini (2004) has pointed to political and generic shifts, not least the rise of feminism, which marked the transition, in the nineties, from utopia to dystopia in critical discourse. Baccolini cites Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale among

other dystopian texts that give hope for the future. However, it should
be remembered that futuristic fictions tend to reflect cultural anxieties

of the present (for example, American fears of the monstrous and the savage in modernity projected in King Kong, urban fears of sexual

identity and violation in stories of extraterrestrial encounters, or fears of death by radiation in Cold War science fiction fantasies of the fifties). A Beautiful Ending: The Aesthetics of Destruction
Plus la science progresse, plus les accidents sont violents, plus les destructions sont belles. Beigbeder 163 Susan Sontag wrote of the thrill that movie viewers feel at the spectacle of the elaborate destruction of London, New York, and Tokyo and their shudder as the last vestiges of human life disappear (1966: 214). Destruction has an aesthetic appeal. The banality of evil rarely touches except on a grand scale and when the effects are visually spectacular, as in the collapse of a familiar landmark (particularly when it is a fixed cultural image); hence the attention given to imaginative drawings of the Tower of Babel and the shots of the collapsing Twin Towers, while less attention was paid to Five Mile Island or the Pentagon, as Paul Virilio has suggested in his 2002 multimedia show at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, Ce qui arrive. The show made a postNietzschean statement about the postmodern city, the era of disasters in a world of risk, the overwhelming rapidity of events, and the danger of technology. The realness of what happened was further removed because the Twin Towers were cinematically photogenic before they

were targeted.18
Because they can call upon images engraved in cultural memory, photographs, films, and videos of natural and man-made disasters are
18 See the exhibition on
html (November 15, 2004). Paul Virilio's essay of the same title, Ce qui arrive (Paris, 2002), was published in English as Ground Zero (2002). See also Smith 38-39.


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

commonly presented as postmodernist works of art that can fire the imagination with visions of destruction; for example, a Zeppelin in the New York sky evokes World War I aerial bombing and the burning to death of passengers on the Hindenburg in 1937 (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Peter Hutton, New York Portrait: Chapter Two, 1980-1981, black and white 16mm. film (from Ce qui arrive) Peter Hutton

Destruction can be beautiful, as in Baudrillard's lyrical description of the demolition of a New York skyscraper: Modern demolition is truly wonderful. As a spectacle it is the opposite of a rocket launch. The twenty-storey block remains perfectly vertical as it slides toward the center of the earth. It falls straight, with no loss of its upright bearing, like a tailor's dummy falling through a trap-door, and its own surface area absorbs the
rubble. What a marvelous modern art form this is, a match for the

firework displays of our childhood. (1989a: 17) For Virilio and Zizek, the spectacular deliberateness of the planned
spectacle of the 9/11 attack demonstrates the truth in Karl-Heinz

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


Stockhausen's provocative statement that the image of the planes

hitting the WTC towers was the ultimate work of art.19

Large-scale destruction is represented as an afterimage which refuses judgmental valuation. At the same time, such representations draw attention to their problematic status as aesthetic artefacts detached from mimetic representation, which display the unbelievable aftermath as a reality that will always be with us (see Rubinstein 15-25). The 2002 exhibition of photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, After September 11: Images from Ground Zero (Fig. 2), belies the real-time effect in the eerily spectral, irreversible after-ness of destruction. In "Smoke Rising Through Sunlight," the limp mechanical arm of a bulldozer hangs helplessly. The human figures are dwarfed by the scale of destruction, set in perspective by the ghostly sheen of skyscrapers silhouetted against the skyline, as if they were the unreal objects, not the unbelievable wreckage where there should be towers.

At the End, an Ending: The End of the "End-of-the-World"


L'criture de ce roman hyperraliste est rendue

difficile par la ralit elle-mme. Depuis le

11 septembre 2001, non seulement la ralit dpasse la fiction mais elle la dtruit. Beigbeder18 None of this is new, least of all the crisis of art caught between artefact and artifice. That the novel is caught in the same crisis, a product of

the very commodity culture which it satirizes, is illustrated by Frdric

Beigbeder's novel 99 Francs (2000) which takes its epigraph from Huxley's 1946 Foreword to Brave New World and its title from its

price tag (with the introduction of a unified European currency it was

reissued in 2002 as 14,99 Euros). The aesthetic effect of the revenant in our dystopian rereading of

literature is parodied in Beigbeder's metafictional novel that looks at

9/11, Windows on the World (2003). This novel records the last one and three-quarter hours before the mass death that brought together
19 See Zizek 11 ; Virilio 45. Neither quote Stockhausen directly or in context.


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

Fig. 2: "Smoke Rising Through Sunlight" Joel Meyerowitz, 2002

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


the people breakfasting in the restaurant called Windows on the World at the top of the north tower of the WTC. This stretch of time represents, Tristram Shandy fashion, a sequence of DVD images and the length of the novel (see p. 16). The end is already known to the reader at the beginning, and all those in the Windows on the World will be present at the end. As a cynical ex-copywriter, the narrator feels the restaurant should have been named differently, for it was both at the end of the world and the end of the story, but Americans prefer euphemism for the same superstitious reason that they do not have a thirteenth floor in their apartment blocks: "il y aurait eu un nom magnifique pour cet endroit, une marque sublime, humble et potique. 'END OF THE WORLD'" (20; "there should have been a magnificent name for this location, a sublime sign, humble and poetic. 'END OF THE WORLD'").The puzzling question whether Carthew will die in the narrative future or is already dead, having ended his life before he tells it as one of the victims in the narrative present, is clearly a parody of diarists such as D-503 and Winston Smith, who have been
brainwashed and/or eliminated and therefore do not exist as conscious

characters at the time of the narrative act. And, as if to press home the impossibility of describing this event or of documenting any event fully, we are given information available only later and unknown to
the victims in the restaurant: the reader, the narrator teases, is robbed

of suspense (74). Beigbeder's narrative collapses, like the Towers, into sick jokes, comparisons with countless other disasters and with the Tower of Pisa, alongside readings from the Tower of Babel passage in the Bible, Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris, and Huysmans's A Rebours. To keep them calm during the shaking caused by the impact and the smoke from the explosion, Carthew tells his children this is a special effect in an amusement park game (in imitation of Benigni), but it feels
like a scene from J. G. Ballard. Metafictional devices and references

in this novel to Baudrillard and Fukuyama on terrorism show just how derivative and inadequate any discourse on 9/11 as an event may be. 9/11 has become hyper-reality and hypertext. Beigbeder apparently
wants to demonstrate that more has come to an end than the restaurant at the end of the world. It is the end of a world. Just as the fall of

the Berlin wall ended the communist utopia, 9/11 ended the capitalist utopia (203). It is also the end of "end of the world" novels. This is an anti-novel in which there is no "happy end." The emergency number
9-11 does not answer.


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

We have imagined this happening before. However, this time the end has happened not as a science fiction fantasy but as dystopian fact. As Marleen Barr (2004) has suggested, 9/11 put an end to the distinction between speculation and reality in dismissive definitions of science fiction as a genre. This time, the real intrudes with a shock into

the imagined disaster movie, yet the fascination with the afterimage produces the effect of moving from virtual reality to the loss of a reality principle, a loss that Baudrillard (2002: 27-29) compares with
J. G. Ballard's reinvention of the real (following Borges). As Ballard

famously explained, it is like being left in an amusement arcade that

has no past, present, or future: To some extent the future has been annexed in the present, for most of us, and the notion of the future as an alternative scheme, as

an alternative world, to which we are moving, no longer exists.20

The liberal humanism with which Isaiah Berlin countered the excesses

of revolutionary utopianism sounds anachronistic in an age of terrorism and continual disaster, after the collapse of an Enlightenment metadiscourse of knowledge which worked toward a "good" ending of universal peace and happiness (see Lyotard 1984: xxiii-xiv). In his post9/11 novel Saturday (2005), Ian McEwan has a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, musing at a bedroom window overlooking a wintry night in central London, in the days leading up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, as disaster in the form of a burning plane lights the sky (the novel appeared before the bombing of central London in July 2005). A thug has been deterred from raping Perowne's daughter by hearing his naked and pregnant victim recite Matthew Arnold's lines in "Dover

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. (11. 34-37)

The rereading of Arnold's all too topical lines summons an unlikely empathy in a particularly brutish thug and holds out the possibility that
20BBC Radio 3 interview, November 9, 1971 (quoted in Kumar 404). Cf. Jameson's

remarks on the ideological and generic implications of the "cancelled future" for the
Utopian imagination.

A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11


literature may still have something to say after 9/11, yet it captures (again, in uncanny re-vision) the real violence of an endless dystopia that surpasses any fiction. Amid the unceasing private and public disasters, there seems to be little to hold onto save a moment of intimacy, of feeling happy to be alive. To Perowne the Utopian dreams of an Edwardian doctor standing at the same window one hundred years previously now seem quite mistaken. Utopian dreaming (which, according to Karl Mannheim's 1936 Ideology and Utopia, is a safeguard of understanding and controlling history) has given way to a neo-Darwinian survival of the
luckiest in a random series of events that, as Perowne sees it, could turn

out, like Schrdinger's Cat, to be equally terrorist attacks and unfounded suspicions. Since 9/11, knowledge based on belief or disbelief can no longer hold against the worst possible eventuality. There are no more possible worlds or alternate histories as in a Philip C. Dick novel or McEwan's own playfully metafictional Atonement; there is only the nightmare of a real newness in a cosmic uncertainty. The world has stopped feeling safe, and in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), nine-year old Oskar Schell tells us what that is like in a stream of consciousness that blends the styles of Salinger and Sebald. Oskar lost his father in the collapse of the WTC, and he has stored the unanswered phone messages from his father trapped in the towers, as unanswerable as the messages on which Beigbeder based his novel. This is a testimony of private pain and total loss, of a hole at the center of the self, which links 9/11 with the Dresden fire-bombing and Hiroshima. Oskar has found a key which, he thinks, will unlock the secrets of his father's legacy but which actually opens only random lives of strangers in Manhattan. We might conclude with Stephen Hawking's reply to the boy's fan letters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In his novel Foer imagines that Steven Hawking composes a letter to the boy in which he has Einstein say that our view of the Universe is like standing in front of a closed box which we cannot open. Given this principle of uncertainty, the present becomes an endless sequence of moments of destruction. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the citizens of Western countries seemed to be transfixed by the afterimages of continual disaster, while powerless to avert a future that had already happened. Dystopia may have, in the end, no future and no end.


Efraim Sicher and Natalia Skradol

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