Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Virtue of Selfies

9/11 Memorial Museum


It’s May 2014, and the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York will soon open its doors to the public. For the time being, visitors have to content themselves with glimpses from the exterior of the torqued, angular, imposing structure. Many can’t resist snapping a self-portrait at the site, notes an architect from Snøhetta, the firm that designed the building.

“It’s proving a popular place for selfies,” says the architect Craig Dykers, watching visitors capture their reflected faces melding with the scorched structures inside. “If we can get someone to smile or have a giggle at a place of such sorrow,” he adds, “we’ve done our job” (The Guardian, 5/14, 2014)

Dykers strikes a populist note as he considers how the space will be used, appropriated and perhaps even remade by its visitors: the “practices of space” Michel de Certeau hauntingly described from this very spot as the critic plunged from the top of the towers in an imagined “Icarian fall.” And yet it seems oddly inapt to gauge the Museum’s success on the basis of a giggling selfie. After all, what other modern site of mass death and destruction invites such a response?

When the Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” its Word of the Year in 2013, the editors traced its earliest recorded usage to an online social forum in September 2002. Is it more than a coincidence that the word first appeared at the turn of the millennium, close on the heels of 9/11? Did the shared events of 9/11 permanently twin our self-image with conflagration and collapse, our “reflected faces melding with the scorched structures” as The Guardian puts it? The word’s first usage, appropriately enough, combined a scene of self-portraiture with a grotesque accident, and ever since, selfie has carried the mixed connotations of narcissism and overexposure, individuality and replication, the momentary and the ubiquitous. Origins tend to put us in an allegorical mind, so it seems fitting that the urquote not only obliquely indexes the millennium with its reference to a 21st anniversary, but also makes the selfie’s cheerful smile expose a rictus beneath, teeth literally slicing out through the lip:

Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie (ABC Online (forum posting) 13 Sept, 2002).

The Purgatory Press is haunted by the events of 9/11, but is even more traumatized by the Bush years they ushered in. The catalogue of imaginary books published under that title includes two that have direct links to the attacks on the World Trade Center. One of those catalogue entries, titled “Chuck Banning, Self-Portraits,” describes the work of a photographer who persished at the site. The piece might have been titledPP&AE Cover “Selfies,” but in 2009, when the piece was first drafted, the word was still relatively unknown (the book was released in 2013). We reprint the story here, on the occasion of the long-awaited opening of the 9/11 Museum.

Chuck Banning, Self-Portraits

Had he lived into this century, Chuck Banning’s career would have blossomed. The photographer thrived on catastrophe. We can only imagine him in Iraq in 2003, in New Orleans in 2005, on Wall Street in 2008, in Gaza in 2009. He disappeared, however, on September 11, 2001, attempting to photograph himself in front of the still-burning North Tower of the World Trade Center, no doubt with his signature smile.

Banning gained notoriety after his visits to Sarajevo and Rwanda, where he made the first of his infamous self-portraits. Clad always in a pale blue polo shirt and crisp chinos, the photographer stood with a broad, fatuous and blank smile in front of scenes of the most appalling wretchedness and horror. Of the photographs in this collection, the portraits from Rwanda are the most graphic and unsettling. There Banning benefited, so to speak, from the slow rescue and recovery following the massacres in 1994. In each of these photos, Banning’s smile is an obscenity that draws our ire. Is that enjoyment we see on his face? Isn’t he smiling in complicity? How else can he present such a look of contentment and self-satisfaction? Our reactions are not aided, on the contrary, by Banning’s public persona that is bland, cordial, banal. Like one of Jeff Koons’ cheerfully kitsch chrome sculptures, Banning’s portraits reflect our own distorted image in their glossy surfaces.

Banning has been called “a glorified ambulance-chaser,” “a postmodern Weegee,” and “an amoral peddler of kitch horror.” Jamaica Kincaid, reviewing Banning’s Rwanda portraits in The New Yorker, delivered a withering indictment of his “smug scorn for human lives strewn like the collateral damage of his own conquering vanity.” And yet such criticism seems all-too ready to identify Banning the author with the persona pictured in his photographs, an effect Banning himself fostered in his Warhol-like cultivation of a blank public image. One might instead see these photos as impersonal and ironic versions of the mundane spoils of tourism, such as critiqued by Kincaid herself in her essay A Small Place. Indeed, they fully corroborate Kincaid’s memorably blunt depiction of the typical tourist as “an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there.” As Kincaid has shown, tourists’ vacation pleasures exploit the cheapness of life in places they temporarily grace with their dollars. Banning’s portraits make such exploitation violently explicit, but by eliciting revulsion they tend to short-circuit our critical judgment. Strangely, in so doing they can make the viewer a kind of tourist; if a tourist is precisely someone who resents other tourists, to hate Banning’s smiling face would be a vain reflex of defensive misrecognition and our disgust a blind recoil from the proof of our own voyeuristic privilege.

In November 1998, Banning traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, where a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, had been murdered a month earlier. The hate crime drew national attention and Laramie became the site of heated confrontations between gay rights activists and religious homophobes. The fence where the young man was strung up to die became a meeting place and makeshift shrine for Shepard’s friends and supporters. Here Banning took the photo that led to his wider notoriety (32). The picture shows a stretch of fence piled high with a colorful riot of flowers, wreaths, notes of sympathy and protest placards. Several figures by the fence stand and kneel in poses that evoke figures of classical religious iconography, an impression heightened by a glorious backdrop of high clouds and angled shafts of sunlight. A young mother cradles a child, a pietà in overalls; a group near the fence suggests witnesses to the crucifixion. This allegorical dimension combined with the jarring anachronism of contemporary clothing makes Banning’s scene resemble a photograph by Jeff Wall. And yet unlike the latter’s work this image is not staged; to the left a group of mourners have turned to look in stunned disbelief at Banning’s smiling face, while one face among them is directed at the camera, and thus toward the viewer. The image is something of a miracle, and it is surely the photographer’s masterpiece. Reflected here among the figures in the scene are our own pious sentiments, our questioning of the artist, and our interrogating gaze. One cannot help feeling that the image is marred only by Banning’s vapidly smiling presence. And yet, of course, it is his presence on the scene that made this rich photo possible, orchestrating a complex play of visual perspectives akin to Courbet’s reflexive self-portrait The Painter in his Studio. And like Courbet’s allegorical painting, it displays an image within an image, a figment within a fiction, an illusion of reality conjured as if by magic by the artist’s “conquering vanity.”

66 pp.

Browse The Purgatory Press at Amazon.


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The past week was a boon for grammar scolds. In what seemed like the answer to a prescriptivist’s dreams, a free widget was launched that eliminates the word ‘literally’ from websites viewed on your computer’s browser. At the Chrome web store, where it currently has a 4.5 star rating, the product’s function is stated with wry straightforwardness: “Replaces the word ‘literally’ with ‘figuratively’. That’s literally all it does.” The plugin is somewhat clunky, though, as it can’t tell the difference between proper and irregular uses of the word and substitutes ‘figuratively’ for all. Of course the program is basically an amusing gadget, and yet it allows its users to act as though they finally brandished the ultimate corrective tool, a magic wand to rid them of their worst pet peeve, abolishing the offense in a single stroke, once and for all, without further adieu.

delete-button_2Are grammar scolds tyrants in disguise? Does the demand for correct usage mask an authoritarian personality? No doubt language choices bear on one’s political leanings, just as they do one’s character. Somewhat alarmingly, the “Literally” browser plugin allows us to glimpse a future in which proper language could conceivably be dictated from on high. But prescriptive grammarians should remember that William Safire, the New York Times’ longtime arbiter of proper language usage, ultimately disgraced himself and abused his post at the Times to become a tub-thumping advocate for the second Iraq war and a shameless conduit of disinformation.

DEADDescriptive linguists and liberal-minded commentators take a more nuanced view of the popular usage of ‘literally.’ A column in The Guardian by Ben Masters helpfully reminds us that Joyce’s consummate short story “The Dead” begins with the apparently malformed sentence, “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Clearly the irregular word is well chosen, as it adds a lilt to the sentence and an alliterative patter of consonants that — literally? — allow us to hear the girl’s scampering feet. Moreover, Joyce exploits the duplicity of the term as well as its different valences on separate verbal registers. Even in its official definition, after all, ‘literally’ is somewhat equivocal; while the term presumably designates things to be taken as fact and reality, it always does so via the letter. In this sense, a ‘literal’ truth is a truth mediated in and through language. And so the supposed misuse at the start of “The Dead” foreshadows what will occur when the story takes a virtual swerve into the supernatural. Is it the actual ghost of Michael Furey who haunts the story and damns the protagonist to his lonely suffering at the end? There’s no telling. A ghost is always an ambiguous figure, shuttling between the literal and figural, broken-piano-keys_2handed down in speech, hearsay, vicarious experience and “distant music.” It can’t shake its scare quotes; at most it is a “‘real’ ghost” (to cite Jacques Derrida citing Freud citing Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva).

In the Guardian column Masters ventures some ideas about what the popular usage of ‘literally’ might say about our “insecurity,” our “disregard for accuracy,” our tendency for “deferring reality” even as we long for “universality” and “objective truths.” The last points are well taken. While literary-minded people may accept the mediated nature of experience and knowledge, what happens when facts need establishing and words have to be distinguished from deeds? When justice depends on the brute facts and solid evidence? Here no simple empiricism will help us. Instead we need a more forcefully political understanding of the symbolic field in which we stake our claims to reality: an “American Grammar Book,” to adopt Hortense Spillers’ expression.*

Spillers’ seemingly dry and pedantic notion of an “American Grammar Book” is in fact a thoroughgoing challenge to the careless conflation of truth and letter as well as a refusal to separate the two. This double effort, paradoxical on the face of it, arises from the scholar’s determination to account for the very real suffering of African-Americans and indigenous people as perpetuated in language, for the “American grammar” constitutes a “symbolic order” of a unique kind, founded in an exceedingly violent historical “rupture” that is “written in blood.” “That order,” Spillers says, “with its human sequence written in blood, represents [author’s emphasis] for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual [author’s emphasis] mutilation, dismemberment, and exile” (67). Within such a perverse symbolic order there is no distinguishing the actual from the representation, and for the same reason the brutal American “hieroglyphics of the flesh” make it possible for tortures marked on the body to be passed down to us: “this phenomenon of marking and branding actually ‘transfers’ from one generation to another.” As a result, “Sticks and bricks might break our bones,” Spillers says, “but words will most certainly kill us.” It would be redundant to add literally.

Anyone who fools around with the “Literally” plugin and has tweeted, shared or otherwise joined in the recent web chatter about the distinction between literal and figurative should be chastened by this bracing and illuminating passage:

The captive body, then, brings into focus a gathering of social realities as well as a metaphor for value so thoroughly interwoven in their literal and figurative emphases that distinctions between them are virtually useless. Even though the captive flesh/body has been ‘liberated,’ and no one need pretend that even the quotation marks do not matter, dominant symbolic activity, the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, shows movement, as the human subject is ‘murdered’ over and over again (68).

Spillers published her “Grammar Book” the same year Toni Morrison releasedMorrison Beloved-1 Beloved, the novel in which a spiteful ghost child channels the virtually unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage. One critic, citing Baldwin, states that “Morrison’s achievement is both to reveal the limitations and assumptions of the “American vocabulary” and […] do a necessary “great violence” to conventional language.”** For her part, Spillers says that “those African persons in ‘Middle Passage’ were literally [sic] suspended in the ‘oceanic,’ if we think of the latter in its Freudian orientation,” adding that they were “culturally unmade” in the process and “thrown in the midst of a figurative [sic] darkness.”

Who would dare to deform these assertions with a grammar widget? The abuse of ‘literally’ in this context — and symptomatically in the larger context of American grammar — is the trace of a violence endured and passed on in violated speech and sound.

* Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, summer 1987.

** Cynthia Dobbs, “Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” African American Review, winter 1998, 568.


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