“Skyscrapers and Democratic Institutions”:

Trauma and Politics in Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers

15 years ago, the United States were attacked by al-Qaeda on a day that would have a lasting political, economical, and cultural impact on America and arguably the rest of the world. More than any other event in recent American history, 9/11 triggered a wave of fictional works that tried to deal with its implications and meaning. One comic book that falls into that category is Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers which is notable for incorporating an awareness of discourses of trauma and their limits, an approach that had already been evident in Maus, but that was given a renewed, wider relevance after 9/11. After a quick look at trauma theory and its implications for literary theory after 9/11, we will examine how these concepts are reflected in Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers.

According to trauma theory, trauma at the same time resists integration into and erasure from the mind which leads to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Using Freudian terms that were updated by Dominick LaCapra, there are two ways to deal with this condition; one is called melancholy (or “acting out”) and refers to the repression of trauma-related memory, while the other, mourning (or “working through”), describes the act of fitting the traumatic event into a coherent whole. Unlike the mourner, the melancholic is incapable of converting his traumatic memory into a narrative one. Instead, he “acts out”, i.e. relives, his traumatic past in a post-traumatic present – a continuous rupture. This fidelity to trauma can be seen as a form of survivor guilt that implies that coming to terms with one’s trauma is seen as a betrayal of lost ones.

These two concepts found their equivalents in literary theory in the aftermath of 9/11. They are referred to as narratives of continuity and discontinuity, respectively. Versluys argues in Out of the Blue that the September 11 attacks caused a complete rupture. As his book’s title suggests, 9/11 cannot be explained and “fit into a coherent whole”. It is impossible to relate it to anything that has happened before or since, because its sheer scope cannot be grasped by any individual. This narrative of discontinuity mirrors some aspects of Freudian melancholy, such as the lack of capability to turn the traumatic memory into a narrative one, instead reliving the horrible event over and over again, stressing its uniqueness.

This view was criticised by Holloway, Rothberg, Gray, Mishra and others. Holloway argues in 9/11 and the War on Terror for a continuous narrative of pre- and post-9/11 worlds – or what we will call a narrative of continuity – instead of Versluys’ narrative of discontinuity. In Freudian terms, Holloway calls for mourning instead of melancholy, “working through” the trauma of 9/11 and fitting it into a coherent narrative. According to Holloway, the idea of a complete rupture served as an ideological lynchpin for the Bush Doctrine. The following pre-emptive military aggressions and the intense national securitisation were both possible because according to the President’s rhetoric, “everything had changed.” However, he notes that there was a tension between this rhetoric of rupture and the nostalgia of the Bush Doctrine; there was a declaration of a new world order and, simultaneously, a retreat into the past. Suddenly, American politics and culture were packed with Lone Ranger, John Wayne, and Davy Crockett figures. In literary terms, Rothberg, Gray, and Mishra among others criticised literature’s new focus on the American domestic and traumatised individuals, couples, and families. They stressed that this emphasis on (individual) trauma would de-politicise the attacks and that the focus on trauma reinforced the liberal-conservative consensus that any attempt to explain the events would result in excusing them.

Recent years have seen a debate on how these two conflicting narratives relate to each other. While Kenniston and Quinn argue in Literature after 9/11 that there has been a transition from narratives of rupture to narratives of continuity, others – including Arin Keeble in The 9/11 Novel – say that there has been a movement towards dialectical reconciliation that explores both rupture and continuity. This is in line with a dominant view within trauma theory that, as Judith Herman puts it in Trauma and Recovery, the central dialectic of psychological trauma is a “conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud.”

Although the literary equivalent of this dialectic is considered by some to have been a movement or a transition that emerged out of the initial confrontation, as early as 2002, Art Spiegelman began working on a comic that would explore trauma as fundamentally continuous, not a complete rupture. In the Shadow of No Towers was originally serialised in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit with excerpts also appearing in the British daily newspaper The Independent followed by another serialisation in the London Review of Books before Viking Books released the collected strips for the American market in 2004. Its publishing history already hints at Spiegelman’s inability to secure publication in any mainstream American media because its politics were too challenging to American publishers at the time.

In the Shadow of No Towers is noteworthy for its awareness of discourses of trauma which was already evident in Spiegelman’s seminal work Maus. It explicitly discusses trauma, awareness of trauma theory, and PTSD. As already mentioned, there is a dialectical tension between narratives of continuity and discontinuity with trauma generally relating to the latter. This dialectical conflict is mirrored within the aforementioned discourse of trauma between the need for articulation and the inexpressible. Spiegelman extends these problems of articulation to problems of representation. If a traumatic event is “un-representable”, how do you deal with it using a predominantly visual medium? These dialectics of trauma are the central layer of In the Shadow of No Towers‘ conflictedness.

Some aspects of Spiegelman’s comic suggest the existence of rupture and trauma, such as the expression “the new normal” or various leitmotifs like the glowing bones of the twin towers – that are different on every plate, showing that traumatic memory is vivid but unstable – Maus characters, and turn-of-the-century comic strips that mirror the traumatic repetition essential to the concept of melancholy. However, the character’s personal trauma coexists with a narrative of political dissent. Both his trauma and his attempts at a narrative of continuity are entangled in personal and polticised strands. There is no transition from one narrative to the next, but both narratives correspond to and complement each another from the beginning. Not for the first time in Spiegelman’s oeuvre, there is a collision of world history and personal history.

The central concern of Spiegelman’s narrative is working through trauma while simultaneously remaining politically engaged. While the comic’s narrator deals with his trauma, there is an eagle with an Uncle Sam hat around his neck uttering expressions like “everything’s changed” and “go out and shop!” that resemble post-9/11 media and government rhetoric. The eagle around the protagonist’s neck that symbolises enforced nationalism satirises the conflicted nature of the rhetoric of rupture; we are told that everything has changed and to go out and shop. On the one hand, there is a complete rupture, but on the other hand we are supposed to uphold the status quo and resume capitalism.

Despite its focus on trauma, In the Shadow of No Towers largely dismisses the idea of complete rupture. With its references to Auschwitz, Maus, and Jewishness, there is a strong autobiographical aspect to it that confronts the reader with a discourse of trauma and its limitations. Nevertheless, this emphasis on individuality also undermines the government’s appropriation of 9/11 by reflecting the diversity of trauma instead of its collective nature. This reflection on individuality stresses the victims’ (and New York’s) plurality instead of the prevailing “us vs. them”-rhetoric at the time. This individualisation of the multitude is particularly effective in aggregate. In the narrator’s case, his personal history of Auschwitz and 9/11 traumas lends credibility and authority to his account while pushing the text into political spheres. Which government official or media representative would dare to dismiss the account of someone who experienced the traumatic event firsthand? How do you want to explain 9/11′s uniqueness to someone whose personal history is linked to Auschwitz? Spiegelman seems unconvinced and mentions the “twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.” In the Shadow of No Towers‘ oversized board book collection includes a supplement of Katzenjammer Kids and other early comic strips that show history as violent and cyclical. There is also a reimagining of The World‘s 1901 front page about President McKinley’s bullet wound’s reopening. The implication is that history is a series of traumatic events that reopen never-healing wounds.

This abstract historical continuum the comic hints at leads to a contemporary politicised narrative that ultimately creates a smaller, more focused, more condensed version of the aforementioned narrative of continuity. The comic’s narrator explicitly mentions his double-trauma of 9/11 and the presidential election of 2000. This clearly political rhetoric contextualises 9/11 within pre- and post-9/11 politics, from the controversial election 2000 to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the securitisation of national politics along with its renewed focus on nationalism.

While everyone else was still debating whether to engage with individual trauma or a political narrative, Spiegelman created a work where both strands coexisted, even mentioning in the introduction the collapse of “skyscrapers and democratic institutions” which reflect both trauma and politics. In fact, his personal trauma gives depth to his political dissent. In one panel, a tv screen is covered by the American flag, indicating the patriotic “hijacking” of 9/11 by the media which is set against the narrator’s personal, authentic account. This juxtaposition gives him greater authority to deal with 9/11, anticipating suggestions that his political dissent flies in the face of the victims’ traumas. He even suggests that it is the media and the government who are not honouring 9/11 properly, since they “tried to wrap a flag around my head and suffocate me.” Their response to 9/11 is flawed, wrong, and opportunistic. In one panel, the narrator takes cover under an American flag but states that he “should feel safer under here, but – damn it – I can’t see a thing.” Patriotism blinds you.

With In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman was ahead of his time. Not only in terms of the metafictional relationship between trauma and politics in American literature, but also literally. While America’s literary establishment was still dealing with personal trauma and the domestic, un-political implications of this great injustice that had happened to them, immersed in self-reflexion, Spiegelman’s burning towers in In the Shadow‘s last comic strip were starting to fade. 9/11 has a post-history.

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Rafael Alves Azevedo lives in Germany and has a master's degree in English, History, and Education. Despite his interest in politics, art, and culture, he firmly believes that association football is the most important thing in life and supports Benfica Lisbon. However, he is well known for his questionable beliefs, such as insisting that Rocky IV is the best film ever made and that 1980’s Italo pop is superior to other musical genres.

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