In the United States after September 11, 2001, we have watched our civil liberties coming down and with them, like some twin tower, the end of even the pretense of reasonable or respectful international relations on the part of the U.S. government. When violence - of any sort - is done in one's name, violence is done by and to oneself. The horror of war casting itself into the future, masquerading as "preventive," is close to unspeakable. The lack of other means to conflict resolution is deeply suspect. If historically the U.S. has attempted to keep its violences, global and national, discreet, in the case of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," covert has become coverage. And yet, the extent of the so-called coverage strangely rendered agendas as covert as they have ever been. Journalists became "embedded" with soldiers, and recent images of war were so constant, that there seemed to be as little news in news as there was "reality" in the current U.S. thrall to "reality TV." All day every day, in the months before the war was declared over on May 1, one could have seen death "live" - piped into one's living room, one's bed room, one's kitchen, wherever one had hooked up the televisual box, the digi-video porthole to corporate America, running a.v. like an I.V. - the TV - pulse of outside on the inside, inside become outside, giving away the ruse of any distinction between such binaries as distance inverted instantaneously into breath, rubble, dust - sand.
Mostly, one saw buildings blowing up, then soldiers in desert khaki walking through rubble. Just as often one saw soldiers, in line, kicking down a front door. Inside were women, scripted by news narrators as "happy" - happy to "greet the American liberators." Their faces registered confusion and hope, but also shame and fear. My face registered the same - at the other portal end of the televisual network. Is it my eyeball that bangs down the door? The box threaded its network way across America, displaying Iraqi insides, while every second car and truck in the U.S. displayed the American flag. The new fad of sporting televisions inside one's car (to occupy one's kids) meant that the "war on terrorism" could be mobile, carted about from soccer game to Church supper to academic lecture to golfing match.
In a diner in Manhattan in mid March, 2003, I heard the waitress, two booths away, call back to the kitchen "Hamburger and French Fries." In a moment, a manager or a cook shouted quite loudly back: "Freedom Fries! We only serve Freedom Fries!" Over such a scene - the entire conflict at the level of a sliver of potato - columns of potatoes served in bowls or sometimes in paper cartons, or on plates, dashed in salt, smothered in ketchup - over such a banal object of ingestion: the most current war. Then this manager, or this cook, came out of the kitchen. This was the cast: the manager, a large, middle-aged, African-American man in a suit - yes, a manager, not a cook - and this waitress, a tall, middle-aged, platinum blond, white with a deep Queens accent - I could not see the patrons two booths away who ordered the offending fries - but then there was me, mid-life white academic from Rhode Island, the Smallest State in the Union - up on my feet now - struggling to take a stand, to articulate the international situation on the level of nationalized food. Was I ready to leave the restaurant over this? I wondered at this manager's vehemence. Did he lose someone in the towers? Is his son, his daughter, in Iraq? He had shouted "Freedom Fries" so angrily I had jumped out of my seat. The waitress hardly missed a beat: "French Fries/Freedom Fries - whatever." Then she said out of range of his hearing, "Sit down, honey." She practically cooed: "I'll bring you coffee." I sat down. I drank my coffee.
Everyday we witness the constant negotiation between the monumental and the banal - the larger than life image or event and the stream of life that passes by, that courses through, that navigates the ordinary through the wider edifices of our collective symbols (monuments) and collective actions (war). Writers like Michel de Certeau and Naomi Schor argued in the 1970s and '80s that to focus on the banal (the stray detail), to shift the our sites of discourse away from the edificial, the emblematic, the grand perspective from the skyscraper to that which passes by or is easily overlooked or discarded is a shift in attention that can be, in some ways, resistant to master narratives, master plans, and events of mastery (such as war).
I would like to discuss the opening of de Certeau's well-known essay, "Walking in the City," in some detail. De Certeau begins the essay with, strangely, a sentence fragment - a sentence not complete in itself: "Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center" (91). It fascinates me that this opening should be a fragment, truncated of itself, incomplete. The sentence itself is thus a column of words reaching only so far, but no farther - interrupted by a period, falling off, cut to a quick end. "Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, period." But we read on - we look beyond this first pedestal-like sentence to get the view: and we are given a lyric description of expanse - complete, punctuated to aid flow, and beautiful (in translation):
Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. (de Certeau 91)
We are rescued by this sentence into sense and delivered to the promise (the promise of a perspectival gaze) that there is space "beyond Harlem." But the flow of the second sentence, and its lyrical beyond, is haunted by the fragment that set its stage: "Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, period." By the end of the page that stretches beneath these two sentences (one truncated the other languid), de Certeau has called the towers: "the tallest letters in the world" and told us that they "compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production." Turn the page and de Certeau is orchestrating his famous "Icarian fall" (92) in order to bring his readers down among the footsteps of the passersby:
The ordinary practitioners of the city live "down below," below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk - an elementary form of experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban "text" they write without being able to read it. [. . .] The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. [. . .] The networks of these moving intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other. (93)
The hope, as de Certeau's famous essay unfolds, is that in and through the "daily" and the "indefinitely other" of the banal detail, the footsteps, say, we can somehow interrupt the agendas of the monumental, or better, understand the frenzied ways in which they work in tandem. What are they ways they work in tandem? The banal detail of the everyday props the whole, bit by bit composing the whole, and yet (in Proustian and Barthesian logic) the detail simultaneously serves as the hole that might serve as puncture point, or punctum, through which the edificial could be completely reorganized. As Naomi Schor reminded in her important feminist study Reading in Detail, the whole depends upon the relegation of the detail to insignificance, to the "soon to be forgotten" or to "the feminized," the "overlooked." And yet this very banality - articulated as banal - creates what de Certeau calls an "oceanic rumble" - it both composes the ocean, and is, like any single drop, in extreme distinction to the monumentality it composes (de Certeau 5). (Click here for an image.)