9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

Thomas Stubblefield
Distribution: World
Publication date: 12/17/2014
Format: Hardback 39 b&w illus.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01549-5
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Winner, NEPCA Rollins Book Award

The day the towers fell, indelible images of plummeting rubble, fire, and falling bodies were imprinted in the memories of people around the world. Images that were caught in the media loop after the disaster and coverage of the attack, its aftermath, and the wars that followed reflected a pervasive tendency to treat these tragic events as spectacle. Though the collapse of the World Trade Center was "the most photographed disaster in history," it failed to yield a single noteworthy image of carnage. Thomas Stubblefield argues that the absence within these spectacular images is the paradox of 9/11 visual culture, which foregrounds the visual experience as it obscures the event in absence, erasure, and invisibility. From the spectral presence of the Tribute in Light to Art Spiegelman's nearly blank New Yorker cover, and from the elimination of the Twin Towers from television shows and films to the monumental cavities of Michael Arad's 9/11 memorial, the void became the visual shorthand for the incident. By examining configurations of invisibility and erasure across the media of photography, film, monuments, graphic novels, and digital representation, Stubblefield interprets the post-9/11 presence of absence as the reaffirmation of national identity that implicitly laid the groundwork for the impending invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Author Bio

Thomas Stubblefield is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.


“How can artworks elicit effective collective action? For a long time, contemporary art has been celebrated for its deployment of emptiness and absence as political strategies. Thomas Stubblefield convincingly demonstrates that this discourse doesn't work any more, and that deferring to participants to 'complete' the work has also become a lazy artistic strategy. In close examinations of the production and reception of monuments to disaster, he stirringly argues that discourses of participation and therapy supplant collective action and prepare people, once again, to receive the rhetoric of war.”
 — Laura Marks, author of Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art

“An engaging book with challenging things to say about post-9/11 artistic strategies, the subjectivity of viewers, and the representational paradoxes at the heart of 9/11 art.”
 — Jeffrey Melnick, author of 9/11 Culture

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Spectacle and Its Other
1. From Latent to Live: Disaster Photography after the Digital Turn
2. Origins of Affect: The Falling Body and Other Symptoms of Cinema
3. Remembering-Images: Empty Cities, Machinic Vision, and the Post-9/11 Imaginary
4. Lights, Camera, Iconoclasm: How Do Monuments Die and Live to Tell about It?
5. The Failure of the Failure of Images: The Crisis of the Unrepresentable from the Graphic Novel to the 9/11 Memorial