By Elizabeth Castelli
Professor of Religion


The 10th anniversary of 9/11 has loomed large in the physical, visual, and psychic spaces of New Yorkers, the rest of the nation, and perhaps the world. The long-awaited memorial at the site of the former towers has just opened, and over the weekend CNN was inviting viewers “to watch how the day unfolded,” while a series of memorial events—ostensibly private (only for the families) but in fact public (broadcast on multiple local stations and national television networks)—staged now-familiar rituals: the reading of the names of the dead, the personal testimonies of surviving relatives whose voices often break with still-fresh grief, the solemn promises to remember. Meanwhile, concerts and artistic performances, academic/activist panels in colleges and universities, gatherings of peace activists in Union Square—all of these elements become part of the ongoing project of commemoration, the creation and sustenance of memory, 10 years on.

Commemoration as ceremonial, as tonic or therapy or political act, a set of simultaneous and paradoxical performances: holding on but also letting go. In the midst of it, contestations and debates and criticisms and ironic evocations and counterfactual fantasies and over-identifications by those on the fringes of loss, seeking a place for themselves in the story. Calamity and catastrophe, it turns out, are culturally generative: New York Magazine’s special double issue, “9/11: One Day, Ten Years,” includes in its “Encyclopedia of 9/11an eye-catching graphic that charts some of the cultural responses to the attacks: dozens of works of art, music, fiction, theatre, television, film, poetry, comic books, as well as “video games, zoetropes, and other uncategorizables.”

Pieties are shelved right next to provocations, the latter still possessing a capacity to sting: It would take a few years for a work like Ken Kalfus’s novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, to appear, dark comedy edging solemnity out of the frame in this novel that portrays the two members of a bitterly divorcing couple each mistakenly believing the other has been killed in the attacks and soon discovering, to their mutual chagrin, that both are not only still alive but still laying claim to their marital apartment. Meanwhile, a decade after the attacks, an image that dares to call satirical attention to the too-easy commodifications of memory pokes unsettlingly at one’s sense of propriety.

Back at Ground Zero, should religious leaders have been asked to pray at the public memorial service? Does a cross-shaped steel beam extracted from the wreckage 10 years ago, an accidental artifact imbued over time with theological significance, belong in the memorial or should it be excluded? What ought to be done about a painfully inapt literary quotation, one celebrating a spectacular revenge fantasy in an ancient Roman epic, now carved so permanently on one surface of the memorial? Whose religion is central and whose marginal, and what is religion’s proper place as the nation recalibrates itself from its Cold War obsession over godless Communism toward the War on Terror’s obsession with godful Islamism, America transformed in the process into a theological Goldilocks—the one possessing just the right amount of God? And what if, Amy Waldman asks in her just-published novel, The Submission, the winning memorial design had been created by an American Muslim?

Commemoration, I would venture, is all of these things at once: the rituals of remembrance and shared grief, right alongside the pitched debates over inclusions and exclusions, good and bad taste, incommensurate politics and theologies, zoetropes and other uncategorizables. How could it be otherwise when memory itself is so often fragmentary, unreliable, self-serving, lacunary even as it is also an irreplaceable source of consolation and the story one wants to keep retelling? 

Read more about the anniversary of 9/11 from Barnard scholars in political science, psychology and economics.