Irritable People
A Meditation for the New Year

There Are No Words

I used to be a bit of a disaster junkie -- spending days glued to CNN, reading books about disasters, etc. -- and so in grad school I once wrote a paper on responses to disasters. David and I reworked it and published it as the intruduction to the special 9/11 supplement to issue 159 of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Though there are few things about it I would change, I'm very proud of this piece. And it seems highly relevant now. I think it might help people cut each other a little more slack about their responses to the tsunami disasters. (This is not to say that we shouldn't fault Mr. My Pet Goat for being silent for three days.) So here it is. I hope you find it useful. I certainly find it useful to have written this:

Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell
There Is No Word: An Introduction

This is an independent supplement to The New York Review of Science Fiction devoted to writing primarily from the New York City and Washington, DC, areas by members of the extended sf community on or about the events of September 11, 2001.

Real life horror came so suddenly that facts overwhelmed the factive power of the media—the power to make a "true story" out of a jumble of presumed facts. Even though narratives grow up over the facts, sometimes concealing them, they are also our way of taking in what we know about historical events, especially catastrophes. We want to preserve and record what people in our community saw, did, and felt. Our intention is generally to avoid analysis, the imposition of any master narrative, and attempt to preserve a record. Because when the consensus narratives are finally in place, some of the facts will be concealed, or forgotten. We are trying to preserve the suddenness, the revelation that somebody tried to kill us, not much caring which of us, and is still trying.

To a calamity, a disaster, a catastrophe, an apocalypse, a range of responses are possible. The old-fashioned religious response is cast in the terms of moral allegory, deriving its form from the Biblical account of God’s destruction of the cities of the plain:
San Francisco was a wicked city in 1906, and there were those who said after the disaster that it had only got what it deserved. The news was greeted in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for example, with a celebration that included a brass band. They’d known it was coming, those Flying Rollers of the House of David announced. Not only had they known it, they were responsible for it. They’d sent their missionary Mary McDermitt, out there to convert the heathens of San Francisco, and while she preached in the streets, San Franciscans had gone about their merry way, ignoring her. That was too much for Mary, and using powers possessed by any prophet of the Flying Roller sect, she had called down an earthquake upon them. It had better be a lesson to San Francisco, Prince Benjamin, the patriarch of the sect, thundered. There wouldn’t be much time because the world was going to end in 1916." (The Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1906, page 3).

There is also the aesthetic response, cast in terms of romantic melodrama in which the event is raised to a level of sublimity, equally composed of horror, wonder, and intense emotional involvement; and the psychological, blaming the victims of the misfortune for having the poor judgement to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the rationalist, subsuming the event in a universal scientific system of causes and effects.

The terms "calamity," "disaster," "catastrophe," and "apocalypse" have distinct connotations. "Calamity" places emphasis on one’s emotional response to a misfortune. "Disaster" is astrological in origin and means, literally, ill-starred. It pertains to sudden and extraordinary misfortune. Thus disaster entails the notion of fate and cosmic causality. "Catastrophe" pertains to the denouement in drama, an "overturning of the order or system of things," and to the geological—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and such. "Apocalypse," frequently used to pertain to the end of the world actually has a broader meaning. Certainly it can refer to the Revelation of St. John the Divine, but it also has another, more abstract, meaning that will prove particularly useful here: anything viewed as a revelation, a disclosure.

These terms form a hierarchy. Calamity relates only to the feelings of its victims, neither giving nor implying explanation. Disaster allows for cause and effect, but the causes are divine, in the stars, not subject to human intervention. In the word catastrophe, we find the invention of the story of an event and the event itself inextricably intertwined. There is a battle for authorship between the story teller and God. Apocalypse is the prediction of or the revealing of the event, not the event itself. We have increasing amounts of predictive data which, one expects, will far outstrip our ability to prevent. The more information we have, the less like calamity and the more apocalyptic the true tales of extreme misfortune will become.

The contemporary discourse of disaster takes a variety of forms, removed by varying degree from the event itself: direct experience; word of mouth—both eyewitness reports and those which are second, third, fourth hand; newspapers; web sites; radio; television; film; photography; science; popular songs and ballads; fiction; poetry; law; and insurance.

The emotional state of eyewitnesses as they recount their experiences may range from extreme excitement to clinical detachment, or combine both. In the discourse of disaster, clinical detachment is not a reliable indicator of objectivity of information and observation. While today we tend to put greater faith in information conveyed with the flat affect of clinical detachment, even in its most literal origins—the clinic—clinical detachment has a rather problematic psychological history. Clinical detachment is a state beyond the range of ordinary emotions. Clinical detachment is acceptable to us for its usefulness in eliminating extremes of subjectivity, not because of its superior moral status; the detached authoritative observer approaches the subject at hand with meditative objectivity that cancels out the moral as well as the sublime responses to disaster. Emotion in subtly buried. But in disaster narratives, especially eyewitness accounts, a usually authoritative and objective observer is as much at the mercy of large forces as any other victim, and loses both authority and the distance necessary for objectivity to the disaster no matter how it distorts the actual disaster. The point we make is that no individual account is privileged.

Cheerful affect cannot conceal the effect of horrific wonder generated by so many visual images of destruction. Nor can flattened affect. The devastation, the cityscape becomes a landscape that speaks for itself. We were saturated with it, immediately after it occurs, from any part of the world. What we know is a concatenation of facts and details which can be assembled in many ways, given the force of narrative. Emotionally, this publication is an attempt to raise the reader’s consciousness through a sincere sensationalism and by giving the reader characters to identify with.

Unlike pre-World War I disasters in which all events for bad or good were seen as part of God’s design, events since the two World Wars, and especially since television became the average citizen’s pre-eminent source of information, have become fragmented, without causality, and take on, through repetition of viewing a flat aspect in which the destruction of the three skyscrapers in the World Trade Center and the portion of the Pentagon, with the sound turned down, becomes indistinguishable from a Hollywood disaster film. Disaster becomes commodification and at the same time, with increasing amounts of information about the event both beforehand and revealed through the events, it becomes more like an apocalypse: what seemed paranoid nonsense becomes sense. And if this is possible, then anything, the denied, the repressed, becomes possible. This forces something like what people mean when they say the September 11th calamities are the death of irony, or the death of postmodernism. Meaning must be constructed, sometimes prematurely; everyone’s great issues are raised, sometimes ridiculously. We use what tools we have.

There are no words yet for what happened here. As a term, terrorism, the use of terror to intimidate or subjugate, coined to describe the acts that caused that part of the French Revolution called The Terror, barely scratches the surface: That we are terrified seems insignificant in the face of the larger goals of these people. Search the dictionary in vain for a verb that means, "(1) to kill indiscriminately with the intention to inspire genocidal rage against oneself and one’s countrymen; (2) to die in the attempt to cause the use of weapons of mass destruction against one’s own people and home for the purposes of attaining salvation and heavenly rewards." And where can we find terms for large-scale, purely man-made misfortunes, deliberate acts, partaking not at all of either the forces of nature or divine will? There are no words. Adequate words are needed, but will come only from confronting raw facts.

So we present not the whole story but a variety of personal experiences of the day and the places and the events. Bear with the first reactions, which are almost uniformly flattened in affect, and read on to find out what it was like. Lest we forget.