Russell Seitz at his blog Adamant has an astonishing and thought-provoking post on modern imagination and our memory of disasters on the scale of September 11th, 2001. He contrasts these to the slow accumulations of meaning embodied in "older icons" captured with older technologies. He talks about a homunculus of the past made larger than life in the present through ever more powerful technologies and in ways that may come to regret.
"We now experience the disaster in terms of what scarcely a dozen grainy images took in as the 757’s entered the twin towers, and passed from integrity to oblivion. We have not seen the last of them. The effort of reconstructing the horror of their last seconds repels the mind but such an interpolation will soon be electronic child’s play. So is the eventual integration of the different perspectives of a host of witnesses from blocks to miles away. Our visions of Ground Zero can only grow as everything from satellite to seismograph data is declassified, de-convoluted, and merged into new maps of hell. If another catastrophic attack ever comes, posterity will be doomed to know it more intimately than the last...When taste and temptation collide the outcome may be at once an obscenity and act of homage to the bitter truth, but one of these generations, it is going to happen. Too much information awaits the dark arts of data fusion, for towers and planes alike existed as strings of digits before they were embodied in aluminum, glass and steel. The data has survived but what do the survivors want to remember? What can we afford to forget?"
The "dark arts of data fusion" certainly have the capacity to seduce and corrupt and warp experience in ways we humans find attractive - if you have any doubts about this, ask anyone addicted to gaming in persistent worlds like the fiendishly absorbing World of Warcraft which reality he or she prefers: the mundane or the fantastic. Propagandists have long understood the power of image, icon, sign and signifier to inflame passions and substitute new interpretations for historic memory. But consider also whether what moves the human spirit is not the lure of the virtual made real but finding meaning in direct and shared experience, of the tale retold.
Let's look at an older film with already obsolete computer generated effects. The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan were intended to be the most intense, realistic, closest to the experience of combat on that beach in Normandy that a modern audience could get on film. I remember siting in the theater, suitably disturbed by the carnage and moved by what the soldiers the actors were depicting had endured. But I would not say the experience of viewing the film gave new or heightened meaning to how I, who was conceived in the Summer of Love by a child of the WWII generation, apprehend and ascribe meaning to memories of 1944. A single letter from someone who was there carries more weight with me than the amusement park ride of the theater.
In this way, those static images re-imagined and reinterpreted by Ken Burns and his talking heads in the 1990 epic documentary the Civil War informed modern memory more profoundly than, say, the film Gettysburg with its reproduction uniforms and well-fed army of reenactors. These films are, to be sure, only versions of history, far removed for the events they interpret and present and from the experience of 19th century Americans for whom this was the defining event of their lives.
I don't really need to be pummeled into a stupor by a surround sound, multimedia onslaught of clever historical artifice to get a sense of the horror that a shell shocked Wilfred Owen expressed in his poetry of the Great War. I don't presume to know what combat is like, or how those who choked on ash and fear as the towers fell or who waited for loved ones who never came home draw meaning from the memory of that day and those experiences. I know something of fear.
Which brings us back to Seitz's point - "Will we want to look?" - to which I'll add another: "Should we?" Do we honor the dead and the sacrifices made by others by staring unflinching at an ersatz reality? There is the stench of hubris and of ego in this desire to substitute another's experience of disaster for ones own reality. Connect with events. Grapple with comprehension of atrocities. Empathize with those who survive them. But "photoshopping the Apocalypse", to borrow another of Seitz's phrases, is obscene, and cheapens the experience of those most directly affected by catastrophe.
What moved the listeners at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg were Lincoln's words, saying more in a couple of minutes than any other image or address could convey. It is hard to imagine the same historic effect had Lincoln instead shown a recreation of Pickett's Charge on an Imax screen to the gathered crowd and urged them to imagine that they were participating in the events being commemorated. Conceivably a modern Lincoln -though much diminished, in my view - might very soon try this on a modern audience with 9/11. Yet the obscenity of images of actual charred and broken bodies, in lower Manhattan and in Iraq, evoke powerful passions today on all sides of the political spectrum.
One of Lincoln's 19th century contemporaries, photographer Alexander Gardner, did just this with over 70 black and white images taken on Antietam battlefield as the dead lay unburied - at that time the most sophisticated technology for recapturing the past and presenting it to those far from the seat of war. Would Gardner have used today's technology to present the destruction of war to distant audiences? Would it be so far beyond the experience of 19th century audiences to overwhelm their senses, as our own may soon be overwhelmed by technology more advanced than the human eye?
Somehow recreating the experience of horrific events in virtual reality seems more obscene even than exploiting historic images of them for political advantage. And yet refusal to look is a step toward denial. For me, creator and viewer intentions are critical. The entertainment value of recreating 9/11 carries no weight with me. I'd rather look unflinchingly at historic images and primary sources, listen to eyewitness accounts and cogent analysis, than be a voyeur at some contrived virtual holocaust.