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Life Imitates Art: The Chronotope of the Twin Towers in Fact and Fiction

by Lainie Jones

© all rights reserved.

When cultural theorist Michel de Certeau contemplated the wonders of Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre in 1984 1 he could not have imagined that less than twenty years later his exalted viewing platform would be rubble, linked by an act of terror to a moment in time and history now known simply as September 11. On that unforgettable day, while the world watched appalled or applauding according to perceptions, two towering giants collapsed, clouding not only that clear sunny morning with the ashes of their demise but also the sanguine assurance of the West. Those monumental buildings, that once allowed de Certeau to view the labyrinthine streets of New York City as if through the solar eye of a god, continue to be mourned along with those lost in their downfall. Meanwhile, towers of words have grown from the ruins in attempts to understand how such violence could erupt from the blue: to explore causes, to consider implications, to review our perceptions of what is clearly a changed world. Yet these words, these stories that are being told, these narratives unfolding like Persian rugs before our eyes, also need to be considered within the context of their time and place.

The concept of the chronotope, meaning literally time-space, is a useful tool in efforts to engage with the enormity of September 11 and with the literature surrounding it. Mikhail Bakhtin, philosopher, sociologist and literary theorist, borrowed the term chronotope from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, adapting the concept of ‘the inseparability of space and time’ to facilitate exploration of the ways in which these space-time intersections appear in artistic texts.2 Bakhtin also believed that the chronotope could be used as a medium for appreciating the interrelationships between ‘real historical time and space’ … and ‘actual historical persons’ and the expression of these into literary forms. 3

Using this concept in a slightly different way, this essay will focus on the ways in which the historical space-time event of September 11 2001 is articulated in narratives written both before and after the incident, with the earlier texts linked to it in a manner that in hindsight seems both predictive and insidious. For example, while Bakhtin maintained that ‘[o]ut of the actual chronotopes of our world (which serve as the source of representation) emerge the reflected and created chronotopes of the world represented in the text’, 4 there are indications that with the September 11 chronotope the created texts preceded the reality. Thus, while the search goes on for the authors of the attacks and repercussions of the catastrophe continue to destabilise the world, it is enlightening to explore the event in relationship to the popular fiction of fear that presaged, and perhaps inspired, the terror inscribed onto that day.

The term ‘September 11’ is now far more than a date. “Since September 11,” we say, or “prior to September 11”, or “in the wake of September 11”. These words communicate a shared understanding not only of a time but also of a place and an event. Furthermore, as IPS corespondent, Mario Osava points out, ‘commentaries made around the world … largely categorised the attacks as an historic dividing marker, asserting that “the world will never be the same”’.5 Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope allows us insight into this interrelationship of time space and history, expressing as it does the inseparability of these dimensions where ‘time…thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history’.6

While Bakhtin used the chronotope to explore fictional worlds, academic, Sue Vice argues that ‘Bakhtin’s insistence on a social and political reading of time and space can be extended beyond his own uses of the term’.7 Indeed, the chronotope has been used as a tool to analyse all forms of narrative in text, screen and cyberspace. For instance Norwegian scholar, Alexandra Leontieva, employs the chronotope to explore relationships between the television series The X-Files and its fans, 8 while writer, Paul Smethurst, examines what he terms ‘the postmodern chronotope’ in regard to the ‘ontology of multiple worlds’ 9 in cyberspace and contemporary fiction. Certainly, social and political readings of the attacks on the twin towers have seen numerous commentators establishing relationships between the real events and fictional events that foreshadowed it. These responses, together with subsequent political narratives that may or may not be fiction, illustrate an ongoing confusion where questions of life/art interrelationships throw yet more shadows into the darkness surrounding September 11. A little light may be shed on such confusions by evaluating some of these seemingly prescient narratives as products of the chronotope, looking at both the space/time/history conjunctions and at the connections between fiction and reality.

Ironically, as Osava points out, ‘it is the United States that has most cultivated the “fear industry” in fiction, television series and film, something that could inspire terrorist attacks just like the ones that occurred on September 11’. 10 One such fiction is Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, 11 the story of an aggrieved Japanese commercial airline pilot who ‘fills a Boeing jet with explosives to launch a kamikaze attack against the headquarters of the US Congress in Washington’. 12 This novel was published in 1994 yet, as columnist Raffique Shah observes, ‘within an hour of the carnage [of September 11] Clancy was interviewed by journalists about the uncanny resemblance between the plot in his novel and the way the attacks were executed’. 13 The hijacking of planes is the theme of many novels and Hollywood movies, part of what Osava terms ‘the fear industry’ that has seen US institutions and cities suffering a wide variety of fictional threats and attacks on screen and in text. Furthermore, Shah points to the well-researched and informative details in contemporary terrorist novels, remarking that these serve ‘as virtual handbooks for those who harbour [terrorist] intents, since they reveal so much information about the destruction, about targets, and about the modus operandi of the various state defence agencies’.14 While the catalogue of such novels expands, Osava also notes that ‘since the end of the Cold War terrorists have tended to be portrayed as Muslim extremists – such as in The Siege, which was set in New York and was loudly condemned by the Arab community’.15 In many movies the correspondence with reality can be shocking. Osava cites a television series, The Lone Gunmen, ‘the plot of which includes a terrorist plan to crash an aircraft into the World Trade Centre’.16

However, in exploring the literature linked to the chronotope of September 11, writing that has been produced after the event also needs to be considered. In her review of a recently published tome, September 11, by Noam Chomsky, journalist Sylvia Lawson notes that there are now ‘floods of publications on the subject: studies of Islam and Afghanistan, reams of worry in the New York Review of Books on the failures of the CIA … as well as history and highly informed journalism [that] are essential to productive reflection’. 17 Writings on terrorist psychology, the arming and funding of the Taliban, and analyses of global networks that lead to al-Qaeda, sit in bookshops alongside Christopher Kremmer’s treatise, The Carpet Wars,18 and personal testimonies such as Yvonne Ridley’s In the Hands of the Taliban, 19 and Latifa’s My Forbidden Face. 20 All of these writings are inextricably linked in some way with September 11. Indeed, many of them may not have been published without the impetus of that catastrophic event.

Particularly relevant, in terms of content and timely publication, is My Forbidden Face, the memoir of a young woman growing up under the control of the Taliban. This book reflects the sudden interest in the lives of Afghani women after the Taliban rulers were condemned as part of the ‘evil’ that supported the attacks on America. Prior to that, the plight of these women had been virtually ignored by the Western world so the publishing of Latifa’s story and the significance of its subject matter can be seen as a product of September 11, illustrating the multifaceted interrelationships of the chronotope. Indeed, while the narrative is mainly a personal reflection on the ways in which her life was overturned when the Taliban took Kabul, it is also somewhat chronotopic itself in the sense that, as Bakhtin writes: ‘there can be no question of reflecting on an epoch outside the passage of time, outside any contact with past or future, outside time’s fullness’.21 In other words, if we recognise that no period of time can be appraised in isolation and that historic events are interlinked in an inseparable flow of cause and effect, then this story is but a chapter in an ongoing narrative. Latifa acknowledges this:

For centuries the men of my country have been given knives, guns, rifles, kalachnikovs to be played with like children’s rattles. For centuries the rhythm of the generations has been played out like a chess game, grand masters succeeding each other, one after another, as if tribal wars were a national sport. For centuries, too, women were born to wear the burqa. And the ambitions of international powers supported these traditions.22

Bakhtin also postulates that ‘[c]hronotopes are mutually inclusive, they co-exist, they may be interwoven with, replace or oppose one another, contradict one another or find themselves in ever more complex interrelationships. Thus, the occupation of Afghanistan by the Taliban can be seen as an historic event that in creating a closed society underpinned by terror, simultaneously opened a window of opportunity for a group of extremists to plot the time and place of other terrors.23

Moreover, through Latifa’s eyes the narrative offers some insight into her country’s civil war and its commanders. This provides a literary form with which to assimilate a useful feature of the chronotope already referred to: ‘the interrelationships between ‘real historical time and space’ … and ‘actual historical persons’. .24 A brief chronology at the beginning of the book traces major events in the history of Afghanistan since its formation in 1749 to the commencement of the American and Allied attacks on the country after September 11. However, no political currency is made of this, rather, we are shown the life of a typical teenager: enjoying movies, magazines, videos and fashion, preparing to study journalism at university; her mother a doctor, her father a wealthy businessman. Then literally overnight – in a chronotopic intersection of time and place and history – Taliban Radio orders all women to remain in their homes and the oppression begins. The story documents Latifa’s shock, her subsequent depression, and the ways in which she and her people gradually begin to resist the new laws.

While these diverse interminglings of life, art, place, time and history might seem to challenge notions of the chronotope, authors Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist remind us that while ‘[t]here is a sharp and categorical boundary line between the actual world as a source of representation and the world represented, the chronotope is a bridge, not a wall’.25 And there is little doubt, with the plethora of writings surrounding September 11, that a bridge between the real and the representational is desirable. Writing of the novel, but equally germane to actual events, Bakhtin notes that all the ‘abstract elements – philosophical and social generalisations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect – gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood …’. 26 Following this, if the events of September 11 are considered using Bakhtin’s concept, we find a real-life narrative involving heroes, villains, journeys, power struggles and perceptions of good and evil equal to any fiction. We also find representational distortion, an interpretive element of the chronotope that is linked to the heteroglossic nature of narrative.

Bakhtin’s coinage of the term heteroglossia as a descriptor for differentiated speech, usefully characterises the multifaceted stratification of any language into classifications such as ‘social dialects … group behaviours, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups … languages of the authorities … [and] languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour …’27 In addition, Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia reminds us that:

any concrete discourse (utterance) finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist – or, on the contrary, by the “light” of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgements and accents.28

Certainly, the story of September 11 where heroes become terrorists and terrorists heroes depending on the tongue that tells the tale, can be seen as a heteroglossic narrative. Moreover, these conflicting representations emerge from both within and outside cultural and national boundaries. In this characteristic, as with Smethurst’s explorations into postmodern chronotopes, ‘[t]he shared ground … is ontological inquiry – questions of being and locality, and questions of [what is perceived as] human and non-human’.29 Thus, rhetoric regarding the ‘inhuman acts of the terrorists’ does not always refer to the attack on the United States, but sometimes to terrorist acts by United States and its allies.

However, the predominant commentaries that assert an irrevocably altered way of life since September 11 generally present the worldview of the West, with dissenting voices emerging from outside these borders silenced by omission or force. This can be seen as a form of neo-colonialism as the perceptions, needs and desires of less dominant cultures are once again pushed to the margins by Western determinations. With this in mind, it is necessary to acknowledge some of the ways in which Bakhtin’s theories have been associated with postcolonial studies. For example, academic, Anthony Guneratne remarks that:

Bakhtin has … been appropriated by postcolonial criticism, and the nomenclature Bakhtin found necessary to invent – dialogism, heteroglossia, and even a term we have come to associate with Homi Bhabha, hybridity – has filtered into a general consciousness from [Bakhtin’s writings]. 30

One postcolonial-appropriated aspect of Bakhtin’s theories that can assist us to reflect on the events of September 11 is the notion of looking at narratives from ‘the outside, with another’s eyes, from the point of view of a totally different language’.31 As well, Guneratne draws attention to the emphasis Bakhtin placed on writings which resist ‘the tides of History in giving voice to the fringe-dwellers of societies and civilisations, to the individuals who resist hegemony.32

Viewing the restructuring of power relationships following September 11 from the postcolonial appreciation of an outsider resisting hegemony, it could well be concluded that Western powers, led by America’s George Bush with his essentialist ‘Axis of Evil’ proclamations and stated desire to overthrow the Iraqi government, are attempting to author a new Grand Narrative. A new narrative based on old assumptions which, as John Lye points out, are embedded with the belief that ‘if the west is ordered, rational, masculine, good, then the [Other] is chaotic, irrational, feminine, evil’.33 Nevertheless, Lye warns against simply reversing this polarisation thereby becoming complicit in a propaganda of dichotomies that totalise and destroy identity. Unfortunately, in the climate of fear that continues to feed the interests of so many allied governments, including Australia, it seems doubtful that Western powers will undertake serious self-examination. As in colonial times, ideas of progress and ‘civilisation’, valorisation of war and science, and the certainties and virtues of Western societies are again overriding and overwriting the corresponding stories of Third World cultures.

Yet the towers, both real and metaphorical, have tumbled, and there is danger in attempting to rebuild them on the same foundations. As Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri notes, ‘[i]f the towers of certainty collapse one after another on the great landscape of History and Time, then this represents … the triumph of Time over the insane arrogance of human certainties’. And no matter how the warlords in opposing camps posture and prate of righteousness and revenge, it is clear those certainties 34 have gone. Maps that once led us to the centre of our securities now challenge our sense of direction. Boundaries have changed, institutions collapsed, and faults appeared in the substructure of reason. But Okri suggests that perhaps this is a good thing. ‘Certainty, whether its name be religion, imperialism, ideology, class, caste, race or sex, has been the great undoing of our measureless heritage, and has narrowed the vastness of human possibility’. 35 Perhaps, if there are virtues to be salvaged amid the ruins of such towering assurance, there might be found a willingness to embrace uncertainty, to question old paradigms, to move beyond national borders and barriers of language and reclaim the vast potential of which Okri writes so eloquently.

Bakhtin abstracts a time aspect of the chronotope that is ‘characterised by a sudden change that leaves its trace in the further life of the individual. It is a time of biographical crisis, threshold moments’. 36 This element reveals the open-ended nature of the chronotope that does not demand so much that conclusions are drawn from the relationships that have been explored, but that individual responses are acknowledged. In the case of September 11, examination of personal biographical crises linked to the threshold moment when the twin towers collapsed would seem appropriate, particularly in view of Bakhtin’s observation that ‘social and political events gain meaning … and are illuminated … only insofar as they relate to private fates’. 37 Indeed, as mentioned earlier, Bakhtin perceives the value of the novel resides in the ways in which it facilitates the voice of marginalised individuals and societies, allowing a form of resistance to the larger narratives of History. Following this, if the stories associated with September 11, both real and fictional, are viewed in the light of both social resistance and the search for individual meaning, then a more complex and comprehensive narrative than that told by politicians begins to emerge.

Almost prophetically, perhaps using that god-like solar eye with which he gazed from the once-proud tower of the World Trade Centre, Michel de Certeau cites a dream of Kandinsky’s in which “a great city built according to all the rules of architecture [is] suddenly shaken by a force that defies all calculation”.38 Furthermore, de Certeau himself, years before the events of September 11 shook New York City, also provided insights that can be applied to the stories we have been told since then:

The ministers of knowledge have always assumed that the whole universe was threatened by the very changes that affected their ideologies and their positions. They transmute the misfortune of their theories into theories of misfortune. When they transform their bewilderment into “catastrophes”, when they seek to enclose the people in the “panic” of their discourses, are they … necessarily right?39

De Certeau, like Bakhtin, advocates questioning and resisting those who have most to gain by exploiting the fear, pain and bewilderment that has divided peoples worldwide since September 11. While the repercussions of this chronotopic event will continue to undulate through the oceans of history, to be enclosed in a discourse built of panic is to navigate such dangerous seas in an unsound vessel. Despite the changes and uncertainties that threaten to overturn so much that the ‘ministers of knowledge’ value, a natural abhorrence of terrorist acts should not be seen as justification to write further horror stories.

Lainie Jones is currently completing a BA Honours at Southern Cross University majoring in Writing with Cultural Studies. Prior to this study, Lainie worked as a commercial artist and then a teacher of adult education in TAFE.


1. De Certeau, M. (1984) ‘Walking in the City’, The Practice of Everyday Life, (pp.91-110, 217-221) Berkley and London: California UP, p.91.

2. Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquist (editor), Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (translators), Austin Texas: University of Texas Press, pp.84-85.

3. Ibid., p.84

4. Ibid., p.253.

5. Osava, M. (2001) ‘Culture Politics: Real-Life Terror Wins the Ratings War’ in Inter Press Service News Agency, http://www.ipsnews.net/nyc/notal1309c.shtml
Downloaded 3/4/02

6. Bakhtin, op. cit, p.84.

7. Vice, S. (1997) Introducing Bakhtin, Manchester and New York: Manchester
University Press, p.209.

8. Leontieva, A. (1996) Bakhtin’s Definition of the Adventure Chronotope and the Phenomenon of the X-Files Fan Fiction,
Downloaded 3/4/02

9. Smethurst, P. (2000) Of Postmodern Chronotopes, Cyberspace, and the Ontology of Multiple Worlds, http://www.hku.hk/english/courses2000/2037ont.htm
Downloaded 3/4/02

10. Osava, M. (2001) ‘Culture Politics: Real-Life Terror Wins the Ratings War’ in Inter Press Service News Agency, http://www.ipsnews.net/nyc/notal1309c.shtml
Downloaded 3/4/02

11. Clancy, T. (1994) Debt of Honor, Michael Joseph Australia: Penguin Books.

12. Osava, op.cit.

13. Shah, R. (2001) Terrorism: Doing It By The Book,
Downloaded 8/4/02

14. Ibid.

15. Osava, op. cit.

16. Ibid.

17. Lawson, S. (2002) Power to the Worriers in ‘Spectrum’. Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March, p.6.

18. Kremmer, C. (2002) The Carpet Wars, Sydney: HarperCollins.

19. Ridley, Y. (2002) In the Hands of the Taliban, London: Robson Books.

20. Latifa (2002) My Forbidden Face, London: Virago Press

21. Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquist (editor), Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (translators), Austin Texas: University of Texas Press, p.146.

22. Latifa (2002) My Forbidden Face, London: Virago Press, p.179.

23. Op cit., p.252.

24. Ibid., p.84

25. Clark, K. & Holquist, M. (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p.279.

26. Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquist (editor), Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (translators), Austin Texas: University of Texas Press, p.250.

27. Ibid., p.263.

28. Ibid., p.276.

29. Smethurst, P. (2000) Of Postmodern Chronotopes, Cyberspace, and the Ontology of Multiple Worlds, http://www.hku.hk/english/courses2000/2037ont.htm
Downloaded 3/4/02

30. Guneratne, A. (1997) ‘Bakhtin and Postcolonial Theory’, in Political Discourse: Theories of Colonialism and Postcolonialism, Department of English language and Literature, National University of Singapore,
Downloaded 3/4/02

31. Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquist (editor), Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (translators), Austin Texas: University of Texas Press, p.60.

32. Guneratne, op. cit.

33. Lye, J. (1997) Some Issues in Postcolonial Theory,
Downloaded 2/4/02

34. Okri, B. (1997) ‘The Joys of Storytelling’, A Way of Being Free, (pp.29-48) London: Phoenix, p.30.

35. Ibid.

36. Clark, K. & Holquist, M. (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p.283.

37. Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquist (editor), Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (translators), Austin Texas: University of Texas Press, p.109.

38. De Certeau, M. (1984) ‘Walking in the City’, The Practice of Everyday Life, (pp.91-110, 217-221) Berkley and London: California UP, p.110.

39. Ibid, pp.95,96.



This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

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