« Events can get stuck. » Post - 2001 Lower Manhattan as an Event Space. An interview with Robin Wagner-Pacifici [EN]

This interview of Professor Robin Wagner-Pacifici (The New School for Social Research, NYC) was presented on June 29th 2016 as part of the second session of Metrolab Brussels’ "Cities in shock" conferences – a session titled **The urban traces of terrorist attacks**, and that featured other presentations by Gerome Truc (CNRS) and Sarah Gensburger (CNRS).

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urban-inclusion

The discussion between Mathieu Berger (MLB, UCLouvain) and Robin Wagner-Pacifici focused on elements of her sociological theory of events, as developed in the upcoming What is an event ? 1, and more precisely, on a chapter about 9/11 and its lasting effects, at a local scale, on Lower Manhattan.

About "Cities in shock" : Some of the terrorist attacks we have witnessed recently in democratic countries were not only directed towards groups or populations ; they targeted cities and what is at their core : the liberal public space and urbanity as a way of life. Today, these tragic events require interdisciplinary descriptions, dialogical interpretations and explanations, involving specialists in urban studies, sociology of terrorism and criminology. This series of conferences is an attempt to start such a dialogue.

Mathieu Berger (MB) : First can you tell us about this forthcoming book, What is an event?, and how this chapter on 9/11 takes place in the whole project?

Robin Wagner-Pacifici (RWP) : The book as a whole tries to capture our experience of living through events, and our experience of understanding the way they take shape and then the way they flow. It intends to develop an analysis of events as both taking shape and form, and then the way it kind of moves through all of these different shapes, as it develops, as it is characterized, or contested or accepted by the public and shaped by authorities.

As events flow through these various forms, there is an attempt on the parts of those who are put in charge of the event, or those shaping the event or attempting to shape the event, to tamp it down, to make it have a definitive structure and a definitive resonance in the society. But at the same time, because in order to do that they have to keep reinforcing it, events are necessarily "restless", or fluid 2. And so there is sort of a dynamic tension between this attempt to create a structure and a given form, and the need to keep it moving.

The chapter you're talking about is a case study of 9/11 as an event that - I make the argument - gets stuck in Lower Manhattan, between the original attack, the two airplanes flying into the twin towers, and approximately ten years later when the memorial and the museum are actually opened. The concept that I use to describe the way in which this event gets stuck in Manhattan is the concept of an "event eddy" (in French, "tourbillon"): this is an idea of something that rotates on itself and that can never really develop a trajectory outwards.

And about your conference on the urban traces of terrorist attacks, the relevance is that I try to develop an understanding of the space of Lower Manhattan as an "event space", to really reconceptualize cities, or parts of cities, as places where events live, continue to live or go in some kind of period of desuetude, or sequestration, or get becalmed, or fragmented. So that's basically the chapter and I can certainly go into some of the details if you like, but perhaps you have a question just on what I said so far?

MB : Well that's exactly the kind of discussion we would like to have, and the kind of new language we need to describe events, things that are obviously not tangible, and which need a new vocabulary. There's this metaphorical dimension of the language you just used: an event getting "stuck", "sequestrated", it's almost as if you would consider it as a living being or as a substance, as something that has its own life and its own evolution. So can you tell a little more about this strange being?

RWP : One of my initial provocations into this project was to argue against another subfield of sociology, of what is called "collective memory, in which memorials are understood in a particular symbolic way, as essentially finishing an event. And so you look at a memorial and you say "this is about the memory of an event", however contested the event was, nevertheless the memorial, the monument is seen as kind of putting a definitive end to the event, or remembering the event through its concrete shape. I say " No! " , these memorials are actually part of the events themselves. They carry the events forward and events don't live anywhere but in the actual forms that the human agents involved create, even if they are far over. So for 9/11, what I understood about Lower Manhattan was that there were a number of initiatives that were attempted during this ten year period between the attacks and this memorial complex creation, that were not able to be fully developed, and were not able to be unanimously approved, even though they had very strong symbolic ramifications, and even though they had very practical ramifications.

And these involved where to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was one of the alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. There was originally a very strong indication that there would be a civil trial held in the federal court house in Lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the World Trade Center. And there was an extraordinary debate and resistance to that, on the parts of some members of the families of victims, some political authorities, some residents of the neighborhood. So there was a contestation over whether they would have the civilian trial there, or a military trial in Guantanamo.

So there was the trial, and then there was the attempt to build an Islamic community center, which was originally going to be called "Cordoba House". And the name was changed to "Park 51", something much more innocuous... But there was a similar resistance to that, because it was identified by some (again, political forces, some local business people and some relatives and families of victims) as "too close" to the site of 9/11, and that nothing of a formal Islamic nature should be "closer than 5 blocks"... It was of course the infamous intervention of Donald Trump (I must say I was on to him from the very beginning!) who made that ridiculous gesture to buy the building from the Egyptian-born but US citizen owner in order to refuse to allow the building to become an Islamic community center.

So this was another site of contestation and of political fragmentation, and of ideology. There was also all sorts of questions about how to, in fact, create the memorial, who would be in charge of it, how to rebuild the towers... Should a similarly huge building be built? And actually it was: Freedom Tower is enormous. In this ten year period and that is a very long time, there was an inability to come to terms with the nature of this event, with its symbolic ramifications, with its practical repercussions. These kinds of events can get stuck! And they can literally get stuck in particular places, and big cities in particular are places where events can get stuck, I would say, the most dramatically or the most obviously, the most tenaciously, because of the way cities bring together in a very concentrated form all of these aspects of society, of polities, of the economy, of everyday life... There's such a concentrated quality in the way the cities do this, that particularly when events occur in these kinds of spaces there is the capacity or the likelihood of this kind of "event eddy" forming.

MB : You said that people from NYC and more particularly from Lower Manhattan were not able to come to terms with the event, or to resolve it. What would mean to come to term with an event or to find resolution?

RWP : I think I'm going to have to answer that as a democrat. To come to terms with the kinds of traumatic events that really challenge a society, I think, means finding the best about your society, with which to come to terms. And for example, the rule of law is one of the best things about a democratic society. To find your most democratic self. The initial impulse of the Attorney General was to hold the trial in NYC and he himself said that to bring it here is essentially to respond with the best of ourselves, with the best of what a democracy with the rule of law has. And that would also include permission to have any kind of peaceful, communal religious centers however close or far from the site of the attack.

MB : Among the different pictures and images that you sent me, a few of them show Zuccotti Park and obviously the Occupy Wall Street movement. How would that be connected to the 9/11 event.

RWP : In some way, for me, OWS signified that the event of 9/11 had broken free of its eddy, finally. And it had to do with the way the Occupy movement was critical of Wall Street, was critical of commerce, was critical of capitalism, and was critical of money. And again money is no stranger to cities, right? Cities live on money and they stick to the flow of money. Lower Manhattan is a site of high concentration of all of that. And the ability to critique money and its exchange, and its flow was, I think, delayed by this long period of this event eddy in Lower Manhattan, where any kind of a critique of Wall Street was kind of confounded with the critique of the WTC and global commerce and America's role in the world commerce… Everything got kind of conflated.

And it was only after this ten year period had elapsed that there was finally an ability to disentangle all these different elements ; elements of 9/11, but also of the life of this city that goes on... Lower Manhattan is not just the space of an event, it is the space of many events and many histories and many interactions... So the Occupy movement, I think, was a function of the escape of Lower Manhattan from this inward turning quality of the 9/11 event. And I think it briefly connected to an alternative understanding of the Middle East, which was the Arab Spring. There was this very brief, very ephemeral flowering of democratic movements and mobilizations in countries like Tunisia and so forth. And so I see OWS as connected to that sort of identification of the Middle East, as opposed to the understanding that had been forged with 9/11, with Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Talibans, and so forth.

MB : I was talking with a French philosopher, Joëlle Zask, about the Nuit Debout movement, a very intense counter-movement where citizens gathered on Place de la République and started deliberative groups about different issues. They want to have proper discussions among citizens on what should be done, they don't want to trust or count on their elected representatives anymore to deal with these issues. They started to discuss these issues themselves and start actions from the civil society. It has been pretty impressive so far, it revived the little bit of hope we have about democracy.

So anyway, according to Zask, one cannot understand the Nuit Debout movement and this civic dynamics on Place de la République, if you don't consider the repeated attacks of 2015 and their important commemorations. Nuit Debout started there, on the very ground where the attacks occurred (the Bataclan venue is very close from République). It was also on Place de la République that the demonstration and the commemoration were held. As we were talking about it, Zask had this hypothesis of a causal link, between this very shocking and strong events connected with the attacks, and the very possibility of this democratic activity that we can see now in this same area, this same neighborhood. Here, this democratic momentum comes very quickly after the attacks and would be in a way a reaction, a political way to deal with these extreme emotions and these situations.

RWP : Yes, absolutely. And then it is always interesting to ask why in some cases it happens relatively quickly and in other cases there’s such a long delay, if you do see a connection. For me what was interesting, but also perplexing and frustrating was this long delay. You have a whole area of the city that seems to be in the state of suspended animation. And you know because so much happens there, it is consequential that it is in a state of suspended animation.

And then also, what is interesting and sort of forced me to think about this more is the role of the city, as opposed to, you know, a rural area, a suburb. You know, the role of the city in an event is extraordinarily important and still even now that there is much more mass communication, mass transportation, internet, virtual interactions, nevertheless cities, because they are so concentrated and do bring people together in such close quarters, are still extremely important places regarding the dynamics of events.

MB : You were talking about suburbs, and we know that in the US more than anywhere else, suburbs are the sites of attacks, school shootings, and so forth. Would you say that, something in the way suburban life is structured spatially may facilitate the fact that people would forget more easily, or that the event wouldn’t be « stuck » the same way it would in more dense urban areas, or that the memory of the event would be different in any way?

RWP : The suburban shootings you have been referring to – many of which happened in schools or in churches – have gotten drawn up into a narrative of gun ownership on the one side and mental illness on the other side, and so it is much less about their location… although their locations matter, I mean, these are civic institutions, typically : schools, churches… But the discourse about the event and the way the event becomes known and gets connected to other events is less about that, about the features of these suburban milieux and more about "our culture" and its problems.

MB : In a way, some of these events can also be considered almost as a routine, something that already happened many times in many similar places, and that will definitely happen many times again. The terrorist attacks themselves are becoming sort of a routine in Western cities – as they were already in cities of North Africa or of the Middle East – these last couple of years. People start to consider they have to get used to it in a way ; people in France saying that they were very sorry to admit it but that they were not affected the same way about the Brussels event because it was already the third in one year and that they couldn’t be moved the same way anymore. So I guess that for your own approach of events, this repetition of similar attacks has consequences.

RWP : Yes, absolutely. There’s always mechanisms of analogizing and of classifying a given event in a sequence. Analogizing, on one side, and genealogizing on the other. On the other hand, each event must stand alone in its specificity. And so part of the dilemmas of societies – and also of analysts – is to figure out the degree to which you understand a given event in its specificity, in its individuality, and the degree to which you analogize it to make sense of it, or you genealogize it in order to understand its causality vis-à-vis other events that have come before it. And these are real dilemmas. These are dilemmas with big ramifications, right ? And not just for collective emotions or collective sentiments, but also ramifications for laws, for policies ; you know, whether you see something as totally new or not. I think that was found in the study of front page newspapers in the days after 9/11, it was not only the imagery, but also the analogizing to Pearl Harbor. At least on the parts of American newspapers. It was both new and then instantly analogized. But then that of course meant that it was viewed as an act of war and not as a terrible crime. So, you already had these categories taking shape, even as the event had just occurred.

MB : Throughout this interview, in order to describe the forming and evolution of events, you did rotating gestures with your finger to figure the "eddy". Can you tell us more about this specific dynamics, this specific shape you chose as the proper concept to describe the phenomena your interested in?

RWP: As you point out, part of the book was to try to develop an alternative vocabulary for events. It was really that kind of attempt to formulate this vocabulary from the form/flow dynamic. I tried to imagine events taking shape, I tried to imagine them moving, finding their way through various institutions, through various physical places, through various temporalities. And then I tried to imagine them getting stuck.

And that’s when the eddy occurred to me as a good image for thinking about an event that keeps turning in on itself when it can’t really decide what it is. Really what that means is: the people and institutions that have been designated to manage the event can’t come to terms with it in such a way as to give it a definitive shape and a definitive direction. And so that’s why the eddy became to me such a powerful metaphor for this event in Lower Manhattan.

MB: Seeing an event as an eddy suggests a spatial dimension. When we want to describe its dynamics, its flow, sometimes we have to mime it, with gestures. I was wondering: did you try to develop modes of visualization of these event dynamics? Would it be possible to map an event? At MLB we are very interested in the possibility to develop interdisciplinary forms of visualization. We work with geographers, architects, urban planners… they are professionals for that. But as sociologists, sometimes, we would like to be able to map things too!

RWP : It’s a really interesting question and I think it’s a very promising approach. Riva Kastoryano, a French political scientist at CNRS – Sciences Po in France, has written a book called Que faire des corps des djihadistes ? 3. Part of her project is to answer this question, at one level, very concretely : what happens to the bodies of the terrorists ? Who claims these bodies ? Do they get repatriated ? Do they get buried ? Where do they go ? Another part of the book is made of a comparative analysis of attacks in Madrid, London, and NYC. She looks at where the terrorists came from, how they traveled around in the country in which they carried out the attacks. So their sites of origin, their sites of travel, their sites of interaction. And she maps it. And it is very different in each of these different cities. I think it’s absolutely important to move beyond the discursive analysis in order to better understand these eventful phenomena, for sure.

MB : Looking back on your work, your books Discourse and destruction 4, Theorizing the standoff 5, and now the one to be released soon, What is an event ? 6, partly based on the case of 9/11, is it fair to say that you focused mostly on tragic, dysphoric events? In the future, do you intend to consider more euphoric events as well? Would it be a condition for a full theory of what an event is?

RWP : Well, in the book, I do identify love as an event. I am not alone in that. Alain Badiou, in his philosophy of the event, identifies love as an event worthy of its name. In terms of your larger question, I don’t know. It’s a question I still have to live with. For example, what would have it meant if the landing on the moon was really an event? I mean, in the way some of these other events are : changing structures, turning points in history, changing social and political relations, all the kinds of criteria that certain social scientists have applied to events. What would that have meant for us to take in that landing on the moon as an event? Would it have made us less warlike with each other? Would it have made our deictical focus be more outward to the universe? Would it have turned us around in our own self-understanding as a species, or as a planet? Perhaps! And it could have been an euphoric event. But it wasn’t an event in that way. It certainly was amazing, but it was not an event in the way that I am understanding events. So, I have been kind of stuck with trauma and dysphoria ! But I’ll get there !


  1. 2017 (to be released), What is an event?, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.  

  2. 2010, « Theorizing The Restlessness of Events », American Journal of Sociology, 115 (5), p.1351-1386.  

  3. Kastoryano, R., 2015, Que faire des corps des djihadistes ? Territoire et identité, Paris, Fayard. 

  4. Wagner-Pacifici, R., 1994, Discourse and Destruction. The City of Philadelphia against MOVE, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.  

  5. 2000, Theorizing The Standoff. Contingency in Action, Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press. 

  6. 2017 (to be released), What is an event ?, Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 

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