“Where were you when …?”; or, “I Phone therefore I am”

Here the idea of mediatised memory gets an airing, in the context of malfunctioning technology and the culture shock of a periodic visitor to the US. It is a short personal piece written for the first anniversary of 9/11, in 2002. The brief remarks may open up expectations of a broader treatment of trans-national or globalized spectatorship in the mode of ‘witnessing’, but this piece, in its present form, does not attempt to undertake anything that weighty. But even in 2002, I did not intend to write a post-9/11 study from the point of view of the United States. On the contrary, commissioned by the PMLA for their section ‘foreign correspondent’, it was explicitly written to allow the American reader to encounter a ‘European’ view of 9/11, and I deliberately chose an oblique perspective: wanting to express my solidarity with America while not disguising my disquiet about its public response. In this sense it contained a warning, which proved, alas, self-fulfilling: the combination of technology, media and disaster is in the USA a recurring, volatile mix, as the second Iraq war and subsequent events were to prove. I certainly did not mean to confuse historical re-enactments with eyewitness reports.

For several years now, walking back from the office to my house in the evening, I have been pained as well as reassured by the sight of the resident homeless man on Rembrandt Square. I am relieved when he is talking to himself and worry when he gesticulates or shouts, as he sometimes does. A few weeks ago, I noticed a man in a pin-striped suit crossing the square, also talking to himself and as apparently lost to the world around him as was the homeless man he walked straight past. What looked like a scene from a Beckett play was proof that the mobile phone will soon be all but invisible. But it took me a few minutes to realize that my placid or angrily fizzing malcontent on the square was also no longer who he used to be, a human being fallen out of all social networks, turning a public square into his living room as well as his bedroom. The other man’s phone had made the vagrant’s behavior normal.

More than that, it may have put him in the vanguard of a subtle but momentous cultural change. That evening, as I felt embarrassed by the comical and even heartless comparison I had made between the two men, it also set me thinking about a problem in my discipline—film studies—that I have not been able to get a theoretical grip on. Over the past ten years, we have discarded one type of theory, gradually switching to another, yet to be defined paradigm. Rather than continue to think about the cinema as an ocular-specular phenomenon, whose indexical realism we celebrated or whose illusionism we excoriated (which was the case in classical film theory and, subsequently, during the decade when psych-osemiotic apparatus theory held sway), scholars now tend to regard the cinema as an immersive perceptual event. Body, sound, and kinetic-affective sensation have become its default values, and not the eye, the look, and ocular verification. The incident on Rembrandt Square gave me a clue about what might be involved, but I had to go back some forty years to see the link. “Where were you the day John F. Kennedy was shot?”—I was twenty years old, in a dorm at the University of Sussex, and it was the sixth or seventh week of my life as an undergraduate in English and comparative literature. What I remember is that 22 November 1963 was the day the Beatles brought out their second LP, With the Beatles (known as Meet the Beatles in the United States), and I had stood in line since 6 a.m. to buy my vinyl (except we didn’t call it that then). It was a ruinous purchase, but since we had all been fevering for the LP’s release for months, my extravagance was part of a ploy to become somebody among my fellow students. There was only one radiogram in the dorm, and it was installed in the breakfast room. We were in the middle of listening to “All I’ve Got to Do” (“Whenever I want you around yeh / All I gotta do / Is call you on the phone / and you’ll come running home”), when the warden interrupted, ordering us to turn on the radio to hear the news.

That was the end of With the Beatles, and I have to admit that the live broadcast from Dallas would not have been my first choice that morning. JFK didn’t make my day.

Meet the Beatles

With (Meet) the Beatles! In fittingly grim-looking chiaroscuro.

I remember the day of the Challenger disaster less well, although I was in the United States when it happened, teaching at the University of California, Irvine. The reason for my distraction at the time was that I thought the NASA space program was part of a peace-threatening arms race, and I disapproved of the cynical way the purpose of this mission was sugarcoated with flag-waving schoolchildren cheering Christa McAuliffe. I also did not have a television in the little sublet where I lived. Instead, I was wrestling with my first computer, which I had brought with me from England, a BBC B, as it was called, with a cassette tape recorder to store data. Not only was it bulky and delicate to work with (its RAM was enough for a half-page of text, which then had to be transferred to tape), I couldn’t find a printer anywhere. But the first six chapters of my book were on the cassettes, and I was damned if I would rewrite them all on the typewriter. My landlady had a proper IBM PC, with floppy-disk drive and all, but she was so proud and protective of her new possession that she would not let me near it. At the university’s departmental office, all I could find were electric typewriters. The day after the explosion, I was teaching my class on “Weimar cinema”, and—not realizing that the 1970s were definitely over and that Reagan’s America had healed its soul, wrapping it in the flag, honor, and pride—I made a crack about unfortunately not being able to show them The Woman in the Moon, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi thriller from 1929. It was a feeble joke, flippant, too, and the response was glacial.

Woman in the Moon

Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1929)

On 11 September 2001, at 3:17 p.m. Amsterdam time, I was in my office at the university, holding tutorials, when the phone rang. My partner in New York was on the line. She said, “I’m looking out of my window, and I can see smoke coming from the World Trade Center.” I said, “I’m very sorry, but I’m in a meeting right now, can I talk to you later?” and hung up. Ten minutes later she rang again: “The WTC is on fire; I just saw a plane smash into it!” For the next quarter hour we were on the phone. While my students waited outside, I went to my computer, tried to get to the Guardian’s Web site, couldn’t, tried again, all the while talking to my friend on the twentieth floor of her building on Washington Square, attempting to focus on her words, which described how she had gone to the window with her cup of coffee and what she saw as she talked. I could not picture it, but I heard sirens and choppers through the phone. It dawned on me that this would be another of those epochal moments. Trust New York, I thought, to come up with the millennium event, after 2000 had been such a letdown. I am not proud to have been—yet again—so callous in the face of an American tragedy. But so strong was this improbable event’s realtime presence down the transatlantic phone line that cynicism must have served as a shield during that first half hour, before I learned about the hijacked planes and the collapsing towers with their thousands of victims.


The BBC B, a far cry from modern mobile phones.

I hope that my film-historical antennae are more finely tuned than my cross-cultural ones, but I sense that these three events have something in common, beyond their defining role in United States history and American culture. Although I am not certain how they relate to my paradigm problem, I believe I can list the ingredients of what for me constitutes a culture shock and a paradigm shift. A catastrophic event, happening in and to the United States, at once spectacular and horrific; my own sense of having misjudged a mood, or otherwise been insensitive; and, finally, a new personal gadget, fortuitously connected with the public disaster, itself obscurely linked to a major technology-driven transforma­tion. In other words, “gramophone, computer, telephone” (to misquote Friedrich Kittler) have successively found me at the cusp of frustrated bafflement, speaking equally of limitless promise and catastrophic failure while teasing me with a possible epiphany.

A theory is often the funeral service of a practice, at least in my field. Film theory has long tended to run after events rather than anticipate them or to declare as theory the brilliant but unsystematic remarks of a practicing critic some decade after he died, as happened with André Bazin, father of postwar film theory, godfather of the nouvelle vague, and pope of the neorealist aesthetic. Without wishing to push the comparison, I wonder what is the practice that the theory I am groping for might signal as ending? Or put the other way round: where in these examples of culture shock or tragicomic incongruity is the point at which something new that is already a practice becomes visible before a theory catches up with it? This is why my particular archaeology of the present would start with the question, “Where were you when . . . ?” History happens, and we, it seems, even more than needing to know why it happened, want to reassure ourselves of our coordinates in space and place when it happened. The Kennedy assassination serves as the watershed because it was the last media event experienced live only on radio, and the first that retrospectively, thanks to the Zapruder amateur footage, has been remastered in popular memory into a televisual media event, which was given (much contested) narrative closure with a defining front-page picture, the Ruby-shooting-Oswald photograph. “Where were you when . . . ?” in other words, intuitively breaks with a particular way of picturing oneself in relation to an event. No longer am I at the apex of a triangle in a real time-space continuum as witness or bystander—a role that is implied by a question like “Did you see it happen?” or the forensic “Were you present when . . . ?” Modern media space is not like that, and it clearly requires a different way of situating or locating oneself. Television since the 1970s and the Internet since the 1990s are fast doing away with the mode of representing ‘presence’ that has been privileged in Western culture since the Renaissance (or, yes, since Rembrandt): the monocular, uni-focal, perspectival projection of space, to which—besides the realist-illusionist arts (including the cinema)—our subjectivity is said to have been in thrall. No wonder film theory is attempting to draw level with the multi-vocal surround immersion of space. What is not so clear is how film theory can incorporate the practice so unselfconsciously on display in our public spaces: our pleasure in a real-time tracking system that assures us of our existence, even as we are on the move, even as the world turns. The universally popular, rapid acceptance of the mobile phone nudges film theory more insistently to a rethink, it seems, than the existence of digital images or access to the Internet.

Crossing Rembrandt Square, whether carrying a mobile phone or talking to myself or, as more often happens, doing neither, I cannot help knowing I am in the midst of media space. Mobile and local and, like Nicholas de Cusa’s God, at once at the center of the universe and present at every point of its circumference, I am the pinpointed set of coordinates in a global positioning system. I phone, therefore I am. Never mind that the celestial grid’s technical implementation might still be ten years off and its operational efficacy is for now more in evidence over Afghanistan than Amsterdam. With the mobile phone, surveillance cameras have been installed in our minds, even before they are fully installed in our malls: it’s time we film historians left the cinema to keep an ear on the street and an eye on the sky.

Thomas Elsaesser

Amsterdam, September 11th, 2002 (published in PMLA 118.1 (2003): 120-22).

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