This paper argues that Don DeLillo's 2007 novel, Falling Man,
engages with abject art to disrupt the pre-existing systems of
signification and dualistic rhetoric that characterized state and media
responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The novel engages
with one of the most controversial areas of 9/11 discourse: claims that the
attacks were an artistic spectacle. Falling Man posits that if art is to
continue to grapple with the meanings of 9/11, it must depart from familiar
discourses of tragedy and triumph and embrace radical artistic responses. The
novel fulfills this through its engagement with abject art, which poses
necessary questions pertaining to the aesthetic, ethical, and political. Such
an art form inspires terror and requires a particular aesthetic. Through its
assessment of abject art and terrorism, Falling Man destabilizes
conventional interpretive frameworks to provide a new artistic and ethical
response to 9/11.
9/11; abject; aesthetics; DeLillo; Falling Man; terror
1. Radical responses
This paper argues that Don DeLillo's 2007 novel, Falling Man,
engages with abject art to disrupt the pre-existing systems of signification
and dualistic rhetoric that characterized state and media responses to the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Bush Administration disseminated a
carefully constructed, narrative interpretation positing
that 9/11 was an act of unprovoked aggression and an epochal trauma that could
only be responded to with military force. In his State of the Union Address,
President Bush stated that "in a single instant, we realized that this
will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty; that we have been called
to a unique role in human events." Bush
extricated the attacks from the larger geopolitical and historical frameworks
in which they were entangled and instead framed them as an exceptional American
trauma. The elision of history diminished any sense of American agency or
responsibility for the attacks and, subsequently, narrative memory proceeded
from the perspective of victimhood. The
significance or purported meaning of the attacks was constructed from
simplistic frameworks that rendered geopolitical reality a battle of good versus evil and us
against them. This Manichean rhetoric was clearly articulated in the false
logic of Bush's infamous assertion: "Either you're with us or you're with
the terrorists." Bush's
discourse sought to affirm the moral and political superiority of America and
its allies over their terrorist counterparts. The widespread circulation and
acceptance of this narrative left little opportunity for sustained reflection
on the visual artistry of the attacks. This path, however, is one on which Falling
Man dares to tread.
DeLillo argues that if artists are to continue to grapple with the
meanings of 9/11, they must depart from conventional discourses of tragedy and
triumph. Radical responses should be embraced, instead, and the aesthetic power
of the events considered. Falling Man fulfills this purpose through its
engagement with abject art. The Tate
Museum defines abject art as an art that covers "all the bodily
functions, or aspects of the body, that are deemed impure or inappropriate for
public display or discussion." DeLillo
theorizes a specific form of abject art that inspires terror in several ways.
By exposing a body that has been banned from public view, the abject artist
transgresses the boundaries of embodied subjectivity and forces the audience to
confront the evisceration of the human condition. His art might be considered
morally impure but that does not mean that it is unethical. Differentiating
between morality and ethics, Emmanouil Aretoulakis contends that analyses of
9/11 that explore "artistic preoccupations with the humanely impossible as
well as the morally inconceivable" offer "a morally free and thus
more ethical explication" as they "permit the
symbiotic operation of many different faculties — politics, aesthetics, ethics,
realism — without any of them ruling over any other." The
"Falling Man" artist and the novel as a whole provide such an
analysis. Through its reflection on abject art, Falling Man poses
necessary and pertinent questions regarding possible aesthetic, ethical, and
political responses to 9/11.
In her seminal text, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,
Julia Kristeva defines the abject as "the in-between, the ambiguous, the
composite," that "does not respect borders, positions, rules."
DeLillo's eponymous Falling Man refuses to conform to social rules and
prohibitions as he stages falls from elevated structures in New York City.The
jolt of his jump is followed by a sudden moment of suspension, during which he
dangles in mid-air with nothing but a safety harness to secure him. Suspended
in a liminal space between life and death, he is abject: a life bordering on
death. His performances are particularly disturbing because they recreate the
last moments of those who jumped from the burning Twin Towers on September 11.
We need to be reminded here that images of falling bodies on 9/11were quickly
removed from all media outlets in the U.S. This was due in part to their
transgression of cultural values and myths of American invulnerability. In the
aftermath of the attacks, the Bush administration sought to conceal the
nation's vulnerability by exerting military might in the Middle East.
Furthermore, the prevalence of Christian discourse was emphasized after 9/11,
as Bush declared it his mission to defend America's "God-given
values" of freedom, morality, and liberty from barbarous forces of evil. This
moralistic viewpoint could neither explain nor comprehend the 9/11 victims'
decision to jump to death under duress. Images of falling bodies were images of
abject objects or, in Kristevean terms, "jettisoned objects," quickly
replaced with images of firefighters that trumpeted the strength of the
American spirit in the face of adversity.
DeLillo's Falling Man establishes the dialectical relationship
between abject art and terrorism. The aesthetic power of Falling Man's
performance art does not rely on logic and reason but on sheer visual impact.
Through a compelling combination of shock and suspension, he figuratively assaults
the sensorium of his unsuspecting audience members. His abject art is
disengaged from what DeLillo calls "disarticulations:" the linguistic
codification and reification of "us" and "them," or
"good" and "evil," that induce a "righteous fever in
the brain." Falling
Man intensifies "brain fever" by stimulating a rush of awe,
fascination, and repulsion. This ineffable feeling clashes with the censure and
moral condemnation of terrorism and falling bodies. His art is thus
transgressive not only because it tears the veil that obscures the reality of
the 9/11 jumpers, but also because it induces forbidden or socially
Following its examination of the abject features of Falling Man's
performances, this essay will turn its attention to the ways in which the
abject artist creates a counter-narrative to the assumed exceptionality of 9/11
"trauma." Traditional trauma theory contends that a trauma victim is
an agentless being that unwillingly experiences the return of the repressed. DeLillo, however, asserts that America
suffers not necessarily from trauma but from willful amnesia, through its
deliberate exclusion of the 9/11 jumpers from cultural memory. The motif of
memory loss is explored further through the story of Lianne, the novel's narrative
focus, who lost her father Jack to suicide. Several years prior to the attacks,
Jack chose to shoot himself following his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease.
He metaphorically jumped to death rather than endure a slow inevitable decline
or "fall." Therefore, Falling Man is not only an uncanny cipher for
the falling bodies of 9/11 but also for Jack. Falling Man, the novel,
explores the fragility of human existence and the artistry of terror, in order
to provide a counter-narrative to the official responses to 9/11.
The novel engages with one of the most controversial areas of 9/11
discourse: the hypothesis that the attacks were an artistic spectacle. This
provocative and morally questionable view was articulated by several artists
and cultural critics in the aftermath of the attacks. Karlheinz Stockhausen
described the attacks as "the greatest work of art ever," in the
sense that artists "try to go beyond the limits of what is feasible and
conceivable" (cited by Schechner). In the
same vein, Damien Hirst was heavily criticized for his assertion that the
"thing about 9/11 is that it's kind of an artwork in its own right. It was
wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised
For Hirst and Stockhausen, the visual artistry of 9/11 lies in its
leap from security and the mundane. Although Falling Man's performances do not
match the scale or notoriety of the 9/11 attacks, they are disengaged from
pre-conceived patterns of thought and trigger a pre-lingual, subjective
response. Martin Randall alludes to author Jonathan Franzen's contention that
he felt an "admiration for an attack so brilliantly conceived and so
flawlessly executed or, worst of all, an awed appreciation of the visual
spectacle it produced." Franzen
refers to the 9/11 terrorists as "death artists," who were
"rejoicing over the terrible beauty of the towers' collapse." The
phrase "terrible beauty" refers both to the cataclysmic violence and
the gripping spectacle of the attack, which is “beautiful," , according to
Franzen, in spite of its vicious intent. For Hirst and Franzen, the inherent
"wickedness" of 9/11 is central to its "terrible beauty."
Immanuel Kant conceptualized beauty in terms of the pleasure it elicited,
stating that "the only reason why an object is called beautiful is that its representation immediately produces a
peculiar pleasure in the subject." The
abject performance art of DeLillo's Falling Man induces a similar feeling of
uncanny pleasure. As the abject theoretically precedes the development of
language and conceptual meaning, it moves beyond representation. Falling Man's
abject art is thus capable of eliciting an unmediated feeling of horrific
beauty, a feeling that comes in conflict with the cultural reproach and
aversion to images of falling bodies.
2. The limitations of trauma theory
Falling Man has been read predominantly through the lens of
trauma theory, with several critics focusing on DeLillo's portrayal of Keith, a
9/11 survivor, as a study in trauma. This essay critiques and moves beyond the
extant readings of Falling Man, which are limited by their
over-reliance on trauma theory. Cathy Caruth states that a traumatic event
defies understanding at the moment of its occurrence but it returns belatedly.
She explains that trauma is "an overwhelming experience of sudden or
catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often
delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other
intrusive phenomena." Michelle Balaev asserts that,
pioneered a psychoanalytic poststructural approach that suggests
an unsolvable problem of the unconscious that illuminates the inherent
contradictions of experience and language. This Lacanian approach crafts a
concept of trauma as a recurring sense of absence that sunders knowledge of the
extreme experience, thus preventing linguistic value other than a referential
The project of writing trauma, as Balaev insinuates, is somehow
problematic, insofar as traumatic experience theoretically exceeds linguistic
and verbal expression. In Falling Man, abject performance art enacts
man's primal fear of falling, providing an affective and sensory basis for
challenging Caruth's poststructuralist (and postmodernist) conceptualization of
Although I argue that Falling Man moves beyond trauma theory,
it is Caruth's Lacanian model that has dominated the field of post-9/11
literary scholarship and fiction. However, critics have recently registered the
necessity to re-evaluate its dominance. Alan Gibbs argues that scholarship has
tended to overstate the subversive qualities of what has now become a codified
method of representing trauma in fiction. The trauma aesthetic uses formulaic
postmodernist literary techniques, such as non-linear chronologies, repetition,
and shifts in narrative voice. Gibbs further argues that "trauma theory
sets an ideal foundation for tendencies which, in these circumstances, enabled
a sense of victimhood and false innocence to take root and deflect attention
from America's complicity in actions both before and after 9/11." The
dehistoricizing logic of trauma theory inadvertently supported the politically
advantageous agenda of positioning 9/11 as an unprecedented trauma inflicted
upon an essentially innocent nation.
Critical assessments of Falling Man reveal some of the
limitations and troubling assumptions of trauma theory. Critics, such as
Richard Gray and Kristiaan Versluys, focus
on the limits of representation in relation to the text's portrayal of trauma
and whether, or to what extent, the novel departs from or returns to a paradigmatic
trauma aesthetic. Following Caruth's assertion that traumatic memory must be
integrated into pre-existent narrative schemes to facilitate closure, Versluys
criticizes Falling Man for its failure to "restore the broken
link," to repair traumatic ruptures induced by 9/11. Still,
in this essay I contend that DeLillo does not seek to restore, but rather to
break away from pre-determined (political) meanings of or messages connected
Richard Gray includes Falling Man in his prognosis that the
early 9/11 novel "simply assimilate[s] the unfamiliar into familiar
against Gray and trauma theorists, I support the view that DeLillo’s novel
resists, both aesthetically and thematically, such a kind of assimilation.
Catherine Morley argues that Falling Man’s portrayal of domestic
relationships does not represent a "failure of the imagination," as
Gray alleges, but instead represents "one of the joys of fiction" to
"go well beyond the narrowly political." She
aptly notes that Gray, among other critics who argue similarly, are only
"highlighting one of the enduring and inevitable aspects of all literary
Brauner, in turn, thinks that Falling Man illustrates how post-9/11 life
is both different from and similar to its pre-9/11 structure. He asserts that
the novel offers a "double vision," that is, a "doubling of
perception as a response to trauma." The
novel's double vision, as theorized by Brauner, focuses on the reparation of a
ruptured domestic sphere. However, as I argue, DeLillo eschews the narrative
resolution and closure that is symptomatic of
working through trauma. The novel instead foregrounds an art form that
metaphorically terrorizes its audience by breaking with convention and
forwarding a particularly radical aesthetic.
3. The abject
In Powers of Horror, Kristeva defines the abject as a
"jettisoned object" that is "radically excluded" from the
symbolic order, the social network of linguistic communication. As the
abject is detached from the symbolic order from which linguistic meaning is
constructed, it "draws [the subject] toward the place where meaning
meaning of 9/11, propagated by the Bush administration, was determined by
pre-existing interpretive frameworks of good and evil. The artist Falling Man, on the other hand,
compels his audience to encounter, or temporarily inhabit, the space at the
limits of understanding. Suspended in mid-air, he occupies the liminal space of
the "not yet:” he is not yet dead even though he has seemingly jumped to a
certain death. His performance makes visible the moment of imminent death, the
experience of which usually occurs only once and cannot be recorded. Falling
Man performs the experience of near-death, making the ostensibly unimaginable
imaginable. Kristeva asserts that the abject confronts the individual with the
insistent materiality of death. She makes a clear distinction between knowledge
of death, or the meaning of death, both of which can emerge from the symbolic
order, and the aesthetic experience of confrontation with the materiality of
death. She writes:
corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to
fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it
upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious
chance. . . . No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and
corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. . . . There,
I am at the border of my condition as a living being.
Falling Man "violently" upsets his unsuspecting audience
because he proves that art is presence rather than mere representation: he is
not an image, but the physical embodiment of a thing that has
"irremediably come a cropper." More importantly, his performance art
brings back into public focus a body that has been banned from official and
media responses to 9/11. Whilst Kristeva asserts that the abject must be thrust
aside in order for us to live, DeLillo suggests that engagement with the abject is integral to life. Falling Man
compels his audience to engage with uncanniness, "the form of something
strange and unfamiliar unexpectedly arising in a familiar context." To
experience something uncanny is to engage with something unfamiliar which is,
at the same time, familiar. Falling Man is an uncanny double of the 9/11
"jumpers," who is also confronting his audience with another familiar
yet unfamiliar feeling: the terror of the inevitable yet unknowable experience
of death. Although death is a fact of life, the embodied experience of death is
unfamiliar to the living subject. Even though Falling Man presents his audience
with the inevitability of their own deaths, he also reminds them that such a
fate has not yet befallen them.Thus, to engage with the abject body and to
discard it simultaneously is to recognize not only the inevitability of one's
own death, but also the fact that one is still very much alive and to live more
fully as a result.
Surviving a perilously close encounter with death elicits an
exhilarating mix of fear and "awe," stimulating Lianne's
"extremely strange" desire for sexual "contact" with her
estranged husband." For
Kristeva, the subject responds to the abject not only with "spasms and
vomiting" and "repugnance" but also with "joy." This
ambiguous feeling is symptomatic of jouissance, a
feeling that explains why "victims of the abject are its fascinated
victims―if not its submissive and willing ones." This
somewhat paradoxical statement implies that the subject is repeatedly drawn to
the abject in spite of the revulsion it elicits. If the unsuspecting audience
members are "victims," Falling Man is a terrorizer of sorts. The
binary between terrorist and victim is not
clearly defined, however, as the "victims" are the
"terrorist's" fascinated captives. The audience negates neither his
abject art nor its terrorizing effects but implicitly appreciates its aesthetic
power. The abject artist does not obliterate the boundaries between life and
death or victim and terrorist, but refigures them instead through the affective
response that his art elicits.
In his exploration of trauma and the abject, Hal Foster reads abject
art in relation to a shift in conceptualizations of the Real during the 1980s
and 1990s: "from the Real understood as an effect of representation to the
Real understood as an event of trauma." For
Jacques Lacan, the Real is "impossible" as it "resists
symbolization absolutely." The
Lacanian Real precedes the subject's separation from the maternal body and its
entrance into the symbolic order. The abject is associated with the eruption of
the Real as it dismantles the border between self and other that secures the
subject's entry into the symbolic. For Foster, the abject artist compels his
audience to experience the Real not as an effect but as "an event of trauma."
Although they are related, trauma and the abject are not synonymous. Rather,
trauma is one of many possible responses to abject material; it is symptomatic
of the subject's confrontation with the abject, including abject art.While a
traumatic experience is a "missed encounter with the Real," an
encounter with the abject makes present the otherwise absent presence of the
Abject artists do not represent the Real but rather they compel their
audiences to sense the presence of the Real, which is often a traumatic
experience. Caruth suggests that trauma is an unassimilable "history that
literally has no place, neither in the past, in which it was not fully experienced,
nor in the present." Although
Falling Man's performance is not represented in photographs, films, or
language, it does have a place: It exists as a living, embodied memory
"absorbed" and "recorded" within the flesh of his audience.
Recalling his performance, Lianne muses: "there were no photographs of
that fall. She was the photograph, the photosensitive surface. That nameless
body coming down, this was hers to record and absorb." She
feels his art cut deep beneath the permeable "photosensitive surface"
of her skin, reopening old wounds of trauma and rousing her pervasive fear of
human's ephemerality. His performance, that is, invokes the Real as its
affective power pierces her skin, violating the boundary that distinguishes
between self and other. Without this differentiating border, Lianne is faced
with the threat of a return to the Real, where autonomous subjectivity is
annihilated. Falling Man thus bears the hallmark of what DeLillo calls a
"true terrorist," someone who "infiltrates and alters consciousness,"
as his abject art leaves an indelible mark on Lianne's embodied consciousness.
Falling Man's performance demonstrates the need for a particular
aesthetic that reflects on the artistry of terror. For DeLillo, "before
politics, before history and religion, there is the primal terror. People
falling from the towers hand in hand." Falling
Man perpetrates an act of aesthetic terrorism as he performs the "primal
terror" of falling to death, forcing his audience to have an aesthetic and
also terrifying experience of mortality. There is an underlying politics of
resistance in DeLillo's literary practice. In 1993, he stated that "we
need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who
writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of
DeLillo's position anticipated his later response to the official discourses of
9/11. The abject artist that was urgently needed in 1993, when literature was
"too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient
noise," is also needed in the post-9/11 era, a historical scene also
replete with crisis. Foster
describes America's post-9/11 reactionary jingoism as "a new order of
totalitarian kitsch" that has come to "pervade this society." This
pervasion is furthered through a complacent acquiescence to the deliberate
censorship of taboo subjects, images, and totalizing categories of identity.
DeLillo's Falling Man, in contradistinction to that
acquiescence, embraces the abject in order to disturb the official responses to
9/11 and social frames of reference. Waging a global war on terror, the Bush
administration attempted to protect its sovereign position post-9/11 by denying
its constitutive fragility. The desire to restore the nation's lost (imagined)
invulnerability partly explains why Richard Drew's "Falling Man"
photograph was banned from public view. DeLillo's Falling Man
as abject artist, however, resists the US government's political imperative to
conceal national vulnerability. As his "fall" is not captured on
camera, it resists the market apparatus that would transform his
performance into a visual commodity to be bought and sold. The artist exerts,
to greater or lesser extents, the power of horror that I argue is a
counter-hegemonic force. His abject
art resists assimilation into the symbolic order as it shatters the symbolic
"reality" of post-9/11 America constructed by the Bush administration
and mainstream media. In addition, he resists cherished ideals of American
invincibility and moral superiority, making the nation's precariousness
4. Abject artists and terrorism
The relationship between art and terrorism is one that DeLillo has
explored throughout his oeuvre. In an interview published in The Guardian,
Robert McCrum reports that DeLillo used to keep one file on his writing table
labeled, "Art," and another labeled, "Terror." In DeLillo's novel, Mao II (1991), protagonist Bill Gray asserts that
"I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of
the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make
raids on human consciousness." Falling
Man theorizes an abject art that functions as a form of terrorism: an art
that resists integration into symbolic reality with the capacity to
"alter" and resist the modus
operandi that regulates the symbolic order. Kristeva asserts that
"suicidal crime flaunts its disrespect for the law" and, as such,
part of the abject nature of the 9/11 attacks pertains to their flagrant
violation of legal, psychological, and corporeal boundaries. The
attacks obliterated, in a spectacular fashion, the view of America as an
indestructible nation. As cultural theorist Susan Buck-Morss claims,
"[w]hat disappeared on September 11 was the apparent invulnerability, not
only of U.S. territory, but of U.S., and, indeed, Western hegemony." Although
Falling Man does not focus on the geopolitical implications of 9/11 but
rather on the vulnerability, at the individual level, of embodied subjectivity,
it does counter dominant narratives and political imperatives that try to heal
the wound of trauma, shield the nation from its precariousness, and return to
an illusory state of invincibility. Falling Man's Martin Ridnour, an art
dealer and former member of a German terrorist group, claims that 9/11 was a
"blow to this country's dominance." Like the
9/11 terrorists, Falling Man reveals in a striking fashion "how a great
power can be vulnerable." The
power of his performances resides in the unmitigated shock of a raw
confrontation with the fact of death, "without makeup or masks." Arrested
in mid-air, he is positioned on "the border of life and death" where "death
infect[s] life," appearing to await his impending demise. He is
thus an abject artist/terrorist who commits an act of "primal
terror," unabashedly exposing the deep-seated precariousness and
vulnerability of the American state.
In one ekphrastic passage, DeLillo describes how "the jolting end
of the fall left [Falling Man] upside-down" with his "arms at his
sides, one leg bent at the knee." The
author's iconographic art builds a three-dimensional model of the Falling Man
photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew on September 11.
Drew’s notorious photograph, which was soon censored in U.S. media, captures a man arrested in mid-air, with one
leg bent up, arms at his sides, falling headfirst in a perfectly vertical
position. The image is visually striking as the man appears to slice through
both towers, the North tower to the left and the South tower to the right. This
photograph and other images of falling bodies were, according to Thomas Junod,
"'taboo'– the only images from which Americans were proud to avert their
publication of the image was considered a morally questionable act and a
voyeuristic intrusion upon one man's personal, private decision to choose death
by suicide rather than by asphyxiation. Ironically, the desire to negate Drew's
image implies a desire to negate the deaths of the 9/11 jumpers.
DeLillo's Falling Man exploits Drew's image for positive and,
arguably, ethical ends by rescuing the memory of the "fallen" from
oblivion. Operating in high visibility areas, he refigures public space by
reinserting Drew's censored image into public consciousness. Performing, out in
the open, one man's private decision to die, Falling Man flouts the border
between public and private spaces, or the extraordinary and the ordinary. The
striking visual impact of his performance is a feat of human ingenuity but is
created from the most ordinary of materials, namely, a rope and a safety
harness. Although he is known to operate in New York City, there is a level of
suspicion around him. As his headfirst falls are neither "announced in
advance" nor "designed to be recorded by a photographer," they
are especially shocking.
Furthermore, the precise locations and times of his performances are unknown.
He strikes without warning. It is thus not a question of whether he will appear
or attack, it is a question of when. When he does appear, he figuratively holds
his unwitting audience captive. Spectators are forcibly implicated in a living
diorama wherein they must witness "those stark moments in the burning
towers when people fell or were forced to jump." His
performance emulates the forcefulness of a sudden traumatic occurrence, but
this jolt quickly turns into a moment of stillness during which he is suspended
between life and death.
Lianne recalls the "blankness" of his face, a "kind of
lost gaze." Gazing
aimlessly into the abyss, he is, in Kristevean terms, "at the border of
[his] condition as a living being." His
abject body, in turn, pushes to the limits Lianne's existence as an autonomous
embodied subject. Witnessing his performance, she undergoes a figurative blood
transfusion with him: "He remained motionless, with the train still
running in a blur in her mind and the echoing deluge of sound falling about
him, blood rushing to his head, away from hers." This
process conveys the extent to which Falling Man's art pierces Lianne and
transgresses the boundaries that safeguard her from the horror he presents. The
abject blood motif recurs later in the novel, when the fictional mastermind of
the 9/11 attacks instructs his jihadist followers to "[b]ecome each
other's running blood." Whilst
the 9/11 hijackers are represented as blood brothers, Lianne and Falling Man
temporarily "become each other's running blood." The abject artist is
thus positioned as a figure of terror drawing blood from his audience. Through
the affective power of his artistic assault, he and his "victims"
The intimacy Lianne shares with Falling Man implies that she partakes
somewhat of his project of terror. Although she senses the
“awful,"(in the literal sense, openness of his performance, she
"[does] not think of turning and leaving" but continues to observe,
feeling "compelled" and "helpless." She is captivated by Falling Man and the jouissance his performance elicits. Feeling a fascination with, and even a glimmer
of appreciation for, a living recreation of a forbidden image signals the
emergence of an aesthetic that is not tethered to preconceived notions of
reason and morality. At the same time, Falling Man makes no attempt to explain
his rationale, if there is any, and has "no comments to make to the media
on any subject." This is
because the power of his performance derives from its excitation of sensation,
subjective response, and imagination rather than symbolic forms of
communication. Reflecting later on his performance, Lianne realizes
that it is connected to Drew's image. She describes the man pictured in the
Falling Man photograph as "a falling angel," a transcendent being, descended
from an elevated plane of existence. Although his hellish "fall" "burns a
hole in her heart and mind," she recalls that his "beauty was
phrase recalls Hirst's appreciation of the "terrible beauty" of the
9/11 attacks and the Kantian idea that something could be seen as beautiful as
long as it "immediately produces a peculiar pleasure in the subject." The immediacy of the pleasure that emerges from an encounter
with the "beautiful" is free from pre-determined notions of morality
and logic. The "horrific" and "terrible" beauty that
Falling Man and the 9/11 terrorists evoke is due to the abject nature of their
"artworks," which are sheer unmediated experiences of terror.
It is significant that the phrase 'falling angel’ is
evocative of Satan, a fallen angel. According to the Judaeo-Christian story of
the fall of man, Satan was cast down from Heaven into the fires of Hell because
he successfully tempted God's human creation to taste the forbidden fruit.
Expelled from Heaven, Satan is perhaps one of the oldest and most infamous
figures of abjection. The implicit connection between Satan and Falling Man is
apt, as the performance artist tempts his audience to feel the illicit
exhilaration of witnessing a banned image come to life. The satanic artist/terrorist flouts social propriety and
standards of "acceptable" behavior. Lianne learns that he has been
arrested for "obstructing vehicular traffic and creating a hazardous or
physically offensive condition." During
his college years he assaulted another actor, "seemingly trying to rip the
man's tongue out of his mouth during what was supposed to be a structured
Following his performances in New York, he was demonized by the mainstream
media, which labeled him a "heartless exhibitionist." Without
doubt, DeLillo paints a portrait of an artist who is possessed
by an anarchist or Satanic spirit. Lianne, however, does not exorcize this
spirit but secretly revels in the horrific beauty of his destructive creation.
Falling Man's "fall," therefore, marks a metaphorical loss of
innocence as it demonstrates that art and its reception are not obliged to be
morally pure. Simultaneously, his abject art problematizes the dominant
narrative of 9/11 that insists on American innocence.
The anarchist spirit of Falling Man's meticulously planned visual
spectacle, and the illicit pleasure it elicits, strengthen the bond between
abject art and terrorism. As the living embodiment of Drew's
horrifically beautiful image, he is the intrusion of the Real into social reality.
Drawing on Lacan, Slavoj Žižek theorizes the Real as unknowable; what we
experience as reality is constructed from symbols, imagery and language. Žižek
claimed that America "got what it fantasized about on 9/11" as the Real
erupted and "shattered our reality." In his
view, the 9/11 terrorists fulfilled America's desire to witness a cinematic
catastrophe in real life. DeLillo's Falling Man shatters the
"reality" of America as an invincible nation, publicly performing in
the flesh the "fall" captured in Drew's censored photograph. In the
same vein as Žižek, Jean Baudrillard affirms that nobody "could help but
dream of the destruction of so powerful a Hegemon, this fact is unacceptable to
the moral conscience of the West. . . . In the end, it was they who did it, but
we who wished it."
Baudrillard's assertion is echoed by Falling Man's Martin
Ridnour, who provocatively states, "that's why you built the
towers, isn't it? Weren't the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power
that would one day become fantasies of destruction?" Baudrillard and Martin argue that America
silently rejoiced in 9/11 as the terrorists fulfilled the nation's secret
libidinal wish for the fall of the Twin Towers, the architectural symbols of
America's capitalist power. Experiencing exhilaration in response to America's
humiliation is, by Western standards, morally wrong. The immediate repression
of American vulnerability and the swift moral condemnation of terrorism,
however, are not necessarily ethical acts. As the War on Terror has shown, the
human cost of America's desire to preserve the illusion of its invulnerability
has been immense and the damage profound. On the other hand, although the
"fall" of Falling Man elicits awe and unacknowledged, secret pleasure,
it seems more ethical as an act of artistic and political transgression insofar
as to be compelled by the
unmitigated shock of a raw exposure to death is to recognize the vulnerability
5. Falling men
Kristeva asserts that the abject is accompanied by a "massive and
sudden emergence of uncanniness." She
defines the uncanniness associated with the abject as "'something' that I
do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is
nothing insignificant, and which crushes me." Although
the experience of uncanniness has been theorized as a symptom of trauma,
Lianne's uncanny experience of Falling Man's abject art is indicative of its
revelatory power. She feels that his performance reveals "something we'd
not seen, the single falling figure that trails a collective dread, body come
down among us all." His jump
is transformed into a descent from a higher realm or, what Lianne calls,
"another plane of being." Her
description of Falling Man as a falling angel has a dual function: It not only
implies the anarchist spirit of the abject artist but also, and quite
paradoxically, shows that his abject art is akin to a religious or transcendent
experience. His performance is transcendent in the sense that it makes manifest
a material reality that exceeds surface appearances and camera frames. Thus,
the artist reveals something more than the "horrific beauty" of
Drew's censored image; he reveals the terrifying decision to jump or fall made
by those really trapped in the Twin Towers, and by Lianne's father, Jack, in
When Lianne was younger, her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's
disease. Preferring not to slide into advanced memory loss, he took his own
life. While Lianne flees Falling Man's performance, the memory of her father's
suicide resurfaces in the form of the textual trace: "died by his own
experiential connection Lianne intuits between David Janiak, the real name of
the performance artist called "Falling Man," and Jack stems from her father's
decision to ruin the rampant stride of the future and to halt his slow
submission to death at the hands of Alzheimer's disease. In one of her many
reflections on Falling Man's fall or jump, she muses: "Jumps or falls. He
keels forward, body rigid, and falls full length, head first, drawing a rustle
of awe from the school yard." Although
she watches spellbound, she eventually flees the scene. As she does so, her
bag, containing a binder of narratives written by Alzheimer's patients,
"[keeps] time, knocking against her hip, giving her a tempo, a rhythm to
textual fragment, "died by his own hand,” resurfaces while she runs. This
sequential memory ties together Jack's decision to kill himself and Lianne's
fixation with Falling Man's agency, implying that she has subconsciously
cognized Janiak as an uncanny embodied cipher for Jack as well as the 9/11
Three years after the 9/11 attacks, Lianne learns of the death of
Falling Man. The cause of his death is mysterious: although some news outlets
claim that he died of a chronic heart ailment, others claim that his
"plans for a final fall . . . did not include a safety harness,"
effectively making it a "suicide mission." If so,
both Falling Man and Jack abruptly arrest time and motion to preclude a
prolonged experience of gradual decline or "falling" into abjection
due to degenerative illnesses. DeLillo develops the dialectical relationship
between abject artist and terrorist through his suicide motif, drawing together
Jack, Janiak, and the hijackers.The knot
entwining Jack and the hijackers is tightened by DeLillo's characterization of
Jack as an architect, a profession shared by the lead 9/11 hijacker, Mohammad
Atta. It is also telling that Jack's artistic creations, a cluster of "white
stucco dwellings" that were built "for an artists' retreat,"
recall the "stucco house" wherein the 9/11 terrorists designed their
subtle connections intimate that abject artist, architect, and terrorist are
driven by an innate death wish.
Cultural theorist Claire Kahane claims that "falling evokes not
just memory but fantasy, contaminating both memory and desire with perverse
wishes that push us past our limits, urge us toward risk, even toward death
DeLillo's abject artists/terrorists practice this form of falling and push
their fascinated victims "toward death itself," forcing them to face
the interminable "falling" of man.
Due to the haphazard repetition of his "falls," Falling Man's
audiences are repeatedly exposed to the feeling of apparent sudden death. Through her own repeated exposure
to Falling Man, Lianne absorbs the shock of death, coming to terms with the
fact of its inescapability. She no longer experiences the presence of the
(living) dead as a threat, but as a "comfort." At the
end of the novel, she sits in a church and "feels their presence, the dead
she'd loved and all the faceless others who'd filled a thousand churches." Like
Falling Man, Lianne is suspended between the past and the present, and the
living and the dead. Inhabiting this suspended state, however, enables her to
feel a sense of communion with the dead, signaling her awareness of the limits
of autonomous subjectivity and the possibility of a transcendent plane of
being. Falling Man's abject art and the imaginative response it provokes
facilitate the emergence of an elevated comprehension of human existence. His
art assaults consciousness in order to inspire new modes of sensation and
thought that, in a paradoxical way, provide "comfort" and the possibility
of healing. Falling Man is, in the final analysis, a death-driven story
that stimulates the reader's imagination and expands perceptions of post-9/11
reality. Like the Falling Man artist, the novel provides an antidote to the
memory loss suffered by an amnesiac post-9/11 America that erased the jumpers
from cultural memory. Dismantling conventional interpretive structures and
exploring taboo subjects, Falling Man ultimately (un)builds official
stories to alter the reader's consciousness, providing a new artistic,
aesthetic, and ethical response to 9/11.
Kelsie Donnelly is a third-year PhD candidate in Queen's University
Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her thesis is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities
Research Council, and examines the aesthetic, socio-political and ethical
implications of grief and abjection in twenty-first-century literature. Her
work has been published in the Irish Journal of American Studies and C21:
Journal of Twenty-First Century Writings.
Published on October 31, 2019.
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I wish to express sincere gratitude to the guest
editor of this Special Volume, Dr Emmanouil Aretoulakis, whose attentive
readings, insightful comments, exceptional patience and enthusiasm throughout
the publication process have been invaluable. I am especially grateful to the
editor of Contemporary Aesthetics, Professor Yuriko Saito, for reading
the paper and offering some final suggestions.