More on the zero trope

December 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Mike Innes has an interesting piece over on his blog, picking up the discussion of the zero trope.  This is an interesting discussion, at least to me, as Mike and I have been arguing, haggling, and bickering for the past year or so on the issue.  This piece is interesting.  He picks up on an article written by Antoine Bousquet in 2006 that looks at 11 September 2001 as a ground zero.  Bousquet, in effect, argues that 11 September, like the Hiroshima bombing (and I am going with Mike’s interpretation of Bousquet’s argument here, as my institution doesn’t allow me to access the full text of Bousquet’s article) was a rupture in the historical consciousness of the Western world.  

Mike takes issue with suggesting that 11 September can be properly termed a ground zero in the sense that Bousquet means it: a total rupture of the historical consciousness, and narrative, of Western culture.  His problem arises from the fact that we don’t have historical perspective to judge the impact of 11 September on our historical consciousness yet.  In building his argument, however, Bousquet uses the example of Hiroshima as an analogy, Mike suggests the Holocaust.  Either way, I think both of those historical moments can be seen as ruptures.  Hiroshima ushered in the nuclear age, led to the Cold War and the dominant ideology anyone over the age of 35 in Europe and North America, if not elsewhere, grew up in.  The Holocaust was such an evil that the world has reeled since, in a sense, we live in the age of genocide now, in part thanks to Raphael Lemkin coining the term, in part due to the world’s response to the Holocaust, and those famous words: “Never again.”  Of course, it has happened again, and as many historians have shown, lingering anti-semitism amongst the ruling classes of the UK, Canada, and various other nations ensured that Jews could not flee Nazi Germany for safe harbour there.  

But I digress.  The point is made.  But I’m going to be the historian again here.  Recently, I argued on the CTlab review in response to another posting of Mike’s, which was itself a response to an article in The Atlantic reviewing archaeologist Barry Cunliffe’s new book, Europe Between the Oceans.  I won’t get into the details of my argument there.  But it is relevant to the argument I am going to make here.

The problem I have with this push to find the ground zero, I think, is this: ground zeros exist all around us.  

Mike and Antoine have both thought of two alternate ground zeros for Western historical consciousness, both in the same era: Hiroshima and the Holocaust.  They argue over whether or not 11 September is one.  I might also add the Vietnam War, which was the introduction of television into how war is fought and the attendant responses of belligerent states.  How different would wars be since Vietnam if there weren’t TV crews following soldiers around Afghanistan and Iraq today?  Or in Somalia in the early 1990s?  Or in Iraq and Kuwait a few years earlier?  

Ruptures in the historical consciousness happen on the meta level with relative frequency, I would argue.  In the first half of the twentieth century, Europe and North America experienced: World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Depression, World War II (including the Holocaust and Hiroshima), and the outset of the Cold War.  Those events all caused massive, fundamental change.  In some ways, each caused a rupture in the Western cultural historical consciousness, which I interpret to be, basically, the stories we tell ourselves as a culture.  

Similarly, ruptures have occurred on the national level, depending on the nation.  In Ireland, independence was gained in the aftermath of World War I, or at least independence for most of the island, because there was also partition.  Independence for what became the Republic of Ireland and the creation of the Northern Irish unionist state are clearly moments of rupture in Ireland’s (and Britain’s) historical consciousness.  

In Canada, in October 1970, armed terrorists kidnapped the British trade minister in Montréal, James Cross, as well as the Québec Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte.  Laporte was later killed.  The terrorists were the Front de Libération du Québec.  Their goal was Québec’s independence, and they sought to do so through violence.  The FLQ had spent much of the 1960s exploding bombs in and around Montréal, but nothing compared to what happened in October 1970.  There were soldiers on the streets of the city for most of the autumn and early winter of 1970.  This certainly caused a rupture in our historical consciousness in Canada/Québec.  Gone was our prosaic belief in our peaceability, or our belief that we’re safe.   

Personally, we all experience our own ground zeros on a regular basis.  Moments where we experience a rupture in our own personal historical consciousness.  And this doesn’t always have to be negative, they can be positive, too.  Getting married.  Our parents dying.  Being diagnosed with a catastrophic illness.  There are always moments after which nothing is ever the same.  Indeed, given that there are always consequences of all of our actions.  If we want to get down to the micro-historical level, our actions are always leading to different outcomes, our lives are never the same after any given moment in our lives.  How do I know how else my decision to go to the dépanneur this evening could have played out?  Maybe I would have otherwise stayed home and not missed the call from an old friend in Vancouver?  Maybe not.  Maybe the call would never have come if I wasn’t home. 

I am fascinated with this exploration of the zero trope, and I’m not trying to suggest there is no point to such explorations.  However, what I am suggesting is something similar to which I suggested in the CTlab post, and that is we, as a culture, spend so much time trying to find rupture, moments that the world changed, the moments the world stood still.  This doesn’t mean necessarily that we shouldn’t look for those great moments of rupture, those instances where our historical consciousnesses are altered.  What I’m suggesting is that perhaps they are more common than we think.  Or at the very least, we need to be prepared to recognise the multiplicity of such moments, and to recognise that they exists at the meta and micro levels, as well as those levels in between.


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