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Unit 4: "9/11" in Global History









Photograph of Manhattan from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC, on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, by Thomas Hoepker (Magnum). See Hoepker's reflections on this image and the controversy that surrounded it

The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 are commonly seen as one of the formative events of the contemporary world: a true ‘turning point’ in history, after which nothing was the same as it had been before. But their status as such is an effect of narrative; and the narratives in which the events of September 11 2001 were rapidly and emotively situated – of geopolitical, religious, and civilisational conflict, of public and private grief, and of sudden and decisive 'change' – present a major challenge to historical understanding. The now-conventional way of referring to the events of that day as ‘9/11’ itself conceals a narration of history that privileges certain experiences and identities, while silencing others. In this module we will explore some of the most important ways in which the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 have been represented in texts; the limitations on historical knowledge and understanding that those representations have registered and encountered; and the contestation of history and meaning that a truly ‘global’ history of these events has to reckon with in some way.

Some of the texts for this unit contain material that some students may find distressing; please consult the module convenors if this concerns you


Week 17: Narrative

Lecture slides


Suggested further reading:

  • Executive Summary of The 9/11 Commission Report (discussed in lecture)
  • Interview with Thomas Kean (co-chair of the 9/11 Commission) on the twentieth anniversary of the attacks
  • Journal of American History 89:2 (2002) – special issue on ‘History and September 11’
  • Mary L. Dudziak, ed., September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment? (2003), esp. Introduction (Dudziak) & ch.3 (Kaplan)
  • Bruce Holsinger, 'Empire, Apocalypse, and the 9/11 Premodern', Critical Inquiry 34:3 (2008, 23 pp.)
  • Craig A. Warren, '"It Reads Like a Novel": The 9/11 Commission Report and the American Reading Public', Journal of American Studies 41:3 (2007), 533-556
  • Paul R. Pillar, 'Good Literature and Bad History: The 9/11 Commission's Tale of Stategic Intelligence', Intelligence and National Security 21:6 (2006), 1022-1044
  • David A. Wallace & Lance Stuchell, 'Understanding the 9/11 Commission Archive: Control, Access, and the Politics of Manipulation', Archival Science 11 (2011), 125-168

The vogue for Auden's poetry (particularly 'September 1, 1939') in New York after 9/11, and the intellectual and moral problems it raised, were discussed in:

  • Daniel Swift, 'Letter from New York', Times Literary Supplement 5140 (5 Oct. 2001), 17-18 - accessible through the library
  • Peter Steinfels, 'Beliefs: After Sept. 11, a 62-year-old poem by Auden drew new attention. Not all of it was favorable', New York Times 1 Dec., 2001, 13 - accessible through the library
  • ...and, more recently, in Ian Sansom, 'The right poem for the wrong time: W.H. Auden's September 1, 1939', Guardian 31 Aug. 2019

Seminar questions:

  • Does the 9/11 Commission report establish the truth about what happened on 11 September 2001? Why/ why not?
  • How does the focus of the 9/11 Commission on ‘failures’ of the US government tacitly shape the narrative of ‘what happened’ in the report?
  • How does Mitchell Zuckoff’s narrative of the events of 11 September 2001 differ from that of the 9/11 Commission, and which do you find more satisfactory?
  • Do the narratives produced by the 9/11 Commission and Zuckoff reinforce and validate American exceptionalism?
  • Is it possible to produce a complete and satisfactory account of the events of 11 September 2001 – and does this ‘event’ pose unique problems in this regard?
  • What narrative of the events of 11 September 2001 is implied by the term ‘9/11’ itself, and what exclusions and silences does it create?


Week 18: Memorialisation

Lecture slides

Readings - any two of:

  • John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls (2002; cond. Lorin Maazel, 2004, 25”) – audio available here, text (and interview with Adams) here
  • Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) - focus on the opening ('The Sky is Falling!') and panels 1-10
  • Jean Baudrillard, ‘Requiem for the Twin Towers’ (2002) in The Spirit of Terrorism (2012, 10 pp.)
  • Excerpts from Story Corps September 11th Initiative ( - try to listen to at least ten stories; be aware that some of the testimony from people involved in the attacks is very raw and powerful

Additional primary texts:

  • Portraits, 9/11/01: The Collected “Portraits of Grief” from the New York Times (2003)

Suggested further reading:

  • 'I was trying to scrape away the bullshit and piety' - an interview with Art Spiegelman in The Progressive, 1 Feb. 2005. See also these secondary readings on Spiegelman
  • Erika Doss, ‘Remembering 9/11: Memorials and Cultural Memory’, OAH Magazine of History 25:3 (2011, 3 pp.)
  • Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (2010)
  • Marita Sturken, 'The 9/11 Memorial Museum and the Remaking of Ground Zero', American Quarterly 67:2 (2015), 471-90
  • Marita Sturken, Terrorism in American Memory: Memorials, Museums, and Architecture in the Post-9/11 Era (New York, 2022)
  • Ross Poole, ‘Performing Trauma: Commemorating 9/11 in downtown Manhattan’, Memory Studies (2018, 18 pp.)
  • James Schmidt, ‘Cenotaphs in Sound: Catastrophe, Memory, and Musical Memorials’, Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics 2 (2010, 25 pp.)
  • Thomas May, ed., The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings of An American Composer (2006)
  • Richard Glejzer, ‘Witnessing 9/11: Art Spiegelman and the Persistance of Trauma’, in Ann Keniston & Jeanne Follansbee Quinn, eds., Literature after 9/11 (2008, 20 pp.)
  • Roland Bleiker, ‘Art After 9/11’, Alternatives 31 (2006, 22 pp.)

Seminar questions:

  • Do memorialisations of the victims of ‘9/11’ obstruct or distort historical understanding of the events of that day? Is this a general problem of memorialisation?
  • What lieux de mémoire have been produced in response to the attacks of September 11, and do they corroborate Pierre Nora’s argument that memory is displaced by history in modern societies?
  • What and whom do memorialisations of September 11 memorialise; and what and whom do they forget?
  • How does John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls attempt to reconcile the demands of public memorialisation with those of private, individual grief?
  • Does Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers represent September 11 as trauma, or history, or both? How does it do so?
  • How do Spiegelman and Story Corps make use of narrative as a response to trauma – and which is more successful?
  • What common structural and/ or stylistic features do the narratives produced by Story Corps’s ‘September 11th initiative’ display, and what value do they have as acts of public memorialisation?
  • Why was Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Requiem for the Twin Towers’ controversial upon its publication, and how valid do you find its arguments now?


Week 19: Fictions

Lecture slides


Suggested secondary reading:

Commentary on literary responses to 9/11:

Further 9/11 fictions to explore (NB this is far from exhaustive; inclusion in this list does not signify endorsement or approval)


Amy Waldman, The Submission (2011); Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005); Ian McEwan, Saturday (2005); Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children (2006); Don DeLillo, Falling Man (2007); Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and The Last White Man (2022); Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (2008); William Gibson, 'Blue Ant' trilogy (Pattern Recognition (2003); Spook Country (2007); Zero History (2010)); Teju Cole, Open City (2011); Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008) and The Blind Man's Garden (2013); Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (2013); Christopher Priest, An American Story (2018)

Short stories/novellas:

Pat Forde, ‘In Spirit’ (2002); Joyce Carol Oates, ‘The Mutants’ (2004); David Foster Wallace, ‘The Suffering Channel’ (2004); Stephen King, ‘The Things They Left Behind’ (2005)


United 93 (2006); Remember Me (2010); Zero Dark Thirty (2012); The Hamburg Cell (2004)


Louise Gluck, ‘October’ (2002); Seamus Heaney, ‘Anything Can Happen’ (2004); Simon Armitage, ‘Out of the Blue’ (2006); Dionne Brand, Inventory (2006); Pascale Petit, ‘The Hudson Remembers’ (2008); Ben Lerner, ‘Didactic Elegy’ (2013), Ismail Khalidi, Routine Procedure(s) 2: Prayer Beads of Cold Sweat or Driving While Izlaamic (2006).

Seminar questions:

  • What is the significance of the title of Amy Waldman’s novel, and how is it developed over the course of the narrative?
  • One of the central concerns of Waldman’s novel is democracy and its putative antitheses. How is this thematic developed in the novel, and to what effect(s)?
  • How does Waldman’s portrayal of the competing claims of art and grief dramatise larger dilemmas raised by both memorialisations of, and fictional responses to, September 11?
  • ‘[M]ost of the literary fiction that self-consciously addresses 9/11 still seems underpinned by outdated assumptions of national isolation and self-sufficiency.’ (Pankaj Mishra, 2007.) Do you agree, and does this criticism also apply to Amy Waldman’s The Submission?
  • Is there such a thing as a 9/11 novel or literature? Is the idea of such a genre inherently problematic?


Week 20: Framings

Lecture slides


Suggested further reading:

  • Ervand Abrahamian, 'The US Media, Huntington, and September 11', Third World Quarterly 24:3 (2003), 529-544
  • Khaled Abou El Fadl, ‘9/11 and the Muslim Transformation’, in Mary L. Dudziak ed., September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment? (2003, 42 pp.), esp. pp.81-4
  • Richard W. Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York, 2004) - fascinating, and something of an antidote to the Huntington thesis
  • Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006)

Seminar questions:

  • Were the attacks of September 11 2001 the product of a ‘clash of civilisations’, or the start of one – or neither?
  • Why did Huntington’s thesis of a ‘clash of civilisations’ command such credibility as a way of understanding the events of September 11, 2001?
  • What does the currency enjoyed by Huntington's thesis after September 11, 2001 suggest about the relationship between history as 'what happened' and as 'what is said to have happened' (Trouillot)?
  • How do the texts by Aslam and Shamsie re-draw the spatial and temporal boundaries of 9/11 as an event?
  • Do the texts by Aslam and Shamsie place the events of September 11, 2001 in their proper historical perspective?