9/11 and the Numberless New Yorks

How the city comes to know itself through fragments from its past.
In the lobby of 7 World Trade Center, Shelley Jackson watched ghostly words scroll across a glass wall. “What kind of writing physically alters the viewer?" she wondered. "And does it bear some relationship to the collapse of the Twin Towers?”


Something is coming. What it is, we don’t yet know. Already, we are anticipating; already, we are predicting the future. (The future is to the right. To the left is a shrinking emptiness that already looks naive. We should have known: something is coming. But what?)

The city

The city, that’s what. But which city? Or city as essence? What follows will change “the city” that is already past—give it an address, or deny it one.

The city is

Of course it is. We knew that from the beginning. “The” told us so; “the” not only points but posits. But that’s not the end of it. “The city” is predicated: something is coming. And what about the nothing that the something is pushing back to our left? Already, it’s a memory.

The city is like

The city is like many things: a storm, a machine, a dictionary, a disease. What will it be this time? Something is coming.

The city is like poetry:

* * *

The words pass at the pace of walking. As tall as an average 12-year old, they are, in artist Jenny Holzer’s words, “slow and white and floating.” Ghostly, you might say. They glide from right to left, a few feet above eye level, across a wall 65 feet in width. They are made of light: patterns of on and off in hundreds of vertical strings of diodes behind glass panels. You can see only the individual points of light when you stare immediately ahead; to right and left, they fog into a general luminosity.

In front of the wall, with their backs to it, men in earpieces busy themselves at a marble-topped counter overlooking the lobby. They punctuate the counter, which extends the length of the wall, at regular intervals. In the marble’s sleek surface the words repeat themselves, inverted. They whisper across the guards’ bald heads, flicker in the metal security gates. They’re slivered in the glass panels of the swinging doors. They wrap slowly around the glass cylinders of the revolving doors, and pivot with their vanes as they turn. “They are also reflected in the metal bolts in the ceiling,” says Holzer, “and it looks like it’s unscrewing the ceiling.” She twirls her finger counterclockwise.

This motion—twirling, scrolling—haunts this work, even making a ghostly visitation one night before the opening: “There were a series of small, almost stationary little tornadoes blowing clear trash bags around and around in front of the building,” Holzer said. “The bags never would settle, so it looked like these were souls. It was about 11 o’clock at night, and the zone was emptied out except for one guard in the lobby.” The text, too, goes round and round, though if you look away for a moment, you will have to wait 30-plus hours to find out what you missed. “It’s good that it’s an odd number,” Holzer says, “because it means that people who come to work at the same time likely never will get the same text.” In those 30-plus hours you could read texts by poets and architects and belle-lettrists. You could read poems and letters and travelogues. And you could read an entire book by E.B. White, Here Is New York, in which he writes, “The city is like poetry.”

* * *

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races

and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the

accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan

is without doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth

“It,” here, is the city, but “it” is also poetry; poetry and the city are compressed into one in this “it” that, we are told, itself compresses “all life, all races and breeds”—just as Holzer’s piece compresses a plenary into something singular—an island—which is not just a figure for the compression of the city/poem, but a specific island, Manhattan.

We now have an answer to our earlier question. “The city” is not just any city. It is not the Platonic form of city. It is a specific city: New York.

But which New York? The New York of 1670 or 1948 or 2001?

* * *

Climbing out of the New York subway onto a lower Manhattan street corner is like opening a book in the middle. There is a strict architecture in which right angles predominate. Traffic is guided into lines. There are passing citations (GAP, CHASE) and block quotes. But everywhere there are endings and beginnings: a cemetery, dotted with full stops; a construction site. Often the two are one and the same: where one building falls, another rises.

The building housing Jenny Holzer’s piece is a new building, bright with optimism; but to its left, behind fences and scaffolding, is the gaping hole where the World Trade Center once stood. From the street outside, the words, flowing from right to left, seem to be pouring into that hole. To fill it up? To recapitulate a loss?

The words concern New York and are taken from every period in its history. Many of them hearken back to a New York that was already lost at the time they were written. Some of them think ahead to a future that is, for us, already past. “There are various times present in the piece,” says Holzer. “There's now, there are records of events and emotions through time—through the decades, or in this case, the centuries. . . . The early prose, the account of discovery, is ‘Behold!’ And some of the poems are in the present tense, and other ones recall.” New York is a work in progress. The principle of change is in its very structure.

“And then there’s the time of perception,” Holzer adds. “When you’re in front of it, you can maybe remember something that just went by, but you’re not sure if you did.” Too late: the text glides on, with unearthly smoothness. Our eyes are used to moving too, moving over text in particular, and so they slide forward against the backward motion of the text, creating something like the sensation aboard a ship leaving port: are we moving, or is it the dock? It is dizzying. Trying to advance, the gaze sticks at the right, where the words emerge like luggage from a carousel. The erasure of the leading edge, the steady feed of new material, heightens the present moment and abbreviates it.

Something is coming. And something is passing away.

* * *

Earlier, I suggested that the piece is ghostly. This is so in several ways. It is haunted, like many books, by the voices of dead writers, the memory of lost people and places. Unlike books, it is almost bodiless: it does not inhere in any object, but plays over objects in the form of an ever-changing pattern of lights. Like Holzer’s Xenon projections on buildings and trees, it is a visitor, not a resident.

From close up, the eye dithers between, in weaver’s terms, the woof and the warp—between the horizontal strands of light of which the words seem to be made up, and the vertical strings over which they play. The effect is dizzying, and I begin to feel light-headed, even slightly nauseous. When I close my eyes, the words glide on inside my head; the text has written itself in me. Am I going to get a migraine? My discomfort alarms and impresses me: I am physically traumatized by a work of literature. A piece of writing has bypassed my understanding to afflict my body! “One reason why I’ve stayed with LED so long,” Holzer says, “is that part of the experience is that the light and words hit the body. This might give you vertigo, it might represent that there’s always too much information, and ‘how do I process it?’ It could make you unsure of the floor.” Or make you feel as though the ceiling is falling. Watch Jenny’s finger again, as it unscrews the ceiling: “It really looks like the ceiling is starting to come down.”

What kind of writing is this that physically alters the viewer? (“It’s not writing, it’s art” would be an easy answer. Let’s set that response aside as uninteresting.) Writing can, of course, move readers to tears, fury, arousal, and, yes, nausea—but it usually does so via the reader’s imaginative and emotional investment in its content. It’s true that reading tiny print in a bright light can give me a headache, and colored paper can make me faintly nauseous. Still, the body of the book is not usually considered part of its literary effect, though some writers have made it so, most notably Laurence Sterne and William Blake, in reference to whom Holzer has written that she too is “a printer of sorts who spends time on technology to integrate text in a surround.”

I would like to propose an expanded definition of literature which includes that “surround”:
The material substrate—paper, wall, screen, skin.

The mark—ink, light.

The reader’s body—turning pages, sitting, walking, standing and watching.

The setting—bedroom, school, street.

The occasion—time of day, quality of light, sounds, smells, nearby people and adjacent texts.

The cultural context—literature, memorial, graffiti, public art, fiction, fact; also, the work’s representation in advertising, reviews, gossip or scholarship.

The larger context—the city, the country, the planet; the decade, the century. No doubt I could go on to include gravity, time, the first law of thermodynamics, and the speed of light.

To publish your work as memoir rather than fiction (e.g., James Frey) is to change how it is read. So is to spray-paint your work on a wall rather than send it to The Paris Review. Don Quixote today (rewritten by Borges’s fictional Pierre Menard) is not the Don Quixote of 1615, though every word is the same. The context shapes the reading of every piece of writing, and I suggest that to shape it, consciously or not, is part of writing too. Most writers leave that to others: publishers, booksellers, librarians—ghostwriters, who are usually even more conservative than the authors. Jenny Holzer, however, has intervened in nearly every category of my list above. She has already made her mark in art; it’s time to claim her for writing.

True, while Holzer does compose the text for many of her works, this one is entirely made up of borrowings. But consider the “surround,” and reflect on how altered these works are in Holzer’s handling. “How the text is embodied matters,” she says, and this is not just a matter of style: “Sometimes it can stand in for the consequences of some of the content.”

My upset stomach and spinning head have nothing to do with the original content of the text, but they do bear some relationship to the trauma that occasioned this reading—the collapse of the Twin Towers, without which this building would not have been built, Holzer’s piece would not have been made, and I would not be feeling nauseous today. That original trauma was heavily mediated (screened, in more than one sense of the word), but for New Yorkers it was also immediate and physical: you could see it, smell it, taste it in the air. To induce nausea (not to mention the sense that the ceiling is falling) is not just to recollect but to reenact the trauma, in an altered context that provides a prompt to reverie—to memory.

This, too, is a kind of haunting—a revenant of a past trauma that is not quite laid to rest. A past that is also part of the present.

* * *

All the texts Holzer quotes were composed for the page. There, they exist in space—the rectangle of the page, the block of the book. They have presence, simultaneity, visual unity. They have a body: white paper, black ink. Here, space is translated into time.

Of course, books must also be translated into time: that’s what we call reading. We run our eyes in sequence over the words, stringing them on our lifeline. Print may be spatial, but reading is sequential. Though while reading a book we feel empowered to flip ahead to the future and back to the past, this is an illusion; if we sneak a peek at the ending, it’s in our present that we read it. Reading, we also revisit the past, but not simply: we introduce it into the present, and the present, changed, looks back on the past differently, changing it too.

Time is a Heraclitian river, and Holzer reminds us of its flow. What comes, comes too slowly; what leaves, leaves all too fast. We can’t look back to check a reference, or reread a dense passage to let our understanding deepen. Only the shortest sentences can be read in full. Longer ones must be read piecemeal, a few words at a time. The effect is of a sort of pointillism of sense. The meaning of the whole has to be assembled through an effort of memory and anticipation. We try to hold on to the past and can’t. We try to guess the future, and get it wrong.

Many of Holzer’s selected texts describe a New York that has slipped away, eluding even memory. But the words, as they slide by, do not only describe but perform the slipperiness of memory. They perform loss. Or, rather, we perform them.

“I thought longing should be there—hoping to understand, hoping to have more, wishing to have more time,” says Holzer.

* * *

I don’t mean to imply that what distinguishes this text from printed text is that it has a performative element. It simply has a different performative element. By flowing the text, removing line breaks and page turns, Holzer has removed one performance—that of the reader weaving down the page, turning to the next—with another. That turn and re-turn is part of the poem. To eliminate line breaks, replacing them with pauses, is to rewrite the poem. To eliminate the page is, too. Though most prose writers do not think of the page as part of their work, many poets do. In fact, one of the effects of displacing writing from the page is that it illuminates the architecture of that page.

Let’s describe the architecture of a book: it opens and closes. It has hand-operated moving parts. It has hinges, like a door or a series of doors. It is made of paper, board, glue, thread, ink: generally organic substances, whose physical origins—plant, animal—we can guess at. It is smaller than us. It is for individual use.

Here, the relationship has been inverted. The reader handling a small book has been replaced by a small reader inside a big book, which is passing the text by her at its own pace, a pace that feels at times too slow, at times too fast. The intimacy and hand-appeal of paper is replaced by the architectural scale, the monolithic materiality, the stupefaction-effect of thousands of moving lights, the smell of money and institutional support, and the self-consciousness of being a reader in a space designed as a vestibule or through-way, with no chairs, nowhere obvious to stand, and an evenly spaced row of men watching you read.

Is it possible to wax contemplative in such a setting? Is it possible to read? I became strongly aware that the interiority of the words, their capacity to invite one into a world, was barred to me. I was held out away from the words, repulsed from them. I felt that I was performing reading, for the benefit of the bemused employees, and that even as I sought to show them up—this is how you behave in the presence of a work of literary art!—I was forced to confess to myself that I too could not rise to the occasion. I was not reading but miming reading.

A related question is whether an institutionalized experience of mourning is even possible. Surely every individual must make his or her own peace with loss, a process that, to be real, must be utterly unique. One of the appalling things, for me, about any public performance of horror or outrage is that it becomes a representation of horror or outrage, rather than the sensation itself. The effect is to deprive me of any opportunity to know and resolve my own feelings. What is the viewer’s distance from the text? What about the trauma the text is “about”? Do we stand on this side of the text, with the trauma on the other, as with most represented things? Yet the trauma is our trauma. Has it become distanced from us by becoming a represented trauma, accessible through a text of careful beauty? Or does the passage through the text return us to ourselves?

My resistance to mourning may support Holzer’s artistic intentions, if not the utopian hopes of city planners. One of the most poignant things about loss is that we don’t quite have time for it. We can’t stop, any more than we can stand for 30-plus hours in a vestibule watching words go by. “The moving finger writes, and having writ / Moves on.” The text scrolls on; our lives scroll on.

The conspicuous absence of the Twin Towers to the left guides our reflections on loss toward one loss in particular. But this is not really a memorial to the World Trade Center, Holzer insists. "My work should represent life in New York before, during, and after 9/11.” She removed a poem about 9/11 by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska for this reason, at the request of the building’s developer and his wife, who felt that viewers who chanced to read that selection in isolation would get the impression that Holzer’s whole piece concerned that tragedy, and would see it as a much darker work than it was meant to be.

But new buildings will go up, the scaffolding will come down. “Maybe Szymborska's words can come back then,” Holzer says, a little wistfully. “The situation will change and that poem might be possible to bear in a few years.” She is talking about her piece now, but she could be talking about New York too, or time in general: “There's good and bad in fluidity. Sometimes you can't fix the meaning, and that's a loss. Other times, the multiple voices and interpretations and the motion stand in for change and possibility.”

* * *

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of invisible engines. The island of Manhattan is without doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents, but

But. Something remains out of reach. What is it? We don’t know what it is; that knowledge, too, is out of reach, until the next line glides into view.

The text is haunted in one more sense, by an inaccessible remainder: whatever is coming that we can’t read. Whatever already passed, that we missed or forgot. It is haunted by itself, you could almost say.

The fact is, most people will not read the work as a whole. What would reading it as a whole mean, in any case? Must it be read in order, from the beginning? Must it be read more than once, to experience its looping? If Holzer “feeds” it new texts, as she intends—including, one day, Szymborska’s poem—does that supplement or supplant the earlier version? Is reading it continuously, consecutively, even the way it should be read? Many viewers will not read even one single section as a whole, especially if they are only passing through on business. They will catch fragments, phrases, out of context.

“Fragmentation has been a live question ever since I started working with electronics in public,” says Holzer, “or even going back to the street posters. I realized that people often could and would give the works a tiny bit of attention at best. I have had to think about the text selection and the media that were appropriate for holding people, getting to people just for a minute, in the street. One way was only to present short sentences, but then the challenge was to make sure the little short things were good and complex enough, if they were the only bits noticed and read. I had to work that out with the earlier electronics pieces, and it’s a relevant question for this one, too, not just in terms of balancing the tone of the whole, but in trying to ensure that if visitors only read 12 sentences, that they will get something generous and true. ”

These partial, passing readings are very different from the ones the poets originally intended; indeed, one word or phrase from a poem is not just incomplete but different from the same phrase in its context. The word or fragment, severed from its context, becomes both more opaque and more multifarious. It is deprived of one obvious meaning, but reassumes the multiple meanings that are excluded by the contiguous sentences. The unified work (ideally, if not always actually, read as a whole) becomes an array of hundreds of possible partial readings. The only thing they all share is this incompleteness, the sense that they’re one small part of something larger, but of uncertain extent. Whatever they seem to mean individually, every reader will know that his or her interpretation of the whole must be deferred, maybe indefinitely. Clearly, this is Holzer’s wager: that these fragments, however incomplete, are each a legitimate experience of the whole.

Maybe they’re legitimate because they’re incomplete.

Try drawing a human figure from life, following its outline faithfully all the way around. Take another piece of paper and draw the shape of the negative space around the figure. These drawings ought to be exactly the same. But are they? The first is often a general impression, only as good as the artist’s preconceived ideas about the human body, while the second is intricate, specific, and exact. By looking closely at something we don’t know—the negative space—we learn the truth about the thing, the figure, that we thought we knew.

Any figure is also the negative space of the rest of the universe, however. The universe, while it may extend outward in all directions to the exhaustion of the visual imagination, can certainly be imagined pressing inward against the figure in a precisely delimited curve—the very one you drew. That humble curve, then, is the very outline of the universe, and depicts that universe most precisely when it cleaves most closely to the figure, however small a fragment of the whole that figure may be.

In fact, the smaller the fragment, the more of the universe it contains. Maybe this is true of writing as well.

* * *

Over time, every phrase in those 30-plus hours of text will be read by someone, so that the whole will be read, collectively, in a civic reading made up of hundreds of partial and overlapping readings. This essay is just one of them. Together, they comprise a new text whose author is part Holzer, part Elizabeth Bishop or E.B. White, and part New York City. Individually they are incomplete, even wrong. (Or right, but contradicted by another passage: “You can assert that this one thing is true, and that there are many others,” says Holzer.) Collectively, this reading will be informed by myriad idiosyncrasies, misreadings, visitations from trash spirits, and migraines. I would suggest that this is exactly what we mean by knowing a city, something that every inhabitant or visitor experiences only in part, but which doesn’t disintegrate because of that—in fact, the knowing is defined by it.


but whose

but whose full

but whose full meaning

but whose full meaning will

but whose full meaning will always

but whose full meaning will always remain

but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Photo credit: Geoff Ross (Geoff Ross) [flickr source]
Originally Published: September 6th, 2006

Shelley Jackson is the author of the novel Half Life, the story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl, several children’s books featuring her own illustrations, and SKIN, a story published in tattoos on the skin of 2,095 volunteers. A Village Voice “Writer on the Verge”...

  1. April 8, 2008

    Love it God Bless America