Sep 10, 2011

9/11 relics

Religion, Peter Berger once said, is the audacious proposal that human activities are cosmically meaningful.

In this sense, some of the remembrances and relics of 9/11 are deeply religious. Curiously so.

Consider "What We Kept," Dan Barry's New York Times piece on the "mundane items" people who survived 9/11 kept from that day. He writes:
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, people everywhere did what people do in disaster’s fresh wake: We wept, prayed, raged, cowered, gathered, hid, drank, questioned, comforted and sought comfort. We also saved things, often little things, and often for reasons just beyond the full grasp of articulation.
Some of the items he features, saved for a decade now, are obvious. It makes sense that they're meaningful. The reasons one would make a relic out of a wedding ring are pretty apparent.

Other objects are more mysterious. Like a mostly-burned piece of paper, an application form never filled out, an application that had nothing at all to do with the person for whom it became a relic.

It was, Barry writes, one of the "worthless, precious bits of paper that burst out of the twin towers, fluttered across the East River, and floated down upon the streets of Brooklyn like sorrowful confetti."

Nick Arauz found it on his car, in front of his house, after he escaped Manhattan. It was one of the millions, I guess, of similar pieces of paper. But this one was on his car. A Peace Corps application -- a little bit still readable explaining "OBLIGATIONS;" blank spots for information about student loans.

This isn't obviously semiotically laden in any way. Nor does it seem like there's any simply explanation for why this fragment of paper is important. Certainly others like it were destroyed without anyone even thinking about it, and even now, no one, I wouldn't think, would mourn the loss of those other burned bits of paper. Even articulating what the meaning of this meaningful object is supposed to be would be terribly hard. But you wouldn't look at this and say it's meaningless, either. You wouldn't throw Arauz's relic away.

He himself can't really say what the point of his relic is. He can't say why it's a relic to him or even, really, why he has it. He told Barry, “It was just something I couldn’t throw away once I picked it up."

One could argue the meaningfulness of this bit of papers comes from Aruaz. That would be a pretty typical move for people who study religion. It's meaningful precisely because he invested it with meaning. In all the chaos of the cosmos and of the day, Arauz, needing meaning, seized upon this object and kept it, and so, whether or not it has any value in any objective sense, whether or not there's any non-subjective meaning or anything "out there" making it mean something, he, humanly, made it meaningful when he made it a relic.

There's something to be said for this explanation. It does explain things. It's a decent account of the meaningfulness of the apparently meaningless object. It doesn't require an appeal to faith or to the authority of a religion (which, in this case, would be impossible and, in any case, problematic). It's helpful too because it explains why the object might seem meaningful even to those of us who weren't there, and didn't share whatever private experience Arauz had. There a sense in which it's religious to him, but it's necessary to explain also why it might be religious, in Berger's sense, to us.

This move is the kind of move that's necessary if one wants to explain how a relic might be meaningful without an appeal to faith. It's the only approach to the meaningfulness of an object that allows one to remain agnostic about the "authenticity" or objective reality of the meaningfulness of the relic without actually dismissing the meaning, as simply deluded, or ignoring the way the "authenticity" doesn't matter to the meaningfulness of the object.

It's worth nothing, though, with Arauz's relic, the way that it doesn't feel to him as if he's made it meaningful. That explanation isn't compatible with his account of what happened, and it doesn't seem to him as if he's willed its meaning and chosen, somehow, against the empty absurdity of the wafting, drifting remains of exploded file cabinets, to just (randomly, as it were) make this meaningful.

Rather, he felt called by this object. That's the only way he can make sense of the nonsense of this relic that's essentially litter. It happened to him, was how he experienced.

There was a call, and the call was stronger, actually, than his rationalizations against it. It threw itself at him as meaningful, and there was something automatic about the way it felt as it did to him when he picked it up, and couldn't throw it away. It isn't as if it was empty of content and he decided, for whatever reason, in the insanity of 9/11, to make it meaningful, but rather its meaningfulness asserted itself.

That may not be a helpful way to think about why it has this status of religious relic, but it's critical for understanding the sense of how it is what it is to him, and to readers of the New York Times.

This is the "audacity" -- that is, the fideistic leap -- of religion that Berger is talking about, where things are not simply made meaningful, but present themselves to being perceived as having meaning. It's good to rescue the audaciousness of this in the process of not just explaining how religion works, but how it is for those who live it.

When confronted with something as catastrophic and as hard to make meaningful as 9/11, that "calling out" of meaningfulness was how it was for a lot of people. Religion, in those moments, just sprang forth.