Zero Tropes of the Apocalypse

In an attempt to dig a little further into zero tropes, I offer the following – it was a serendipitous find of over a year ago, not the outcome of calculated research, but still, it came up through parallel digs into complexity science and war. It’s an August 2006 article in the London School of Economics’ IR journal Millennium, by Antoine Bousquet, entitled “Time Zero: Hiroshima, September 11 and Apocalyptic Revelations in Historical Consciousness.”

Exploring the Hiroshima bombing and September 11 as aesthetic ruptures in Western historical consciousness – not sure I agree (the Holocaust, anyone?), but he uses the word sudden, so I’ll concede the point for now – Bousquet notes:

Within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, the site became referred to as ‘Ground Zero’, a phrase previously used to designate the epicentre of the Hiroshima bomb’s explosion and the point from which its effects radiated.

Actually, that’s incorrect – or at least, inaccurate. So says Wiki. “Ground zero”, as with all labels that carry a measure of social, cultural, and political loading, has become fairly imprecise over the years, and is often “re-used for disasters that have a geographic or conceptual epicenter.” In its original meaning, however – and this is important, since Bousquet’s piece is all about historical consciousness and the original event – “ground zero” is the military jargon not for an explosion’s epicentre, but for it’s hypocentre: the location immediately below the event.

Unless they’re being tested underground, nukes are airburst weapons, detonated above their intended targets,so the difference matters. But the distinction between epicentre and hypocentre is even more significant when one considers the subsequent Cold War geostrategic thinking on cities as civilian sanctuaries.

It’s reasonable to argue, as Bousquet does, that there’s a conceptual linkage between one cataclysmic rupture of historical consciousness, and other zero tropes of a similar nature. Linking back to the notion that sanctuary is a politically subterranean or liminal space, betwixt and between, the more important discussion, in keeping with Koselleck, is whether zero tropes are epicentric or hypocentric. Or, to rephrase, determining the relationship between zero tropes on the one hand, and the epicentres and hypocentres of historical phenomenology, on the other hand. That’s a building block, I think.

Bousquet’s reading of historical cases for their symbolic or aesthetic impact is certainly interesting. Dropping a null value into the historical mid-stream is analogous to the West German Historikerstreit on the Holocaust in national consciousness, as a rupture or abberation in the national trajectory. Bousquet puts it this way, considering

the place of the Hiroshima bombing and the September 11 attacks as singular acts of violence constituting major points of rupture in the historical consciousness and chronological narratives of the Western world: Ground Zero is Time Zero. Geographically and temporally delineated instances of intense death and destruction, both acts have been construed as moments when the world ‘changed for ever’.

Describing “Time Zero” as “the specific location and instant of rupture in our chronological narratives,” he further explains:

Yet, despite the historical rupture constituted by these events, in many ways our recomposed worldviews have not broken decisively with any of the core assumptions that underpin our Weltanschauung. Thus the notion of Time Zero does not only refer to the temporal scission creating a ‘pre-’ era that counts down to the event and a ‘post-’ era which begins after the apocalypse that announces the birth of a new world. It is also the suspension of time experienced by the spectators of the events and the intense sense of ‘unreality’… manifestations of the temporary incapacitation of our schemata of interpretation. It is in this moment… that Time Zero offers the opportunity to internalise the full implication of those events and resituate our thought within history and outside the narratives that have so dominated Western consciousness.

The conflict between immediacy and attenuation of historical trauma suggests the posibility of alternate, liminal trajectories, running in parallel to but perhaps unseen or unremarked by the main or the centre…. if that logic holds, it reads a bit like a variation on a theme – a variant of Marxist history from below.

Then again, I’m not sure we can yet measure, qualitatively or quantitatively, 9/11’s impact on social or collective consciousness. Maybe I miss the point of Antoine’s piece – but Al Qa’ida’s public index case – the 9/11 attacks, the event at which it occupied both epicentre and hypocentre of Bousquet’s historical rupture – only happened a few short years ago.

The point on immediacy vs. attenuation is valid; more accurately,the underlying implication on the subject of time dilation appears to be that we, the West, all those who accepted 9/11 as a real and symbolic rupture sufficiently wide to fit almost any response, are guilty of buying into the political hyperreality of the moment. In the absence of sufficient clarity and perspective, giving 9/11 a mature placement in any historical consciousness (ours, theirs, whoevers) , as Bousquet does, takes quite a bit of intellectual dexterity.

Ultimately, time zero rupture suggests an historical analogue to the idea of sanctuary as a systemic gap, crack, void, or elision. A deeper elaboration of zero tropes and hypocentricity/hypocentrality (?) will definitely be a good way to bridge one to the other.

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