Dies Non, Not Dies Irae

by Gavin Keeney

The extraordinary events of September 11, 2001 will long resonate in the psyche of the world for reasons that transcend politics, religion, and real estate. The current calls to rebuild — bigger, taller, more defiantly — are premature and absurd.

The nature of the World Trade Center as a symbol laden with the unstable stuff of signifiers (signs), pointing to a signified (content) that is ultimately ill-defined and illusory in itself, calls attention to the reasons for its targeting and for its remarkable former presence and, now, absence.

New York architects are already clamoring to claim the site for the resurrection of a new symbol, either of defiance or reflection, but a symbol nonetheless.

There is but one significant gesture that might satisfy the need for reclaiming and recolonizing this hole in the tight knit fabric of Manhattan — a city within the city climbing over itself with significance and cluttered with clashing symbols.

This ‘void’ should remain a ‘void’ — as New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio have pronounced — an elegant encomium to the disaster and the only universally adequate and valid expression of a non-ideological claim.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has identified, at the center of all ideologies, the persistence of an absence, a rift in consciousness, that is continually overwritten and obscured. This ghost or ‘absent center’ is the unstable foundation of subjectivity itself and the underutilized locus of ethics (Emmanuel Levinas).

The void in New York must not be filled with yet another symbol or sign of feigned stability and composure but instead remain a cipher for the human condition — a state of being that, uncertain of itself, must fashion an unremitting concern for every other thing and being not itself.

This site at but one center of the world must remain free of all statements of arrogance and ostentation — free of bombast and insipidness. The metaphysical ‘music’ that fills this ‘void’ needs not a Mozartean ‘Dies Irae’ but an inspired ‘Dies Non’, a ‘score’ without defiant spectacle or apocalyptic machinations; a sonorous ‘etude’ to comprehension and lucidity and, in fact, a blessed absence of any and all rhetoric. CP

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York City and author of On the Nature of Things: Contemporary American Landscape Architecture.

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