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​Ungrievable Lives:
Ghosts of 9/11

20 Septembers Ago

Created for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in 2011, this anti-memorial titled "Ungrievable Lives" sought to memorialize the American, Iraqi and Afghani lives lost in the wars post-9/11. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, this work is even more relevant, and I have updated it with the numbers of the Iraqi, Afghani, Yemeni, Libyan, and Pakistani lives lost in America’s War on Terror.

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Ungrievable Lives, close-up view of gold bullion bar.

Ground Zero: A Site of Memory

This project investigates which collective memories of 9/11 are made legible or erased through the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the official 9/11 memorial. The Ground Zero in New York is a lieux de memoire, or a site of memory in Pierre Nora’s words (Nora, 1989). It is also an important national monument that is creating a narrative that aggrandizes the American nation-state.

As per the website of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, “The heart of the mission of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum remains the annual commemoration ceremony. Family members of 9/11 victims gathered on the Memorial plaza to read aloud the names of those killed in the 9/11 attacks and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing,” (20th Anniversary Commemoration, 2021).

On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, we have re-performed our acts of mourning and remembrance for the 2,983 American lives lost on 9/11/2001. In the commemoration ceremony, the names of the dead were read by the family members. Throughout the ceremony, six moments of silence were observed, acknowledging when each of the World Trade Center towers was struck and fell and the times corresponding to the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93, (20th Anniversary Commemoration, 2021).

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Ungrievable Lives, installation view showing the scale of justice, the gold bullion bar, piece of raw meat, US flags and antique sewing machine.

Counter-Memory of 9/11

As significant as the official 9/11 memorial is, it is painfully obvious that it fails to memorialize or even acknowledge non-American lives that have been lost as a direct result of 9/11. This elision is the counter-memory of 9/11 and it haunts Ground Zero.

Michel Foucault coined the term, “Counter-Memory” to describe a modality of history that opposes history as knowledge or history as truth. For Foucault, counter-memory was an act of resistance in which one critically examines the history and excavates the narratives that have been subjugated, (Foucault, 1977).

We lost 2,983 American lives on 9/11/2001, (About 9/11 Memorial, 2021).

In the first decade post-9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had claimed over 911,931 Iraqi and Afghani lives, (Casualties, 2011).

Now, in 2021, the number is in the millions, (Civilian casualties of US War on Terror, 2021).

This is the counter-memory of 9/11 that is no longer remembered. And these are the ghosts of 9/11 that still haunt it. The 9/11 memorial as a site of memory is an urban palimpsest of nationalistic memories and unpatriotic counter-memories.

Ungrievable Lives

Judith Butler calls the non-American (Iraqi, Afghani, Libyan, Yemeni, and Pakistani) lives lost as "ungrievable" lives, “for to grieve them is to declare oneself unpatriotic to the US nation and sympathetic to the "enemy," (Butler, 2004).

"What makes for a grievable life? Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives?" - Judith Butler, "Precarious Life," 2004.

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Ungrievable Lives, installation view showing the scale of justice, the gold bullion bar, piece of raw meat, US flags and antique sewing machine.

The Anti-Memorial

To answer Butler’s radical question, I created this anti-memorial to 9/11. By 2011, I'd had a decade to observe America more deeply and think more deeply about the geopolitics and foreign policies of America. I had visited Ground Zero in New York a few times and was closely following the 9/11 memorial that was being built there. It was formally opened on September 11, 2011.

I decided to make an anti-memorial that examines the differential values placed on human life as it has emerged in the post-9/11 political discourse. The victims of 9/11 no doubt suffered a horrible death, and the national and international mourning that followed in the wake of 9/11 was understandable and even needed.

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

James E Young describes an anti-memorial as -

 

“Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet,” (Young, 1997).

But at that time, there was not much focus on the lives being lost in Iraq and Afghanistan every day due to America’s continuing wars on terror.

Close-up of the gold bullion bar, showing the engraved date of 9.11.2001.

This, I felt, was the counter-memory I needed to highlight. So I set about creating an anti-memorial to 9/11, even at the risk of being called an unpatriotic and ungrateful immigrant.

Gold Bullion Bar vs. A Piece of Meat

I was so struck by Butler’s concept of a grievable life (an American life) and an ungrievable life (a non-American life), that I decided to push these two concepts to the extreme.

 

It seemed to me that the American 9/11 victims had become the gold standard of a grievable life. And the Iraqi and Afghani people were just being treated as a piece of meat.

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up of the eagle finial on the scale of justice.

I found a scale of justice in a pawn shop, with an eagle finial on the top. To me, it symbolized the idea of justice that America claims to stand for.

In making this anti-memorial, I am grappling with the idea of justice that America is founded on.

 

Then I constructed a bullion bar out of clay and painted it a gold color. I engraved the words, “One Grievable Life” and “9/11/2001” on the front of the bullion bar, and “1 of 2983” and “Made in America, 2011” on the back of the bullion bar. I put this on the heavier side of the scale of justice.

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up view of the gold bullion bar, showing the engraved text "MADE IN AMERICA, 2011"

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up view of the piece of raw meat, hair shavings and nail clippings.

On the other pan, I placed a piece of raw halal meat, hair shavings, and nail clippings. The blood from the raw meat seeped out on the pan all through the duration of the exhibit. This represented the Iraqi and Afghani people that were being killed every day in the War on Terror. There was no value placed on the non-American lives.

Hard Numbers, Delicate Embroidery, 2011

In addition, I got a few American flags that are distributed every year on July 4th and September 11th and embroidered the following data on them. I used white thread and embroidered these in the white stripes of the flags, to highlight the fact that these deaths are made invisible in the nationalistic rhetoric surrounding 9/11.

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

“unknown news.org

War on Terror

2001 – 2011

Iraqi Civilians and Troops – 894,531

Afghani Civilians and Troops – 17,400

Total Ungrievable Lives 911,931”

Close-up view of the embroidery on the US flags, 2011. 

I placed the scale and the flags on an antique sewing machine that I had found in another pawn shop. The sewing machine and the delicate embroidery to me signifies feminine labor and stoicism. The feminist in me situates women as the spectator to this War on Terror, who are quietly trying to highlight the absurdity of the war and the inhuman numbers of people dying. Although women are increasingly serving in the military in combat roles, as Virginia Woolf famously quoted, “War is a man’s game, The killing machine has a gender, and it is male.” (Virginia Woolf Quotes, n.d.)

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up view of the antique sewing machine, and the US flags.

Hard Numbers, Delicate Embroidery, 2021

To update the work for 2021, I embroidered more flags with updated numbers of non-American casualties. This time, I used red thread and embroidered on the white stripes, to make the numbers more visible. Also, now there is more focus on the heavy toll that the War on Terror has taken.

The Watson Institute of Brown University has been documenting the official counts of the war casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan. (Watson Institute, 2021) Independent researchers have put the unofficial count at 37 times the official count. (Khan & Gopal, 2017)

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

This is the data embroidered on the new flag with red thread -

“2002 – 2021

One Million

War Zone Dead

USA Iraq Afghanistan Pakistan Syria Yemen

Watson.Brown.edu”

Close-up view of the embroidery on the US flags, 2021. 

9/11/2001 and 9/11/2021

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, images of desperate Afghani people trying to get on an evacuation airplane (NY Post, 2021), and an American general publicly apologizing for a mistaken drone attack that killed Afghani civilians and children (CNN, 2021), is 9/11 in 2021.

 

Hopefully, I will be able to retire this anti-memorial in the next decade before 9/11/2031.

Ungrievable Lives, by Pritika Chowdhry

Ungrievable Lives, installation view showing the scale of justice, the gold bullion bar, piece of raw meat, US flags and antique sewing machine.

Bibliography

20th Anniversary Commemoration. (2021, September 11). Retrieved from National September 11 Memorial & Museum: https://www.911memorial.org/connect/commemoration/20th-anniversary-commemoration

About 9/11 Memorial. (2021, September 11). Retrieved from 9/11 Memorial:

https://www.911memorial.org/visit/memorial/about-memorial

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Casualties. (2011, September 11). Retrieved from Unknown News:

http://www.unknownnews.org/casualties.html

Civilian casualties of US War on Terror. (2021, September 11). Retrieved from The Intercept: https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror/

CNN. (2021, September 17). Retrieved from US military admits it killed 10 civilians and targeted wrong vehicle in Kabul airstrike: https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/17/politics/kabul-drone-strike-us-military-intl-hnk/index.html

Foucault, M. (1977). Nietzche, Genealogy, History. In D. F. Bouchard, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (p. 160). Cornell University Press.

Khan, A., & Gopal, A. (2017, November 16). The Uncounted. Retrieved from New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/16/magazine/uncounted-civilian-casualties-iraq-airstrikes.html

Nora, P. (1989). Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations. Representations, 7-24.

NY Post. (2021, August 16). Retrieved from Afghans cling to US Air Force plane as it takes off in Kabul: video: https://nypost.com/2021/08/16/afghans-cling-to-us-air-force-plane-as-it-takes-off-in-kabul/

Virginia Woolf Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved from AzQuotes:

https://www.azquotes.com/quote/1149191

Watson Institute. (2021, September 11). Retrieved from Brown University: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/figures/2021/WarDeathToll

Young, J. E. (1997). Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, CounterMemory, and the End of the Monument.

The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4, 855.