swallowing the world

“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” — Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Where you were when

When September 11th happened, I was twelve, a couple weeks into seventh grade. The footage on television was terrifying, but my classmates and I had never been to New York, and it felt consequential but not visceral. Our adults kept telling us that we needed to remember where we were that day “when we heard.”

They talked about JFK being assassinated and the Challenger exploding, and I didn’t feel like it mattered much that I, Dana Cass, was plugging in my curling iron in the Las Vegas suburbs when I heard a disarming report on the radio. But here I am nineteen years later, still conjuring the feeling of the bathroom tiles underneath my feet before I ran downstairs to turn on the television.

I’ve had some excellent history teachers who have taught me to properly interpret what I hear, see, and read, and of course now every podcaster whose closet has decent acoustics is out debunking one established symbol of history or another. For a long time, I’ve groused that we flatten history into a series of events that photograph well, and that in doing so we distort our understanding of how we got here and there.

Case in point: I remember Where I Was When Obama was elected for the first time (in a crowd of fellow first-time voters in the student center at Vassar, next to a friend who was weeping into a travel mug spiked with raspberry vodka) and Osama bin Laden was killed (nested amid a pile of books on my last standard-issue twin bed, writing the last mediocre paper of my college career, flipping between Microsoft Word and Safari open to CNN.com, the May breeze blowing through a window whose screen had been ripped open the prior weekend when campus security broke up our party and the attendees fled through my bedroom).

I also remember, bizarrely, applauding a radio broadcast that announced the conviction of Sandy Murphy for the murder of her casino billionaire husband Ted Binion following a trial so lurid it could only have taken place in Las Vegas, from the swimming pool in my best friend’s backyard in 2000, after my mom bought a couple pallets of water from Costco in a perfunctory nod to Y2K but before my next-door neighbor read aloud a poem her parents had been emailed called “How the Gore-inch Stole the Election,” during our morning carpool, and I learned about partisan politics for the first time.

Waiting for when

I don’t remember any one historic moment between November 2008 and spring 2011; I do remember that in 2010, I saw over someone’s shoulder what turned out to be a faux New York Times headline proclaiming “IRAQ WAR ENDS.” I had a brief remember-where-you-are moment before I realized it was fake, though it’s taken until recently for me to understand that the Iraq war wasn’t — isn’t — the kind of conflict that was going to be sewn up with a V-E Day.

(Neither was World War II, but my early education mostly elided over V-J Day and the war beyond Europe more broadly, especially where American moral clarity was in question. If it weren’t for crossword puzzles, I might still not know that Ethiopia was among the theaters in which WWII was fought.)

No soldier would dip a nurse into a symbol of war as something that begins, yes, and is terrible, but reliably ends. Part of me, having been steeped in the American tradition of moral certitude and ham-handed symbolism, is still waiting for that ending.

If it’s not on Twitter, is it even history?

The ubiquity of photography, and the ensuing barrage of images as indelible as the Zapruder film or the billowing orange contrails where the Challenger was supposed to be, has made history even more like a boiled frog that usual. I can’t figure out whether everything is a watershed moment or nothing is.

This isn’t a hot take. Every third person wringing their hands over the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle shares this sentiment.

But I — wait for it; this is about to be a real stretch — recently read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (hence the epigraph) and think there’s something to be said for understanding the subtle gradations that color transitions from one saturated moment (Tahrir Square; a Trump rally) to the next, and how the mundanity of individual memory and experience better captures the zeitgeist as it evolves.

My excellent history teachers imparted to me the value of primary sources, extrapolating a cultural moment from individual lived experiences. We’re swimming in primary sources. History is Zapruder and contrails, but history is also a twelve-year-old plugging in her curling iron and a 21-year-old staring for the first time at the war machine in action.

(A few years later, when I was working as a proposal writer for a defense contractor, someone printed that photo of Obama and company in the Situation Room and taped it to my office door with “WAR ROOM” written on top in ballpoint, so that everyone passing would know that my officemate and I were hard at work chasing a new contract for the war machine itself.)


I remember that period in the ’90s when photomosaics became popular. The other week I saw an installation at the Barbican composed of labeled images from the ImageNet database that has enabled automated image recognition. It’s apt to compare the recognizability of a photomosaic (it’s the Mona Lisa! Made up of everyone who came to see the Mona Lisa this year! Etc.) to the anarchy of one arbitrary slice of the modern Internet.

But it only requires some imagination to extrapolate the implications of, e.g., the series of images of besuited men labeled “venture capitalist,” and similarly you don’t have to work hard to roll your eyes at a twelve-year-old white girl in her suburban bedroom who couldn’t have found Afghanistan on a map squinting her eyes shut to fix the memory of Where I Was When the bad men came to attack American values.

And here I am now, passing the “Prepare for Brexit” signs posted at bus stops on my way to my office, having left the US after the morning when I eavesdropped on a businesswoman opening her conference call with appropriate solemnity (“We’re all a little quiet this morning…”) in the airport lounge en route to Japan, where the friendly Japanese man who led us in entirely the wrong direction off the top of Mount Inari shook his fist and said “Trump!” at us fiercely when we told him we had come from New York. I read about Leonard Cohen’s death a few days later in a coffee shop in Shimokitazawa. Does it matter? Do I matter? Time will tell.


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