By Alexander T. Riley
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Extra info for Angel patriots : the crash of United Flight 93 and the myth of America
In modernity, catastrophes that bring sudden, violent, horrific death to large numbers of people present a unique set of cultural challenges. These are the apparently meaningless, chaotic, nihilistic experiences and events that most challenge our symbolic systems of meaning, and for this reason cultures must work particularly hard to narrate and structure them into coherent and understandable entities, even to turn them into sources of comfort and strength for members of the social group. In the next chapter, I look at 32 | Flight 93 and 9/11 the cultural question of death and the peculiar American response to this aspect of human existence as a necessary first step in understanding Flight 93’s meaning.
Indeed, the Flight 93 story, as it has been created, cultivated, and consumed in much of the American public sphere, can be reduced to a single brief sentence: villains try to attack national capital with hijacked plane, but heroes foil the effort. However simple this appears, though, it is instantly clear that we need more than mere facts to come up with such a narrative, and we need much in the way of undergirding cultural material — values, beliefs, myths — to invest that simple narrative with the emotional, visceral power it is intended to have and has for many if not most who hear it in the United States.
Geertz’s work informs us that studying the presence of the rags-to- riches narrative in American society requires careful attention to detail and a novelist’s eye for the nuance of dramatic development. Culture exists as a dramatic narrative that is both in the heads of culture members and externally present in texts and ritual practice produced by them in their daily lives. The analyst of culture has the task of reconstructing those stories, which requires an observational style Geertz called thick description, a careful and exhaustive eye for the dramatic detail of a narrative, and a writing style he called faction, a mixture of objective fact- driven information and attention to dramatic development that is most common in fictional writing but that Geertz argues should also be the model for those who would describe culture.