The Déjà Vu of September 11: An Essay on Intericonicity

Clément Chéroux

‘For while I don't know whether, as the saying goes, “things which are repeated are pleasing,” my belief is that they are significant.’ [1]
Roland Barthes

What did we actually see of 9/11? A low-flying airplane along the skyline of New York, the plane's fuel reservoirs exploding upon impact with the World Trade Center, a thick cloud of smoke, scenes of urban panic and an omnipresent American flag. Statistics drawn from 400 American daily newspapers from 11 and 12 September 2001 confirm that 95% of the publications printed one of these images on the front page. [2] The same images also appeared on the front pages of European and Middle Eastern newspapers. September 11 is undoubtedly the most photographed event in the history of photojournalism, and yet, even with countless cameras aimed at the tragic site, only six different images featured on nearly all the front pages of international papers. Despite the abundance of photographs, we still had the sensation of seeing the same image over and over.

We can shed light on this paradox by analyzing the way images are circulated. Since the 1990s, we have witnessed the consolidation among the agencies that distribute images. Among the smaller agencies, some disappeared or joined forces, while others were swallowed up by major press and financial groups. The September 11 attacks testify to the overwhelming importance that large news dissemination agencies such as Reuters, Agence France-Presse and especially the Associated Press have gained in the past few years, particularly in moments of crisis. A study of the front pages of American newspapers revealed that 72% of the photographs come from the Associated Press. What September 11 offered was a clear example of the effects of globalization on media representations: the image market has narrowed considerably in recent years and is currently controlled by a handful of news providers. Visual resources are steadily growing more limited, becoming more repetitive and more homogenous.

This repetition, however, is not the pivotal point of our investigation here. The
reiteration of images in the immediacy of an event is associated with another form of repetition — one that extends across the historical timescale. Images repeat themselves, but their repetition extends beyond the image itself to represent something more. Many commentators mentioned experiencing the events as a déjà vu. ‘ On September 11, as soon as we saw the images (live or in the evening newspaper), we felt a sense of déjà vu,’ [3] wrote Daniel Schneidermann, for example. What hides behind this feeling of déjà vu? Or, in other words, what do these recurring images actually repeat?

The key to understanding the phenomenon lies in the texts that accompanied the press photographs. In the United States, several front pages from 11 and 12 September 2001 bear the word infamy. For American readers, the allusion is obvious: infamy calls to mind the memorable radio address delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: ‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.’ [4] Thus when headlines on the mastheads of American dailies exclaimed, ‘A New Day of Infamy’ or even more explicitly, ‘Second Pearl Harbor,’ it was an overt invitation to readers to recall that other surprise attack from the past. [5] Media coverage of September 11 is characterized by this essential topos. As a recent study showed, the Japanese strike was the analogy most frequently used by American papers to describe the 9/11 attacks. [6]

The iconographic rhetoric deployed by the press to cover 9/11 obeys the same referential logic. In Shooting War, a crucial work on war photography published in 1989, historian Susan Moeller explains that the visual memory of Pearl Harbor is primarily built on ‘balls of fire and black smoke’ [7] rising from battleships burning in the port and occasional explosions from fuel tanks and ammunition stocks in flames. From this perspective, we can posit that images of fire and ashes, printed by American newspapers on 11 and 12 September, evoked that earlier day of infamy. This hypothesis is supported by comments accompanying the images: ‘The thick clouds of smoke and dust rising over the site where the World Trade Center once stood were strangely reminiscent of photographs of the Japanese attacks on battleships in the bay of Pearl Harbor’ [8] wrote, for example, a Newsweek journalist. As if the analogy was not obvious enough, some American newspapers published images of the two events side by side. [9] It is thus in that burning harbor in the heart of the Pacific Islands that a large part of the déjà vu lies.

Another image furnishes an even more palpable association between the onset of war in the Pacific and the September 11 attacks: Thomas Franklin's photograph of three New York City firefighters raising the American flag amidst the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. In many ways, the image conjures up one of World War II's most prominent icons: the renowned photograph of six marines raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. Much can be said about the image, made by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945 during the Americans’ assault on the small but strategically important Pacific island of Iwo Jima. [10] For our purposes, the most important aspect is that the photograph was distributed by the Associated Press and immediately hailed by Americans as not just a symbol of victory, but also a retribution for Pearl Harbor. As such, the image was extensively disseminated: the Navy used it for recruitment campaigns, it was an essential part of the seventh war loan to finance American efforts overseas, and appeared on a total of 3.5 million posters and 15,000 billboards. Over 150 million postal stamps featuring the image were sold. Rosenthal's photograph thus became the most reproduced image in the visual history of the United States. [11]

How can we evaluate the overlapping of form and meaning in the images of
9/11? Mark Lawson of The Guardian spoke of ‘palimpsest images’ which reflect ‘other images from the nation’s visual memory.’ [12] The expression is engaging, but not entirely adequate. Unlike palimpsests, the first layer of representation (iconological referentiality) of 9/11 visual icons has not been rubbed out or erased to be masked by a second visual stratum (indexical referentiality). The original image has not completely vanished behind the more recent one. Rather, it is by and large present and clearly visible via a system of reference and association —we might even say hybridization. Rather than palimpsest, what is at work here is intericonicity, a notion based on the model of intertextuality. In a volume fittingly entitled Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, Gérard Genette defines intertextuality as ‘a relation of co- presence between two texts or among several texts: that is to say, eidetically and typically as the actual presence of one text within another.’ [13] The 9/11 icons function in much the same way. They evoke other images, just as much as, if not more than the reality of the actual event of which they are the direct imprints.

In the context of September 11, archival images were meant to highlight the
gravity of the events. Using a proven psychological method — observers relate better to familiar situations — diachronic reiteration of the icons was a way of raising awareness of the event's historical significance. Taking a binary shortcut of sorts by summoning the war in the Pacific, from clouds of smoke at Pearl Harbor to the flag over Iwo Jima, the media urgently reached out to readers: ‘You are witnessing history in the making! And it's of the same magnitude!’ Intericonicity is thus intended to summon history — but not just any historical allusion. Of all the events that have shaken the United States, it was the war in the Pacific that was chosen.

The focus on Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima reveals a desire to treat 9/11 as an act of war. [14] The hijacking and deliberate crashes of four commercial airplanes could have been portrayed in a different light by the media: for example, as criminal acts. Yet an openly warmongering perspective prevailed, as numerous headlines attest: ‘Act of War,’‘Assault on America,’ or the unambiguous ‘It's War.’ [15] By invoking Pearl Harbor, the media implied that retaliation was the only response, as in the case of the aftermath of the Japanese attack that validated the United States' entry to war.

The media's use of intericonicity in commentary on current events is itself a
phenomenon of repetition. Pierre Nora noted the use of ‘prototypes’ or ‘matrices’ of events: ‘popular imagery sprung armed and ready from the belly of industrial society, which contemporary history reproduces, incessantly making copies.’ [16] This is a fundamental part of the media process. While the media indeed operates on principles of structural repetition, the use of reiteration has noticeably intensified in the past fifteen years. In her remarkable work on photographic memory of the Holocaust, Barbie Zelizer demonstrates how images of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, ghettos and mass executions during World War II have often been used as points of comparison in media representations of contemporary conflicts. [17] Coverage of the Rwandan genocide and the war in ex-Yugoslavia was partially built on the same clichés used half a century ago: barbed wire, mass graves, and bulldozers carting limp bodies off to open-air pits.

What explanation can we find for the increasingly widespread use of iconographic repetition, which achieved paroxysmal status in 9/11 media coverage? Is it an example of the adage ‘history repeating itself,’ an expression adopted by some of the websites that juxtaposed Rosenthal's and Franklin's icons? [18] Not at all. History does not repeat itself, it is being repeated by the media. This observation incites us to reformulate the opening question of this paragraph. What does the devaluation of intericonic practices reveal about the relationship that the Western press fosters, via images, with history? The media analyzes 9/11 through the lens of repetition — a sign that media view history as a cyclical process. Yet Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mircea Eliade and others have demonstrated that notions of time based on the ‘myth of eternal return’ can simply be considered as ‘ahistoric.’ [19] If the media's idea of history differs so greatly from historians', perhaps the real issue at hand is something other than history — namely memory.

Unlike history, memory does work on the basis of repetition. As seen from an individual standpoint, the dictionary definition of memory is ‘the power of retaining and recalling past experience.’ [20] The act of remembering, or even the use of mnemonic devices, involves a reiterative process. In his work on repetition, Gilles Deleuze brilliantly illustrates the extent to which memory is formed by habit. [21] From a collective standpoint, public and political uses of memory such as the extensive calendar of commemorations demonstrate strong ties between memory and repetition. Evoking the current ‘trop de mémoire’ [memory overload], Paul Ricoeur even employs the term ‘memory-repetition.’ [22] In the past few years, the memorial trend has indeed grown. As Pierre Nora notes, Western societies have entered the ‘era of commemoration,’ [23] which American historian Jay Winter more prosaically refers to as the ‘Memory Boom.’ [24] It is this inflation of memory that is responsible for the intericonic practices of the past two decades.

In light of this obsession with memory and the spectacular forms it takes, the
intericonicity of 9/11 merits reconsideration. The memorial context of the year the 9/11 attacks occurred is of particular interest, since 2001 marked the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Long before the commemorative date of December 7, as early as January and February in fact, the American media picked up on the public's enthusiasm for memory and inundated audiences with books, films, television and radio shows dedicated to the ‘day of infamy.’ Out of the plethora of cultural products churned out, one is particularly appropriate here: the Disney blockbuster simply titled Pearl Harbor. [25]

The Iwo Jima icon also occupies a vital place in the memorial episodes of 2001.
The previous year, James Bradley, son of one of the six Marines photographed by Rosenthal, published a book whose success further increased the omnipresence of Rosenthal's photograph in American memory. Based on years of investigation and interviews, Flags of our Fathers retraces the history of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the conditions under which the six men raised the flag, and the impact the photograph had on the three survivors. [26] Published in May, 2000, the book quickly rose to the top of the,New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for nearly 40 weeks through July, 2001, only to be replaced by the paperback edition.

In the months leading up to September 11, 2001, the flag over Iwo Jima and billowing clouds at Pearl Harbor thus pervaded American visual culture through articles, books, films, television programs and derivative products. This memorial context is at the root of the intericonicity we have seen in images of 9/11. The photograph of the three firefighters raising the flag above the ruins of the World Trade Center does not evoke the Marines at Iwo Jima per se, but rather Bradley's depiction of their heroism and humility. Images of the ball of fire created by the explosion of flight 175's fuel reservoirs, or the cloud of black smoke that enveloped New York City remind us less of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 than Disney's ‘spectacularized’ interpretation. Media imagery of September 11 does not refer to history, but to memory—a version of memory that is seen through the lens of Hollywood entertainment and the spectacle of contemporary news coverage.

The fact that memory is conveyed by the media using Hollywood's spectacular
visual codes is just another outcome of globalization. The corporations ruling the entertainment industry are often the same who run the press. [27] It was only natural for the Disney Group's television channels, magazines and newspapers to tie in the coverage of 9/11 with their main event of the year, the film Pearl Harbor, defended so valiantly in the months leading up to the attacks. This phenomenon of standardization is not limited to Disney, or even to the United States. Western culture on the whole appears to be factoring for the lowest common denominator, by which news coverage adopts the practices of entertainment to become infotainment. This is because the media is pressured by consolidation, but also because Hollywood's vision seems to dictate the memorial references circulated worldwide. How else can we account for the fact that the European press overwhelmingly embraced the image of the three firefighters, when that reference in no way informs national memory on the other side of the Atlantic?

Beyond the standardization of memory hides another form of globalization, even less visible and covert. The effect of the globalization is usually considered spatially. We noted the geographical perspective in the introduction to this article, observing that the majority of American, European and even Middle Eastern newspapers published identical images of 9/11. The above discussion also illustrates how Hollywood's perception of memory is disseminated globally. Yet analysis of intericonicity demonstrates that the phenomenon of homogenization also operates temporally. Just as the image market is standardized geographically, it is standardized temporally, on an historical scale and with memory acting as an intermediary. More and more, media representations of today's events resemble those of yesterday's. By scrutinizing media coverage of 9/11, we realize that the ‘global village’ extends vertically as well as horizontally. The process of homogenization shapes both the specificity of historical events, and the singular ways in which they are perceived in each country. In short, like territory, memory disintegrates in globalization.


  1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Paris, Seuil, 1957, p. 10. New York, Hill and Wang, 1972, p. 12. back
  2. The analysis here is an extension of previous research, statistics and conclusions; cf. Clément Chéroux, ‘11 septembre 2001, l'événement à l'ère de la globalisation,’ in Régis Durand, Michel Poivert (eds.), L'Evénement. Les images comme acteurs de l'histoire, Paris, Hazan/Jeu de Paume, 2007, pp. 122-143. The two essays were further developed in a volume on photographic representations of September 11: Clément Chéroux, Diplopie. L'image photographique à l'ère des médias globalisés : essai sur le 11 septembre 2001. Cherbourg. Le Point du jour, 2009., back
  3. Daniel Schneidermann, Le Cauchemar médiatique, Paris, Denoël, 2004, p. 135. back
  4. Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘Proposed Message to the Congress,’ December 7, 1941, p. 1, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. The original manuscript of Roosevelt's address is reprinted in Emily S. Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live. Pearl Harbor in American Memory, Durham, Londres, Duke University Press, 2003, p. 32. My emphasis. On the use of the word ‘Infamy,’ see also William Safire, ‘On Language, Infamy, Words of the War on Terror,’ New York Times Magazine, September 23, 2001, p. 32. back
  5. See for example, ‘A New Day of Infamy,’ The Bakersfield Californian, September 12, 2001, p. 1; ‘Second Pearl Harbor,’ The News-Gazette, September 11, 2001, p. 1. back
  6. Cf. Betty Houchin Winfield, Barbara Friedman, Vivara Trisnadi, ‘History as the Metaphor through Which the Current World Is Viewed: British and American newspapers' uses of history following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks,’ Journalism Studies, vol. 3, n°2, 2002, pp. 289-300. On the comparison between September 11 and Pearl Harbor, see Emily S. Rosenberg, op. cit.; and essential articles by Geoffrey M. White: ‘War Memory and American Patriotism: Pearl Harbor and 9-11,’ in Laura Hein and Daizaburo Yui, Crossed Memories: Perspectives on 9/11 and American Power, Center for Pacific and American Studies, The University of Tokyo, 2003, online at; id., ‘National subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor ,’ American Ethnologist, vol. 31, n°3, 2004, pp. 293-310; as well as Marcia Landy, ‘America under Attack, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and History in the Media,’ in Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed.), Film and Television after 9/11, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2004, pp. 79-100; James J. Wirtz, ‘Déjà Vu? Comparing Pearl Harbor and September 11,’ Harvard International Review, vol. 24, n°3, Autumn 2002, pp. 73-77; Bonnie Brennen, Margaret Duffy, ‘If A Problem Cannot Be Solved, Enlarge It': an ideological critique of the 'Other' in Pearl Harbor and September 11 New York Times coverage,’ Journalism Studies, vol. 4, n°1, 2003, pp. 3-14; Tom Brokaw, ‘Two Dates Which Will Live in Infamy,’ The San Diego Union-Tribune, December 7, 2001, p. B 13. back
  7. Susan D. Moeller, Shooting War. Photography and the American Experience of Combat, New York, Basic Books, 1989, p. 235. back
  8. Evan Thomas, ‘A New Date of Infamy,’ Newsweek (Extra Edition, America under Attack), September 13, 2001, vol. CXXXVIII, n°12-A, p. 24. back
  9. Cf. The Sun, September 12, 2001, p. 1 D. back
  10. On this photograph, see Karal Ann Marling, John Wetenhall, Iwo Jima, Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero, Cambridge, Londres, Harvard University Press, 1991; Parker Bishop Albee Jr., Keller Cushing Freeman, Shadow of Suribachi, Raising the Flags on Iwo Jima, Wesport, London, Praeger, 1995; Tedd Thomey, Immortal Images, A Personal History of Two Photographers and the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1996; James Bradley, Ron Powers, Flags of our Fathers, New York, Bantam Books, 2001; as well as Rosenthal's own remarks: Joe Rosenthal, W. C. Heinz, ‘The Picture that Will Live Forever,’ Collier's, February 18, 1955, pp. 23, 62-67, 98. back
  11. This is noted, among others, by: Joe Rosenthal, W. C. Heinz, art. cit., p. 62; James Bradley, Ron Powers, op. cit., p.3; Stanley E. Kalish, Clifton C. Edom, Picture Editing, New York, Toronto, Rinehart & Company, 1951, p. 18. back
  12. Mark Lawson, ‘The Power of a Picture,’ The Guardian, September 13, 2001, online at,1300,551047,00.html back
  13. Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes. La littérature au second degré, Paris, Seuil, p. 8. Genette himself makes use of ideas developed by Julia Kristeva, Sèméiôtikè, Paris, Seuil, 1969. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, University of Nebraska Press, 1997, pp. 1-2. back
  14. On this question see Amy Reynolds, Brooke Barnett, ‘“America under Attack,” CNN's Verbal and Visual Framing of September 11,’ in Steven Chermak, Frankie Y. Bailey, Michelle Brown (eds.), op. cit., pp. 85-101; Jenny Edkins, ‘The Rush to Memory and the Rhetoric of War,’ Journal of Political and Military Sociology, vol. 31, n°2, Winter 2003, pp. 231-250; Douglas Kellner, "9/11, Spectacles of terror, and media manipulation. A critique of Jihadist and Bush media politics," Critical Discourse Studies, vol. 1, n°1, April 2004, pp. 41-64. back
  15. See for example: ‘Act of War,’ USA Today, September 12, 2001, p. 1; ‘Assault on America,’ The Wichita Eagle, September 12, 2001, p. 1; ‘It's War,’ Daily News, September 12, 2001, p. 1. back
  16. Pierre Nora, ‘Le retour de l'événement,’ in Jacques Le Goff, Pierre Nora (dir.), Faire de l'histoire I. Nouveaux problèmes, Paris, Gallimard, p. 288. Regarding this point, see also Paul Rock, ‘News as eternal recurrence,’ in Stanley Cohen, Jock Young (eds.), The Manufacture of News, Londres, Constable, 1981, pp. 64-70. back
  17. Cf. Barbie Zelizer, "Remembering to Forget. Contemporary Scrapbooks of Atrocity," Remembering to Forget. Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye, Chicago, Londres, University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 202-239. back
  18. See for example:; back
  19. Cf. Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Pensée sauvage, Paris, Plon, 1962; The Savage Mind, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968. Mircea Eliade, Le Mythe de l'éternel retour, Paris, Gallimard, 1969; The Myth of the Eternal Return: Or, Cosmos and History, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1954. back
  20. ‘Memory,’ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, 2000. back
  21. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1968, pp. 96-115; Differencen and Repetition (Continuum Impacts), New York, Columbia University Press, 1995. back
  22. Paul Ricoeur, La Mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli, Paris, Seuil, 2000, p. 96. Memory, History Forgetting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004. back
  23. Pierre Nora, ‘L'ère de la commémoration,’ Les Lieux de mémoire, III Les France 3. De l'archive à l'emblême, Paris Gallimard, 1992, pp. 977-1012; Realms of Memory, New York, Columbia University Press, 1998. back
  24. Cf. Jay Winter, ‘The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the 'Memory Boom' in contemporary Historical Studies,’ Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, n°27, Autumn 2000, pp. 69-92. back
  25. My analysis of the film is primarily informed by Geoffrey M. White's article, "Disney's Pearl Harbor: National Memory and the Movies," The Public Historian, vol. 24, n°4, Autumn 2002, pp. 97-115; by the chapter Emily S. Rosenberg devotes to the film, op. cit., pp. 163-173; by the book released at the same time as the film: Linda Sunshine, Antonia Felix (eds.), Pearl Harbor, The Movie and The Moment, New York, Hyperion, 2001, as well as by the DVD. back
  26. Cf James Bradley back
  27. Regarding these points, see Ben H. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly, Boston, Beacon Press, 2004; Erik Barnouw et alii, Conglomerates and the Media, New York, The New Press, 1997; Observatoire français des médias, Sur la concentration dans les médias, Paris, Liris, 2005; Oliver Boyd-Barrett, Terhi Rantanen (eds.), The Globalization of News, Londres, Sage Publications, 1998; Stig Hjarvard (ed.), Media in a Globalized Society, Copenhague, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2003. back