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Sara Ahmed and Gloria Anzaldúa's Critical Perspectives on Responses to the 9/11 Attacks

The article explores the intricate relationship between emotions, embodiment, and sociopolitical frameworks in light of Sara Ahmed's seminal work, The Cultural Politics of Emotion 2004. The text elaborates on Anzaldua's analysis of the September 11 assaults considering Ahmed's theory of emotions. The research of Ahmed sheds light on the substantial influence of cultural and political forces on effective experiences. Examining Anzaldúa's intense emotions and their significance in interpreting the event, the article concentrates on a case study of her response to September 11. Through this analysis, the article employs Ahmed's theoretical framework to examine how cultural and political contexts influence and intertwine with emotions. In addition, the article explores the broader implications of Anzaldúa’s emotional voyage, focusing on the illusions of safety and entitlement within the nation. It analyzes the societal narratives and responses to the September 11 attacks with a critical eye, challenging official accounts and urging a deeper examination of power dynamics and underlying motivations. This article seeks to unravel the complexities of emotions by combining Anzaldúa’s personal experience and Ahmed's theoretical framework, shedding light on their role in shaping individual and collective responses to significant events. Ultimately, this paper aims to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the cultural politics of emotion by highlighting the profound influence of sociopolitical factors on effective experiences.

Ahmed states that she is not interested in presenting a theoretical framework for emotions or elaborating on the ramifications that emotions impose upon persons: “Rather, I will track how emotions circulate between bodies, examining how they 'stick' as well as move” (Ahmed, 2004, p.4). This article will describe how she traces the circulation of emotions among individuals, exploring both the adhesive nature and the tendency for individuals' emotions to move about. Emotions play a crucial role in the formation of the mental and the social as objects, which calls into question the idea that the objectivity of these spheres is the result of a cause rather than the other way around. Emotions are not only confined to the individual or the social realms: “So emotions are not simply something I' or we' have. Rather, it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the I and the we are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others” (Ahmed, 2004, p.8). This is because emotions provide the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as objects. She intends to show, through her analysis, how emotions play a significant part in forming and defining numerous objects and how this, in turn, influences the construction of both the individual and society. She explains that the impressions and effects that are transferred by other people ultimately culminate in the formation of the physical surfaces of bodies (Ahmed, 2004, p.8).

Figure 1: Collage Photo of Woman. (Piacquadio, 2017)

She posits in her concept of the sociality of emotions that the surfaces and boundaries that define an inside and an outside are produced by the emotions themselves. The imprints that are left on bodies by other people help to produce the surface-level expressions that people have, and these expressions have an effect on both individual and communal bodies. She intends to illustrate how the contours of both collective and individual entities are formed in terms of their emotions. She not only emphasizes the psychological and social dimensions that emotions have but also recognizes their significance in both individual and collective contexts (Ahmed, 2004, p.8). In her sight, the existence of emotions does not in and of itself mean that the fundamental nature of a person or of society is contained inside them. Rather, emotions play a crucial part in producing the exterior manifestations and demarcations that allow the differentiation of the individual from the social as though they contain distinct and distinct features. This distinction can only be made possible because of the role that emotions play in generating these external manifestations and demarcations: “Rather, I suggest that emotions are crucial to the very constitution of the psychic and the social as objects, a process which suggests that the 'objectivity' of the psychic and social is an effect rather than a cause” (Ahmed, 2004, p.10).

In my model of sociality of emotions, I suggest that emotions create the very effect of the surfaces and boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside in the first place. So emotions are not simply something I' or we' have. Rather, it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the I and the we are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others. (Ahmed, 2004, p. 10)

According to this, it is essential to acknowledge that emotions do not belong exclusively to either the individual or social sphere. Ahmed suggests that, in contrast, emotions generate the very surfaces and boundaries that facilitate the differentiation and delimitation of the individual and the societal as if they possessed object-like qualities. Through her analysis, she intends to demonstrate how emotions actively generate these surfaces and boundaries, thereby facilitating the delineation of diverse object forms: “In other words, emotions are not 'in' either the individual or the social, but produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects” (Ahmed, 2004, p.10). Rather, she proposes that emotions are essential to the very construction of the psychic and the social as objects, a process that shows that the so-called 'objectivity' of the psychic and the social is a result rather than a cause. Specifically, she suggests that emotions are critical to the very formation of the psychic and the social as objects. In her view, certain individuals are successfully silenced because power structures influence both their physical bodies and their emotional states, forcing those individuals to comply with cultural norms: “Bodies take the shape of the very contact they have with objects and others” (Ahmed, 2004, p.1).

Figure 2: Love, a fight. Control, a ghost. Life, a parasite. I, the host. (Dystopia Bella, 2013)

1. Fear and Emotions the Day the Towers Fell

In the first chapter, "Let us be the healing of the wound: The Coyolxauhqui imperative—La Sombra y el sueño" she narrates the day when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, describing how her spirit was enveloped by a tremendous sense of loss and grief as she told the tragic events that took place on that day. In this case study, Anzaldúa´s interpretation of the attack is analyzed to show the emotions that bonded her with her experience of enduring severe sorrow and distress. She shares her thoughts and feelings about it: “I couldn´t detach from the victims and survivors and their pain" (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.9). That moment fragmented her, and when she reworded it, the tragedy pulled her into pieces, apart from her former self. The images of the towers created a phycological touch of an object; drawing a distinct line between feelings and sensations is naturally difficult because of the nature of the situation: “Bodies on fire, bodies falling through the sky, bodies pummeled and crushed by stone and steel; los cuerpos trapped and suffocating became our bodies. As we watched we too fell, todos caímos”(Anzaldúa, 2015, p.9). This aligns with Ahmed´s perspective on this matter: “If the contact with an object generates feeling, then emotion and sensation cannot be easily separated” (Ahmed, 2004, p.6).

My argument still explores how emotions can move through the movement or circulation of objects. Such objects become sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension. Emotions are after all moving, even if they do not simply move between us. (Ahmed, 2004, p.11)

This analysis intends to unravel the emotional scaffolding present in certain images and symbols that appear throughout Anzaldúa´s narration of the event. It intends to analyze the interpretation of her emotions. Her emotions trigger action and convey how her emotions are in permanent movement. Anzaldúa describes her experience of being in a condition of suspension, during which she felt detached from her surroundings and restless, as though she were running on autopilot, and she was overcome by an overwhelming sense of sorrow (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.9). She expresses her rage, sadness, and later depression through images of violence and destruction. Her emotions traveled through the movement or circulation of objects, imbuing them with an adhesive quality or an intense saturation of affect, thereby making her feelings sites of personal and social tension. This description of her feelings matches Ahmed´s view on emotions. Seeing Anzaldúa´s emotional affection through Ahmed´s lens shows that emotions are inherently mobile. This is evident in Anzaldúa´s description of her suspended state, in which she felt detached from her surroundings, operated on automatic, and succumbed to an overwhelming wave of melancholy. In fact, Ahmed sheds some light on the fact that the word 'emotion' comes from the Latin word 'emovere,' which means 'to move' or 'to move out.' However, she highlights that it is key to recognize that emotions encompass more than just movement; they also include attachments and the ties that bond us to particular experiences or people (Ahmed, 2004, p.11).

Figure 3: Monochrome Photo Of City During Daytime. (Svensson, n.d)

Anzaldúa identifies with this tragic event when there was so much sadness left after the terrorist attack because she interpreted it from a personal level. She conveys to the reader the disturbing upheaval that occurred in the cornerstone of her existence as the familiar world that she had once known disintegrated before her eyes, leaving her overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness. This important occurrence propelled her into a difficult process of resignification that was characterized by extreme suffering and near-violent transformation (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.9). This trip was iterative and included both death and rebirth at various points along the way. This viewpoint causes a cognitive shift in her, which compels her to reconsider the past from a fresh vantage point as the one and only option for remaking the immediate future (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.17). Her view on the events that transpired in the days leading up to the terrorist strikes on September 11 reveals how well-versed she is in the emotional lexicon: “Only by speaking of these events and by creating do I become visible to myself and to come to terms with what happens” (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.21). Even though painful, she embraces the tragic events in her memory to create a cohesive testimony that is healing (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.21). In Ahmed´s vision, memory can serve as the focal point of emotional experience in two distinct ways: first, emotions are influenced by my interaction with the memory, and second, they involve a directed inclination toward the content being remembered (Ahmed, 2004, p.7). Anzaldúa remembers the government´s hasty handling of the attacks as a response of anger and fear. She criticizes that former president Bush didn't look for justice through international law but engaged in what she considers “a pissing contest with the terrorists” (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.11). It is not only the tragedy of the terrorist attack but the counterattack when the US stroke back on Afghanistan. Anzaldúa describes that: "On October 7, my country beat the drums of war; with military might we fell into barbarism. Championing the show of power and the use of fear and force to control, we became the terrorists. We attacked Afghanistan, a nation that had not attacked us—the nineteen terrorists belong to the transnational Al-Qaeda terrorist network, most from Saudi Arabia" (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.11). This could be explained through Ahmed´s vision of fear as well. She points out that the configuration of bodily surfaces in relation to objects is significantly influenced by the emotion of fear:

I want us to think more precisely about the processes through which fear works to secure forms of the collective. My argument is nor that there is a psychic economy of fear, which then becomes social and collective: rather, as I have already suggested, the individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective (Ahmed, 2004, p.71).

Ahmed shows then that emotions are essentially relational. They contain responding behaviors or relational dynamics that are characterized by an inclination towards or a detachment from the things that are the subject of the emotion: “Fear shapes the surfaces of bodies in relation to objects. Emotions are relational: they involve (re)actions or relations of 'towardness' or "awayness' in relation to such objects” (Ahmed, 2004, p.8). When Ahmed considers the fear of mortality, she renders it as something which encompasses personal demise, the loss of cherished individuals, the vulnerability of the community, and the potential extinction of the entire ethnic group. Thus, she examines the public outbursts of fear and anxiety around terrorism in Western countries as narratives that bloom as a protective mechanism for the status quo (Ahmed, 2004, p.77). She assesses that: “The bodies of the victims become symbolic of that which is under threat not only by terrorists (those who take life), but by all that the possibility of terrorism stands for” (Ahmed, 2004, p.77). Her analysis goes into the manifestations of collective fear and anxiety around terrorism within Western nations, understanding these narratives as emerging mechanisms that aim to safeguard the existing social order in their respective societies. Emotions, in her view, are not merely prior to verbal expressions; rather, they acquire substance through their consequential influence, exerting an impact on a variety of acts and dispositions across a variety of settings. This is because she believes that emotions are not simply antecedent to verbal expressions (Ahmed, 2004, p.77). As a consequence of this, she maintains that feelings have a performative essence and that this essence is tightly knit together with speech acts. Therefore, Ahmed´s examination with skepticism of the narratives of public fear and anxiety encircling terrorism in Western nations will be analyzed in the following section, viewing them as protective mechanisms for the established social order.

2. The Feeling of a Mourning Nation and its Discourses

Ahmed questions what saying that a nation mourns really means. She regards that: “It is a claim both that the nation has a feeling (the nation is the subject of feeling), but also that generates the nation as the object of 'our feeling' (we might mourn on behalf of the nation)” (Ahmed, 2004, p.13). According to her point of view, the emotion does not only preexist the act of verbal representation; rather, it becomes substantial as a result of the consequential influence it has, impacting a variety of acts and orientations in a variety of contexts. As a result, she claims that feelings have a performative quality to them, and they are intertwined with speaking acts. This intertwining is dependent upon previous histories, and it simultaneously generates results and repercussions (Ahmed, 2004, p.13). This could be observed in Anzaldúa's interpretation of the following events of the attack, “It is unfortunate that we get our national identity and narrative from this majority who refuse to recognize that conflict is not resolved through war” (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.15). Anzaldúa´s frustration matches Ahmed's criticism when someone makes the proclamation that "the nation mourns," as this idea regards the nation itself as an entity that is in mourning. Through the adoption of a particular stance in articulating this observation, the bare act of making such a statement induces a shift in the conceptualization of "nation" from an abstract construct to a communal "subject of sentiment" that is collectively encountered (Ahmed, 2004, p.13). Ahmed examines that the dislocation between emotional entities necessitates consideration of the complex dynamics involved in the dissemination of linguistic expressions pertinent to emotional states.

The word 'mourns' might get linked to other emotion words: anger, hatred, love. The replacement of one word for an emotion with another word produces a narrative. Our love might create the condition for our grief, our loss could become the condition for our hate, and so on. (Ahmed, 2004, p.13)

Figure 4: Clear Glass Candle Holder. (Anastasiu, 2011)

Ahmed describes that after the events of September 11, 2001, the complicated dynamics that are inherent in the spatial and bodily dimensions of dread have achieved unprecedented levels of visibility within the international economies of fear. This is because these dimensions of fear are interconnected (Ahmed, 2004, p.72). She describes that after the event, fear was embodied in the figure of the terrorist, “We might note that fear is, of course, named in the very naming of terrorism: terrorists are immediately identified as agents of extreme fear…” (Ahmed, 2004, p.72). Ahmed comments on the fact that the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated that Bin Laden's animosity toward the United States and its embodiment of values such as individual liberty, religious tolerance, democracy, and global trade liberalization is indicative of the intent to spread dread, foster uncertainty, and instigate instability. She remarks that by employing these strategies, he intends to incite animosity and discord between communities and nations (Ahmed, 2004, p.72). Ahmed asserts that metonymy can function as an effective, albeit unstated, discourse on causal linkages between concepts, such as the association of Islam with terrorism. Although some arguments may make an effort to decouple phrases like "terrorist" and "Islam," metonymy's fundamental effectiveness depends on its power to restore language linkages, allowing the juxtaposition of such concepts. She describes that in the domain of discourse, statements such as "this is not a war against Islam" coexist with labels such as "Islamic terrorists,"strategically reinforcing the connection between these terms and elevating their coexistence beyond mere occurrence (Ahmed, 2004, p.77).

Importantly, the word 'terrorist' sticks to some bodies as it reopens histories of naming, just as the word 'terrorist' slides into other words in the accounts of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (such as fundamentalism, Islam, Arab, repressive, primitive and so on) (Ahmed, 2004, p.76).

In her view, the process of sign transition involves the phenomenon of affixing signs to physical bodies, which results in persons who exhibit visual characteristics that are evocative of those that are traditionally associated with Muslims being seen as possible terrorists. She observes that this perception is a direct result of the process of sign transition and that these persistent linkages continue to exist specifically because they are difficult to interpret literally in a straightforward manner (Ahmed, 2004, p.76). Anzaldúa is critical of these claims that were made because in her perspective: “By justifying the war they hope to veil their efforts to reestablish control in the Middle East and exploit its natural gas and oil reserves” (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.13). Anzaldúa states that these associations are used to justify the counterattack on Afghanistan, an act that she observes as a consequence of fear, ignorance, greed, excessive spending, and an unquenchable thirst for power as the root that causes this conflict, which she regards is being fueled by a convergence of forces (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.15). Anzaldúa denounces President Bush's efforts to protect the country from the terrorist threat because, in her view, he is inadvertently putting some of the population in danger as a result, she observes that these actions have placed certain demographic subgroups in jeopardy: “Racialized language leads to racial profiling, which leads to targeting dark-skinned, Middle Eastern-looking, and other people of color earmarked as potential terrorists” (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.14). She exposes that for white Americans to maintain their unrestricted illusions of safety and entitlement, the government employs oppressive measures. One such tactic is the practice of racial profiling, which gives communities of color a feeling of being expendable and a persistent sense of uneasiness (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.14).

3. Beyond Fear is the Promise

The previous section intended to study Ahmed's and Anzaldúa's critical perspectives on the narratives and responses surrounding the September 11, 2001 events. Ahmed investigated the performative character of collective mourning and the interplay between emotions and speech acts. She also investigates the spatial and bodily dimensions of dread, focusing on the association between fear and the terrorist figure. Anzaldúa echoes Ahmed's criticism, expressing annoyance at the notion of a nation mourning as a single entity because that led to oppressive measures such as racial profiling that perpetuate a sense of disposability and enduring insecurity among communities of color. Her criticism acknowledges that the attack was not exclusively unidirectional and investigates the US military's response to the event and the subsequent implementation of the terror that followed the attack. As has been brought to consideration, Ahmed investigates the US military's response to the event and the subsequent implementation of counterterrorism measures. She is skeptical about the course of action that was taken and does not believe that the international community of democratic states and the countries of the world were brought closer together by the united front displayed in response to acts of terrorism (Ahmed, 2004, p.78). She rallies against this attempt of communal effort to combat the impact of terrorism, which required the usage of the ideals that have historically boosted the strength of the United States and the democratic foundations of the country.

Indeed, the emphasis on security in Bush's State of the Union Address in 2002 includes the transformation of democratic citizenship into policing: 'And as government works to secure our homeland, America will continue to depend on the eyes and ears of alert citizens'. (Ahmed, 2004, p.78).

Figure 5: Black and White Photo of a Building. (Курочкин, 2022)

According to Ahmed's perspective, the concept of citizenship that discourse encloses can be compared to a mechanism called "Neighborhood Watch", in which citizens are burdened with the responsibility of vigilantly observing and identifying persons who appear to be acting in a suspicious manner. She regards this idea of citizenship as a tool for enforcing and monitoring the boundaries between groups, in particular with regard to those who are seen to be questionable on the basis of their outward appearance, such as people of Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim heritage. (Ahmed, 2004, p.77) Ahmed believes then that love becomes the essential basis of community and a guarantee for a collective future when the demand for citizens to assume a police role is transformed into a call for love. In her vision, love becomes a call to action (Ahmed, 2004, p.78). Ahmed exposes that: “Instead of an internal weakness being posited as responsible for the events of September 11, in more moderate discourses, we have an internal strength being posited as responsible for recovery, survival and moving beyond fear” (Ahmed, 2004, p.78). Ahmed believes that to guarantee that the United States would emerge victorious over terrorism, the definition of values as freedom, love, and compassion requires to be embraced by all citizens as a new social structure that united could face the possibility of attack (Ahmed, 2004, p.78.)

Anzaldúa acknowledges the aforementioned mechanism called "Neighborhood Watch". In her perspective, when individuals are able to look past the walls of mutual mistrust and shift their attention to the connections that bind, a compelling drive to broaden the scope of our efforts beyond the differences is generated. Anzaldúa regards her responsibility in the matter: “As an artist I feel compelled to expose this shadow side that the mainstream media and government denies" (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.10). She thinks that because of this, we should feel compelled to engage in acts of kindness, such as lending a helping hand to other people and encouraging the sharing of information and resources that are of great value. Anzaldúa casts doubt on the idea of Neighborhood Watch and argues in favor of a shift in viewpoint that goes beyond the concept of mutual mistrust and places more of an emphasis on the interconnectivity of persons:

The human species' survival depends on each one of us connecting to our vecinos (neighbors), whether they live across the street, across national borders, or across oceans. A calamity of the magnitude of 9/11 can compel us to think not in terms of "my" country or "your" nation but "our" planet (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.20).

Figure 6: Hands Showing Heart Sign. (RDNE Stock project, 2021):

Both authors' perspectives highlight the relevance of inhabitants actively participating in initiatives aimed at rejuvenating and revitalizing their communities. Their answer to fear is enhancing a collective feeling of commitment toward the well-being and advancement of their nation. They propose that overcoming hurdles that divide society and acknowledging the ties that unite people can be only done through the language of love. This section has highlighted that both Ahmed and Anzaldúa provide insightful and critical insights into the various narratives and reactions surrounding the events of September 11, 2001. The performative aspect of collective grieving, the identification of fear with the figure of the terrorist, and the turning of democratic citizenship into a sort of policing are all topics that they both investigate. They emphasize the significance of engaged citizen engagement in the process of reviving communities, placing emphasis on love and interconnection as means of overcoming divisions and working toward the well-being of the group. They foresee a future in which individual responsibility goes beyond national boundaries, acknowledging the common destiny of humanity and the requirement for a worldwide viewpoint.


This article investigates the cultural politics of emotions, specifically focusing on how popular norms and ideologies influence emotional experiences as well as the selective acceptance or exclusion of certain emotions in various social circumstances. As a case study, Anzaldúa’s personal experience of powerful emotions in response to the events of September 11 provides an example of the significance of emotions as interpretative tools for navigating and processing traumatic situations. This experience demonstrates the usefulness of emotions as interpretive tools. In this article, Anzaldúa’s writing is dissected in order to determine how she conveyed these intense feelings, as well as how those feelings influenced her understanding of the incident. Both Ahmed and Anzaldúa take a critical position towards official narratives and reactions to terrorism, and they call for a more in-depth investigation of power dynamics that came into action after the attack. They illustrate how emotions are intimately integrated throughout social and cultural contexts, bringing attention to the intricate interaction that exists between societal institutions and emotional states, which is emphasized by the authors.

This is consistent with Ahmed's primary thesis, which centers on the all-encompassing nature of feelings and extends beyond the realm of personal connections. In addition, the article discussed fear as a powerful emotion. It is consistent with Ahmed's viewpoint that these feelings are not merely personal issues but also have societal and cultural ramifications. According to Ahmed, feelings such as fear, humiliation, or hatred are expressions of an uneven world that is shaped by social inequities and structural conditions. Overall, the paper combines the critical perspectives of Ahmed and Anzaldúa, drawing attention to the importance of having a deeper comprehension of the intricacies underlying feelings, power relations, and social responses to momentous events such as September 11. Both authors stress the significance of interconnection, active citizen participation, and a move toward communal well-being as essential components in the process of constructing a society that is more compassionate and inclusive.

Bibliographical References

Anzaldúa, G. and Keating, A. L. (2002). This Bridge We Called Home: Radical Writings for Transformation. New York: Routledge.

Anzaldúa, G. (2015). Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburg University Press.

Ahmed, S. (2004). Affective Economies. Social Text 22(2), 117-139. Retrieved from:

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Daniela Sandoval

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