The dust produced by Basinski’s recording process was, crucially, not a result of the towers’ collapsing. It recalls but, at the same time, is completely removed from the dust that blanketed Lower Manhattan following 9/11 and that remains preserved in certain Museum exhibits. It is a very particular kind of decay – one initiated not by some hostile outside force but by something welcomed inside as presumably benign or beneficial. For Tangari “the recording process played an inadvertent witness to the destruction of Basinski's old music” (Tangari 2004). More than witness, however, the recording process actively facilitated, indeed caused this destruction. It is likely the tapes would have withered and weakened on their own, had they remained tucked away in that storage box; however, it was that process of conversion – a process intended to preserve – that caused them to disintegrate in such spectacular and spectral fashion. Thus, it turns us back to 9/11 dust in its current form, which, although aesthetically indistinguishable, conjures figures of repetition, violence, and decay, even though the event of its creation remains distinct. The dust of The Disintegration Loops is not the result of terrorist attack but the result of another kind of attack, an attack that makes us think about a philosophy of hospitality and the sociopolitical effects of terrorism at the same time. An attack that conjures images of sleeper cells, parasitism, and destruction lying in wait inside.
I am speaking here about the phenomenon of autoimmunity, defined most usefully by Derrida as “that strange behavior where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity” (Derrida in Borradori 2003: 94, original emphasis). Listening to Basinski’s work, it is hard not to think of this disintegration as a kind of autoimmunity, particularly when the process meant to protect and extend the life of his composition actually worked instead to immunize itself against such protections. While Basinski does not call it such, he invokes a rhetoric of autoimmunity when characterizing his work. He is aware that the recording “is not just about death, or even the terrible beauty of death, or about hope, either, but about how these intertwine, as it is the ‘life and death’ of the music that is being saved. It is not just being saved though, because the saving is performing its destruction” (Basinski in Hegarty 2007: 8). What is this process of saving performing destruction if not a process of autoimmunity? In this case, autoimmunity is ultimately necessary for the creation of the work or, in Frere-Jones’ words, “as the music die[d], it emerge[d]” (Frere-Jones 2014), and Basinski’s role was, in large part, to stop himself from intervening in what was essentially the suicide of his tapes. They had to die for The Disintegration Loops to emerge. According to Hegarty “this recording is not just about endings, then, but process, decay and the necessity of decay potential in allowing tape to act as recorder” (Hegarty 2007: 8). That these recordings were preserved in the form of a sustained loop also calls to mind autoimmunity, as the integrity and structure of the tape lessens with each repetition. The tapes are being repeatedly cloned but also, in that process, always disintegrating. Something is lost each time it loops. While this suggests that something is absent whenever a duplicate is made, especially when that duplicate is a copy itself, it also conjures the images of infirmity we would typically associate with autoimmune disorders.
The body turning against itself, cells attacking from within, tissues, organs, and systems that fail to recognize when an antigen has come to do harm – these are all figures of autoimmunity that also act as metaphors for damage done to the civic, social, or political body. As W.J.T. Mitchell describes, “[t]here is also a kind of metaphorical convergence in the sense that cloning, as a figure for indefinite duplication of a life-form, is somehow the most apt image of the process by which terrorist cells breed and clone themselves” (Mitchell 2007: 280). That the attacks came from within (insofar as the attackers boarded planes at American airports and were trained to fly in the United States) is an oft-repeated refrain as the 9/11 hijackers are described as members of a “sleeper cell,” lying in wait until their activation. The narrative of suicide is also predominant, and not only the suicides of the terrorists. We might recall here Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the towers spectacularly imploding as if of their own intent. He writes: “When the two towers collapsed, you had the impression that they were responding to the suicide of the suicide-planes with their own suicides” (Baudrillard 2003: 7). Such a notion is controversial and, perhaps, insensitive to the magnitude of human loss, yet it remains useful for thinking about an autoimmunity to an attack, terrorist or otherwise, that is the foundation of unconditional hospitality.
Autoimmunity was, of course, more than a metaphor in the weeks following 9/11, as the threat of anthrax dominated media and added an entirely new dimension to the risk of terrorism. These associations between biology and terror, and the ensuing metaphors of infirmity – cancer, parasitic disease, and antigens that would destroy the body from the inside out – “converge[d] with the prospect of literal bioterrorism to make this a potent and inevitable icon in the collective imagination” (Mitchell 2007: 280). The fear of a terrorist attack, in other words, initiated thoughts about both psychic and physical immunity. Discussions about how best to prepare for another attack and how the nation and individuals might defend themselves consumed media and politics and brought the issue of immunity to the fore. As Mitchell describes, “[t]he whole theory of the immune system and the discipline of immunology is riddled with images drawn from the sociopolitical sphere – of invaders and defenders, hosts and parasites, natives and aliens, and of borders and identities that must be maintained” (Mitchell 2007: 282). The Disintegration Loops demonstrate this through its own entropic drive to self-destruction and the parasitic conditions responsible for that disintegration. Indeed, the thing that caused the destruction of the tapes was not some outside force; it was always already within, hosted by the structure of the cassette and, like a sleeper cell, lying dormant, waiting to be activated by the simple act of mounting it on the Revox and turning on the recorder. Moreover, this specific process of destruction reminds us that 9/11 was also experienced and spectacularized through the modalities of sound and aural catastrophe.
The Disintegration Loops is part documentary, part avant-garde music piece, part testimony, and part elegy. It is also a sustained engagement with a philosophy of hospitality through the figure of an other within. The Disintegration Loops asks: what might it mean to live in such a way that one is not immune to alterity, even if that other arrives to do more harm than good? How willing are we to listen to the cracks, distortions, and strangers, and let them take their places as part of a post 9/11 aural landscape that leaves more gaps than answers? Indeed, Derrida asks a similar question when he reminds us that “[t]he visit might actually be very dangerous, and we must not ignore this fact, but would a hospitality protected by an immune system against the wholly other, be true hospitality? Though it is ultimately true that suspending or suppressing the immunity that protects me from the other might be nothing short of life-threatening” (Derrida in Borradori 2003: 129). In this way, he recalls Immanuel Kant’s musings on a Dutch innkeeper’s sign in Perpetual Peace, which suggests that the true cost or condition of hospitality may, in fact, be death – a perpetual peace that can only come with endless slumber. Repetition, violence, decay, and death? Surely these are not the only figures conjured by The Disintegration Loops. Or perhaps death itself must be ransomed from perpetuity. Trigg suggests that “[c]oming forward ‘as death’ means retaining a dynamic narrative, in which the event of death springs toward the present rather than being consigned to the stasis of nonactivity. Indeed, it is precisely because commemoration occurs through text that death can be assimilated as an enduring event” (Trigg 2012: 92). The Disintegration Loops does not come forward as death so much as it comes forward as dying, perpetually putting off death, and thus death, perhaps ironically, lives on. Still, that The Disintegration Loops remains open to the possibility of its own destruction is, in itself, a theorization of hospitality. It confirms that hospitality has never been about invitation – seeking out the guests who only come to do good. On the contrary, it is about a hospitality to those who may arrive to do us harm, who we may not see coming but possibly hear and who, more chillingly, may already be embedded within us, the host, who it will later destroy. This hospitality challenges the temporality of arriving itself. As such, an autoimmunity process disturbs the trajectory of a guest appearing to confront a host who is already at home. Hospitality is always, on a phenomenological level, a being-towards-death.
Yet The Disintegration Loops is also about life. Even as it breaks down, the sonic structure remains bold and dignified, not unlike the towers themselves. The work functions as a fitting tribute to the towers and to the lives lost, reflecting the power of sound to document and bear witness but also to remember and to heal. Immunity can fail, but as it does, it reveals the precarity and value of life as well as the challenges of living with others hospitably and in ways that are not immune to death but also affirming of livelihood. The immune system “is capable of learning” (Mitchell 2007: 283), and so we continue to learn to live alongside others and strangers, even in the face of terror, even in the face of death. Perhaps Basinski summarizes it best in his interview with Pitchfork, remembering those final moments of fading light on that rooftop in Brooklyn: “as the last crackle faded and the music was no more, I took in my surroundings and looked around at the faces and I was right there with everybody and we were alive” (Richardson 2012).