Traumatic Ruins and The Archeology of Sound: William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops

Lindsay Balfour


Record as much as you can, something will remain.

(Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: les Lieux de Mémoire.”)


This paper traces the relationship between art and atrocity, materiality and decay, and the aural possibilities of hospitality in a time of terror. There is one site in particular that seems to speak so poignantly to the complex workings of trauma, ruin, and memory, and it is the use of sound in this place that I wish to draw attention to here. The September 11 Memorial and Museum may not appear, at first, to signal the ways in which sound might usher in a new way of thinking about the philosophically complex concept of hospitality nor the promises of decay. Yet, one installation in particular manages to do just that. Located in the Museum’s Historical Exhibition, and evocative of death, mourning, and haunting, William Basinski’s sound and video installation, The Disintegration Loops, offers a fitting yet unique elegy to the loss of the towers and nearly 3,000 innocent people. Additionally, this work also carries within itself far more: layers of meaning and spectral traces that are often missed during singular visits by museum guests and that recall aspects of memory and materiality crucial to the question of what it means to live alongside others. I want to suggest that, while existing as a differentiated work in its own right, it is through its in-situ role – a ruin in a place of ruins – that The Disintegration Loops recalls one of the most complex and contradictory paradigms for thinking about loss and for mourning alongside strangers. It initiates, I argue, a philosophy of hospitality that is, defined in this context, uniquely preoccupied with ideas of strangers, belonging, home, and homelessness and an ethics concerned with “das Unheimliche” or something odd that is not quite at home yet nonetheless present in that space. In this paper I will discuss the significance of Basinski’s work to aural and material memory and explore the concepts of ruins and dust to arrive at one of hospitality’s most startling and uncanny figures, a figure of autoimmunity that is powerfully raised in Basinski’s work, making it one of the most compelling pieces of art in the Museum.

The Disintegration Loops: From A Brooklyn Rooftop to a Museum Crypt 


In the summer of 2001, while converting his old, analog tapes into a digital format, composer William Basinski discovered that his compositions were literally turning to dust in the machine. Rather than lament the destruction of his recordings, Basinski chose to let them continue to disintegrate further, the result being an extended series of loops whose sonic structure breaks down successively with each cycle. Indeed Basinski did not intend to create the effect of the distortion; instead, it was created by the machine whose initial purpose was to preserve the original composition. “I sat there watching the recorder, monitoring it as this thing over the length of a CD-R completely disintegrated in the most profoundly beautiful way,” Basinski describes. “The sustains sort of fell away, and yet somehow the core of it stayed – the attack and the basic rhythm of the melody – hanging on desperately until the very end” (Basinski in Friedlander 2012). The Disintegration Loops sounds initially like a short track of music being played over and over again. A longer listen, however, reveals that the track is one long recording, the sound quality slowly crumbling, leaving extended moments of silence, cracked feedback, and muddy distortion.

This audio recording is taken from, posted by Trevor Music Annex on September 11, 2014. Be aware that this file is for reference only and cannot provide the full context of this essay. Sharing the actual museum installation is not permitted.

In a bizarre and ultimately poignant twist of fate, the recording process for The Disintegration Loops was completed on the morning of September 11, 2001 and, given its temporal and affective proximity to the event, a version of this work now resides in the Historical Exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, where it plays repeatedly in tandem with a video that Basinski captured from a friend’s rooftop on that September evening as smoke billowed out over the city. The recording and its accompanying video thus have an almost architectural effect – giving structure back to the towers and highlighting their recent and raw absence at the same time. They return the towers – if not in cityscape, then in soundscape – in ethereal form, not unlike the phantasmagorical “tribute in light” installation that illuminates the Manhattan skyline on each anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Released as a set of four albums in 2002 and 2003, performed by live orchestra on September 11, 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and re-released as a box set in 2012, The Disintegration Loops have lived many lives. Yet it is its specific presence at the September 11 Memorial and Museum – a residency taken up in 2012 and one that is simultaneously aural, visual and, as I will argue, architectural – that I aim to explore here. I focus on the specificity of this museum installation not only because of the ways in which The Disintegration Loops is uniquely positioned as both elegy and evidence, but also for the way that it exists as part of a much larger aural landscape within the space of the Museum, never divisible from its primary location and context. In what follows, I suggest that The Disintegration Loops, as a museum installation, engages with both recognizable and uncanny forms of hospitality, all of which serve to highlight the role that sound has to play in the negotiation of traumatic memory, the coming to terms with architectural ruin, and the ontologies of selfhood and identity now breached by fear and foreignness. While The Disintegration Loops functions as both elegiac tribute and narrative soundscape, it ultimately makes clear the trauma of irreversible ruin vis a vis a process of parasitical self-destruction – akin to Derridean autoimmunity – which is equally hospitable and terrifying.

Elegy and the Aural Landscape of Memorialization


The Disintegration Loops is unlike any other installation in the Museum, not only for its experimental and avant-garde aesthetic but in the way that it is framed within a historical narrative that is propelled primarily by commemorative anecdotes, time stamps, tangible artifacts, and eye witness and news accounts. As a result, while not created to be a tribute to the Twin Towers or the victims of 9/11, in the context of the Museum, The Disintegration Loops becomes a digital sound and visual landscape that is part documentary, part avant-garde music piece, part elegy, and part evidence. Importantly, the piece was composed and completed before the attacks and, therefore, “in terms of compositional choices, we cannot say that William Basinski was influenced by September 11” (Jones 2014: 5). Walking through the first part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s Historical Exhibition, visitors are presented with a timeline of the day’s events that employs a variety of media, including material artifacts, video footage, voice recordings, and lighting effects. It is at the very end of this first segment that guests find Basinski’s installation. Given the exhibition’s chronology, The Disintegration Loops portrays the once-blue sky now fading to black and signals the last moments of September 11, 2001. Here, both the video and the soundtrack provide more of a backdrop to the Museum’s other displays, which are presented in ways more expository than interpretive, and thus Basinski’s work cannot be experienced as though in some static white-walled gallery, isolated from the significations of other works. Instead, The Disintegration Loops can only be accessed within the context of the rest of the exhibition’s spatial, historical, and aesthetic considerations. The spatial organization here is claustrophobic, and the soundscape complex, with static noise and intermittent beeping from a firefighter’s locator signal[1] and voices narrating their experience of witnessing the towers collapse. All of these elements, not to mention the steady shuffle of visitors’ feet and low-volume murmurs, provide a more defined and discernable counterpoint to The Disintegration Loop’s distortion. Only when you come quite close to the video that plays on the wall above a dust-covered bicycle rack can you hear Basinski’s music as distinct from the other sounds in the room. Still, to the right of the installation, a video clip of Wolf Blitzer introducing news footage of the first plane’s impact is playing on repeat, and it is difficult to separate The Disintegration Loops from the other ambient noise in the gallery. In some ways, these layered sounds detract from the compositional aesthetic of the installation; [it becomes harder to distinguish the sounds as recorded loops] already said before and especially as slowly deteriorating with each loop. Even if visitors spend a significant amount of time with Basinski’s installation, they are very unlikely to stay for the entire hour-long piece. In other ways, however, it ties The Disintegration Loops to the event of 9/11 in ways that were never originally intended, and it becomes far more connected to the events of the day within the context of the museum’s other displays than it does on its own. Its location tethers its effect to other narratives that document watching the smoke rise, waiting for phone calls that would never come, and the knowledge that everything would be different the following day and each day afterwards.


Basinski’s installation is accompanied by supplementary artifacts as well as sound and text projections. His video is projected on the wall above a rack with six bicycles chained to it, as if frozen in time. The information panel in front of the display shows a picture of these abandoned bikes on the street following the attacks, with the word “SAVE” written in spray-paint on the sidewalk in front of them – the system initiated by clean up and recovery workers to designate significant items worth preserving for some to-be-determined future use. The display also includes recorded telephone messages of people trying to reach friends and loved ones who would never again return their calls. Finally, next to the video, on either side, personal thoughts from the conclusion of that day are written on the wall. Dan Rather from CBS News shares: “I ate, paced, tried to sleep. Sleep wouldn’t come.” And, in an intensely personal moment, Beverly Eckert, the wife of South Tower victim Sean Paul Rooney, admits: “I didn’t want that day to end, terrible as it was … It was still a day that I’d shared with Sean.” In short, these additions are important, but it is hard to determine if guests understand that the music and video are connected without reading the adjacent panel describing the installation. Instead, the museum is absorbed as background to the physical and visual installations, rather than deliberate focus itself. In a way, guests must work to experience the sound and video together as one elegiac installation. Together, these sounds and images signal the closing of a day that fades into black but is not forgotten.


While The Disintegration Loops also reinforces the significance of aural experience within the Museum and the centrality of sound to the 9/11 witness narratives and memorialization processes, they are also part of a larger aural narrative that extends beyond the walls of the museum. So often the event of 9/11 is relayed as a visual one: witnesses describe looking up to see a giant fireball and, later, the second plane flying into the South Tower. This visuality was exacerbated ad infinitum via news media and has become the visual trauma of our time par excellence. Indeed, in their study of auditory culture after 9/11, Michael Bull and Les Back note “it is significant is that the attacks were witnessed visually and endlessly replayed on camera via television and in cyberspace. It was something that was seen” (Bull and Back 2003: 2). Yet, to what extent does the primacy of the visual displace the potential of the auditory to transmit an equally important yet different sensory experience? Surely sound plays an “equally critical role” in our experience and understanding of the event and its aftermath (Bull and Back 2003: 3), and sound carries, within it, its own phenomenological modality and conditions our Dasein – our being-in-the-world.


For many, in fact, the initial experience of 9/11 was actually an auditory one before it became visual. Witnesses describe how American Airlines Flight 11 “roared above New York City, making an almost otherworldly racket which predicted the destruction that followed” (Fisher and Flota 2011: 3). Perhaps it is fitting, then, that The Disintegration Loops is displayed next to Wolf Blitzer’s report of the first plane hitting the North Tower, as the exhibit then combines both this “otherworldly racket” and the ethereal musicality of Basinski’s piece, highlighting the stark difference between an elegy created in the aftermath and a documentary-like auditory realism. As Joseph Fisher and Brian Flota suggest in their work on post 9/11 sound, “music is fiction, whereas noise is real – the essence of real life, of reality as we know it” (2011: 4). Yet Basinski’s work cannot be classified as entirely fiction either, as it has its own unforeseen and contingent quality that makes it simultaneously music and noise, reality and fiction. Indeed, in The Disintegration Loops, “we hear the jarring noise of death and decay. We hear the sound of loss, the sound of destruction, the sound of an America that has been unalterably changed by the spectacle of the Real – a spectacle of aural catastrophe” (Fisher and Flota 2011: 4). Basinski’s inclusion in the Museum’s Historical Exhibition is thus a recognition of the ways in which the auditory experience of 9/11 recurs as endlessly as the visual, on a loop as it were, depositing visitors back into that aural field at dusk, when the world as it was known faded to a close.


The installation is also a compelling addition to the Museum in terms of the way it deals with time and, specifically, the memorialization of time. As Fisher and Flota point out, “The Loops metonymically embody the sonic fixations of much of post-9/11 music: concerns with fidelity, the tensions between ‘outmoded’ recording techniques and digital media, the connections between ‘reality’ and physicality, and a nostalgic gaze on the past” (2011: 2, my emphasis). The music produced after 9/11 demonstrates an identifiable shift in the way time is understood; “the post-9/11 musical landscape, particularly in North America, has been shaped by artistic and technological attempts to deconstruct the split between the past and the present – the split between pre-9/11 temporality and post-9/11 temporality” (Fisher and Flota 2011: 2). The Disintegration Loops, in particular, seems poised to confront these issues of temporality head on, not only in its timely completion, signaling the close of the last day of “normal,” but also in its use of temporality itself as a mode of creation. In his review for Pitchfork, Joe Tangari points out, “[i]n essence, Basinski is improvising using nothing so much as the passage of time as his instrument” (Tangari 2004) and, in doing so, demonstrates a radical openness to a future he cannot foresee.

At the same time, The Disintegration Loops reflects the unique temporality of the event in that it becomes a kind of performance that never repeats itself perfectly but plays a slightly different version each time, the previous version lost to its disintegration. No loop is the same as the one before. They are “remains and embodied memories within performance” (Manninen 2011: 245). While Basinski’s installation certainly complements the deeply commemorative and affective terrain of the Museum’s particular memorial narrative, I also want to think about The Disintegration Loops as a performance that, once enacted, can never fully be restored or regained; each subsequent loop is not a copy but an assemblage of remains from the previous cycle. Yet this is the value of the piece, a work that represents the impossibility imbedded within the desire to return to a previous state. Its purpose is not to fill in the gaps left by the towers and assuage the feelings of loss but, rather, to highlight those losses as irrecoverable, aside from a trace that diminishes ad infinitum. As a ruin, then, The Disintegration Loops is not only elegiac and sonic, but architectural as well; while the video highlights the towers’ absence, some structure is retained through the music, making it both a unique and fitting final contribution to the Historical Exhibition as well as an engagement with what it means to encounter strangers and strangeness after terror, what we might think of as an intense preoccupation with a philosophy of hospitality.

Aural Architecture, Aural Ruins


Unlike painting, where layers of materiality are added, and bearing closer resemblance to sculpture, which employs a more subtractive process, The Disintegration Loops was created by incrementally stripping material away from the object without removing it entirely. Indeed, Basinski’s piece may seem like it is documenting the cassette tapes’ demise but, in so doing, it confers the tapes an eerily anthropomorphic quality – that such a thing could “die” is suggestive not only of materiality but of life. Cultural theorist and musician Paul Hegarty writes in his review of The Disintegration Loops: “Within the dying of media comes the passing or slow dying of individual units – tapes, cylinders, cartridges – all of which decay, and in so doing, seem to take on characteristics of having lived” (Hegarty 2007: 1). What Hegarty suggests here is that Basinski’s work offers not a documentation of death but, rather, an affirmation of life. He suggests that the process of death, in this case, is actually generative. It “does death differently, and returns life to its residuality, to being a by-product of destruction and decay, as it dwells within (and continually returns to) that slow dying” (Hegarty 2007: 4). In this way it is strangely like Basinski’s early recordings, where he “started listening to these sounds coming from the universe and between stations, fascinated by trying to pull things out of the airwaves and create something from nothing” (Basinski in Gotrich 2012). With The Disintegration Loops, however, death is, against all odds, the generating force. Death, here, is the creator, the artist. Much of the power of The Disintegration Loops comes from its presence as a recognizable entity that becomes increasingly disorienting. Something of the trace of the original remains, yet it is simultaneously unfamiliar. It is, in short, unheimlich. Here, Dylan Trigg’s recollection of visiting his childhood room after many years away seems particularly apt in terms of characterizing the uncanny experience. He muses, “I have seen this place before” and subsequently asks: “How can we do justice to this seemingly innocuous yet enigmatic statement, which exudes a strange intimacy, while simultaneously pushing at the threshold between memory and materiality?” (Trigg 2012: xv). The Disintegration Loops challenges our ways of making sense of music and of time and, in this way, recalls what it means to be hospitable to what we cannot foresee or predict, a hospitality in the sense of “exposure (the desire, the openness, but also the fear) that opens itself, that opens us to time, to what comes upon us, to what arrives or happens, to the event” (Derrida in Borradori 2003: 120). Unrecognizable, yet beckoning us in, there is intimacy in its repetition; we feel like we know what is coming next. Yet the repetition is never exact, thus betraying that intimacy at the same time.


The Disintegration Loops relies on the structures of memory activated by this sense of the uncanny that disturbs as much as it reminds. Rather than offering visitors a clear picture of the aftermath of the day, Basinski provides a partial recollection: in shadow and in spectral trace. This, of course, recalls another enduring figure of hospitality: the ghost. French philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle writes: “The hostis responds to hospitality in the way that the ghost recalls himself to the living, not letting them forget” (Dufourmantelle 2013: 4) reminding us that hospitality is never far off from haunting. By repeating (yet decaying and darkening in their repetition) the same sounds and images, Basinski refers to the event but never provides a perfect copy; the memory, in fact, grows weaker over the course of the installation. It dematerializes. In this way, the work is much like many of Daniel Libeskind’s architectural pieces, as “[t]hrough a series of semantic, visual, and architectural dislocations in Libeskind’s projects, we are left only with traces that gesture back toward the scene of traumatic loss” (Kligerman 2007: 243). Yet, while the sounds gradually disintegrate, and the video slowly fade to black, it can be experienced again. The original tapes may not have survived, but a version of them has been preserved here. As Basinski describes, “the music isn’t just decaying – it does, it dies – but the entire life and death of each of these unique melodies was recorded to another medium for eternity” (Basinski in Gotrich 2012). The Disintegration Loops thus preserves not the original, and not a copy, but voided remnants and, in doing so, reminds us that traumatic memory in particular is punctuated by gaps and absences; it insists on the recognition of other, stranger, ways of knowing and remembering.


Each succession of the tape is only a few seconds long and, over time, these revolutions halt, stumble, and shudder more with each loop. Sometimes, one note will ease into the next smoothly; other times it lurches, as if tripping or falling on itself. It is the lower registers that seem to disintegrate first, as the higher-pitched horn sounds become more pronounced and the lower notes become more distorted. Within the track are sounds that suggest a marching beat or steady snare drum, which might also convey a sense of fireworks exploding. As a whole however, the music continues to retreat further and further away, as if it is drifting off into the atmosphere, like the smoke billowing from Ground Zero in the twilight aesthetic of the video. The volume remains constant, but the sounds become distant. Gradually, the recording becomes more haltingly percussive than melodic. It is almost as if the notes are taking steps, each step becoming heavier as it decomposes. At times, the recording skips a note or beat altogether where another piece of the cassette’s magnetic strip has fallen off. In the background, a steady, one-note drone can be heard amidst the percussive sounds. The track becomes slow and almost trance-like, as if the music itself contains a pulse that is growing weaker and more faint. Near the end of the track, the volume fades and the video goes completely dark while the music plays out in total blackness for almost a full minute.


The fade is inevitable, but The Disintegration Loops is anything but passive. In some ways, its deterioration seems to mimic some natural order of decomposition; the tapes disintegrate slowly and steadily, like some kind of organic material lost to time. Like organic material they do not disappear entirely but are transformed. The Disintegration Loops is not about absence but about an entirely new kind of presence, a new kind of memory even. Disintegration, it tells us, is not total loss. Even decay, remnants, and ruins retain a sense of presence, and the tapes allow much of their structure to slip away while still preserving something. In describing his work, Basinski notes “it’s just something I discovered, not something I composed, so I find it mesmerizing still” (Basinski in Friedlander 2012). It is an interesting admission, to be sure, to simply “let” something happen rather than try to make it so. It comes dangerously close to suggesting that the music itself has a kind of innocence, as though we are observing it in its natural state as some untouched artifact. Here, we might recall social theorist and political adviser Jacques Attali’s statements on noise: “Noise is a weapon and music, primordially, is the formation, domestication, and ritualization of that weapon as a simulacrum of ritual murder” (Attali 1985: 24). In the context of The Disintegration Loops, Attali’s statement here seems to contradict Basinski’s – the notion of destroying the tapes intentionally versus allowing them to slowly wither and (almost) die.

Autoimmunity and the Promise of Aural Decay


To be sure, the entire former World Trade Center site is a place of ruins. Protected as an archeological site, the museum houses a number of significant remnant artifacts from the original structure, and the Museum’s other exhibitions lie “in-situ,” surrounded by exposed box column remnants, bedrock foundation, and even archeological artifacts taken from other related sites – most notably, a brick chiseled from Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.[2] Within this context, The Disintegration Loops operates as a kind of ruin in its own right, not representing any of the original material structures of the towers themselves, but acting as its own remnants, both conceptually and tangibly. It is not the ruin of structures, per se, yet it carries its own architectural character. Producer Lars Gotrich in his review for NPR, describes Basinski’s work in architectural terms, laced with a layer of haunting. In his assessment, “they slowly deteriorate like wood planks on abandoned houses, letting wind and silence slip through the cracks” (Gotrich 2012). For Sasha Frere-Jones, “Basinski’s music celebrates the decay of the ideal copy” (Frere-Jones 2014). Both of these reviews seem to suggest that disintegration need not be mourned. Instead, Basinski’s work demands attention and fidelity to what is left behind (to memorialize, instruct, or remind), rather than lamenting the loss of the original object. It is the object in decay that gives it legitimacy as a ruin.


While the ruin is always an unstable structure, somewhere between presence and absence, it recalls a loss that is not yet a total loss. Thinking about sound in relation to ruins – the ruins of architecture, of memory, and of history – transforms a work of sonic art into a theorization of trauma and the limits of material culture. The ruin then “comes to be experienced, not as temporally emplaced, but haunted […] The ruin is not the same as its previous (active) incarnation. Now, an altered place emerges, which retains the shadow of its old self, but simultaneously radically destabilizes that presence” (Trigg 2012: 247). There is death in Basinski’s work, but there is also a kind of rebirth, and The Disintegration Loops asks us to think about the newness of decay as well as what was lost. According to Saini Manninen, decay teaches us “how to think about those things that become something else when they fall apart” (2011: 246). This conceptualization seems particularly apt in the context of 9/11, where the transformation of wounds into beauty is an enduring part of the recovery narrative, particularly in the case of the Museum’s more aesthetic components.[3] Ruins thus offer a partial history or, at the very least, alert us to the ways in which history is always a ruin in itself – always fragmented in some way and always defined by what is missing.


The former site of the twin towers is an unusual site of ruin, because the original structures stood for only thirty years rather than for centuries. Thus, they will exist as ruins far longer than they existed in their initial form. The life of the ruin thus exceeds that of the original. We might say the same in the case of Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, which will continue to exist in its disintegrated state far longer than it would have in its original analog format. For Trigg this is a particular condition of traumatic ruins. In his words, “that the ruins of trauma ‘outlive’ the event that initiated their existence is not an aesthetic gesture, but an ontological gesture demonstrating the singularity of traumatic events” (Trigg 2012: 269).

Related to ruins, and of particular significance to both Basinski’s work and the 9/11 Museum, is the figure of dust. Whether a byproduct of decay, an environmental additive, or a more ominous biological threat, dust is an ambiguous material element of decay. Importantly, dust carries particular aesthetic features that alter its status as merely “leftover” or residual material, which can make it an integral part of a work of art itself, particularly when dust intervenes to alter aural culture. There are many incidences of this in the 9/11 Museum – a retail shop window display or the abandoned bicycle rack displayed alongside The Disintegration Loops – where the dust itself becomes the most compelling feature of the exhibit, often coming to signify silence more than sound. In some cases, dust actually gives the work materiality and structure.[4] While dust may often be disregarded as refuse or waste – the Museum reports that 1.8 million tons, and 110,000 truckloads of debris were removed from the site during the nine-month recovery period – dust cannot so simply be reduced to insignificant refuse. It is “the opposite thing to Waste, or at least, the opposite principle to Waste. It is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being done” (Carolyn Kay Steedman in Manninen 2011: 251). Cultural theorist Marita Sturken echoes this, and suggests, specifically in relation to Ground Zero, that dust is about “the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone” (Sturken 2007: 180). Indeed, one can never fully banish the recuperative nor the contaminative aspects of this dusty presence; it returns in many forms – aesthetic and overlooked, but always returning. Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is but one example of this.



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).



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