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9/11 Fiction, Empathy, and Otherness

Liberal arts professor Tim Gauthier explores post-9/11 fiction to determine what these stories say about how the tragedy changed us.

Research  |  Feb 2, 2017  |  By Dan Michalski

Tim Gauthier, associate professor and director of Multidisciplinary Studies and Social Science Studies Interdisciplinary Degree Programs. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services) 

Like just about everyone, Tim Gauthier remembers exactly where he was on September 11, 2001. He was at home in Las Vegas, working on the dissertation he would submit to complete his doctorate in contemporary British fiction.

“I pretty much watched TV for the next 10 days straight,” recalls Gauthier, now an associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. His most recent book, 9/11 Fiction, Empathy, and Otherness, examines novels published after that terrible day — fiction that aims to reveal deeper truths about America’s psyche at the start of the 21st century.

“I come at this from a New Historicist’s perspective,” says Gauthier, referring to a school of literary theory that came to prominence in the 1990s, one characterized by its ecumenical approach to assembling and interpreting historical writings. New Historicism, he says, has shaped his approach to analysis, if not his outlook on life. “You can look at documents from a period that reflect something about the time they were written. But when you place them side by side — it doesn’t matter if it’s fiction, journalism, or government documents — you get a circulation of social energy that affects how the different texts speak about each other.”

According to Gauthier, literature hasn’t changed a great deal in recent years, but the way scholars study it has. Today’s “postmodern” approach to literary analysis requires knowledge across multiple subject areas. “The study of literature itself has become more multidisciplinary,” he says. Gauthier’s book relies on previous insights from philosophy, history, and cultural studies for its foundation — a pluralistic outlook that transcends the research itself.

9/11 Fiction is not about debunking conspiracy theories. It is instead an exploration of how a selection of post-9/11 authors used fiction to explore the ways in which the attacks have altered our cultural landscape. Gauthier’s book examines 17 novels that weave the events of that fateful day into their storyline. He analyzes these fictional representations as a means of bringing into focus how cultural contexts affect individuals’ perceptions of the day’s events. This includes a subset of French literature and describing how graphic novels provided a unique perspective from Ground Zero, including one witness account from a woman whose husband started his new job at the World Trade Center on September 10.

“These texts allow us to bring up ideas that, otherwise, we could hardly talk about,” Gauthier says. “The official narratives tend to be constant. But there is always a strand of literature questioning these narratives from different perspectives.”

Gauthier examines the role empathy does or does not play in the construction of these narratives as well as the degree to which the event and its aftermath led to unity or division. The novels he explores reveal the obstacles that often prevent people from acting upon their empathetic impulses. One chapter, for instance, presents narratives written from the perspective of a terrorist. Such texts can be troubling, Gauthier says: “If you can give a reason for why the terrorists did what they did, you can be accused of excusing them.”

Gauthier joined UNLV’s faculty in 2003. An early assignment involved helping launch University College, now the Academic Success Center, an office that connects students with success-promoting resources across campus. He then served as director of Interdisciplinary Degree Programs before transitioning to his current work as director of Multidisciplinary Studies and Social Science Studies.

A belief in the value of multidisciplinary schooling has been rising in academic programming over the past 10 years, and Gauthier has played a role in promoting these concepts at UNLV. Through interdisciplinary studies, students in the College of Liberal Arts can earn a degree for work that “cannot reasonably be met through existing majors and minors.” These programs allow students to customize their major by combining work from two or more departments — an option, he says, that has appealed to many serious students over the past 10 years. There are nearly 400 students now enrolled in these programs.

“This is more than a double minor,” he insists. “I tell students, ‘You are creating a third thing,’ You are studying ‘milosophy,’ or ‘harketing,’” he says, referring to capstone projects combining math and philosophy or history and marketing, respectively.

The list of possible combinations for scholarly research is virtually endless. To earn a degree, students must immerse themselves in the theoretical models necessary to tie the different disciplines together, then complete a “capstone” project comprised of original research. Gesturing toward a stack of these projects on his desk, Gauthier says, “No two are alike.”

Gauthier currently finds his research pulling him in two different directions. One path is continuing his 9/11-related studies, this time examining literature not included in the 9/11 Fiction book that addresses the ongoing “war on terror” as well as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The story of 9/11 is not over,” he says.

His other interest revolves around a course he introduced in the Honors College this fall, “The Discourse of Contagion.” The class explores the ways in which fears about contamination, immigration, and terrorism are refracted through the lens of contemporary fiction — including stories about zombies.

“The zombie trope challenges notions of purity and embodies our fears of being turned into something ‘other.’ It begins to explain why some believe we need to build walls to keep us safe from invaders, and to root out those others already among us,” says Gauthier, who recently presented a paper on the comic series The Walking Dead.

Both interests center around how fiction articulates contemporary anxieties, often unearthing ideas and feelings too easily repressed. “I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, but I am certainly seeing something worth examining,” he adds. “I’m just beginning to flesh it out.”