A Holiday from History, and Other Real Stories
by Slavoj Žižek
terrorism, reality, fantasy, psychoanalysis, war, trauma, cinema, television, pornography
Tuesday, January 02, 2007 22:51 GMT
This essay was written to accompany the DVD release of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a film by Johan Grimonprez about the history of plane hijacking made for Documenta X (1997). The film is like a provocative music video, using fast-cut cinema and television to raise questions of terrorism as an aesthetic act, tied to image overload and the death of reality. These are the themes taken up by Žižek in this essay.
Alain Badiou once identified the "passion for the Real" (1) as the key feature of the 20th century. In contrast to the 19th century with its utopian projects of the future, the 20th century aimed at delivering the thing itself. The ultimate defining experience of the 20th century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to the everyday social reality - the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.
Even in the trenches of the World War I, Carl Schmitt celebrated face-to-face combat as the authentic encounter: authenticity resides in the act of violent transgression - from the Lacanian Real to Bataillean excess. In the domain of sexuality, the epitome of this "passion for the Real" is Oshima's Empire Of the Senses (1976), a Japanese cult movie in which the lovers' relationship radicalizes into mutual torture, resulting in death. The option one gets on hard-core porn websites to observe the interior of a vagina from the viewpoint of a tiny camera at the tip of the penetrating dildo - is that not the ultimate iconography of the "passion for the Real"? At this extreme point, a shift occurs: when one gets too close to the desired object, erotic fascination turns to disgust at the Real of bare flesh.
Is so-called fundamentalist terrorism not also an expression of this "passion for the Real"? In the Germany of the early 70s the collapse of the New Left, and its student protest movement, produced an outgrowth: the Red Army Fraction (the Baader-Meinhof "gang"). Its underlying premise was that the failure of the student movement demonstrated how deeply the masses were immersed in an consumerist apolitical stance: it was not possible to awaken them through standard political education. A more violent intervention was needed to shatter the ideological numbness. Only direct intervention, such as bombing supermarkets, would do the job. At a different level, doesn’t today’s "fundamentalist terror" hold the same for us? Is this not the goal: to awaken us, Western citizens, from our numbness, from our immersion into our everyday ideological universe?
These examples point to the fundamental paradox of the "passion for the Real": it culminates in its apparent opposite, as a theatrical spectacle - from the Stalinist show trials to spectacular terrorist actions (2). The key to this reversal resides in the ultimate impossibility to draw a clear distinction between deceptive reality and a positive kernel of the Real. Every positive bit of reality is suspicious a priori. We know from Lacan that the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void. The pursuit of the Real equals total annihilation, a (self-)destructive fury in which the only way to track the distinction between the semblance and the Real is to STAGE a fake spectacle.
On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant properties: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. The list goes on: virtual sex as sex without sex; the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side of course) as warfare without warfare; the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics; today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness. Virtual Reality simply generalizes this habit: it provides a reality deprived of its substance, the hard resistant kernel of the Real. In the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee without being real coffee, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being reality. What awaits us at the end of this process of virtualization is the experience of "real reality" itself becoming a virtual entity.
For the large majority of the public, the World Trade Center explosions were events on the TV screen. Was not the oft-repeated footage of frightened people running towards the camera, the giant cloud of dust from the collapsing tower behind them, reminiscent of spectacular disaster movies? A special effect to outdo all the others? As Jeremy Bentham already knew, reality is the best appearance of itself.
Was the bombing of the World Trade Center in relation to Hollywood disaster movies not unlike snuff pornography versus ordinary sadomasochistic porn? This is the element of truth in Karl-Heinz Stockhausen's provocative statement that the planes hitting the WTC towers was the ultimate work of art: one can effectively perceive the collapse of the WTC towers as the climactic conclusion of the 20th century art's "passion for the Real." The "terrorists" didn’t primarily do it to provoke real material damage, but FOR THE SPECTACULAR EFFECT OF IT. For days after September 11 2001, our gaze was transfixed by the images of the plane hitting one of the WTC towers. We were all forced to experience this "compulsion to repeat" and jouissance at its purest. Beyond the pleasure principle: we wanted to see it again and again, the same shots repeated ad nauseam, and the uncanny satisfaction we got from them. When we watched the two WTC towers collapsing on the TV screen, the falsity of "reality TV" became apparent. Even if these shows are "for real," people still act in them - they simply play themselves. The standard disclaimer in a novel ("characters in this text are fiction, every resemblance with the real life characters is accidental") holds true for these participants of reality soaps.
The authentic 20th century impulse to penetrate the Real Thing (ultimately the destructive Void), through the cobweb of semblances, which constitute our reality, culminates in the thrill of the Real as the ultimate "effect." The ultimate American paranoid fantasy is of the everyman living in a small idyllic consumer paradise, who suddenly begins to suspect that the world he lives in is fake. It is a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in the “real world,” with all the people around him as actors and extras in a gigantic ruse. The most recent example of this is Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), where Jim Carrey plays a small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth: he is the hero of a 24-hour TV show. His hometown is a set constructed on a gigantic studio lot, with cameras permanently trained on him. It’s predecessor is Philip Dick's Time Out of Joint (1959), in which the hero, living a modest daily life in a small town in 1950’s California, gradually discovers that the whole town is fake. A reality staged to keep him satisfied. The underlying truth of Time Out of Joint and The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist Californian paradise, in its very hyper-reality, is IRREAL, substanceless, deprived of the material inertia.
The same "derealization" of the horror went on after the WTC bombings. While the number of victims is repeated all the time, it is surprising how little of the actual carnage we see: no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of the dying people. In clear contrast reports of the Third World catastrophes produce gruesome details: Somalis dying of hunger, raped Bosnian women, men with slit throats. These images are always accompanied by the advance warning: "some of the images you will see are extremely graphic and may hurt children." A warning which we NEVER heard in the reports on the WTC collapse. More evidence, even in these tragic moments, of the distance which separates Us from Them. Their reality, is maintained: the real horror happens THERE, not HERE (3).
Christopher Isherwood gives expression to this unreality of the American daily life, as exemplified by the motel room: "American motels are unreal! /.../ they are deliberately designed to be unreal. /.../ The Europeans hate us because we've retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate." Years ago, a series of science-fiction films like Zardoz (1973) or Logan's Run (1976) predicted today's postmodern predicament: the isolated community living an aseptic an aseptic life, longs to experience the real world of material decay.
Is the endlessly repeated footage of the plane approaching and hitting the second WTC tower not a real-life version of a Hitchcock scene from The Birds (1963)? Superbly analyzed by Raymond Bellour, in this scene Melanie approaches the Bodega Bay pier in a small boat when a single bird, first perceived as an indistinguishable dark blot, unexpectedly enters the frame from above right and hits her head (4). Was the plane hitting the WTC tower not literally the ultimate Hitchcockian blot, an anamorphic stain denaturalizing the familiar New York skyline?
The Wachowski brothers' hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached. When the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into the "real reality," he sees a desolate landscape littered with charred ruins - the remains of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: "Welcome to the desert of the real." Didn’t something similar take place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the "desert of the real." Corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the footage we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking high budget disaster scenes.
When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other ultimate catastrophe at the beginning of the 20th century: the Titanic. Also a shock, but it’s space was already prepared in ideological fantasy, since the Titanic was the symbol of the 19th century industrial might. Does not the same hold true for these bombings? Not only did the media bombard us constantly with the terrorist threat; this threat was also (very obviously) libidinally invested. Just recall the slew of movies ranging from Escape From New York (1981) to Independence Day (1996). With the often-mentioned association of the attacks in the Hollywood disaster movies, the unthinkable had happened: America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise.
The ultimate twist in this link between Hollywood and "the war against terrorism" occurred when Pentagon solicited help from Hollywood. In early October, the press reported that a group of Hollywood scenarists and directors, specializing in catastrophe films, was established at the instigation of the Pentagon. The aim was to imagine possible scenarios of terrorist attacks and how to fight them. And the collaboration continues: in November 2001, a series of meetings were held between White House advisors and top Hollywood executives about coordinating the war effort and establishing Hollywood’s role in the “war against terror”. The idea to get the right ideological message across - not just to an American audience but also a global one: this is the ultimate empirical proof that Hollywood effectively functions as an “ideological state apparatus.”
One can invert the standard reading that the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real, shattering our illusory sphere. On the contrary, prior to the WTC collapse we lived in our reality, perceiving Third World horrors as something not effectively part of our social reality, as something that existed (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen. On September 11 this screen apparition entered our reality. It was not the reality that entered our image, but the image that entered and shattered the symbolic coordinates, which determine what we experience as reality. After September 11, the premieres of many "blockbuster" movies with scenes reminiscent of the WTC collapse were postponed, or even shelved. It is actually the "repression" of the fantasmatic background responsible for the impact of the WTC collapse. The point is not to reduce the WTC collapse to just another media spectacle. Reading it as a catastrophe version of porno snuff flicks; the question we should have asked ourselves when we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: WHERE DID WE ALREADY SEE THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN?
That the September 11 attacks were popular fantasies long before they effectively took place provides yet another case for the twisted logic of dreams. It’s easy to account for the fact that poor people around the world dream about becoming Americans. So, what do the well-to-do Americans, saturated in their well-to-do-ness, dream of? About a global catastrophe that would shatter their lives. Why? This is what psychoanalysis is about: to explain why, in the midst of abundance, we are haunted by the nightmarish visions of catastrophe.
This paradox points to Lacan’s notion of “traversing the fantasy” as the concluding moment of the psychoanalytic treatment. This notion perfectly fits the commonsense idea of what psychoanalysis should do: liberate us from the hold of idiosyncratic fantasies and enable us to confront reality the way it effectively is! However, this is NOT what Lacan has in mind, but almost the exact opposite. In our daily existence, we are immersed in “reality” (structured by fantasy), and this immersion is disturbed by symptoms that bear witness to the fact that another repressed level of our psyche resists this immersion. To “traverse the fantasy” therefore paradoxically means fully identifying oneself with the fantasy – namely with the fantasy which structures the excess resisting our immersion into daily reality (5).
The dialectic of semblance and Real cannot be reduced to the fact that the virtualization of our daily lives gives rise to the irresistible urge to “return to the Real,” to regain the firm ground in some “real reality.” THE REAL WHICH RETURNS HAS THE STATUS OF ANOTHER SEMBLANCE: precisely because it is real, i.e. on account of its traumatic/excessive character, we are unable to integrate it into (what we experience as) our reality, and are therefore compelled to experience it as a nightmarish apparition. This is what the captivating image of the collapse of the WTC was: an image, a semblance, an “effect,” which, at the same time, delivered “the thing itself.”
This “effect of the Real” is not the same as what Roland Barthes called "l'effet du réel": it is rather its exact opposite, l’effet de l’irréel. In contrast to the Barthesian effet du réel in which the text makes us accept as “real” its fictional product, here, the Real itself has to be perceived as a nightmarish irreal spectre. Usually we say that one should not mistake fiction for reality – recall the postmodern doxa in which “reality” is a discursive product, a symbolic fiction which we misperceive as a substantial autonomous entity. The lesson of psychoanalysis here is the opposite one: one should not mistake reality for fiction – one should be able to discern, in what we experience as fiction, the hard kernel of the Real which we are only able to sustain if we fictionalize it.
The true choice with regard to historical traumas is not the one between remembering or forgetting. Traumas we are not able to remember haunt us all the more forcefully. One should accept the paradox that, to really forget an event, one must first gather the strength to properly remember it. In order to account for this paradox, one should bear in mind that the opposite of existence is not inexistence, but insistence. That which does not exist, continues to INSIST, striving towards existence (6).
As such, is the "passion for the Real" then to be rejected? Definitely not, since, once we adopt this stance, the only attitude remaining is one of refusal to "save appearances". The problem with the 20th century "passion for the Real" is not that it was a passion for the Real, but that it was a fake passion. Its ruthless pursuit of the Real behind the appearances was the ultimate stratagem to avoid confronting the Real.
Apocalypse Now Redux from 2000, Francis Ford Coppola's newly edited version of Apocalypse Now, stages in the clearest possible way the coordinates of a structural excess of state power. The main character Kurtz, embodies the Freudian "primordial father" - the obscene father, the total Master who dares to confront face to face the Real of terrifying enjoyment. He is presented not as a remainder of some barbaric past, but as the necessary outcome of the modern Western power itself. Kurtz is a perfect soldier - as such, through his over-identification with the military power system, he turns into the excess which the system has to eliminate. The ultimate insight of Apocalypse Now is how power generates its own excess that it has to annihilate in an operation which has to imitate what it fights Willard's mission to kill Kurtz is nonexistent for the official record - "it never happened," as the general who briefs Willard points out. We thereby enter the domain of secret operations, where power operates without ever admitting it. Doesn’t the same go for the contemporary figures presented by the official media as the embodiments of radical Evil? Is this not the truth behind the fact that Bin Laden and the Taliban emerged as part of the CIA-supported anti-Soviet guerilla in Afghanistan, and that Noriega in Panama was an ex-CIA agent? In all these cases, isn’t the U.S. fighting its own excess? And wasn’t this already true of Fascism? The liberal West had to join forces with Communism to destroy its own excessive outgrowth. What remains outside the horizon of Apocalypse Now is the perspective of a collective political act BREAKING OUT of this vicious cycle of the system which generates its superego excess and is then compelled to annihilate it: a revolutionary violence which no longer relies on the superego obscenity. This "impossible" act is what takes place in every authentic revolutionary process.
Perhaps the best motto for today’s analysis of ideology is the line quoted by Freud at the beginning of his Interpretation of Dreams: acheronta movebo - if you cannot change the explicit set of ideological rules, you can try to change the underlying set of obscene unwritten rules.
It is at this precise moment, in dealing with the raw Real of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates derterming its perception. If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion of the "center of financial capitalism," but rather that the two WTC towers stood for the center of VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production.
The shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for against the background of that borderline which currently separates the digitized First World from the Third World "desert of the Real." The awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe generates the notion that some ominous agent threatens us all the time with total destruction. Consequently, is Osama Bin Laden, suspected mastermind behind the bombings, not the real-life counterpart of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the master-criminal in the James Bond films, responsible for the acts of global destruction? The only space in Hollywood films where we witness the entire panoply of the production process is when James Bond penetrates the master-criminal's secret domain: a site of intense labor - distilling and packaging the drugs, constructing a rocket that will destroy New York… When the master-criminal, after capturing Bond, takes him on the usual tour of his illegal factory, is this not the closest Hollywood comes to a house-proud socialist-realist presentation of production? And the function of Bond's intervention, of course, is to explode this site of production with fireworks, allowing us to return to the daily semblance of our existence in a world of the "disappearing working class." Is it not this violence, in the WTC towers explosions, re-directed from the threatening outside back to us?
The safe sphere in which Americans live is experienced as being under threat from the Outside by terrorist attackers, who are ruthlessly self-sacrificing AND cowards, cunningly intelligent AND primitive barbarians. The letters of the deceased attackers are quoted as "chilling documents" - why? Are they not exactly what one would expect from dedicated fighters on a suicidal mission? If one takes away references to the Koran, in what do they differ from, say, CIA special manuals? Were the CIA manuals for the Nicaraguan contras with detailed descriptions of how to upset daily life, even how to clog the toilets, not of the same order - if anything, MORE cowardly?
Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence. For the last five centuries, the (relative) prosperity and peace of the ‘civilized’ West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction into the "barbarian" Outside: the long story from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo. Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should now, more than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these bombings is much more symbolic than real: in Africa, EVERY SINGLE DAY, more people die of AIDS than all the victims of the WTC collapse - and their death could have been easily cut back with relatively small financial means. The U.S. just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra Leone.
Of course, the »return to the Real» can take on various twists: one hears claims that what made us so vulnerable, is our very openness. The inevitable conclusion lurks in the background: if we are to protect “our way of life” we will have to sacrifice our freedoms which were “misused” by the enemies of freedom. This logic should be rejected tout court: is it not a fact that our First World "open" countries are the most controlled countries in the entire history of humanity? In the United Kingdom, all public spaces, from buses to shopping malls, are constantly videotaped, not to mention the almost total control of all forms of digital communication.
Along the same lines, Right wing commentators like George F. Will immediately proclaimed the end of the American "holiday from history" - the impact of reality shattering the isolated tower of the liberal tolerant attitude and the Cultural Studies focus on textuality. Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world. However, WHOM are we to strike back at? Whatever the response, it will never hit the RIGHT target. The ridiculousness of America attacking Afghanistan is glaring: if the greatest power in the world bombards one of the poorest countries in which peasants barely survive on barren hills, is this not the ultimate case of the impotent acting out? Afghanistan is otherwise an ideal target: a country ALREADY reduced to rubble, with no infrastructure, repeatedly destroyed by war for the last two decades. One cannot avoid the surmise that the choice of Afghanistan was also determined by economic considerations: is it not convenient to act out one's anger at a country for whom no one cares, where there is nothing to destroy? Unfortunately, the choice of Afghanistan echoes the anecdote about the madman who searches for the lost key beneath a street light; when asked why searching there, (since he lost the key in a dark corner,) he answers: "But it is easier to search under strong light!" Is not the ultimate irony that prior to the U.S. bombing, the whole of Kabul already looked like downtown Manhattan after September 11? Retaliation means to precisely avoid confronting the true dimensions of what occurred on September 11th. The “war on terror” lulls us into the secure conviction that nothing has REALLY changed.
It is already a journalistic commonplace that a new form of war is now emerging: a high-tech war where precision-bombing does the job, without any direct intervention of ground forces (if needed at all, this job can be left to “local allies”). Note the structural homology between this new warfare at a distance, where a “soldier” (a computer specialist) pushes buttons hundreds of miles away, and the decisions of managerial bodies which affect millions (IMF specialists at their meeting dictating the conditions a Third World country has to meet in order to merit financial aid, WTO regulations, corporate boards deciding about necessary “restructuring”). In both cases, ABSTRACTION is inscribed on to a very “real” situation, sometimes causing horrific destruction. The link between these “structural” decisions and the painful reality of millions is broken. The “specialists” are unable to imagine the consequences, since they measure the effects of their decisions in abstract terms: a country can be “financially sane” even if millions in it are starving.
In the same way that we drink beer without alcohol or coffee without caffeine, we are now getting war deprived of its substance – a virtual war fought behind computer screens, a war experienced by its participants as a video game, a war with no casualties (on our side, at least). With the spread of the anthrax panic in October 2001, the West got its first taste of a new "invisible" warfare. With regard to the information about what is going on, we, ordinary citizens, are totally at the mercy of the authorities. We see and hear nothing, all we know comes from the official media. A superpower bombs a desolate desert country and finds itself hostage to invisible bacteria - THIS, not the WTC explosions, is the first image of 21st century warfare.
Instead of rashly acting out, one should confront these difficult questions: what will "war" mean in the 21st century? Who will be "them," if they are, clearly, neither states nor criminal gangs? One cannot resist the temptation to recall the Freudian opposition of the public Law and its obscene superego double: are the "international terrorist organizations" not the obscene double of the big multinational corporations - the ultimate rhizomatic machine, all-present, though with no clear territorial base? Is this not the form in which nationalist and religious "fundamentalism" accommodate to global capitalism? Do they not embody the ultimate contradiction, with their particular/exclusive content and their global dynamic functioning?
There is a partial truth in the notion of the “clash of civilizations” attested here. Witness the surprise of the average American: "How is it possible that these people display such disregard for their own lives?" Is the obverse of this surprise not the rather sad fact that we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one's life? After the WTC bombing, the Taliban foreign minister said that he can "feel the pain" of the American children: did he not thereby confirm the hegemonic ideological role of this Bill Clinton's trademark phrase? It effectively appears as if the split between First World and Third World runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one's life to some transcendent Cause.
Two philosophical references immediately impose themselves apropos this ideological antagonism between the Western consumerist way of life and the Muslim radicalism: Hegel and Nietzsche. Is this antagonism not the same between what Nietzsche called "passive" and "active" nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction.
If one perceives this opposition through the lens of the Hegelian struggle between Master and Servant, one notes the paradox: although we in the West are perceived as exploiting masters, it is us who occupy the position of the Servant, clinging to life and its pleasures unable to risk his life (as in Colin Powell's notion of a high-tech war with no human casualties), while the poor Muslim radicals are Masters, ready to risk their life.
However, this notion of the "clash of civilizations" must be thoroughly rejected: what we are witnessing today are rather clashes WITHIN each civilization. A brief look at the comparative history of Islam and Christianity tells us that the "human rights record" of Islam (to use this anachronistic term) is much better than that of Christianity: in the past centuries, Islam was significantly more tolerant towards other religions than Christianity. It is also through the Arabs, in the Middle Ages, that we in the Western Europe regained access to our Ancient Greek legacy. While in no way excusing today's atrocities, these facts nonetheless clearly demonstrate that we are not dealing with a feature inscribed into Islam "as such," but with the outcome of modern socio-political conditions.
On closer inspection, what IS this "clash of civilizations" effectively about? Are all real-life "clashes" not clearly related to global capitalism? The Muslim "fundamentalist" target is not only global capitalism's corroding impact on social life, but ALSO the corrupted "traditionalist" regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. The most horrifying slaughters (those in Rwanda, Congo, and Sierra Leone) not only took place - and are taking place - within the SAME "civilization," but are also clearly related to the interplay of global economic interests. Even in the few cases which would vaguely fit the definition of the "clash of civilizations" (Bosnia and Kosovo, southern Sudan, etc.), the shadow of other interests is easily discernible. A proper dose of "economic reductionism" would thus be appropriate here. Instead of the endless analyses of how the Islam "fundamentalism" is intolerant towards our liberal societies and other "clash of civilization" topics, one should re-focus on the economic background of the conflict - the clash of ECONOMIC interests and the geopolitical interests of the U.S. itself: how to retain the privileged links with Israel AND with the conservative Arab regimes like that of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Beneath the opposition of "liberal" and "fundamentalist" societies, "McWorld versus Jihad," there is the embarrassing third term, countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, deeply conservative monarchies, but American economic allies, fully integrated into the Western capitalism. Here, the U.S. has a very specific interest: in order to count on these countries for their oil reserves, THEY HAVE TO REMAIN NON-DEMOCRATIC. The underlying notion is, of course, that the democratic awakening can give rise to anti-American attitudes. This is an old story whose infamous first chapter after the World War II was the CIA orchestrating a coup d'état against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mosadegh in Iran in 1953. No "fundamentalism" there, not even a "Soviet threat," just plain old democratic awakening, and the idea that the country should take control of its oil resources and break up the monopoly of the Western oil companies. The U.S. are forced to explicitly acknowledge the primacy of economy over democracy, i.e., the secondary and manipulative character of their legitimizing international interventions by the so-called protection of democracy and human rights. (One cannot but note the significant role of the stock exchange in the bombings: the ultimate proof of their traumatic impact was that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for four days, and its opening the following Monday was a prime sign that things were returning to normal.)
Let us recall the letter of the 7 year-old American girl whose father is a pilot fighting in Afghanistan. She writes that even though she loves her father deeply, she is ready to let him die, to sacrifice him for her country. When President Bush quoted these lines, they were perceived as a "normal" outburst of American patriotism. Imagine an Arab Muslim girl pathetically reciting into the camera the same words about her father fighting for the Taliban. We do not have to think long what our reaction would have been: morbid Muslim fundamentalism which does not stop even before a cruel manipulation and exploitation of children. Every feature attributed to the Other is already present in the very heart of the U.S.: murderous fanaticism. In the U.S. today are more than two million Rightist populist "fundamentalists" who also practice terror, legitimized by (their understanding of) Christianity. Since America is in a way "harboring" them, should the U.S. Army have punished the U.S. itself after the Oklahoma bombing (7)?
In the aftermath of September 11, Americans rediscovered en masse their American pride, displaying flags and singing together in the public. It should be emphasized more than ever, that nothing is "innocent" about this rediscovery of the American innocence. It rid many of the sense of historical guilt or irony which prevented them to fully assume being "American." This gesture "objectively" assumed the burden of all what being "American" stood for in the past - an exemplary case of ideological interpellation, of fully assuming one's symbolic mandate, after the perplexity caused by historical trauma. In the traumatic aftermath of September 11, when the old security seemed momentarily shattered, what more "natural" gesture than to take refuge in the innocence of ideological identification (8)? From the standpoint of the critique of ideology, it is precisely such moments of transparent innocence, when the gesture of identification seems "natural," that are the most obscure ones - even, in a certain way, obscurity itself.
What about the phrase which reverberates everywhere: "Nothing will be the same after September 11"? Significantly, this phrase is never further elaborated - it performs the empty gesture of saying something "deep" without really knowing what we want to say. So our first reaction to it should be: Really? What if, precisely, NOTHING EPOCHAL HAPPENED ON SEPTEMBER 11? What if – as the massive display of American patriotism seems to demonstrate - the shattering experience of September 11 ultimately served as a means for hegemonic American ideology to “return to its basics,” to reassert its basic ideological coordinates against the anti-globalist temptations? On September 11, the U.S. was given the opportunity to realize what kind of world it was part of. It MIGHT HAVE used the opportunity – but it did not, instead it opted to reassert its traditional ideological commitments: out went the responsibility and guilt feeling towards the impoverished Third World. WE are the victims now!
Recall the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1990: people all of a sudden became aware that the game was over, that the Communists lost. The break was purely symbolic, nothing changed "in reality" - and, nonetheless, from this moment on, the final collapse of the regime was just a question of days… What if something of the same order DID occur on September 11? Perhaps, the ultimate victim of the WTC bombings will be the big Other: the American Sphere. During Nikita Khruschev's secret speech at the 20th congress of the Soviet Party, denouncing Stalin's crimes, a dozen delegates had nervous breakdowns and had to be carried out and given medical care. Boleslaw Bierut, the hard-line general Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, even died of a heart attack days later. The model Stalinist writer Alexander Fadeyev shot himself days later. Not that they were "pure Communists" - most of them were brutal manipulators without any subjective illusions about the nature of the Soviet regime. What broke down was their "objective" illusion, the figure of the "big Other" against the background of which they could exert their ruthless drive for power. The Other onto which they transposed their belief disintegrated. Is this not homologous to the events in the aftermath of September 11? Was 9/11 not the 20th congress of the American Dream?
One should bear in mind that Hollywood is the nerve center of the American ideology, exerting a worldwide hegemony. What draws millions of Third World people to the U.S., even those who are, with regard to their "official" ideology, opposed to what America stands for, is not merely the prospect of material wealth, but also the "American Dream," the chance to participate in it. The "dream factory," Hollywood functions to fabricate these hegemonic ideological dreams, to provide coordinates for private fantasies. In the post September 11th era the Hollywood machinery is perturbed and executives are desperately trying to guess and/or establish the new rules. No more catastrophe movies: will single hero movies like James Bond survive? Will there be a shift towards family melodramas or blatant patriotism? It bears witness to the deep ideological impact of the September 11th events.
Until now the U.S. perceived itself as an island exempt from this sort of violence, which it witnessed only from a safe distance of the TV screen, but is now directly involved. Will America decide to further fortify its "Sphere"? Or will it take the risk and step outside of it? Either America will persist in the deeply immoral attitude of "Why should this happen to us? Things like this don't happen HERE!", leading to paranoiac aggression towards the threatening Outside— or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World. Thus accepting its arrival in the Real world, making the long-overdue shift from "A thing like this should not happen HERE!" to "A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!". Therein resides the true lesson of the WTC bombing: the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE. America should learn to humbly accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, instead as an exhilarating retaliation and a forceful reassertion of the EXCEPTIONAL role of the U.S. as a global policeman. The resentment against the U.S. is the excess of its power, not the LACK of it.
One can also assert that the WTC bombing was an attack on the very center and symbol of global financial capitalism. This doesn’t entail the compromise notion of shared guilt (terrorists are to blame, but, partially, also Americans are also to blame...) - the point is, rather, that the two sides are not really opposed, but that they belong to the same field. The position to accept the necessity of the fight against terrorism SHOULD redefine and expand its terms to include also (some) American and other Western powers' acts. The choice between Bush and Bin Laden is not our choice, they are BOTH "Them" against "Us". The fact that global capitalism is a totality, means that it is the dialectical unity of itself and of its other, the forces resisting it on "fundamentalist" ideological grounds.
Consequently, of the two main narratives that have emerged from September 11, both are worse, as Stalin would have put it. The American patriotic narrative - the innocence under siege, the surge of patriotic pride - is, of course, vain. Was there not something petty and miserable in the mathematics reminding one of the Holocaust revisionism (what are the 2823 accounted dead against millions in Rwanda, Congo, etc.)? And what about the fact that the CIA (co-)created Taliban and Bin Laden, financing and helping them to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan? Why was this fact quoted as an argument AGAINST attacking them? Would it not be much more logical to claim that it is precisely their duty to get rid of the monster it created? The moment one thinks in the terms of "yes, the WTC collapse was a tragedy, but one should not fully identify with the victims, since this would mean supporting U.S. imperialism," the ethical catastrophe is already here. The only appropriate stance is the unconditional solidarity with ALL victims. The ethical stance proper is here replaced with the moralizing mathematics of guilt and horror, which misses the crucial point: the terrifying death of each individual is absolute and incomparable. Let us make a simple mental experiment: if you detect in yourself any restraint to fully empathize with the victims of the WTC collapse, if you feel the urge to qualify your empathy with "yes, then what about the millions who suffer in Africa…?" You are not demonstrating your Third World sympathies, but revealing an implicit racist patronization towards Third World victims. The problem with such comparative statements is that they are necessary and inadmissible. One HAS to make them, but one HAS to make the point that much worse horrors are taken place around the world on a daily basis - but one has to do it without getting involved in the obscene mathematics of guilt.
Is the choice today really between liberal democracy and fundamentalism or its derivations (like modernization versus resistance to it)? The only way to account for the complexity and the strange twists of today's global situation is to insist that the true choice is the one between capitalism and its Other (at this moment represented by marginal currents like the anti-globalization movement). This choice is then accompanied by phenomena, which are structurally secondary, crucial among them the inherent tension between capitalism and its own excess. Throughout the 20th century, the same pattern is clearly discernible: in order to crush its true enemy, capitalism started to play with fire and mobilized its obscene excess in the guise of Fascism. However, this excess gained a life of its own and became so strong that the mainstream »liberal« capitalism had to join forces with its true enemy (Communism) to subdue it. Significantly, the war between capitalism and Communism was a Cold one, while the big “Hot War” was fought against Fascism. Is this not the same case as with the Taliban? After they were concocted to fight Communism, they transformed into the main enemy.
Consequently, even if terrorism burns us all, the U.S. “war on terrorism” IS NOT OUR STRUGGLE, BUT AN INTERNAL STRUGGLE OF THE CAPITALIST UNIVERSE.
America's "holiday from history" was fake: America's peace was bought by the catastrophes going on elsewhere. These days, the predominant point of view is that of the innocent gaze confronting unspeakable Evil striking from the Outside. One should apply Hegel's well-known dictum that the Evil resides also in the innocent gaze perceiving Evil all around itself. Can one imagine a greater irony than the first codename for the U.S. operation against terrorists, "Infinite Justice" (later changed in response to the protest of American Islamic clerics that only God can exert infinite justice)? Taken seriously, this name is profoundly ambiguous: either it means that America has the right to ruthlessly destroy not only all terrorists but also all those who lend them material, moral, ideological support. This process will be by definition endless in the precise sense of the Hegelian "bad infinity," the work will never be really accomplished, there will always remain some other terrorist threat (and, effectively, in April 2002, Dick Cheney directly stated that the “war on terror” will probably never end, at least not in our lifetimes). Or: it means that the justice exerted must be truly infinite in the strict Hegelian sense, i.e., that, in relating to others, it has to relate to itself. In short, it has to ask the question of how we ourselves who exert justice are involved in what we are fighting against. On September 22 2001, when Jacques Derrida received the Theodor Adorno award, he referred in his speech to the WTC bombings: "My unconditional compassion, addressed at the victims of the September 11, does not prevent me to say it loudly: with regard to this crime, I do not believe that anyone is politically guiltless." This self-relating, this inclusion of oneself into the picture, is the only true "infinite justice."
Against the cynical double-talk about “infinite justice,” one is tempted to recall the words of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in his address to the American people on September 25 2001: "You accept everything your government says, whether it is true or false. /.../ Don't you have your own thinking? /.../ So it will be better for you to use your sense and understanding." While these statements are undoubtedly a cynical manipulation (say, what about giving the same right to use one’s own sense and understanding to Afghanis themselves?), are they nonetheless, when taken in an abstract decontextualized sense, not quite appropriate?
1. See Alain Badiou, Le Siècle, forthcoming from Editions du Seuil, Paris.
2. At a more general level, one should note how Stalinism, with its brutal “passion for the Real,” its readiness to sacrifice millions of lives for its goal, to treat people as dispensable material, was at the same time the regime most sensible to maintaining the proper appearances: it reacted with a total panic whenever there was a threat that this appearances will be disturbed (say, that some accident which renders clear the failure of the regime will be reported in the public media: there were, in the Soviet media, no black chronicles, no reports on crimes and prostitution, not to mention workers or public protests).
3. Another case of ideological censorship: when firemen’s widows were interviewed on CNN, most of them gave the expected performance: tears, prayers... all except one of them who, without a tear, said that she does not pray for her deceived husband, because she knows that prayer will not get him back. When asked if she dreams of revenge, she calmly said that that would be the true betrayal of her husband: if he were to survive, he would insist that the worst thing to do is to succumb to the urge to retaliate... It is useless to add that this fragment was shown only once and then disappeared from the repetitions of the same block.
4. See Chapter III in Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2000.
5. Or to quote a succinct formulation by Boothby: “’Traversing the fantasy' does not mean that the subject somehow abandons its involvement with fanciful caprices and accommodates itself to a pragmatic ‘reality,’ but precisely the opposite: the subject is submitted to that effect of the symbolic lack that reveals the limit of everyday reality. To traverse the fantasy in the Lacanian sense is to be more profoundly claimed by the fantasy than ever, in the sense of being brought into an ever more intimate relation with that real core of the fantasy that transcends imaging” Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher, New York: Routledge 2001, p. 275-276.
6. The first to articulate this opposition was, of course, Schelling, when, in his Treatise on Human Freedom, he introduced the distinction between Existence and the Ground of Existence.
7. According to some conservative US lawyers, an act done out of religious conviction by definition cannot be insane, since religion stands for the highest spiritual dimension of humanity. How, then, are we to categorize the Palestinian suicide bombers? Is their religious belief authentic or not? If not, does the same insanity label hold also for the American home-made Christian terrorists? What we encounter here is the old Enlightenment topic of the fragile borderline which separates religion from madness, or religious "superstition" from pure "rational" religion.
8. I rely here on my critical elaboration of Althusser's notion of interpellation in chapter 3 of Metastases of Enjoyment, London: Verso Books 1995.