Samuel Weber: Seems like a good way of get­ting into the sub­ject of vio­lence could be dis­tin­guish­ing between direct­ly man-made vio­lence, per­haps, and what we think of as being nat­ur­al” cat­a­stroph­ic vio­lence, par­tic­u­lar­ly since we’re speak­ing today only a few weeks after the ter­ri­ble tsuna­mi and its after­ef­fects hit Japan. And we’re still very much in the midst of the after­ef­fects of that. It seems sig­nif­i­cant to me that we’re per­haps more com­fort­able about talk­ing about vio­lence when it’s direct­ly man-made, such as for exam­ple 9‍/‍11, which is a water­shed for many peo­ple in the expe­ri­ence of vio­lence in recent years. On the one hand, some­thing like the tsuna­mi, the after­ef­fects of the Fukushima nuclear plant and so on, which for exam­ple in many ways will have a much high­er toll in human life and in destruc­tive effects than 9‍/‍11 will have had. Nevertheless we seem to expe­ri­ence that very dif­fer­ent­ly. And there’s something…I think when one thinks about vio­lence, it would be impor­tant to reflect on where one’s com­ing from, and what one’s posi­tion, and one’s expec­ta­tions and per­spec­tives in approach­ing it. So for exam­ple when I speak now about vio­lence, I feel very much as if I’m speak­ing not about vio­lence per se in a uni­ver­sal­iz­able sense, but from a large but nev­er­the­less lim­it­ed cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion which one can sort of sum­ma­rize and it remains very vague—let’s say a Western tra­di­tion, with a very spe­cif­ic reli­gious, the­o­log­i­cal, polit­i­cal back­ground defined among oth­er things by a cer­tain bib­li­cal set of nar­ra­tives and a cer­tain polit­i­cal cul­tur­al tra­di­tion grow­ing out of that. And that also makes it inter­est­ing to com­pare for exam­ple the impact among Westerners” to an expe­ri­ence such as 9‍/‍11 and the destruc­tion of the Twin Towers and let’s say, the tsuna­mi and its after­ef­fects in Japan, which is not only a dif­fer­ent type of vio­lence but also appar­ent­ly has been expe­ri­enced very dif­fer­ent­ly in part because per­haps of the dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tions for exam­ple of the Japanese as opposed to the West.

Recently I read an arti­cle in the newspaper—I can’t remem­ber now whether it was a French news­pa­per or an American news­pa­per; I think was a French newspaper—describing some of the Japanese reac­tion to the tsuna­mi, to the radi­a­tion dan­ger and so on, which for Westerners in many ways seems very sto­ical and very dif­fer­ent from let’s say the reac­tion that one could observe after 9‍/‍11. And the per­son who was speak­ing about that made the fol­low­ing very sim­ple point but for me very very illu­mi­nat­ing, very impor­tant. He said you know, he said, the Japanese react dif­fer­ent­ly because Japanese cul­ture and reli­gion reacts dif­fer­ent­ly toward death than we do in the West. Death is not, he said, delegitimized—or I think that’s what he said. The Japanese Shinto reli­gion, Buddhism, ver­sion of Buddhism, accepts the inevitabil­i­ty of death and instead tries to nego­ti­ate with it and to encounter it as har­mo­nious­ly as possible. 

And this… I mean, I’m not a Japanese expert so I leave it to oth­ers or an expert in com­par­a­tive reli­gions, but this cer­tain­ly cor­re­sponds to a lot of the work that I’ve done regard­ing Western cul­ture with respect to ques­tions such as vio­lence and the atti­tude toward death. And it does seem to me that from…deriving at least in part from the Bible, that there is some­thing like a dele­git­imiza­tion of death, which makes it a kind of ulti­mate vio­lence that is unac­cept­able. Or at least that could be over­come. By that I mean sim­ply the fol­low­ing, and you’ll see how this lines up with what I take to be some of the dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of the vio­lence, man-made vio­lence if you will, direct­ly and so-called nat­ur­al vio­lence in the two cas­es of Japan and the Twin Towers. 

In Genesis, of course, God cre­ates essen­tial­ly what seems to be an immor­tal world in Eden. And death is the prod­uct of a human trans­gres­sion. And a very sig­nif­i­cant one. That is eat­ing of the Tree of Knowledge in order to know the dif­fer­ence between good and evil. And in Genesis, in the book of Genesis, one of the rea­sons for this is that the ser­pent tells Eve that if you know the dif­fer­ence good and evil you can become like God, you see. And this is what then leads to the intro­duc­tion of mor­tal­i­ty, basi­cal­ly, the expul­sion from the…as pun­ish­ment. And it’s very com­pli­cat­ed, because God then responds by say­ing— I mean, the pro­hi­bi­tion ini­tial­ly is that man can do what­ev­er he wants in the Garden of Eden except try to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. And that if he does do that, he will be con­demned to die. Now, what hap­pens is that this is then deferred. He isn’t con­demned imme­di­ate­ly to death, but he’s con­demned to a life of mor­tal­i­ty. And a life of toil, of painful toil and suf­fer­ing, and so on. 

But in fact it goes on, and the first human death in the Bible is then inter­est­ing­ly enough the frat­ri­cide, the mur­der of Abel by Cain. And even Cain then is not pun­ished imme­di­ate­ly by death but in fact God pro­tects Cain from that pun­ish­ment and con­demns him once again to a life of labor and of pen­i­tence. And in fact Cain then becomes the founder of a city, becomes a kind of ini­tial polit­i­cal fig­ure. But under the sign of mor­tal­i­ty, of death, as the result of a human action. And of a human trans­gres­sive action, you see. So that death is there­fore regard­ed as not, as it were, endem­ic in the cre­ation, in the divine cre­ation. Just as God is immor­tal, beyond life and death if you will. So the cre­ation is in a cer­tain sense immor­tal. Up to the point of the orig­i­nal sin, if you will, in the Christian doctrine. 

And you can see how then Christianity is all orga­nized around the idea of in a cer­tain sense over­com­ing and restor­ing a kind of orig­i­nal mor­tal­i­ty through grace and above all the res­ur­rec­tion of Christ. And at the same time what this means is that death— If one takes death to be in this per­spec­tive the ulti­mate vio­lence, and I think there are good argu­ments to say that this could be this seen, it’s vio­lence in a very spe­cif­ic sense of vio­la­tion of the originally-intended des­tiny of the divine cre­ation, which was to be immor­tal, and which man was to be in a cer­tain sense the pre­em­i­nent fig­ure in the image of God as it were, but still dif­fer­ent from God. 

And it’s very inter­est­ing then that in one of the found­ing doc­u­ments of mod­ern polit­i­cal theory—I’m think­ing of Hobbes’ Leviathan—that Hobbes, who real­ly defines the role of the Leviathan, of the all-powerful nation-state in terms of what he calls pro­tec­tion and the assur­ing of secu­ri­ty. And at a cer­tain point he quotes Paul as say­ing basi­cal­ly that just as man dies in Adam, man can be res­ur­rect­ed in Christ, and that what was brought about by human action can be in a cer­tain sense over­come by human action. This human action is then the Leviathan. This human action is the polit­i­cal, the poli­ty. And what you have there then is a trans­fer as it were of the mis­sion of the church to secure grace and in a cer­tain sense immor­tal­i­ty and to restore or to keep open the per­spec­tive of a restora­tion of a non-violent, that is to say immor­tal, state of affairs. That is then trans­ferred onto its sur­ro­gate, which is the Leviathan, which is the polit­i­cal state. 

And in the back­ground of this I see very much the Reformation and sort of the cri­sis with­in what I would call the Christian sal­va­tion­al nar­ra­tive and promise of offer­ing a trans­par­ent path­way to grace being chal­lenged through an expe­ri­ence of the indi­vid­ual, of indi­vid­ual life. That is, indi­vid­ual life is always per se mor­tal life, as epit­o­mized through the Reformation, and then lead­ing to the extreme­ly destruc­tive death-bringing internecine reli­gious wars, both on the con­ti­nent and with­in England—Hobbes of course com­ing out of this strug­gle, which then in a way pro­vides the basis for the so-called sec­u­lar state. Which then is there to sort of defuse this appar­ent­ly intran­si­gent, destruc­tive, self-destruc­tive real­i­ty of Christendom between its uni­ver­sal Catholic and its Protestant, more indi­vid­ual, com­mu­ni­tar­i­an branch­es. And the state in its sec­u­lar nature is there to medi­ate and to assure pub­lic safe­ty. And you know, in many lan­guages, for exam­ple in French, the word for pub­lic safe­ty is the same word as sal­va­tion. So it’s salut” in French for exam­ple, you see. 

So, I men­tion all of this in order to sug­gest that there is an expe­ri­ence of vio­lence in the West which would equate it with man-made vio­lence in the per­spec­tive of being able through counter-violence, read: war against ter­ror in this instance, of ulti­mate­ly over­com­ing the Antichrist as it were. And that this is based on a fundamental…what was called in this arti­cle dele­git­i­ma­tion of death, by that mak­ing it a non-integral part of human life, of world­ly life, as the result of what could be called an arti­fi­cial action and act. But in the hope there­fore of also over­com­ing it equal­ly through an act. 

And in a book that I wrote called Targets of Opportunity I have a chap­ter where I try to ana­lyze this a lit­tle bit more close­ly with con­nec­tion to Carl Schmitt. And what I come up with there is a thought that the means to redemp­tion in such a sit­u­a­tion is very often that of counter-violence under­stood as killing the ene­my. In oth­er words, I go back to the Crucifixion and it seems to me absolute­ly essen­tial, giv­en the doc­trine of orig­i­nal sin, that the death of Christ is vio­lent and human­ly inflict­ed. I mean, try to imag­ine the sig­nif­i­cance of the gospels if Christ had died a nat­ur­al” death. Of some illness…Parkinson’s or God for­bid Alzheimer or some­thing like that. You see, it could­n’t have the same mes­sage, but the result is then some­thing like what Carl Schmitt then dis­cuss­es as the matrix of polit­i­cal the­ol­o­gy, which is the for­ma­tion of the polit­i­cal group being held togeth­er through the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of an exter­nal or inter­nal ene­my, an oth­er, that has to be ulti­mate­ly com­bat­ted and at least has to be poten­tial­ly killed or elim­i­nat­ed or neutralized. 

So this makes you see vio­lence and counter-violence a pos­si­ble response to what I would take to be a very deep-seated anx­i­ety, of fini­tude, of mor­tal­i­ty, that in this cul­tur­al reli­gious per­spec­tive has very lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to find oth­er ways of deal­ing with its ten­sions, with its anx­i­eties, oth­er than an aggres­sive attempt to over­come it through counter-violence and ulti­mate­ly through killing, mil­i­ta­riza­tion, and so. So as you can see, I draw a kind of very very wide arch going from a cer­tain read­ing of Genesis to let’s say some­thing like the War Against Terror

The War Against Terror, the ter­mi­nol­o­gy strikes me as very inter­est­ing there. Because the word ter­ror” describes at the same time an object and a sub­ject state. It’s iden­ti­fied with ter­ror­ism, ter­ror­ists, it’s per­son­al­ized, faces are attached to it, names, move­ments. Al-Qaeda and so on. Always of some oth­er. And at the same time, it describes a feel­ing, an affect, you see. And in a cer­tain sense, this affect, this feel­ing, this emo­tion, calls into ques­tion the objec­tiv­i­ty, the dis­tanc­ing of it by iden­ti­fy­ing an exter­nal enemy. 

And it seems to me, to take this one step fur­ther, that the notion of the self which is so impor­tant in the devel­op­ment of a Western indi­vid­u­al­ist sense of iden­ti­ty is real­ly pred­i­cat­ed on this struc­ture that I’m describ­ing, name­ly the self is that which tries to think of itself as stay­ing the same over time and space. In oth­er words, over­com­ing time and space as media, of not just becom­ing, ie. his­to­ry, but also of pass­ing away. So that the self is that which should­n’t just pass away through time and space, but some­how should over­come that. In oth­er words, the self I’m try­ing to sug­gest in this Western per­spec­tive is the sec­u­lar air of the soul, you see. And to be iden­ti­cal is ulti­mate­ly to be immortal. 

Now, in a sec­u­lar con­text it has to be grant­ed that this is dif­fi­cult to accom­plish as a bio­log­i­cal indi­vid­ual, and there­fore this gets then trans­ferred, sub­li­mat­ed if you will, onto var­i­ous kinds of col­lec­tives: the fam­i­ly, the poli­ty, the race, the eth­nic­i­ty. Or the prod­ucts, one’s prod­ucts. For exam­ple, the use of the word cre­ation” in artis­tic areas is for me as an evi­dence of the the­o­log­i­cal attri­bu­tion qual­i­ty of a cer­tain type of activ­i­ty. You sur­vive your own fini­tude and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in the prod­ucts that you pro­duce and so on. 

Now, I find it very there­fore both symp­to­matic and inter­est­ing to com­pare the some­what dif­fer­ent way of dealing—of con­ceiv­ing and encoun­ter­ing vio­lence as it is for exam­ple exem­pli­fied in the tsuna­mi, which is not direct­ly humanly-produced and which… I mean the recent tsuna­mi in Japan, we were talk­ing about that ear­li­er, is some­what dif­fer­ent from the cat­a­stro­phe films that we’ve seen. Those films for exam­ple visu­al­ly will tend to embody a huge tidal wave that will just sort of over­whelm. Whereas the videos that we have of the tsuna­mi, of course tak­en from above, show more of a flow over­com­ing rather than a direct over­pow­er­ing. And that too strikes me as very sig­nif­i­cant. These are forces as it were that are there and that don’t have the form of a prod­uct, of a work, of an act, of a plan. That in fact sort of dis­rupt human plans. The Japanese thought they had pro­tect­ed them­selves by cre­at­ing a ten-meter-tall wall, and in fact these ener­gies just sort of over­whelmed that wall. At the same time leav­ing it in some places. Not just total­ly destroy­ing it but just going over it and so on. In oth­er words, not a frontal attack of two enti­ties but a kind of force that just sort of carried—just sort of ignored the wall as it were, or went around it, went over it and so on. 

And what for Westerners seems like a very sto­ical, in some extent— I don’t want to overex­ag­ger­ate this. I’m some sure there was ter­ror, obvi­ous­ly, and fear, and a whole series of feel­ings that were pro­duced by this. But a reac­tion still of a kind of…acceptance if you will that seems very strange and curi­ous to Westerners of some­thing that is part of an inevitable…basically of a dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tion of fini­tude and of mor­tal exis­tence. And it seems to me that there, perhaps—and again this is all very very ten­ta­tive on my part because I don’t speak Japanese, I’m not as Japanese spe­cial­ist, and I’d be very inter­est­ed to hear what oth­ers who know more about this could say. But it seems to me there there’s a sense of iden­ti­ty that is not based ulti­mate­ly on the notion of a time-transcending indi­vid­ual self. It seems to me, the lit­tle I know about Buddhism for exam­ple, to be one of the dif­fer­ences between a Buddhistic and per­haps a bib­li­cal and cer­tain­ly Christian notion of the self.

You see, vio­lence is some­how tak­en to be much more of a part of life. When one speaks of vio­lence it seems to me it’s a lit­tle bit like when one speaks of dan­ger. It’s not some­thing that can be spo­ken of, I believe, as a self-contained object or enti­ty. Violence like dan­ger is always—is a rela­tion­al notion. You have to ask it’s vio­lence…to what? In regard to what, you see. As dan­ger. It’s dan­ger…to what? It all pre­sup­pos­es, I think, a notion of the oth­er of vio­lence in a cer­tain sense. Or at least in the Western tra­di­tion. I tend to think of it, although this is not I believe a legit­i­mate ety­mol­o­gy. But I tend to asso­ciate the notion of vio­lence with the idea of vio­la­tion. And vio­lence would in this case be that which vio­lates something. 

Now vio­lates” pre­sup­pos­es the invi­o­lable, or the invi­o­late. And this is the way I’m read­ing Genesis, if you will. There is an invi­o­late, or invi­o­lat­ed, ini­tial cre­ation that reflects a cer­tain notion of a monothe­is­tic cre­ator. Monotheistic in the sense of self-identical, inde­pen­dent­ly of and pri­or to all inter­ac­tion with alter­i­ty, with oth­er­ness, you see. And this is reflect­ed in then the basi­cal­ly self-contained cre­ation in which the alter­i­ty of death is essen­tial­ly out­side. That’s why it’s inter­est­ing that you have the Garden of Eden as a gar­den of cul­ti­vat­ed life, but it’s a divine cul­ti­va­tion, ulti­mate­ly. And there is an inside and an out­side from the begin­ning, but what counts is the inside, in some sense. And then the vio­la­tion which begins with orig­i­nal sin as it were, intro­duces vio­lence, if you see what I mean. 

Now, if you don’t have that notion of a monothe­is­tic self-identity that’s essen­tial­ly invi­o­lable in the sense of being pri­or to all expo­sure to the oth­er, then you don’t have the same sense of the sig­nif­i­cance of vio­lence as vio­la­tion. Violence becomes a part of the forces of the uni­verse or of life, in which all liv­ing beings are defined in some sense by their rela­tion to their tem­po­ral­i­ty, to their ephemer­al­i­ty. And that is not expe­ri­enced as abnor­mal or extra­or­di­nary or a sit­u­a­tion to be reme­died or to be altered, as it were, but it’s something…sort of defines the fab­ric of exis­tence there. And that’s why you get the sense of a kind of bal­ance, a kind of har­mo­ny. A har­mo­ny, though, which does not exclude what would to Western eyes seem like a kind of capit­u­la­tion to vio­lence. Whereas pre­sum­ably in a more…perhaps in a sense in an Eastern or Buddhistic per­spec­tive it would be a com­pos­ing with a kind of struc­tur­al rela­tion of forces or some­thing like that. 


So to come back to 9‍/‍11 now, one could sort of ask how the reac­tions to it in terms of the trau­ma it inevitably pro­duced at least in cer­tain aspects of the…certainly in the United States, and the fear, and then the aggres­sive response that it then pro­duced polit­i­cal­ly would exem­pli­fy this…what I’m describ­ing as a kind of Western, per­haps Christian atti­tude toward vio­lence and violation—ultimately relat­ed to a dele­git­imiza­tion of mortality. 

So it seems to me that first of all, the fact that— Well there are a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent points here. The first is that as far as I know— I mean, I spend some time in the United States each year and some time in Europe. And so those are the two areas that I am some­what famil­iar with. There was a very dif­fer­ent reac­tion in the United States and in Europe to this trau­ma. One of the rea­sons why it was so trau­mat­i­cal­ly expe­ri­enced by many many peo­ple in the United States was that because of its his­to­ry and because of its geo­graph­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, the United States exem­pli­fied what I would call a cer­tain very deep-seated Western sense of defen­sive secu­ri­ty that I think goes through the tra­di­tion of Western polit­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal think­ing. In oth­er words the fact that the United States…that the ter­ri­to­ry of the United States was not a bat­tle­ground since the Civil War, at least. And that even there…which was an extreme­ly destruc­tive war of course and a cost­ly war in terms of mor­tal­i­ty and destruc­tion, that even there it was at least a war that was con­sid­ered an inter­nal war, as it were. So that an exter­nal threat, the out­side world, seemed to be…not irrel­e­vant but, the United States seemed to be imper­vi­ous to some extent to that kind of exter­nal attack. 

And this is obvi­ous­ly an expe­ri­ence that no one in Europe could have in the same way and that in fact… I sup­pose that for exam­ple the British expe­ri­ence in the Second World War dra­ma­tized some­thing of this, where Britain came very close, in fact was a bat­tle­ground from the air, and was very close and being invad­ed. But in fact was not invad­ed and was able to keep its insu­lar­i­ty. So that it’s inter­est­ing when you think of the kind of…what the French call the Anglo-Saxon cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal affini­ties, one of the dimen­sions of that is not just the lan­guage and the com­mon lin­guis­tic her­itage. But it’s also a com­mon geopo­lit­i­cal her­itage, which has allowed the UK to some­what share in the American expe­ri­ence of being some­what pro­tect­ed, by nature as it were, from exter­nal threats. And this is some­thing that then— I think this was a par­tial source of the trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence of the Twin Towers, which was a con­cert­ed quasi-military oper­a­tion, and expe­ri­enced as such and so on. And there­fore also expe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent­ly from the ter­ri­bly dev­as­tat­ing bomb­ing in Oklahoma City, which was also quite destruc­tive, but there again did­n’t have the sense of an exter­nal mil­i­tary ene­my, as it were, if not invad­ing at least impos­ing mass destruc­tion from the out­side, as it were. 

But the point that I would like to make here is that this par­tic­u­lar American sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to the trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence of this kind of vio­lence, or violence—violation, com­ing from the out­side in a cer­tain sense is pre­pro­grammed in the whole his­to­ry that I’ve been trac­ing. However there’s an ambi­gu­i­ty. Because in oth­er words, if sin is orig­i­nal, if sin can be seen as a source of vio­lence by intro­duc­ing death, then it’s both inside and out­side. But it’s equiv­o­cal. I mean, if you read Genesis and you think about it lit­er­al­ly, it becomes quite ambigu­ous, you know. Why should there have been the need to eat from the Tree of Knowledge? But even more, why should there have been the need for a pro­hi­bi­tion of eat­ing from the Tree of Knowledge. Freud says some­where that where there is pro­hi­bi­tion, there has to be a desire. 

And there is absolute­ly no rea­son why this struc­ture should have been in the midst of the Garden of Eden, there should’ve been these two trees, which are the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, you see. Because there was only life. And there was no need for the knowl­edge of good and evil—every­thing was good, and every­thing was life. And in the midst of this absolute­ly homogeneous—because deriv­ing from a uni­vo­cal divine creator—world, there are these two trees which rep­re­sent the indi­vid­u­a­tion and there­fore the sep­a­ra­tion, iso­la­tion, of life from some­thing else (the Tree of Life), and of the knowl­edge of good and evil. What is evil? Where was there a place for evil in the prelap­sar­i­an Eden? 

So you see, already in this— If one reads a sto­ry lit­er­al­ly, which means to some extent against the grain of what seems to be its explic­it log­ic, the sep­a­ra­tion between inside and out­side, imma­nence and tran­scen­dence, becomes already prob­lem­at­ic. In oth­er words…there’s a famous phrase that the art historian…I think it is Erwin Panofsky pop­u­lar­izes in inter­pret­ing I think it’s a 17th cen­tu­ry paint­ing, an inscrip­tion, Et in Arcadia ego.” And I was in Arcadia. And you can already say that in a cer­tain sense it’s implic­it about death and— We’re already in Eden in the pro­hi­bi­tion, in the… And I think— This strikes me, this ambi­gu­i­ty between a desire for a pure, and safe, and immor­tal inte­ri­or. What today sig­nif­i­cant­ly is called home­land.” Homeland secu­ri­ty, you see. And the threat to that. Coming from the out­side, but also poten­tial­ly from the inside: the inter­nal ene­my, civ­il war, the fifth col­umn, sub­ver­sion, etc., seems to me to be the way of deal­ing with this fun­da­men­tal dilem­ma of dele­git­imiz­ing what sim­ply can­not be denied as a fact of life in the sin­gu­lar, which means life as mortal. 

And I’m very inter­est­ed in a lin­guis­tic con­nec­tion that to my knowl­edge has nev­er been…at least I haven’t seen it com­ment­ed— I sup­pose every­thing has been com­ment­ed if one has suf­fi­cient access to the archive through Google and some­one will prob­a­bly find it. But I haven’t seen it dis­cussed very much. And that is this: you know, the word for civ­il soci­ety in German is bürg­er­liche Gesellschaft. Bürgerliche” is built around the word bürg,” which is also in French bourg” which is bour­geoisie, you see. And it defines the mod­ern poli­ty to reference…to the bürg.

Now what is a bürg or a bourg in German was ini­tial­ly a fortress. And one of the most famous artic­u­la­tions of is in the Protestant hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, you see. And this seems to me to be the sen­si­bil­i­ty out of which mod­ern polit­i­cal cul­ture, and in gen­er­al indi­vid­u­al­ist cul­ture, grows. Which is essen­tial­ly one tied to for­ti­fi­ca­tions and to being sur­round­ed and being defen­sive and for­ti­fy­ing one’s go— It comes out of what I would call the cri­sis of the Christian sal­va­tion­al nar­ra­tive, which for var­i­ous rea­sons includ­ing the rise of cap­i­tal­ism— Because you have to remem­ber that Luther is moti­vat­ed by the sell­ing of indul­gences, the com­modi­ti­za­tion of grace through the Church, ie. cor­rup­tion through com­modi­ties and ulti­mate­ly through mon­ey. And that all should res­onate quite strong­ly today. And not just today but once again. Once again today. So that the sense of this prob­lema­ti­za­tion of the sal­va­tion­al nar­ra­tive, pro­duc­ing the need for a renewed type of rede­f­i­n­i­tion of the space of poten­tial sal­va­tion as that of the bürg, that of the endan­gered fortress. Ultimately that of the retrenched camp and so on. 

And so once again we come— In oth­er words the bour­geois and bürg­er­liche, mean in German bour­geois” and civ­il” soci­ety, the essence of that would be the effort to rein­force and rede­fine in a way that suc­cess­ful­ly can par­ry and counter the expe­ri­ence of the indi­vid­ual as endan­gered, as exposed to a mor­tal­i­ty that can’t be sim­ply over­come through the means of civ­il soci­ety, and ulti­mate­ly then through the means of that which is also the pur­vey­or of evil and that is of cap­i­tal­ism. Capitalism as a way of both insti­tut­ing and in a way over­com­ing the fortress men­tal­i­ty of the bour­geoisie and of the bourg and so on. 

And you have in the ori­gins of Protestantism, then, essen­tial­ly a split that Max Weber noticed very well in his book on spir­it of cap­i­tal­ism between the Lutheran and the Calvinist with respect to the sav­ing grace of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty. I mean, Max Weber says that had there been only Luther pre­sum­ably Protestantism could not have played the role that it played in the rise of cap­i­tal­ism. There had to be then Calvinism, which mit­i­gat­ed the Lutherian attack on good works and empha­sis on only inner grace could be the path to sal­va­tion and redemp­tion, and allowed for mate­r­i­al activ­i­ty and the accu­mu­la­tion of wealth to then a play this role. 

And so in a strange way, I see the fre­net­ic empha­sis on the pri­vate accu­mu­la­tion of wealth and pow­er as the sec­u­lar attempt to over­come the pan­ic, anx­i­ety, of mor­tal­i­ty that can no longer find a direct solu­tion through direct­ly reli­gious tran­scen­dent means. Because then as Marx and oth­ers have noticed there is some­thing transcendent-like about spec­u­la­tion, finan­cial spec­u­la­tion. Not just about the rela­tion of mon­ey and com­modi­ties, but about spec­u­la­tion of wealth which no longer refers to actu­al mon­e­ta­riza­tion. Which then refers real­ly to a trans­for­ma­tion of time, once again, from a means of perdi­tion into a poten­tial means of the pro­duc­tion of val­ue and wealth—you know, futures—turning the future from the dimen­sion of indi­vid­ual perdi­tion, mor­tal­i­ty, into the dimen­sion of unlim­it­ed finan­cial gain. 


One of the ques­tions that’s come up in the after­math of 9‍/‍11…and could also be inter­est­ing­ly extend­ed to the tsuna­mi in a dif­fer­ent way, of course, is the ques­tion of whether 9‍/‍11 could be con­sid­ered an event. Now, the word— I think to respond to that it’s impor­tant to dis­tin­guish between dif­fer­ent under­stand­ings of the word event.” It’s inter­est­ing that, for me at least, grow­ing up with­in say American English, the notion of event, of the word event” seemed to me to take on a mean­ing that lat­er on as I became more and more inter­est­ed in let’s say con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy, that seemed to be entire­ly opposed to…different from and prob­a­bly opposed to, the sort of philosophical/theoretical sig­nif­i­cance that then came to be attached to the word event.”

For exam­ple in American English… And I’m always care­ful to try to say the only English I know any­thing about is American English. We have a great vari­ety of Englishes. And even American English is a con­struct that if you look close­ly breaks down into…its not at all homo­ge­neous or uni­form. But at least the American, there are class Englishes and so on. I take this all to be very very impor­tant. In oth­er words, peo­ple are very eager to jump over all of this and get to the object. But I think they pay a high price for this, name­ly that of pro­ject­ing their own par­tial­i­ty onto a uni­verse as being uni­ver­sal. And that I think can be quite sin­is­ter in its impli­ca­tion. I pre­fer to be— You know, to sort of think a lit­tle bit about the par­tial­i­ty of one’s own expe­ri­ence and one’s own lan­guage as a grille with which one tries to inter­pret things. 

So in the case of the word event,” I have to say that my ini­tial expe­ri­ences of this word would be as let’s say sport­ing event,” or as media event” more recent­ly. Now, in both of these cas­es, it seems to me in English the word means some­thing very very dif­fer­ent from the con­no­ta­tion attached to it in a lot of con­tem­po­rary con­ti­nen­tal the­o­ry, and then ric­o­chet­ing back onto Anglo-American the­o­ret­i­cal dis­course as well. Then which is some­what dis­tanced from the sort of ordi­nary lan­guage, non-technical use of the term. 


So in the case of for exam­ple, then, my expe­ri­ence of this word in let’s say ordi­nary non-technical American English, the sort of clas­si­cal instances were sport­ing event” and media event.” Now, the use of the word in this case it seems to me have very dif­fer­ent con­no­ta­tions from the the­o­ret­i­cal philo­soph­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance that’s been attached to the term. And it ric­o­chets and bounces back onto the­o­ret­i­cal dis­course in English. 

Why? Because a sport­ing event or a media event is some­thing that is spa­tial­ly tem­po­ral­ly extreme­ly local­ized, and usu­al­ly involved with pre­cise­ly what the philo­soph­i­cal notion of event prob­lema­tizes, name­ly a kind of plan­ning, pro­gram­ming, of sorts. A sport­ing event is some­thing that’s care­ful­ly planned, you know when it’s going to take place, and above all…and that for me is very sig­nif­i­cant of sports, com­pet­i­tive sports in gen­er­al, it has an unequiv­o­cal out­come. You know when it ends, because you know who the win­ner was and who the los­er was. This is I think ter­ri­bly impor­tant, by the way, at least for the American view of the world. The American view of the world is that every­thing— Our events, whether it’s a mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Iraq, or a pro­gram, that it’s all ulti­mate­ly con­tain­able in a lim­it­ed and unequiv­o­cal sto­ry with begin­ning, mid­dle, and end. And at the end, you know who won and who lost, and you can make an unequiv­o­cal choice and deci­sion about the mean­ing of the event. And a media event is some­thing like that as well.

Now, that is pre­cise­ly what it seems to me the Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian the­o­ret­i­cal notion of the event call into ques­tion. A, its pre­dictabil­i­ty, its pro­gram­ma­bil­i­ty. It’s unequiv­o­cal nature. And per­haps in some cas­es at least, even it’s knowabil­i­ty; can you be sure what an event is, where it has tak­en place, and above all what it’s con­se­quences might be. 

So, it seems to me impor­tant since we’re speak­ing English to sug­gest that this mean­ing of the word does not coin­cide with what for me at least was the tra­di­tion­al use of the term and still prob­a­bly for most ordi­nary peo­ple would be thought of when you say Is 9‍/‍11 an event?” It seems to me that what these two very dif­fer­ent mean­ings share in com­mon, but then inter­pret very dif­fer­ent­ly, is the fact that an event is something…enormous. It’s some­thing out of the ordi­nary, to be sure. But then the ques­tion of how that out-of-the-ordinary relates to the ordi­nary and above all cru­cial I would believe to it’s knowa­bil­i­ty, to its abil­i­ty to be under­stood, and to be deter­mined, to be defined in its both antecedents, in its pres­ence, and in its con­se­quences. There I think it’s quite dif­fer­ent. I would say if the sport­ing event can be seen as a kind of par­a­digm of what I’m call­ing the sort of pre-theoretical and ordi­nary use of the term in American English, then it pre­cise­ly is some­thing that it is a momen­tous, impor­tant, but also entire­ly know­able and defin­able occur­rence there. 

In the case of what seems to me to be a sort of post-Heideggerian… Because Heidegger seemed to me to be the philoso­pher and the thinker who mas­sive­ly intro­duces the notion of event,” ereig­nis” in his…in fact to replace the notion of being” in his lat­er work. And then it gets tak­en over by peo­ple who are not all nec­es­sar­i­ly Heideggerians… Deuleuze and oth­ers. And some­what rein­ter­pret­ed then. But it still retains the idea of a rad­i­cal inter­rup­tion, an unpre­dictable inter­rup­tion, a break… And at least in some ver­sions of the inter­pre­ta­tion of the event, for exam­ple the Derridean notion of the event as some­thing that remains equiv­o­cal it seems to me. That remains in a cer­tain sense future-oriented but only in the sense of the future being the domain of what is ulti­mate­ly not know­able. And in that sense…for some­body like Derrida what is to come…he uses the term in French avenir” rather than futur” because it’s the to-come, the com­ing­ness that is cru­cial in his think­ing of the event. And the future in that sense can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from the unknowa­bil­i­ty of my death, that is of the expe­ri­ence of the sin­gu­lar liv­ing being to the fact that he or she is mor­tal, you see. And so the future is intrin­si­cal­ly ambigu­ous and one could almost say ambiva­lent because it’s the pos­si­bil­i­ty of self-deployment, devel­op­ment, but it also is the neces­si­ty of self-disappearance, if you will, of the arrest­ing of the self. And the event as a break, as a rup­ture, as an inter­rup­tion, of a con­tin­u­um of the know­able, if you will, intro­duces or reaffirms—reaffirms, real­ly; does­n’t introduce—it recalls this dimen­sion of the future that so much of the Western tra­di­tion that we’ve been dis­cussing tends to dele­git­imize or to try to tran­scend. Or, to tran­scend, in inter­est­ing ways, because in the Bible and par­tic­u­lar­ly in the New Testament, the tran­scend­ing of this finite ele­ment of the future is among oth­er things the Apocalypse. And the Apocalypse is some­thing that as you know, many many fun­da­men­tal­ist Christians in the United States are entire­ly orga­nized in antic­i­pat­ing, look­ing for­ward to, because it will not be an event in the sense of a rad­i­cal rup­ture, it will be an event that breaks with the event, in the post-Heideggerian sense, by open­ing up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of res­ur­rec­tion, you see. Of eter­nal life. At the same time that it destroys every­thing that is part of the Antichrist, that is basi­cal­ly part of mor­tal existence. 

So, you get a pat­tern here that in my opin­ion is exceed­ing­ly dan­ger­ous. Which is the sort of tran­scen­den­tal­iza­tion of the notion that killing is the way to over­come death. And this is a for­mu­la­tion that you find in many dif­fer­ent places. The death of death, you see. And the death of death, if death is intro­duced by human action, then in some sense human action can help to at least facil­i­tate and bring about the Apocalypse, which will be the death of death, and the return to eter­nal life, you see. And there are, I would say unfor­tu­nate­ly, an increas­ing num­ber of believ­ers in the United States at least who are more or less eager­ly look­ing for­ward, expect­ing, dat­ing this event. 

But you see, in this sense, to go back to 9‍/‍11, there are good rea­sons to agree with Derrida, who argues that it was not an event in this one sense because it was a planned, and to some extent pre­dictable, project with very clear goals in a cer­tain sense, that fit in to a con­tin­u­um of the cog­niz­able, of the know­able. However, the reac­tion to it opens out onto the unknow­able. Derrida’s empha­sis is that for exam­ple the trau­ma is not some­thing that is sim­ply retrospec­tive, look­ing back on an expe­ri­ence of shock that has not been able to be inte­grat­ed in one’s con­tin­u­ous con­scious expe­ri­ence, but that the real force of the dra­ma is in the anx­i­ety about the future that it pro­duces. In oth­er words, the expe­ri­ence of the past as some­thing not inte­grat­able is trau­mat­ic because it becomes an uncon­trol­lable prod­uct of anx­i­ety direct­ed toward the future. And this is a point that he makes in… 

So that in a cer­tain sense, the invo­ca­tion of weapons of mass destruc­tion by let’s say the Bush admin­is­tra­tion and then going to war in Iraq fits in all too well with this ten­den­cy, but at the same time with the effort to domes­ti­cate this. The effort to put death to death, you see. 9‍/‍11 spread death and destruc­tion as the result of human action, and with even more pow­er­ful destruc­tive human action we will hope to put an end, Mission Accomplished. And at the same time the Bush gov­ern­ment from a the­o­log­i­cal point of view found itself in the uncom­fort­able posi­tion real­ly of wag­ing a war against the Axis of Evil, which could only, at least from the Christian point of view, end with the Armageddon. And there were Christian the­ol­o­gists then who were rather uncom­fort­able with this sit­u­a­tion. And we’re still very much in this posi­tion of fight­ing wars with­out any clear end to them. 


Given this expla­na­tion or inter­pre­ta­tion of the response to 9‍/‍11 as a war against ter­ror, the inva­sion of Iraq, of Afghanistan and so on, one could ask is this a fail­ure of the polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion, and could things have been done differently? 

My sense is it was a fail­ure of the polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion that was how­ev­er ground­ed in the nature of the imag­i­na­tion or the imag­i­nary per se. In oth­er words, it seems to me that it accom­plished pre­cise­ly what the imag­i­na­tion can accom­plish, reveal­ing its lim­i­ta­tions, and from a Lacanian point of view, by impli­ca­tion, empha­siz­ing the impor­tance that what’s need­ed was not a polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion but a polit­i­cal sym­bol­ic or symbolization. 

And by that I mean two things. Lacan tries to dis­tin­guish between the pro­duc­tion of images as a basis for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the world and of the world, which he inter­prets as being tied to a notion of self-identity that is intrin­si­cal­ly para­noiac because it depends on an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the oth­er while at the same time try­ing to exclude the oth­er from its intrin­sic iden­ti­ty, and there­fore can lead to a spi­ral, an aggres­sive spi­ral, of iden­ti­fi­ca­tions that are elim­i­na­to­ry and that can nev­er elim­i­nate— It’s a lit­tle bit like in your field of vision, you shift your vision in order to see what’s going on next to the image, and you’re sim­ply shift­ing the lim­i­ta­tion there. So that you real­ly can nev­er cov­er every­thing in an image. 

You see, the prob­lem there is that the indi­vid­u­a­tion of the image depends on fram­ing and depends on a cut that can be inter­pret­ed in two dif­fer­ent ways. It can be in many, but at least in two very fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent ways. One, as a lim­i­ta­tion that essen­tial­ly includes, as the Garden of Eden was essen­tial­ly includ­ed, with­out hav­ing to wor­ry about that fact that it at the same time excludes. So that that which is exclud­ed by the cut, or by the frame, is extrin­sic, sec­ondary, and not con­stituent of what is includ­ed. At the same time, there­fore, you must in some way elim­i­nate the frame as that which joins the inside to the out­side, which touch­es, which has an opac­i­ty, which has a den­si­ty, and so on. 

The sym­bol­ic it seems to me—and we’re talk­ing here about some­thing that Lacan devel­ops in con­nec­tion with the Sausssurean sig­ni­fi­er, is some­thing where the inclu­sion of any sig­ni­fi­er is qua signifier—that is, in the process of signifying—that which points else­where. Which is con­sti­tut­ed by the fact that it points else­where. This then sets up a chain of sig­ni­fiers, a net­work if you will, of sig­ni­fiers that can­not be intrin­si­cal­ly lim­it­ed but must be restrict­ed. It must be lim­it­ed, there­fore the cut, the cut, takes on a very dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance. It becomes a cut that is inevitably vio­lent and vio­lat­ing because it always links the inside to the out­side. It always…the inside as— For exam­ple as a space of integri­ty, of uni­ty, of some sort of puri­ty or homo­gene­ity, is always het­ero­ge­neous. It depends on that which it excludes. And this can pro­duce a very dif­fer­ent type of think­ing and of act­ing. It seems to me it pro­duces an act­ing and a think­ing and eval­u­a­tion which knows and takes very seri­ous­ly its own fini­tude by say­ing that we can­not know every­thing. But that we must try to know as much as pos­si­ble while at the same time being aware that any cut­off point that we will inevitably have to invoke has to be tem­po­ral, pro­vi­sion­al, and tentative. 

Now, this may sound ter­ri­bly abstract, but I think it’s quite con­crete. And peo­ple with­out any the­o­ret­i­cal inter­est of this sort…journalists such as Robert Fisk for exam­ple, were mak­ing points such as the attack on the World Trade Center could and should be seen in a much larg­er con­text, his­tor­i­cal con­text, going back for instance to the Israeli war in Lebanon, the bomb­ing of school­child­ren, to a whole series of actions that would have to be inter­pret­ed as gen­er­a­tive of the act, the iso­lat­ed act of 9‍/‍11.

And it’s pre­cise­ly this kind— This is not to make a moral judg­ment, but it is to make a polit­i­cal judg­ment and say that if you want to polit­i­cal­ly under­stand destruc­tive­ness that it’s very impor­tant to open your­self to two things. First of all, to the chain of inter­re­la­tions that gen­er­al­ly pro­duces destruc­tive or all acts as what I would call reacts. Every act is a react, is a response. It’s very very impor­tant to see acts as respons­es and to try to under­stand the con­text of these respons­es, with­out at the same time ever think­ing that this under­stand­ing can ever very under­stand­ing of God, that is total and defin­i­tive. So this means con­crete­ly that you always have to be your­self respon­sive. So your own inter­pre­ta­tion of acts as respons­es, as itself a response, and there­fore open to fur­ther respons­es that will even­tu­al­ly cause you to reeval­u­ate and change your own strategy. 

So you see, this pro­duces a very dif­fer­ent type of deci­sion­mak­ing and polit­i­cal pol­i­cy from that which sees itself as mod­eled on the sport­ing event…or if you even will in a dif­fer­ent con­text the Aristotelian notion of plot as some­thing with begin­ning, mid­dle, and end, and some­thing that is then self-contained and can be sim­ply adhered to with­out wor­ry­ing about its own fini­tude. It seems to me, although this may seem very far out to a lot of peo­ple, that some­thing as abstract as the Heideggerian reeval­u­a­tion of the notion of truth, which he no longer takes to be that of the cor­re­spon­dence of thought with an object but rather to take to be that of an intrin­si­cal­ly ambiva­lent appear­ance and dis­ap­pear­ance, dis­clo­sure and con­ceal­ment, in an insep­a­ra­ble process invokes the tem­po­ral­i­ty of fini­tude in the very cog­ni­tive process as such, inas­much as cog­ni­tion and knowl­edge always seems to me pre­sup­posed a val­ue of truth, but with­out wor­ry­ing very much in most cas­es about what this val­ue of truth implies.


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