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.