GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 31, 2006

The 9/11 Event

Filed under: GA — adam @ 2:35 pm

If we accept the originary hypothesis we accept that, at the most basic level of analysis, there are nothing but events.  Speaking of broader social processes, like the extension of the market system, is a necessary shorthand, but ultimately that “process” is nothing but a series of events that reference each other as signs.  The market system hasn’t just flowed naturally from more rudimentary forms of reciprocity and sociability; we would have to be able to break it down into a series confrontations, experiments, serendipitous discoveries, seized opportunities, etc.–i.e., events, none of which were inevitable, even if the constitution of one event through its referencing of previous, “precursor” events gives that sense of inevitability. This doesn’t deny that the market system is the best mode of interaction yet discovered for recycling resentments; it just insists that it had to be discovered, and this could have only happened through a series of events which could just as easily have not taken place.

This methodological claim has a claim upon our attention now in particular because we are living in a period of intensified or compressed history, in which the “event-fulness” of reality is especially evident and the attempt to reduce reality to hypostasized abstractions especially useless.  Nothing is happening now because it has to happen, because the next stage of history demands it; everything is happening because of those who are very determined to make it happen, against others determined to make something else happen; in a sense this is always the case, of course, but in compressed history the difference is that none of the agents have a clear or obvious advantage because the institutions established to meet the needs of an earlier crisis, due to the very effectiveness with which they deferred that crisis, no longer channel events in reasonably predictable directions.  So, if GA is to contribute to the disclosure of the kinds of signs that will transcend the crisis which we could name the white guilt/victimary axis, this basic methodological principle must be highlighted.

So, what is an event?  A minimal, formal definition:  an event is an occurence which cannot be sufficiently accounted for by what has preceded it, and after which nothing can be sufficiently accounted for other than by reference to it.  A break, then, which cannot be defined by what came before, while defining what comes after.  And the originary scene provides us with a more “internal” or substantive definition:  an event generates a sign.  An event is over, is “closed,” once it issues a sign which is then iterated within other events, which either remain within the dispensation provided by that sign, or produce a new sign and therefore transcend that previous, epoch-making, event.

We have adequately analyzed an event, then, when we have located the constitutive mimetic rivalries which led to the crisis, and located them as they have been disclosed by the sign closing the event.  What was held sacred by the previous prevailing sign has been disclosed as a source of murderous rivalries, leading to the discovery/invention of a new mode of sacrality, a new center, not to be touched or even approached.  Of course, this analytical approach can become enormously complex.  For now, it is enough to mention that the meaning of the sign issued by the event can only be gleaned or known within another event, an iterative event, in which the sign emitted in the foundational event is shown, simply, to work, to defer some crisis.  We knew that the Holocaust was the foundational event of the post-War era not on April 9, 1945, but when (to take one possibility, or one of many iterative events), American students insisted they would not be “good Germans” and fail to heed the testimony of the victims of their own system–and where, at least plausibly, were thereby instrumental in stopping a war, a war which, in turn, could have led to nuclear conflagration.  (Is this a plausible account?  One could only argue it one way or another within another iterative scene)

I would suggest that in the case of the Holocaust the sign that “closed” the event and made it available for iteration was the emergence, first in a tiny and largely ignored trickle, and finally in the form of best sellers and Oscar winning movies, of victims’ testimony.  The testinomy is what revealed something genuinely new–not the content or information it provided, but in the fact that post-War testimony maintained its continuity with attempts to “tell the world” during the War itself; as any reader of these testimonies know, part of the horror was the sense of certainty that no one knew or would ever know what was happening, that the Nazis would succeed in keeping their monstrous crimes secret, as they constantly taunted their victims would, in fact, be the case.  So, what these testimonies really said to each and every reader, over and above the usually meticulous presentation of the detailed account itself is, “where were YOU”?  If the victims didn’t succeed in getting the word out, one must consider that it was also because no one out there was listening very carefully.  All this could happen without ruffling the surface of our everyday existence (even, granted, a wartime, crisis existence)–our existing institutions, and our consciences, or moral antennae, must be radically deficient in some way, some way in which we can never allow them to be deficient again, because next time we ourselves might not survive (whether physically or morally can be left open).

There is, of course, another iterative event consolidating the hold of “Auschwitz” upon the postmodern world, one which complicates it considerably:  the foundation of Israel and, perhaps even more importantly, the massive mobilization of world-wide Jewish solidarity in response to the threat posed by the Six Day War in 1967 (and the perceived abandonment of the Jews, once again, to their fate at that critical moment).  If it weren’t for that, it would be possible to almost forget the actual identity of the Nazis’ victims–once Auschwitz becomes a frame in which all “othering” can be placed, the specific content of Nazi ideology can become interchangeable with any racializing or “denigrating” ideology–just another “Orientalism,” with the slot of victim filled in accord with the convenience and needs of the dominant groups.  With the Nazis it was the Jews, with defenders of “compulsory heterosexuality” it’s gays–what’s the difference?  The constant reminder Israel represents of the age old desire to exterminate the Jews, to both usurp and erase the specific mode of deferral pioneered by the Jewish understanding of God, makes it impossible to completely de-Judaicize the Holocaust.  It might not be too far to say that our present global struggles, between the White Guilt/victimary axis and what I’ll simply call, rather polemically, those of us determined to renew their stake in the West, breaks down into a struggle over the appropriation of the meaning or sign of Auschwitz.  (There is, briefly, yet another series of iterative events organized around the notion of “totalitarianism,” which would articulate Auschwitz with the Gulag; I would simply suggest, though, that with the demise of Communism, the adherents of this version of the event have assimilated to one of the other positions ).

Part of the project of a “public” GA should be to reconcile such equally legitimate positions:  there is no reason why the insistence that “civil disobedience” be a permanent part of our democratic lexicon, signalling the ultimate responsibility each of us has for whatever passes through our “link” in the “chain of command” need contradict the centrality of the Jews to the event/sign “Auschwitz”–quite to the contrary, since the conjunction can even deepen our sense of the distinctiveness of the Judaic concept of God “as the declarative sentence.”  And a heightened sense of political responsibility only becomes white guilt when the guilty and innocent parties are known a priori, which only results from a kind of mimetic contagion aimed at blurring over the distinctive features of Auschwitz by applying its terms to any asymmetry. 

I am now going to suggest that the event of 9/11 supersedes Auschwitz as the foundational event of the period now beginning.  This, of course, requires some explanation.  First, of course, I don’t mean to suggest any similarity in scale–the al-Qaeda terrorists might have wished they could kill millions of Americans, they might have reasonably hoped to have killed in the tens of thousands (which were, in fact, the initial estimates that morning); but, in fact, there is no comparison.  Nor need there be–the question of a “foundational” or “dispensational” event involves an anthropological revelation of historic proportion, nothing more.  No one, for that matter, actually has to die for this to take place.  Second, I don’t mean that “Auschwitz” now becomes irrelevant–we are obliged to remember and extend the ethical gains consequent upon any epochal event; even more, a new foundational event is such insofar as it includes and redirects the previous one.  Just like God told the Jews to reject any prophet who tells them to change the law, we should reject any event that claims to invalidate any mode of deferral that in some way represented an ethical advance.  We might, in fact, be in a position to discuss more lucidly the lessons of Auschwitz.  Or, more precisely, the deferral of the deadly conflict over the sign “Auschwitz” should provide us with a more minimal version of that event in terms of the new foundation. 

If the sign of Auschwitz emerges through victims’ testimonies, then the sign of 9/11 must emerge from within (or, perhaps, be telescoped by) the destiny of United Airlines Flight 93.  In the plane that was downed by a passenger revolt we see the ultimate limitations of victimary discourse; we are presented with a situation in which White Guilt is utterly inapplicable.  The surprise attack worked because of our lazy, white guilty accommodation to terrorism–the rules were, accede to terrorist blackmail in such situations because, first, that is the best way of keeping everyone safe (implicitly, then, hijackings are less acts of war than safety hazards); and, more profoundly and insidiously, this is simply the tax we must be ready to pay in a world where our comforts have generated so many resentments that we can’t conciliate them all.  Once word came to Flight 93 that this “compact” had been broken, a new reality was revealed:  terrorism had become a conduit for a kind of resentment-for-itself, thereby removing the luxury of rewriting the past so as to speculate about a present in which one wouldn’t have to deal with such things.  (If only we hadn’t overthrown that president, or given so much money to Israel, or become so dependent on oil…if only we hadn’t invaded Iraq)  Civil society might be transformed into a front line at any time, and at least some of us must be ready to cofnront the terrorists’ love of death with a willingness to face death.

More simply, the revelation here is that recognizing the legitimacy of the victimary ends up feeding, rather than dissolving, it.  This has nothing to do with whether or not we are to support victims–supporting victims, though, does not involve a running physical and ideological assault on the center which presumably produces them; rather, it involves calling upon representatives of the center to devise the means needed to protect victims, whether it be of crime, terrorism or tyranny, and even more, being prepared to represent that center when necessary.  The question raised by “Auschwitz” was:  are you, in your ethical “equipment,” someone who would relentlessly get the word out of the death camps; even more, someone who would have been attentive to signs that something unprecedented was underway; even more, someone who, if so positioned, would stop the machinery of death in its tracks, regardless of the consequences to yourself?  The question raised by “9/11” is:  does your ethical composition prepare you to refuse to be a hostage by whatever means are possible; even more, to refuse to pay blackmail more generally, which is to say to refuse “standing” to any expression of a grievance which comes attached to the slightest hint that legitimate violence might come in the wake of a failure to address it to the complainant’s satisfaction? This is an extraordinarily difficult pledge to make, as we are discovering, particularly when the terrorist modus operandi is to make us liable for the fate of those they take hostage.  But 9/11 teaches us that paying ransom is the beginning of an process, increasingly irreversible as it proceeds, in which our powers become weapons against us; “ransom,” of course, understood in the broadest sense of allowing our responsibility for the fate of innocents to be used to persuade us to cede control over our actions to to those who thus implicate us.  If we are strong enough to be blackmailed, we are strong enough to reject it.

Here is where the real relevance of our analysis comes into play.  The ability and intention of terrorists to place civilians in the path of our superior means of destruction aims at intensifying the victimary “reception” of Auschwitz–it’s no coincidence that, of all people, Iranian President Ahmadinejad is now accusing the Israelis of being Nazis.  “Auschwitz,” we must now first of all say, is about conscience and liberty, which require the defense of the center that the Nazis themselves tried to destroy.  The Nazis wished not only to exterminate the Jews and erase the Judaic mode of deferral (conscience); they wanted to implicate the free world in these crimes by presenting them as revenge for the Anglo-American capitulation to Jewish interests, for their willingness to wage a war on behalf of world Jewish domination.  (And if we answer, “but we weren’t fighting for the Jews,” does that not implicate us in another way?–we are either dupes of the Jews or cynically self-interested, in which case we would ultimately do exactly what the Nazis have done if we had to)  In the same way, totalitarian Islam wants to commit its murderous crimes and displace responsibility onto us; if we had steadfastly said to the Nazis that a defense of the Jews is a defense of civilization, we would have removed the double bind–rejecting any moral causality between Israel’s existence and self-defense, or even any crimes Israel may have committed in the course of its history, and the resentments being played out today against the very standards of civilization that would make it possible to hold Israel responsible in the first place would have the same effect.  We should assiduously expose the choreographed responses to and even manufacture of Israeli “atrocities,” and we should be repeatedly insisting that each and every civilian death is the fault of Hamas and Hizbollah and no one else; we should be composing and sending teams of human rights inspectors to Hizbollah and Hamas occupied territory to see if the war crime of holding civilians hostage is being committed; we should set up war crimes tribunals for each and every member of these terrorist organizations who commits these crimes; and all the while we should repeat the answer given to those afraid that the rescue of Jews was neglected by those waging the war, which is that the best way to save the most innocents is to win the war as soon as possible–even while we are now able to add that exposing the moral depravity of totalitarian Islam is the best way to both save civilians right now and win the war quickly. 

The point here is not to make moral declarations that improve our image, for ourselves and others; rather, it is to devise strategies that can unite us (to the extent that we can be united) while dividing our enemies.  We must first of all create as many difficulties as possible for the de facto alliance between the “transnational progressive” left (the media, much of the judiciary, the NGOs and human rights groups, the academy), the embodiment of white guilt, and the victimary Islamic totalitarians.  What has gone unrecognized is that the vocabulary selected by the Bush Administration has already gone some ways toward undermining the transnational progressives–the human rights groups have all, as the saying goes, “jumped the shark” in their eagerness to condemn the US, leaving themselves vulnerable to fraud and manipulation, causing them to lose credibility among those helped by America and the American people, reducing, them, in short, to fringe groups.  The liberals have been pushed into the arms of the foreign policy “realists” and the repulsive likes of Brent Scowcroft, whom none of them would have touched with a 10 foot pole before the onset of Bush Derangement Syndrome.  The surest way of losing all touch with reality, except the virtual one constructed in the never ending dialogues of the international “diplomatic community,” is to become a Realist.  While the media is digging itself deeper into border line treasonous activities in the pursuit of stories of interest only to Pulitzer Prize committees.  There is a very outside chance that the Democrats will gain power in the House and/or Senate this November–can anyone doubt that if they do they will govern so disastrously as to lose it again, probably once and for all?  I am not among those who mourn the decline of the media, the Democrats, the human rights groups, etc.–they are all, more and more looking like institutions and organizations created under very specific conditions and limited to those conditions–the post WWII world in which the sign “Auschwitz” called for new modes of scrutiny upon governmental activity  and attentiveness to victims’ claims in particular.  Their rapid descent into senility can be tracked precisely, I believe, with the degeneration of the “Auschwitz” sign into unmitigated White Guilt. 

With regard to totalitarian Islam, I would hypothesize that hostage taking groups are especially vulnerable to infiltration, defection and disinformation.  I suspect–we can’t know of course, because one can still  hope that much is going on in secret (but is anything going on that some self-appointed “whistle blower” won’t leak to the NY Times?)–that we are engaging these activities very ineffectively, even though they will all serve as “focre multipliers”:  they will not only sow discord and confusion among our enemies but such activites will set up a realm of activity in which intelligence and military professionals can work beyond the reach of the transnational progressives.  The ideal would be to have the major media outlets reporting on the most superficial and irrelevant things, which they will be fed by the elements of the government (the CIA, the State Department) and the human rights groups that are be rendered obsolete by the turn to smaller, more rigorous and smarter groupings who work below the radar.  This won’t create an unaccountable secret government because insofar as these groups work effectively, the effects of their work will show up, indirectly, for those with adequately attuned radar–reporters who are willing to follow subtle trendlines, take risks, find ways of getting inside and gaining the trust of the new type of operative, those who can do serious analytical and interpretive work, will be able to piece things together and present them in ways that don’t endanger those operations.  And we can leave the writers and readers of the NY Times to sleep in peace, cuddling their Pulitzers.

Which means that that other despised element of the “Bush Doctrine,” “pre-emption,” is, in fact, an authentic and central category of the 9/11 dispensation.  Refusing to pay ransom means treating blackmail as the crime that it is.  It means treating anyone who claims to be our enemy as our enemy (who are we to deny anyone the right to be our enemy?).  This would include the not-so-subtle “I denounce violence but if people’s frustrations are not addressed, I can’t be held responsible for the results…”  Let every assassination of a Saudi cleric calling for “martyrs” to go into Iraq be accompanied by a packet of sermons he gave, perhaps emailed directly to American citizens, bypassing the media.  Let’s see who denounces this violation of the rights of those who incite to the murder of our soldiers.  Let’s experiment–the columnist Diane West recently called for declaring war on specific organizations (like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah) so that, among other things, we could take action against their domestic supporters.  Pehaps it’s a gamble–we might make small groups more important than we would like; unlike countries, such groups can always change their names, break off into allied groups, and find other ways to turn themselves into harder targets.  If we stay on the offesnvie, perhaps we’ll find ways of turning that to our advantage as well. In addition to military tribunals for trying those who deliberately use human shields, why not offer a release to all of our prisoners, under one simple condition–that they offer a full, verifiable, confession detailing all their activities and confederates, signed, and for public distribution?  And then they can go where they please!  The fact that we are tinkering around the edges of what’s allowed under the Geneva Convention, that we are held hostage by over-reactions to what were ultimately rather minor abuses of government power 30-40 years ago, rather than improvising energetically, even a bit wildly, shows that we have not yet entered the 9/11 dispensation.  But we will, or the ransom will keep getting higher, until our blackmailers just come and take it already. 

Does all this sound utterly unrealistic and unreasonable (and perhaps “unconscionable”?) to you?  If so, to that extent you haven’t seriously entered the new dispensation either.


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