Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Nick Spencer
Review of: Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers. New York: Verso, 2002. Translated by Chris Turner.
Paul Virilio. Ground Zero. New York: Verso, 2002. Translated by Chris Turner.
Slavoj Zizek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. New York: Verso, 2002.
Note: This review originally appeared in the Electronic Book Review (January 26, 2003).
The simultaneous publication of these three texts on the first anniversary of 9/11 presented a unique opportunity to assess both relations among prominent voices in critical theory and the political meaning of aspects of theoretical discourse. Readers who are familiar with these authors will not be surprised by the dominant perspectives and some of the ideas in these texts: Baudrillard’s negotiation of the simulacral and the real, Virilio’s critique of the extensions of military technology, and Zizek’s appeal to Lacanian concepts are all on display. Baudrillard, Virilio, and Zizek use these frameworks to address the significance of 9/11, but the centrality and contextualization of the World Trade Center attacks differs considerably among them. In contrast to Baudrillard’s self-enclosed and sustained inquiry into the impact of the WTC events, Virilio’s analysis of techno-scientific progress makes only occasional reference to 9/11, and Zizek’s study of the political meaning of the terrorist attacks engages with a vast range of cultural and political material. Rather than being associated with conflicting opinions, however, such differences create a variegated map of consistent critical reaction. One of the effects of 9/11 is therefore the emergence of a theoretical solidarity that encompasses positions that in other contexts seem opposed or incompatible. The appearance of solidarity is due to the political priorities that animate these texts. It is, I think, appropriate to consider this development in connection with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire and other contemporary theoretical texts that return to explicit economic and political analysis. Driven by a reassessment of the political (and intellectual) relationship between Europe and the United States, these three texts exemplify how the implied politics of decades of critical theory are now becoming explicit under the conditions of the hegemony of American neocolonialism.
Baudrillard and 9/11 are of course made for each other. The aftermath of the 9/11 events suggests the validity of Baudrillard’s unjustly maligned writings on the Gulf War of 1991. In those texts Baudrillard claimed that the definition of the Gulf conflict as a war was erroneous because those events lacked the symbolic components that are integral to the meaning of war. The highly problematic framing of the events following 9/11 as a war on terror suggests that Baudrillard was right to highlight how American power deploys the rhetoric of military conflict as a means of legitimizing its authority to act as global police and economic center. Interestingly, Baudrillard does not address this issue directly. Yet he does suggest that the global police state that is currently forming will occasionally resort to hot wars, such as the Gulf War, in order to validate itself. Even though this suggestion transposes the meaning of the Gulf War, it is a typically Baudrillardian formulation of simulation. Also, the methodology of his writing is rooted in that of his earlier texts. For example, his discussion of theory as an “analogon” of events echoes the sentiments that inform concepts such as seduction, fatal strategy, and the revenge of the crystal:
I don’t think there is any possible explanation of this event, either by intellectuals or by others – but its analogon, so to speak; an analysis which might possibly be as unacceptable as the event, but strikes the…let us say, symbolic imagination in more or less the same way.1
As one would expect, Baudrillard uses this approach to understand 9/11 in terms of critical intensification rather than dialectical opposition. His claim that people in the west had dreamt of an event such as 9/11 immediately disposes of the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis. Rather, Baudrillard argues that 9/11 is a manifestation of globalization’s attack upon itself: the terrorists mirror the violence that western capitalism creates but cannot use, constitute a diaspora that is produced by and structurally mirrors multinational capitalism, and assimilate and intensify all aspects of power, such as using “the banality of everyday American life as cover and camouflage”.2
Despite these repetitions, The Spirit of Terrorism articulates new developments in Baudrillard’s ideas. One of the most striking instances of his conjunction of existent and novel concepts is his treatment of the two towers. In the book, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard discusses the towers of the World Trade Center as figures for the dominance of a binarism that includes digital culture, the genetic code, and the duopoly of liberal capitalist states. Developing this analysis, Baudrillard, in “Requiem for the Twin Towers,” suggests that the towers suffered two attacks and two deaths that constitute a critical extension of such binary logic: the effect of the attacks is to suggest the possibility of the overthrow of the power embodied in the towers. As well as physical destruction, Baudrillard states that the towers endured a symbolic collapse that was due to their inability to sustain the image of contemporary capitalist power. The disappearance of the towers therefore evokes the possibility of the disappearance of the formation of power that, for Baudrillard, they represent. In making such arguments, Baudrillard posits that the post-9/11 world is significantly different from the one that preceded it. Baudrillard’s claim that the WTC attacks represent “a setback for globalization” indicates that his writing articulates a new-found optimistic engagement with “real” political events (one hopes that this shift in Baudrillard’s emphasis will curtail the ridiculous but unsurprising claims made by mainstream liberals that he is of an ultra-rightist persuasion).3 Baudrillard’s shift is due to his belief that 9/11 has renewed both images and events and ended the pre-9/11 era of pseudo-events. The terror attacks are an “absolute event” because they combine western technological advancement and sacrificial suicide, operational structure and symbolic pact.4 The way that Baudrillard frames this argument signals that the irruption of reality that he describes can not be identified with simplistic, a priori notions of the real. Rather, he describes 9/11 as a hyperreal spectacle that is so extreme that it generates an extra degree of fictional supplementarity, and it is this process of “reinventing the real as the ultimate and most redoubtable fiction” that, for him, makes certain the possibility of global capitalism’s death.5
Whereas Baudrillard assesses the interweaving of reality and fiction in the events of 9/11, Virilio contextualizes the terror attacks within large-scale genealogies of cultural and technological developments. Virilio’s perspective means that his antipathy to American cultural imperialism is even more unmistakable than Baudrillard’s. For Virilio, the history of western society since the Renaissance is almost wholly disastrous. Through Protestantism and the scientific revolution, the Renaissance engendered an “egocentric revolution” that was predicated on a gnostic hatred of matter.6 Such “philanoia”,7 or a love of madness, has driven technological progress since the Renaissance. Virilio’s references to Protestantism are significant because his views are redolent of certain aspects of French Catholic culture. As well as suggesting the rural French opposition to Americanization (especially fast food), Virilio’s ideas evoke a conception of “life” that has Catholic connotations. Specifically, Virilio regards contemporary reproductive technologies as philanoiac extensions that reflect a hatred of biological parenthood. No Donna Haraway is Virilio: he denounces the transformation of human embryos into processed goods as being paradigmatic of the “prohibition to prohibit”,8 or the coterminous deification of technology and liberal concepts of freedom. Virilio’s overall point is that the desire for immortality that is articulated through such phenomena has destroyed the social dimensions of time and space. Instead of utopia and geopolitics we have the “uchronia” of light-speed technologies and the “chronopolitics” of instantaneous communication.9 For Virilio, contemporary communication technologies deny communication and eradicate the heterogeneity of “the near”.10 Journalism, art, mass media, and advertising are all guilty of emptying out the meaning of the world and producing the “big optics” of privatized images.11 Virilio’s bile seems to know no bounds – body art, raves, and “museomania” all exemplify the hatred of the organism that he sees in western techno-science.12
The different emphases of Baudrillard and Virilio are related to their conceptions of 9/11 and contemporary conflict. While Baudrillard argues that current social trends are a form of power that is non-military in nature but that requires sporadic hot wars to disguise this fact, Virilio believes that these same trends are extensions of militarization into other areas of life. He assesses large swathes of cultural history as a way of showing the influence of military technology and strategy up to the present day, and he regards 9/11 as a development within cultural forms that are themselves the product of militarization. Reality TV, for example, is an “image strategy” that is a “direct successor” to the Gulf and Kosovo wars and a precursor to 9/11.13 Also, Virilio hints that anthrax outbreaks are the latest phase of a technological genealogy that includes BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. More generally, he stresses that the transitions from total war to cold war to terrorism must be understood in terms of the evolution of a logic of the advancement of military technology. Virilio observes that the terrorist attacks manifest the loss of proximity that is the primary characteristic of uchronic culture: both the image and the attack can strike from anywhere at any time. Virilio’s ideas indicate that he, like Baudrillard, dispenses with dialectical oppositions to suggest that the United States was attacked from within not from without. In other words, the USA was the victim of the forces that it conjured. In making this argument, Virilio is equally harsh on the culture of the terrorists. For Virilio, the multinationals and wealthy elite of Arab society are as enamored of technological nihilism as the United States, and the suicidal actions of the terrorists are as expressive of this disposition as the western technology fetish. As much as the technological logic of western capitalism, the anonymity of the attacks is expressive of a “global covert state”.14 Virilio builds texture into his argument not by returning to the clash of civilizations hypothesis but by appealing to categories of class. He argues that the “global subproletariat” of extensive immigration are the manipulated victims of Muslim fundamentalism.15 As the objects of both bombs and humanitarian aid, such displaced persons enable the false opposition of these two global strategies to be perceived. Just as terrorism and capitalism are in thrall to the same technological trajectory, so too bombs and aid are indistinguishable outcomes of the same bankrupt logic of liberal democracy. Unlike Baudrillard, Virilio does not think that 9/11 has created an aperture of hope, but his references to the world’s displaced proletariat are an invaluable reminder of the reality of opposed interests and the promise of revolutionary struggle.
Given the background of their writing, one would expect Baudrillard and Virilio to have similar ideas and means of expression on the subject of terrorism. What is surprising is the extent to which Zizek articulates similar interpretations in the framework of Lacanian psychoanalysis and political reportage. More so than anything else, these three texts are tied together by a critique of the clash of civilizations hypothesis as an explanation of 9/11. For all three authors, such a hypothesis exemplifies the false oppositions upon which liberal democracy is based. If these authors are to be believed, democracy has failed. Zizek’s approach to these ideas is something like a reworking of the infamous cliché, “Scratch a liberal and you’ll find a fascist.” While they may ostensibly be opposed, in Zizek’s account there is a complicity between the liberal and the conservative. While he does not state this point, Zizek’s account enacts a reintegration of the two historical meanings of liberalism: free-trade conservative and would-be egalitarian humanist. Zizek describes the complicity between these positions in terms of the relation between the law of the ego and its “obscene superego underside”.16 A good example of this dynamic is, according to Zizek, the complicity between Colonel Kurtz and the US army in Apocalypse Now. Also, as constituents of the fascist underside of American liberalism, figures such as Bin Laden and Noriega carry out the United States’ dirty work but appear distinct from it. One could also cite the emergence of the 9/11 terrorists from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two countries that the USA supports, as another illustration of Zizek’s thesis. He accounts for these dynamics of false opposition with recourse to the Lacanian orders of the Real and Symbolic. Western liberals’ perception of 9/11 as an intrusion of reality into a cocoon of images is rejected by Zizek. For him, 9/11 and its agents function as the Lacanian Real, or the structuring circumference of the Symbolic rather than its absolute Other. Western liberalism has a “passion for the Real” as a site of Otherness and authenticity,17 but, by failing to acknowledge how the Real constitutes and is knotted into our everyday Symbolic world, such a desire propagates a spectral social reality and represses more accurate interpretations of current events. Interestingly enough, this is precisely the argument that Baudrillard has been making for twenty years in non-Lacanian terms. As well as referring to the social void created by the desire for authenticity, Zizek’s title, which is taken from The Matrix, gives us an opportunity to accept the basic parity between the critiques of certain conceptions of the Real advanced by these two theorists.
As in Virilio’s account, Zizek sees 9/11 as a symptom of more general aspects of contemporary western society. Zizek shares Virilio’s view of 9/11 as both the last vestige of total war and the complement to multinational interventionist organizations, such as the IMF and WTO; he supplements these positions by defining al-Queda and concentration camps as examples of the obscene underside of, respectively, multinational corporations and refugee camps. Such strategies mean that citizens such as terrorists or recipients of aid are treated as what Giorgio Agamben describes as Homo sacer, people devoid of political subjectivity. Zizek has often written about popular films, but one senses a distinctive and mischievous glee in his description of Shrek and The Land Before Time as being paradigmatic of these problems of western liberalism. Such movies, according to Zizek, advocate an acceptance of difference across cultures, but in doing so they erase meaningful antagonisms. Zizek often focuses this critique on liberal academics. For example, he dismisses the discourse of “resistance” that informs Cultural Studies as a dominant tendency that prevents actual imbalances of interests from being perceived,18 and he argues that “the emphasis on multitude and diversity masks…the underlying monotony of today’s global life”.19 Zizek regards the discourse of difference as an expression of the nihilism of Nietzsche’s Last Man. Along with his critique of unqualified opposition to the death penalty, this claim puts Zizek in the company of those theorists, such as Kojève, Bataille and, yes, Baudrillard, who have most frequently and ingenuously been accused of ultra-conservatism. But Zizek’s analysis seeks to reinscribe political meanings in ways that negate such liberal critiques.
As one would expect, Zizek’s politics involve an appeal to the Marxist categories of class and economics. He explicitly states that a “proper dose of ‘economic reductionism'” is the best way to understand how the United States privileges economy over democracy and why Islamic fundamentalists oppose both western nations and countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.20 Zizek also invokes the Marxist notion of “totality” to chide those who simply justify or condemn the 9/11 attacks,21 and instead he advocates empathy with all victims of violence. This line of thinking does not, however, lead him to propose an enlargement of the field of democracy. Instead, he speaks of Agamben’s reading of Saint Paul’s “revolutionary Messianism” and Alain Badiou’s theorization of ‘the Act’ as an “intervention of Eternity into time”.22 Such gestures entail a break from existing Symbolic coordinates, and, as an example of such a “utopian” Lacanian Act,23 Zizek refers to the Israeli refuseniks who ruptured the Symbolic field of their society by refusing to invade Palestinian territory. His attachment of these concepts to the idea of the proletariat as “the revolutionary Subject proper” resonates with Hardt and Negri’s reclamation of a proletarian communist identity,24 but he is critical of these authors’ belief in the demise of the nation. As well as describing how waxing nationalism sustains the United States’ passion for the Real, Zizek defends the Slovenian nation against charges that its secession from Yugoslavia precipitated the Balkans conflicts. He also argues that the greatest tragedy of 9/11 is the kidnapping of Europe by the United States and suggests that the only viable opposition to American hegemony is a united Europe that has separated itself from American policies. Zizek does not attempt to synthesize his four main positions (a critique of liberalism’s obscene underside, a utilization of economic reductionism, an appeal to the Act, and an adherence to the analysis of nationhood), but his combination of Lacanian and Marxist approaches provides both an effective critique of the current situation and a utopian pathway to a better future.
While these three texts present theoretical ideas that are largely familiar, the context of their simultaneous publication suggests a new direction in the relation of theory to politics. Since 1968, continental theory’s preoccupation with textuality has often been viewed as a retreat from leftist politics. Yet from Barthes’ critique of mythological signs and Lacan’s opposition to American ego psychology, one can sense in the theoretical project an (often implicit) attempt to counter the rise of American power. The implicit politics of theory have been complicated and obscured by the success of certain theorists in American society. Authors such as Derrida and Baudrillard have experienced great success in the American marketplace, but at the cost of the conflation of postmodern critique with the capitalist culture of postmodernity. In the wake of 9/11 this situation seems to be changing. The Marxist background of much critical theory is undoubtedly being reasserted, and the political dimension of the work of authors such as Baudrillard and Virilio is being foregrounded. As these theorists move closer to a European stance in opposition to the United States, Americans’ fascination with continental theory seems to be in decline. There remains a considerable Deleuze industry in American academia, but the transatlantic pipeline of European theory is drying up. It is impossible to predict how these trends will develop in the future, but the publication of these three texts on the anniversary of 9/11 may well constitute a significant moment in any reorientation of theoretical culture that is to come.
About the Author:
Nick Spencer is from the Department of English, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, USA.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers. New York: Verso, 2002:41n.
2 – Ibid.: 19.
3 – Ibid.: 3, 29.
4 – Ibid.:4.
5 – Ibid.: 29.
6 – Paul Virilio. Ground Zero. New York: Verso, 2002:7.
7 – Ibid.:14.
8 – Ibid.:2.
9 –Ibid.:15, 31.
10 – Ibid.:41.
11 – Ibid.:59.
12 – Ibid.:52.
13 – Ibid.:42.
14 – Ibid.:82.
16 – Slavoj Zizek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. New York: Verso, 2002: 25.
18 – Ibid.:66.
19 – Ibid.:68.
20 – Ibid.:41-42.
21 – Ibid.:50.
22 – Ibid.:80, 101.
23 – Ibid.:99.
24 – Ibid.:81.