Intellectual Conceits: Derrida on 9/11

Let me state at the outset that I’m neither a member of the Hate Derrida or the Love Derrida clubs.  I’m in the Indifferent Club. While our membership is quietly growing, our manifesto is less well known than our rivals. We don’t claim to be experts in Derrida, of course; but from what we have read, we don’t think there’s anything especially novel about him. To us, he seems like an old New Leftist dressed in a radical skeptic’s leisure suit. To the extent that he has anything to say, then, it can appeal only to old guard leftists who’ve lost faith in the old ways without losing the old faith. It’s all the same old wine in a new bottle.

At any rate, I don’t want to get into a full-blown interpretation of Derrida and deconstruction here. I have a more modest aim. I want to explain in this post why we in the Indifferent Club always come to the conclusion that Derrida isn’t worth listening to. I’ll show this by looking at one of his answers to the questions on 9/11 solicited by Borradori and partially published online.  The full text of that question and Derrida’s answer are reproduced below along with my analysis.

It’s important to note that I’m not interested in condemning his political opinions for failing to conform to my own—the content of his politics is beside the point in what follows.  I’m only concerned to show that for all his portentous verbiage, his reflections on 9/11 are no deeper, no more cogent and no less ill-informed than what you’d find on the opinion pages of your local newspaper at the time.

Borradori: Whether or not September 11 is an event of major importance, what role do you see for philosophy? Can philosophy help us to understand what has happened?

Derrida (bracketed letters added for clarity of reference):

[a] Such an ‘event’ surely calls for a philosophical response. [b] Better, a response that calls into question, at their most fundamental level, the most deep-seated conceptual presuppositions in philosophical discourse. [c] The concepts with which this ‘event’ has most often been described, named, categorized, [d] are the products of a ‘dogmatic slumber’ from which [e] only a new philosophical reflection can awaken us, a reflection on philosophy, most notably on political philosophy and its heritage. The prevailing discourse, [f] that of the media and of the official rhetoric, [g] relies too readily on received concepts like ‘war’ or ‘terrorism’ (national or international).

I don’t know what a “philosophical response” to 9/11 means when it involves [b], questioning the presuppositions of philosophical discourse. I would have thought that [b] had no direct relationship with [a]. Presumably, however, [b] is a little fluff, a little warm-up rhetoric, and we’re supposed to skip [b] for [c]; thus, Derrida is after the conceptual framework that underlies our understanding of 9/11 as an “event,” and it is that at which the philosophical response is aimed (i.e., at [a]).

Adding [d] into the mix, we can say that our understanding is the dogmatic slumber, out of which the response is geared to waking us.  Unfortunately for us, [g] says that Derrida will only concern himself with two of the concepts in our faulty framework—i.e., with “terrorism” and “war”—out of the whole schema otherwise known as the “official rhetoric” about the “event” named 9/11.

The introductory paragraph’s bottom line is this: Derrida is going to give us a philosophical response to 9/11 that involves exposing the faults in our concepts of “war” and “terrorism” embedded in our understanding of 9/11 as an event.  I admit that it sounds promising: like we’re about to learn something we didn’t already know, or that we didn’t realize. But I think you’ll see that he says nothing we haven’t already heard ad nauseam and that his own understanding relies as much on a misunderstanding—or on willfully misconstruing— context of everyday discourse.

Derrida writes:

A critical reading of Schmitt, for example, would thus prove very useful. On the one hand, so as to follow Schmitt as far as possible in distinguishing classical war (a direct and declared confrontation between two enemy states, according to the long tradition of European law) from “civil war” and “partisan war” (in its modern forms, even though it appears, Schmitt acknowledges, as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century).

The reference to Carl Schmitt is gratuitous name-dropping. The distinction between international, civil and partisan war is not especially uncommon. And nothing added after this will justify the reference.  Anyway, let’s carry on:

 But, on the other hand, we would also have to recognize, against Schmitt, that the violence that has now been unleashed is not the result of ‘war’…

Notice the passive construction of the main point: “the violence that has now been unleashed is not the result of war.” Why would such a fearless thinker beat around the bush?  The “violence” is the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The second part, “not the result of war,” must mean (recalling Derrida’s own threefold taxonomy of war) that the invasion was not provoked by an international, civil or partisan war.

This last remark makes no sense, on the face of it. Crashing airplanes into buildings must count as an act of partisan war, and the invasions as retaliatory strikes. One could question the value of retaliatory strikes or the targets of them, of course; maybe the US should have turned the other cheek, or maybe Afghanistan or Iraq or both weren’t the best choices for retaliation. But to claim, as Derrida does, that the retaliation itself was not the “result of war” is nonsensical.  Unless he means something else: that the retaliatory strikes had a different motive—that 9/11 was a pretext for invading these two countries for other reasons.

If that’s the case, there’s nothing especially profound here.  (Unless, of course, you’re one of those partisans who thinks everything likeminded people say is profound.) After all, lobbing accusations of Machiavellian conspiracies at the Bush administration was (and still is) an everyday occurrence. Shouting that “It’s all about oil!” in other words, is no more or less convincing when it’s dressed in circumlocution that avoids actually saying it.

 …(the expression ‘war on terrorism’ thus being one of the most confused, and we must analyze this confusion and the interests such an abuse of rhetoric actually serve).

Say what? There’s an “abuse of rhetoric” underway? Not an abuse of speech-making! How low will these people sink!

Seriously, ask yourself if the expression “war on terrorism” is any more opaque than any other slogan—like, say, “Yes we can!”  In fact, isn’t the meaning of the former even more obvious than the latter? Consider the following definition: the Bush administration and its supporters in the media and academia concluded that there was an anti-Western and especially anti-American subculture in Islamic communities and countries that was planning the violent overthrow of the Western hegemony through terrorism. The war on terror is thus a police, intelligence, military and diplomatic action to thwart or weaken or destroy this enemy faction.

Regardless of whether you’re for or against it, you can’t really claim to be perplexed over what the war on terror means.  Even if you think it’s a cover story for more nefarious motives, the “war on terror” is hardly a confused or confusing idea.

 Bush speaks of ‘war,’ but he is in fact incapable of identifying the enemy against whom he declares that he has declared war. It is said over and over that neither the civilian population of Afghanistan nor its armies are the enemies of the United States.

Excitable teenagers get worked up when they discover apparent paradoxes like declaring war on an enemy you can’t precisely name while peremptorily exempting certain people as innocents, as if you did indeed know who the latter were. But grownups know that we do such things all the time. The police set up a manhunt for an unknown killer on the basis of a mutilated body, astronomers search for observational evidence of planets predicted to exist, and dignitaries lay wreathes on the tombs of unknown soldiers.  It’s a crazy world when you’re young; but once you reach adulthood, experience teaches that agents can be inferred from actions.

Now, if that last remark seemed a little uncharitable to you, don’t forget that this isn’t some man on the street or some thinker caught off guard answering a reporter’s question; it’s a prepared statement from one of the intellectual luminaries of the twentieth-century.  For him to make such an unremarkable—indeed, fatuous—criticism is embarrassing.

 Assuming that ‘bin Laden’ is here the sovereign decision-maker…

It’s fair to give a qualified answer. Can anyone say for certain, after all, that bin Laden is not a figurehead for some other agency? No. But Derrida’s cautiousness when it comes to attributing agency to bin Laden belies his partiality when he next offers unqualified assertions that (presumably) fit better with his political orientation:

…everyone knows that he [bin Laden] is not Afghan, that he has been disavowed by his own country (by every “country” and state, in fact, almost without exception), that his training owes much to the United States and that, of course, he is not alone.

Everyone knows bin Laden’s not alone, says Derrida. Yet only a moment ago he held up Bush’s inability to identify the enemy in the war on terror as evidence, not only of how confused his administration was, but of his secret motivations. Indeed, the war on terror was an “abuse of rhetoric” because it conjured enemies out of thin air. Now, apparently, the existence of anti-American terrorists (as well as information regarding their whereabouts) is common knowledge. Go figure…

I’ve come to expect this double-standard from Derrida (and his fellow travelers) when it comes 9/11.  And I think I understand why.  On the one hand, their worldview demands that evil capitalists invent pretexts for wars of profit; on the other, they need some sign that the anti-capitalist, Third World underclass exists, that it has broad-based support, and that it’s striking back against its oppressor. That puts Derrida et al. in a tricky position regarding 9/11: they have to deny the culpability of the oppressed in the attack in order to preserve the capitalists’ profit motivation for the war; yet they also have to assert the culpability of the oppressed in revolutionary acts in order to make the case for the oppressiveness of the capitalists. Lawyers call it having an excuse and an alibi: he couldn’t have done it, but he sure was justified in doing it.

Derrida again:

The states that help him indirectly do not do so as states. No state as such supports him publicly.

 Is the official diplomatic line really relevant?  Does it matter to our assessment of China as a communist dictatorship, say, that it calls itself a republic? Maybe you think it does and that Derrida is making an important point here. But how come the official line didn’t even get a hearing when it came to the US and the war on terror?  Recall that Derrida dismissed the war on terror as a pretext for invasion—as an “abuse of rhetoric”—when the Bush administration offered it as its reason for invading Iraq and Afghanistan. So if the official line does count in his analysis, Derrida must offer us some reason for considering it genuine when it comes from non-Western countries, but disingenuous when it comes from Western ones.  In simpler terms, Derrida must explain why base motives can be attributed without argument to Western countries, while good motivations must be assumed of non-Western ones.  I offer this challenge not because I think it can be answered, but because I think it shows there’s nothing more to it than prejudice.

 As for states that ‘harbor’ terrorist networks, it is difficult to identify them as such. The United States and Europe, London and Berlin, are also sanctuaries, places of training or formation and information for all the ‘terrorists’ of the world. No geography, no ‘territorial’ determination, is thus pertinent any longer for locating the seat of these new technologies of transmission or aggression.

The double-standard again: countries that harbor terrorists are hard to identify as harborers of terrorists, unless they’re Western ones, in which case they’re easily identified as such. Whether al-Qaeda training camps existed in Afghanistan under the aegis of the Taliban is a question fraught with difficulty, according to Derrida, in spite of that regime’s implicit admissions. But the existence of “sanctuaries, places of training or formation” in London and Berlin is a fact beyond dispute. Soyez realiste, Monsieur Derrida! You can’t have it both ways: either you accept without reservation the intelligence reported in the papers as fact (so far as anyone knows), or you take it all with a grain of salt. For a philosopher to cherry-pick what he does and doesn’t believe from the same sources without explanation bespeaks ideological bias, not dispassionate analysis.

But let’s leave that aside and observe how the ground has shifted from deconstructing the rhetorical justification for the invasions to practical strategic policy analysis. Derrida originally said that philosophers should probe into the role played by words like “terrorism” and “war” in the media rhetoric surrounding the event. But he’s not talking about words anymore.  Now he’s offering a practical critique of the execution of the war itself. He says terrorism is an international phenomena—that geography is no longer pertinent—because the terrorists are everywhere and can strike anywhere. This implies the invasions were misguided—poor strategic decisions—for defeating terrorism.

Maybe you think he’s making a profound strategic point. But can there be any value in a geopolitical strategic assessment by Jacques Derrida, literary theorist? Is he in any position to judge the relative merits allocating resources to policing action in Western countries over invasions of foreign ones as means of defeating terrorism? I fail to see how his opinion in this regard has any more weight than my neighbor’s.

You may object too that I’m reading in the shift in focus. You’d argue instead that Derrida cites Western terrorist sanctuaries to support his contention that terrorism was a pretext for foreign invasions. Fine. But now you invite the fallacy of irrelevance: what’s the import of the fact that terrorist sanctuaries exist in London and Berlin to the claim that terrorism was used as a pretext for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?  Do you want him to be claiming the following: the fact that the US did not invade Germany and England is evidence that the war on terror is a pretext for a war for profit? If you do, I’ll only say in response that you’re either simpleminded or blinded by hatred.

To say it all too quickly and in passing, to amplify and clarify just a bit what I said earlier about an absolute threat whose origin is anonymous and not related to any state, such “terrorist” attacks already no longer need planes, bombs, or kamikazes: it is enough to infiltrate a strategically important computer system and introduce a virus or some other disruptive element to paralyze the economic, military, and political resources of an entire country or continent. And this can be attempted from just about anywhere on earth, at very little expense and with minimal means. The relationship between earth, terra territory, and terror has changed, and it is necessary to know that this is because of knowledge, that is, because of technoscience.

In other words, technology—or “technoscience”—opens up whole new avenues of attack for terrorists.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard just about every media pundit say exactly the same thing in fewer, less convoluted words. Come to that, common sense led me to that rather obvious conclusion without anyone’s help. I will grant, however, that Derrida says it in a portentous way, as if quoting from the Book of Deconstructionist Revelation. But that only fools the reader into thinking he’s saying something more profound than he actually is.

 It is technoscience that blurs the distinction between war and terrorism.

I didn’t know the distinction between war and terrorism was an especially clear one before the rise of anything remotely describable as technoscience.  Attackers at all times call it a just war, defenders an act of terrorism (or similar terms). For that matter, terrorism itself depends on your point of view: the French Resistance was a terrorist organization to the occupying Germans, freedom fighters to their sympathetic countrymen. All the same, let’s see why Derrida thinks things are different post-technoscience:

 In this regard, when compared to the possibilities for destruction and chaotic disorder that are in reserve, for the future, in the computerized networks of the world, ’September 11’ is still part of the archaic theater of violence aimed at striking the imagination. One will be able to do even worse tomorrow, invisibly, in silence, more quickly and without any bloodshed, by attacking the computer and informational networks on which the entire life (social, economic, military, and so on) of a ‘great nation,’ of the greatest power on earth, depends. One day it might be said: ‘September 11’—those were the (‘good’) old days of the last war. Things were still of the order of the gigantic: visible and enormous! What size, what height! There has been worse since. Nanotechnologies of all sorts are so much more powerful and invisible, uncontrollable, capable of creeping in everywhere. They are the micrological rivals of microbes and bacteria. Yet our unconscious is already aware of this; it already knows it, and that’s what’s scary.

We’re tacking again. Derrida now veers off into speculation about the potential for cyber-attacks and biotechnology in future terrorism, along with a remark on the respective aesthetics of the old and new forms of terrorism. He’s right that things like cyber-warfare and biotechnology will pose different risks for us in the future. But the risks themselves—i.e., the kinds of tactics and the severity of the existential threat—are not new.  Industrial sabotage and chemical and biological weapons have been used since ancient times. Greeks would throw diseased corpses into besieged cities, raze crops and pay spies and saboteurs to wreak havoc inside enemy lines and corrupt foreign politicians.

It may seem like we’re talking whole different magnitudes of threat when we compare razing crops and diseased bodies to cyber-warfare and biotech weapons. But we’re not when we take into account counter-measures: the Greeks didn’t have antibiotics to protect themselves from disease and they lacked the capacity to store large quantities of food for long periods of time or have it shipped from distant lands. Sure, they didn’t depend on electrical grids. But the networked design of the grid makes it extremely difficult to keep large areas blacked out for the long periods of time necessary to inflict much beyond minor panic and inconvenience.

My point, at any rate, is that Derrida is not the person to consult on terrorist threats to our way of life. He doesn’t even provide what is within his ken, namely, the historical perspective I alluded to just now. Some will still no doubt find it interesting that the sage is worried about nanotechnology attacks. But I’m not sure that I should be because, for all I know, his fear might have been inspired by an episode of Star Trek.

If this violence is not a ‘war’ between states, it is not a ‘civil war’ either, or a ‘partisan war,’ in Schmitt’s sense, insofar as it does not involve, like most such wars, a national insurrection or liberation movement aimed at taking power on the ground of a nation-state (even if one of the aims, whether secondary or primary, of the ‘bin Laden’ network is to destabilize Saudi Arabia, an ambiguous ally of the United States, and put a new state power in place). Even if one were to insist on speaking here of ‘terrorism,’ this appellation now covers a new concept and new distinctions.

This argument of this last bit is largely undermined by the fact that Derrida’s own example puts terrorism into the partisan war category. Bin Laden’s attempt to destabilize Saudi Arabia raises the possibility that his efforts were really apiece with conventional partisan war—i.e., an attempt by an internal group to destabilize their own regime. The fact that bin Laden chose to target Western nations might just be a result of the softness of the target. Maybe it was easier to strike against the real target’s allies as a means of fomenting a rebellion within the real target, Saudi Arabia.

But then we don’t even have to get that sophisticated, do we? On Derrida’s own trichotomy of war, this is a partisan war writ large. It’s not an attempt to take down one nation state from within, but to overturn a whole world order from within. It is, as many others have pointed out, a global jihad. Perhaps if Derrida had been less enamored of scoring rhetorical points against the Bush administration, he would have come to the obvious conclusion that everyone else has.

So what did we learn from any of this? First, Derrida admonished us not to accept the idea that 9/11 as an “event.” Then he proceeded to ignore his own advice and talk about it as if it was. Next he told us he’d analyze our conceptual understanding of “war” and “terror.” On war he first claimed that 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t fit into Schmitt’s three categories of war. A best guess as to why it didn’t fit was that Derrida wanted to insinuate that the invasions had other motives—an inference reinforced by the fact that he reintroduced Schmitt as if the usefulness of his schema had never been in doubt.

Much the same double-standard came to bear in his analysis of terrorism. The Bush administration engaged in an abuse of rhetoric in talking about a war on terrorism, since it couldn’t identify the terrorists and the countries it said were harboring them claimed they weren’t. But Derrida could say (presumably without abusing rhetoric) that the terrorists’ existence was not in doubt and that England and Germany were harboring them.  The incongruity seemed to have only one explanation: Derrida wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to claim the invasions were motivated by greed by casting doubt on the existence of a terrorist threat against which the US was retaliating, while simultaneously attributing the existence of terrorism to US foreign policy.

Finally, Derrida speculated on the future of terrorism. In pointing out the possible role technology and biological weapons, he told us nothing we didn’t know and left out the historical context that might have given him something substantive to say. Worse, didn’t even see the most obvious inference from Schmitt’s analysis: that contemporary terrorism is a partisan war against the world order.

So I ask you, why should I waste my time on more Derrida?

4 thoughts on “Intellectual Conceits: Derrida on 9/11

    1. I never thought of dues, but I was thinking of an initiation ritual. You have to wear a t-shirts that says “I’m in the Indifferent to Derrida Club” for three days straight in an English department somewhere around the world. If you can do that and survive, you’re in!

      1. I shudder at the thought, English lit students have already scolded me for sticking to ‘outdated, eighteenth century ideals’ – plus their inability to place Derrida within a wider philosophical context makes it impossible to convince them that there is in fact something to dispute.

      2. You’re right, no doubt, that the lack of historic perspective feeds the cult of Derrida. Add in our modern inclination to assume that the latest thing is the best thing, and you have the perfect conditions for exactly the kind of self-referential circle that postmodernism is supposed to expose. I couldn’t get into it in my post, but one of my criticisms of Derrida is his target. His brand of “rhetorical analysis” is best suited, in my mind at least, for the kind conventional wisdom that permeates the academy these days. Alas, he and his epigones have only added more layers to it.

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