From event to non-event. Frank Seeburger deconstructs 9/11.
9/11 Never Happened, President Bush Wouldn't Let It: Bob Dylan Replies to Henri Bergson
9/11 Never Happened, President Bush Wouldn't Let It: Bob Dylan Replies to Henri Bergson
“9/11 never happened, President Bush wouldn’t let it.”
That sounds absurd, of course. Yet there is a very important sense, I believe, in which it is not even rhetorical hyperbole, but is literally true. In this paper I will try to explicate that sense, using resources from contemporary continental European philosophy, especially some reflections from Slavoj Žižek. I will begin with an examination of the notion of an Event, as distinguished from mere events (Part I). Then I will consider the relationship between an Event, time, and possibility (Part II). Finally, I will attempt to remove the sense of absurdity that, at first hearing (and beyond), surrounds the thesis that 9/11 never happened, President Bush wouldn’t let it (Part III).
Part I. The Event: Did 9/11 Ever Really Happen?
Ever since Heidegger, the notion of Event has been central to much philosophical discussion influenced by 20th century continental European philosophy. It has played a crucial role especially in the thought and work of Alain Badiou of France, but it has also been unavoidable, under that term or another, for other French thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, as well as for Gianni Vattimo in Italy, and Slavoj Žižek in Slovenia, to name some of the most prominent. In this paper, Žižek’s use of that notion will be my main focus, or at least inspiration.
Most significantly for the present paper, the notion of Event has often taken center stage in the discussion by and among such scholars as the above about 9/11 itself. The discussion has often taken the form of questioning whether 9/11 was an Event, in the sense that Heidegger first gave that term.
In his later thought Heidegger uses the German term Ereignis, the ordinary English translation which would be event, in a special sense. He builds upon a double etymology that he offers for the German word. The root of Ereignis is eigen, which means own in the sense at issue in the expressions my own, your own, etc., as in “my own father,” “your own country,” or “our own home”. In the same semantic direction, eigen appears as well in Eigenschaft, meaning property or characteristic, as in, “It is a property of this substance to induce sleep when ingested.” A property is precisely something proper to that which has or displays it; it is that thing’s own.
In Heidegger’s own early work of the period of Being and Time - a characteristic or property of that literary property of his, as it were - eigen also occurs significantly in the key distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity, which in German are Eigentlichkeit and Uneigentlichkeit, respectively. What is uneigentlich is that which has not made itself its own. To speak proper Heideggerian (at least for the period of Being and Time), who is uneigentlich is she whose self is not herself, as the radically individualized person she is in the face of her own death, but is, instead, the dispersed self of das Man (“the they” in the standard English translation of Being and Time by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson from the 1960s): The self as just one of the others, especially including the constant concern with distinguishing and distancing oneself from all those others.
In this same direction of meaning, the term Ereignis, when it comes to the fore in Heidegger’s thought after Being and Time, means what relatively early translations of his later works tried to capture by translating the term Ereignis with the phrase event of appropriation. Even in Heidegger’s specialized usage in his later works, the ordinary meaning of Ereignis as simply event, anything that “happens,” that “occurs” or “takes place”–which is still captured well enough in the phrase event of appropriation–does not just drop out, but continues to sound. At the same time, the translation by event of appropriation also captures, or tries to, the reference to the proper, to being one’s own, that Heidegger highlights in discussions all the way back to that of authenticity and inauthenticity in his works of the 1920s, including of course Being and Time. By way of Latin, the English word appropriation continues, at least dimly, to sound the note of own-ness in ownership, so to speak.
As the later Heidegger uses the term Ereignis, however, even in those usages that foreground the eigen in Er-eignis (for example, by hyphenating it in just that way), the proper in ap-propriation, das Ereignis is not “merely” that which, in taking place, makes room for and sets in place earth, heaven, divinity, and mortality (Heidegger’s four of das Geviert, each of which is ap-propriated into itself in “the event of appropriation”), but also that which so releases each of the four into its own only by a sort of ex-propriation of each from itself. The coming into its own of each of Heidegger’s four - the earth, the heavens, the divinities, and the mortals - is at the same time and inseparably the being cast out of itself into relation to each of the other three. Each is itself only in play with the others, and only as the casting into play of the four in their interplay is or does das Ereignis, “the event of appropriation,” ap-propriate each into its own. That is, the event of appropriation is just as much one of expropriation, as the often privative force of the German prefix er-, especially in Heidegger, indicates in the term Er-eignis.
Accordingly, a more recent translation of Heidegger’s work offers the unusual English term the Enowning for das Ereignis. While much can be said in favor of that new translation, one of its drawbacks is precisely that it buries the everyday meaning of the German term, the very meaning which accords well with the everday English term event. It may well be that only a relatively lengthy discussion of the whole matter, such a discussion as I have just provided, is adequate to bring out all that is at issue in Heidegger’s usage. At any rate, for my purposes in this paper, I will return to the earlier translations and, indeed, all the way back to the common, ordinary translation of Ereignis by event. However, following Badiou and others already mentioned, I will allude to the Heideggerian weight to be put into that otherwise everyday word by capitalizing the first letter - Event, rather than just event.
Following that convention, an Event is not just any datable occurrence. An Event is, rather, precisely the occurrence of a rupture, an irruption into and an interruption of, the chain of everyday, datable, countable (literally, enumerable) occurrences that follow one after another in temporal sequence. An Event, in the relevant sense, is something new, something strictly unpredictable on the basis of everything that precedes it, that reorganizes the entire existential field - the interplay or Heidegger’s Fourfold (Geviert) of earth, heaven, divinity, and humanity. The sense of Event at issue is hinted at in colloquial English when one talks about a given occurrence being “a real event,” whereby one does not mean to say it is real as opposed to imaginary, but that it is special and rare, as when, for example, someone says that some gathering she attended was “a real event,” or “quite an event.”
All of this, however, is still in the same one semantic direction that Heidegger explores in his etymology of the term Ereignis. The second direction, which he claims is earlier, is that which relates the word back not to what is someone’s own, but to what reveals itself to the eye. Here, Heidegger claims that Er-eignis goes back ultimately to Er-äugnis, from Auge, which means eye. As Eräugnis, das Ereignis is, for Heidegger, that which lights things up as the lightning bolt does. It brings whatever is lit up in the flash to sight. Just so, according to Heidegger’s etymological reflections, Blick, the German term for view or sight, in the sense that we speak of catching sight of something or of something presenting us a view of itself, is the same as Blitz, which means lightning bolt.
Consequently, the Event in the sense of Heidegger’s distinctive usage of das Ereignis is no more just another thing that happens to take place or occur, than the sun in Plato’s myth of the cave is no more than just another hot, bright object. It is, rather, a happening, a taking place, in the sense of a non-originated origination of place itself. The Event is that which takes place in the uniquely literal sense of opening place up in the first place, we might say, to indulge in some possibly helpful wordplay - laying hold of place by laying it open and holding it open.
Accordingly, contemporary debate, after 9/11, among such philosophers as Derrida, Baudrillard, Vattimo, or Žižek as to whether 9/11 itself really was an Event at all, is not about whether it “really happened” as opposed to being “faked” - as, for example, many around the world remain to this day convinced that the American landing on the moon in the summer of 1969 never really took place, but was only a media simulation put out as the real thing (like the Balkan-style war in the film Wag the Dog, staged to reelect a sitting but unpopular President). Rather, the debate about whether 9/11 was really an Event at all is, for Derrida and the others at issue, about whether “what happened” that morning as a datable, televisable, mediatizable occurrence in the ongoing chain of such occurrences was anything that had such radical significance, one might put it, that it brought about, whether anyone noticed at the time or not (after all, as Nietzsche remarked, often “Thoughts that move the world enter on dove’s feet”), a change in the very structure of significance, or signs, signifying, and significations - a change of the entire cultural-existential context of meaning, not just one more meaningful (or meaningless) occurrence among all the others.
The sense of Event at issue is one in which, for example, the French Revolution of 1789, or the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, or the outbreak of World War I in August of 1914, or the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, or the worker-student unrest in Paris of May of 1968, are all more or less commonly thought of as Events. That is, they are all more or less taken to be occurrences or happenings that didn’t just take their places in the ongoing temporal chain of occurrences or happenings, but that altered the common understanding of the world and life as a whole.
At the level of the individual psyche, an Event in the relevant sense would be, for instance, some traumatic occurrence that threatens to restructure the entire psychic economy. However, as shifting to that level of the individual psyche suggests, far from the awareness of such Events being something that can be taken for granted, the psychic restructuration almost always takes the form, not at all of direct awareness, but rather of the repression of the very Event, the very trauma, involved. That point will prove to be of major importance later in this analysis.
Part II. The Time of the Event: When Did 9/11 Ever Really Happen?
In The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Slavoj Žižek borrows, from Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s discussion of pending global ecological disaster, a distinction between the standard “historical” notion of temporality, on the one hand, and what Dupuy calls the “time of the project,” on the other (d in Žižek 2003: 160). Žižek prepares the soil for introducing Dupuy’s distinction by citing Henri Bergson’s description of his own subjective experience of the onset of World War I in August, 1914, and how, until the actual outbreak of declared hostilities between France and Germany on August 4, by his own account Bergson experienced the pending war as “simultaneously probable and impossible.” Žižek then goes on to cite the following passage from Bergson, elucidating such a “complex and contradictory notion,” as Bergson himself calls it:
“I never pretended that one can insert reality into the past and thus work backwards in time. However, one can without any doubt insert there the possible, or, rather, at every moment the possible insert[s] itself there. Insofar as unpredictable and new reality creates itself, its image reflects itself behind itself - in the indefinite past: this new reality finds itself all the time having been possible; but it is only at the precise moment of its actual emergence that it begins to always have been [possible], and this is why I say its possibility, which does not precede its reality, will have preceded it once this reality emerges” (cited in Žižek 2003: 159-160).
According to Žižek, such experiences as Bergson’s at the outbreak of World War I show “the limitations of the ordinary ‘historical’ notion of time.” With regard to how such “ordinary, ‘historical’ ” time is reflected in the conceptualization of choice and action, Žižek writes, “possibility precedes choice: the choice is a choice among possibilities,” which are regarded as already arrayed before one, waiting only for one to pick between them. In contrast, he goes on, what Dupuy calls the “time of the project” is one in which, as with Berson’s experience, it is choice itself as an act that “retroactively opens up its own possibility.” Here, in the time of such a choice, that is, the time opened up or temporalized only by and in the choice itself as an act, there is “the emergence of a radically New [that] retroactively changes the past - not the actual past, of course (we are not in the realm of science fiction), but of past possibilities” (Žižek 2003: 160).
Although Žižek does not mention it, Sartre, long before Dupuy, made the same point concerning choice and what appears to precede it. Sartre’s own analysis was in terms of motive and its relation to choice. The ordinary view is that the motive precedes the choice it motivates. However, according to Sartre the truth is the reverse of that ordinary view. He argues that it is choice itself that retroactively gives itself a motive, projecting its shadow back into the past as its own possibility, just as Bergson remarks about “new reality.” So, to use one of Sartre’s own examples, my thirst does not in fact precede and ground my act of taking a drink of water. Rather, my act of drinking - or at least trying to - is what first constitutes my physiological condition as thirst (the feeling of my throat as dryness, etc.) and presents it, in a retrospective illusion, as having preceded the act that so constitutes it, giving it the status of an already present motive that grounds my act. In short, I do not drink because I am thirsty; I am thirsty - or now become (constitute myself as) one who “was” thirsty all along–because I drink. To use Bergson’s way of expressing the point: By my drinking now, my thirst “begins to always have been,” as the very possibility of my drinking, sketched out in advance.
Foucault and other postmodernists are making basically the same point in their analyses of the idea of origin, analyses designed to show the mythical status of supposed origins. For Foucault, supposedly fundamental origins are, in fact, not fundamental or originating at all, but are, instead, projections of configurations of power whereby those configurations create the illusion of justification to hide their very lack of any such justification or foundation. So, to use a common example, the idea of an original, originating social contract grounding state sovereignty is a myth whereby sovereignty, in whatever mode is at issue from monarchy to democracy, hides, even and especially from itself, its own violent emergence and imposition upon those who, through such violent imposition, become the subjects of that sovereignty.
Just such reflections work their way into the contemporary concern, in such thinkers as Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Žižek himself, with the works of Carl Schmitt, the German political theorist of the 1930s and the Third Reich. Schmitt explicitly attempted to justify modern sovereignty, especially in its fascist variant, in terms of the extension of the notion of the “state of exception”–often manifesting under the notion of a “state of emergency,” wherein the presumed emergency justifies the exception - that is cited to justify suspending otherwise operative laws, especially “basic” or “constitutional” ones, so long as the state of exception at issue continues. So, to use an example that is crucial for Schmitt himself, the Nazi state was erected on Clause 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic that was declared in 1918 in Germany at the end of World War I. Clause 48 provided for the President of the Republic to abrogate basic civil rights under a condition of state emergency, as that same President perceived and declared it–rights otherwise guaranteed by the same Constitution. Schmitt theorized the extension of such abrogation over a prolonged period, potentially open-ended, so long as the declared state of exception or emergency could be said to remain, thereby providing a sort of ongoing legal justification for what would otherwise clearly be state illegality. The Nazi fear of “racial contamination,” as well as our own contemporary American fear of “terrorism,” are ideal candidates, as it were, for justifying such perpetual extension of the abrogation of rights, precisely because the “war” against such bugaboos is in principle never over, the “threat” of their emergence - or even of their potential reemergence after apparent eradication - always remaining.
Thus, to return to the general point, what is often called the myth of the origin is a myth by which, in fact, an emerging “new reality,” as Bergson puts it, masks its very own irreducible originality, its underivability from anything that precedes it. That holds regardless of whether that originless origination that produces the retrospective illusion of its own non-originality be the abstract possibility of events, the presumed grounding of acts in motives, of the justification of state terrorism through appeal to a state of exception. In no case can any knowledge that might precede it provide any context of intelligibility for the act or Event that is to come.
Interestingly, in the recently published first version of his autobiographical Chronicles, Bob Dylan offers a nice description of how the pending or impending Event, the Event still on the way, not yet happened but about to, can still, despite the exclusion of any possible knowledge of it in advance, cast its shadow, as it were, before itself. It is a way the Event has of announcing itself as pending, before and apart from any projection of a myth of origin for itself, which, as Bergson captures so well, can come only after the fact, under and as the illusion of having preceded and paved the way for it. That is, Dylan offers a point of entry for beginning to think about ways of authentically anticipating an Event, without that anticipation being in truth but a retrospectively projected illusion. In the following passage Dylan is describing the shattering effect on him of his first encounter with the music and musicianship of folk-singer Mike Seeger in New York not long after Dylan showed up there from the Midwest at the beginning of the 1960s.
“Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it - like in that song of Sam Cooke’s, “Change Is Gonna Come” - but you don’t know it in a purposeful way. Little things foreshadow what is coming, but you may not recognize them. But then something immediate happens and you’re in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it - you’re set free. You don’t need to ask questions and you already know the score. It seems like when that happens, it happens fast, like magic, but it’s really not like that. It isn’t like some dull boom goes off and the moment has arrived - your eyes don’t spring open and suddenly you’re very quick and sure about something. It’s more deliberate. It’s more like you’ve been working in the light of day and then you see one day that it’s getting dark early, that it doesn’t matter where you are - it won’t do any good. It’s a reflective thing. Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door - something jerks it open and you’re shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it [as seeing and hearing Mike Seeger did for Dylan, in this account]” (Dylan 2004: 61-62).
Dylan’s description is actually interesting on more than one count. In addition to the suggestiveness, already mentioned, of how an Event foreshadows itself, it also documents the subjectivity that corresponds to that foreshadowing. The contours of what is coming are so unclear as not even to be amorphous, so that there can be no intentional-ity directed to it, forming any expectation of what is to come. Nevertheless, the sense that “Change Is Gonna Come,” as Cooke’s song says, is manifest subjectively in the experience of a sort of tension building toward discharge, just as in experience of a stillness charged with electricity in the air before a thunderstorm. Borrowing a way of speaking from Kierkegaard, we could say the experience is one of expectancy, rather than expectation. It is a loosening of intentionality, an unbinding of subjectivity from intentionality, a sort of springing of subjectivity open, into an openness that maintains itself precisely in refusal to allow intentionality to snap back into place. It is a holding of oneself open and receptive to what is coming, so open and receptive that one refrains even from trying to imagine just what it is that is coming, any more than anything in Dylan’s past experience of music allowed him to imagine what he was about to hear when he on the way to listen to Mike Seeger.
As Dylan makes clear enough, such expectancy has nothing to do with knowledge. By his description, the coming of what is coming, its foreshadowing of itself in the charged atmosphere correlative to expectancy, is felt, not known. This points to an important dimension of an Event, in the sense of that term that would be appropriate to Dylan’s description of his own experience with Seeger. In the sense at issue, an Event is simultaneously a restructuring of both objectivity and subjectivity at once. The relationship between the subjective and the objective in the Event is not that of knowledge, wherein a clear distinction between the two is operative, however elusive and even ultimately illusory that cleavage between subject and object may prove to be on subsequent analysis. In contrast, the Event is not something that first occurs, only subsequently to register itself in the awareness of those who may have just happened to be in its vicinity when it occurred, so that it had an effect upon them. In that sense, the Event is, in fact, without effect. That is, it does not belong to the causal order at all. Or, as Kant put it, in discussing the causality of the free will, the Event is of an altogether different causality from that of “natural” or phenomenal events.
The free act is itself not the effect of any preceding cause, taking up its place in an already ongoing causal chain, but is, rather, the origination, itself without origin, of a whole new causal chain, one beginning with the free act and grounded therein as in the un-ground of “the abyss of freedom,” to use the title of one of Žižek’s works, on Schelling (1997). However, as Kant’s analysis may not make clear, the difference between the two causalities, that of nature and that of freedom, does not distill down to the difference between an already ongoing chain of causes and effects, and a new chain that starts with an act of freedom. Rather, the difference of causation continues on after the point of intersection of freedom and natural causation. If the difference is to be thought of as two different causal chains, then the act must be thought of as the point of intersection of the two. But since the free act is by definition itself without origin - that is, is itself uncaused - one of those two chains begins at that point of intersection. And, since, from that point on, the supposed two chains become in fact one - given that the entire point is to account for how it is possible to have a free act, an originless origin, precisely as such a point of intersection, whereby noumenal freedom becomes active in phenomenal nature: an account of how freedom can be operative within the world, not outside it - the very notion of two different causal chains must drop out. Thus, the effect of retaining the term causality for both “natural causation” and “the causation of freedom” is to introduce an irreducible and vitiating ambiguity into the term causation.
In contrast, to say, as I did once already above, that an Event is without effect highlights aspects of the notion of Event that are flattened out by talking in terms of two causalities. An Event is both without origin and without effect. It is not a matter of causation at all. Rather, an Event is at all, only insofar as it continues simultaneously to restructure both objectivity and subjectivity. Perhaps it is better to say an Event is at all, only as the unfolding of a restructuration of the very relationship between the objective and the subjective. That can perhaps be captured by saying that an Event is a restructuring or transfiguration of the entire existential field, not merely of one side of it. Nor is it a matter of a change on one side inscribing itself, as an effect, on the other, or just being simultaneously somehow mirrored there, by some sort of Leibnizian pre-established harmony.
The transfiguration in play in an Event is already at work in its entirety in the fact that the foreshadowing of the pending Event is inseparable from the very shift from expectation to expectancy. The Event announces itself as impending in that shift and as it. And the same shift, the same transfiguration already occurring in and as that shift from expectation to expectancy, also restructures subjectivity “after” the Event, so that from that point on it takes the form of what Badiou calls “fidelity” to the Event.
Both expectancy before the Event and fidelity after it, keep open the space or leeway for the Event literally to take place. As a restructuring of the entire existential field, the taking place of the Event, its very happening or occurring as Event, its Event-ing, is that transfiguration of subjectivity. As a change of everything and nothing, the Event takes place in subjectivity as the engendering of a new subjectivity. The Event uses expectancy to clear a place for itself, and then it takes place there as fidelity.
“In “The Origin of the Work of Art”–in Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971)–Heidegger describes the same structure as the relationship of creation and “preservation” in the taking place of truth as and in the work of art. The setting itself into work of truth as art requires both, calling both forth. If either fails, the work does not altogether vanish, to become nothing. But its way of granting itself is, as it were, a constricted one.
To use Dylan’s images, if either expectancy before the Event or fidelity after it are lacking, the change that’s “gonna come” does not come - at least not yet. But it is important to realize that the charged atmosphere before the storm does not simply vanish. Rather, it continues to announce itself in the form of the lethargy of a life that has outlived itself, a life now always haunted by an ambience of missed opportunity.
The transfiguration of subjectivity in which the Event takes place can be formulated as the change from knowledge to belief. The subjectivity of the Event is belief. Dupuy and, following him on the point, Žižek both suggest this. So does Badiou, in his talk of ethics as fidelity to the Event, as well as in the importance that his reading of St. Paul has in Badiou’s work. So does Bergson, especially as Žižek interprets his remarks about his strange experience before and during the outbreak of World War I.
Žižek cites Bergson’s description of how the war appeared to him before its outbreak. As already noted in part above, Bersgson writes that, before the declaration of war between his country and Germany, war appeared to him as “simultaneously possible and impossible: a complex and contradictory notion that persisted to the end” (that is, till war actually broke out in the declaration of hostilities between France and Germany on August 4, 1918). Using a distinction Dupuy elaborates in regard to the global ecological catastrophe that is pending today, almost a centrury after Bergson and the First World War, Žižek writes that such Events as either global ecological catastrophe today at the beginning of the 21st century, or global war early in the 20th century, are “always missed,” the bypassing or missing of the Event taking one of two basic forms, in accordance with which “either it [the Event] is experienced as impossible but not real (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophe that, however probable we know it is, we do not believe will really happen, and thus dismiss it as impossible), or as real but no longer impossible (once the catastrophe happens, it is ‘renormalized,’ perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always-already having been possible).” He then goes on to call explicit attention to what is already implicit in the preceding lines: “And as Dupuy makes clear, the gap that makes these paradoxes possible is the gap between knowledge and belief: we know the catastrophe is possible, even probable, yet we do not believe it will really happen” (Žižek 2003: 160).
This is a helpful conceptualization of the sort of experience Bergson recounts of the period leading up to the outbreak of World War I. Bergson did indeed know that war was not only possible, but even probable, as he says himself. Yet, as he also says, he continued to relate to that same war as im-possible. That is, at the level of his everyday life, in common with most of his countrymen and, indeed, most of the populations in the other European countries about to be drug into the carnage of the Great War, Bergson’s conduct, thought, and emotions bore no evidence of that very knowledge that war was coming. If by belief we mean precisely that which underlies and expresses itself in our conduct - and there is certainly ground and precedent for using the term that way, as the ready intelligibility of Žižek’s usage of it testifies - then it is exact to say that Bergon and all the others of that time did not believe what they perfectly well knew.
However, contrast Bergson’s account of how he experienced (or failed to) the outbreak of World War I with Bob Dylan’s of how he experienced first hearing and seeing Mike Seeger. In the latter case, something very different is in play than in the former. If anything, we would want to say that Dylan already believed what he did not and could not yet know - could not know precisely because it was a matter of the subjective apprehension, or literally being struck by (as jets may strike a building, but also, and more importantly, as coins are struck at a mint), an “unpredictable and new reality creat[ing] itself,” to borrow Bergson’s phrase. Bergson, we could also say, was full of expectations, but void of all expectancy. Dylan, on the other hand, was void of expectation, yet - indeed: for that very reason - filled with expectancy.
Expectancy prepares a place for the coming Event. Then, once the Event takes that place, the Event unleashes fidelity to enact it. The Event taking the place it has carved out for itself in expectancy is not like some vague object of knowledge gradually or even suddenly becoming clear. It is not like the indefinite becoming definite. Rather, as Dylan’s description indicates, it is a matter of a sort of tension and constriction being gathered together and finally released, set free and in play. It is the gathering storm finally bursting into rain, or the runner in the blocks at “set” released by the gun at “go.” The eventing of the Event is the division of expectancy and fidelity. It is the apportioning of the two, the appropriation of each to itself and the expropriation of each to the other - their deployment.
Part III. The (Non-)Eventing of 9/11
No such deployment took place in the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. The storm did not break. Perhaps some of the reactions in some Arab capitals, where there was public jubilation in the streets, had about them the suggestion of an expectancy at last discharged, set loose. But in the end the storm did not break. It continued to gather.
Indeed, in relation to expectancy, 9/11 was only unexpected, not unexpectable, as must be any Event answering to an expectancy. The contours of the attack were, in fact, all too subject to the projection of expectation, a projection in images, which is always barred in expectancy. Television images were broadcast not only after the attack but simultaneously with it, so that viewers worldwide were all witness “in real time” to the broadcast of the images of the second plane crashing into the second tower as it unfolded, as they were to the subsequent horror of jumping bodies, burning buildings, and the final collapse of both structures into ruins and dust clouds. Žižek, Baudrillard, Derrida, and others have called attention to how much these images had an eerie familiarity to them, since they so easily recalled so many depictions of incredible (literally: unbelievable) catastrophes in so many Hollywood disaster flicks.
The foreshadowing of an Event in the sort of expectancy Dylan describes is very different. When the Event that, as coming, first enters awareness in an expectancy, finally does arrive, that Event is anything but eerily familiar. Dylan attempts to express just that by writing about such an Event that it is as if something were all at once to jerk the door open and “you’re shoved in and your head has to go into a different place.” The place from which the images of the attack on the Twin Towers bombarded Americans and others on the morning of September 11, 2001, was not any different place. It was, as the references to the proliferation of all too similar images in all too many disaster flicks indicates, all too familiar, all too much coming from one and the same old place we have all been consigned to for so long.
While it is often said that the till then unprecedented TV coverage of the Vietnam war brought the war into the nation’s living rooms, it actually did just the opposite. Far from putting viewers sitting in the comfort of their own homes watching the evening news into the scene of the war, it distanced them further from it, insulating them against it. The proliferation of images of Vietnam effectively normalized the war, comfortingly reducing it to the status of just another nightly news bite, just another media event, alongside the nightly weather and sports.
In turn, after 9/11 the “renormalization” of the attack, the easy and constantly reiterated reduction of it, effectively accomplished already by the incessant rebroad-casting of the television images of the attack, to “part of the normal run of things, always-already having been possible,” as Žižek puts it, proceeded without interruption. As Žižek’s own analyses often make clear, the process of such renormalization involves distancing from the Event being renormalized, a distancing accomplished precisely by projecting the possibility of a recurrence of similar events (“other terrorist attacks,” in the case of 9/11) into the future, then using that projection in turn to justify actions designed to avoid such recurrences (for 9/11: the preemptive war against Iraq, the earlier invasion of Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, etc.). Significantly, and in only apparent contradiction to the justification of interventions in order to avoid future recurrences of the event at issue, renormalization through projection of possible recurrences involves an equally emphatic insistence that some such future recurrence is ultimately un-avoidable. In the case of 9/11, the Bush administration ever since that date continues constantly to warn the American people that sooner or later another, even worse terrorist attack is “inevitable,” and that Americans need to prepare themselves for it. Just as in the wake of hurricane Katrina there was demand for greater preparedness for the next such disaster, so did 9/11 engender the ever escalating demand for greater preparedness for the next, “inevitable” terrorist assault upon that nation holding itself out to be Lincoln’s last, best hope for the world.
The combined effect of the projection of the recurrence of similar catastrophes in the future, necessitating constant vigilance and ever expanded preventive action if any (“the worst”) are ever to be avoided, conjoined with the insistence that, in fact, despite all such efforts, a future recurrence is inevitable anyway, effectively renders inoperative any striking of the catastrophe itself into subjectivity, restructuring it. The strategy of paradoxically projecting future recurrence as simultaneously avoidable and unavoidable, stitches up any opening for expectancy and fidelity to make room for catastrophe to take place. All the places it might take have been closed off in advance, denying it any chance to happen at all, and to go to work in happening.
Concerning 9/11 and the reaction to it by the Bush administration, Žižek writes: “The state in which we live now, in the ‘war on terror,’ is one of endlessly suspended terrorist threat: the Catastrophe (the new terrorist attack) is taken for granted, yet endlessly postponed. Whatever actually happens, even if it is a much more horrific attack than that of 9/11, will not yet be ‘that’ ” (2003: 165).
Žižek goes on to observe, making what he calls the crucial move of “the ‘transcendental’ turn” with regard to our perspective on this situation, that “the true catastrophe already is this life under the shadow of the permanent threat of catastrophe.” However, as Žižek’s own analysis has in fact already clearly suggested by this point, the entire strategy of projecting the recurrence of catastrophe into the future as simultaneously to be avoided and yet unavoidable blocks any awareness - at least at the level of belief - of just that “true” catastrophe, the one that has already happened.
In that regard the situation is exactly characteristic of addiction, to the very structure of which masking itself belongs - “denial,” in the jargon of addiction treatment. Breaking through that denial is precisely what is required for entry into “recovery” from the addiction: Only at that point do addicts come not only to know that they are addicted, but also to believe it as well, which is all that matters for recovery: The stereotype of alcoholics quite sincerely “admitting” their own alcoholism while tossing back more drinks is all too accurate.
If the “ ‘transcendental’ turn” Žižek says is crucial is to be made, then it can only be made at the level of what he, following Depuy, has characterized as belief in contrast to knowledge. It is all too easy to read Žižek’s own remark about the “true” catastrophe and nod one’s head in all sincerity of agreement, giving full notional assent to the proposition, even deeply internalizing it and adding it to one’s discursive repertoire, to be trotted out for all to admire at cocktail parties or the equivalent. But to believe what one is hearing from one’s own lips is something else altogether. Indeed, the very acquisition of Žižek’s proposition as a permanent bit of one’s stock of ready knowledge, thereby appropriating it for one’s own use whenever it becomes situationally handy, is the deepest, most stubborn form of the very denial of it. It is the most durable and all but ineradicable defense against the truth of what one blithely calls the true catastrophe ever breaking through into one’s own belief, which is to say one’s own real life.
It is not only “before the fact” that one can know something yet not at all believe what one knows, like Bergson before the outbreak of war in August 1914. It is also “after the fact.”
The alcoholic cheerfully admitting to alcoholism while throwing back yet another shot once again provides a classic illustration. In such a case, in fact, alcoholism itself even functions as an excuse for the continuation of drinking (“I know I’m an alcoholic, that’s why I drink so much: So here’s to you!”). That it can function as such an excuse demonstrates how effectively knowledge can block the way to belief. In such cases the two, knowledge and belief, are not just different. They are antagonistic: Knowledge precludes belief.
Today, the news media regularly report to us what we are already used to from the Vietnam War. We are repeatedly told how military personnel returning from the war in Iraq are stunned by how life back home in the United States has simply gone on throughout their absence as though nothing had changed - as though there were no war.
Well, in a crucial sense there really isn’t. Any more than there ever really was a 9/11.
To modify Žižek, the true catastrophe is not even this life we live under the constant threat of catastrophe. Rather, the true catastrophe is that we are utterly impervious to catastrophe, despite everything that may happen to us, however horrific, even if it’s “another 9/11, only worse.” We are like vampires, those archetypes of the Undead, the deepest, truest horror of whose condition is that as already Undead they cannot ever die. Just so is our catastrophe, the true one, the one that has always already happened and that can never, ever be revoked or repaired, this: that we can no longer ever suffer any catastrophes.
“Where danger is, there grows what rescues as well,” writes Hölderlin in the lines Heidegger loved so. Citing both, along with other sources from Freud and Rosenzweig to Lacan and Žižek himself, Eric Santner, in On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (2001), emphasizes that the point of breakdown is also the point of breakthrough, and that only through the former can the later occur. Insofar as we are no longer at risk of any breakdown, then we are also no longer open to any breakthrough. To borrow some Christian biblical language, we could say it is the very incapacity to die that is the “second death” from which there is no longer any further possibility of resurrection. And that is death indeed.
The true horror of 9/11 is that we have yet to let it happen. Until we do, the ghosts of the 3,000 dead from the Twin Towers will never rest in peace. They will continue to haunt us.
9/11 never happened. We wouldn’t let it. We continue not to let it happen. But having never yet happened, pray God that it is still to come.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2003).
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Pour un catrophisme éclairé (Paris: Editions du Soeil, 2002). Cited in Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 160.
Slavoj Žižek, The Abyss of Freedom; F. W. J. Schelling, Ages of the World (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997).
Eric Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).