Samuel Weber, Simon Morgan Wortham and Gary Hall
The following interview was conducted by email correspondence during September 2001. On September 11th, the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed and the Pentagon badly damaged by a series of attacks. Although the interview had initially been conceived as a contribution to a collection of essays on the work of Samuel Weber which would concern itself with the discussion of his work in general, the participants felt compelled to respond to these events. In what follows immediate reactions to the attacks and subsequent developments as they unfolded therefore contend – perhaps uneasily, but also perhaps productively – with a series of reflections on Weber’s thinking, writing and critical practice over a number of years. What characterises the discussion overall, in terms both of its ‘content’ and its very ‘taking place’, is the question of a critical or ‘theoretical’ discourse acting itself out in relation to a series of phenomena, acts or events to which it is bound to respond. It is a matter of judgement whether this distinctive and distinguishing trait of the discussion pulls it apart, or whether in some way it pulls it together. But such a characteristic trait nevertheless engages a whole set of questions and problems (to do with repetition, singularity, the uncanny, and so forth) which in turn might be taken as characteristic of the work of Samuel Weber. Questions and responses have been dated to preserve and to highlight the temporal dimension of the ‘event’ – both of the interview taking place, and of the occurrences happening on an international scale that the discussion could not help but address.
Simon Morgan Wortham and Gary Hall (10.9.2001)
Samuel Weber, taking into account a large body of work written over a number of years, the range and scope of your interests is obviously very varied and broad. For instance, you write on psychoanalysis, literature, philosophy, aesthetics, the media, technics and technology, institutions, and theater. And yet what is striking is the extent to which certain texts, readings, and critical moves tend to be revisited or replayed on a variety of different occasions. To take just one example: you return more than once to the question of aesthetic and reflective judgement in Kant, to show how, in this part of Kant’s critical philosophy, cognition and judgement take place on condition of an other. From this point onwards, you are able to discuss problems of aesthetic form, of parergon and institution, and of the ‘fateful and ambiguous legacy’ that Kant bequeaths to the institution of the humanities. But this reading also allows you to suggest that such processes or operations of cognition tend to theatricalize knowledge, to transform the grounds of knowledge into a rather more unsteady – or, even, comedic – platform upon which we witness certain styles of mimicry being performed or staged. Here, then, the ambivalence that attends humanistic knowledge seems to rest upon a question of theater. Furthermore, in Mass Mediauras, the Kantian problem of aesthetic judgement would in turn appear to set off your work on Heidegger and his account of the ‘goings-on’ of technics. In this context, technological understanding, activity and development depend on very ambivalent processes of securing and unsecuring that begin to unravel as man endeavours to ‘gain a stand’ and to ‘establish himself’ by means of the knowledge of beings that Heidegger calls techné. Technological man thus orients himself in a way that begins to look rather theatrical and, to go further, perhaps even spectacularly comedic. Such a problem of orientation, then, connects a discussion of technics and technology to problems of cognition and judgement, to questions of aesthetics and form, to the matter of theater and, indeed, to the problematics of institution.
In returning to a particular text or reading, then, such connections, reorientations or transformations obviously emerge in a way that powerfully assumes and replays the problematics of repetition and iteration that are discussed in a number of places in your work. Here, the relationship between what is singular and what is universal becomes very complicated, to say the least. But perhaps you might care to say something more explicit about the conceptual grounds of the key ‘terminology’ you deploy: for example, ‘technics’, ‘ambivalence’, ‘institution’, ‘theater’. Is it at all possible that the re-readings or repetitions that characterise your work rest upon any kind of quasi-transcendental term or terms? Would this be a source of orientation? How else might you describe what is going on when one begins to have the – perhaps uncanny – experience of going over ‘familiar ground’ in your writing?
Samuel Weber (10.09.2001)
Your question, which addresses the ‘uncanny’, is itself not a little uncanny, at least for me. Especially since I’m sure that however I respond, I won’t be able to avoid a certain repetition, and hence, doubtless a certain ‘familiarity’. Let’s hope it’s an uncanny one.
Nietzsche, who together with Kierkegaard placed the question of repetition, recurrence, Wiederkehr on the agenda –; Nietzsche writes somewhere that with passing years one finds oneself returning to certain questions that seem to change very little over time. These questions, which function as a kind of bedrock of identity, are more difficult to ‘lose’ than to retain. Whether this ‘bedrock’ becomes a source of strength and discovery, or a prison, depends on how those questions ‘return’: whether they primarily only ‘determine’, in the simply restrictive sense of setting limits, or, whether, the limits they trace gesture towards a space not simply contained within the area they demarcate. This is one of the reasons why a sense of the ‘uncanny’ –; indeed an openness to it –; is indispensable, if one is to avoid the kind of entropy that a purely obsessive recurrence would entail.
There certainly is a dimension of ‘familiarity’ in my writings, but I try to think of it, to relate to it, as something other than a simple ground. Although I hesitate to limit it to a single name, if I were forced to, I would take the one, or rather, the series you have mentioned and I have begun to extend: ‘repetition’, ‘iterability’, as ‘uncanny’ questions, and as the question of the uncanny.
This set, or series of related (but not identical) terms marks a certain discovery, an ‘experience’ in the sense of Erfahrung, traversal or trajectory, ‘peripeteia without anagnoresis’ to vary the Aristotelian formula. Or perhaps, thinking of Beckett, ‘anagnoresis as peripeteia’, a formula for the uncanny recognition of something that, in being the same, reveals itself to be different.
In the course of my thinking, that trajectory begins with Adorno’s condemnation of the ‘Immergleiche‘ — of that which is ‘ever-the-same’ — as a form of repetition, through Freud’s ‘repetition compulsion’ that is both ‘always the same’ and yet never entirely appropriable, to Derrida’s use of repetition to deconstruct the Husserlian notion of ‘ideality’ as the monological (and prelinguistic) discourse of the soul with itself (in Speech and Phenomenon), ‘Repetition’ has, it seems, haunted me for a long time, first in the guise of a polemical object of criticism (Adorno, Marcuse), then as a problematic discovery (Freud) leading to an even more problematic hypothesis (‘the death-drive’); and finally — but of course, there is no finality here, only finitude — finally, to Derrida’s compelling formulation of ‘iterability’ (in ‘Signature Event Context’ and Limited Inc.) and to Kierkegaard’s theatricalization of Gjentagelsen — ‘taking again’ (‘reprise‘ is the provocative rendering of a recent French translation). ‘Again’, against — this recurrence of the motif of ‘repetition’ has been more than a question — rather, a challenge to which I have had little choice but to respond.
A challenge, in the sense of defying whatever I thought I understood by the word, or set of words. Of this challenge, let me just mention two interrelated aspects. First, that, as Kierkegaard — or rather, as Constantin Constantius, the narrative figure who fictionalizes authorship in Gjentagelse — states, repetition, in contrast to recollection (anamnesis), is directed towards the future, not towards the past. That certainly doesn’t make sense, not at first sight at least. Which is why it is interesting, and challenges one to think further.Second, the difference, on which Derrida in his debate with Searle insists, between ‘iterability‘ and ‘iteration’ (or, if you will, between ‘repeatability’ and ‘repetition’): The difference between something that simply ‘is’, whose mode of being can be adequately articulated in the present indicative — iteration — as an act or occurrence that is present-to-itself, and something that ‘exists’, if it exists at all, as a kind of possibility (in Limited Inc. Derrida calls it a ‘structural possibility’). A ‘kind of possibility’ in the sense of one that is no longer defined by the oppositional logic of identity, which is to say, as being the opposite of ‘reality’ or ‘actuality’ (the difference between these two terms can be ignored in our context). For what distinguishes iterability from iteration is that it does not necessarily imply or entail the possibility of its enactment: it entails a possibility that is not a sub-species or dialectical other of ‘reality’ as self-fulfilment, actualization or self-presence. Or, to use a category that has proved useful for me over the years, as a form of self-containment. Hence, for Derrida, iterability, far from designating a possible realization, is ‘actually’ much closer to ‘impossibility’, inasmuch as its mode of being is such that it never fully ‘takes place’, a process that Derrida early on associated with a certain ‘theatricality’ (my term, not necessarily his): for instance, in his reading of Mallarmé’s short text,Mimique (in La double séance, the ‘Double Session’).
This conjugation of ‘possibility’ and ‘impossibility’ as non-exclusive, and indeed as convergent (although again, not simply identical), is one of the traits or tendencies that I find exemplified in a certain kind of ‘theatricality’. Not necessarily in ‘theater’, and not necessarily in everything that one would call ‘theatrical’, but in the questions and problems, challenges and injunctions that distinguish the history of ‘theatricality’ — if one can speak of such a history in the singular. One of the things that has struck me, in rethinking this history, certain parts of it at least, is the link between ‘iterability’, in English at least, and various forms of the present participle, including the ‘gerund’. It is as if the conjugation of possibility with impossibility can be exemplified in what we call ‘acting’, as distinct from ‘action’, ‘act’ or ‘actual(ity)’: acting lacks the kind of reality usually associated with the present indicative, and yet it is bound up with ‘indication’ — although it is one that is never simply ‘present’ inasmuch as it is repetitive. At the same time, its ‘repetition’ is a rehearsal that is directed not just towards the past but above all towards the future — which, however, it will never fully ‘attain’ (i.e. render present, actualize). This is why it is important to distinguish such iterative theatricality from ‘performance’ and ‘performative’, which often (if not always) imply the realization of an intention, of a purpose.
Understood in this way, you can see how such theatricalization could be situated in a series going back, at least, to Kant’s definition of the beautiful as ‘purposiveness without purpose’. The aesthetic judgement of beauty is addressed at something that is so immediately present that it can never be self-present, never identified. It remains purely indicative, a pointing-towards, a Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck. But this ‘pointing towards’ turns out, in Kant at least, to be even more a ‘pointing away’ — away from wherever it is at, and what it seems to be. Kant tries to synthesize this double movement in his notion of ‘reflective judgement’, but the notion only reproduces the split, since it designates a reflexivity that never arrives at its destination: a reflexivity without reflection, one could say, although I’m not at all sure that Kant would have been very happy with that formulation. But if one reads the Third Critique closely, one discovers that what Kant is describing, or rather trying to describe, is not a self-contained state but rather closer to the unstable aporia of a unity so self-contained that it tends to dissolve before our very eyes. This is why the ‘as if’ has to intervene so constantly, indeed so obsessively in that text, creating one parenthetic qualification after another, as Kant literally (or rather syntactically) ties himself into knots trying to articulate something according to a logic of identity it tends to undo. Kant’s account of the aesthetic judgment of taste is a latter-day version of another of Nietzsche’s favourite anecdotes: that of Cratylus outdoing his teacher, Heraclitus, when he notes that one cannot step into the same river ‘even once’. Only Kant doesn’t think that he is telling stories. . . or does he?
I haven’t touched on the ‘technical’ part of your question. Let me just say that the presentation of iterability that distinguishes theatrical ‘representation’ puts a particular spin on the question of ‘technics’. If one remembers the earliest, pre-Heideggerian definitions of techné as involving a prosthetic supplement of an internal lack, then theatrical iterability locates that ‘lack’ in and as the ‘act’ of an ‘actuality’ that must be repeatable in order to be enacted. The ‘en-‘ of ‘enactment’ is thus inseparable from the ‘ex-‘ of an iterability that can never be self-contained. ‘Theatricality’ is what results when the impossibility of self-containment is exposed by iterability as a scene which is inevitably a ‘stage’, but which, as such, is determined by that which surrounds it, by what we call a ‘theater’. More affirmatively formulated, the impossibility of closure opens the scene to a space of alterity that is always provisionally embodied in and, even more, exposed as an ‘audience’ — singular noun for an irreducibly heteroclite stand-in. The ‘audience’ stands in for the others, those who were and those who will be — and perhaps even more, for those who will never come to be. Of course, it is in the nature of our socio-economic system, in an age of ‘globalization’, to do everything possible to appropriate and domesticate such ‘standing-in’ so that it seeks to fulfil itself in and as actual consumption. The audience is thus considered by the commercial media predominantly, if not exclusively, as potential consumers.
Simon Morgan Wortham and Gary Hall (10.09.2001)
Presumably, then, the ‘age of ‘globalization’ – as your work itself would indicate, and as you’ve perhaps hinted just now – is not and cannot be merely opposed to the issue and effects of ‘theatricality’, in which case the problem of, for want of a better term, the parergon which seems to re-emerge in the description you’ve just given of theatricalized space would also impose itself in any analysis of the globalized, technological age of today?
Samuel Weber (12.09.2001)
From the point of view I have begun to outline, ‘theatricality’ can provide a particular interesting way of approaching ‘globalization’. If one thinks about the word itself: the notion of the world as ‘globe’ suggests two things. First, something visible. Second, as a sphere, something self-contained. A ‘world’ is not necessarily visible: a ‘globe’ is, at least potentially. It is a visible Gestalt. As such, it implies a viewer. But this is no ordinary ‘globe’: it is, as just mentioned, a globe that contains everything. It is planetary, the site of all life as we know it, and in particular, of all human life. ‘Globalization’ in this sense implies totality (although not, in the literal sense, ‘universality’): it defines the space or site of all options open to life in general, and to human life in particular. As a sphere, it is self-contained, even if it is not all-inclusive. Self-contained also suggests self-sufficient: the globe is the site of a life that can, and must, take care of itself.
And yet, as a visible Gestalt, anything that is ‘global’ is also an object of perception and of understanding. An object of consciousness and of cognition. But as the site of all life as we know it — and it is hardly an accident that ‘globalization’ coexists with, and perhaps encourages, a heightened fascination with the ‘extraterrestrial’ — ‘globalization’ names not so much an object as the conditions for all objectification, the conditions of cognition and of action. This is why we speak of ‘globalization‘ and not just of the ‘globe’ or the ‘global’. ‘Global war’, for instance, is a term that antedates the age of ‘globalization’. ‘Globalization‘ is a process by which the world of possibilities is at the same time totalizedand restricted. This is why it serves as an appropriate figure to name a certain vision of the world in the post-Cold-War period. The term, ‘globalization’ does not merely emphasise the transnational interdependence of different parts of the world: it implies that there is no longer any alternative to the not so new world order of ‘late’ capitalism, and to the relations of power and hierarchies of subjugation that this order entails.
It implies this in a message that may often be transmitted subliminally, but that seeks to eliminate all ambiguity. Nevertheless, ‘globalization’ remains highly ambiguous, as a term and as a process, not so much in its message as in its means of address. For ‘globalization’ does not merely name a world-wide, socio-economic process: it also constitutes an address and an injunction, one that demands a response, which can vary between enthusiastic acceptance, and passionate rejection. Or also, resigned indifference, since the primary message conveyed by the word is that there can be no alternative. Except ‘fanaticism’, ‘terrorism’, and other forms of brutal irrationality. Globalization, as embodied in ‘the media’ — television above all, but also to a large extent in the print media — is presented as the only game in town, or rather, in the world. And this message is reinforced by the very existence and manifestation of media which themselves are part and parcel of its structure. Since there is ostensibly no alternative to ‘globalization’, in a world where ostentation and media are inseparable, the only response reserved for the audience is that of fundamental acquiescence, if not legitimation, in relation to the process, which in any case is presented as inevitable. Nevertheless, the media require this response in order that the process, which claims to be total and yet self-contained, can find its enabling limit. That limit is the acquiescence of the audience, by which the other, and alterity, is placed in the position of the consumer. Everything that globalization is not and cannot be is thus concentrated in and as its audience, which it produces as the limit that a capitalism-without-alternative strives both to produce and to appropriate.
In Derridean terms, one might say that the problem of the ‘parergon’ returns today in the form of the theatricalized audience: does it ‘belong’ to the ‘work’ as its intrinsic other, the way the consumer belongs to the process of production as its inner edge? Or does it split and dislocate such a dialectic by relating that which it delimits to what is irreducibly other? Or does it do both, and if so, in what proportions?
To take a horrific instance, one that is all too current at the time we are discussing this, but which will have become a more distant memory by the time our discussion reaches its ‘audience’, or rather readers: Yesterday, September 11th, 2001, was the day on which the World Trade Center was destroyed and the Pentagon badly damaged by what is called, understandably, a ‘terrorist’ attack. The destruction was transmitted, ‘in real time’, by television throughout the world, provoking in the ‘West’ reactions of horror, and in parts of the Near East (and perhaps elsewhere), spontaneous expressions of joy. These two very different responses seem to have nothing in common. And yet they share at least one interpretation of the destruction, which was presumably at the core both of the horror and of the joy: the discovery that no place on the globe could any longer consider itself safe, which is to say, immune to the violent effects of ‘globalization’. Among the images of the destruction which returned incessantly on the television screen, one seemed to sum up one of the lessons of the horror: a plaque which was all that was left of one of the destroyed buildings, upon which was written: ‘One World Center’. And among the countless associations provoked by this remaining inscription, one that occurred to me, was that in today’s ‘One World’, the ‘Center’ was no longer safe from the ‘periphery’. The sight of the two enormous towers not just collapsing, but imploding and disappearing into themselves, producing a huge cloud of dust and rubble, racing towards the camera, and implicitly, towards the millions of viewers all over the world who sat in disbelief riveted to their screens — all of this exposed the ‘One World Center’ to be as vulnerable as the peripheries. Was I the only viewer who was reminded of the chilling television depiction of The Day After, the white dust which coated everything in the ‘nuclear winter’ that followed a nuclear war between West and East? Was I the only one for whom the billowing clouds that rose from the collapsing towers recalled the mushroom clouds of previous nuclear explosions? And who then had to acknowledge that the spectacular destruction of September 11th was the result not of a high tech explosion, but of a low tech collision — one that was clearly highly organized and carefully planned, and executed with military precision, but apparently with the technology of the ‘periphery’, rather than that of the center.
From this standpoint, at least, September 11th has revealed the vulnerability of the most powerful political and economic structures, both in the literal and figurative sense. And in doing this it marks the end of an illusion — that of a locus amoenus existing at the center of the world-system. But at the same time, the bad tidings of this revelation are probably also experienced by many as a confirmation of their most deeply rooted fears, as well a confirmation of the sense of powerlessness which is also one of the primary conditions of docile spectatordom.
The notion of ‘theatricalization’ includes this possibility — that of the docile, reactive, passive and anxious ‘beholder’ — but it can also reinscribe it in a space that exceeds the frame of spectacle and spectator. The danger is that such ‘excess’ will be experienced only as a source of anxiety and panic, and will thus be rejected and foreclosed by the kind of paranoiac spiral that words such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘fanaticism’ are designed to justify and promote.
Simon Morgan Wortham and Gary Hall (15.09.2001)
An initial reaction concerning what you’ve just said about recent events in the United States would be that the value of your remarks at this time is certain, even if, as you seem to hint, they are bound inevitably to become an historical artefact: in a sense, a part, however small, of the ‘events’ themselves. And this, in turn, might prompt us to wonder about the complicated processes or relationships of partaking, participation and apartness upon which such a response – perhaps any sort of response – to these ‘events’ inevitably rests. Of course, the terms being used here deliberately recall, recite or replay key themes and issues within your own work, not least with regard to a whole range of questions having to do with criticism, spectatorship, viewpoint or standpoint, knowledge, judgement, etc. These questions installthemselves, one might say, in philosophy and aesthetics, in literary, cultural and media studies, but also in the realms of politics, technologization, globalization.
Of course, some might find such reflections, or rather such self-reflexivity concerning the place or standpoint of any such critical response, to move in a direction that becomes rather self-regarding and, ultimately, a bit detached. On the other hand, by invoking the unstable dynamics of participation and apartness, as part of an appeal or injunction which in turn raises once more the question of parergon, limit, boundary or frame, such concerns could surely be viewed as entirely inseparable from what is most pressing among current international, political issues. And here again, in the very determination of the value or import of the question, the ambivalent interplay of apartness and participation imposes itself once more.
That said, it is also striking that there would seem to be a – perhaps uncanny – link between the question with which we began, concerning the uncanny, the response on your part, and subsequent events that have interrupted or imposed themselves upon this discussion. For instance, there is, in the first place, your awareness that what occurred on September 11th, 2001 ‘will have become a more distant memory by the time our discussion reaches its “audience”, or rather readers’ – presumably because this is what has happened to similar events in the past. Immediate responses soon become reconsidered, mediated, overwritten, transformed. There are already claims on the Net that the images which you refer to, of people in the Near East celebrating the attacks on the US, are in fact from old CNN footage dating from 1991.1 On top of which is the fact that the events themselves resembled the ‘theatrical’ spectacles provided by any number of American films (Independence Day, Mars Attacks, which themselves link to the ‘heightened fascination with the ‘”extraterrestrial”’ you speak of) – and one might note reports in the press that the release dates of a number of forthcoming films have been cancelled or postponed due to such similarities (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage, for example, which contains scenes of a building in LA being blown up, Swordfish, which has a city block being bombed, or Big Trouble, which involves a bomb on a plane). All this seems to add up to an uncanny sense, even when watching the events live on Tuesday and being acutely aware of their singularity, that we have been here before; that we are being haunted by a certain repetition which is both ”always the same’ and yet never entirely appropriable’ – presenting us with a ‘challenge’ to which we have, as you have said, ‘little choice but to respond’.
Samuel Weber (16.09.2001)
Let me respond, first, to the end of your comment, about the deprogramming of Hollywood catastrophe films, either new ones scheduled to come out in the near future, or older ones, which were to be shown on television (several such films will not be shown in the coming weeks as planned on French television). Although I assume that such deprogramming is a fairly general phenomenon, there is perhaps an additional development here in France that is equally significant. The week or so before the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, television viewers in France were treated to a rather unusual advertisement. It showed a worker cleaning the window of a skyscraper, when suddenly a glaring light coming from a mirror far below, in the street, blinds him but also the viewers themselves. Then, the worker loses his balance, and falls to certain death. But instead of striking the pavement, his body miraculously hits the roof of a car, a French car traditionally known for the spongy comfort of its suspension. The worker is saved.
On September 11th, that ad disappeared, presumably forever, from television and cinema screens. It was replaced by the sight of other bodies, this time ‘real ones’, falling to their death from far greater heights. One of the effects of this, expected and feared, is a very different kind of ‘fall’ tomorrow, when the American stock-exchanges open, for the first time in almost a week. ‘Consumer confidence’, already badly shaken, is expected to be not the least significant of the ‘collateral damage’ caused by the attacks. But was not at least one of the underlying conditions of this ‘catastrophe’ already ‘mirrored’, as it were, in the ad that ran during the week preceding the attacks? If only the miraculous presence of the automobile below ‘saved’ the falling body from the fate visited upon the thousands caught in the upper stories of the two towers of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11th, what can be said about ‘the fear of falling’ to which the advertisement appealed, just prior to the catastrophe? This ad, like all good advertising, struck a chord, was attuned to the expectations of its audience, even and especially those that are not necessarily conscious or avowed. For instance, the danger that provoked (‘triggered’) the fall of the window-washer, also affected the spectators watching it: they, like he, were momentarily blinded by the glare. Where did the glare come from? Watching that ad, one could hardly avoid thinking of a deliberate, malicious, malevolent act: someone manipulating a mirror in order to blind the victim. But the ‘victim’ who is blinded also includes the beholder of the ad, to whom it is addressed. This puts the spectators, as potential consumers, in an ‘analogous’ position to the victim, who is saved by the potential object of consumption, the car.
The spectators watching the ad are of course the ‘commodity’ that commercial television sells to its clients, the advertisers. Their sight, and hence their status as spectators, are both ‘struck’ by the same glare that causes the ‘worker’ — the ‘sight’ they are given to see — to fall to an almost certain death. Only the automobile, a specific, distinct automobile, ‘saves’ the worker. By implication — however ‘ironic’ and even silly it may seem — only consumption of the commodity in question can ‘save’ the spectator. ‘Datsun Saves!’ From what? From the Fall, which, in the tradition of the religions of the Book, at least, means guilt and death.
This is not the place to develop the links between commodity consumption, on the one hand, and the notion of salvation on the other. It may therefore suffice to note that in both, what is at stake is guilt on the one hand, and survival on the other. And not just survival, but survival of an individual who, otherwise, qua individual is condemned to perish. This is also what links the ad I have just discussed to the Hollywood catastrophe films to which you refer, in which, almost always, the threat of disaster is averted or surmounted by the action of a single heroic individual. Individuals, as a ‘class’, category or collective, are vulnerable to ‘terrorists’, and only a heroic individual or, less frequently, a small group of individuals, can ‘save’ them. The action of an isolated individual redeems individual passivity and vulnerability, in the Hollywood scenarios at least.
That scenario is above all what September 11th has rendered obsolete. No Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford could ‘save’ that day. Whether active or passive, the main role assigned to individuals on that day was that of perishing, or running from a danger that could hardly be circumscribed, much less effectively countered: billowing clouds of white smoke sowing panic before their advance (towards the cameras. . .). And the main role assigned to the political embodiment of that sort of individualism was confusion and flight, symbolized by a President of the United States who is warned not to return ‘home’ but instead ‘flies’ — or rather, is flown — from military base to military base, in an effort to avoid the invisible dangers.
The spectre of invisibility persists in the aftermath of the attacks. All major figures of the American government, together with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, insist that a ‘war’ has broken out. But this war is haunted by enemies who, in the words of President Bush, ‘believe they are invisible. Yet they are mistaken. They will be exposed and they will discover what others in the past have learned: Those who make war against the United States have chosen their own destruction’ (Radio Address, September 15, 2001).
However, such enemies must first be located in order to be destroyed. And in order to be located, they must be ‘seen’. With astonishing rapidity, an automobile is found with the Koran, flight manuals, maps, and other unmistakable indications. Within two days, pictures and names of the hijackers are flashed across the screens, their whereabouts and histories described in detail. But the direct perpetrators themselves can no longer be seized, much less punished. All the more important, then, to be able to name and depict — i.e. see — and thus to call to account the mastermind of the destruction. The importance attached to the figure of the individual — above all, to the face, but also to the body once again, as previously in the Gulf War — culminates in the identification of a new, Satanic (Islamic) Anti-Christ. Within hours of the attacks, the bearded figure of ‘Osama bin Laden’ appears on television and computer screens throughout the world as ‘prime suspect’. Somewhat less prominence is given to his writings, with the notable exception of the fatwa of 1998, signed by Osama bin Laden but also by a number of other persons, proclaiming that ‘The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it’. This phrase is quoted again and again, without any indication that it is part of a larger statement, the remainder of which is almost never cited: ‘. . .in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim’. The amputation of the arguments upon which the fatwa is based, as well as the focus on a single individual or group, provides the groundwork for the preparation of the Crusade against the Anti-Christ, if not for the War of Civilizations between the Judaeo-Christian and Moslem worlds long prophesized by Samuel Huntington.
The notion of a ‘War of Civilization’ — or rather, of Civilization against the Barbarians — strives to promote the sense of ‘distance’ between friend and enemy so necessary to the detached positioning of the omniscient and secure observer. It also prepares those observers to embrace a solution of the conflict through military intervention. What you refer to as ‘participation’ is acknowledged, but few consequences are drawn from it that might disturb this ‘friend-enemy’ dichotomy. The fact that Western governments, and in particular the UK and US, have historically sought to defend their interests in the Arab world by supporting authoritarian and often conservative, theological, and political forms of Islam — the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam is probably the most visible instance, but by no means the only one — while often, and concomitantly, weakening secular political governments and groups — this history is, of course, ‘acknowledged’ but also ‘isolated’, in the Freudian sense, which is to say, cut off from its consequences, the most terrible of which we have just experienced, but whose consequences may prove to be even more destructive.
This is just one crass instance of how the systematic denial of ‘participation’ in the name of a Manichean dualism of friend and enemy can contribute to the dangerous situation in which we now find ourselves. The same forces that participated in fostering the conditions and promoting the rise of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ are now obliged to destroy those parts of it that have escaped their control. An old story, but with new and terrifying consequences, since the ‘center’ can no longer take for granted that it will be protected from the events of ‘the periphery’. And it is likely that this all too justified fear will now be exploited to strengthen the very forces and situations that brought it about in the first place.
Simon Morgan Wortham and Gary Hall (17.09.2001)
With regard to events of ‘the periphery’ returning to haunt the ‘centre’, and concerning also the idea of decentered networks of opposition which are often hard to locate and see, we might come back, a little differently perhaps, to the issue of ‘globalization’. What do you make of a different form of asymmetrical attack on the ‘West’: what might be said of the anti-globalization protestors (of Seattle, Prague, Genoa, the anti-sweatshop campaigns directed at the likes of Gap by some students in some universities in the United States, and so forth)? In particular, how do these protestors fit into your analysis of American liberal society, for example in Institution and Interpretation? One thinks specifically of the chapter on ‘Capitalizing History’, which includes an analysis that is based on a reading of Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America. Are these ‘protests’ (one is wary of terming something so decentred a ‘movement’) just introducing conflict into a pluralist, non-conflictual space? Or is this space being revealed as conflictual by these protests?
And if so, is there any extent to which this is a result or an effect of what, for shorthand, might be termed ‘theory’ (in its very broadest conceptualization) –; despite and for all of Naomi Klein’s indirect critique of the latter in her book No Logo –; given that it was ‘theory’ which ‘relegitimized’ such ‘conflict’, not just ‘within’ fields and institutions, but ‘of’ fields and institutions, for you there? Klein interestingly sees what she labels as ‘identity politics’, and with which she associates ‘postmodern academics’ and the ‘theory’ of Gayatri Spivak, as the immediate precursor of the anti-globalization protestors: it is against such ‘identity politics’ that the current generation is in part re-acting, apparently. Klein is thus just one of those who have recently chastised ‘theory’ (among other things) for ‘not being political enough’, in favour of a concern for the ‘real’, the material and the economic. But isn’t the idea precisely of a re-action to ‘theory’, as well as your notion of theory relegitimizing a certain kind of conflict, bound to create problems for this kind of approach?
Samuel Weber (17.09.2001)
To create a bridge from our previous discussion to your questions, an article in today’s International Herald Tribune describes al-Qa’ida (the ‘Base’), the organization founded by Osama bin Laden and accused by US authorities of being responsible for last week’s attacks, as an ‘example of globalization’ (Karen DeYoung and Michael Dobbs, IHT, 9.17.01). The comparison could be illuminating. What the authors have in mind is not just the international scope of the organization, but its mode of operation, the relation of the individual, relatively autonomous groups, operating all over the world, to the chain of command, its ‘base’, presumably situated in the Middle East and very likely in Afghanistan. The very notion of ‘base’ seems to change, given that it seems to include alliances of different sorts (tactical, strategic) with other groups, not directly linked to Osama bin Laden. The notion of ‘globalization’ thus is associated not just with world-wide reach, but with an organizational structure in which the relation of ‘parts’ to ‘whole’ is very different from traditional ‘organic’ structures, be they of a traditional military sort, or a traditional political-conspiratorial sort (i.e. the ‘democratic centralism’ of revolutionary Communist parties). Such a transformed structure, which permits what is probably an even greater autonomy to the individual units than in conspiratorial groups of the past, is probably itself a response to the changed needs of such groups, faced with the technology of globalization and the new means of surveillance and repression it has developed. Such surveillance is epitomized on the one hand by the spy satellites that are capable literally of surveying the ‘globe’, and on the other hand by the network ‘Echelon’ based mainly in the Anglophone countries of the world: the US, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and their possessions.
But the comparison becomes truly suggestive when, against this background of commonality, one begins to discern some of the differences between the global quality of an organization such as al-Qa’ida and what is generally understood, and practised, as ‘globalization’. Not for nothing was the prime target in the attacks of the past weeks two buildings known as ‘The World Trade Center’. As I already have suggested, the ‘fundamentalists’ are not quite as ‘fundamental’ as this label might suggest. They targeted, and destroyed, the symbol of World Trade: i.e. not just of Globalization, and not just of American or Western or of Judaeo-Christian Civilization, but of World Finance Capitalism. This is a point that is being studiously obscured in the American media, although obviously it cannot be entirely ignored. However, there is a rather quick generalization that takes place in this discourse, in which ‘finance’ and ‘trade’ are replaced by ‘freedom’ and ‘civilization’, in order to portray the attackers as ‘fanatics’ and ‘fundamentalists’.
To strike at the World Trade Center, and then at the Pentagon (with either the White House or the Capitol as the third intended target) is thus to use certain aspects of ‘globalization’ — the dispersed, decentered, portable and transportable aspects of its technology — against the primary aim of Globalization as it dominates the world today, which is the extraction and appropriation of profit through the production and circulation of commodities. The ‘religious’ program to expel Western infidels from the holy areas of Islam is inseparable from a socio-economic situation caused by a historically specific political relation of forces.2
The symbolic significance of the attack on the symbol of global finance, The World Trade Center, together with the symbol of the state institution that maintain the present relation of forces throughout the world, namely, the Pentagon — all of this is, in the words of a French specialist on international law, Professor Brigitte Klein, ‘breathtaking’ in its precision. It is ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’, and the ‘symbolic’ element contributes and adds to the ‘real’.
So if the attacks on these symbols were made possible by an organization that shared certain traits with ‘globalization’, and in this sense was indeed ‘part’ of it, they were also clearly intended to call attention to and discredit certain other aspects of the very same process. And yet, there is another constituent of this ‘action’ that clearly distinguishes it from the capitalist mainstream of Globalization. It is what is referred to, not accidentally, as its ‘kamikaze’ element: the readiness to give one’s life to accomplish one’s goal. This is a dimension which, unless I am sorely mistaken, is fundamentally missing from what might be called the mainstream ‘culture’ of Globalization, inasmuch at least as the dominant aim of that culture — that which determines the primary directions in which it moves — is that of the private appropriation of profit and the increased level of consumption which that appropriation makes possible. This is the point where what has been called a ‘war of civilizations’ may not be an entirely ideological phrase — although it is clearly one that is being used to obscure more than to enlighten.
Let me illustrate what I have in mind by pointing to another ad, this time a full-page ad published in the September 13th issue of the International Herald Tribune (and doubtless elsewhere as well). The entire background of the page is blue-grey, 75 per cent is sky, 25 per cent is frozen tundra. On what appears to be the frozen surface of a lake, not far from one of the poles, three tiny figures can be seen, two children and one adult. One of the tiny child-figures appears to be bent forward, skating or skiing perhaps, in any event poised for something, balancing. S/he is observed, a few feet away, by an adult. A second child is walking towards the two others from the side. High above this scene, two words stand out in large, white type: ‘We’re out’. Four inches lower, in much smaller white type, the message: ‘Vodafone Voicemail. Get away from it all. Well, for an hour or two’. Further down still, the line: ‘How are you?’. And finally, not far from the three small figures, who are enclosed in a bubble, like those in which comic-strip characters speak, the message: ‘The people you need are only a touch away’.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, nothing, of course, looks or is the same as it might have seemed before. The poignant appeals coming from the cell-phones of those trapped in the burning towers, were cries of goodbye, of leave-taking from ‘the people’ who were ‘only a touch away’. But this touch did fulfil the ad’s promise: To ‘get away from it all. Well, for an hour or two’. Scarcely an hour was granted those caught in the planes or the towers. Those who were able to get out of the towers may have survived, but none, it is fairly certain, will ever be able to ‘get away from it all’, not even ‘for an hour or two’. And yet, this is precisely what the ad proclaims: ‘We’re out’. Who, we? The events of September 11th suggest that it is getting harder and harder ‘to get out’.
Except perhaps for the hijackers themselves. Or the suicide bombers. They are, or will be, ‘out’ and ‘away from it all’ — but not just ‘for an hour or two’. We want to ‘get away from it all’, ‘get out’, for an hour or two — but only before going back ‘in’, presumably refreshed. Those who perpetrate such attacks are ready to go ‘out’ without coming back.. Perhaps because they were never ‘in’, or at any rate couldn’t stay in. This difference is perhaps one reason why the horrific vision of the towers collapsing inward into themselves, imploding rather than exploding, is so haunting: the nightmare vision of an immanence disappearing into itself. The attacks were also against the kind of secular ‘immanence’ that those towers both represented and also implemented.
This is, of course, a very different rejection from that which led protestors to the streets of Seattle, Prague and Genoa. Like the conspirators, these protestors were also ‘decentered’ but at the same time for the most part not organized in secret organizations and obviously in their majority with very different aims. These were informed by notions such as ‘sustainability of resources’ and other ‘ecological’ considerations as well as the more traditional political values of social and economic justice. Beyond that, given the heterogeneity of the different components participating in the protests, it would be precipitous to relate them to the kind of analysis I sketched out in ‘Capitalizing History’, since we are doubtless dealing with considerable diversity, and hence, with very different political and moral perspectives. For instance, the differences among the different ‘Green’ movements, their similarities and divergences with respect to the group ‘ATTAC’, comprise a vast spectrum of opposition to the reigning form of Globalization (but not necessarily to all of its aspects, as ATTAC constantly insists). Some of this opposition could no doubt be shown to depend upon the kinds of ‘naturalizing’ that Hartz attributes to the American liberal tradition — but certainly not all of it. It is not, after all, a uniquely American phenomenon. Much would depend upon the way in which these different protests articulate or define their relation to the ‘future’. But this would require very minute and detailed analyses, which I can’t even begin to attempt here.
As to the ‘chastising’ of ‘theory’ for not being ‘political enough’, it’s an all too familiar ‘logo’; an easy enough exercise especially if one limits oneself to pointing at the distance that separates thinking, of whatever kind, and ‘action’, which is usually considered the sine qua non of the ‘political’. But to do this in the name of something called ‘the real’, ‘the material’ or even ‘the economic’ (and it should be obvious that I much prefer the latter to the former), can also open the door to the worst kind of dogmatism. If ‘the real’ is what resists, or, as Freud writes about ‘reality testing’, what returns, remains, then access to it will always be immensely difficult, complex and never entirely attainable. Conceptual formations such as ‘the real’, which claim both singularity and generality, can even become pernicious when they claim, explicitly or implicitly, to bridge the gap between the two. Suspicion directed at conceptual generality is one of the leitmotifs of modern thought, going back at least to the Scholastics, and the struggle of Nominalists against Realists. This assumes a distinctly contemporary cast with the critique of Hegel by Kierkegaard and Marx. Critique of course is never enough, and if ‘theory’ means the self-contained study of theoretical utterances, then it should be ‘criticized’. But clearly this is not what most thinkers identified with critical and deconstructive thought of the past decades have done. Almost all have been concerned with the political dimensions, consequences and conditions of their thinking, and of their writing, and the shift from the one to the other is precisely an articulation of this concern. What I have tried to develop concerning the theatrical dimension of inscription, of its propagation and transformation, is an attempt to elaborate this dimension.
It is perhaps worth recalling that there is a difference in being ‘political’ at the level of propositional statements (i.e. making declarations, signing petitions etc.) and being political at the level of the established codes of articulation to which one is necessarily submitted, but which are also susceptible to change. This is why a certain thinking of virtuality, possibility, potentiality — what in a study of Benjamin I call his ‘-abilities‘ — a certain virtualization of conceptualization itself, of ‘meaning’ — can be politically effective, even if it never gets its act together. This doesn’t dispense with more conventional forms of ‘political’ analysis and interpretation, much less with ‘political action‘, but it does affect and possibly transform the grids within which such actions and interpretations have to be situated.
Simon Morgan Wortham and Gary Hall (18.09.2001)
It is interesting that you draw to a close the comment you’ve just made by saying ‘there is a difference in being ‘political’ at the level of propositional statements (i.e. making declarations, signing petitions etc.) and being political at the level of the established codes of articulation to which one is necessarily submitted, but which are also susceptible to change’. Presumably, this statement could be taken to re-mark at least one of the borders or crossroads in our discussion so far. It could be seen as installing itself inor as one of the places where we find ourselves situated between problems and questions that are ostensibly ‘philosophical’ or ‘theoretical’ in nature, and others that are normally designated as ‘political’. Doubtless our exchange has tried to trace, and even assume, the very complex traits that tangle or tear together the conflictually riven territory of these supposedly different concerns, ‘fields’ or ‘disciplines’. It is in this context that we’d risk introducing – in however jarring a way – a question we’d been thinking of asking you beforehand, to see whether it is as far removed as it might seem from the question of ‘politics’ – and, indeed, from the politics of ‘theatricalization’, of ‘propositional statements’ and of ‘codes of articulation’.
In your recent work on theatricality as medium, you comment on the way in which the writing of Jacques Derrida explores its own ‘theatrical quality as a ‘staging”. But what of the performance or performativity that attends your own writing? What of its own ‘taking place’? Does this open up or open on to a different sort of ‘theatrical/theoretical’ space or (dis-)location? While it can be argued that the tracing out of certain effects of iterability or performativity in – and between – your texts is an indispensable element in the reading of them, some might say that, unlike the Derridean texts which you perhaps tend to privilege in your work (in the more recent material on theatricality, it’s Derrida’s ‘The Double Session’, while elsewhere, at the end of Institution and Interpretation, it’s his ‘Envois’) you yourself don’t seem to ‘theatrically stage’ the texts you write about. At least, not quite so explicitly. That is, you don’t seem to perform or act them out in quite the same way that, say, Derrida does with Mallarmé. Rather, you might appear, to some readers, to remain uncannily the same throughout much of your writing. But do you stop short of retaining your own authorial identity throughout, and, if so, how? For example, would the uncanny experience of the ‘familiar’ in your writing in fact involve a certain theatricalization, in that we find there (to borrow your own words): ‘not the communication of something new in the sense of content, but the variation of something familiar through its repetition’? Is your very recognizable style – if we might call it that – the effect of a deliberate strategy on your part? Or is it, as you say in Mass Mediauras, in response to a question on the ‘clarity’ of your writing, the result, not of ‘making or taking decisions but of being taken –; even overtaken! –; by them’?
This, at any rate, was the question we had in mind. Not for the first time in our discussion, such questions or issues risk seeming quite remote from – and even discontinuous with – the current events with which we are all preoccupied. At first glance, they seem to stand apart and refuse to participate. But the last part of your previous set of remarks, on theatricality and on action and articulation in particular, would seem to allow such concerns to partake of the ‘political’ which otherwise might exclude them. For instance, would you be able, at this time, to reflect further on the (political?) relationship, if there is any, between the kind of acts or ‘events’ with which we are very much concerned now, today, and the kind of act we are engaged in, now, over a number of days, this discussion taking place?
Another, perhaps related question that we’d send you at the same time. Once more concerning ‘politics’, assuming we can even begin to know what that term means today. The emphasis on institutions and instituting in your work has been presented as a way of making deconstruction ‘political’. (Godzich offers a reading along these lines in his ‘Afterword’ to Institution and Interpretation.) And, indeed, you yourself have argued (in ‘The Limits of Professionalism’) that deconstruction, in what you call ‘its orthodox form’, downplays the forces and powers that maintain certain sets of paradigms, certain authorities and systems. But doesn’t this reading (of both your work and deconstruction) rather imply: a. that other ‘deconstructions’ – those that are not concerned with questions of the institution and instituting, force and power – are not political, and b. that the question of the political is decided in advance –; this constituting a limiting of the political, an acceptance of the political as it is institutionally defined, of the sort you elsewhere argue against? In addition, does the supposed affiliation between ‘instituting’, ‘institutions’ and ‘the political’ as outlined above – and indeed the decision as to what these terms mean – need to be rethought in light of some of the effects of ‘globalization’ witnessed in the events of the past week?
Samuel Weber (18.09.2001)
Both of your questions presuppose a consensual understanding of just what is meant by ‘political’. Underpinning such an understanding, I see further questions: Is the political necessarily tied to the state? To society? Is it primarily a question of Power? Of the Common Good? The General Will? Community? Is it manifest primarily in ‘action’? In strategies? In policies? Is it necessarily bound up with ‘subjects’, in either the philosophical, grammatical or social sense of the word? What is its relation to spatial and temporal factors: to the organization of space through the assigning of places, and to the organization of time through the regulation of past, present and future?
Take, once again, the events of September 11th. I call them ‘events’ because this word seems best to condense and to complicate the two meanings of the term with which I am familiar. First, the usual use of the term in English, to designate a spatio-temporally localizable occurrence. And second, the Heideggerian meaning of Ereignis, designating an unpredictable, uncontrollable outbreak that disrupts spatial and temporal continuities and dislocates and transforms frames of reference. What happened on September 11th was an event in both senses. It involved the destruction of specific buildings and the more or less immediate after-effects of that destruction, all of which can and was represented in unforgettable images that will haunt most of us for many years to come. And at the same time, these events also involved a far less visible network, not intangible, but this time more difficult to localize — the problem of the American ‘response’ — and thus to reduce to a single, identifiable object or set of objects. Organizationally there is ‘the base’, but it is at the same time a kind of ‘superstructure’. Or rather, sub- and infrastructure. The ‘base’ is not identical with those structures, but is also not simply their foundation. That is the problem of the ‘war’ or ‘crusade’ against ‘terrorism’: finding the proper target or targets. Colin Powell and others have compared Osama bin Laden’s organization it to a ‘holding’; others, to a ‘multinational’ — but those terms serve more to describe the perspective of those who use them than the very different situation of their adversaries.
Were the events of September 11th ‘political’? Did they involve ‘politics’? Much of the official discourse of the American government, and much (although certainly not all) of American media, tends to deny this, at least implicitly. According to this perspective, September 11th was the work of religious fanatics, of resentment, of ‘evil’ in its purest form. It is to be combated morally, in a ‘crusade’ (President Bush) that will extirpate its perpetrators. At the same time, the same discourse insists on the term ‘war’ to describe what has happened, as well as the proper response to it. ‘America’s New War’ is CNN’s heading or title for Chapter Two of its ‘story’. ‘War’ is generally considered a ‘political’ phenomenon, but is a ‘crusade’ a ‘war’? It is true that the two words have been used as equivalents in American discourse of the past few decades: ‘War against Drugs’, ‘War against Poverty’, ‘War against Crime’ and today, ‘War against Terrorism’. But such a use employs the word to designate a general mobilization of a nation against an enemy that is not necessarily identifiable with a state, and hence which is not ‘political’ in the most familiar sense of this word.
The problem in doing ‘justice’ to ‘the political’ is the ‘cut’ required to define the term. ‘State’, ‘power’, ‘action’ — the triad presupposed in most consensual definitions of the term — are notions that operate like ‘freeze-frame photographs’, Momentaufnahmen as one says in German, literally, in-stantaneous: bringing to a halt an ongoing and highly complex and dynamic network of relations that is constantly evolving and therefore only provisionallydelimitable. The dilemma of the American response to the attacks of last week illustrates this problem all too well: The ‘culprits’, like many of their victims, are dead. They therefore cannot be brought to justice: only identified, which was accomplished with a speed that is all the more surprising given the apparent lack of preparedness. At the same time, the problem of ‘terrorism’ cannot be limited to Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or even to Muslim Fundamentalism, as the last great attack on American soil in Oklahoma City clearly demonstrated. But how then can it be sufficiently delimited to serve as a target of effective action? Are the roots of this ‘terrorism’ ‘political’? Religious? Economic? Cultural?
To be sure, the discourses of the media, and that of the American government, in no way exhaust the phenomenon of ‘the political’, but they do manifest certain widely held attitudes and conceptions that are by no means foreign to the Academy (at least in the United States). Charlotte Raven, writing in the British Guardian, touched a nerve when she observed:
At the root of this (official discourse) is an overwhelming need to control meaning. America can’t let the world speak for itself. It was taken unawares last Tuesday and part of the trauma of that event was the shock of being forced to listen to a message that it hadn’t had time to translate. The subsequent roar of anger was, amongst other things, the sound of the US struggling to regain the right to control its own narrative. It did this by declaring war. By this means, Bush ensured that America only had to sit with the inexplicable for a couple of anxious days. After that, the sense, so unfamiliar to them, of not knowing what had happened or what it meant was replaced by the reassuring certainties of John Brown’s body and calls for national unity. By turning what should have been a criminal manhunt into an all-out war, Bush was asserting his right to define America’s reality. Instead of submitting to the reality, he created the situation he wanted, fashioning a plausible, beatable enemy. . .(The Guardian, Sept. 18, 2001).
Translating the traumatic into the elements of an all too familiar narrative — Bush describing the ‘justice’ he seeks in terms of the Hollywood Western: ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive’ — condenses a certain conception of ‘the political’: the State, represented by the Sheriff, leading the Posse, locates the outlaw, neutralizes him, ‘dead or alive’ — and presumably collects the reward. Raven is correct, I believe, in emphasizing that a certain narrative is crucial for framing this conception. For only a certain form of narrative allows time and space to be subordinated to meaning as media of self-fulfilment rather than of self-destruction.
The belief that this self-contained narrative, consisting of a continuum of beginning, middle and end, providing the sole paradigm of meaning, reality and identity — a belief that is not limited to the practice or study of literature, but that rather sustains and informs the practices and institutions, the perceptual and conceptual grids of the very ‘civilisation’ that erected the twin towers to celebrate, and concentrate, World Trade — is as much if not more a part of ‘politics’ as is the triad of state, power and action that constitutes its most obvious and traditional manifestation.
It is the self-evidence, the self-contained ‘reality’ of this narrative scheme that is challenged, disrupted, dislocated by many if not all of what are called ‘deconstructive’ texts. Obviously, such dislocation operates in very different ways and to very different degrees. What I have called ‘theatricalization’ is one part of it: by foregrounding the ‘stage’, it resituates familiar narratives so that their framing function is no longer taken for granted. The ‘scene’ is what exceeds but also enables any single, self-contained narrative to take place. Such staging has become fairly evident in the later writings of Derrida, as it also did in the later writings of Lacan. But it can be operative without being as obvious or manifest. It is ‘at work’ wherever the expected, established expectations of readers (viewers, listeners) find themselves challenged and in some way forced to adjust, to move, to change. This is obviously a long way from what is generally recognized as effective ‘political action’. But the determination of what is ‘effective’ is never a simple given, just as it is never a simple question of personal preference, never simply aleatory.
With respect to my own writing, it is certainly less ‘theatrical’ than that of either Lacan or Derrida, even if theatricality is more ‘thematized’, more explicitly discussed in my work. Perhaps one reason for the difference is that my writing is less rooted in a single discourse and tradition than is Derrida’s or Lacan’s, or Benjamin’s for that matter. Certain major impulses have come to me precisely from the encounter of different cultures and languages: first, German, then French, both always interacting with a certain (American) English. Perhaps this is one reason why a certain ‘intensity’ did not develop in the way it has in Derrida’s writing, an aspect he has described as his ‘monolinguism’.
If you are asking about this kind of difference, then it is surely not simply a ‘deliberate strategy’ on my part, but something that my experience — trajectory — has imposed upon me. Which doesn’t mean that it couldn’t change in the future. But certainly that change will never be absolute: it will always be, I fear, more or less recognizable. But with luck, it will not just be ‘more of the same’.
Perhaps this is why one of my next projects, which is already Â‘mired’ in repetition, and in a certain sense is therefore anything but entirely ‘new’, involves a ‘return’ to the question of the uncanny, which I began studying some thirty five years ago, but which only fairly recently I have tried to rethink in terms of a certain theatricality. It is curious that such a significant notion should have received so little attention over the past years. Derrida, once again, seems to be almost alone is his sustained concern for this strangely familiar topic. But even he has published relatively little sustained analysis of it so far, although he has discussed it at length in several of his unpublished seminars. My suspicion is that at least part of the explanation for this benign neglect has to do with the singularly elusive character of the uncanny: Is it a concept, an experience, a feeling? Is it historically conditioned or trans-historical? At any rate, it seems profoundly linked to the end of an epoch obsessed with reflexivity and self-consciousness, while also announcing things to come in an as yet undecipherable language.
Simon Morgan Wortham and Gary Hall (20.09.2001)
A final question which, given its nature, you may feel unable to answer without referring once more to events of a contemporary nature. In ‘Force of Law’, Derrida names ‘justice’ as the one thing that cannot be deconstructed. In ‘The Debts of Deconstruction’ you seem to add to the list of things that cannot be deconstructed deconstruction’s own debts, and furthermore the ‘question of debt in general’. One might wonder where this leaves the question of your own relationship and debts to Derrida and to deconstruction? But, beyond this, what then becomes of the relationship of ‘justice’ to ‘debt’? Is this of special relevance today?
Samuel Weber (21.09.2001)
One of the texts I discuss in ‘The Debts of Deconstruction’ was from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, where he speculates that the stronger a group or ‘tribe’ becomes, the greater its sense of indebtedness to its antecedents. This in turn results in a ‘fear’ of ‘forefathers’ who have become ‘divinely uncanny and unimaginable’. In the end, says Nietzsche, the fear produced by this sense of unrequitable debt transfigures the ancestor into a god. The origin of the gods, then, would ‘perhaps’ be this fear.
But such a birth of the gods out of fear is itself based on the presupposition of an originary equivalence, and therefore of a debt that is held to subvene upon a relation that would otherwise be balanced. It is this balance-sheet of identity, of commensurability, that Derrida’s notion of ‘justice’ unbalances. The scales of this justice are not balanced, they are always already tipped, one way or the other, and indeed only thinkable from this situation of imbalance.
Nietzsche’s account here profoundly modifies our usual conception of debt, and its relation to a debtor. We usually think of a debt as something that can and must be ‘had’ — one ‘has’ a debt, it is assignable to a debtor. This debtor in turn is defined by this negative property, ‘his’ (or ‘her’) debt. But the debt as Derrida negotiates it, is not just a debt to another (ego, self): it is that which indebts the self itself to the other. It is therefore never something that you can ‘have’, or that can be assigned to you in an unequivocal manner. It is both yours and not yours, part of you and that which parts with you, or rather, causes you to take leave from, and of, yourself.
There is a word, difficult if not impossible to translate into English, which Derrida uses to describe such a movement, in its irreducibility. In a very long footnote, running across several pages of De l’esprit, Derrida demonstrates that Heidegger’s notion of thinking as questioning in turn presupposes something that Heidegger calls Zuspruch or Zusage, a kind of call or appeal, for which the closest nominal equivalent in English seems to be ‘appeal’ but which corresponds more closely, perhaps, with the idiomatic phrase ‘speak to’. Thinking as questioning thus never constitutes an absolute beginning or origin, but rather responds to an appeal. This appeal, as it is formulated in German by Heidegger (based on the roots, Spruch and Sage), is inseparable from language, understood as a practice or movement, a heightened receptivity, an opening to the other, a disposition to listen, discern, respond, rather than as an entity or system — understood, in short, as a saying rather than as a statement or proposition. But at the same time it antedates, precedes the constitution and acquisition of language as a positive entity. And such a disposition, Derrida argues, involves not simply the assumption of a ‘debt’ but the giving of what he calls — and here we come to that untranslatable word — a gage. In English, we would probably have to translate this as a ‘deposit’, or possibly wager. The gage is thus both a sort of guarantee for the repayment of a debt, and a gamble, a promise, an engagement. But there is a difference: the deposit is deposited somewhere, in a safe place. It is a form of placement. For Derrida, by contrast, the gage whose appeal precedes and permits all questioning, says ‘yes’, affirms, but without positing any thing. It quite literally, but not idiomatically, de-posits. And it does so by responding to ‘an event, the memory (mémoire) of which precedes all remembrance (souvenir) and to which we are bound by a faith that defies all narrative‘ (De l’esprit).
To be sure, Derrida here is reading, interpreting Heidegger. But at the same time, on the margins of the main text, in this long footnote, he is also writing, commenting in the most literal sense: thinking with, which means also translating, re-marking, doing justice not to ‘Heidegger’ as author, philosopher or subject, but as a text that is anything but self-identical, harmonious or self-contained. Derrida´s text engages Heidegger by doing justice not to the spirit but to the letters of his texts, by taking up their challenge, their ‘gage’, without the security of an original, underlying or overriding meaning. By remarking Heidegger’s assertion, that ‘language must have already appeal or have appealed to us’ — muss sich die Sprache zuvor uns zusagen oder gar schon zugesagt haben — De l’esprit reshuffles the deck of our usual reading of Heidegger, and of much more, by foregrounding the condition of all engagement, political or other, as residing in a certain disposition to assume and respond to the gage. There must be a disposition to engagethat presupposes every organization of space and time into places, objects and above all, narratives, ‘in’ which one could place, or deposit, one’s engagement. There must be an acceptance of ‘faith’ that antedates everything ‘in’ which one could have faith. The ‘gage’ that doesn’t secure is this faith that de-fies all narrative.
Another word for this faith is, perhaps, ‘justice’. But not ‘infinite justice’ as the unending triumph of Good over Evil. This is precisely the kind of narrative that justice must ‘de-fy’.
Today, more than ever, justice demands the de-fiance of all narratives, especially those that seem the most self-evident, the most compelling, and that are therefore perhaps the most dangerous.
1. This claim has since been retracted.
The reference to the original claim on the web is: http://indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=63288&group=webcast
The retraction is at: http://www.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=64366
2. The remark of Professor Robert Precht is worth noting in his context. Prof. Precht served as public defender of one of those accused in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. His conclusion about the state of mind and motivations of those involved in this attack can serve as a valuable warning against easy stereotypes:
‘The things that struck me were the very complicated feelings the people who commit these acts have for America,’ he said. ‘Our leaders describe them as evildoers and say they hate everything our country stands for. … That was not my experience.’
He said several of the defendants admired the US system of government and law and had a real knowledge of American history. But they resented US policies. The dispute terrorists have with America is really more a political one and has nothing to do with Islamic beliefs, Precht said. Instead, he said, ‘these are simply people who develop political agendas and then dress them up in a cloak of righteousness.’ (Kathy Barr Hoffmann, ‘Attacks Remind Professor of 1993’, AP, Oct. 1, 2001).
Samuel Weber is Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities, Northwestern University, USA. He is the author of a number of books and articles on Balzac, Saussure, Lacan, Freud, Benjamin, Heidegger and Derrida, including The Legend of Freud (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), Institution and Interpretation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan’s Dislocation of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (California: Stanford University Press, 1996). He has just completed Theatricality as Medium (California: Stanford University Press, 2002).
Simon Morgan Wortham is Principal Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, England. His work has appeared in the journals New Literary History, Economy and Society and New Formations. He is the co-editor of the Â‘Authorizing Culture‘ edition of the journal Angelaki, and author of Rethinking the University: Leverage and Deconstruction (Manchester:Manchester University Press, 1999).
Gary Hall is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Middlesex University, England. He is the author of Culture in Bits (Athlone/Continuum, 2002). His work has appeared in a number of journals including parallax, Surfaces and The Oxford Literary Review, as well as the anthology Psycho-Politics and Cultural Desires, eds Jan Campbell and Janet Harbord (London and New York: Taylor and Francis, 1998). He is the co-editor of the Authorizing Culture edition of the journal Angelaki, and of Technologies, a new series of books in cultural studies, critical and cultural theory, and continental philosophy from Athlone/Continuum.