Saturday, 1 October 2011

9/11 and the Reconstitution of Order and Meaning

David Chandler, Security and IR Programme

Jean Baudrillard – The Spirit of Terrorism

At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them…
When the two towers collapsed, you had the impression that they were responding to the suicide of the suicide-planes with their own suicides. It has been said that ‘Even God cannot declare war on Himself.’ Well, He can. The West, in the position of God (divine omnipotence and absolute moral legitimacy), has become suicidal, and declared war on itself…
War as the continuation of the absence of politics by other means.

9/11 came as a great relief to the West, as a lifting of a burden. This was the burden of the bad faith of the fact that we had rejected our traditional modernist frameworks of order and meaning but still lacked any way of clearly articulating or legitimizing alternatives. 9/11 freed us to enter a new order of understanding.

The war on terror can perhaps be seen as a last attempt at the restoration of (or imagination of) some territorialized or geo-political ordering of meaning and purpose – of securing and controlling. If it was a resistance to the post-9/11 world order it quickly proved futile. In fact, fighting the wars of 9/11 ensured that resistance turned into public acquiescence – as can be seen in Blair’s struggle ‘over values’ and Rumsfeld’s articulation of the ‘lack of metrics for success or failure’ and the struggle ‘against the unknown unknowns’.

For Baudrillard, the meaning we attached to 9/11 was merely our nihilistic note of suicide. However, even Baudrillard underestimated the ease with which we would be accustomed to the post-9/11 world. He saw the war on terror as a necessary attempt to reclaim or to simulate meaning – a vacuous and vicious war without purpose generated by our own projections of our insecurities. War as a similacrum: as a replacement for genuine political contestation. The continuation of the lack of politics by other means. Today we have no need for such simulacra.

Despite his prescient provocation, Baudrillard does not appear to have foreseen just how much we were to be at home with our suicidal declaration of war upon ourselves (for him, this transition was always to be problematic: the Shadow of the Silent Majorities – the hollowing out of the political – was his major problematic).

In fact, our suicide (the death of modernist liberal framings of the human as a rational and securing subject) was neither foretold nor written nor performed in 9/11 or the global war on terror, but rather in the pre-existing discourses of ‘globalization’, ‘man-made global warming’, ‘manufactured uncertainty’, ‘the precautionary principle’, the ‘humanizing of the environment/nature’, the evolutionary psychology of the brain and the other psy-sciences (as Foucault asserted in The Order of Things: where the recently constructed human – the killer of God – meets his own interconnected end erased ‘like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea’), etc, etc.

As Baudrillard stresses, we willed and wanted 9/11 and constructed 9/11 as a meaningful event that changed our world. All that was important to 9/11 – all that was caused as a ‘result’ of 9/11 - was already present before 9/11.

But the world would never be the same after 9/11. Not because the war on terror would constitute new hegemonies of power and new discourses of war upon the self and others.

In IR - the discipline of dates of transition; of 1648, of 1945, of 1989 – 9/11 marks a shift from a liberal world of order and meaning to a non-liberal or post-liberal world. This shift is a fundamental one: from the 1990s’ world of global security - of global community, and global governance - to the post-9/11 world of globalised insecurity, pluralised forms of life and being, of resilience in and through the complexity of self-reproducing systems.

IR died in 9/11 rather than 1989. In the ‘90s IR was in its agonised death throes with no legitimate alternative - we told ourselves that states were no longer relevant, that the globalized world had removed the barriers between the inside and the outside etc etc. But 9/11 removed that pain and suffering and brought real order and meaning to the world.

The world would never be the same after 9/11 because order and meaning were reconstituted. 9/11 came as a much awaited restoration of order and meaning, rather than as a disruption. All the more securing, all the more meaningful, for its horrific and arbitrary nature.

Since 9/11 all is well in a world which is no longer a human-centred one. Order is no longer understood as security and progress. Our new natural order is one which is ontologically insecure, one where progress is a hubristic and problematic illusion. Meaning has been restored – the meaning of arbitrary acts. The meaning the external world gives in its judgement upon the human. Meanings – ‘lessons’ – are everywhere: in the Earth’s biosphere; in the random acts of individuals; in the disasters and accidents that before could not be meaningful; in the penguins at the aquarium; in the songs of the humpbacked whale.

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