Paul Smith is professor of cultural studies at George Mason University and chair in media studies at the University of Sussex, and author most recently of Millennial Dreams (Verso).
“The reaction to the events of 11 September–terrible as they were–seems excessive to outsiders, and we have to say this to our American friends, although they have become touchy and ready to break off relations with accusations of hard-heartedness.”
‘We’ and ‘you’
Doris Lessing’s rueful but carefully aimed words, published in a post-9/11 issue of Granta magazine where a constellation of writers had been asked to address “What We Think of America,” doubtless have done little to inhibit the progress of American excess in the time since the terrorist attacks. The voices of even the most considerable of foreign intellects were hardly alone in being rendered inaudible by the solipsistic noise that immediately took over the American public sphere after 9/11. All kinds of voices and words, from within America and without, immediately lost standing and forfeited the chance to be heard, became marginalised or simply silenced, in deference to the media-led straightening of the possible range of things that could be said. And even after the initial shock of 9/11 had receded, it seems that one’s standing to speak depended largely upon the proximity of one’s sentiments to the bellicose sound-bites of the American president as his administration set sail for retaliatory and pre-emptive violence and promoted a Manichean worldview where one could only be either uncomplicatedly for or uncomplicatedly against America, even as it conducted illegal, immoral, and opportunistic war.
The peculiar American reaction to 9/11 was always latent in the discursive and cultural habits of this society where, as Lessing pointedly insists, “everything is taken to extremes.” Such extremism is perhaps not often enough considered, she suggests, when ‘we’ try to understand or account for the culture (Lessing, p. 54). I’m not sure that it’s the case that that extremism has exactly gone unnoticed; it is, after all, the motor and at the same time the effect of the sheer quotidian brutality of American social relations. But the sudden shock to the American system delivered by the terrorists certainly facilitated a certain kind of extremism, a certain kind of extreme Americanism.
That extremist Americanism is foundational to this culture. America is, as Jean Baudrillard has said, the only remaining primitive society…a utopia that is in the process of “outstripping its own moral, social and ecological rationale” (1988, p. 7). And this is, moreover, a primitivism awash with its own peculiar fundamentalisms–not quite the fundamentalisms that America attacks elsewhere in a kind of narcissistic rage, but fundamentalisms that are every bit as obstinate. This is, after all, a society where public discourse regularly pays obeisance to ancient texts and their authors, to the playbook of personal and collective therapy, to elemental codes of moral equivalency, and so on. And this is to leave aside the various Christian and populist fundamentalisms that are perhaps less respectable but nonetheless have deep influence on the public sphere. But in its perhaps most respectable fundamentalism–always the most important one, but now more than ever in this age of globalisation–the society battens on its own deep devotion to a capitalist fundamentalism. Thus it is a primitive society in a political-economic sense too: a society completely devoted to the upkeep of its means of consumption and means of production, and thus deeply dependent upon the class effects of that system and ideologically dependent upon ancient authorities, which remain tutelary and furnish the ethical life of the culture.
It is to these kinds of fundamentalism that America appealed after 9/11, by way of phrases such as ‘our values,’ ‘who we are,’ ‘the American way of life,’ and so on; or when Mayor Giuliani and others explicitly promoted consumption as a way of showing support for America. None of that was perhaps terribly surprising, however disturbingly crass it might have been, and it was clear how much it was necessary for the production of the forthcoming war economy in the USA. But the construction of such extremist platitudes (endlessly mediatised, to be sure) was surprisingly successful in effecting the elision of other kinds of speech in this nation where the idea of freedom of speech is otherwise canonised as a basic reflex ideology.
But, (as de Tocqueville was always fond of repeating) this is also a nation where dissidents quickly become pariahs, strangers. The voices, the kinds and forms of speech that were silenced or elided in the aftermath of 9/11 are, of course, the dialectical underbelly to the consolidation of a fundamentalist sense of America, and to the production of an excessive cultural ideology of shared values. They go some way to constituting, for the sake of what I have to say here, a ‘we’–strangers both within the land and beyond it. This is not, of course, a consistent ‘we,’ readily located either beyond or within the borders of the USA and who could be called upon to love or hate or to lovehate some cohesive ‘you’ that until recently sat safely ensconced inside those same borders. It goes without saying that nobody within or without those boundaries can be called upon individually to comply seamlessly, or closely, or for very long, to a discourse of putative national identity. So in the end there is no living ‘you’ or ‘we’ here, but only a vast range of disparate and multifarious individuals, living in history and in their own histories, imperfectly coincident with the discursive structure of “America.”
And yet imaginary relations are powerful. The ‘you’ whose sense of belonging to, or owning, that fundamentalist discourse has for the time being asserted or constructed itself qua America; but it is of course unclear who ‘you’ really are. It has never been clear to what extent a ‘you’ could be constructed on the ground by way of ideological and mediatised pressure. It’s certainly unclear how much the mainstream surveys could tell us, conducted as they are through the familiar corporate, university, and media channels. And it would be grossly simplistic to try to ‘read’ the nation’s ideology through its mediatised messages and simply deduce that people believe (in) them.1 So the question of “who are ‘you’?” remains opaque in some way. At the same time, there is a discursive space where the everyday people that American subjects are coincides with the ‘you’ that is now being promulgated as fundamental America.
By the same token, there is also some kind of ‘we’ that derives from the fact that the identities and the everyday lives of so many outside the USA are bound up with the USA, with what the USA does and says, and with what it stands for and fights for. The ways in which ‘our’ identities are thus bound up is different for some than for others, obviously, and ‘we’ are all in any case different from one another. I share nothing significant, I think, with the perpetrators of the attacks on the Trade Towers or on the tourists in Bali. Some of us find ourselves actually inside the boundaries of the USA. That’s where I speak from right now, a British subject but one whose adult life has been shaped by being an alien inside America and thus to some large extent shaped by ‘you.’ And there are many in similar positions, some killed in the WTC attacks, others Muslims, others illegals, and so on. And there are of course, also the internal ‘dissenters’–those who speak and find ways to be heard outside the channels that promote the construction of a ‘you.’ All of ‘us, then, inside and outside the borders of the US, are not ‘you’–a fact that ‘you’ make clear enough on a daily basis.
The ‘we’ is in fact a construct of the very ‘you’ I have just been talking about. This ‘we’ is generated through the power of the long, blank gaze emanating from the American republic that dispassionately, without empathy and certainly without love, refuses to recognise most of the features of the world laid out at its feet; a gaze that can acknowledge only that part of the world which is compliant and willing to act as a reservoir of narcissistic supply to the colossus.
Appropriately (in light of the events of 9/11, certainly, and probably before that) it is to the World Trade Center that Michel de Certeau pointed when he wanted to describe the ideological imposition that such a gaze exerts over the inhabitants of a space. In his famous essay, “Walking in the City”(1984), he begins his disquisition from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, meditating on the ichnographic gaze that the tower (then) enabled, looking down over a city that becomes for him a “texturology” of extremes, “a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production”(p. 91). That gaze is for him essentially the exercise of a systematic power, or a structure in other words. Its subjects are the masses in the streets, all jerry-building their own relation to that structure as they bustle and move around the spaces of this excessive city.
De Certeau doesn’t say so, but one could suspect that he reads the tower and the view it provides by reference to the mystical eye sitting atop the pyramid on the US dollar bill–another trope in American fundamentalist discourse, the god who oversees ‘your’ beginnings. But at any rate, it’s hard not to be struck in his account by the way the relationship between the ichnographic and systematic gaze and the people below replicates a much more Hegelian dialectic: the master-slave dialectic. De Certeau’s sense of power relations never quite manages to rid itself of that Hegelian, or even Marxist, sense that the grids of power here are structural rather than untidily organic in some more Foucauldian sense. The gaze he interprets, then, is in that sense the colossal gaze of the master, surveying the slaves. It is the gaze of a ‘you’ for whom the real people, foraging below and finding their peculiar ways of living within the ichnographic grids that are established for them, can be seen only as subjects and judged only according to their conformity. And when the structure feels itself threatened by the agitation and even independence of its subjects below (as, in De Certeau’s analysis, the city structure begins to decay and its hold on the city dwellers is mitigated), it tries to gather them in again by way of narratives of catastrophe and panic (p. 96). One boon of the 9/11 attacks for the colossus was of course the opportunity to legitimise such narratives.
I cite De Certeau’s dense essay in part because it has been strangely absent from the many efforts of sociological and cultural studies to ‘re-imagine’ New York after 9/11; one might have imagined a text as important as this one to have something to teach about the intersections of power and control in a modern city. But I cite it more for the reminder it offers–beginning from the same place, as it were, as the terrorist attacks themselves–of the way that the spatial structure of the city “serves as a totalizing and almost mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies.” Part of the lesson of this conceit is the knowledge that in the end the city is “impossible to administer” because of the “contradictory movements that counterbalance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power” (p. 95). De Certeau’s New York City and its power grid act as a reasonable metaphor for the way in which ‘our’ identities are variously but considerably construed in relation to ‘you.’ ‘Your’ identity is the master’s identity in which ‘we’ dialectically and necessarily find ‘our’ own image, ‘our’ reflection, and ‘our’ identity. The master’s identity is inflected to the solipsism of self-involvement and entitlement while emanating a haughty indifference to ‘us.’
The situation is familiar, then. In the places, histories, and structures that ‘we’ know about, but of which ‘you’ always contrive to be ignorant, it is a situation that is historically marked by the production of antagonism and ressentiment. What the master cannot see in the slave’s identity and practice is that ressentiment derives not from envy or covetousness but from a sense of injustice, a sense of being ignored, marginalised, disenfranchised, and un-differentiated. That sort of sense of injustice can only be thickened in relation to an America whose extremist view of itself depends upon the very discourse of equality and democracy that the slave necessarily aspires to. Ressentiment is in that sense the ever-growing sense of horror that the master cannot live up to the very ideals he preaches to ‘us.’
It is a kind of ressentiment that Baudrillard, in his idiosyncratic (but nonetheless correct) way, installs at the heart of his short and profound analysis of the events of 9/11. Whatever else can be located in the way of motivation for the attacks, he suggests, they represented an uncomplicated form of ressentiment whose “acting-out is never very far away, the impulse to reject any system growing all the stronger as it approaches perfection or omnipotence” (2002, p.7). Moreover, Baudrillard is equally clear about the problem with the ‘system’ that was being attacked: “It was the system itself which created the objective conditions for this retaliation. By seizing all the cards for itself, it forced the Other to change the rules” (p.9). In a more prosaic manner, Noam Chomsky notes something similar in relation to the 9/11 attacks when he says that the attacks marked a form of conflict qualitatively different from what America had seen before, not so much because of the scale of the slaughter, but more simply because America itself was the target: “For the first time the guns have been directed the other way” (2001, p. 11-12). Even in the craven American media there was a glimmer of understanding about what was happening; the word ‘blowback’ that floated around for a while could be understood as a euphemism for this new stage in a master/slave narrative.
As the climate in America since 9/11 has shown very clearly, such thoughts are considered unhelpful for the construction of a ‘you’ that would support a state of perpetual war, and noxious to the narratives of catastrophe and panic that have been put into play to round up the faithful. The notion, in any case, that ressentiment is not simply reaction, but rather a necessary component of the master’s identity and history, would always be hard to sell to a ‘you’ that narcissistically cleaves to “the impossible desire to be both omnipotent and blameless” (Rajagopal, p. 175). This is a nation, after all, that has been chronically hesitant to face up to ressentiment in its own history, and mostly able to ignore and elide the central antagonisms of class. This is and has been a self-avowed ‘classless’ society, unable therefore to acknowledge its own fundamental structure, its own fundamental(ist) economic process (except as a process whereby some of its subjects fail to emulate the ability of some of the others to take proper advantage of level playing fields and equality of opportunity). For many of ‘us’ it has been hard to comprehend how most Americans manage to remain ignorant about class and ignorant indeed of their own relationship to capital’s circuits of production and consumption. At least it’s hard to understand how such ignorance can survive the empirical realities of America today. The difficulty was by no means eased when it became known that families of 9/11 victims would be paid compensation according to their relatives’ value as labour, and this somehow seemed unexceptionable to ‘you.’ The blindness of the colossal gaze as it looks on America itself is replicated in the gaze outward as it looks on ‘us.’ This is a nation largely unseeing, then, and closed off to the very conditions of its own existence–a nation blindly staring past history itself.
“Events are the real dialectics of history,” Gramsci says, “decisive moments in the painful and bloody development of mankind” (p.15) and 9/11, the only digitised date in world history, can be considered an event that could even yet be decisive. It would be tempting, of course, to say that once the ‘end of history’ had supposedly abolished all Hegelian dialectics–wherein ‘our’ identities would be bound up with ‘yours’ in an optical chiasmus of history–it was inevitable that history itself should somehow return to haunt such ignorance of historical conditions. Yet, from 9/11 and through the occupation of Iraq, America appears determined to remain ex-historical and seems still unable to recognise itself in the face of the Other–and that has always and will again make magisterial killing all the more easy.
Freedom, equality, democracy
If this dialectic of the ‘you’ and the ‘we’ can claim to represent anything about America’s outward constitution, it would necessarily find some dialectical counterpart in the inward constitution of this state. At the core of the fundamental notions of ‘the American way of life’ that ‘you’ rallied around after 9/11 and that allow ‘you’ to kill Iraqis in order to liberate them, there reside the freighted notions of freedom, equality and democracy that, more than a century and a half ago, de Tocqueville deployed as the central motifs of Democracy in America. De Tocqueville’s central project is hardly akin to my project here, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that his work does in fact wage a particular kind of dialectical campaign. That is, Democracy in America plots the interaction of the terms freedom and equality in the context of the new American republic that he thought should be a model for Europe’s emerging democracies. His analysis of how freedom, equality, and democratic institutions interact and, indeed, interfere with one another still remains a touchstone for understanding the peculiar blindnesses that characterise America today. One of its main but largely under-appreciated advantages is that it makes clear that freedom, equality and democracy are by no means equivalent to each other–and one might even say, they are not even preconditions for one another, however much they have become synonyms in ‘your’ vernacular. While de Tocqueville openly admires the way in which America instantiates those concepts, he is endlessly fascinated by exactly the untidiness and uncertainty of their interplay. That interplay entails the brute realities of everyday life in the culture that is marked for him by a unique dialectic of civility and barbarity. In the final analysis de Tocqueville remains deeply ambivalent about the state of that dialectic in America, and thus remains unsure about the nature and future of the civil life of America.
Unsurprisingly, his ambivalence basically devolves into the chronic political problem of the relationship of the individual to the state. One of the effects of freedom and equality, he suggests, is the increasing ambit of state functions and an increasing willingness on the part of subjects to allow that widening of influence. This effect is severe enough to provoke de Tocqueville to rather extreme accounts of it. For example, his explanation of why ordinary citizens seem so fond of building numerous odd monuments to insignificant characters is that this is their response to the feeling that “individuals are very weak; but the state…is very strong” (p. 443). His anxiety about the strength of such feelings is apparent when he discusses the tendency of Americans to elect what he calls “tutelary” government: “They feel the need to be led and the wish to remain free” and they “leave their dependence [on the state] for a moment to indicate their master, and then reenter it” (p.664).
This tendency derives, he says, from “equality of condition” in social life and it can lead to a dangerous concentration of political power–the only kind of despotism that young America had to fear. It would probably not be too scandalous to suggest that de Tocqueville’s fears had to a great degree been realised by the end of the 20th century. And the current climate, where the “tutelary” government threatens freedom in all kinds of ways in the name of a war that it says is not arguable, could only be chilling to de Tocqueville’s sense of the virtues of democracy. The (re)consolidation of this kind of tutelary power is figured for me in the colossal gaze that I’ve talked about, a gaze that construes a ‘you’ by way of narratives of catastrophe and panic while extending the power of its gaze across the globe by whatever means necessary.
But at the centre of this dialectic of freedom and equality, almost as their motor, de Tocqueville installs the idea that American subjects are finally “confined entirely within the solitude of their own heart,” that they are “apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands,” and that “the practice of Americans leads their minds to fixing the standards of judgement in themselves alone” (p. 240-241). It’s true that for de Tocqueville this kind of inflection is not unmitigatedly bad: it is, after all, a condition of freedom itself. But nonetheless the question remains open for him: whether or not the quotidian and self-absorbed interest of the individual could ever be the operating principle for a successful nation. He is essentially asking whether the contractual and civil benefits of freedom can in the end outweigh the solipsistic and individualistic effects of equality. Or, to put the issue differently, he is asking about the consequences of allowing a certain kind of narcissism to outweigh any sense of the larger historical processes of the commonwealth–a foundational question, if ever there was one, in the history of the nation.2
Jean Baudrillard’s America, a kind of ‘updating’ of de Tocqueville at the end of the 20th century, is instructive for the way that it assumes that de Tocqueville’s questions are still alive (or at least, it assumes that Americans themselves have changed very little in almost two hundred years [p. 90]). Baudrillard is in agreement with de Tocqueville that the interplay of freedom and equality, and their relation to democratic institutions, is what lies at the heart of America’s uniqueness. He’s equally clear, however, that the 20th century has seen, not the maintenance of freedom (elsewhere he is critical of the way that tutelary power has led to regulation and not freedom , but the expansion of the cult of equality. What has happened since de Tocqueville is the “irrepressible development of equality, banality, and in-difference” (p. 89). In the dialectic of freedom and equality, such a cult necessarily diminishes the extent of freedom, and this is clearly a current that the present US regime is content to steer. But Baudrillard, like de Tocqueville before him, remains essentially enthralled by the “overall dynamism” in that process, despite its evident downside; it is, he says, “so exciting” (p. 89). And he identifies the drive to equality rather than freedom as the source of the peculiar energy of America. In a sense, he might well be right: certainly it is this “dynamism” that ‘we’ love, even as ‘we’ might resist and resent the master’s gaze upon which it battens.
Love and contradiction
The “dynamism” of American culture has been sold to ‘us’ as much as to ‘you’–perhaps even more determinedly in some ways. Brand America has been successfully advertised all around the world, in ways and places and to an extent that most Americans are probably largely unaware of. While Americans would probably have some consciousness of the reach of the corporate media, or of Hollywood, and necessarily some idea of the reach of other brands such as McDonald’s, most could not have much understanding of how the very idea of America has been sold and bought abroad. For many of ‘us,’ of course, it is the media and Hollywood that have provided the paradigmatic images and imaginaries of this dynamic America. It is in fact remarkable how many of the writers in the issue of Granta in which Doris Lessing appears mention something about the way those images took hold for them, in a process of induction that ‘we’ can be sure most Americans do not experience reciprocally.
The dynamism of that imaginary America is a multi-faceted thing, imbuing the totality of social relations and cultural and political practices. It begins, maybe, with a conveyed sense of the utter modernity of American life and praxis, a modernity aided and abetted by the vast array of technological means of both production and consumption. The unstinting determination of the culture to be mobile, to be constantly in communicative circuits and to be open day and night, along with the relative ease and efficiency of everyday life and the freedom and continuousness of movement, all combine to produce a sense of a culture that is endemically alive and happening. This is ‘our’ sense of an urban America, at least, with its endless array of choices and the promised excitement and eroticism of opportunity. The lure of that kind of urbanity was always inspissated by the ‘melting pot’ image of the USA, and is further emphasised in these days of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity. Even beyond the urban centres, of which there are so many, this dynamic life can be taken for granted, and the realm of the consumer and the obsessive cheapness of that realm reflect the concomitant sense of a nation fully endowed with resources–material and human–and with a standard of living enjoyed by most people but achieved by very few outside the USA–even these days, and even in the other post-industrial democracies. ‘We’ can also see this vitality of the everyday life readily reflected in the institutional structures of the USA: for instance, other ways in which we are sold America include the arts, the sciences, sports, or the educational system, and ‘we’ derive from each of those realms the same sense of a nation on the move. As ‘our’ Americans friends might say, what’s not to like?
Beyond the realms of culture and everyday life, ‘we’ are also sold the idea of America as a progressive and open political system the like of which the world has never seen before. The notions that concern de Tocqueville so much are part of this, of course: freedom, equality, and democratic institutions are the backbone of ‘our’ political imaginary about the USA. In addition, ‘we’ are to understand America as the home of free speech, freedom of the press and media, and all the other crucial rights that are enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Most importantly, ‘we’ understand those rights to be a matter for perpetual discussion, fine-tuning, and elaboration in the context of an open framework of governance, legislation, and enforcement. Even though those processes are immensely complex, ‘we’ assume their openness and their efficacy. Even the American way of doing bureaucracy seems to ‘us’ relatively smooth, efficient and courteous as it does its best to emulate the customer-seeking practices of the service industries. And all this operates in the service, less of freedom and more, as I’ve suggested, in the service of “equality of condition”–and ultimately in the service of a meritocratic way of life that even other democratic nations can’t emulate. And on a more abstract level, I was struck recently by the words of the outgoing Irish ambassador to the US, Sean O’Huiginn, who spoke of what he admired in the American character: the “real steel behind the veneer of a casual liberal society…the strength and dignity [and] good heartedness of the people” and the fact that America had ‘brought real respect to the rule of law.”3
These features, and I’m sure many others, are what go to constitute the incredibly complex woof and weave of ‘our’ imaginaries of the United States. The reality of each and any of them, and necessarily of the totality, is evidently more problematic. The words of another departing visitor are telling: “The religiosity, the prohibitionist instincts, the strange sense of social order you get in a country that has successfully outlawed jaywalking, the gluttony, the workaholism, the bureaucratic inflexibility, the paranoia and the national weakness for ill-informed solipsism have all seemed very foreign.”4 But still those imaginaries are nonetheless part of ‘our’ relation to America–sufficiently so that in the 9/11 aftermath the question so often asked by Americans, “Why do they hate us?”, seemed to me to miss the point quite badly. That is, insofar as the ‘they’ to whom the question refers is a construct similar to the ”we’ I’ve been talking about, ‘we’ don’t hate you, but rather lovehate you.
Nor is it a matter, as so much American public discourse insists, of ‘our’ envying or being jealous of America. Indeed, it is another disturbing symptom of the narcissistic colossus to constantly imagine that everyone else is jealous or envious. Rather, ‘we’ are caught in the very contradictions in which the master is caught. For every one of the features that constitute our imaginary of dynamic America, we find its underbelly; or we find the other side of a dialectic–the attenuation of freedom in the indifferentiation of equality, or the great barbarity at the heart of a prized civility, for instance. Equally, accompanying all of the achievements installed in this great imaginary of America, there is a negative side. For instance, while on the one hand there is the dynamic proliferation of technologies of communication and mobility, there is on the other hand the militarism that gave birth to much of the technology, and an imperious thirst for the oil and energy that drive it. And within the movement of that dialectic–one, it should be said, whose pre-eminence in the functioning of America has been confirmed once more since 9/11–lies the characteristic forgetting and ignorance that subvents the imaginary. That is, such technologies come to be seen only as naturalised products of an ex-historical process, and their rootedness in the processes of capital’s exploitation of labour is more or less simply elided. And to go further, for all the communicative ease and freedom of movement there is the extraordinary ecological damage caused by the travel system. And yet this cost is also largely ignored–by government and people alike–even while the tension between capital accumulation and ecological comes to seem more and more the central contradiction of American capitalism today.5
One could easily go on: the point is that from every part of the dynamic imaginary of America an easy contradiction flows. Despite, for example, the supposed respect for the rule of law, American citizens experience every day what Baudrillard rightly calls “autistic and reactionary violence” (1988, p. 45); and the ideology of the rule of law does not prevent the US being opposed to the World Court, regularly breaking treaties, or picking and choosing which UN resolutions need to be enforced, and illegally invading and occupying another sovereign nation. The imaginary of America, then, that ‘we’ are sold–and which I’m sure ‘you’ believe–is caught up in these kinds of contradictions–contradictions that both enable it and produce its progressive realities. These contradictions in the end constitute the very conditions of this capitalism that is fundamentalist in its practice and ideologies.
So, ‘our’ love for America, either for its symbols and concepts or for its realities, cannot amount to some sort of corrosive jealousy or envy. It is considerably more complex and overdetermined than that. It is, to be sure, partly a coerced love, as we stand structurally positioned to feed the narcissism of the master. And it is in part a genuine admiration for what I’m calling for shorthand the “dynamism” of America. But it is a love and admiration shot through with ressentiment, and in that sense it is ‘about’ American economic, political, and military power and the blind regard that those things treat ‘us’ to. It is the coincidence of the contradictions within America’s extremist capitalism, the non-seeing gaze of the master, and ‘our’ identification with and ressentiment towards America that I’m trying to get at here. Where those things meet and interfere is the locus of ‘our’ ambivalence towards ‘you,’ to be sure, but also the locus of ‘your’ own confusion and ignorance about ‘us.’ But the ‘yea or nay,’ positivist mode of American culture will not often countenance the representation of these complexities; they just become added to the pile of things that cannot be said, especially in times of catastrophe and panic.
What is not allowed to be said
It’s easy enough to list the kinds of things that could not be said or mentioned after 9/11, or enumerate the sorts of speech that were disallowed, submerged, or simply ignored as the narratives of panic and catastrophe set in to re-order ‘you’ and begin the by now lengthy process of attenuating freedom.
What was not allowed to be said or mentioned: President Bush’s disappearance or absence on the morning of the attacks; contradictions in the incoming news reports about not only the terrorist aeroplanes but also any putative defensive ones (it’s still possible to be called a conspiracy theorist for wondering about the deployment of US warplanes that day, as Gore Vidal discovered when he published such questions in a British newspaper);6 the idea that the attacks would never have happened if Bush had not become president; and so on. Questions like those will, one assumes, not be able to be addressed by the governmental inquiry into 9-11, especially many months later when the complexities of 9-11 have been obliterated by the first stages of the perpetual war that Bush promised. In addition, all kinds of assaults were made on people who had dared say something “off-message”: comedians lost their jobs for saying that the terrorists were not cowards, as Bush had said they were, if they were willing to give up their lives; college presidents and reputable academics were charged with being the weak link in America’s response to the attacks; and many other, varied incidents of the sort, including physical attacks on Muslims simply for being Muslim. And in the many months after the attacks, lots of questions and issues are still passed over in silence by the media and therefore do not come to figure in the construction of a free dialogue about ‘your’ response to the event.
Many of ‘us’ were simply silenced by the solipsistic “grief” (one might like to have that word reserved for more private and intimate relationships) and the extreme shock of Americans around us. David Harvey talks about how impossible it was to raise a critical voice about the role bond traders and their ilk in the towers might have had in the creation and perpetuation of global social inequality (p. 59). Noam Chomsky was rounded upon by all and sundry for suggesting, in the way of Malcolm X, that the chickens had come home to roost. The last thing that could be suggested was the idea that, to put it bluntly, these attacks were not unprovoked and anybody who thought there could be a logic to them beyond their simple evilness was subjected to the treatment Lessing describes at the head of this piece. The bafflement that so many of ‘you’ expressed at the idea that someone could do this deed, and further that not all of ‘us’ were necessarily so shocked by it, was more than just the emotional reaction of the moment.
This was an entirely predictable inflection of a familiar American extremism, soon hardening into a defiant–and often reactionary–refusal to consider any response other than the ones ‘you’ were being offered by political and civic leaders and the media. Empirical and material, political and economic realities were left aside, ignored, not even argued against, but simply considered irrelevant and even insulting to the needs of a “grief” that suddenly became national–or rather, that suddenly found a cohesive ‘you.’ And that “grief” turned quickly into a kind of sentimentality or what Wallace Stevens might have called a failure of feeling. But much more, it was a failure, in the end, of historical intelligence. A seamless belief that America can do no wrong and a hallowed and defiant ignorance about history constitute no kind of response to an essentially political event. Even when the worst kinds of tragedy strike, an inability to take any kind of responsibility or feel any kind of guilt is no more than a form of narcissistic extremism in and of itself.7
On 9/11 there was initially some media talk about how the twin towers might have been chosen for destruction because of their function as symbols of American capitalist power in the age of globalisation. David Harvey suggests that in fact it was only in the non-American media that such an understanding was made available, and that the American media talked instead about the towers simply as symbols of American values, freedom, or the American way of life (p. 57). My memory, though, is that the primary American media, in the first blush of horrified reaction, did indeed talk about the towers as symbols of economic might, and about the Pentagon as a symbol of military power. But like many other things that could not be said, or could no longer be said at that horrible time, these notions were quickly elided. Strangely, the Pentagon attack soon became so un-symbolic as to be almost ignored. The twin towers in New York then became the centre of attention, perhaps because they were easier to parlay into symbols of generalised American values than the dark Pentagon, and because the miserable deaths of all those civilians was more easily identifiable than those of the smaller number of military workers in Washington.
This was a remarkable instance of the way an official line can silently, almost magically, gel in the media. But more importantly, it is exemplary of the kind of ideological movement that I’ve been trying to talk about in this essay: a movement of obfuscation, essentially, whereby even the simplest structural and economic realities of America’s condition are displaced from discourse. As Harvey suggests, the attacks could hardly be mistaken for anything but a direct assault on the circulatory heart of financial capital: “Capital, Marx never tired of emphasizing, is a process of circulation….Cut the circulation process for even a day or two, and severe damage is done…What bin Laden’s strike did so brilliantly was [to hit] hard at the symbolic center of the system and expose its vulnerability” (p. 64-5).
The twin towers were a remarkable and egregious architectural entity, perfectly capable of bearing all kinds of allegorical reading. But there surely can be no doubt that they were indeed a crucial “symbolic center” of the processes through which global capitalism exercises itself. Such a reading of their symbolism is more telling than Wallerstein’s metaphorical understanding that “they signalled technological achievement; they signalled a beacon to the world” (2001). And it is perhaps also more telling than (though closer to) Baudrillard’s understanding of them: “Allergy to any definitive order, to any definitive power is–happily–universal, and the two towers of the World Trade Center were perfect embodiments, in their very twinness, of that definitive order” (2002, p.6). It is certainly an understanding that not only trumps, but exposes the very structure of the narcissistic reading of them as symbols of ‘your’ values and ‘your’ freedom.
That narcissism was, however, already there to be read in these twin towers that stared blankly at each other, catching their own reflections in an endless relay. They were, that is, not only the vulnerable and uneasy nerve-centres of the process of capital circulation and accumulation; they were also massive hubristic tributes to the self-reflecting narcissism they served. Perhaps it was something about their arrogant yet blank, unsympathetic yet entitled solipsism that suggested them as targets. The attacks at very least suggested that someone out there was fully aware of the way that the narcissist’s identity and the identity of those the narcissistic overlooks are historically bound together. It’s harder to discern whether those people would have known, too, that the narcissist is not easy to cure, however often targeted; or whether they predicted or could have predicted, and perhaps even desired, the normative retaliatory rage that their assault would provoke?
What ‘we’ know, however, is that ‘we’ cannot forever be the sufficient suppliers of the love that the narcissist finds so necessary. Indeed, ‘we’ know that it is part of the narcissistic disorder to believe that ‘we’ should be able to. So long as the disorder is rampant ‘we’ are, in fact, under an ethical obligation not to be such a supplier. In that sense (and contrary to all the post 9/11 squealing about how ‘we’ should not be anti-American), ‘we’ are obliged to remind the narcissist of the need to develop “the moral realism that makes it possible for [you] to come to terms with existential constraints on [your] power and freedom” (Lasch p. 249).
But Christopher Lasch’s final words in a retrospective look at his famous work, The Culture of Narcissism, are not really quite enough. This would be to leave the matter at the ethical level, hoping for some kind of moral conversion–and this is not an auspicious hope when the narcissistic master is concerned. At the current moment when we all–‘we’ and ‘you’–have seen the first retaliation of the colossus and face the prospect of extraordinary violence on a world scale, too much discussion and commentary (both from the right and the left) remains at the moral or ethical levels. This catastrophic event has and the perpetual war that has followed it have obviously, in that sense, produced an obfuscation of the political and economic history that surrounds them and of which they are part. Such obfuscation serves only the master and does nothing to satisfy the legitimate ressentiment of a world laid out at the master’s feet. At the very least, in the current conjuncture, ‘we all’ need to understand that the fundamentalisms and extremisms that the master promulgates, and to which ‘you’ are in thrall, are not simply moral or ethical, or even in any sense discretely political; they are just as much economic and it is that aspect of them that is covered over by the narcissistic symptoms of a nation that speaks through and as ‘you.’
Baudrillard, J. (1988), America (Verso).
Baudrillard, J. (2002), The Spirit of Terrorism (Verso).
Chomsky, N. (2001), 9-11 (Seven Stories Press).
De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life (U. California).
De Tocqueville, A. (2000), Democracy in America (U. Chicago).
Gramsci, A. (1990), Selections from Political Writings, 1921-1926 (U. Minnesota).
Harvey, D. (2002), “Cracks in the Edifice of the Empire State,” in Sorkin and Zukin, eds., After the World Trade Center (Routledge), 57-68.
Lasch, C. (1991), The Culture of Narcissism (Norton).
Lessing, D. (2002), Untitled article, Granta 77 (spring 2002), 53-4.
Rajagopal, A. (2002), “Living in a State of Emergency,” Television and New Media , 3:2, 173 ff.
Wallerstein, I., (2001), “America and the World: The Twin Towers as Metaphor,”http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/wallerstein.htm
- This is the error of otherwise worthy work like Sardar, Z. & M.W. Davies (2002), Why Do People Hate America? (Icon Books). ↩
- A classic, but largely ignored, statement of American history in these terms is William Appleman Williams (1961), The Contours of American History (World Publishing Company). ↩
- “Departing Irishman Mulls ‘Glory of America’,” Washington Post 12 July 2002. ↩
- Matthew Engel, “Travels with a trampoline,” The Guardian 3 June, 2003. ↩
- See Ellen Wood (2002), “Contradictions: Only in Capitalism?” in Socialist Register 2002 (Monthly Review Press). ↩
- Gore Vidal, “The Enemy Within,” The Observer 27 October 2002. ↩
- A longer version of this article–forthcoming in Ventura, P. (ed.), Circulations: ‘America’ and Globalization and planned to be part of my forthcoming Primitive America (U. Minnesota)–elaborates on the concept of narcissism that I have been deploying here. I distinguish my use from that of Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism in order to be able to describe a narcissistic (and primitive) structuration of America, rather than imputing narcissistic disorders to individuals or, for that matter, to classes. ↩