“Bush speaks of ‘war’, but he is in fact incapable of identifying the enemy against whom he declares that he has declared war.” – Jacques Derrida, September 2001
Jacques Derrida, the master of the concept of “deconstruction,” died last Friday from cancer at 74. He was the last survivor of the fabulous generation of 1960s French thinkers – perhaps not as popular as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes or Gilles Deleuze, but certainly, in these last few decades, the most influential, the most translated and the most widely read of all French philosophers who were discovered, absorbed and even transformed by the great US universities. Derrida was an American academic equivalent of U2’s Bono. Even American talk-show hosts and news anchors incorporated “deconstruction” into their vocabulary.
Derrida had become the enfant terrible of “continental philosophy” as early as in 1966, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But he really exploded in the United States in 1976, when his De la Grammatologie was translated into English. In the 1980s, Derrida ruled the golden triangle of Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Yale. In the 1990s, he conquered New York University and University of California-Irvine – which now holds his archives. An extraordinarily kind, accessible and tolerant man, Derrida was sometimes incensed at how his complex concepts were constantly deformed in very naif ways. But usually he declared himself “fascinated” by the whole process.
To “deconstruct” is to criticize acutely what’s occult behind words, to take an idea (let’s say “war on terror”), an institution or a given value and understand its mechanisms: it’s something like a guerrilla attack against a dominant system of thought. Derrida from the beginning had a privileged point of view as far as deconstruction was concerned: he was a French Jew born in Algeria who grew up at the borders of multiple territories – Christianity and Judaism, Islam and Judaism, Europe and Africa, France and its colonial empire, and the sea and the desert for that matter. So no wonder that, all along his extremely challenging and fascinating work, each word inevitably branches out into a network of textual and historical connections. And every time Derrida went political, he was shedding light on these hidden connections. Derrida was arguably the best and the brightest when it came to demystifying the jungle of “collateral damage,” “smart bombs” and assorted euphemisms regurgitated nonstop by governments and corporate media.
Two equally problematic words
For an international readership, at this crucial historical juncture, few samples of Derrida in action can be more essential than Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida by Giovanna Borradori (University of Chicago Press, 2003; see the ATol review The two gentlemen of Europe, May 15). Here we have an Italian professor of philosophy at Vassar College talking to the two greatest living (at the time) voices of European philosophical tradition, the German Jurgen Habermas and the French Jacques Derrida, in New York, only a few weeks after September 11, 2001.
This is the kind of terror talk you won’t get on Fox News – or from the faux cowboy mouths of Bush/Cheney. Their approaches may be different, but both Habermas and Derrida go to the heart of the matter, questioning on what basis terrorism can claim a political content – and thus be separated from ordinary crime; whether there can be state terrorism; whether terrorism can be sharply distinguished from war; and whether a state (or coalition, be it of the willing or of the coerced) can declare a war on something other than a political entity.
In a nutshell, the new terror spin according to the administration of US President George W. Bush goes something like this. Bush says he is the only tough guy available to prosecute the “war on terror.” On the other hand, he blames the Joint Chiefs of Staff for any disastrous (re: Iraq) policy decisions. Vice President Richard Cheney says that only Bush/Cheney can lead the “war on terror” to its conclusion. He also says that Democratic presidential contender John Kerry simply doesn’t understand what the war is all about.
A cursory look both at the Bush administration’s record and the neo-con agenda for the future reveals instead that Bush/Cheney are using September 11 as an excuse to attack weak states that interfere with an extreme right-wing world view and with US corporate interests as well: Iraq was the first target, Syria and Iran will be the next. The Bush/Cheney scare of “terrorist groups” having access to nuclear weapons is nonsense: “terrorist groups” don’t have access to technology capable of enriching uranium, and no government would give nuclear technology to a terrorist group. Moreover, no “war on terror” rhetoric may disguise the fact that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have not been captured.
The complexity of Derrida’s deconstruction of terrorism cannot be reduced to a mere sound bite. Here are just a few highlights – for the sake of Asia Times Online readers fed up with a nonstop barrage of spinning. Derrida lasers on the fact that “terrorism” can never be a self-evident concept – as the Bush administration spins it. Then he goes on to deconstruct “two equally problematic words,” “war” and “terrorism.” Terror works both ways: “Whether we are talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Palestine, the ‘bombs’ will never be ‘smart’ enough to prevent the victims (military and/or civilian, another distinction that has become less and less reliable) from responding, either in person or by proxy, with what will then be easy for them to present as legitimate reprisals or counter-terrorism. And so on ad infinitum …”
For Derrida “the terrorists” are, in a sense, us: “Those called ‘terrorists’ are not ‘others,’ an absolute other whom we, as ‘Westerners,’ can no longer understand. We must not forget that they were often recruited, trained, and even armed, and for a long time, in various Western ways by a Western world that itself, in the course of its ancient as well as very recent history, invented the word, the techniques, and the ‘politics’ of ‘terrorism’.”
So what kind of war is this? It is, says Derrida, “a strange ‘war’ without war. It often takes the form, at least on the surface, of a confrontation between two groups with a strong religious identification. On the one side, the only great European-style ‘democratic’ power in the world that still has at once the death penalty in its judicial system and, despite the separation in principle between church and state, a fundamental biblical (and primarily Christian) reference in its official political discourse and the discourse of its political leaders: ‘God Bless America’, the reference to ‘evildoers’ or to the ‘axis of evil’, and the first rallying cry (which was later retracted) of ‘infinite justice’, would be but a few signs among so many others. And facing them, on the other side, an ‘enemy’ that identifies itself as Islamic, Islamic extremist or fundamentalist, even if this does not necessarily represent authentic Islam and all Muslims are far from identifying with it. No more, in fact, than all Christians in the world identify with the United States’ fundamentally Christian profession of faith.”
This leaves us, says Derrida, with “a confrontation between two political theologies, both, strangely enough, issuing out of the same stock or common soil of what I would call an ‘Abrahamic’ revelation.”
Derrida emphatically deplores the absence of dialogue between the West and Islam: “In the course of the last few centuries, whose history would have to be carefully re-examined (the absence of an Enlightenment age, colonization, imperialism, and so on), several factors have contributed to the geopolitical situation whose effects we are feeling today, beginning with the paradox of a marginalization and an impoverishment whose rhythm is proportional to demographic growth. These populations are not only deprived of access to what we call democracy … but are even dispossessed of the so-called natural riches of the land, oil in Saudi Arabia, for example, or in Iraq, or even in Algeria, gold in South Africa, and so many other natural resources elsewhere … These ‘natural’ riches are in fact the only non-virtualizable and non-deterritorializable goods left today: they are the cause of many of the phenomena we have been discussing. With all these victims of supposed globalization, dialogue (at once verbal and peaceful) is not taking place. Recourse to the worst violence is thus often presented as the only ‘response’ to a ‘deaf ear’. There are countless examples of this in recent history, well before ‘September 11’. This is the logic put forward by all terrorisms involved in a struggle for freedom. [Nelson] Mandela explains quite well how his party, after years of non-violent struggle and faced with a complete refusal of dialogue, resigned itself to having to take up arms. The distinction between civilian, military, and police is thus no longer pertinent.”
This analysis leads Derrida to conclude that the “terrorism of the ‘September 11’ sort (wealthy, hypersophisticated, telecommunicative, anonymous, and without an assignable state)” happened as a direct consequence of a global dialogue not taking place. There’s simply no meaningful dialogue between the rich and poor world: “It is a simulacrum, a rhetorical artifice or weapon that dissimulates a growing imbalance, a new opacity, a garrulous and hypermediatized non-communication, a tremendous accumulation of wealth, means of production, teletechnologies, and sophisticated military weapons, and the appropriation of all these powers by a small number of states or international corporations.”
And it gets worse
Talking about the relation among terror, terrorism and territory, Derrida worries that this abyss of non-communication may lead to even greater, and invisible, dangers: “The relationship between earth, terra, territory, and terror has changed, and it is necessary to know that this is because of knowledge, that is, because of technoscience … In this regard, when compared to the possibilities for destruction and chaotic disorder that are in reserve, for the future, in the computerized networks of the world, ‘September 11’ is still part of the archaic theater of violence aimed at striking the imagination. One will be able to do even worse tomorrow, invisibly, in silence, more quickly and without any bloodshed, by attacking the computer and informational networks on which the entire life … of the greatest power on earth depends.”
Meanwhile, we are squeezed between “the two supposed war leaders, the two metonymies, ‘bin Laden’ and ‘Bush’, and the war of images and of discourses … at an ever quickening pace over the airwaves, dissimulating and deflecting more and more quickly the truth that it reveals, accelerating the movement that substitutes dissimulation for revelation – and vice-versa” (one thinks about the vast Bush/Cheney disinformation campaign before, during and after the invasion of Iraq).
When “Bush and his associates blame ‘the axis of evil,’ we ought both to smile at and denounce the religious connotations, the childish stratagems, the obscurantist mystifications of this inflated rhetoric.”
Derrida always comes back to something absolutely crucial: the world order is based on the reliability and credibility of US power. So by exposing the fragility of the superpower, September 11 exposed the fragility of the world order itself. Before he died, he interpreted September 11 as in fact the implosive finale of the Cold War, killed by its own contradictions. But he went one step further when he talked about the “vicious circle of repression”: by declaring a war against terrorism, the US has engendered a war against itself.
Derrida’s greatest fears were crystallized in his suspicion that terrorism in the near future will have nothing to do with actual attacks against actual places, like September 11, the Madrid bombings or the daily bombings in Iraq: it will be virtual, and it will erase all remnants of the distinction between terrorism and war and even between war and peace: “Nanotechnologies of all sorts are so much more powerful and invisible, uncontrollable, capable of creeping in everywhere. They are the micrological rivals of microbes and bacteria. Yet our unconscious is already aware of this; it already knows it, and that’s what’s scary.” Derrida was in fact rephrasing Oscar Wilde (“each man kills the thing he loves”): we are already dreaming and engendering the forms of our own destruction.