Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

Notes on Held and Zizek on 911

These were responses to papers written in the aftermath of 911. The Zizek piece refers to the widely-available online article, not the book of the same title.


This is in many ways a repetition of Zizek's favourite themes, rearticulated around a new subject-
matter. As usual, one has to be able to follow Zizek's more-or-less arbitrary twists and turns, and
willing to endorse a number of heavy metaphysical and psychological postulates, as well as to
accept the validity of a string of unsupported assertions, to buy into Zizek's account.

For instance: the theme recurs of how something which has a horrifying effect is
always a realisation of a repressed/disavowed fantasy. Behind this is a clumsy conflation of
concern motivated by fear (eg. being aroused by a threatening stimulus) with actual desire (in the
sense that one fantasises about, and secretly wants, what one fears). This is as far as I can tell an
exegetical derivative of Lacanian theory, and I have yet to find a single argument or piece of
evidence to support such a conflation.

Zizek also refuses to admit any distinction between different individuals and different
social groups, with the result that he often ends up inferring the actions of one group from the
disavowed desire of an entirely different group. In this case, he implies that the hijackers were
realising a repressed fantasy internal to the west, acting out the pre-constructed role of "the real-life
counterpart of Ernst Stavro Blofeld". Zizek routinely makes such claims without seriously
examining the motives of those involved and whether they are in the slightest connected to the
psychological processes he describes. Has bin Laden, hidden in the mountains of a country where
cinema and TV are banned, even heard of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the Matrix or James Bond? Zizek
ignores such questions, because of a general epistemology which refuses to take empirical issues
seriously and reduces 'truth' to an outgrowth of Zizek's own closed theoretical system. What is the
mechanism whereby the west produces its repressed other? Westerners may misrecognise the
present situation by using western cinematic figures and tropes; they may react against the
'enemy' on grounds related as much to deep-rooted fears as to an actual act or threat (as in the case
of "moral panics"). In this case, the hijackers' lack of concern for civilian deaths has been
(probably) misinterpreted as a deliberate desire to kill as many civilians as possible; the threat of
further attacks may have been exaggerated; the "exceptional" status of the attack has been
exaggerated, probably due to its symbolic rather than actual effects. Take all this away, and one
no longer has a Blofeld; but one still has a large massacre, carried out by specific people with
specific motives. Zizek's explanatory method hops between different levels of analysis too easily
(eg. between symbolic significance and motives, and between western interpretations about those
involved and their actual alignments).

Zizek's arguments are a perfect example of what Korzybski denounces as "intensional"
thought: they refer solely to other terms within his own linguistic system, and are not related to the
evidence and events they claim to be explaining. The idea that "in this pure Outside, we [sic]
should recognize the distilled version of our own essence" is a restatement of his "we are
excrement" line, which recurs constantly throughout his writings. The principle that we are
basically a Nothingness which misrecognises itself as valuable is pretty much non-testable, and it
certainly cannot be inferred from September 11th; indeed, Zizek's purely exegetical appeal to
Hegel suggests that he realises that he is imposing an interpretation from outside, rather than
deriving one from motives and phenomena within the situation. Zizek's readers are in effect faced
with a dogma which they may either endorse or reject, which Zizek passionately asserts but cannot
provide any substantive case for believing. Without this dogma (and others Zizek raises from time
to time), the rest of his conclusions fall apart, eg. the idea that any actions against a threatening
Outside are "a paranoiac acting-out" (i.e. if the roots of September 11th are internal, any act
against an Outside is misguided; but if this principle isn't established, Zizek's conclusion is not
validly reached either). (This is not to say that Zizek isn't right in the claim he makes: empirically,
the bombing of Afghanistan may well do little to reduce the likelihood of future attacks, and may
motivate such attacks; but Zizek has not established this with the claims he makes. He may well
have reached the right conclusion by the wrong means).

Zizek's seductiveness lies in his attachment of this dogmatic set of metaphysical
postulates to a set of broadly progressive political narratives which are often plausible and well-
founded. It should be realised in this regard that these narratives themselves are often mere
assertions unlikely to win any converts: for instance, he appeals to a narrative on the history of
Islam and Christianity, but provides no evidence for it; and he speaks of a growing unfreedom in
western societies, but provides only very general examples. (That the conclusions are empirically
founded and valid does not detract from this criticism: Zizek may well be reaching the right
conclusions, but in the wrong way). Also, the nailing of these narratives to Zizek's general
theories is tenuous, selective and unstable. This means Zizek often gives progressive arguments
tied to reactionary principles. For instance: I agree with Zizek that the present crisis is mainly a
product of the west's domination over and exclusion of the rest of the world; but I disagree with
his attachment of this to an outlook where others are always merely extensions of one's own

Zizek's arbitrariness and lack of clear direction, a clear relation to evidence and
standards for assessing his own arguments leave him in a position of constant random intuitive
assertion. Take the berumfsverbot issue. Zizek is more-or-less paranoid about this issue, crying
"berumfsverbot" whenever others oppose his views on any concerted scale (see especially
Contingency, Hegemony, Universality p. 325-6). He is raising a serious issue, but because of the
randomness of his approach, he is using it inappropriately and in a way which may, if anything,
hold back awareness and struggle against berumfsverbot as and when it is actually attempted.
Similarly on the issue of the Cause: how is one to assess the claim that the perception of suicide
bombing as irrational is really a misrecognition of a lack of the dimension of sacrifice in the west?
Zizek is clearly saying that there should be an attitude of self-sacrifice to a Cause; but his
articulation of this claim to descriptive evidence which could as easily prove the opposite does not
in the slightest explain why. This is a repetition of Zizek's ethics of the Act, and his attitude to it;
in dozens of cases, Zizek uses specific instances (from politics, films, novels, etc.) as pedagogical
or propaganidistic examples, which he attaches to assertions of the need for an Act, but which
never contain any further case for why one should support this assertion.


Held is a good example of the hypocritical exceptionalism which seems to have
gripped so many westerners following Sept. 11. So this was a "defining moment for humankind",
"an atrocity of extraordinary proportions", it "ranks amongst the world's most heinous crimes"...
As sad as it is to say it, this kind of atrocity is not at all unusual; it is not among the most heinous
crimes (if indeed such a list could be prepared) since it is no worse than (and numerically less
significant than) many other cases (cf. Tilly, Zizek). Why should this particular atrocity stand out
as a "defining moment" when the massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda, China, Guatemala, the AIDS
epidemic, sanctions against Iraq, etc., etc., do not? I'm reminded of Eminem's lyric about the
Columbine massacre: "Now look where it's at, Middle America - now it's a tragedy, now it's so
sad to see an upper-class city having this happening". It is exceptional, not for the official,
legitimate reasons (the appalling loss of life and the human suffering it caused), but solely because
of where it happened and who it happened to. Similar actions elsewhere are ignored even to the
extent that they can be perpetrated even after Sept.11 and referred to as "not morally equivalent"
(Peter Hain on the bombing of Afghan civilians). I cannot see how this is anything but the most
blatant racism, since it assumes that atrocities are only "heinous", "defining moments" etc. when
white Americans are the victims.

Held's article is sprinkled throughout with a set of concepts which add up into a
totalising discourse of generalised control (I'm reminded of Foucault's "carceral" discourse and
Deleuze's "Oedipal cage"). Everyone is supposed to become trapped in this discourse - or else.
Held wants a "narrative which seeks to reframe human activity and entrench it in law, rights and
responsibilities". But how does one "reframe" human activity? Is this a new version of the old
Maoist concept of "re-education"? That "law" is part of the problematic is especially sinister since
it is irreducibly complicit in the carceral. Held says "The principles of freedom, democracy and
justice are the basis for articulating and entrenching the equal liberty of all human beings". Yet
"justice", defined in juridical terms, is about the restriction or abolition of liberty for its recipients
through incarceration and other forms of unfreedom. To claim that the incarceration of some
human beings is compatible with, or even essential for, equal liberty for all human beings is
blatantly self-contradictory if not downright Orwellian. Perhaps Held means "equal" liberty at the
shared, low level of prison inmates; or maybe he is implying that deviants do not count as "human
beings"! Most likely, he is simply confused, like many liberals seem to be, about the state and the
law. The law as system of rules etc. is an abstraction of no social actuality; the law only exists in
social actuality through the praxis of those who, in legal jargon, "enforce" it - and it is therefore
not automatically distinguishable from the "violence" Held condemns. Law is "deterrence";
violence is "terrorism" - the only difference even in language is whether one gives the central
phoneme a prefix or a suffix.

Similarly with Held's call for a "legal and pacific way" of addressing grievances.
These two terms are mutually exclusive. A pacific way of solving grievances occurs only in the
absence of batons, tear gas, armed police, riot squads etc. A legal way of 'solving' grievances
(which often does no such thing: I do not know of even a single example where law or policing
has solved a problem, as opposed to hiding, redirecting, redefining or 'managing' it), in contrast,
assumes an apparatus of violence to back it up. This contradiction is not necessarily decisive in
propaganda terms: Held is after all calling for people to be convinced of this. It is indeed possible
to con people into confusing law with peace, but this "solution" is only a propagandist sidestep
and certainly not an alternative to violence and terrorism. It is no more humane, universal or non-
violent than an approach which assumes that the 'word of God' can resolve all differences.

Held also claims that Sept.11 was "an attack on the fundamental principles of freedom,
democracy, the rule of law and justice". This is problematic. A principle does not exist concretely
and so is not vulnerable to "attack" (as an anti-terrorist pamphlet puts it, "you can't blow up a
social relationship"). Since this claim cannot, therefore, be proven, it is unsurprising that Held has
no proof to offer for it, only an empty assertion of authenticity ("make no mistake about it"). It is
not even clear whether this claim is supposed to refer to the motives of the attackers, the possible
effects of the actions, or some other claim in some other register. It is disturbingly similar to the
Stalinist idea of the "objective" significance of an action, since it is defined entirely within Held's
worldview, without offering any evidence. If the attackers were Islamic fundamentalists, they may
well be opposed to these "principles", although it hardly proves that they were "attacking" them.
As regards the real effects, killing any number of people does not in itself necessarily affect the
entirely separate question of juridical and political forms of organisation. People have been so
shocked by Sept.11, they have let down their vigilance against incoherent rhetoric (if such
vigilance existed in the first place). Held, like Heller, is avoiding the issue about "democracy" and
"freedom", i.e., that the main threat to them is not from bin Laden, but from Bush and Blair (i.e.
anti-terrorism laws, internment, phone tapping, CIA assassination, proposed torture in America,
abolition of the right to silence in Australia, uncritical support for repressive regimes which join
the 'coalition', etc.). (On the level of motives, Held actually contradicts himself: the attack cannot
at once be an "attack on... freedom, democracy... and justice" and also an outgrowth of "gross
inequalities of life" and the lack of a "just peace"). (The attacks probably have nothing to do with
"freedom, rule of law etc. etc." but are about American policies in Asia. Similar attacks occurred
in Russia during its occupation of Afghanistan. They ended when Russian pulled out).

Held uses oppressive ingroup forms of discourse. For instance, take his reference to
"our founding principles". Who is this "we"? (Certainly not Held's native Britain, which has no
founding constitution). What are these principles supposed to "found"? Does everyone agree to
these principles? If not (and clearly not, since 'the terrorists' are outside them in Held's narrative),
what right do "we" have to impose it on "them"? What status do "they" have, since Held implicitly
puts them beyond humanity? If "they" are to be ruthlessly eliminated, as he implies, in what sense
is the "we" founded by these principles authentic, since it is based, not on agreement, but on
threat? Further, if this "we" is so committed to these principles, if they are indeed "founding" (as
opposed to an ideological veil or after-the-event language of rationalisation), why does Held even
need to give his warning against breaching these principles?

Held's account is based on tautology. The right to protest is, he says, justified as part
of 'our' founding principles. However: this is only the case if the protest in question is "law-
abiding". However, by definition something which is "law-abiding" is legal and not subject to
"intolerance". Attacking intolerance against protests is only meaningful if laws directed against
protesters are subject to critique on grounds of whether ot not they are tolerant. Attacking
intolerance effectively, in a socially-actual way, also requires that one endorse a right to go
beyond "law-abiding" protest whenever laws are oppressive or intolerant. Held's account is a
classic example of the "operationalism" Marcuse denounces in One Dimensional Man: since the
standards of what should be tolerated (law-abiding protest) are defined in reference to what is
tolerated (the present law), it is impossible for the present to fall short of the standards it is assessed
by. Even the Taleban meet Held's criterion: they tolerate "law-abiding protest"; it is just that they
happen to have banned protests against their regime. More accurately: it should be impossible for
the state to fall foul of this criterion, if it sticks consistently to its own criteria. That it often
penalises actions it officially deems "law-abiding" merely proves its utter inadequacy as a tool for
promoting any consistent programme or principles. This brings me to a related issue: Held
endorses inconsistency, conferring rights on the state which it has no right to claim. He demands
that protesters be "peaceful". But he is "not a pacifist", and does not want to avoid coercive force
in all circumstances. So why is there one rule for the state and another for everyone else - as if
violence is always unjustified, except when Held's side use it? This clearly involves a systematic
position of privilege and inequality, and further undermines Held's claim to stand for "the equal
liberty of all human beings".

Worse still -Held thinks particular reactions to Sept.11 are "perfectly natural"! This is a
naturalisation of the crudest kind. Emotional reactions involve complex discursive articulations,
and are never immediately "natural". If people experience "shock, revulsion, [and] horror", this is
because they feel some kind of common humanity with the victims of the attack. However
justified this is, it is not natural: people are 'naturally' equally capable of exclusion and
dehumanisation. If they experience "disbelief", this is because they do not understand the nature
of the modern world: they thought they lived in a world where this kind of thing never happens.
The day after Sept.11, I spoke to a Brazilian academic whose only 'disbelief' was that the attack
had not happened sooner and had not been worse. And "vengeance" is in no way natural - it
involves a whole set of historical cognitive constructions about blame, retribution, etc., including a
mythical figure of "balance" and the restoration of it. Again, people's emotional response to
Sept.11 makes them unwary about the discourses they use and endorse.

Worse: again, this reaction was selective. When Italian police murdered Carlo
Giuliani in Genoa, or when British warships sank the Belgrano when it was retreating, or when
NATO aircraft killed nine media workers in a premeditated strike on a Serbian TV station (or, one
could substitute: Sudanese milk factory, Iraqi fishermen, Iraqi farmers, Chinese embassy in
Belgrade, civilian bunkers in Baghdad, bridges in Belgrade, etc., etc.), this "natural" reaction was
noticeably absent from the western media and establishment. Take Matthew Elliott's article, "The
Lessons of Genoa" (TIME, August 6 2001 p. 35). Far from "disbelief", Elliot is stating how
predictable this killing was. Far from a "desire for vengeance", he criticises the police for not
being tough enough (as if using live ammunition and torture is not far enough for him). Any
protesters who felt these emotions are beyond what the mainstream terms "natural"; someone who
wanted vengeance on the police would probably be labelled a "terrorist". Similarly on the
Belgrano incident: the Sun led with the headline "Gotcha!". Yet when some Palestinians reacted
similarly to Sept.11, the western media cries out in horror. It cannot be stressed enough: double
standards which apply "universal" standards only when these suit the west are racist. One has no
right to condemn or oppose Sept.11 unless one similarly condemns or opposes all such attacks,
including those perpetrated by the west, by states and by others within the mythical "we".

Held's account takes an even more sinister turn with the call for "zero tolerance" of
terrorism. This is all very well, but how does one define terrorism? Is this to be a war against all
armed opposition groups - the ANC, the FARC, the Zapatistas, the OPM, and in their day, the
French Resistance, the Stauffenberg group, the American army in the war of liberation, etc.? Or
against a category of acts - in which case, shouldn't it first of all be a war against the state in all its
forms, including the American state which has protected and nurtured so many "terrorists"? Zero
tolerance is an irreducibly fascistic and intolerable principle, since it wrongly assumes that a
particular formulation of language is 'essential' and fully comprehensible. It is not possible to
irreducibly differentiate "terrorism" from other categories in this way; thus, a war of "zero
tolerance" on terrorism is necessarily itself a terroristic endeavour, a general threat of violence
looming over everyone, with their actions subject to persecution at the whim of those who decide
what is "terrorist". In Britain, peace protesters involved in the Genoa demonstrations were held at
gunpoint by armed police under "anti-terrorist" laws; in America, a Green Party leader was
stopped from boarding a plane and briefly abducted by police on suspicion of being a terrorist;
the FBI's "terror groups" list includes animal liberationists and the peaceful group Reclaim the
Streets, and used to include Martin Luther King's Southern Baptist Christian Fellowship and the
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; in Turkey, anyone who advocates autonomy or
idnependence for Kurdistan is legally a "terrorist"; American Earth First activist Judi Baro was
harassed and arrested in connection with a bomb planted to kill her; Samar Alami and Jawad
Botmeh have been stitched up in Britain for a bombing carried out by Mossad; in Italy, it has been
admitted in court that security services planted a bomb to provide a pretext for a mass round-up of
leftists, during which one leftist was killed in custody; and so on. Zero tolerance for "terrorism"
means a free hand to the state to persecute whoever it feels like.

Held draws a firm line between "arbitrary violent action" and "criminalising" terrorism.
However, can one criminalise 'terrorism' except by drawing an arbitrary line between legitimate
and illegitimate forms of terror? Held is "not a pacifist". He supports "coercive force", "military
sanctions" and even "zero tolerance" under some circumstances; he calls for his enemies to be
"brought to heel". So how does thos differ from Sept.11, when hijackers who were "not pacifists"
used "coercive force" and "military sanctions" in an attempt to "bring to heel" the United States for
its policies in Asia, showing "zero tolerance" for the civilians who "protect and nurture" the
American armed forces? Why are they "terrorists", and he not? Why should we not "naturally"
react with "shock, horror, revulsion, disbelief, anger and a desire for vengeance" to Held's
proposals? Because "our" terrorism is carried out in defence of a "we", whereas "theirs" is for
"them" and against "us"?

Further: Held's mobilisation of a juridical logic shows exactly how insidious the
foundations of this logic are. In theory, the juridical model is based on finding those who are
individually "responsible" for a particular act. In theory, this process is humane because it is
imperfect: the accused must be proven guilty; the accidental, the "insane" and some other
categories are immune; and so on. In principle, this means that law prioritises controls on itself
over the imperative to win: if a perpetrator cannot be identified, or cannot be proven guilty, or is
exempted in some way from guilt, or cannot be arrested, tried and convicted legally and in a "fair
trial", then in principle, no-one should be convicted and the urge for retribution must be curbed.
In practice, law never actually performs this role. In practice, those 'enforcing' laws feel an
obligation for results at all costs, and so bend the rules. Hence, the range of mitigating or
exempting factors is artificially limited, proof is often enough even when not "beyond all
reasonable doubt" (of course, much hinges here on the term "reasonable", which can carry any
number of normalised prejudices), etc. So law becomes a legitimated form of vengeance or witch-
hunting, with its official ideology as a veil over the top. (Actually, this is anyway built into law in
its foundations: what is the point in trial unless one believes that some good is served by causing
suffering to others, and unless one buys into the dogma that individuals are "responsible", i.e. that
human acts somehow emerge outside the demonstrable causal processes of natural and social
science?). Why is this relevant to this case? Because the perpetrators of Sept.11 died with their
victims. They cannot be tried, punished, etc. Nevertheless, there is a baying for "justice",
vengeance and punishment. This clearly has nothing to do with any of the official defences of
law: there is no-one to pay off a "debt", no-one to be "reformed" or "rehabilitated", no "threat" to
be "taken off the streets", no-one to be "deterred", etc. This points to a deeper logic underlying
juridical discourse: desire for a scapegoat, a desire to make someone else suffer in order to wish
away social problems. So, no matter who the attackers were - even if they acted alone - many
people have an irrational urge to "find" someone to blame, a secret mastermind or someone who
"harbours" the guilty. If it wasn't the Taleban, it would be someone else.

Juridicalism is often used by liberals to avoid a confrontation with this basic logic of
criminalisation. This is a sign of faltering before the hurdle of common-sense dogmas - of tying
one's own "philosophy" or "science" to a set of standards exterior to it. One should instead seek to
break with the logic of punishment in all its forms, and to replace it with a reasoned, causal
approach to socio-political problems. One should stop appeasing the authoritarian personalities
who demand blood whenever something goes against 'their' side, as one does by orienting to a set
of ideological principles which this group is more than capable of twisting to its own ends. The
logic of punishment and retribution is in all probability what motivated the Sept.11 attackers, and it
is disturbing that the same logic is now being reproduced among their supposed opponents.
Instead, one should stand against the violence, the "terror", of armies, police, and organisations
which ape them, not only in particular cases, when a mythical "we" is on the receiving end, but all
the time, as a matter of principle. One can only consistently oppose Sept.11 if one opposes the
social logic which drives it - if one opposes and campaigns against, not particular individuals or
groups, but this logic in all its manifestations, beginning first of all in one's own discourse.

Perhaps this sounds utopian. Perhaps I am sneaking towards Held's anathema
"pacifist" (though I don't think my approach precludes all use of force; it would not rule out
immediate self-defence, which, in the context of demonstrations, may lead it beyond Held's
anathemas in the opposite direction). However, in this case, Held's realism is even more utopian.
One cannot seriously attain a set of laws and practices "that could command the respect and
loyalty of all peoples, everywhere", because 'enforcers' of laws necessarily favour some ways of
acting over others, and violently impose this structure on those who object. This precludes the
process of discursive negotiation which would be necessary to generate agreement (if such a total
agreement is possible - which is debatable). As in the case of "equal liberty for all", however,
Held's "universal agreement" is qualified by an anathema. It does not include people who are
"deranged" or "fanatical". This may well be another operationalist tautology: one can only tell
someone is "deranged" or "fanatical" because they will not accept what other people accept, so the
fact that they do not accept it is treated as self-proving (they do not accept what "everyone"
accepts because they are deranged/fanatical, i.e., because they do not accept what "everyone"
accepts). These labels are a way of imposing voicelessness, oppressive in significance and of
doubtful empirical status. If "deranged" refers to the psychologically different, it is important to
realise that only some of the psychologically different commit violence or deviance, and that the
psychologically different are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Therefore,
explaining violence by reference to psychological difference is spurious. It is actually a way of
covering the way in which "normal" people's actions push the psychologically different into
situations where they commit violence. The term "fanatic" is even vaguer. This discourse may
well be a cover for the imposition of arbitrary law: law is justified because everyone accepts it;
this does not include those who do not accept it, who are excluded from the category "everyone".