September 11 between myth and grand narrative

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ancipenser nesentventre angsoc (1)

When we think of September 11, we must first remember Allende and the martyrdom of the Chilean people (1973). We must then pay tribute to the victims of September 11 (2001) and especially salute the determination with which many US citizens have since resisted the terror that has risen on their lives and on the world. The factual issues can be taken up again; they are amply covered in other contributions in this special issue. Finally, the philosopher that I am may be tempted by a semiotic analysis of the event itself. It will seek to show both what unites 9/11 with known narrative figures — myth, historical religion and the grand nationalist narrative — and what separates it from these classical socio-political frameworks. 

Any community, and a fortiori any society, requires a founding narrative to ensure its cohesion (its homeostasis) and to make possible the individual existence of its members, or even to promote their personal emancipation. This narrative will be said to be cultural if it allows both solidarity and individuation, that is to say if it operates a mysterious alchemy between two possibly contrary but never contradictory requirements. When integrated by each member of the community, all evolve in unison, individual existences and collective dynamics are harmonized with each other and with nature; moreover, both then possess a meaning (significance) and a direction (purpose).

The contemporary vulgate readily speaks of the « invisible hand » dear to Adam Smith; it is indeed to such a phenomenon that culture refers (which is why Chomsky sometimes calls Smith a libertarian socialist). 

The reading proposed here is essentially Orwellian. For lack of time, she will not exploit the achievements of Victor Klemperer, Eric Hazan, Hannah Arendt or Naomi Klein. Let’s remember that the Strategy of Shock (2007) makes clear the correlation between the establishment of « market democracy », economic warfare (against the state, civil society and individuals themselves), state terrorism (kidnapping, torture, assassinations) and certain psychiatric practices. 

the myth

Mankind first founded the world by means of myth. Since the emergence of « wild thought », it has made its universe intelligible and habitable with the help of a mythological cultural narrative. The very nature of myth is that it is uchronic: mythological culture is based on an account of what happened « at the time » (« in illo tempore ») of creation. In other words, the founding events are not directly accessible; they can only be re-actualized through an appropriate ritual that relies on (and maintains) the collective memory. 

It is clear that the mythological foundation of the world is very effective and that it allows both to reinforce solidarity and to respect the individuation of each person. When he contrasts clock society (traditional) and steam society (industrial), Claude Lévi-Strauss insists on the fundamentally democratic character of clock society, which ritually seeks unanimity before any decision is made(2).

historical religion

The emergence of historical religions responds to the same founding need. The religious narrative rooted in the Abrahamic tradition is not, however, uchronic but chronotopic : it can (should) be located in space and time. Abram, Jesus and Mohammed are (claimed to be) historical figures and the appropriate religious ceremonies involve the faithful in this sacred history. 

The religious narrative is also historical in a second sense: the foundation of the world is related to a divine event that is called to have an end (an « eschaton »). Now, this eschatology presupposes a history of salvation and each individual is in fact invited to progress morally and spiritually. 

the great nationalist reCite 

The great nationalist narrative is part of the same cultural context: giving meaning and direction to a given human grouping. It emerges at a time when pre-industrial societies feel the need to back their existences with a narrative that is no longer explicitly mythological or religious — which would be neither scientific nor politically adequate. This time it is a utopia in the sense that the nationalist narrative creates an imaginary community and territory; the grand narrative constitutes the social by rewriting history to determine « objective » elements of belonging. To do this, he willingly starts from an initial trauma (such as the battle of Poitiers) and establishes a cultural populism by inventing from scratch « folk » traditions, homogenizing in the process. 

The emergence of the nationalist narrative took place after the Thirty Years’ War which, conducted under religious banners, ravaged Europe from 1618 to 1648. The conclusion of the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 confirmed the weakening of imperial power by promoting states’ rights and, in particular, by reaffirming religious freedom. The Treaties lay down three fundamental principles that presuppose the legal equality of nation-states: the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state and thus the right to political self-determination; respect for international treaties; and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. The hope of a perpetual Peace is then emerging among the most daring thinkers. In fact, the Treaties of Westphalia will allow the relative stabilization of Europe, but they will open the door to imperialism: the exercise of sovereignty depends on the constitution of a territory in the form of a nation-state, and the regions that do not have this legal-political form will be considered without a master… 

the terror

Historically, the human race has thus exploited three main forms of socio-community construction: myth, which, respecting both the solidarity of the group and the individuality of its members, proves to be culturally very effective; historical religion, which seals the group but determines the individuals; and the nationalist narrative, which operates in the same way by desacralizing the political framework. 

The great dystopian story (it is a utopia in reverse, a utopia of the worst) that follows 9/11 could certainly be read in continuity with these narrative modalities: the US (hyper-)nationalist dimension is first of all striking, both internally and from the point of view of the neo-colonialism that follows (note the obliteration of the spirit of the Treaties of Westphalia); then comes the obvious sacralization of a particular chronotope (New York, September 11, 2001); and finally the mythological dimension, in the pejorative sense of the word, that the official narratives on and around 9/11 soon took on. Soon the whole planet will be under its influence, each one claiming its own terror. 

But such a continuist reading would miss the revolutionary (or rather counter-insurgency) aspect of the Terror narrative. The main thing is elsewhere: we must question the applicability and coherence of the story. On the one hand, each narrative mode has a particular applicability that is determined by socio-historical contingencies and by an implicit aim: radically cultural for the myth of « first » communities and mainly solidarizing for religion and the nation-state. On the other hand, each mode has a particular consistency. This last criterion turns out to be the main one, and we observe a historical degradation of the degree of coherence of the great founding narratives. The mythological narrative has the greatest coherence because of the categories that are interwoven and the liberties that are taken with logical consistency (basically with the principle of non-contradiction). The official account of 9/11 is simply totally incoherent and contradictory and its applicability should therefore be null. So where does its formidable political effectiveness come from? And why is it hardly questioned? 

In order to understand this, it is necessary to explain the purpose of the post-September 11 terror narrative. It is no longer simply a question of promoting the neurosis of the « war of all against all »; it is the psychosis of the « war of self against self » that is imposed. Orwell has advantageously replaced Hobbes. The term « market democracy » points to the two roots of the disaster, as identified early on by Tocqueville and eventually by Orwell himself. 

Tocqueville published On Democracy in America in 1835; he was well aware of the context of the US-American revolution (1786), the French revolution (1789), the Terror (1793), the circumstances of the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte (1799), and therefore of the fragility of the democratic ideal. If one leaves aside his apology of the Ancien Régime and Western imperialism, one cannot but recognize the value of his critique of the dangers of representative democracy. Human life is only worth living in a cultural context worthy of the name; without it, solidarity and individuation remain dead letters. However, in a society where the particular interest prevails over the general interest, solidarity is replaced by the absence of links (atomism) and individuation by economic standardization (materialism) and intellectual standardization (the opinion of the majority prevails) — that is to say, conformism. The danger behind the (economic) war of all against all is none other than servitude, « soft despotism ». 

This is, after all, the conclusion that Thomas Hobbes was already drawing in 1651 following the English Civil War of 1642–1651. It was idealized by Adam Smith(The Wealth of Nations, 1776), and then refreshed in a Stalinist context by Hayek(The Road to Serfdom, 1944). As Leo Löwenthal sensed in his analysis of Nazi genocidal policy(3)The premises are exactly the same: the destructuring that « democracy » makes undergo to the community life corresponds point for point to the one that is required by the « divine market ». Hence the conclusion he announces at the outset: fascist terror is deeply rooted in the Western techno-scientific mindset and more particularly in the « market of pure and perfect competition » desired by Hayek. For Löwenthal, as for Orwell a few years later, thinking becomes a stupid crime (cf. « crimethink » vs. « crimestop ») and the clones must take refuge in a protective stupor, in a moral coma (cf. « protective stupidity »)(4).

to know without knowing 

The question then bounces around: how exactly does the Terror put the clones into a stupor? Orwell’s answer is well known: the practice of doublethink pushes each clone into the grip of psychosis and allows the Party to control reality, nothing more and nothing less. He must know and not know, be aware of the absolute truth of his politically correct words while elaborating it from complex lies; he must be able to forget what it is necessary to forget while having the faculty to remember it if necessary… We leave the domain of simple cognitive dissonance to enter the sphere of psychosis. In comparison, the replacement of the cultural narrative of the harmonization of solidarity and individuation with the narrative of the clone war is a kind of neurotic joke. It is not by chance that Orwell speaks of « controlled insanity » and the imperative of torture as a means of exercising political power. 

However, September 11 offers us two complementary examples of psychotic injunction. First, the absurd interpretation of what is visible: since the 1950s, the vast majority of Westerners have known the visual signature of controlled demolition, which is used systematically in countries of great programmed obsolescence; they are required (but not demanded) to ignore (but cannot really do so) this empirical knowledge. Secondly, the forced hallucination of what is invisible: while nothing is discriminable in the video that has been made public, the citizen is (and is not) asked to discover the horrified faces of the passengers of a sinking Boeing. 

Everything is said, but it remains expedient to rely on certain achievements of social psychology to obtain a stereoscopic vision of the Terror. This discipline excels in the experimental study of two main fields that it carefully distinguishes: conformism and obedience to authority. 

A compliant individual gives in (often unconsciously) to peer pressure (which is not made explicit). Why is this? We distinguish two cases: the normative influence (cultivating the feeling of belonging to a group: see Asch’s experiments of 1951) and the informational gap (compensating for a lack of knowledge: see Sherif’s experiments of 1935). It remains striking to see how easily an individual can ignore what his senses tell him and give up his free will in order not to break the consensus of the group — a consensus created by Asch precisely in order to highlight this nonsense. 

The obedient individual accepts (consciously) the authority of a superior who expresses himself univocally by an injunction. Why is this? Out of cooperation (in the absence of coercion: see Milgram’s 1963 experiments) or fear (when there is a threat of punishment: see Zimbardo’s 1971 experiments). These experiments show that an average person, a good family man, can (very) easily be driven to murder by a superior with « scientific » authority. 

Orwell’s « planned madness » is of another order: it is the product of a demand that is and is not explicit. It is no longer simply a matter of maintaining a sense of belonging or avoiding punishment: the subject is caught in the web of power and only madness allows him to ignore (while being perfectly aware of it) that he is likely to be digested alive by a « priest of power », who will only regurgitate him before executing him. 

effeCtive absurdity

In conclusion, what experimental psychology teaches us about conformism allows us to understand the premises of the Terror, not its psychotizing mechanism. A distinction is made between pure and simple acceptance (« compliance »: accepting the opinion of the group without changing one’s personal judgment), internalization (the subject is convinced that the group is right) and identification (the absence of ulterior motives). Asch’s experiments are particularly illuminating for two reasons. On the one hand, we see group pressure at work; on the other hand, we have shown that this will to conform varies with the political context (McCarthyism was rife in 1950–1956). Under group pressure, an individual is likely to refuse to validate his or her perceptions and to give up common sense, not to mention critical judgment. 

But the 9/11 narrative only works because of the synergy that is established between the desperate desire to conform and the unconditional acceptance — on pain of ostracism but also of « evaporation » to Guantanamo or elsewhere — of explicit injunctions from superiors. What is the situation of the average citizen who watches videos that do not show what the « authorized » commentary announces? He knows — it is not even a hunch — that it is a lie and that the authority cannot lie to him. The effectiveness of the narrative of the Terror is to force the citizen to maintain such a psychotic relationship with « reality ». The oligarchy then has a free hand to accumulate insane policies. It will announce an endless war « against terror » which may occasionally become « humanitarian », it will express itself only in oxymorons, will award itself the Nobel Peace Prize, will sponsor Hollywood apologies for torture, etc. The more the absurdity is blatant, the more effective it will be, i.e. paralyzing. The ultimate nature of the exercise of power finally becomes palpable to those who can sustain the vision of the cannibal father. 

Michel Weber

Philosopher, author of De quelle révolution avons-nous besoin, Éditions Sang de la Terre, Paris, 2013 

Notes et références
  1. Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. (Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949], Penguin, 2003, p. 348) « Ancipenseur nesentventre Angsoc. La traduction la plus courte que l’on puisse donner de cette phrase en ancilangue est: “Ceux dont les idées furent formées avant la Révolution ne peuvent avoir une compréhension pleinement sentie des principes du Socialisme anglais.”» (1984, Traduit de l’anglais par Amélie Audiberti, Paris, Gallimard, 1950, p. 428)
  2. Georges Charbonnier, Entretiens avec C. Lévi-Strauss, Paris, Julliard et Plon, 1961, pp. 35–48.
  3. Leo Löwenthal, «Terror’s Atomization of Man», Commentary 1, 1945/1946, pp. 1–8.
  4. « Dans son essence, le système terroriste contemporain revient à l’atomisation de l’individu. […] L’individu terrorisé n’est jamais seul et toujours seul. Il devient insensible et rigide pour ses pairs mais également pour lui-même; la peur l’empêche
de réagir spontanément, que ce soit émotionnellement ou intellectuellement. Penser devient un crime stupide mettant
en danger sa propre vie. En conséquence, la stupidité se répand inévitablement comme une maladie contagieuse.
 Les êtres humains vivent dans un état stuporeux que l’on
peut qualifier de coma moral. » (Löwenthal, op. cit., p. 2)
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