Monday 13 September 2010

Derrida, "9/11" and discourse analysis

Ian Bogost has written a blog post on Derrida's take on '9/11' and Graham Harman commented on it on his own blog. Both, unsurprisingly perhaps!, are rather nonplussed by it.

Bogost writes:
the "event" (see, I can use scare quotes too) seems to me to invite reflection on so much more than just "this question of language," as Derrida calls it. And more than just "this question of politics," too.
Harman remarks (in reference to the so-called "Derrida wars"):
this isn’t what realism looks like.
Well, quite. Derrida is only willing to talk about the events grouped under the moniker '9/11' in terms of the moniker itself. This much is true. He doesn't recognise the larger geopolitical realities - material and symbolic alike - that extend beyond the formation of the day qua symbol.

This much is to be deplored and, I am sad to report, in my native academic discipline (international relations - the discipline meant to study such events) such linguistic idealism is becoming more and more widespread. However, having said all of that, it is very far from being a majority or even mainstream view - the hardcore of IR as with political science generally is fairly conventional reductive positivism. The mainstream remains utterly incapable of allowing for analysis of the symbolic dimensions of political violence in anything approaching a sophisticated manner. They remain stuck in a reductive analysis of what is called the "distribution of capabilities" - i.e. what war making resources different states have in relation to neighbouring states. The health of the academic discourse is not great.

For this reason I would stress the importance of not dismissing Derrida's point of view tout court (I don't think Bogost or Harman are arguing for this but it deserves iterating nevertheless). His narrowness of vision should not detract from the importance of linguistic/semiotic analysis in situations such as this. Yes, there is more to geopolitical events than their interpellating symbolisation but this aspect is nevertheless crucial and cannot be dismissed.

This, to change the topic slightly, is why I don't agree with, for instance, Manuel DeLanda (but Harman and others have more or less said the same at other times) who says that the 'linguistic turn' was the "worst possible turn" that the humanities or social sciences could have taken. For the most part, the 'linguistic turn' has made a positive and beneficial impact on IR precisely because of its prior impoverishment - an upcoming IR scholar was previously limited to a choice between behaviouralism and positivism; now they have more interesting options. Nevertheless, I've not seen a particularly original 'poststructural' or 'hermeneutic' IR text for some years now - the vein that was once rich is spent. Which is why it is necessary to develop a social ontology that keeps the benefits the linguistic turn allowed (including the kinds of analysis that Derrida was prone to) but at the same time allows analysis of non-linguistic elements of political reality. Such an ontology would, by allowing for all analytical aspects to shine through, improve upon the idealist discourse analyses, not detract from them.

If we needed any more evidence of the importance of this sort of analysis, take the so-called 'Ground Zero Mega Mosque' (which is none of those things). It is a complete fabrication - absolute nonsense from beginning to end. Yet, it has been staggeringly powerful. We need to understand how such linguistic fabrications can be put together. Derrida's form of analysis therefore has an important place. Yet, if we were successful at formulating the new social ontology suggested above, we would not only have to analyse the construction of this fabrication linguistically but also analyse the networks of media outlets reproducing this lie, the financiers buying politicians to reproduce their racist views for short term political gains and the emotional, material and economic status of the desperate, disenfranchised people who, having seen all that they thought solid melt into air over the past few years, cling to whatever nonsensical, simplistic, all-encompassing explanation they can find (i.e. racism - it's the Muslims not the capitalists!).

So, I agree with Bogost that '9/11' is 'more than a question of language.' Certainly, it is also 'more than a question of politics' for those directly affected too. The personal, emotional trauma of those who lost friends, colleagues and loved ones cannot be reduced to 'politics' - much less to the wafer thin politics of linguistic idealism. Yet, the political dimension can hardly be subtracted. Being British and fairly anti-social, I've only ever met one person I know to have been directly affected by the WTC attacks. Yet '9/11' qua symbol, 9/11' qua history changing event affects my life and the lives of millions all over the world who had no direct connection with the events at all. The day was not just a day; to quote one commentator:
As with Sarajevo in1914, Pearl Harbor in1941, and Berlin in1989, 9/11 is presented by pundits of diverse political hues as being a transformational moment where the fabric of history was violently torn.
More than a day, it punctuates 'our' history - indeed it makes 'us' 'us'; it generates the very notion of a shared history. What is more political than that?

For all the flaws of the linguistic turn, it provides a way to understand how this happens. I think that is valuable.