From 9/11 to Donald Trump

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Seventeen years ago, the United States was shaken by planes crashing into pillars of American exceptionalism. Now, our nation is struggling through the equally unyielding terror of the Trump presidency.

These two events–the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. skyline and the Trump administration’s assault on American institutions–are as entwined as the interlocking loops of a roller coaster. Following the explosions at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and fields near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our elected leaders issued a clarion call to permanent war based on an endless perpetuation of political fear that echoes inside the White House today.

Every president to occupy the Oval Office since 9/11 has mined the fertile soil of fearmongering about Islamic terrorism, even those who pronounced the audacity of hope. After laying a wreath during the Pentagon memorial service, in 2010, Barack Obama marshaled the collective memory of the 184 victims killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the defense headquarters’ west side, saying:

The perpetrators of this evil act didn’t simply attack America; they attacked the very idea of America itself–all that we stand for and represent in the world. And so the highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most–to stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are…Today, in Afghanistan and beyond, we have gone on the offensive and struck major blows against Al Qaeda and its allies. We will do what is necessary to protect our country and we honor all those who serve to keep us safe.

Obama’s call for “common purpose” curiously included rhetorical applause for the wars being waged (to this day) in the Middle East against the communities from which the 9/11 assailants hailed. The American character of which Obama so proudly speaks is one of unparalleled military might, in which “the enemy” may be blown to pieces by a remote-controlled drone and the casualties of warfare can be counted like kills in a first-person shooter video game.

Fast forward to the present, where President Trump was elected on and ravenously reaps the political proceeds of Islamophobia. From attacks on the families of Islamic soldiers to unprecedented restrictions on immigrants from Muslim nations to a persistent Othering of non-white people as inherently violent, Trump has driven the politics of fear made possible by 9/11 to the top of the U.S.’s political war machine. He understands that our national narrative, too, was hijacked nearly two decades ago and that his claim to authority rests on sustaining trauma in our collective memory.

The way we, the people, code acts of terror has, since long before 9/11, been defined by the state. The attacks on the World Trade Center amplified the discursive hegemony of the state, however, giving national leaders new power to determine what is intelligible in national political discussions and what is rendered barbaric.

Feelings of transgression in questioning the further militarization of society since 9/11 arise out of the government’s successful cultural homogenization of the meaning of the terrorist attacks, through which the weaponization of four airplanes prefigures a permanent state of mourning that can only be alleviated through the catharsis of warfare. Thus, memorial enactments become nothing more than performances of statist authority, allowing the conditions for further action–be it familial grieving or the so-called “War on Terror”–to occur with indefinite social impunity. As Judith Butler argues:

The normative force of performativity–its power to establish what qualifies as “being”–works not only through reiteration, but through exclusion as well. And in the case of bodies, those exclusions haunt signification as its abject borders or as that which is strictly foreclosed: the unlivable, the nonnarrativizable, the traumatic (Butler, Bodies That Matter, 1994).

While Butler’s thesis refers specifically to gender and sexuality, her assertion that a formulation of identity politics simultaneously interrogates and delineates the categories it creates is equally applicable to debates surrounding the biopolitics of 9/11, whereby the failure of discursive performativity to circumscribe ontopolitical parameters induces constitutive insecurity and, subsequently, normative exclusion dissimulated beneath the illocutionary force of political speech. In other words, invocations about our shared loss only serve to build a wall between “us” and “them,” with the Western “us” only capable of existing insomuch as it is performed, over and over, as something different from the non-Western “them” that must always remain present at its borders.

Reading imperative utterances as aesthetic simulations, instead of linguistic nihilism, opens new space for the (im)possibility of 9/11 to emerge. In one sense, the attacks of 9/11 (especially those on the World Trade Center) exposed an unspoken ideal of performative hyperreality: violence becomes virtual at precisely the point that the it collapses into pathos itself, requiring mediation of the imaginary for historical signification to be fixed.

Baudrillard’s infamous argument about the Persian Gulf War–that the absence of reason for military action manifests virtual warfare or war as a managed spectacle whose outcome is predetermined–is revealed as both functional and incomplete. The hermeneutic apparatus that consecrates the spatiotemporal dimension of battle relies on the presence/absence duality inhered in power relations for mass distribution, as Baudrillard claimed, but coterminously constructs the trauma of the imaginary, specifically, as something to be destroyed. Baudrillard admitted this in 2003, saying:

The architectural object was destroyed, but it was the symbolic object which was targeted and which it was intended to demolish. One might think the physical destruction brought about the symbolic collapse. But in fact no one, not even the terrorists, had reckoned on the total destruction of the towers. It was, in fact, their symbolic collapse that brought about their physical collapse, not the other way around (Baudrillard, Requiem for the Twin Towers, 2003).

Nonetheless, the humiliation wrought by the naked baring of virtuality cannot be revisited upon the terrorists, whose capacity to incite panic is predicated upon a mass-mediated, but deliberately veiled, dissemination of panic in the service of free-flowing capital. As by-products of an aesthetic regime writ ideologically, most Americans experience, re-experience, and react to the attacks from a position of displaced space, of unstable materiality, in which newsreel images of planes crashing into buildings become a simulacrum not only for the attacks themselves, but also for the symbolic fictions unmasked by 9/11–the excesses and inequalities of global capitalism, ultra-nationalism, patriarchal statism, and the silencing of radical alterity.

It is this last concept that affirms September 11, 2001 as spectral. We can ask: can any meaning be derived from fissures opened on 9/11 that undermine the meanings bestowed upon us by the state in the name of militarization and money? Can we tell a new, more progressive story about our history, our future, and how the two are related?

Specters, like simulations of violent attacks for political gain, are the revenant, undead, persistent haunting of resurrected anxieties, at once contingent upon and contemporaneous with mourning. Inseparable from the commodity fetishism of the modern marketplace, these revenants foreshadow both an ambivalence about and anticipation of the ultimate death of the current (il)liberal political order.

That’s scary to people who are privileged by our current politics, namely those who are wealthy and/or white. It is these fears–percolating before, but inestimably heightened and given a new racial and cultural face by 9/11–that Trump has taken advantage of to further repeal the civil liberties that ground the American experiment.

Tearing Trumpism from our political fabric, then, will require more than impeachment hearings. We will need a reckoning with our recent history that replaces fear with forgiveness and an acknowledges our complicity in the suffering of our neighbors around the globe.

Constitutional Contingency

We The People

Buried in Levi Bryant’s brilliant posts at Larval Subjects is this gem from a discussion of Whiteheadian flaws:

It starts from the premise that everything is related, and thereby undermines the most interesting ontological insight and questions. That insight is the insight that how things are related is contingent (other assemblages are always possible). That question is how the relations that do exist, the de facto relations, come to be built (Bryant, Process Philosophy and OOO, 2011).

What Bryant implicitly critiques is, I think, one of the most common mistakes committed in post-Kantian philosophy writ large: namely, the confusion of relation with contingency. According to Bryant, one of the primary problems of Whiteheadian thought is its insistence on universal interrelationship, whereby the ability of objects to exist independent of relations is impossibilized. Indeed, any substantial movement, or movement of substances, is arrested by such a view–be it the rhizometric allowance of exit points in theoretical investigations or literal object-oriented motility–because ubiquitous relation precipitates arborescence, to complete the Deleuzean turn of phrase. Put bluntly, if an object cannot extricate itself nor be extricated from its relations, its motion becomes unidirectional in the sense of being vertical and orthogonal, with relations stacked hierarchically on top of one another like floors in a skyscraper, all leading to teleological climax.

One could argue that an overwhelming interconnectedness of this sort implies that movement in one part of the network shifts the entire sphere, amounting to a waltz of objects. If the dance is made endless, however, then the positionality of an object is not only relative to all others, but its beingness is predicated upon the continuance of relations within the network, itself. An object-oriented correlationism, if you will, through which the identity of objects is exhausted by the totality of their relations, if not specific interactions. If, on the other hand, the loci of relation for an object is contingent upon a severable assemblage, then objects, even when trapped by the spatiotemporal excess of hyperobjects, cannot be exhausted by any relation or system of relations, are ontologically free to roam from one assemblage to the next, and, consequently, retain agency.

So-called “constitutional conservatives,” i.e. strict constructionists who happen to be running for office, epitomize the difference between the totalizing logic of hyperrelationaiity and the democratic drive behind contingency. For a constitutional conservative, like Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, interpretation of the United States Constitution, ratified in 1788, is monolithic and inelastic, as is the document itself. Governmental norms and structures are hyperrelational consequences of the original text, a vertical manifestation of other objects–predominantly people–coming into contact with words and meanings that predate and ground their being, and any form of being, as they are modulated by the hyperobjects of American nationalism and jurisprudence.

Consequently, for strict constructionists, admission of non-originalist applications of Constitutional theory would undermine American being, national and individual alike, by collapsing purportedly eternal constitutional norms into the inherent finitude of the text as both object and ideational apparatus, ultimately giving lie to the subsumption of all experience, object-oriented or anthropocentric, within an imagined founders’ intent. Any wonder, then, that House Speaker Paul Ryan, master of austerity, is hostile to contingent affirmation of the political breath of minorities suffering foreclosure because of econophysical credit schemes, whose nomadic traversal of class barriers shows that constitutional first principles can, and perhaps must, be amended to encompass mutating temporal assemblages and the constant shuffling of objects between one network and the next?

No, no. Conservatives aren’t having any of that. They have to keep people things in their rightful, Right-leaning places.

Crashing Paul

I just revisited the critically acclaimed film Crash (2004), in which racial tensions are unveiled as contingently operational. Racism animated in one location redounds throughout society as an eternal recurrence, prompting one act of violence after another. In the scene above, Jean Cabot, wife of local district attorney Rick Cabot, shouts derogatory racial stereotypes about Hispanic locksmith Daniel Ruiz, who is replacing the Cabots’ home locks following an armed robbery to which they were subjected earlier in the night. Jean is later cared for by her Hispanic housekeeper after falling down the stairs, a fall spurred by the sublimation of material difference beneath Jean’s anger at “them.” It is noteworthy that Jean’s narrative climax–her literal crash–involves a flight of stairs, something found in homes that her hired help could never afford.

Yet, the film’s gloss on “historically sedimented inequalities” (to borrow Hsuan Hsu’s critical phrase) privatizes the politics of race by subsuming identity formation within interpersonal ethics. Racism, the film tells us, is a personal choice. Eliminating racism is as simple as changing a few hearts and minds. While pervasive, this attitude fails to account for the material difference between different racial groups, as race is co-constitued with class, sex, gender, and other identity borders. For example, African-American youth are nearly 55 times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated for a first-time drug offense, a stark expression of white legal privilege. After labeling the Los Angeles Policei Department a “racist institution,” though, Crash portrays black criminality as a character defect, albeit one that whites too quickly presume. Structural and discursive racism are normalized. Minority impoverishment, maybe the leading cause of so-called “criminal” behavior, is dehistoricized, even mythologized.

Erasing racial coding lactifies prevailing power dynamics and race’s eventuality. Racism is instantiated as an immediate occurrence, with no unfolding past or future trajectory. More importantly, situating racism solely within social dyads obscures the possibilization of communal struggle against modern-day apartheid. Consider the following selection from the Apostle Paul:

But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not missing it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

As Katharine Sarah Moody argues, Paul highlights in these verses the antagonism between those who cleave to the pre-existing social order and those who actualize social obligation by suspending Christianity’s “Big Other,” namely the basis of identity and social obligation in legal regulation. In Christ, social obligation is no longer based on covenantal genealogy, but radicalized love for one’s brethren, no matter what socioeconomic, biological, or material differences may stand in the way–recall Paul’s letter to the Galatians, verse 3:28, which states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul introduces a new universalism indifferent to socio-symbolic difference (other than Christian/non-Christian). Moody refers to this as a “second birth” and “second death” mirroring that of Christ (whose birth and death parallel the creation and fall of Adam in Christian narrativity). We are born into subjectivity; we may renounce the ideological field within which subjectivity is politicized as identity struggle. What Paul leaves us with, then, is an avenue for articulating the particular within the universal. A narrow reading of Paul would contend that the apostle calls for the complete disintegration of identity, much more identity politics. I hold, in contrast, that Paul’s call is multiplanar. Rather than forsake identity formation entirely (a spatiotemporal impossibility), Paul asks us to abandon the naturalized succession of historical status and, instead, locate identity politics within an irreducible movement toward sociopolitical emancipation. Paul tasks us with de-crystallizing guilt toward the past–whether in the form of black missions or white burdens–and, in Fanonian terms, finding ourselves in a world where we have one right alone: demanding human behavior from the Other.