12 September 2006

The Global War on Terror

I came across this interview with Ian Lustick, author of Trapped in the War on Terror, which provides what looks like a worthwhile analysis of the United States' global war on terror. What follows are a few first thoughts or random impressions that emerged in reading the interview. Increasingly I have come to believe that no politics is possible, certainly no Other politics, so long as the signifier "terrorism" continues to hegemonize the ideological field. So long as the ideological field is totalized by this signifier, all politics is effaced by what Ranciere referred to as the order of the Police, allowing no exception to state governance or outside to regimes of knowledge. Lustick advances some remarks in precisely this direction, which is what makes the interview of interest. Lustick emphasizes the disparity between the discourse propogated by various communications systems regarding terrorism and the reality of terrorism, thereby making a number of claims close to Luhmannian social systems theory. In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhman remarks that,
What is meant by 'reality' can therefore only be an internal correlate of the system's operations-- and not, say, a characteristic which attaches to objects of knowledge additionally to that which distinguishes them in terms of individuality or kind. Reality, then, is nothing more than an indicator of successful tests for consistency in the system. Reality is produced within the system by means of sense-making. It arises whenever inconsistencies might emerge from the part played by memory in the system's operations are resolved-- for example, by the construction of space and time as dimensions with various points at which different perceptions can be localized without conflicting with one another. (7)
That is, all systems are self-referential, referring only to their own operations and not representing a world that exists independently of them. This has certainly been the case with the communications that have emerged around the war on terror, which tend to render it impossible not to see all events in the world as somehow linked to the fight against terrorism. (Incidentally, I think Luhmann's Reality of the Mass Media is the best introduction to his work. It's short, very accessible--especially compared to his other work such as the daunting Social Systems --and extremely relevant).

As such, terrorism comes to function as a master-signifier or quilting point to which all other things are attached, or which retroactively fixes the meaning of all other signifiers. As Zizek puts it,
To grasp this fully, we have only to remember the above-mentioned example of ideological 'quilting': in the ideological space float signifiers like 'freedom', 'state', 'justice', 'peace'... and then their chain of supplemented with some master-signifier ('Communism') which retroactively determines their (Communist) meaning: 'freedom' is effective only through surmounting the bourgeois formal freedom, which is merely a form of slavery; the 'state' is the means by which the ruling class gurantees the conditions of its rule; market exchange cannot be 'just and equitable' because the very form of equivalent exchange between labour and capital implies exploitation; 'war' is inherent to class society as such; only the social revolution can bring about lasting 'peace', and so forth. (Liberal-democratic 'quilting' would, of course, produce a quite different articulation of meaning; conserative 'quilting' a meaning opposed to both previous fields, and so on). (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 102)
The signifier "terrorism" functions as a quilting point in this fashion (no doubt intertwined with other quilting points such as "democracy", "America", etc). Lustick, for instance, notes how, in order to get state and federal monies, even vetrinarians have to link their control of animal disease to terrorist threats.

However, if Luhmann's conception of social systems is correct, then the situation is largely hopeless. For insofar as social systems are characterized by autopoietic closure, always "interpreting" data in terms of their own organization, the best we can hope for is "evolutionary drift" within the system itself, looking forward to that point where the communicative system perhaps reaches a bifurcation point that dislodges the centrality of "terrorism" as a master-signifier. That is, Luhmann, due to his conception of the social sphere as an autopoietic system, reduces the social system and the political to the Police in Ranciere's sense of the term. For Luhmann there is nothing that is not already contained in the organization of the system, as can be clearly seen from the passage above. (I take it that this is what supporters of the political thought of Negri and Hardt, along with Deleuze and Guattari miss. Flows of whatever sort do not the political make. Rather, the political is what emerges as an exception to the organization of a system, as what is not counted by that organization. Of course, here I require some sort of argument as to why the political should be conceived in precisely these terms.) Here, I think, we do well to remember the Lacanian aphorism that "interpretation hits the real".

One important way of engaging with such systems is to aim at the real of that system. As Fink puts it,
At every step, at least one number [or signifier] is excluded or pushed aside; we can thus say that the chain works around it, that is, that the chain forms by circumventing it, traching thereby its contour. Lacan calls these excluded numbers or symbols the caput mortuum of the process, likening them thereby to the remainder left at the bottom of a test tube or beaker as an alchemist attempted to create something worthy from something lowly.
The caput mortuum contains what the chain does not contain; it is in a sense the other of the chain. The chain is as unequivocally determined by what it excludes as by what it includes, by what is within it as by what is without. The chain never ceases to not write the numbers that constitute the caput mortuum in certain positions, being condemned to ceaselessly write something else or say something which keeps avoiding the point, as though this point were the truth of everything the chain produces as it beats around the bush. One could go so far as to say that what, of necessity, remains outside the chain causes what is inside; something must, structurally speaking, be pushed outside for there to be an inside. (The Lacanian Subject, 27)
A good psychoanalytic interpretation aims at this remainder that is pushed outside the chain, creating the possibility of some other sort of writing. For instance, an analysand might have renounced the search for the perfect man right at the point she renounced her father or brother as a legitimate sex-object, never noticing the link between these two claims, instead claiming to believe other women are idiots who deny themselves what little jouissance is possible with average men (the perfact man being a chimera of fantasy). All of her subsequent amorous relations might repeat this initial sacrifice, without her being aware of this repetition. Even though she's aware of both events, she doesn't see the connection between the two in her original betrayal of desire. Freud, for instance, talks about how the mechanism of repression in obsession is such that it either a) separates an affect from the signifier to which it's attached, thereby displacing the affect elsewhere, or b) disconnects a link between two signifiers that nonetheless themselves remain perfectly conscious. This form of repression would be operative in such a woman. A psychoanalytic interpretation might draw this link, ceasing the endless writing of this excluded element (the betrayal of her original desire), and allowing a new writing to emerge. That is, a psychoanalytic interpretation hits the real around which the analysand's discourse ceaselessly revolves without ever quite being able to say it. Lustick seems to approach such a caput mortuum when he observes that,
As a political scientist you don't just look at public opinion, and you don't just look at the answers that people give to opinion polls, because the answers that people give to opinion polls are very much driven by how the questions are framed. So, what social scientists do, what I like to do, is to look at the questions that are asked. If you look at the questions that are asked of elites, whether by the Pew Foundation or the American Foreign Policy Association [to see] what opinion leaders in the United States think, or if you look at the Harris polls and Gallup polls of mass opinion, what questions are asked and how are they asked? The type of question that's always asked since 9/11 is, "Is the government prosecuting the War on Terror well, or not? Are we winning the War on Terror? Are we losing?" No one asks, "Should there be a War on Terror? Is there an enemy that could be fought effectively with a war?" No one asks that question publicly.

That's the sign of how deeply embedded the expectations are, and if those deeply embedded expectations are wrong, the country has a hard time correcting its course. Here's why: our government is built on a Madisonian system. Every interest group and every ambitious politician is supposed to go out in the arena and fight for everything they can get based on what's good for them. Even if they talk about what's good for the national interest, the way you get ahead in American politics, whether you're George Bush or anyone else, is to fight for your constituency and build coalitions and fight for those constituencies. The Madisonian system assumes that the whole country will go in a direction that is the outcome of everyone doing that, so it will never lurch too far in one direction, because everyone has an interest that's slightly different than mine, and we tend to cancel one another out.

The problem is that if everyone thinks and supports something that's radically untrue, but that untruth is an arousing untruth, then every single ambitious politician and every single interest group, in order to survive, has to say that what it is doing is in line with that belief, in this case, that it is what the War on Terror requires.

I did a search on the internet for professional associations, lobbying associations, industries, and the War on Terror, to show that everyone passes resolutions, from veterinarians to statisticians to political scientists to psychologists to insurance industry spokesmen declaring something like: "We are in the front lines in the War on Terror." Veterinarians? "We need more money to do what we've always told you we need to do -- train people to prevent diseases like hoof-in-mouth disease -- which could be used by terrorists." Every single association, or political party, or group has to do that. When they do it, they increase the expenditures for them[selves] but they also push other groups to amplify their commitment to the War on Terror, to change what they do to make it at least seem like they're fighting the War on Terror. Even more insidiously, since everyone representing every interest group is saying how important it is to support the War on Terror, the question of whether there should be a War on Terror disappears and everyone becomes more and more convinced that the question is only who does it better, and where should we spend more money.
Lustick does not ask whether we are successfully fighting the war on terrorism, whether we are increasing terrorism, or whether there are better ways to fight the war. All of these questions would already play into the code or system of distinctions organizing the contemporary discourse around the global war on terror. Rather, Lustick targets the real of this communicative system altogether, attempting to reframe the entire discussion and dislodge the master-signifier "terrorism" altogether by transforming "terrorism" into an ordinary S2.


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