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The Blood of the 3,000
Jeffrey Gordon reflects on 9/11, and sees that it didn’t wake us.
September 11, 2001 taught Americans – and all the rest of us – the price of our political apathy, of our indifference tinged with contempt toward the wretched condition of the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of this earth. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, President Bush was criticized for allowing a splendid opportunity for strengthening the American soul to slip away. At this time, the critics say, we were ready to sacrifice: we would gladly have shared symbolically through our own sacrificial labors the agony of the families of the 3,000 dead. But the critics are wrong. Bush showed himself the much truer judge of the American temper when the only action he could think to require of us was for us to keep shopping. Like the writer in the posh restaurant who asked the maitre d’ to pull the blinds on the beggars staring at his steak through the plate-glass window, we are immersed in our culture of fantasy and deeply resent any intrusion of reality. To keep shopping was an act of defiant reaffirmation: we are living the life we deserve; this is no time for self-examination (no time is the right time for that): no time to abandon our insulation in ignorance and our political apathy. There is no need for an awakening.
The defiance goes deeper still. When Sigmund Freud was a small child and his mother’s favorite, the sight of his infant brother at her breast filled him with jealous rage. When Julius died still in infancy, little Sigmund’s darkest wish had been granted, and he experienced so profound a sense of guilt that it haunted him the rest of his life. I want to suggest that something of the same kind of guilt haunts America’s reaction to 9/11. For years prior to that epochal day, one of our most frequent national fantasies was destructive havoc wreaked on our own cities (Independence Day, Fight Club, etc). People may say it was our collective nightmare. On the contrary, I want to suggest that this was our darkest unconscious wish.
The fatal flaw of too comfortable a life is its tedium. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is famous for having portrayed human life as a pendulum swinging futilely between desperate striving and unbearable boredom. And Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out that in the mesmerized tranquility of postmodern capitalism (think of the atmosphere of our malls), our deepest hunger is for some undeniable evidence of the fact that we are alive. Thus he explains such otherwise unfathomable phenomena as the snuff film or the cutters, women who inflict knife wounds on themselves to savor the hemorrhaging of their own blood.
A memorable short story by Robert Minkoff called ‘Better Tomorrow’ is set in the not too distant future, when the simple tasks of life are even less onerous than they are now, and people indulge in wholly meaningless and guiltless sex with robots or humans interchangeably. But a single inescapable ritual mars the idyll: once a month, office-workers, legal secretaries, doctors, accountants, etc cram into a huge abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town to witness in blood-lustful abandon the slow, ritual slaughter of one of their youth. Too much tranquility prompts the animal in us to rebel.
The culture of fantasy has won our inner lives; it dominates our most secret and luminous ambitions. If you screen photos from the latest clothes catalogues of Abercrombie & Fitch for a class of college students they’ll twitter uncomfortably, even laugh aloud, almost as though their intimate fantasies have been publicly exposed, suddenly made the object of classroom scrutiny. They laugh at the transparently manipulative images, and show remarkable savvy in analyzing the sources of their appeal, but all this conceals their embarrassment: they are drawn magnetically to these images even as they examine them with such dispassion. This shows the world that speaks to them, the world that has captured their imaginative lives. It is above all a world free of the burden of time, hence a world without events, consequences, realpolitik, irreversible choices, responsibility, remorse. And it is the principal agent of our political apathy. But tranquilization through participation in the world of fantasy has its limits. Something in us yearns for palpable proof that we are, after all, alive. And so we crave subconsciously the violation of our tranquility, the assertion of life in its primitive and ruthless immediacy – havoc, destruction, the spurting of pulsing blood. We long to crush the culture of fantasy in the belly of the serpent, life.
Thus a nameless unconscious guilt haunts our memories of 9/11. Our darkest wish has been granted. And like the death of infant Julius for little Sigmund, at the deepest strata of our unconscious, the blood of the 3,000 is on our own hands. But the culture of fantasy cannot abide guilt. To have recognized and faced our guilt would have hurled us into a limbo from which only a profound national self-reflection could have saved us: a self-reflection that might well have led to a desperately-needed awakening. The alternative was to deny the guilt, to deny that 9/11 was the playing-out of our destructive fantasies, of our hunger for proof of life. And consider the depth of our defiance in reaction to that tragedy. The perpetrators become the visage of Evil, the new focus of our infinite capacity for distancing the enemy from ourselves. Against this contrast, our own innocence, our American goodness and child-like innocence, is more pronounced than ever. Saved again from self-examination, we’ve returned to the malls, the sanctuaries of our mesmerized pacification, as though nothing had happened to call into question our privilege and our indulgence, our tranquilized indifference to the wretched of the earth – as though nothing in the world has changed.
© Prof. Jeffrey Gordon 2008
Jeffrey Gordon is Professor of Philosophy and NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Texas State University.