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Examine the Use David Simpson Makes of Ẑiẑek’s Theoretical Work in His Study 9/11: the Culture of Commemoration.

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Examine the use David Simpson makes of Ẑiẑek’s theoretical work in his study 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration.

“The routines of commemorative culture, whether private or public, exist to mediate and accommodate the unbearably dissonant agonies of the survivors into a larger picture that can be metaphysical or national-political and is often both at once.” (Simpson 2)
David Simpson’s study 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration published in 2006 focuses on a post-9/11 America wracked by fear and paranoia. The “war against terror” implacably positions the American nation against vengeful messianic Islamist “terrorists” who represent the other, the enemy, and are identifiable en masse as “the culture of terror”.
The tragic events of the day known globally as 9/11 shattered any illusion Americans might have had about an ethic of tolerance operating both within and without their borders. But Simpson notes in his introductory arguments that while that day has been represented as a rupture with known reality it had a familiarity about it that can be traced over time to the influence of television and film, and was thus already embedded within American culture as a shocking explosive tragedy waiting to happen.
Simpson states unequivocally that it’s time we turned to “those who speak for theory” to guide and lead us towards a new cultural understanding of 9/11, mentioning the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Ẑiẑek as part of a respected cohort of theorists: “The work of Derrida, Baudrillard, Ẑiẑek and others should now more than ever be urgently recognized precisely in the light of the popular counterclaims by both left and right that the project of theory has run out of time, gone bad, turned away from life… The sufficiency of the humanist subject as the site of ethical and aesthetic judgments, still I think the foundation of conventional intellectual work, has been visibly in question through the last four years.”
(Simpson 7-8) Simpson’s primary focus of investigation is 9/11 and how the ensuing culture of commemoration became linked with an ethically contentious revitalization of American nationalism and patriotism. Culture 1 in a post-modern world has become intellectually interesting to theorists as a force to be reckoned with politically. Politics and the underlying ideology is the nexus of meaning where Simpson looks to Ẑiẑek et al to provide additional insights, coherent theoretical frameworks and terminology to describe and deconstruct the features of commemorative culture, past present and future. In order to properly grasp what Simpson is attempting in 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration some backtracking is necessary. Simpson’s background is as a literary scholar concerned primarily with the period of Romanticism. In his 1994 study Romanticism, Nationalism and the Revolt Against Theory he refers to “the tradition of radical cosmopolitanism” that “has never been completely submerged”, setting the stage for a refusal of the “compartamentalisation of disciplines” and literature conceived as a “national and often nationalist entity” which has “required narrower and narrower qualifications for its understanding” and has “eschewed theory.” Simpson then tackles post-modernism which not only incorporates the new cosmopolitanism but “for its advocates, the postmodern condition is an acceptance and celebration of difference and diversity – sexual, national, aesthetic, political.” (Simpson, Romanticism 180-182). In Simpson’s view “to the degree that difference remains only a subject of celebration or identification rather than of analysis and critique, it can support a covertly reproductive strategy whose hallmark is a merely belligerent unwillingness that anyone should speak for or about anyone else “(Simpson, Romanticism 183). In this earlier work Simpson quotes Terry Eagleton as having done more to preserve theory than most and as seeing theory as a useful practice yet able to avoid the “stale identity of longer established discourses.” 2 Eagleton himself in The Idea of Culture states that “A literary education has many virtues, but systematic thought is not one of them.” (Eagleton 39).

In the concluding paragraph of Romanticism, Nationalism and the Revolt against Theory Simpson states: “An informed account of who we are now and what we believe, can only be assisted by a recognition of the terms and implications of past choices about theory and method in their perceived relations to the social order.” (Simpson, Romanticism 188) This focus on an inclusive theoretical approach is intrinsic to his work on 9/11 and his insistence on incorporating the work of “foreign theorists”. Ẑiẑek particularly, the contemporary philosopher who borrows shamelessly from other theorists and scholars, and modifies his conceptual frameworks in real-time as events unfold, embodies this cosmopolitan scholarly approach.
Simpson makes it clear that the solution is not a simple matter of replacing one theoretical model (them versus us) with another (they are us) but a rather more comprehensive exercise involving “close inspection of the empirical kind” to understand “the different and critical imbalances of power that govern all postulates specifying identity and difference” (Simpson 10). Marcus Pound provides a useful summary of Žižek’s three primary fields of interest: i) ideology; ii) the politics of the Left; iii) psychoanalysis. Pound outlines Žižek’s high-level areas of enquiry. As regards ideology: to what extent are our actions or thoughts already shaped by the given political or cultural hegemony? As regards the politics of the Left: how does one address the loss of its revolutionary impetus and change the world? As regards psychoanalysis: how does one break the fundamental phantasy which structures neurotic jouissance? (Pound, section I).
Ẑiẑek’s mode of operation as a maverick philosopher who draws on sometimes crude (but often effective) metaphors from daily life interspersed with references to popular media culture (films are a valuable resource) has another noteworthy aspect; his ability to tune into history as it happens and make instant cultural commentary which goes through various stages of mediation and integration into history at later dates. This fits neatly into Simpson’s view of the importance of a more inclusive theory which includes theoretical analysis over time: “The importance of Derrida’s claim that we do not yet know what we are talking about should still be the operational faith of useful inquiry… One can only hope that keeping faith with the traditions of critical reflection might somehow matter to a world that can be better than the one we have now.” (Simpson 9) In The Idea of Culture Eagleton writes: “Our very notion of culture 4 thus rests on a peculiarly modern alienation of the social from the economic, meaning from material life” He argues that it is the very exclusion of material reproduction which allows the concept to become a critique of itself, and that “culture is thus symptomatic of a division which it offers to overcome.” (Eagleton 31)
Ẑiẑek’s influences are primarily Marxist in origin hence his theoretical constructs are primarily concerned with the economic conditions which underlie the socio-political order of western democratic society. Simpson’s focus is on culture, and while he does acknowledge the role of capitalism throughout his critique of 9/11, for him capitalism is a social order where people don’t have an equal voice. Here he ties it into his discussion of an ongoing manufactured history: “The commemoration of 9/11, and 9/11’s culture of commemoration, has both history and a future. The event has been and will be made to mark a new epoch, and as such it is already generating a mythology and a set of practices of its own. This process is not autonomous but, precisely, cultured, in the sense of cultivated, and monitored and produced with the specific possibilities of consumption in mind” (Simpson 16).
In the opening paragraph of Chapter Four Theory in The Time of Death Simpson sets the stage for his call to arms: “Why should I announce, with such apparently cheap melodrama, that theory now is to be imagined in the time of death?” (Simpson 122) In Theory in The Time of Death (chapter 4) Simpson tackles many of the major preoccupations outlined in the introduction chapter in more depth. In an early section of Chapter 4 Simpson goes back to his literary critic roots and takes up the theme of literature and ethics, seeking to open up a space for future debate. In Simpson’s view “Literature can teach us that suffering is not avoidable, irrelevant, or good for us and that compassion is an available ingredient of an adequate ethical personality”. Simpson acknowledges Eagleton and Nussbaum for their contributions to a sense of literature as important for “educating a proper citizenry”3, but questions “the sufficiency of literature in this respect.” Simpson employs the example of Wordsworth’s elegiac poem wherein he admits that “the ghastly face and spectre 12 shape of a drowned surfacing on the lake of Esthwaite did not startle or surprise him” 5. Simpson queries whether literature might not prefigure real life events so that, as in Wordsworth’s personal experience, they are felt to have already been lived and even worked through (for instance, via the experience of characters in books, films, plays). A work of art might thus work to insulate the reader or onlooker from responding to the suffering of others compassionately, in effect limiting our ability “to educate ourselves into an appropriately full engagement with the deaths of others” (Simpson 126-127). And indeed, Simpson argues that this “representation of a disaster rather than the thing itself” is exactly what happened with 9/11; the spectators of that spectacle felt that they had already witnessed, already empathized, thus felt less pressure to sympathise. Simpson argues that Eagleton and Nussbaum’s view that reading literature must be regarded as more ethical (healthy) than reading theory (ideological) does not stand up to a detailed investigation.
The self-induced paranoia of the West is an underlying thread throughout the book: “The saturation of all reporting with the sense of radical uncertainty makes operable the bait-and-switch manipulations that have had such massive consequences since 9/11. It makes possible the substitution of Iraq for al Qaeda, and the production of a Saddam who always did and did not have weapons of mass destruction, an instability successfully cultivated in the face of the complete absence of evidence that he did have or was about to have such weapons. We don’t know, and we don’t know what we don’t know. He might, or he might not. And because he might not, therefore he might.” (Simpson 131)
Simpson questions whether the invasion of Iraq, based on mostly spurious assumptions, was not a red herring in fact designed to radically alter the internal politics of the homeland. Simpson quotes Ẑiẑek’s example (Simpson 131) of Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System), a national system of citizen-manned surveillance which would have neighbours watching each other and reporting any signs of suspected terrorist behavior via a free-phone number or going online. Simpson sees this as another example of a seemingly rational political measure to improve security for the citizenry which is in fact designed and intended to radically alter the internal political culture of the homeland.

A paradoxical tension exists between the goal of an apparently “innocent” exercise such as TIPS and the ultimate big-brother consequences; the goal of invading Iraq is to rid America of the terrorist threat but then at the same time a neighbourhood surveillance force is put to work which pits citizens against citizens and effectively restricts and threatens personal freedom (Murphy 2008).

In The Borrowed Kettle Ẑiẑek comments on this ethical issue embedded within Operation TIPS: “From a radical emancipatory perspective, is ‘freedom’ actually the highest and most untouchable point of reference? On the contrary, is the notion of freedom not so deeply enmeshed in structurally necessary ambiguities that it should always be viewed with elementary suspicion? ( (Ẑiẑek 57)
Ẑiẑek’s reminder that freedom is not set in stone but is constantly being negotiated and reworked is part of a long-standing philosophical debate about the nature of freedom. The nature of freedom has been complicated in modern times by the ever-increasing intrusion of electronic media which allow individual citizens to be under observation as never before, via systems such as CCTV, webcams, phones that operate as cameras and the storage of personal information on vast knowledge databases. The phrase “fortress America” 10 was extensively used by the media following 9/11 to stir up feelings of patriotic fervor; it implied that the threat came from the outside world and that by standing together America’s borders could be secured from the abstract threat of “terror”. (Murphy 2008) And yet the need for the TIPS system disputed that conclusion, making it clear that the threat was in fact embedded in the fabric of the nation. This all fits with Simpson’s analysis of the “radical uncertainty” that was engendered, creating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that made it easy for those in power to manipulate the internal political environment to suit their own self-interest.

The effect of using phrases like “fortress America” and “the war on terror” and implementing an operation like the TIPS surveillance system demonstrates the massive influence the media has on public thought patterns. While terror might be the result of outside stimulants, it originates within the subject and not within the other, and hence it cannot be fought and locked out. 10 The media is constantly engaged with the creation of an “other” to be fought against, so that terror can be vanquished and its territorial reach expanded.
At this point it’s obvious that it’s no longer easy to tell the difference between what is real and what is a representation which is indistinguishable from the real.
Later in the chapter Simpson refers directly to the theme of paranoia in his analysis of the effect of the Abu Ghraib prison photos on the homeland. He sees the unexpected unmediated prison photos of Abu Ghraib, made officially public by the media after their appearance on the internet, as having induced a different response to the familiar feelings of fatigue and skepticism experienced by many in relation to post 9/11 images. The standard format of a formal spectacle faked for public consumption was replaced by an uncomfortable awareness and recognition of the “truth” (the deliberate transgression of civilized democratic norms via sadistic psychological torture, sexual humiliation and physical injury) that the Abu Ghraib photographs portrayed. In this way the photos came to represent all the unseen horrific deaths and events not reported in the media or acknowledged by those responsible for determining national policy.
Simpson, leaning heavily on Ẑiẑek, sees the Abu Ghraib photos as occupying “the place of the real” which had until then been successfully hidden from view, thus taking the ordinary citizen “beyond or around the sublime and the spectacular, into some interior zone of ongoing confusion and obscure identification” (Simpson, 133). In Simpson’s view this was not a light-bulb moment which changed everything, superimposing a new rationality on national policy through a radical re-alignment of the citizen collective, but rather the depravity of Abu Ghraib’s prison warders challenged existing positions by adding a new dimension to what was already there.
Simpson’s “place of the real” borrows heavily from Žižek. To understand Žižek one must look at his primary influences: Hegal, Marx and Lacan. Loosely defining ideology as the way in which individuals understand their relationship to society, Žižek identified that while Marxism had a solid theoretical construct for the mechanics of society, it offered hardly anything in the way of understanding the workings of individuals. Part of Žižek’s achievement has been to popularize the brand of psychoanalysis practiced by Lacan which incorporates the instinctive and psychological processes of individuals into a vast theory with its own terminology capable of analysing every arena of human endeavour. (Myers 19) Crucial to Lacanian thinking are the three “Orders” by which all mental functioning can be classified: the Imaginary Order, the Symbolic Order and the Order of the Real. 6
“A traumatic event represents, for Žižek, the archetypal relationship between the Symbolic and Real Orders. It defines the point where the Real disrupts the smooth running of the Symbolic.” (Myers 25)
Žižek is known as the “philosopher of the Real”. This is partly a play on the word “real”, since Žižek is prone to bringing “real” things such as toilet designs or action movies into his critiques, rather than just positing abstract ideas which have no relationship to the way we actually live our lives. However, he has also expanded the Lacanian Real to make it his own concept, focusing on the antagonistic relationship between the Symbolic and the Real and what it means for the subject. Locating the human subject at the interface of the Symbolic and the Real has enabled Žižek to formulate a comprehensive account of the subject in all its “gendered, ideological, ethnic and postmodern guises”. (Myers 28)
In Welcome to the Desert of The Real, an article published in 20027, Žižek analyses the political and ideological responses to the events of 9/11 using a Marxist and Lacanian conceptual framework. The article’s title mimics a line in the 1999 film The Matrix. 8 In the film when the hero Neo returns from the virtual reality generated by a “gigantic mega-computer” to which we are all attached, he wakes up in the “real reality”, a desolate fire-ravaged war-torn landscape. The resistance leader Morpheus greets him with the ironic phrase “Welcome to the desert of the real.” For Žižek this film is an excellent interpretation of the 20th-century’s “passion for the Real” 9 He suggests that it was something similar which took place with 9/11; the citizens of New York woke up to “the desert of the real” while we (“corrupted by Hollywood”) who viewed the collapsing towers on television were reminded of other spectacular scenes in the catastrophe movie box-office frontrunners.

It seems worth noting that Žižek, a foreign theorist not averse to mocking the American way of life, makes a distinction here, which Simpson hesitates to make, that those who experienced the tragic events of that day first-hand might have experienced it differently (as more real? as a more traumatic directly experienced event?) than those watching the events unfold on television. Žižek’s metaphors might be crude but his detailed observations are acute and telling.
His argument is that because this instinctual impulse to the Real had been suppressed by the opposing “passion for semblances” 9, when the real irrupted on 9/11 it was experienced as the “return of the Real”, in the same way that Neo experienced it in the film, so that the onlookers felt they were gazing at a nightmare virtual landscape or “reality as the ultimate effect”.
Žižek applied his ideas not only to those who participated in 9/11 as victims, survivors and onlookers but to the perpetrators as well: in his view the primary purpose of the “terrorists” was not to inflict material damage and cause the loss of American lives but to create a breathtaking spectacular effect to outdo all the disaster movies ever made, and in this sense “the planes hitting the WTC towers was the ultimate work of art”. He sees the spectacle of 9/11 as an authentic attempt to break through the “cobweb of semblances” which makes up our irreal, substanceless social reality, and experience the hyper-reality of the “Real Thing” (ultimately, Lacan’s void) as the final “effect.” To Žižek digitalized special effects, the increased popularity of 3-D movies, reality TV programs, and amateur pornography all the way to snuff movies, are all symptomatic of this reaching out for the Real Thing. Snuff movies which deliver the “real thing” and operate on the body straddling the line between life and death are perhaps the truest manifestation of this profound desire to experience “reality" at the very limit of virtual reality, pushing the limits of pleasure and pain to new heights. Žižek suggests that this widening of the sensory capacity combined with new forms of inflicting pain opens the way to new “enhanced” methods of torture and the hellish “ultimate Sadean image” of a victim who can bear endless pain but lacks the ability to escape into death.
In Ẑiẑek’s words: “In a way we could say that, especially for Americans, the trauma was doubly inscribed. First there was the cataclysmic event itself but, second, there was this dimension of the imaginary Real in which popular fantasies regarding the orgiastic destruction of New York (viz. Independence Day, Godzilla, Deep Impact to name but a few) seemed to erupt through to reality - and thereby to render meaningless any escape back to reality. In this way the trauma of 11 September was intensified precisely as a result of this transdimensional breach; this transgression of the subliminal injunction that fantasies should ‘stay there’ and not pursue us.”
(Ẑiẑek and Glen Daly, Risking the Impossible)
Abu Ghraib was an example of fantasies which did not “stay there”. In his essay What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib Ẑiẑek quotes Rumsfeld on the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”
Ẑiẑek zeroes in on a crucial fourth category which Rumsfeld omitted to mention: the "unknown knowns," or the things we don't know that we know, which Freud called the unconscious and which Lacan called the "knowledge which doesn't know itself." Ẑiẑek sees the Abu Ghraib scandal as an excellent example of precisely where American establishment thinking goes wrong, because it is not in the great unknown (unimaginable threats from Saddam, for instance) that the greatest danger lies, but in what we pretend not to know, no matter how obscene or morally repulsive it might be, thereby becoming complicit in the formation of imperialistic public values which are contrary to our avowed individual and communal values, and indeed contrary to the Western democratic ideals upon which the American way of life is supposedly built.
In the same essay Ẑiẑek suggests, with a harsher evaluation of American attitudes than Simpson is prepared or willing to give, that when Americans saw the photos they saw themselves in the photos, since they were a kind of recognizable spectacle which recalled the “obscene” practices of initiation which formed part of the American culture in schools and in military barracks.
There appears to be legitimate grounds to question whether Ẑiẑek’s argument that Americans were not repulsed or revolted by the images because they seemed familiar is accurate in its blanket assumption, since it has been consistently reported that a general disavowal of their contents took place, with the government scrambling to explain the nature of the torture events at Abu Ghraib, even going so far as to make the ludicrous morally-indefensible excuse that the soldiers in the photos lacked proper training in the Geneva Convention rules on how to treat prisoners.
In his article Welcome to The Desert of The Real, a timely response to 9/11 which came out in the Spring of 2002, Ẑiẑek states: “The torture at Abu Ghraib was thus not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World people. In being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture: They got a taste of the culture's obscene underside that forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy 13 and freedom. No wonder, then, the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not an isolated case but part of a widespread practice.”
Ẑiẑek concludes his essay with a final reference which sees torture as “the core of an obscene enjoyment that sustains the American way of life.”
Yet what initially appears to be an anti-American diatribe takes a different complexion when one considers that Žižek’s ‘obscene enjoyment’ refers to the Lacanian super-ego.
In order to understand what Ẑiẑek is trying to say it is necessary to understand the concept of jouissance which originated with Lacan. In his online essay How to Read Lacan Ẑiẑek quotes Lacan: “Nothing forces anyone to enjoy except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance - Enjoy!”But as Ẑiẑek explains Lacan’s jouissance is not simple enjoyment, but refers to an excessive turbulence and violent intrusion which causes more pain than pleasure, and is thus closely aligned with Freud’s super-ego which is usually seen as a cruel and sadistic ethical agency which makes impossible demands on us and then delights in our failure. Ẑiẑek reminds us that Lacan viewed the relationship between jouissance and the super-ego as an equation: to enjoy is not the acting out of spontaneous tendencies but rather something we do as a kind of weird convoluted ethical duty.

In terms of gaining a proper understanding of the notion of jouissance it’s important to note that in Lacan’s view the super-ego is not equivalent to moral conscience but is the anti-ethical agency which provides the condemnatory proof of our ethical betrayal. For Lacan the only proper ethical agency is a fourth agency, one missing in Freud’s list, the “law of desire” which tells you to act in accordance with your desires. The gap between Lacan’s “law of desire” and Freud’s ego-ideal (network of social-symbolic norms internalized through education) is crucial to our understanding since it is the ego-ideal which forces us to betray the “law of desire” by propelling us constantly towards the attainment of morality and maturity and presenting society’s demands as normal and reasonable. But it is the super-ego which exerts impossible pressure on us, gleefully making us guilty of betraying our desire.Thus the Lacanian super-ego involves a balancing act between the ego-ideal (how we accommodate to social norms) and the law of desire, which demands we carry out our desires. Žižek has also described desire as supported by the interdiction of jouissance, or as the structural underside of jouissance (Žižek, The Universal Exception 89).
What Ẑiẑek is interested in is that the tormenting nature of the crude practices and ritualistic humiliation at Abu Ghraib, which has a different face to the simple physical torture we associate with a brutal regime like Saddam’s, appears to echo initiation ceremonies, or even everyday acts of bullying, that are prevalent in American society (but not unique to) within fraternities, university secret societies and schools. Following the Lacanian psycho-analytical way of thinking, Žižek believes that capitalist consumerism is essentially a culture of unrestrained enjoyment or jouissance which is sustained by this super-ego, and it is this super-ego underbelly of the visible which Žižek is describing. ( Ẑiẑek, Violence (Big Ideas)) In his analysis of the Abu Ghraib photos Žižek is thus positing that the social norms under which soldiers live create an unbearable pressure which must act out, and this traumatic/excessive reaction is the function of the sadistic and insatiable super-ego. “And instead of the secrecy practiced by Saddam, the US soldiers recorded the humiliation they inflicted, even including their own faces smiling stupidly as they posed behind the twisted naked bodies of the prisoners. When I first saw the notorious photograph of a prisoner wearing a black hood, electric wires attached to his limbs as he stood on a box in a ridiculous theatrical pose, my reaction was that this must be a piece of performance art. The positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a tableau vivant, which cannot but call to mind the 'theatre of cruelty...” (Žižek, Between Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture)
Žižek goes even further by suggesting that the actions of the soldiers were sanctioned informally by the obscene underside to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. From Žižek’s perspective, this is the inevitable result of a contradiction between the spoken language of American military intervention and discipline, and the far harsher reality on the ground. ( Ẑiẑek, Violence (Big Ideas))
Simpson prefers to see the American public’s horrified and disgusted response to the soldiers’ “pranks” (Simpson 133), as a hopeful sign of a raised consciousness, referring to the shameful spectacle of Abu Ghraib as an “alternative which offers “intimacy in the place of distance, involvement instead of observation” (Simpson 134).
It should also be noted that the digital camera snapshot photos taken at Abu Ghraib by soldiers complicit in the appalling scenes of torture were ground-breaking in the sense that they were not subject to the usual “military-media alliance” but were initially passed around between friends via digital media and then eventually found their way to the Internet. The Abu Ghraib photos represent a new era where “the codes of objectivity, professional ethics, and journalistic accountability we have long relied on to ensure the accuracy of the news—at least in rough-draft form—are now relics.” (The American Scholar)
It’s not so much in Simpson and Ẑiẑek’s analysis of the post 9/11 time of death in the USA that a problem arises, because in truth they are not so far apart, but a fundamental cornerstone of Simpson’s argument in 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration is that foreign theorists (Derrida, Ẑiẑek, Baudrillard most prominently), as “those who speak for theory” (rather than those like Eagleton who “make a case against theory”), should be held in high regard and acknowledged, not only for the intellectual contributions which they have made and continue to make to the ongoing debate around 9/11, but as world thinkers vital to a better future based on ethics. Or as Ẑiẑek likes to say in his online videos: “Time to start thinking!” And yet in instances such as the analysis of the Abu Ghraib photos it’s plausible that an American thought leader such as David Simpson might ultimately have higher hopes for the moral acumen of his countrymen than a foreign theorist who lives outside of America’s borders and holds a pessimistic view of contemporary Western democracy.
Simpson’s concern is for a transformation in locus around a uniquely American dilemma in which 9/11 played a significant role; Ẑiẑek’s concern is how to change the entire capitalist world order for something better. Interestingly, Simpson repeatedly uses the word “paranoia” as a stand-alone word, whereas Ẑiẑek rarely does, preferring to include it as a marker for a recurring leitmotif: for example “Paranoiac fantasies” and “paranoiac acting out.” By relying on the sub-context of Ẑiẑek’s deeply rooted immersion in the traditions of Marxist economic theory and Freudian and Lacanian psycho-analysis the concept of paranoia is broadened and heightened beyond a purely cultural sense. To Simpson paranoia is a malaise that has established itself within the American populace post-9/11, a pervasive malaise that underpins a dangerous belief system that might is right.
According to Simpson what is crucial in the work of Derrida, Baudrillard and Ẑiẑek is that it reflects with growing clarity what history clearly demonstrates: “even as the political apparatus seeks to obscure it: that they are us and we are them” (Simpson, 137). In Simpson’s paradigm the growing awareness around the binary separation of us and them being inaccurate and oversimplified (the Abu Ghraib photos being an important breakthrough into public consciousness), as accumulated over time and still accumulating, is becoming harder to refute. He postulates that this potential for a more sympathetic, tolerant coexistence is constantly negated and sabotaged by the political machinery of state ideology (assisted by its sidekick the mass media) which continuously re-invents and re-works the underlying ideology of us versus them to retain its grip on power and protect its economic interests. The ongoing rhetoric of the war of good against evil infiltrates American homes on a sustained daily basis through television and social media, playing shamelessly on notions of patriotism and feelings of fear by using hyperbolic language such as “threatens the future of the USA”. The mass media is part of a carefully orchestrated master campaign to maintain control of the hearts and minds of American citizens, thereby allowing the nation’s leaders to conduct whatever unconscionable wars they like.
Simpson returns to Abu Ghraib frequently citing its relevance as a critical turning point which unequivocally demonstrates that “we too are torturers” (Simpson, 138), and allowing us to contemplate a common identity potentially materialized through the suffering body.
In his online essay What Rumsveld Doesn’t Know Ẑiẑek refers to arguments which justify the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as legitimate and acceptable “because they are those who were missed by the bombs” – in other words whatever their situation is it’s better than being dead. In the same way that these prisoners are both “living-dead” (they are in a way already dead since they escaped deserved death) and legally dead, so their captors and tormentors have the legal authority but operate in an empty space where the law no longer applies. This is another example of how the “we” is the counterpart of the “they”; even as “we”, the holder of power, reorganize and resignify the situation so “we” are ourselves being reshaped in the Hegalian sense.
In Simpson’s view: “There is every evidence to support and contribute to theory’s emphasis on the self-generated identity of the other and on the reflexivity of a violence that cannot be restricted to one part of the system, as we are promised it might be by the language of revenge, of justice, of good and evil.” (Simpson, 138).
Simpson invokes Derrida’s paradigm of hauntology to describe how we live in a constant state of terror since we feel looked at by what we cannot see. Ẑiẑek’s example of the TIPS system provides the background to Simpson’s argument that we are weighed down with a complex paranoia which stems not only from a sense of the covert gaze of the terrorist enemy but from being watched by our own neighbours thus living in a state of constant vigilance within our homes as well as within borders that can seemingly no longer protect us. In such a situation it is impossible to know for certain who one’s friend is and who one’s enemy is so the populace lives in a state of fixated paranoia because of not knowing. In Simpson’s view (and Ẑiẑek’s) the political and economic machinery of Western ideology wants an enemy so they imagine and orchestrate one everywhere, thereby terrorising their population (Simpson, 144). The role of the state and the media is enhanced in such circumstances because only our leaders know; only our leaders can tell us. Simpson goes on to suggest this paranoid fear of an amorphous intangible enemy made it easy for Bush’s warmongering government to put Iraq forward as a primary location to fight terror even while their reasoning flew in the face of empirical evidence. By suggesting that terror could be finished off far from the homeland, giving the enemy an existence without rather than within homeland borders, and providing rationalisations which fitted the context, the governing powers were able to demonise Saddam’s Iraq without too much opposition.
Once again, and this time in the context of a post-9/11 world with all its “paranoiac fantasies” (Ẑiẑek), Americans proved susceptible to the notion that their own highly esteemed way of life with all its freedoms and economic benefits should be conferred on other nations. And indeed Western democracy as a whole is prone to this curious contradictory logic: it takes the moral high ground when it proclaims that it’s acceptable to force democracy on a country like Iraq, but if a democratic world really was the ultimate ethical goal then differing systems of government would be tolerated.
In Welcome to The Desert of the Real Ẑiẑek refers to “the isolated tower of the liberal tolerant attitude” (my itallics). In his view the ideology of tolerance (a word used frequently by Simpson) means the exact opposite – “don’t come too close to me” – and acts to reinforce the binary of them/us versus than the “love your neighbor” ideology which looks to love the other from within. He uses the example of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream… speech and points out that for King racism was not a problem of tolerance since he never mentioned the word “tolerance”. ” Ẑiẑek thrives on turning what appears ordinary on its head, in finding the paradoxical in the ordinary, and thus making you realize that where you felt most secure is in fact where you are most insecure, and that within the commonplace is where there is most room for reflection and heightened sympathetic awareness. In equally typical Ẑiẑek style he doesn’t bother to provide an alternative term.
Where Simpson is making a plea for a more nuanced rational response to 9/11 and a transformation of the underlying American ideology Ẑiẑek‘s Welcome To The Desert of The Real makes it clear that while Ẑiẑek may enjoy causing provocation his concerns are primarily with the world political order and economic order. Ẑiẑek’s exploration of the notion of the enemy without and the enemy within and of the spectral effect takes a wider macro view than Simpson when he postulates that the spectacular explosion and collapse of the World Trade Centre Towers signaled the end of 20th century warfare as we know it and a new kind of slow disintegration of life: What awaits us is something much more uncanny: the specter of an ‘immaterial’ war where the attack is invisible… We are entering a new era of paranoiac warfare in which the biggest task will be to identify the enemy and his weapons.
This is in fact the kind of emotive paranoia-inducing language which Simpson avoids. Ẑiẑek has no qualms about questioning what warfare will mean in the 21st century; he mentions viruses and poisons (again shapeless moving targets which are potentially anywhere and nowhere) as weapons of choice, asks who “them”, the spectral enemy, might be, and states that the all-present international terrorist organisations who cannot be located on a map but have successfully adapted their nationalist and religious fundamentalist agenda to global capitalism 14, are thus paradoxically also “the obscene double of the big multinational corporations.”
To Simpson “the specter of terror has taken the place of the specter of communism” (Simpson 145) in a process which began with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, was given new life by the shocking events of 9/11 and has yet to play itself out. He accuses Bush’s government and those intellectuals who worked with the establishment of being “coercive and dangerously over-confident”, and suggests that those who speak for theory (Ẑiẑek et al), have done a better job of analysing the forces at play since their demonstrated commitment is to a discourse where each entity is recognized as standing in a relationship of identification with its other, and all unhelpful notions of oppositional dualism are rejected.
Ẑiẑek summarises the precise ethics of this approach as “the only appropriate stance is unconditional solidarity with all victims.” (Ẑiẑek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! 51) He reflects on whether America might have learnt anything from 9/11 and its aftermath, and whether it might actually consider abandoning its deeply immoral imperialist attitudes as it reaches out towards the outside world and the other, embracing its own vulnerable place in a vast complex global reality and making a seismic shift from “’A thing like this should not happen HERE!’ to ‘A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!’” (Ẑiẑek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”)
To Ẑiẑek this stance of unconditional solidarity is where the true lesson of the bombings resides if only America and the rest of the Western world could see it, although he doesn’t appear to hold much hope of it happening since there are too many contradictory factors and ambiguities at play. Drawing on Lacan in an early essay Žižek describes the dilemma of the forced choice: “[t]he choice of community, the ‘social contract’, is a paradoxical choice where I maintain the freedom of choice only if I ‘make the right choice’: if I choose the ‘other’ of the community, I stand to lose the very freedom, the very possibility of choice.” (Ẑiẑek, Enjoy Your Symptom! 75)
Simpson raises the question of choice in a different ethical context. He takes this opportunity, using Ẑiẑek’s deeply ethical stance of “unconditional solidarity”, to respond to those who argue that 9/11 has received much more attention than the massacres of other nations. He refers to Hume’s claim that “we naturally tend to feel more sympathy for persons who belong to the same subgroup as we do”, arguing that from an ethical perspective this statement is itself the problem, rather than the solution. 11 Furthermore, he warns that those who might choose for or against terrorism, America, democracy, and so on, should take heed of Ẑiẑek’s reminder that “precisely in such moments of apparent clarity of choice, mystification is total.” (Ẑiẑek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! 54) Simpson doesn’t elaborate further but in the same passage from his book Ẑiẑek speculates about resisting the temptation to make a choice (“doubt itself… is denounced as covert support for terrorism”) and not accepting the “hegemonic ideology” endemic to the September 11 tragedy.
Simpson’s restricted focus on 9/11 does seem problematic at times – an American theorist concerned with a profoundly America-centric study of culture – but he makes it clear from the beginning that it is a domain of ethics which is his primary concern, and that the theoretical constructs of “those who speak for theory” are essential components. If a domain of ethics could be defined within which the events of the 9th September 2011 might be interpreted with empathy for the “other”, and a new ethical future imagined, then such an ethical model has the potential to work for other nations who have suffered their own catastrophic events.
The wealth of information that is available to us via newspapers, magazines, television and the internet, embodies crucial ambiguities that surround the role of the mass media in the contemporary world. The freedom to publish information is the cornerstone of Western democratic politics, but the omnipresence of the media has become so all-encompassing that difference is subsumed, and finally erased, by the ultimate power of the media with its unqualified right to permeate our society and bring individual values into line with political ideology.
In this context is it possible that Simpson is correct and that the Abu Ghraib snapshots which broke the military-media stranglehold on the flow of visual information to the public and acquired the status of Internet chat represent a unique opportunity?
It’s telling that Ẑiẑek refers to “America” the nation state, rather than to Americans; his view is always dialectical, always global, always pessimistic. Is it thus a limitation to be a foreign (non-American) theorist or an advantage if one is seeking a better way, a way forward for Americans? It is exactly the kind of independent objectivity and intellectual candour which Ẑiẑek displays that Simpson is advocating should be valued and built upon since it is these characteristics which underlie the strong ethical stance of those who speak for theory, which refuses to see “us” as separate from “them”.
The faith or hope of theory as Simpson sees it is that it’s rigorous intellectual methodology holds the possibility within itself of coherently explaining not only that damage to the other is damage to the self, but that this critique can be extended to all the power structures of the world including international terror and global capitalism: “One might choose to take this tradition of reflexive reaction, from Marx to Derrida, whereby all attempted damage or against the other is damage to the self, as a sort of wish fulfillment implicit in the reciprocity of the Hegelian master-slave paradigm, a principle of Utopian mutuality that renders impermanent all the oppressive power structures in the world.” (Simpson 137)
Ẑiẑek provocative language serves to frame an uncomfortable truth: “Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence… the (relative) prosperity and peace of the “civilized” West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction into the “barbarian” Outside.” (Ẑiẑek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real) Not only had the US simply reaped what it had sown, but since the effect of the bombings was far more symbolic than real it was also true that the so-called “terror” which the Americans experienced was primarily because the violence seen on television and in movies (everyday and commonplace and indeed much worse in other parts of the world), had penetrated the homeland defense systems and arrived in America. Simpson develops his argument to suggest that it is only the traditions of theory which can act as a bulwark against dangerous thought experiments and academic legitimations. Simpson presents the example of a scholarly liberal theory work such as Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil which advocates an “ethics of prudence” which could be used opportunistically (he does not see Ignatieff as condoning torture himself) to justify limited torture and legitimize politically expedient behavior based on anything but democracy’s foundational commitments. Simpson quotes Ignatieff: “It is not always possible to save human beings from harm without killing other human beings… Either we fight evil with evil or we succumb.” (Simpson 151) In Simpson’s opinion these are “dangerously abstract projections” which are part of a “rhetoric of justification” which remains indifferent to the interrelation of them and us. He has already mentioned the central thematic question which gives rise to Ignatieff’s book title: “what lesser evils may a society commit when it believes it faces the greater evil of its own destruction?” In a later book Ignatieff claims to be helping citizens and leaders make “the hazardous choices that a successful struggle against terrorism requires.” (Simpson 148)

To Simpson there are no clear-cut moral choices to be made, and indeed he posits that many of the imagined moments of decision remain exactly that; what-if scenarios which are never realized. Simpson uses The Lesser Evil to expose the underbelly of academia: the intelligentsia who implicitly support the imperialist ambitions of the established governing classes. In Simpson’s view Ignatieff’s language embodies an urgency and anguish which precludes clarity of thought and the gathering of evidence, representing instead a projection of erroneous “belief” which compromises almost all decision-making. (Simpson 153)

In response to what he sees as Ignatieff’s profound lack of moral accountability Simpson comes full circle, avoiding some of Ẑiẑek’s more outrageous assertions provoked by the Abu Ghraib spectacle while picking up on the theme of the societal collapse of morals and ethics by acknowledging the work yet to be done to transform America: “A culture in which the other is regularly demonized, in which we are constantly bidden to accept the need to fight evil with evil, in which we are told that you have to take the risk of hanging or torturing the wrong man unless we are all going to go down the tubes, is a culture to be feared and resisted on every available front.” (Simpson, 153)
Ultimately it is Simpson’s contention that the existential dilemmas which exist around the issues of media, ideology and culture can only be contextualized and deconstructed by those who speak for (ethically rigorous) theory. It is only they who include economic conditions as a critical part of context, only they who have the necessary knowledge of what history and theory “have had to say about the permeability of the crucial boundaries between self and other.” (Simpson, 153) In the closing paragraphs to the last chapter (Theory in the Time of Death) Simpson puts forward his own views of where warfare might take us in the future, raising the material spectre 12 of robots who are not the same as the uncanny spectres of poison and biological warfare raised by Ẑiẑek, but who too will enable the killing of many others with impunity, having the added advantage of being deployed with greater precision and impact. Robots are a commodity which doesn’t require food or sleep, knows no fear and suffers no compassion; the ideal soldier. This is the spectral spectacle of the future Simpson believes we must do everything in our power to avoid; there is nothing real or ethical about a virtual war conducted by robots which have no suffering body. We are already being introduced to these new-age soldiers who will disseminate death on our behalf by Hollywood and the media. The irony is that we are not so different; these metal warriors without a heart, and us with one eye on the television and the other on our bank account, automatons that are part of the Big Brother machine.
Ẑiẑek has been evoked throughout this study of the commemoration culture of 9/11 as a voice of ethics and reason. His intellectual angle of approach may often be different (not always acknowledged by Simpson) but in many ways his major concerns mirror those of Simpson, including the suffering of the human body in a macro context and the binary-inducing state of Western “paranoiac” behavior which precludes the possibility of permeable them/us interrelations and allows for blatant political manipulation. Simpson invokes the term “paranoia” repeatedly in his exploration of post-9/11 cultural values and norms, employing Ẑiẑek’s critique of the real to support his arguments and advocate a return to theory. Paradoxically it is this same “paranoia” which provides a glimmer of hope since it comes to signify and constitute both what is to be overcome internally (thought manipulation of binaries by the governing powers and media) and resisted externally (ruthless American imperialist ambitions).
It’s fitting that Simpson has the last word: “This is no time to enlist in the campaign against theory; it is theory that offers an important alternative understanding outside the neoliberal consensus, of what may be entailed in moral vigilance and moral action” (Simpson 128)

1. In his book The Idea of Culture Terry Eagleton quotes Geoffrey Hartman who considers Herder to be the first to use the word culture “in the modern sense of an identity culture: a sociable, populist, and traditional way of life, characterised by a quality that pervaded everything and makes a person feel rooted or at home.” Eagleton has his own succinct definition: “Culture, in short, is other people.” 2. Eagleton, Terry. The Significance of Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990 3. Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. London: Allen Lane, 2003, and
Nussbaum, Martha C. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. 4. As a proponent of theory in the work of “cultural politics” it is worth quoting Eagleton’s definition of culture: “Culture means the domain of social subjectivity – a domain which is wider than ideology but narrower than society, less palpable than the economy but more tangible than Theory” (Eagleton 39). 5. Wordsworth, William. The Prelude; 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathon Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1979, 176. Simpson cited from book 5, lines 473 – 81.
6. The Imaginary controls the process by which the ego is formed. In Lacanian thinking the modern era represents the Imaginary zenith because people have become obsessed with themselves and their creations, believing they can do anything. The Symbolic is the societal arena of community living and constitutes most of what we usually call 'reality', including all social structures, such as everything from language to law. But to Lacan we are also in some sense imprisoned by the Symbolic since what binds the Order together is the signifying chain which refers to the total network of available signifiers. Words are linked to other words, creating a network of signifiers which can be traced back so that when you use one word you invoke all the others as well. The Real is the world before it is carved up by language. The Symbolic and the Real are intimately bound up with each other. The Symbolic works upon the Real; thus language carves up the world, making it impossible to remain neutral, constituting our experience rather than arising from it. But if the Real is what precedes the Symbolic, then it is also “the excess that remains behind and resists Symbolization, appearing only as a failure or void in the Symbolic once “the fullness of things” has been sliced “into articulate pieces.” The relationship between the Real and the Symbolic always happens this way: the Real remains the same – it just persists and is meaningless in itself – it is the Symbolic which changes the meaning of the event or subject. Finally, we are human because the Symbolic is an incomplete or insufficient account of the Real: If everything could be grasped in its fullness… there would be no signifying chain. All there would be is the Symbolic Order in perfect correspondence with the Real. The thing that make us human, or more precisely, the thing that makes us subjects, is the signifying chain… we would no longer be human beings or subjects at all, we would just be automatons or robots, blindly obeying the dictates of the Symbolic Order. (Myers 19-27) 7. The essay “Welcome to the Real” was published in the spring of 2002. In that same year a book appeared with the title Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (Verso publishers) 8. The original source for this phrase was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. 9. Ẑiẑek refers to Alain Badiou (Le Siecle/ The Century) who identified as the key feature of the 20th-century the “passion of the real/la passion du reel” and its opposite “the montage of semblances”, or what Ẑiẑek calls elsewhere “the passion of semblances”. According to this theory the ultimate and defining experience of the 20th-century was the direct experience of the real as opposed to the everyday social reality – the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off layers of deception.
10. Murphy, Paula. “The Simulacra of Global Conflict.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies: Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008). Web. 9th April 2013. <> 11. In Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt against Theory pp.180, Simpson refers to Richard Price’s rebuttal of Hume and his kind when he argued that “a narrower interest ought always to give way to a more extensive interest” since we are all “citizens of the world”. 12. I have kept to the convention of South African spelling throughout the essay wherever my own words are used. 13. As Simpson also points out in his critique of 9/11, a main consequence of the 1879 French Revolution, an event which shattered history and smashed existing thinking, is that today “Democracy” is a key term. It changed the way people saw themselves and how they related to the social order. The belief that everybody is equal has however played out in different arenas, giving rising to different forms of democracy. Ẑiẑek’s theoretical construct views revolution in the sense of the French revolution, and as Baudrillard saw it (“a breakdown in the mode of social reproduction that is completely unexpected.” Ẑiẑek sets out to deconstruct “democracy”, the sacred cow that can’t be criticized. [Taken from John Higgins class notes] 14. Ẑiẑek’s overall paradigm is that of how ideology works, as derived from a synthesis of putting Freud and Marx together, and having Hegel and Lacan constantly in the background. Ẑiẑek must always be read in two registers: read through capitalism and understood in a Marxist way with the profit motive as central to everything. Whatever it touches it changes, so colonialism and globalization have a major impact on social culture and thinking. To Ẑiẑek capitalism is the fundamental reason for these things happening. [Taken from John Higgins class notes]

Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000.
Lacan, J., On Feminine Sexuality: The Seminar, Book XX. New York: Norton, 1998:3. Murphy, Paula. “The Simulacra of Global Conflict.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies: Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008). Web. 9th April 2013. <>
Myers, Tony. “Slavoj Žižek.” London: Routledge. 2003. Used copy on Web. 8th April 2013. <>
Pound, Marcus. “Žižek, Milbank and the Broken Middle.” International Journal of Žižek Studies: Volume Four, Number Four – Special Issue: Žižek'sTheology. Web. 12th April 2013. < >
Simpson, David. 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration. London: University of Chicago Press. 2006.
The American Scholar. Web. 13th April. <>
Žižek, Slavoj. “Between Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture.” London Review of Books (June 3, 2004). Used copy on Web. 6th April 2013. <>
Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (Revised Edition), New York: Routledge, 2001:75.
Žižek, Slavoj. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. London and New York: Verso, 2004:57.
Žižek, Slavoj. Butler, Rex and Scott Stevens. Eds. The Universal Exception. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
Žižek, Slavoj. “What Rumsveld doesn’t know that he knows about Abu Ghraib.” In These Times May 21, 2004. Web. 5th April 2013. <>
Žižek, Slavoj. Violence (Big Ideas). Profile Books: 145 – 149, 2008.. Web. 7th April 2013. <>
Žižek, Slavoj and Daly, Glyn. Risking the Impossible. Web. 10th April 2013. <> Žižek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.” Web. Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London and New York: Verso, 2002.

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