Friday, June 09, 2006

The God Terror

(Borrowed via Squire)

Today's heading is an expression that I picked up this morning from Don Bryd, who used it in the immediate aftermath of 9/11:
The god Terror has two kinds of followers -- the agents of terror and the terrified. They belong to the most vicious circle. The one makes no distinction between the guilty and the innocent, killing indifferently. The others accept the terrorists' simplification and respond.
This statement and the essay in which it occurs, "Something Big Has Happened: There are no Commercials on TV (In The Aftermath of the Terror, 9-11-01)," appear in the online journal CTheory. I know nothing of this journal, which describes itself as "an international peer-reviewed journal of theory, technology and culture" edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker.

Its editorial page lists Jean Baudrillard, which gives me some idea of its intellectual orientation. Baudrillard is infamous for his remarks in the wake of 9/11:
That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, -- this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it. If one does not take that into account, the event lost all symbolic dimension to become a pure accident, an act purely arbitrary, the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics, who would need only to be suppressed. But we know very well that this is not so. Thus all those delirious, counter-phobic exorcisms: because evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire. Without this deep complicity, the event would not have had such repercussions, and without doubt, terrorists know that in their symbolic strategy they can count on this unavowable complicity. (Jean Baudrillard, "The Spirit of Terrorism,"
translated by Dr. Rachel Bloul, Le Monde, November 2, 2001.)
Both Bryd and Baudrillard would make us all worshippers at the altar of the god Terror, though Bryd draws a distinction between terrorist and terrorized that Baudrillard erases. In Baudrillard's words, "It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it." Perhaps Baudrillard wouldn't have wished his French translated to sound so eerily like the classic rapist's defense -- "She wanted it" -- but there it stands.

I don't like the theoretical style of either article, for both tend to over-intellectualize the motives of the 9/11 terrorists, but both Bryd and Baudrillard rightly sense the religious significance in the terror of 9/11.

And by that, I don't mean Islam ... not quite yet, anyway.

What I mean is that both Bryd and Baudrillard perhaps implicitly understood that the terror experienced at the force of 9/11's overwhelming destruction echoes the extreme dread that Rudolf Otto characterizes as a fundamental response to "The Holy."

Since primal religions do not radically differentiate the holy and the impure, both being felt as powerful, dynamic spiritual forces that can overwhelm human beings, and since we all perhaps retain the tendency to react in primal ways to extreme circumstances, then I would argue that the dreadful awe experienced in the presence of the holy can also be felt in the presence of overwhelming evil.

I think that Baudrillard is right to refer to "evil ... as an obscure object of desire." We tend to worship what we fear, desire what we worship, and direct that powerful desire toward destruction.

In "What We Have to Lose" (City Journal, Autumn 2001) Theodore Dalrymple recounts a personal experience with the delight of destruction:
I remembered an episode from my childhood. My brother and I took a radio out onto the lawn and there smashed it into a thousand pieces with croquet mallets. With a pleasantly vengeful fury, as if performing a valuable task, we pursued every last component with our mallets until we had pulverized it into unrecognizability. The joy we felt was indescribable; but where it came from or what it meant, we knew not. Within our small souls, civilization struggled with barbarism: and had we suffered no retribution, I suspect that barbarism's temporary victory would have been more lasting.
As John Milton put it, "Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather" (Areopagitica).

The terrorists of 9/11 submitted themselves completely to a primal religious force that aims at casting nonbelievers into a state of terrified dread. We must resist that dread in the face of evil. Even more, we must resist submitting to that part of us that finds in "evil ... an obscure object of desire," the impurity within that echoes the impurity without, the delight in destruction, the worship of the god Terror.

This is our great moral struggle.

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At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A powerful post. Enjoyed reading it. Yes, trust Milton to replace Greek Philosophy and its belief in "innoncence" at birth with "impurity"/original sin. As the fates would have it, I had just been reading Yeats before your post. His "terrible innocence" has become a "terrible impurity" in the modern world and it is this terrorism which rises out of the Spiritus Mundi and craftily plans its new birth at Bethlehem. Milton, appealed to his teacher, Spenser, that humanity "might see and know, and yet abstain". If only great poets were heard...rather than the "blood dimmed tide".

At 6:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's something that I've been thinking about for a while, but I haven't worked it all out yet.

I might eventually revise it into an article, but I need to do research to fill in the details.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:19 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Very nicely done, Jeffery.

At 4:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, KM. It still needs some work. I really need to read a great deal more on the psychology of religious experience -- more of Otto, a lot of William James.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:25 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

This is a very thought-provoking post.

I've heard it said that only a barbarian does things for one reason only. That could be a definition of innocence as well. My impression is that, while Zarqawi may have been a barbarian, a simple force of nature, the 9/11 terrorists where schemers, plotters, dissemblers. They were more like the Greeks who manned the Trojan Horse. They knew that what they were doing was the only logical thing, given their understanding of the world.

The WTC was more than symbolic; it was strategic. Our GDP suffered measurably as a consequence, and our loses could have been much, much greater. I'm sure Osama and his ilk were surpised at their success, but more have been shocked by our resilience. They will never give up, but neither will we.

Terror is a lowly god. It is the god of wife-beaters, knuckle busters and tyrannical schoolteachers. Brave people can diminish it, like the man said, by tap-dancing in the street.

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ Mollo, I agree, the god Terror is a lowly god, one that can destroy but not create.

As has often been stated, terror only works if we allow ourselves to be terrorized -- to which I add, only if we allow ourselves to be terrorized into worshipping at the altar of the god Terror and submitting to the authority of his arbitrary, inscrutable will.

The terrorist blow to the U.S. economy hit hard at the WTC but seems not to have done lasting economic damage. The terrorists imagined a top-down, hierarchical structure to the American system and figured that they could decapitate it. But our system is decentralized enough for that not to work -- or not without a whole lot more, and far more precise, attacks.

And now, the terrorists face the blogosphere. Like the openness of the American system, the blogosphere can be used by terrorists, too, but it ultimately undermines their utopian aims, which require control.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:25 PM, Blogger squire said...

The picture is backwards. The south tower, hit after the north tower when every photographer was on hand to record that gorgeous explosion, would be lit by sunlight to the south, that is to its left.

Interesting post. I think the French guy is on to something, though his language is muddled and suggests a sympathy with the terrorists that we rightly reject.

What he's onto is that terrorism taps into our own capacity for same. If we can imagine ourselves committing the same acts, out of a perverse or primal or what-have-you atavistic instinct for death, then we sympathize with the terrorists at some subconscious level, and surrender ourselves to their more aggressive, externalized, deathwish. We lie passively, waiting for the next blow, knowing we ourselves would execute it if we could.

Of course, the more conscious part of us resists this, MUST resist this, in the name of physical and moral survival.

The conflict between the two impulses, noble and base, breeds the terror and confusion and lack of moral will to resist that they are trying to impose on us.

The reason I identify, to some degree, with what-his-name's theory, is that I know I hated the WTC for years. It was ugly and inhumane and megolamaniacal on a scale undreamed of by Hitler or Stalin, who would have built it if they could have. Not that the Port Authority of NY and NJ is guilty of genocide. But the gross scale and mechanical denial of human dignity that the WTC represented was the very reason that it attracted the terrorists, and the very reason that its fall resonated so deeply in our souls. It encapsulated a dangerous aspect of our civilization, and its fiery destruction and fall shook us to our cores.

At 12:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Squire, thanks for pointing out that the image is backwards. I'm not sure what to do about it since I've borrowed it from Wikipedia -- my easy way of getting images without having to worry about violating copyright.

I've noticed that images are often backwards on the internet. I wonder why.

Actually, I don't know that they're often backwards but I noticed several that were when I was using images to illustrate art works in my Western Civilization course.

Interesting comments, by the way. I've read that Mohamed Atta hated modern Western architecture, which might have played some role in his choice of target, though I also think that JJ Mollo is right about the strategic choice of the WTC.

Never having been to New York City, I couldn't have told you where the towers were if I'd been asked September 10, 2001. When I first saw the images, I wondered if they were in Chicago. Twenty-four hours later, I knew a lot about a NYC landmark that no longer existed.

Oddly, my wife -- who is South Korean -- visited the WTC on a trip to the States some time before she met me.

I guess that tourists always see things first...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:38 PM, Blogger squire said...

I had no idea backward pictures were a web phenomenon. If it is any help, below is a web post of the WTC photo, reversed to its correct appearance. It's still from Wikipedia, so you can use it without copyright problems, I think!

As a designer, I had a closer relationship to the WTC as an aesthetic disaster than some, perhaps, but the underlying ideological issue is from my youthful reading of Lewis Mumford. In any case, the backward picture irked me!

http:// jpg

[I've inserted spaces into the web address, to dodge the virus patrols. My web site will not last forever, of course, but the picture should remain there as long as the site does. Odd how perfectly transient the web is, yet we all use it like it's the Public Library.]

At 4:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Squire, thanks. I've switched to your image. Let me know if I've cited you correctly.

Yeah, the transience of the web bothers me because I know that all of my hard work on this blog will slowly, sometimes not so slowly, fade away...

Jeffery Hodges

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