Responses to 9/11 and the American Aftermath

The power of an historical Event-an Event such as the Nazi death camps, Hiroshima, or the destruction of the World Trade Center-lies in its ability (1) to expose the bankruptcy of our most cherished beliefs and ideological guarantees while (2)forcing us to think in radically new ways. That is why the dominant response to historical trauma is the attempt to find a way to restore the guarantees and thereby limit the impact of the Event by picturing it as aberration or temporary departure from values and beliefs that can always be recovered because they constitute something essentialistic or universal about “human nature” that history can disrupt but not destroy.

An Event is traumatic because it suggests that history occurs beyond the limits we want to impose on it and moves in directions that have nothing to do with our most cherished beliefs and values. Events put us as subjects (and as thinkers) in a traumatic relationship to ourselves and our world. A hole at the center of the psyche and the socius is revealed. Ideologists rush to fill the void and restore the guarantees. The possibility implicit in the Event is thereby denied. A radical task beckons: to break with the system of guarantees all the way down the line. 9-11 and its aftermath constitute an Event because that is precisely the task they impose on us.

In two previous essays published in these pages (Counterpunch Jan. 6, 2002 and September 06, 2003) I outlined the beginnings of such an effort. (Those essays derive from the theory of history I developed in Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative (SUNY P, 2001.) My purpose was diagnostic, with no attempt to offer a solution to, and thereby foreclose, the tragic condition I described. My purpose now is to advance that problematic through a critical study of other works that have been written about 9-11. As I’ll try to show, for all their differences, they share a common error: the superimposition upon the Event of a guarantee that the Event shattered. Such is the inherent problem of thinking about history. History outdistances the frameworks we impose on it to render it intelligible. Those systems however define the very possibility of intelligibility by establishing the philosophic assumptions apart from which thought appears impossible and life devoid of meaning. The critique of discourses is thus a necessary step toward sustaining a true radicalism. To be radical is, as Marx asserts, to go to the roots, but the only way to get there is by exposing the pull of the guarantees. A correct appropriation of our situation only emerges through a systematic knowledge of the ways in which we blind ourselves to it. Such will be the effort of the series of critical essays initiated here.

Our study begins appropriately with Robert Jay Lifton’s Superpower Syndrome:America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World (Nation Books, 2003). We all owe a great debt to Robert Jay Lifton. In a remarkable series of books, he has studied the most horrifying events of the past century. Death is, indeed, Lifton’s subject and in the tradition of his mentor Erik Eikson, he has brought to that study a spirit that is courageous, compassionate, and deeply humane. Lifton has often been the conscience of his society, especially in his work on Hiroshima, My Lai, and with Vietnam veterans.

Psychohistory in Lifton’s hands isn’t the reductive game of explaining Nazism (say) in terms of Hitler’s relationship to his mother. It is an effort to comprehend collective traumas in terms of a psychological paradigm that affirms the continuity of life, the quest for “symbolic immortality,” and the power of the “self” (or what Lifton now calls “the protean self”) to overcome fragmentation and the disorders of the time through an open and tolerant appreciation of ambiguity and limitations and an ability to change in ways that are creative and finally transformative. Such is the grand system of guarantees in which Lifton casts his willingness to address what he sees as the apocalyptic currents of the present. It is this system of guarantees that makes his analysis so appealing to most liberal Americans and for that reason so dangerous.

Within Lifton’s oeuvre Superpower Syndrome is not a particularly good book. Much of it is hasty and undeveloped. Lifton’s stated goal is to help us understand Bush’s “war on terror” as an alarming development of what he terms “superpower syndrome, ” which may be defined as the desire of the United States to unilaterally impose its will on the entire world in order to attain Omnipotence, absolute control over history and thereby an exorcism of all our fears of vulnerability. There is much that can be said on behalf of this thesis. Unfortunately Superpower Syndrome presents it in a rambling and oblique way. We are more than halfway through the book before we turn to America, the Bush administration, and superpower syndrome. As preface to that subject, we get a cook’s tour of apocalyptic contagion: a rambling and diffuse consideration of various apocalyptic movements including Nazism, Mao’s China, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, McVeigh and the Turner Diaries, bin Laden and the terrorist dynamic sweeping the Middle East. None of what Lifton says here is particularly new-his point being that terrorism derives from the fanaticism of the apocalyptic belief that mass destruction alone will purify and renew one’s world by bringing a cataclysmic end to History through a complete transformation of the existing order. The apocalyptic imagination is characterized by paranoid and grandiose ideation and wedded to the lure of martyrdom as what binds individuals to the extreme acts taken in the name of ridding the world of evil.

No one is immune from this contagion. We were drawn into it once before, when we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we are in danger of giving in to it again. (Note the assumption here (of which more shortly) that the source of evil is outside us and our participation in it a momentary aberration. Such is the context in which Lifton, more than halfway through the book, approaches the Bush Administration as the American equivalent of the “evangelical apocalypticism” of Bin Laden and other fanatics. The second half of the book is devoted to developing this unexceptional thesis. As Lifton points out, all the policies of the Bush Administration-foreign and domestic make perfect sense as an unchecked expression of the imperative that defines superpower syndrome: the need to attain “exclusive control” over everything that threatens the megalomaniacal drive for omnipotence and the assurance that it alone brings. Thereby the humiliation and the vulnerability experienced on 9-11 is exorcised. The Amerikan apocalypse will issue in a new world order.

As a primer for a mass audience seeking a quick handle on terrorism and the evangelical dreams of the Bush administration all of this is useful. There’s nothing new here, nothing striking, nor does Lifton develop any of his points in depth. One will not find here the kind of complex and nuanced sociological and historical understanding of fundamentalism developed in Almond, Appleby, and Sivan’s Strong Religion ( itself a one volume summary of a five volume study). Nor will one find the kind of in-depth study of the apocalyptic psyche that one finds in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, a book that has again become required reading for any psychohistorian who wants to understand the present. Reading Superpower Syndrome I often wondered what function the discussion of The Turner Diaries or Aum Shinrikyo or Mao’s China had in a book purportedly devoted to an analysis of a Syndrome that can only describe one nation in the world until I realized that this long detour is absolutely essential to Lifton’s purpose for three reasons: (1) it enables him to imply that the primary source of disorder lies outside us, (2) that the Bush administration is a temporary aberration and not representative of the American character, and therefore (3) that we can regain “our moral compass” by reaffirming our faith in traditional liberal verities.

The procedure of the book is thus a necessary function of the system of guarantees that have informed Lifton’s oeuvre. Everything is grounded for Lifton in the ontological guarantee supposedly provided by biology. As he outlines it in one of his finest books-The Broken Connection-we come into the world with an innate self endowed with an indestructible desire to experience the continuity of life as a meaningful process that is capped by the quest for symbolic immortality. Indeed, accordingly to Lifton “there is evidence that by the time of birth the quest is well under way.” Biological essentialism thus grounds a psychological paradigm that enables Lifton to view the horrors of history through the lens provided by a transcendent humanistic vision. Briefly, the paradigm asserts that there is a creative, life-affirming continuity to collective life. This continuity can be broken but it cannot be destroyed. As Lifton puts it in the grandest reach of his thesis, there is “a humane symbolization of immortality inherent in the collective life of culture and history.” That being so, traumatic events can disrupt humanistic ideals, but they cannot affect their prior ontological assurance in what Lifton calls the “self.” (“Self” is the code word American psychology uses to reassure us regarding the “essence” of what used to be called “human nature.” That concept is, moreover, the most powerful myth that has yet been devised for denying the force of History.

All of this bears a strong resemblance to the essentialism of Lifton’s mentor, Erik Erikson. There also substantialism reigns: basic trust creates ego identity issuing in the developmental process of a life-cycle devoted to generativity. All Lifton has done is extend this paradigm (following clear precedents in Erikson) to the collective identity and life of nations. Thanks to this extension we can rest assured that renewal is programmed in us far deeper than death, discontinuity, psychic numbing, and self-fragmentation which are the great dangers of our times. Lifton, in short, has been able to immerse himself in the most horrifying events of the past 75 years because he has an a priori solution to every historical trauma. Evil is aberrant not primary. History, however painful, does not touch us to the quick. Lifton is the compassionate witness, but he can never become the tragic sufferer. In psychoanalytic terms, he is unable to internalize the events he studies. For to internalize is to take events into the places in the psyche where no ego defenses protect us from them. To internalize is to suffer the power of an event to eradicate a guarantee. Only then is it possible to experience the destructive force of history and to situate one’s thinking existentially in it. In contrast, all that madness and horror can signify for Lifton is the need to reclaim and reaffirm the a priori system of humanistic guarantees without which History would be unbearable because it would impinge on the two beliefs on which Lifton’s project rests: belief in the “self” and in a continuity of history that is progressive, quasi-Hegelian, and ultimately messianic.

Lifton must preserve these two guarantees because otherwise an antithetical problematic arises as the meaning of 9-11 and its aftermath. That problematic reveals Lifton’s protean self as a last desperate effort to recycle under the guise of flexibility, pluralistic openness, and ambiguity tolerance a litany of liberal, humanistic commonplaces that were exposed in their hollowness and their irrelevancy by 9-11. (In his book devoted to the subject, The Protean Self, Lifton even urges the postmodern credentials of this “self.” Nothing could be further from the case. The protean self is little more than a nostalgic belief that the postmodern destruction (or deconstruction) of the self and the system of concepts on which it depends is a passing fashion. The protean self is a last gasp of resistance, the self-reduction of the “self” to a rhetoric of humanistic commonplaces.) 9-11 did not reveal that a terrible trauma followed by psychic numbing enabled Bushian evangelism to gain a momentary hold over us. It revealed that we were already numb. Which is why any feeling other than revenge-such as the ability to mourn in mature ways through the acceptance of historical loss- proved beyond our capabilities. 9-11 revealed the prior death or deadening of affect that Amerika had been living-under the sign of mandatory “happiness”-for a long time. (Date it, if you will, on 8-6-45.) But that is a story Lifton can’t tell because it reveals a radical discontinuity in history and with it the disintegration of the essentialistic guarantees on which his thought rests. The true story of our condition is one Lifton must repress. One way to move toward its liberation is by outlining a series of contrasts with Lifton. They point the way toward how one might extend the valuable insights he gives us into apocalypticism and superpower syndrome in the right direction. Or, to put it another way, they offer us ways of locating ourselves not outside or above but as subjects of and in contemporary history.

(1) For Lifton death is always seen in the context of guarantees that re-assure us about life and the fundamental health of the “self.” The 20th century is thereby contained. For the one thing it should have taught us is that nothing limits death and its power within the psyche. The 20th century gave psychology a new imperative: to rethink thanatos not as something opposed to life but as a force with a prior and more powerful rootedness in the psyche. Rather than a dualism of life and death, which assures the former of ontological stability, we must construct a dialectical understanding of the psyche in which the priority of death is acknowledged and life seen as no more than the possibility of overcoming that power. Nothing, in short, assures the continuity or persistence of life in the psyche. Its possibility rests on nothing but the existential situatedness of the subject within traumatic conditions that must be internalized in ways that permanently shatters the guarantees.

(2) For Lifton the psyche is not defined by excess or disorder. It’s defined by normalcy, health, ego-identity, and a natural desire for meaning that is fulfilled by development within the life cycle. Disruption always comes, as a result, from outside, when some catastrophic event in history violates our “essence.” (I note in passing the virtual absence of sexuality in Lifton’s thought. That suppression, on which the ego psychology developed by Lifton’s mentor Erikson and others depends, is of a piece with the inability to understand death from within as a force at the center of the conflicts that define the psyche. The ego and its defenses is no more than a neurotic structure based on a vigorous denial of inner reality.) No psychiatrist has spent as much time studying the horrors of our late rebarbative century than Lifton. But if death haunts Lifton’s thought, it haunts it from outside. Death is not a force within the psyche, a power attacking it from within. It’s the external event that resists the symbolizations through which we transform and overcome it.

(3)Belief in the self is the American ideology. Next to surplus value the self is our most important product: the thing we constantly proclaim and reassure ourselves about in order to cover over the emptiness of the concept and the void it conceals. Nothing is emptier, shallower than the inwardness of the average Amerikan, a subjectivity composed of nothing but the incessant mimicking of “signs” (success) and affects (happy talk) that confer no more than a phantom substantiality. Beneath it, the death of affect, psychic numbing, and a collective flight from anything that causes the least anxiety. There is nothing protean about the American character. We are, rather, the temple of Nietzsche’s last man.

(4) Discontinuity is the primary fact of history. There is no principle in history that guarantees progress, continuity, or renewal. Historicity, contingency, existence are the only realities. Save bad faith-the attempt to find some way to escape or deny them. As when we try to picture Bush and his crowd as aberrations rather than representative men engaged in the great work of assuring the dead that the peace they seek will be attained only when the world has become the haven of psychological infants. Bush is not an aberration, he’s our high-priest-a school-yard bully and a smug prick who is incapable of nuance or restraint because anything less that global terrorism threatens the collapse of the born-again dependence on fundamentalist projection to deliver the Amerikan “self” from the underlying anxiety it incessantly denies and flees. We are the saved and the mindlessness with which we reiterate empty articles of faith is the proof of that fact. Eventually we’ll all start each day with prayer breakfasts hosted by Aschroft as prelude to another assault on even a residual memory of what were once our liberties.

9-11 and its aftermath signal a crisis for the left, the crisis we’ve perpetually deferred. For 9-11 also gives us an imperative-to purge ourselves of all guarantees, especially those that suggest that we can renew ourselves by returning to beliefs and values that have become progressively abstract and empty of content because they no longer exist. That’s the thing about history. Everything we think and feel is submitted to it. That’s why the beginning of an answer to “what is to be done?” emerges only when we know what is no longer possible. Otherwise we approach history with gloves on, refusing whatever in it we find too difficult to bear. The tragic nature of our situation is that we’ve lost the ability to exist tragically, lost the will to what Nietzsche called “a pessimism of strength.” This loss however is different from the guarantees which have always functioned to marginalize and then transcend the austere claims of the tragic. This is a loss that can be reclaimed, for to constitute the tragic is equivalent to sustaining a thinking that exists in history by systematically refusing the pull of the guarantess so that one can eventually know and experience all that they make it impossible for us to know-and be.

Guarantees however come in many forms. In my next essay I’ll examine how a very different system of guarantees operates in a thinker very different from Lifton. Our text then will be Slavoj Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Thanks to Zizek’s book our task will become clearer. As Nietzsche said “the desert grows; woe to he who harbors deserts within.” Or, to put it in other terms, our task is to get to the left of the left by exposing the guarantees the left relies on to shield itself from what it too regards as the Medusa–history.

WALTER A. DAVIS is professor emeritus of English at Ohio State University. He is the author of Deracination: Historiocity, Hiroshima and the Tragic Imperative. He can be reached at: