February 23, 2005

Derrida: democracy after 9/11

In the comments section of this post a question has been raised about Derrida's concept of autoimmunity disorder that he used remarks to explore the relationship between democracy and terror after 9/11.

There is not much on this. I did find some remarks on this in a review of Giovanna Borradori (ed.), Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2003) by Martti Koskenniemi in the German Law Journal (Vol. 4 No. 10 - 1 October 2003).

The background figure here is Immanuel Kant, who suggested that history may be moving toward the elimination of war, and that we should do everything in our power to aid this progress towards perpetual peace. This meant developing a world federation of republics, tied by international law, but not by a world government, which he saw as a tyrannical threat. Apparently both Habermas and Derrida agree in spirit with Kant; they both see something positive in globalization, despite its many negative aspects, but each sees different challenges as well.

What then was Derrida saying? In Martti Koskenniemi's review we find this paragraph:

"Derrida, too, refuses to focus on "9/11". Far from being an "event" in the philosophical sense that juxtaposes it with (mere) "being"....that signifier has now become part of a political discourse appropriated for varying purposes. Approaching it through deconstruction, Derrida's discussion of the 9/11 "event" is, like that of Habermas, ideology criticism.

This is the case. An example is the Bush campaign's early television ads that offered a glimpse of a dead fireman being carried out of the World Trade Center site. The "visual" of the rubble at the World Trade Center was a powerful reminder of the nation's darkest hour—and Bush's finest, when he climbed on the rock pile with a bullhorn.The event of 9/11 was used to sell Bush as a strong and decisive leader in contrast to flip-flop Kerry.

Martti Koskenniemi goes on to say:

"Terrorism now becomes an "autoimmunity disorder": produced by the United States during the Cold War and after, a kind of "suicide of those who welcomed, armed and trained [the terrorists]" ... a product of that which it rejects, mirror-image of its target....The prognosis is sombre: product of the violence that seeks to suppress it, terrorism created a trauma that cannot be relieved by mourning because the heart of the trauma is not the past event but the fear for the future event whose catastrophic nature can only be guessed. Imagination is here fed by a media without which there would have been no "world-historical event" in the first place. The circle is almost unbreakable: terrorism and that which it is against are locked in a reciprocal game of destruction where causes may no longer be distinguished from consequences."

That is pretty complex. It needs some unpacking. We have some help from this review by Gregory Fried in The Village Voice.

Fried makes several points. He says:

"Derrida's most striking claim is that 9-11 is the result of an autoimmune disorder. For Derrida, there are three aspects to the West's self-destruction. First, in fighting the Cold War, we trained the Islamic militants who later turned against us. Second, we now face a situation even worse than the Cold War; for then, at least, a balance of terror between two superpowers held in check the dangers of modern arms. Now apocalyptic weapons may be dispersed to suicidal enemies. And finally, in our repression of such enemies, we merely replicate and multiply them. 9-11 was a double suicide—of both attackers and their victims. We are suffering from a metaphysical AIDS."

Fried says that Derrida's second point address the nature of technological modernityand its promise that reason and technology would save us from all threats.Fried says:
"The second of Derrida's points is the most disturbing: the specter of terror and trauma lies not in a date in the past, 9-11, but in an incomprehensible future intimated by that event. Every technological advance in weapons systems, in medicine, in informatics--indeed in any field---may turn against us in some unpredictably devastating manner. The optimistic dream of modernity was that reason and technology would save us from all threats, both natural and human."

So how does this apply to 9/11? Fried says that for Derrida:
"9-11 evokes the nightmare of a future in which the promise of salvation has itself become the threat of annihilation. If airplanes can be turned against us, why not biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, or even more insidiously, the forces of information systems and the emerging nanotechnology, in which machines the size of molecules might be harnessed to destroy living organisms?"

Does that not cut the skids from under the modern Kantian project of perpetual peace? Fried says that Derrida remains an heir to this porject. We may still be able to save ourselves, not by relying on the crutch of science, but by reinvigorating the political universalism of the Enlightenment and by radically rethinking the limits of law, nationality, and international relations.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 23, 2005 11:57 PM | TrackBack


I really appreciate this post. Autoimmunity, and the larger issue of the democracy-to-come are very difficult notions in Derrida's work. This also touches on the larger issue of the political implications of Derrida's work.

I have always felt that when Derrida talks about the democracy-to-come it just sounds so empty. John Caputo talks about it as an unconditional promise, it is impossible, it is a desire for something unforeseeable. But what kind of politics does this advocate? Derrida acknowledges that capitalism imposes limits on democracy, but he also believes globalization opens other possibilities of a post-enlightenment enlightenment. Other than providing some inspirational passages, what are we really left with?

Caputo says that this notion of democracy is like the call of conscience, similar to what is at work in Heidegger?s notion of being-toward-death. The key is to reveal that current democracies are not actualized, that it is a call to continuously become a democrat. Oh my democratic friends, there are no democrats. One could never have a democracy, but only live in the moment where we are evoking the promise or renewal of what we think a democracy should be. This sounds very romantic but I do not think it gives us much to work with.

Posted by: alain on February 26, 2005 01:19 AM

I guess that the sort of democracy we have--a representative liberal democracy--is not identical to democracy per se. Thus we could have a fully inclusive participatory democracy.

So we defend democracy by trying to extend and deepen democracy in a variety of ways to make it more democratic, knowing that we will not get to a fully fledged democracy.

So it is not the case that:

"Oh my democratic friends, there are no democrats. One could never have a democracy, but only live in the moment where we are evoking the promise or renewal of what we think a democracy should be."

We are democrats trying to renew democracy and citizenship after the welfare state truncated it by turning many of us into clients of the state bureaucracy.

Dunno if that is Derrida. But it is how I read your text.I will read John Caputo's article.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 28, 2005 09:05 AM


Thank you for the feedback. I suppose a deconstructed notion of sovreignty would look something like a more fundamental, participatory democracy. I look forward to seeing what you think of Caputo's article.

Posted by: Alain on March 1, 2005 12:48 AM
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