This is the final post in a series of four.
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In the dimension of what has been termed “effective signs,” the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was the collapse of the entire global market system. The system itself just doesn’t know that yet. However, that ignorance of its own condition is finally irrelevant. Since that September morning a bit more than eleven years ago now, when the Towers collapsed, the whole system that collapsed with it but still hasn’t realized the fact has been a sort of zombie. It has had the status of the “animated undead,” to borrow an apt phrase from Eric L. Santner: the status of a corpse that’s still walking around, not knowing that it’s dead yet. The gravediggers are ready to begin throwing the dirt over it, once it finally gets the message and lies down in its already open and waiting grave, so that they can get on with their job.
Who knows how long the corpse of the global market system will wander around like that in the meantime, before it finally just lets itself be decently buried, and stops stinking up the place with its already advanced corruption? (The topic of its corruption is one to which I will probably address a future post.) It may take a century or two, for all we know. Nietzsche said it would take a couple of thousand years for the news of what he called “the death of God” to get around. That may well even include getting back to the Old Boy, “God” Himself. The story of the death of the “New World Order,” as it got called for a while going back to the first Bush Presidency—and which belongs, in fact, to the “larger” story Nietzsche tries to tell, of “God’s” dying—won’t take that long, but may still take quite a while.
However, the wisdom of Bill Murray in Meatballs works yet again in this case: “It just doesn’t matter!” However long it may take for the stench to get to the nose of the still highly animated corpse of the global market system itself, convincing it to take its proper place in its own grave, its dead flesh has been reeking of corruption for better than eleven years already, at the least. It is stone cold dead, whether it knows it yet itself or not—or perhaps even ever comes to know it. (Indeed, maybe it will never really get the message. Maybe it will just eventually just vanish, like smoke on the wind, or like the phantoms of one’s dreams when one wakes.)
At any rate, however long the word takes fully to get out, what is euphemistically called the “global market system,” “New World Order,” or whatever, died on the morning of September 11, 2001. It collapsed with and in the Twin Towers. Jean Baudrillard, for one, told us that.
At the beginning of today’s post, I wrote that it was as an “effective sign” that the collapse of the Twin Towers was as such already the collapse of the very global system the Towers themselves globally represented. It was the failure to stand of the whole global system those Towers, when they stood themselves, so effectively symbolized for all the globe defined by that same system. It was by standing globally for that global system that the standing Towers drew the attention to themselves of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the first place, and drew from them the intention to attack those towers themselves. And it was by failing any longer to hold their stand at all once struck by the two planes, and falling down into massive piles of rubble that they brought down with them the whole global shebang of which they had all along been the standing emblem.
I have borrowed the phrase and notion of an “effective sign” from Christian tradition, where it is used, in such “liturgical” Christian denominations as Catholicism and Anglicanism to define what such Christianity calls a “sacrament.” The prime example of a Christian “sacrament” is the ceremony of baptism with water and oil. Other examples are the Christian ceremonies of marriage, or the ceremony of anointing the sick. A sacrament is said to be “an outward and spiritual sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” to employ a classic formula. However, the way in which that sign signifies, in effect, is itself said to be “effective” with regard to the very thing it signifies. That is, it is a sign the very making or bestowing or signing of which accomplishes, brings about, or effects the very thing, the very condition or state of affairs, that the sign is used to point to or signify.
For example, immersing someone in water, or at least pouring a small amount of it over someone’s head, in the context of a properly performed baptism ceremony, or marking the same person with oil in the form of a cross on the forehead, does not just point to or “represent” becoming a Christian, it is the very ceremony of baptism that makes one a Christian. Similarly, to use an example that applies not only to Christianity or is even confined to the “religious” tradition in general, assume that a person duly empowered to do so, performs a wedding ceremony. Let that person be a rabbi, a priest, a minister, an imam, or other recognized figure in some faith tradition, or let her be a justice of the peace, or even just an average nobody, as permitted in the “common-law-marriage” state of Colorado where I live, and where I once a few years ago even performed a wedding ceremony myself, at the odd request of a good friend. At the climactic point of the wedding ceremony, the person so empowered to perform that ceremony “pronounces” the couple not to be married. That “pronouncment”–, that “speech act,” as it came to be called in 20th century philosophy and beyond–doesn’t just make the claim that the couple are now married; its “pronouncing” is what actually marries them.
In short, what in Christianity are thus called “effective signs” are what, in the different tradition of contemporary philosophy, following the 20th century British philosopher J. L. Austin, are also called “performative utterances” or “performative speech-acts,” or just “performatives.” That is, they are “utterances” or “speech acts”–in a sense of the term “speech” that includes such things as burning the American flag in protest against American policies, or flipping someone off–that perform the very thing they say (or “mean”).
In just that sense, by uttering some such formula as “with this ring I thee wed” at the right time in a wedding ceremony, the person doing the uttering is not making any claim about her own status, or about the status of the other person to whom she utters those words, or even about their common status vis-à-vis one another. Rather, by saying such a thing in such a setting the speaker actually marries the other person to she addresses those words, marries that other by and in uttering those very words in that very setting.
Considered in terms of what the collapse of the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001, “meant” or “signified,” their collapsing was the performing or effecting of the collapse of that which they themselves “meant” or “signified.” In that sense—the sense of the very “sense” of their own collapse—what they demonstrated in ceasing to stand was the ceasing to stand of the entire global power system they “represented.” To everyone’s total surprise that morning—even and especially the utter surprise of the “terrorists” who planned and carried out the attacks of that morning, as Baudrillard rightly emphasizes—the Towers did just that, collapse, when they were struck. Their collapsing made visible what theretofore had been hidden from all view: Their own lack of enduring “structural integrity,” their own incapacity to continue to stand in all weather, despite all their apparent power to do just that. By collapsing, the Towers proved that their standing, in the full sense, really never was any more than just that: apparent. It was nothing real.
Standing there in Manhattan, towering over the skyline as they did for all the years they stood, the Towers symbolized the invincibility of the global market power establishment itself. But then suddenly, on September 11, 2001, the impossible happened. Something not only unforeseen but unforeseeable, altogether un-imaginable, un-believable, happened anyway. It was unimaginable and unbelievable even for those who intellectually may have perfectly well known all along that it was thinkable (indeed, one could even create special effects to have them collapse in a disaster-movie). Those who had such knowledge nevertheless never really imagined or believed what they knew, just as the outbreak of World War I was unimaginable and unbelievable to Henri Bergson, even though he knew perfectly well all along before it finally did break out, that such a war was not only possible, but probable (as I have written about before in this blog).
For all similarly self-confidently knowing knowers before September 11, 2001–as well as for everyone else, of course–the collapse of the Twin Towers proved that the impossible was nevertheless actual. Contrary to all expectations everywhere, definitely and crucially including the “terrorists” themselves, as Baudrillard rightly insists, the Towers proved themselves unable to with-stand the very attacks they themselves–in all they stood for, and to symbolize which they were constructed in the first place–called forth. They, and therewith the entire system they symbolized, proved finlly to be powerless to make good on the very claim to power that they, in their very standing there so erect in the first place, expressed, uttered, or pronounced—the claim whereby global power laid claim to the globe itself.
It all came tumbling down with the Towers themselves. It all fell, and in falling shattered into slivers that all the falling, fallen power’s forces and all that power’s men could never put back together again.
Once we realize that, which means realize what really happened that day, once we finally let what happened take its own proper place, as I put it in an earlier series of posts, on the works of Jacques André, then we ourselves can finally get down to our own real business–which has never been business, to purloin for irony’s sake a phrase from an apt source. We can crawl out of our caves to see that, yes, the worst is over now, to steal non-ironically from a very different sort of source. When we do, we will see that a new Day has indeed dawned, a Day After that day in 1945 that nullified even it own massive nullification of the Day itself, reducing all Days to come to no more than a string of meaningless zeros. On September 11, 2001, The Day After that Day to end all Days, after which no new Day was even imaginable any longer, altogether unbelievably another Day dawned anyway. And the morning sun of that Day does indeed shine, not like a bright, rubber ball but with the blinding brightness of a nuclear explosion–but, un-like that nuclear sun, blinding only temporarily.
We don’t even especially need to seize that Day. All we have to do is begin living in it, now that the endless night has surprised us by ending. In fact, luxurious new growth in that new Day has already begun sprouting up everywhere. We just need to grow accustomed enough to the new light to be able to see it.
We’ll no doubt just have to keep on blinking till then, in that regard still looking indistinguishable from Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” that old pest that is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle, but has nevertheless been eradicated, even if he’s still running around, like a chicken with it’s head already cut off. Despite appearances, however, we will belong to a different human race.
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I’m certainly still blinking myself. But as my vision continues to clear, I’ll no doubt try in some future posts to point out some places where I can see some of the luxuriant new growth. Meantime, while you continue blinking yourself, you might want to give your eyes a little rest by re/reading Baudrillard on “the spirit of terrorism.”