After last year’s attack on the WTC many political and cultural commentators simply reaffirmed their already existing positions, albeit with greater emphasis. The Left pointed out what they have been saying for years: that the United States has had a disastrous foreign policy as far as much of the rest of the world is concerned, and that a reaction to such a policy on US home soil ought not be regarded as a complete surprise. While this is undoubtedly true, the somewhat dispassionate analysis of commentators such as Chomsky, failed to convince many within the US to examine the impact on the world of their own government. By contrast the Right have largely failed to provide any analysis at all, preferring instead to attack the Left. In Australia, a publication such as Blaming Ourselves: the Left and September 11 spends its entire time gloating over how the Left ‘got it wrong’. By and large, what the Right has done post-September 11 is to repeatedly praise the virtues of the ‘West’ — democracy, freedom, liberty and so on. The fact that many of these virtues of Western societies haven’t had much chance to reveal themselves recently — thanks to anti-terrorism legislation which promises to increase surveillance and deny basic legal rights, as well as the reduction of actual debate in the public sphere — seems to pass unnoticed.
Actual events suggest however, that all is not well with contemporary Western societies. The collapse of corporations such as Enron and Worldcom have soured the idea of unfettered markets and shareholder democracies, while the failure to address the looming global environmental crisis and the ambivalent promises of an industrial and biotechnologically driven future tend to undermine any real conviction that the West has basically ‘got it right’. Indeed the notion that our problems can be solved through the endless policing of rogue states and the boosting of domestic economies via neoliberal reform — backed up by comprehensive state surveillance — offers little comfort.
It is here that John Carroll’s new book Terror: A Meditation on the Meaning of September 11 opens up a space for a different kind of thinking. Unlike other conservatives who simply want to affirm the social and cultural status quo (backed up by a hyper-charged US as global policeman) Carroll argues that September 11 provides the opportunity for the West to examine itself as a culture. In contrast to the realpolitik utterances of the Right, Carroll finds this culture seriously wanting. In essence he argues that we have squandered our cultural heritage in a way that makes us unable to appropriately respond to last year’s attacks. Carroll argues that Bin Laden’s charges against the West — no matter how insane or crazed his actions — ought to be taken as a serious challenge to precisely the kinds of triumphalism we have seen since the attacks last year.
Carroll goes on to indict Western culture as one without foundation, without belief. Our political and cultural elites are mere shadows of their precursors. Thus George Bush’s rallying speech to the world after the terrorist attacks was made via an invisible teleprompter, revealing his essential lack of conviction or ability, while the avant-garde composer Stockhausen embodies the cultural decadence of the West when he aestheticises the destruction of the WTC as the ‘greatest ever work of performance art’. For Carroll, the response by the West to the WTC attack provides an apt illustration of a culture-in-decline, whose belief in ‘functional rationality’ is exposed through the pointless sifting and classifying of the ruins of the Twin Towers for evidence, while the hysteria in relation to Iraq and Muslim culture generally reveals the hollowness of a belief ‘in redemption through decisive action’.
While it is easy enough to take issue with the sweeping nature of Carroll’s value judgements — on all of popular culture, on the decadence of European avant-gardes and sensibilities (Stockhausen is quoted out of context) — at a certain level of generality, his points resonate. The critique of contemporary Western culture has a long tradition on both the Left and the Right, from the Frankfurt School to Alan Bloom, Daniel Bell and so on. Even ultra-radical positions would agree with many of Carroll’s descriptions of a tranquillised and totally managed culture based in consumption. Furthermore, the maxims inscribed at Delphi upon the temple of Apollo that Carroll uses to contrast with the excess of a secular humanism out of control — ‘know thyself’ and ‘nothing too much’ — would be likely to be agreed upon by many people as appropriate guiding principles for a way of being.
Here lies one of the problems with Carroll’s position. On the one hand, much of what he says provides the way towards a radical re-evaluation of the West. On the other hand (and up to a certain point) it is almost too easy to agree with what he says. Indeed, the same principles of balance, constraint and self-knowledge are endlessly touted by new age movements, have become slogans at weekend retreats for managers, and appear in every B-grade martial arts film ever made.
Is it possible to take these ideals seriously so that they do not remain clichés? Carroll is relatively unhelpful on this point, locating the problem at the level of human weakness — either decadent elites or the populace existing on a diet of tranquillisers and soap operas. The problem surely lies in the social structures that Carroll fails to analyse as much as it does in the specific lack or destruction of our sacred heritage. How is it possible to ‘know thyself’ in a culture where a flexible personality has become mandatory in work and life, where the need to constantly reinvent one’s persona arises from the constant networking and rapid obsolescence inherent in information-based or service economy jobs? Is it possible to exercise restraint in a culture which is structurally underwritten by growth, where the spiritual has not disappeared but in fact is relocated in new-age cults or in the possibility of transcendence via the techno-sciences? The wisdom to be gained by the Homeric myths and the sacred possibilities in high culture does not merely exist in the content of those myths and cultural texts, but also in the social forms that carry them. If we are to gain the potential Carroll sees in these cultural documents, then the critique of the West needs to be more multi-layered than the one he provides — a culture of decadence and a loss of spirituality. One might want to ask whether the transformation of the strong leader into weak celebrity, or the fact that Bach is simply a cultural option signifying car ads as much as the sublime, is a product at the heart of the social and economic structures of the West as much as it is about spiritual bankruptcy at the level of the individual.
The location of an appropriate way of being in the examples of ancient myth and high culture are also problematic. While they may provide examples of the restraint, noble bearing and spiritual balance that the West sorely needs as a remedy for material excess, such examples are often produced out of inhuman conditions and practices. The ambivalence of the Frankfurt School — certainly no strangers to Homeric myth or high culture — serves as a useful reminder here. Walter Benjamin’s ‘there is no document of culture that is not also a document of barbarism’, Brecht’s rather more direct ‘the house of culture is built on dogshit’, or Adorno’s emphasis upon knowing one’s tradition in order to hate it properly, allow us to reflect on the conditions of possibility for noble culture or states of being — the often inhuman conditions of the societies which generated such cultural highpoints.
Carroll’s unwillingness to locate a sense of appropriate being beyond the individual is revealed by the following passage, somewhat striking in what is otherwise a thoughtful and introspective analysis. He writes:
As a world super-power America has been as benign as might realistically be expected of it. It does not invade the territory of others, nor enslave alien peoples, nor even set up puppet states.
Apart from revealing what is perhaps an excess of introspection on Carroll’s part (how does he explain Nicaragua, Palestine, South Vietnam, Panama, or the current regime in Afghanistan?) one might also ask why there is no link between personal being and the larger social and political context which might also impact upon that sense of being. Even Carroll’s discussion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness underplays the colonialism that enabled Kurtz’s ‘metaphysical horror’. While Carroll’s emphasis on a sense of limits is an important social and cultural corrective, he fails to distinguish between an authentic desire to escape one’s social or political situation and the unfettered desires of the decadent desiring subject of the secular West.
If we consider the current situation the West finds itself in — a largely unilateralist US armed with a significantly new doctrine of pre-emptive action, an unprecedented militarisation of civilian populations who are both policed and policing others, together with the hopes of economic recovery hoisted on new biotechnological investment — we may very well see the collapse of the civic and liberal social forms that form the minimum condition for modern democratic life. In the absence of these forms one could well imagine a highly authoritarian version of Carroll’s arguments manifesting itself, a version where ‘nothing too much’ dovetails with the increase in paranoia and intolerance of a state defined by exclusion of difference both at home and abroad. One might speculate on the impact of another terrorist attack on the West, the subsequent further reduction of the liberal sphere and the cranking up of the military industrial complex. Such conditions might well create a society which latches onto a kind of religious and cultural fundamentalism in order to have a minimum of social glue. I doubt Carroll intends such a future but the links between cultural despair, a rejection of secular modern society and an embrace of militarised authoritarian culture have disturbing precursors.
Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications Editor.
John Carroll’s Terror is published by Scribe.