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boundary 2 31.2 (2004) 81-111

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A Speech After 9-11


These ruminations arose in response to America's war on terrorism.1 I started from the conviction that there is no response to war. War is a cruel caricature of what in us can respond. You cannot be answerable to war.

Yet one cannot remain silent. Out of the imperative or compulsion to speak, then, two questions: What are some already existing responses? And, how respond in the face of the impossibility of response?

When I thus assigned myself the agency of response, my institutionally validated agency kicked in. I am a teacher of the humanities. In the humanities classroom begins a training for what may produce a criticism that can possibly engage a public sphere deeply hostile to the mission of the humanities when they are understood as a persistent attempt at an uncoercive rearrangement of desires, through teaching reading. Before [End Page 81] I begin, I would like to distinguish this from the stockpiling of apparently political, tediously radical, and often narcissistic descriptions, according to whatever is perceived to be the latest Euro-US theoretical trend, that we bequeath to our students in the name of public criticism. Uncoercive rearrangement of desires, then; the repeated effort in the classroom. Thus I found myself constructed as a respondent.

A response not only supposes and produces a constructed subject of response, it also constructs its object. To what, then, do most of these responses respond?

The "war" on the Taliban, repeatedly declared on media by representatives of the United States government from the president on down, was only a war in the general sense. Not having been declared by act of Congress, it could not assume that proper name. And even as such it was not a response to war. The detainees at Guantanamo Bay, as we have been repeatedly reminded by Right and Left, are not prisoners of war and cannot be treated according to the Geneva Convention (itself unenforceable) because, as Donald Rumsfeld says, among other things, "they did not fight in uniform."2 The US is fighting an abstract enemy: terrorism. Definitions in Government handbooks, or UN documents, explain little. The war is part of an alibi every imperialism has given itself, a civilizing mission carried to the extreme, as it always must be. It is a war on terrorism reduced at home to due process, to a criminal case: US v. Zacarias Moussaoui, aka "Shaqil," aka "Abu Khalid al Sahrawi," with the nineteen dead hijackers named as unindicted co-conspirators in the indictment.

This is where I can begin: a war zoomed down to a lawsuit and zoomed up to face an abstraction. Even on the most general level, this binary opposition will no longer stand. For the sake of constructing a response, however, a binary is useful. To repeat, then, down to a case, up to an abstraction. I cannot speak intelligently about the law, about cases. I am not "responsible" in it. I turn to the abstraction: terror-ism.

Yet, being a citizen of the world who aspires to live and prosper under "the rule of law," I will risk a word. When we believe that to punish the perpetrators [End Page 82] as criminals would be smarter than, or even more correct than, military intervention, we are not necessarily moving toward a lasting peace. Unless we are trained into imagining the other, a necessary, impossible, and interminable task, nothing we do through politico-legal calculation will last, even with the chanciness of the future anterior: something will have been when we plan a something will be. Before the requirement of the emergence of a specific sort of "public sphere"—corollary to imperial systems and the movement of peoples, when different "kinds" of people came to live together—such training was part of general cultural instruction.3 After, it has become the especial burden of an institutionalized faculty of the humanities. I squash an entire history here. Kant's enlightened subject is a scholar.4 In "Critique of Power" Benjamin...


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pp. 81-111
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