restricted access The Onus of Thought in the War on Terror
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The Onus of Thought in the War on Terror

A commentary on “Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear” by Judith Butler, Theory & Event, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2001)

A version of the opening essay of Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life (2004), “Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear,” was first published in Theory & Event in late 2001.1 It was part of a special issue edited by members of the journal’s editorial board in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In their introductory note to the special issue, the four editors, Wendy Brown, Bill Chaloupka, Tom Dumm and Paul Patton, reveal a number of the hesitations and concerns that they had to work through in curating a volume that would speak to the event. Was it too soon to speak, amidst cries of war and grief? Was it their turn to speak, rather than, say, Middle Eastern colleagues whose voices were much needed at this juncture? Was it possible to speak, as politically invested theorists, without instrumentalizing the violence in the service of their own investments, even if inadvertently? The airing of these hesitations do not exactly serve, in this instance, as self-shielding disclaimers. There is instead a sense of exposure – we cannot afford not to speak, and so we cannot but risk error and misfire. Given the overall quality of the contributions to the special issue, the worry may not have been entirely necessary, if nevertheless understandable: Having to grapple with an unexpectedly sudden escalation of violence, in this case, the event of 9/11 and its immediately bloodthirsty aftermath, endangers thought in particularly insidious ways. How to make sense of the events without being benumbed to the senselessness of the suffering endured and the suffering to come? How to conceive of what is likely to follow, without at the same time lending one’s thought to a form of inadvertent complicity with it? How to formulate critique in a modality of non-violence, when thought finds itself triggered by and steeped in so much violence?

One can read Judith Butler’s contribution to the special issue in part as a response to these questions, even if it doesn’t directly engage them. Her inquiry begins from the conditions of public discourse in the United States in the wake of 9/11. She addresses forms of censorship and anti-intellectualism that were operating at the time, such as the dismissal of any attempt to understand the grounds and causes of the [End Page 66] conflict as providing excuses for the attackers and thus exonerating them; the exclusion of critical and historical perspectives, inquiries and debates from the realm of the audible; the stricture on questioning the US foreign policy’s contribution to creating a world where such acts of violence are possible; and the attendant marginalization and mockery of anti-war positions. Butler notes that this exclusion of critical and anti-war perspectives creates an impoverished public discourse that sustains itself on a hegemonic grammar of the sayable, on narrative devices that prioritize the first person register while pathologizing the nation’s “enemies,” and on a customized vocabulary that differentially allocates moral blame and justification for acts of violence, often solely depending on whether the perpetrators are “us” or “them”. So the limits imposed on public discourse serve as a frame that not only leaves out certain types of analyses but also legitimizes retaliatory violence.

Thus far we are on familiar territory. The problem that Butler identifies here was in part an intensification of an already existing trend in US mainstream public discourse on terrorism. In a section entitled “The Semantic of Terror and Violence” in their 1979 book,2 Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman suggest that the differential allocation of the epithet “terror” to acts of violence on the basis of “reasons of state” was already in operation during the US imperialist adventures in Southeast Asia in the late 1950s. In their account, this nomenclature became institutionalized in the 1970s. They demonstrate this partially through a critique of Terrorism, a 1977 book by Walter Laqueur,3 now considered a founding text of “terrorism studies” – an...