When Disaster Strikes

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Review of 'The Spirit of Terrorism', Jean Baudrillard, Verso £8; 'Ground Zero', Paul Virilio, Verso £8 and 'Welcome to the Desert of the Real!', Slavoj Zizek, Verso £8

The attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were, among other things, a cultural event. The destruction of the twin towers in particular was intended to have a symbolic effect. As Jean Baudrillard puts it, the towers 'have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol. They, which were the symbol of omnipotence, have become, by their absence, the symbol of the possible disappearance of that omnipotence--which is perhaps an even more potent symbol.'

Baudrillard is perhaps best known for the idea that we live a world of simulation, where images--particularly on television--now constitute reality. This is of course false, but Baudrillard's version of cultural criticism has perhaps some use when applied to an event that was experienced by almost everyone by watching it on television. Like many other commentators, he points to the similarities between the images of panic-stricken New Yorkers fleeing the collapsing World Trade Centre with scenes from Hollywood disaster movies from 'King Kong' to 'Independence Day'.

Given these symbolic resonances, it wasn't a bad idea for Verso to mark the first anniversary of 11 September by publishing these three pamphlets by three leading cultural theorists. They are, however, a mixed bag. Baudrillard offers insight and bullshit in roughly equal measure. He hints at his longstanding and very silly idea, developed at greater length in a more recent article but dating back to the 1970s, that terrorism is somehow an authentic response to a west that has systematically destroyed its own values.

The theme of western decadence is taken further by Paul Virilio in what seems to be largely a conservative rant about how everything has been going downhill since the Renaissance. Along the way he makes some good points, particularly on the progressive commodification of everything in contemporary capitalism, but the general picture he paints of a human species that is busy abolishing itself through sexual licence and genetic engineering is rather reminiscent of the politically ambiguous outlook expressed in the novels of Michel Houellebecq, notably 'Atomised'.

The pick of the bunch is provided by Slavoj Zizek. The title of his pamphlet is a line from 'The Matrix'. When Keanu Reeves first discovers that, in reality, the world has been devastated in a nuclear war with humans reduced to the source of energy for the robots that now control them and manipulate their perceptions, he is greeted with the words, 'Welcome to the desert of the real.' It certainly helps, when confronted with events such as 11 September, to be able to distinguish appearance and reality, though for Zizek the Real has a technical psychoanalytic meaning as the unbearable Thing that is presupposed but cannot be contained by our schemes for maintaining a well ordered and harmonious 'reality'.

These days Zizek tends to equate the Real with capitalism, an idea that is the source, here as elsewhere, of much perceptive criticism of various manifestations of the dominant ideology--for example liberal apologies for torture in the 'war on terrorism'. There are also, again as usual, some good jokes that often press hard at the boundaries of political correctness (for example a funny but outrageous comparison between Afghanistan and Belgium). Zizek's scattergun approach means that there are misses as well as hits in a book that is broadly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Among the misses: an obscure denunciation of the anti-war left's reaction to 9/11; a defence of the role of Zizek's native Slovenia in the break-up of Yugoslavia; a criticism of boycotts of Israel; and a view of Europe as a potential counterweight to American hegemony. But, as always with Zizek, the ride is fun, and he's heading roughly in the right direction.