Philosophy in a Time of Terror - Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas & Jacques Derrida (Anglais) Relié – 13 juin 2003
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B O R R A D O R I : Do you consider what we now tend to call "September 11" an unprecedented event, one that radically alters the way we see ourselves? Lire la première page
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The structure of the book, dialogue followed by interpretive essay, helps ground the extemporaneous reflections on terrorism in Habermas' and Derrida's broader philosophical work. Habermas here seems much less conservative than in his other works, though his focus in a sense remains on the possibility of communication and understanding in light of the growing threat of terrorist attacks and current US policy. Derrida acts as our guide on a deconstructive journey, marking important moments and movements such as autoimmunity, always hyper-aware of the context (the end of the Cold War) in which 9/11 and the "war on terrorism" have been played out. To be sure, these dialogues also underscore these philosophers' different understandings, particularly in their responses to Borradori's question of 9/11 as an "event," as well as the proper approach to the United States' "war on terror".
Borradori's ability to fuse topics of terror, the United States' "crusade" against an unknown, unseen, and ever-present enemy, with issues of hospitality and tolerance makes possible a broader discussion than one might imagine. Further, her probing intellect and ability to guide conversation without imposing upon her subjects a pre-determined philosophical agenda make these dialogues remarkably readable and successful; undoubtedly this work has opened up a space for evaluating the possible and necessary contributions that philosophy can make in both critically evaluating and politically altering the course of human events.
This book, of course, does not suffice as a Habermas/Derrida "reader", but it certainly works as a practical exercise in trying to think about the present in ways and words that are not commonplace. Whether you actually agree with Habermas or Derrida is unimportant, what's important is that you have at least given the issue some thought.
I think this book is a small, yet thoroughly enjoyable and worthwile addition to anyone's collection, be it an intellectual or a regular person.
As is typical of Derrida, he sees the relationship between terrorism and communication to be paramount. (I was first exposed to Derrida in theology classes, dealing with the postmodern predicament of looking for meaning in language and behind language in ways that make sense). It is perhaps ironic that the term that springs to mind most when contemplating Derrida is 'deconstruction', which is, in often a dramatically literal sense, what terrorism also hopes to achieve. 'The intellectual grounding of Derrida's deconstruction owes much to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century lineage constituted by Nietzsche, Heidegger and Freud. For Derrida, many of the principles to which the Western tradition has attributed universal validity do not capture what we all share or even hope for.' This becomes all the more problematic when dealing with those outside the Western tradition, such as occurred in Vietnam, Korea, and now in the war on terror.
For Derrida, communication is not simply political. 'Derrida engaged the themes of terror as a psychological and metaphysical state as well as terrorism as a political category.' This draws upon philosophical ideas that can reinterpret the events in various ways, as plays out in various media outlets even to this day. But the events of 9/11 for Derrida are not surprising. 'Was 9/11 truly unpredictable? Not for Derrida. ... The kind of attack that the terrorists launched in 2001 had already been prefigured in detail by the technocinematic culture of our days.'
Habermas also sees communication as a critical element. One issue for Habermas is the speed of modern mass communication - it 'works in the interest of those who select and distribute the information rather than those who receive it. Habermas suggests that the pressure of thinking and evaluating data quickly has a political import, because it facilitates an experience of politics based on the persona of the actors rather than the ideas that each of them defends.' Habermas' theory of communicative action, including its idea of violence as distorted communication, shows the importance of perception, understanding, critical analysis and response.
'Habermas understands modernity to be a change in belief attitude rather than a coherent body of beliefs. A belief attitude indicates the way in which we believe rather than what we believe in. Thus, fundamentalism has less to do with any specific text or religious dogma and more to do with the modality of belief.' This fits in many ways when one commentator I read recently who discussed the overall state of Muslim theology, expressing the understanding that the Muslims have never gone through a period of Reformation as Christendom did, nor have Muslims come to embrace the idea of a society and nation-state separate from religious. Indeed, we can hear echoes of this latter idea in political speech in America, often from groups that can be described as (and often embrace the term) fundamentalist. This will continue to be an issue in the war on terror.
Another issue for Habermas will be the issue of nation-state vs. international organisation power. 'Habermas is convinced that what separates the present moment from a full transition to cosmopolitanism is not only a theoretical matter but a practical one, too, for the decisions of the international community need to be respected. ... Unfortunately, the power differential between national and international authorities threatens to weaken the legitimacy of any military intervention and to retool police action as war.' This has been true not just in the twentieth century, but previously as well. The Congress of Vienna, the League of Nations, and the United Nations have all failed to have power to counter the superpowers of their times; alliances such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact relied heavily on one particular partner.
For both Derrida and Habermas, the war on terror is not as simple as Arab vs. West, Muslim against Christian/post-Christian society, or particular nations against one another. Perhaps had this been written after the recent situation with the Dubai acquisition of American ports being stopped, they would have pointed out that once again, our definitions and communicative premises fail - how does one balance the idea that foreign ownership of ports is unwise with the fact that few are concerned when British, Canadian, Australian or Norwegian firms do the same? There is a lack of definition about it all, even when all the words we use, to bring about clarity. The war on terror might be the quintessential post-modern situation.
Habermas lays much of the groundwork, reminding us of the relevance of the Enlightenment, championing notions of the public sphere and communicative action. Reason, rationality and discourse have been, and always will be, essential components of any society wishing to realise the Enlightenment ideal. Just as philosophy was vital at the time of the Enlightenment, so too is it needed today in helping us come to terms with terrorism and in conceptualising a future which re-addresses the notion of citizenship, bestowing upon it a global and cosmopolitan character.
Derrida gets to work on much of what Habermas proposes, questioning received wisdom and conceptual systems through his own deconstructive methods. Focusing on 9/11 as an "event" and putting his own spin on globalization, we are invited to temporarily suspend belief and look at things from a more unfamiliar angle. Yes, some of Derrida's points are questionable, overblown and occasionally ridiculous, but his concerns have much in common with those of Habermas: how to realise a world society where primacy is given to international law and the religious undercurrents of political rhetoric are abandoned once and for all,dangerous as they all too often are.
This book is a reminder to us all of the role played by philosophy in shaping our present and a call for a return to philosophical reflection in order to forge a sustainable future for everybody. It's a start, and credit is due to Habermas, Derrida and of course Borradori for their collaboration. The world may well be awash with pragmatism (much of it needed admittedly) but there has to be a degree of reflexivity if we are going to avoid a groundhog day scenario. I mean, we're all idealists at heart, aren't we?
1. the dialogue with Habermas is way too short. I don't know if he was on a time line, but, it is just as he is gathering a full head of steam that everything ends, and what he has to say and to subject to thoughtful consideration is profoundly worth mulling over deeply. I kept wishing Borradori would continue to probe further with Habermas. He is the foremost thinker in Germany since Heidegger and is as creatively determined to tackle this issue of terrorism as anyone could aspire to. He goes after the issues with a passion and a commitment. Perhaps there will be more from him in his own write in the future.
2. Derrida likes to hear himself talk and see himself write. The foremost exponent of Thesaurus Philosophy, Derrida does not so much hermeneutically deconstruct as blather on, much like a Michael Palin riff in Monty Python. Read the opening pages of the dialogue with Derrida, and then go watch Palin in THE CONCERT FOR GEORGE HARRISON, and I dare you to deconstruct the difference. I keep expecting Derrida to launch into the Lumberjack Song. He gets to the meat of the issue but then becomes obsessed with his own vocabulary, like the boring uncle at family gatherings. You would think there would be more drive from somone who experienced the sort of childhood and coming of age that he did, but, like so many other French thinkers, he seems to fall in love with the way words roll off.
3. Borradori comes up short with Habrmas and doesn't cut off or focus Derrida enough. Too much of her post dialogue analyses is reiiterative.
That's a pity on many fronts, because there is a significant trail to be traced from Kant through Hegel and into the Twentieth Century about the nature of peace, government and the fact that as Kant observed this is a bloody small planet and we need to figure out how we are all going to live on it without resorting to the criminality of these past centuries. Habermas is clearly focused on such questions. Derrida can clearly see the need to come to terms with them. A more disciplined interviewer might have made this the tome it could have been. God knows we need it.
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