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Vincent B. Leitch reviews Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida, Pourquoi La Guerre Aujourd’hui?

Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida. Pourquoi La Guerre Aujourd’hui? Ed. René Major. Paris: Lignes, 2015. 91 pp. with DVD. 16,00 €
Reviewed by Vincent B. Leitch
The Iraq War started by the United Sates on March 20, 2003 was illegal, ill fated, and costly. During the weeks leading up to the war, unprecedented massive street protests, widely televised, erupted across the globe. The Security Council of the United Nations debated and declined to approve a resolution authorizing the war, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan deemed it illegal. On February 19, 2003 Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida held a public debate in Paris on the looming war. It was moderated by René Major and co-hosted by his Institute for Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis and Le Monde Diplomatique. The debate focused on the connection between the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks against the U.S. of September 11, 2001 and the 2003 American intervention in Iraq. A good quality DVD accompanies the recently published transcript of the two-hour interchange, Why War Today?
With his opening remarks Baudrillard outlines the symbolic import of the crisis and explicitly does not address its economic, military, or political significance. Utilizing Hegel’s master/slave allegory, he argues that given 9/11 the U. S. occupies the position of the humiliated slave and the terrorists that of the fearless master. The suicidal terrorists welcome death and the paradise it brings while the arrogant and fearful U.S. military pursues a zero death policy. As he had famously earlier done with the Gulf War of 1990-91, moreover, Baudrillard declares it doesn’t matter if this war takes place or not for several reasons. In this case it entails a secondary substitution, a displacement, of Saddam Hussein for Osama bin Laden. And because the war has been planned for so long, it is relatively indifferent as an event. For Baudrillard it is not a war but an exorcism, which the lack of convincing motivations and objectives indicates. Though it cannot efface 9/11, the Iraq War, prophesizes Baudrillard, will institute a security state on a planetary level given the growing U.S. obsession with prevention, not to mention its own increasing forms of worldwide state terror. As it becomes endless, Baudrillard observes, war today ceases to be what it always was—an event.
The concept of “event” is often written about by contemporary Continental philosophers, for example, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek. The latter has a 2014 book on the topic. Exemplary events for such philosophers include Christ’s resurrection, the French Revolution, and the Big Bang. Less grandiose and more personal events range from experiencing a natural disaster to a eureka moment to love at first sight. An event by definition is a sudden, singular, and unforeseen happening--a world-changing eruption. Parenthetically, the postmodern philosophy of the event largely displaces the modern theory of revolution. For Baudrillard, 9/11 is an event and the Iraq War is not.
In this debate Derrida focuses on concepts plus dynamics related to law and democracy in the context of the UN’s handling of the coming Iraq war. To start with, he notes the split between widespread popular demonstrations, which are not votes, and democratically elected representatives. Here one encounters the spectacle of the people versus the leaders. Regarding the UN, Derrida criticizes the unelected inner circle, the Security Council, on several grounds, including the conflicts of interest among its fifteen members. Yet at the same time he characterizes the split in the Security Council between the U.S. and others, especially the Europeans, as a positive, however worrisome, mutation—a real event. Furthermore, there can be for Derrida neither law nor democracy (demos/people and cratie/power) without force, and the UN has little power to enforce its decisions. Contrasting the Iraq War with the earlier Gulf War, Derrida underscores the continuous violations of Iraq’s national sovereignty between 1991 and 2003 via inspections, bombings, and occupations. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration, he notes, is itself going about threatening democracy in the name of protecting democracy, for example, with the Patriot Act.
Although Derrida is courteous to Baudrillard throughout the debate and vice versa, he does direct several critical comments his way, most notably on the question of war, specifically the Gulf War, the 9/11 attacks, and the coming Iraq War (not) taking place. Derrida evokes the many deaths and traumas that took place on 9/11. Some things, he stresses, cannot be virtualized, such as, death, territory, and oil. Still, Derrida eventually makes a key concession but with a twist: “I agree with Baudrillard war does not take place; in a certain way war will no longer take place; war between nation states is finished” (49). Derrida’s argument is that the traditional concept and definition of war—one sovereign state declaring war against another sovereign state—no longer applies either to the Iraq War or to the so-called war on terror. For what is happening, he argues, we need a new concept, a new name, and a new international understanding.
In his concluding responses, Baudrillard portrays himself as less hopeful than Derrida on several counts, such as the rapid erosion of national sovereignty and autonomy. He highlights the widespread delegitimization of representative democratic governments manifested in recent worldwide demonstrations. He argues further that the event of 9/11 has engendered a monstrous global coalition of powers from across the political spectrum: it operates in the interest of order, security, and prevention and does not limit itself to terrorists. At the same time across the globe conventional hostilities, exploitations, and confrontations go on as before.
With his closing remarks, Derrida reiterates two points and makes a memorable new third point on market economics in response to Baudrillard’s having bracketed economics at the outset. On the first point Derrida emphasizes that the U.S.’s seeking approval for war from the UN is an unprecedented positive event in the strong sense for both international law and affairs. With his second point he foregrounds his disagreement with Baudrillard on the role of the 9/11 attacks in leading to the Iraq War. Where Baudrillard situates 9/11 as the primary motivating force, Derrida argues that the Iraq War was planned long before 9/11, and that 9/11 plays a secondary role. Speaking about the vast populations and the oil wealth of the Middle East, Derrida argues with his third point that these people “are largely marginalized or exploited by this war, this other war that is the global market, globalization. I believe one must now take into account, without economism, this economic war which is a permanent war and whose conquers and conquered one knows” (55). But the belated abrupt introduction into the debate of economics is a case of too little too late.
Baudrillard rebuts Derrida’s turn to economics with his own noneconomic symbolics of the gift. The gift of Western culture and power long put upon the rest of the world cannot be adequately balanced and countered by all those who have been thus dominated, for example, in the Middle East. “The symbolic question is important. Obviously a gift is not giving something generously or freely in an altruistic manner. In the symbolic order the gift is a challenge. It calls for a counter-gift that establishes a possible relation. If no counter-gift is possible, one is in an unbalanced violent situation” (63-64). Baudrillard’s claim is that the attacks of 9/11 meet the long-standing humiliating challenge of the West and boldly issue a challenge to Western power. “The one who has power is the one who can give and give without counterpart” (64). Derrida’s response, which concludes their debate, insists again on the singularity of the “Iraq challenge,” meaning the long-standing sanctions and inspections experienced by Iraq following the Gulf War. For Derrida the primary cause of the Iraq War is not the attacks of 9/11. Baudrillard disagrees.
Given that this debate occurred on a Wednesday evening in mid-February before a general audience of maybe 200 at the World Cultures Institute (Maison des Cultures du Monde), it is perhaps not surprising that the two celebrity intellectuals—French poststructuralists—maintain a jargon-free accessible political discourse while the video cameras roll. They would not be the first academic humanists in the post-Cold War era to go public and voice critical reservations about the militarized New World Order. Derrida, the most traveled philosopher in history, begins his remarks with some telling words: “I am aware that this is the first time in my life, in spite of many other experiences of public discussions, that I am taking part in a discussion of burning political problems. I am aware today that I have always avoided doing so . . .” (34). There and then one would have wanted to reply “welcome to the fight.”
It is disappointing as well as surprising to me that a handful of pertinent topics do not surface during this broadly improvised and interesting debate. Certain expected key historical concepts do not appear: for example, colonialism, imperialism, or Orientalism. No one mentions race, religion, or gender. Unfortunately, the words “immoral” and “stupid” are never uttered. Alas, the audience is not asked to participate. Yet despite its shortcomings, this debate resonates strikingly with current affairs surrounding the UN Security Council, the U.S., and the spread of deadly wars across the Middle East.