P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

9/11 as a Hollywood Fantasy

Bülent Diken & Carsten Bagge Laustsen


"Why does the World Trade Center have two towers?" asked Jean Baudrillard (1988: 143) years ago, at the beginning of the 1980s. The twin towers of the WTC were perfectly parallel surfaces which merely mirrored one another, thus demonstrating the irrelevance of difference and antagonism in a postmodern world. Cancelling out difference, upon which politics is based, the WTC had constituted a symbol of post-politics: an obscene political system in which political opposition or "dialectical polarity" no longer exists, a simulacrum, where acts disappear without consequences in neutral, indifferent images (Baudrillard 1994: 16, 32).

In other words: long before it was destroyed, the WTC was a symbol of destruction: the destruction of politics. To borrow Marcuse's concept, the WTC was a symbol of a "one-dimensional society" in which critique has disappeared and people can no longer imagine that another society, a different world, is possible. Without the image of a VIRTUAL world, a world of possibilities or potentialities, the actual world becomes the only world.

And of course, in such a one-dimensional world, you can freely choose to be an optimist or a pessimist. After all, the optimist is the person who thinks that the actually existing world is the best world. Moreover, the pessimist is the person who thinks that the optimist might be right. What is precluded in the horizons of both the optimist and the pessimist, however, is the belief in the possibility of making a difference, that is, in the possibility of politics.

Politics is the ability to debate, question and renew the fundament on which political struggle unfolds, the ability to radically criticise a given order and to fight for a new and better one. Politics necessitates accepting conflict. Post-politics, on the other hand, cannot accept conflict.

Significantly, however, this one-dimensional world is not a peaceful world: the foreclosure of the political merely provokes naked, apolitical violence. Terror, a product not of antagonism but of "listless and indifferent forces", surfaces as the only available form of violence in post-political society (Baudrillard 1993: 76). No wonder terrorism demolished the WTC.

When Baudrillard looked at the WTC years ago, what he saw could be summarized in one word: transparency, or disappearance. Transparency is a flattening process characterized by the disappearance of differences, by the indefinite mutation of social domains (Baudrillard 1990: 7, 50). When everything becomes political, politics disappear; when everything becomes sexual, sex disappears; when everything is social, the social disappears, and so on. In such a society, social change tends to lose its historical dimension, information ceases to be an event, the political is foreclosed in post-politics, and the real implodes into simulation. In short, transparency is the answer to the rhetorical question about why the World Trade Center had two towers.

Because this society is a simulacrum, its "hysteria" is the production of the real (Baudrillard 1994: 23). We live in an immaterial, artificial universe, which provokes an unbearable drift towards the "real reality". This hysteria is exemplified, for instance, by the reality TV show Big Brother with its tragicomic reversal of panopticism. In contrast to Orwell's Big Brother, the contemporary Big Brother stands for a world in which "anxiety emerges not from being seen but from being forgotten, from the prospect of not being seen (Zizek 2001b: 249-51). Transparency, trans-appearance, or disappearance, is the very source of anxiety in contemporary society.

When the social disappears, the disenchantment with life becomes an object of perverse desire, invested in the hope that the real will return when the veil of simulacrum is lifted from everyday existence. Violence emerges in this context as a traumatic intervention of the "real" in this trans-parent un-reality. Violence, or terror, becomes, at least at the level of fantasy, an imaginary reaction to post-politics. And of course this was perfectly visible even before 9/11: the fantasy of a violent reaction to social "unreality" has been a regular theme in Hollywood movies.


An example of this is the movie Fight Club, which is framed by the fantasy of undoing the social, destroying consumerism, and exploding the American paranoiac fantasy of suburban security. In the final, "romantic" scene the protagonists walk hand in hand, while behind them an orgy of devastation is performed as buildings explode and collapse. With the collapse of the World Trade Center, this fantasy is realised, and violence, once more, returns in the real, transforming the WTC into the symptom of contemporary network society and paralleling the manner in which the Titanic became the symptom of industrial society (Zizek 2002: 15-16).

It is as if on September the 11th the Hollywood fantasy of violence - that is, the image of violence without the real event - coincided with its exact opposite: the unimaginable, sublime event, or the event without an image. Hence the uncanny irritation caused by Stockhausen's infamous depiction of the attack as "the greatest work of art imaginable".

In Fight Club, experience is only real when it reaches out, ad-ventures to the extreme and the extraordinary, risking life in the high speed collision. Fight Club stands as a testimony to a society in which everyday life is banal and the repetitive is death. In this world, experience is divorced from place and purpose, identity and relation, and is only "authentic" in so far as it mirrors the composition of a fantastic Hollywood film. The "real" is a simulacrum of fantasy. Subjects undergo, but never have, experiences - they live in what Walter Benjamin called a "dream world": a post-political world that lays claim to eternity.

Fight Club's protagonist, Jack, is a mobile individual: he has a career, travels in the space of flows, and fully participates in consumerism. He is constantly on the move, yet his attitude towards his environment is blasé. As a spectator of his own life, he paradoxically lives in inertia in the midst of a mobile network society. However, when he meets his doubleganger, Tyler Durden, everything changes. Tyler Durden is the embodiment of a colourful and dynamic contrast to Jack himself, his alter-ego. When Tyler asks Jack to hit him as hard as possible, Jack hits him and Tyler returns the favour. Fighting becomes an addiction. They are exhilarated by violence and through fighting they discover the corporeality of their existence.

The most powerful twist in the film is when it becomes obvious that Jack is in fact schizophrenic, that Tyler is a product of his fantasy. Tyler thus materializes Jack's own fantasy. Similarly, terror materializes our own - Hollywood - fantasies. The shock caused by 9/11 did not really originate from the attack itself but from the fact that what was fantasised became real. What is astonishing is that the attack was in a certain sense expected, anticipated and visualised in Hollywood blockbusters (Zizek 2002: 16-7). With the attack, the American paranoiac fantasy of violence returned in the real.

Thus the British comedian Ali G was at his best when he said, in an interview he gave in the US last year, that he crossed the Atlantic "to help the US with some of the problems following 7/11" (Bowcott 2003). Of course, his deliberate confusion of 7-Eleven, the global convenience store chain, with 9/11 was found "tasteless" by most critics. Indeed, "one would think that Ali G was the Salman Rushdie of TV pranksters". Why? Because 9/11 is a sacralized event, elevated to a level above politics, dialogue and humor in a way reminiscent of the Holocaust.

But Ali G was right: the 'international terrorist organizations' are the obscene double of the big multinational corporations - the ultimate global destruction machine, omnipresent but nevertheless with no clear territorial base. Globalisation and terrorism, 7-Eleven and 9/11, share the logic of networking. The "network society" and "terror networks" mirror each other in a mobile network space. Along the same lines, there seems to be a mimetic relation between the contemporary politics of security as a form of (political) fundamentalism and the religious fundamentalism that it seeks to fight. One should think like Ali G and deliberately confuse the conjugated categories of 7-Eleven and 9/11. In the same way that Tyler is Jack's spectral double, terror is globalization fighting with itself, its own spectral double.

Fight Club wanted to "go back to zero". It said, "the answer is not improvement but destruction, including self-destruction" (Palahniuk 1997: 49). This fantasy generated by Fight Club, and other Hollywood movies, was realized with the attacks on the WTC. We are tempted to say that terror is a continuation of American movies with other means.

So, once more, it seems that with terror the enemy is also our own fantasy. To be sure, we are not speaking of the terrorism of Bin Laden, which is able to mobilize the masses so effectively, and which is able to produce a "war president" even out of George Bush, but also the terrorism "in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour". It is too easy to be anti-terrorist on the level of the so-called "war against terror" and not even see the terrorist inside ourselves! As Baudrillard recently put it: "what no police could ever guard against is the sort of fascination, of mass appeal, exercised by the terrorist model" (Baudrillard 1993: 76).


Now, to clarify our points, we would like to focus on another film, Independence Day, which is perhaps the film on 9/11. And of course it was made before 9/11. In the film, the earth is attacked by hostile powers from outer space. The gigantic spaceship approaching the earth is an evil empire inhabited by aliens who move from planet to planet and exploit their resources. They are prepared to annihilate the human race to realise their aim. The attack is initiated in a series of big cities, and the American army fast and resolutely counter-attacks the space ship. However, protected by an electro-magnetic shield, the alien ship turns out to be indestructible. The rescuer is a scientist, David, who discovers a strange signal emanating from the space ship. It turns out to be a timer mechanism. The time to attack comes, and Washington is the target. The residents of the White House are evacuated to an underground military bunker.

It turns out that the bunker contains an outer space research centre, which contains an unidentified flying object that had crashed in an American desert. All of this had, naturally, been top secret before the arrival of the aliens. Meanwhile, David's father-in-law happens to warn him against catching a cold when he sees him sitting on the floor. This - of course - triggers the redeeming idea: virus. David develops a virus that can penetrate the protective shield of the space ships. If this idea works, that is, if their protective shield can be destroyed, the aliens can also be attacked with conventional weapons. The plan is to contaminate the aliens' network with the virus. Having no choice, the president accepts the plan and contacts the other nations, which without hesitation "unite" against the enemy.

The film seems to have anticipated the American reaction to September the 11th. Evil alien powers attack the house of God and their actions are totally unexplainable. The film never attributes a depth to the aliens in the form of insight, ability, motives or emotions. Further, they are invincible: their networked weaponry is infinitely superior to what is available on earth. The only choice is the choice between us and them, Good and Evil. As the sublime incarnation of humanity, the US gathers a world-encompassing alliance for the war against the enemy.

Such a reading, however, is slightly boring and, what is worse, reifying. It is much more interesting to play with the basic assumption of the film: that it is narrated from an American perspective. What if we saw the hostile space ship as a metaphor for a global American empire suffocating the local life forms with consumerism and indifference? Is it such a clean-cut matter to decide what Good and Evil consist of?

In the above description, we deliberately excluded an element of the plot. After the protective shield of the alien ship is penetrated, there emerges an intense battle between American fighter planes and the aliens. Towards the end of the film every American fighter gets shot down, except one. When the last fighter is to fire its missiles, it turns out that the missiles cannot be detonated. Then its pilot chooses to lead the fighter against the target, transforming his plane into a missile and himself into a suicide attacker. What if the 9/11 pilots conceived of their acts as such a heroic gesture whose aim was to destroy the empire of evil? Indeed, it is perfectly possible to say that Independence Day condenses the self-conception of the terrorists.

Terror and its adversary mirror each other. We have two networks that confront, mimic and justify each other. We have two camps, each of which claims to be good and to fight evil. And we have two strategies, which dissolves the democratic habitus in a post-political condition. Thus Bin Laden's construction of "Americans" perfectly mirrors Bush's representation of Al-Qaeda, and the fundamentalist rhetoric of the extermination of evil is what unites the two poles in spite of asymmetries. A mental experiment might be helpful in this context: What if we universalise the right the US claims for itself? What if Israel claimed the same right against the Palestinians, and India did so against Pakistan?

Slavoj Zizek mentions one of Bush's speeches where he refers to a letter written by a seven-year-old girl whose father was a fighter pilot in Afghanistan. In the letter she says that even though she loves her father, she is ready to sacrifice him for his fatherland. The question is how we would react if we saw an Arabic Muslim girl on TV claiming in front of the camera that she will sacrifice her father in the war against America. We need not think too long to realize that the scene would be received as an expression of fundamentalism or a morbid form of propaganda. Yes, Muslim fundamentalists even exploit their own children without hesitation (Zizek 2002: 43). But what about "us" - aren't we even better at that?

The point of such a dialectic reversal is not to make excuses for terrorism. Of course, fundamentalists seek more than to demolish skyscrapers: they are the enemies of freedom of expression, democracy, the right to vote, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, secularism, dance, and so on (Rushdie 2001). It is, however, also important to insist that the Western tradition is a tradition of democracy and criticism. Rather than undermining democracy in the war against terrorism, we must support it; and rather than refraining from criticising Bush and Blair's international policies in the name of patriotism, we must criticise them mercilessly.

"Independence", then, could refer to independence in the classical, Kantian, sense: independent thinking. The ultimate catastrophe is the simple and simplifying distinction between good and evil, a rhetoric that basically copies terrorist rhetoric and makes it impossible to think independently. It is in this sense that the dominant paranoid perspective transforms the terrorists into abstract and irrational agents, pushing aside every sociological explanation that refers to social conditions as indirectly supporting terrorism.

But terrorism is basically a mirror for understanding the contemporary post-political condition. Terror and the war against it say something fundamental about our society. The question is this: Are we to be content with a society in which the only radical acts are terrorist acts? Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of politics with other means. Terror, then, is the continuation of post-politics with other means (Baudrillard 2002: 34).


Baudrillard, J. (1988). Selected Writings. London: Polity.

Baudrillard, J (1990). Fatal Strategies. Paris: Semiotext(e)/Pluto.

Baudrillard, J. (1993). The Transparency of Evil. London: Verso.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Baudrillard, J. (2002). The Spirit of Terrorism. London: Verso.

Bowcott, O. (2003). "Massive flop. Ali G fails to win respect in the US". The Guardian. 24 February.

Palahniuk, C. (1997). Fight Club. London: Vintage.

Rushdie, Salman (2001). "Den skjulte krig kan ikke vindes", Information, 4/10.

Zizek, Slavoj (2001). On Belief. London: Routledge.

Zizek, Slavoj (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso.

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