Monday, June 15, 2009

Naming the Unnamable: A Commentary on 9/11 (Part I)

The quintessential moment in the history of names, at least insofar as the Western/Judeo-Christian tradition goes, is perhaps the account in Genesis 2 of Adam giving names to the various animals. However, the name “Adam” itself is just as, if not more, significant. “Adam” is composed of three Hebrew letters: aleph [א], daleth [ד], and mem [ם] . Air, or the breath, is the attribute most often ascribed to the letter “a,” and “dam” is Hebrew for “blood.” Therefore, Adam is literally he who is formed by blood and breath.

This word not only denotes a proper name but also is the term for both the concrete noun “man” as well as the universalized, collective singular “humankind.” This direct correspondence between the thing and its name is indicative of the condition of primordial language (cf., e.g., Benjamin).

In pointing out the difficulties of words and the “things” those words indicate, Michel Foucault, in his discussion of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, admits that “it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say” (9). Similitude seems to be one of the things Adam gave up when he chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. With knowledge, language becomes dispersed—even more so at Babel—as a consequence of human disobedience.

But this lost similitude is not a complete linguistic break from the world, nature, or the material reality behind words: language “still continues … to be the locus of revelations and to be included in the area where truth is both manifested and expressed” (36). Instead of merely removing the transparency of language to get at truth, however, as Foucault goes on to argue, the “function proper to knowledge” becomes interpretation (40). The proliferation of commentaries, of commentaries of commentaries, opens language itself to a re-interrogation of its role in approaching the truth:
Perhaps for the first time in Western culture, we find revealed the absolutely open dimension of a language no longer able to halt itself, because, never being enclosed in a definitive statement, it can express its truth only in some future discourse and is wholly intent on what it will have said; but even this future discourse itself does not have the power to halt the progression, and what it says is enclosed within it like a promise, a bequest to yet another discourse. . . . The task of commentary can never, by definition, be completed.” (40-41)
This open dimension of language enables us to speak in the face of unspeakable tragedies, and to create a site for language specifically where language itself fails us.

Using language to approach such events is a complicated process, no less so because ethical concerns pervade and necessarily affect other aspects of tragic discourses, particularly ones which are replete with descriptions such as “unimaginable,” “unthinkable,” “inexpressible,” and “unspeakable.” For example, despite a long career as an author of Holocaust texts, Jewish survivor Elie Wiesel asserts, “One cannot write about the Holocaust” (9). To write is to fail not only in adequately representing the “unrepresentable” but to fail also the process of writing itself.

Maurice Blanchot refers to events such as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima collectively as “disaster.” For him, disaster is “the limit of writing” for any attempt to describe it will “de-scribe” that which is written (7): “When all is said, what remains to be said is the disaster. Ruin of words, demise writing, faintness faintly murmuring: what remains without remains (the fragmentary)” (33). He continues, referring to disaster as “the improperness of its name and the disappearance of the proper name” (40). However, despite the impossibility of language in the face of disaster, silence is never an option, for the weight of obligation to testify, to speak, and to act as witness is ever present in the absence of language. The only meaning that can be found within disaster is some attempt toward a reclamation of selfhood by way of language. Wiesel himself challenges the survivor, “Anyone who does not actively, constantly engage in remembering and in making others remember is an accomplice of the enemy” (16). Blanchot concludes similarly: “One must just write, in uncertainty and in necessity” (11).

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are but one more event that not only problematizes language itself but that also must be approached discursively. We immediately see the difficulty of this approach when we try to name the event itself—although “9/11” appears to be the most common term thus far despite official US government resolutions and declarations designating it “Patriot Day.” But as Jacques Derrida points out in his conversation with Giovanna Borradori shortly after 9/11, in this situation, “we do not use language in its obvious referring function but rather press it to name something that it cannot name because it happens beyond language: terror and trauma” (147). Although their dialogue took place merely six weeks after the attacks, Derrida and Borradori were already aware that the use of the term “September 11” was already a citation (Borradori 85):
But this very thing, the place and meaning of this ‘event,’ remains ineffable … out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation … that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way. . . .” (86)
Despite this “not knowing,” the naming convention of 9/11 is extended and reapplied in subsequent terrorist attacks around the world: the March 11, 2004, attacks in Madrid become 3/11; the November 9, 2005, bombings in Jordan become 11/9; the July 7, 2005, London bombings become simply 7/7. This non-knowledge reasserts itself with every inconceivable event, further removing language from the “reality” behind the words. Yet by remaining unaware of the hidden genealogies of words, we naïvely (but not innocently) “iterate a number of normative assumptions” about not only those words but the nature of reality as well (11).

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