an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 6, January-February 2009, ISSN 1552-5112




The Permeable Border Between Us and Them:  Cinema, 9/11 and Radical Politics

Paul Stasi


It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it.


Jean Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism”




Imagine, if you will, the following movie pitch.  An orphaned child from a desert land revives a defunct religion, before crashing a plane into the symbol of the Evil Empire, improbably destroying it in the process.  In our so-called post-9/11 world, this pitch would no doubt fail.  In 1976, however, it succeeded, generating one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.  I am of course talking about Star Wars, a movie whose similarity to the events of 9/11 is striking.  The main difference is that the hero of “Star Wars” lives.  And that he is considered a hero.

What is required to see the similarity between “Star Wars” and 9/11 is a radical change of perspective; the abandonment of the “American as rebel” viewpoint that is such a prominent part of America’s self-definition, and which casts the global hyperpower as a perpetual underdog, whose very way of life is under siege by those who “hate freedom.” 

9/11 has often been described as an instance of “blowback,” suggesting both the unpredictability of historical events and a certain inexorable dialectical logic. Unpredictable, insofar as the post-Cold War transformations of the social order have turned Afghanistan freedom fighters into terrorists; logical insofar as globalization goes both ways.  If we can go to them, they can come to us.

There is a further twist to the dialectic, though, one aptly captured in the famous “Bush bin Laden” image which graces the cover of Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms.  What this image suggests is the common ground between Bush’s religious views and those of Osama Bin Laden.  It is as if the Bush administration has found its perfect enemy, even momentarily removing its “freedom-loving” mask to speak in the language of crusades and infinite justice.  And yet the same thing could be said of the Cold War, where a belief in historical telos was shared by both sides, allowing for a range of crimes enacted in the name of historical necessity.  This is the only sense in which it might actually be accurate to view Marxism as a form of religion, if by Marxism we mean Stalinism.  All of these of these ideological formations – religious fundamentalism, American Cold War politics, Stalinism – contain a revelatory element:  reading history as the manifestation of a truth that is already known, freedom’s march through the world, the dialectical necessity of capitalism’s fall, the realization of God’s will.  All of these ideologies, we might say, hate freedom.

I will return to this argument in a little bit, but for now I want to remain with Bush and Bin Laden.  What are we to make of the common ground between them?  Does the resurgence of such seemingly premodern structures of feeling suggest that we have entered a historical moment that could be called post-secular?  And does this mean that we have finally entered an era that could be properly designated postmodern, an era whose origin seems, now, to have been falsely located somewhere in the middle of the last century? 

To come to some provisional answers to these questions, I will begin with the relatively widespread claim that September 11th was somehow cinematic, although in doing so I will be less interested in the spectacular nature of the event, than in the way it replicates an anti-modern ideology present in American popular culture.  I will then turn to a recent article by Bill Brown that refuses to read radical Islam in political terms, insisting on the “Otherness” of its religious world view.  In my conclusion I will argue, instead, that we must risk obscuring the otherness of radical Islam so that we can understand the common ground that conditions both their actions and our own.

Probably the best place to begin any discussion of 9/11 is with The Onion, whose September 26, 2001 issue contained the story “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie,” and featured a photograph of the burning towers with the caption “an actual scene from real life.”  The conceit of the article is that though Americans recognize the current political situation from various movies they have seen, they are disappointed by its relative banality: 


“In the movies, when the president says, ‘It’s war’ that usually means the good part is just about to begin,” said hardware-store owner Thom Garner of Cedar Rapids, IA. “Why doesn't it feel that way now? It doesn't feel like the good part is about to begin at all. It feels there's never going to be another good part again.”


Another citizen is quoted as saying: “This doesn't have any scenes where Bruce Willis saves the planet and quips a one-liner as he blows the bad guy up.”[1]  With its typical ironic sense, The Onion reported the story of 9/11 as America’s exit from spectacle and its entrance into a less manageable real world.

         Other reports, however, suggested a different story.  An article in the November 26th, 2001 issue of Newsweek, for instance, told the story of two American women from Waco, Texas who were captured by the Taliban and held hostage for five weeks.  The women “often felt as though they were trapped inside a terrifying special effects action movie” and one of them claimed “I don’t think Hollywood could have done it better.”[2]

        The problem is, as The Onion notes, that Hollywood has done it better.  Many times.  I have already alluded to Star Wars, with its religious rebellion against an Evil Empire.  Integral to Lucas’ vision is a nostalgic anti-modernity – which reaches its depressing nadir with the Ewoks – but is best represented by the gradual transformation of Annakin Skywalker into the mechanized Darth Vader.  Technology, it would seem, is Lucas’ villain; and yet this content is trumped by his movies’ formal qualities, each new iteration representing the state of the art in movie technology.  As anyone who has seen the latest installments can attest, the movies have come to seem a parable about Lucas himself, who has lost interest in those all too human components of movies – dialogue and acting – and instead focuses almost solely on the wonders of CGI.  Lucas has even gone on record stating his desire to make entirely digital movies, eliminating the need for actors altogether, with their pesky unpredictability. 

        Americans, of course, cheer the destruction of the Death Star, never imagining that we are not best represented by the scrawny rebel, who only weeks before was shooting womp-rats on Tatooine.  No doubt this is due to our mythic origins in rebellion, the narrative of a rag-tag citizen’s militia that handed the mighty British Empire its first stinging defeat.  The Star Wars movies, however, are at least one step ahead of their audience, for they hold out the possibility that Luke will become like his father, suggesting that even rebels can become emperors.

        There is, then, a political component to Star Wars that allows one to place it squarely in the 1970’s, when even blockbusters betrayed an almost reflexive suspicion of power.  This is more than I can say, however, for the recent Matrix movies, which represent another great instance of a religious anti-modernism we consistently mis-represent as somehow “other.”  It has been fashionable to read The Matrix as a critique of ideology, and its heavy-handed borrowing of Baudrillard suggests that it sees itself in similar terms.  However, as Zizek has noted, the presence of Zion negates this critique, for it displays an outside to ideology, or, better, reduces ideology to the evil workings of an out-of-control modernity, represented by a technology that is entirely divorced from the human world, that has, we might say, its own telos.  The solution to the problem is, of course, a religious rebellion against this technological order gone mad, and, as in Star Wars, The Matrix’s fleeting reign as the latest in movie-making technology negates the critique of modernity it seems to present.  Furthermore, The Matrix betrays none of the suspicion of power evident in Lucas’ films; its rebellion is not against any particular political order and its rebels are bullet-stopping heroes able to bend the world to their own will.  Far from a suspicion of power The Matrix seems to worship it, a claim best illustrated by the second movie’s hyper-sexualized rave scene, replete with pounding music and beautiful brown bodies dripping with sweat.  The juxtaposition of this scene with one of Neo and Trinity having sex is an exact replication of the fascist political order – the leader, on the one hand, the people, on the other – all joined through an erotics of the body, an exotic primitivism, and the inevitable pounding of drums.  No doubt something of the fortunes of the political left is captured in the transition from the relatively benign anti-modernity of Star Wars – which retains a political critique of power, even if in an attenuated form – and the worship of power of The Matrix, whose technological innovations almost immediately became the house style for television advertising.

        What the ideological content of Star Wars and The Matrix suggests, though, is that American cinema has been dreaming of a religious attack on the modern world for at least thirty years, and it is in this sense that 9/11 can be called cinematic.  Once again we see the phenomena of blowback:  what we export returns to us in altered form. 

        Now I do not meant to suggest that religious resistance to the regime of American global capitalism is caused by these movies.  What I am interested in, instead, is the way a particular ideology – which mainstream America has reacted to with a kind of horrific disavowal – is actually embedded within our own cultural productions, and I think this analysis helps explain the curious fact that much of the world simultaneously hates American hegemony and yet retains a relatively positive evaluation of “Americans.”  That is to say, the entire world lives the disjunction between the image America presents of itself – freedom fighters resisting various forms of tyranny – and the reality of its violent and destructive actions on the international stage. 

        There is, though, a way in which my argument, as it has been presented so far, seems to deny agency to those who would act against America, as even their most dramatic gestures of resistance are, somehow, pre-figured and contained by the globalizing regime they would attack.  It is as if America gets to play both sides of the drama, the site of pure modernity and the embodiment of its negation.

        Something like this critique is suggested by Bill Brown in a recent PMLA article entitled “The Dark Wood of Postmodernity (Space, Faith, Allegory).”  Brown’s essay calls into question our critical desire to transcode the events of 9/11 into secular terms; insisting that we understand them as, at least in part, “acts of faith” (745).  Instead, Brown reads religion back into secular thinking, arguing that an unacknowledged “internalization of religion” within secularism generally and Marxism in particular has foreclosed any real reckoning with the persistence of religious belief.

         Brown’s argument proceeds through a comparison of Fredric Jameson, bewildered before the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, and Dante, lost in the selva oscura.  Each writer responds with a desire for cognitive mapping, what Brown refers to as the “modernist fantasy . . . of finding technical and spatial solutions to socioeconomic problems” (734).  This fantasy is represented, in Dante, as the unfolding of a transcendent spiritual order, and in Jameson as the disclosure of the totalizing structures of late capitalism, and it is, ultimately, the analogy between these two structures that interests Brown.  In each case there can be no outside, as Jameson’s theoretical work subsumes all phenomena under the rubric of capitalism in a totality as unescapable as that of Dante’s religious cosmology.

         The events of September 11th, however, suggest for Brown the persistence of an outside to the rule of capital, and, thus, our entrance into what he calls a true post-modernity, though it is difficult to understand what this might actually mean.  On the one hand, it seems to mean an end to the “modernist fantasy” outlined above, the dream of a rationally organized social world overturned “by an unprecedented convergence of unpredictability and of extremism” (735).  On the other hand, it represents a rejection of the narrative of secularization, suggesting the possibility “that history can be understood as something other than the globalization of the Western order” (746).  Thus rational planning is aligned with a totalizing narrative of capital’s global advance, each of which fails to account for the true otherness of religious faith.  But what is most confusing about this argument is the status of religion itself, which is both the unthinkable outside of modern totality and the internalized other dictating its drive to totalize.  Furthermore if totalization is a hallmark of modernity and yet at the same time a hallmark of religion, how is it possible to argue that a post-modern age is also a religious one?  What exactly are we supposed to be “post?”  How can religion represent both totality and unpredictability, both modernity’s unacknowledged other and its fundamental essence?  And how is the seeming omni-presence of religion – external and yet internal to secular thought – not another instance of totalization?

         The answer to this problem can be found in the distinction Brown draws from the early Lukács concerning passive and active totalities, though he doesn’t seem to understand its implications.  Dante’s passive totality represents the availability of totalizing structures in a pre-modern social formation; Jameson’s active totality represents their absence.  Jameson, that is, must exert intellectual effort to create his totalizing vision; modern forms of totality must be constructed.  In this distinction between active and passive totality, then, we can see the precise difference between the Marxian and religious world views.  For religious totalities represent doctrinal certainty, they are given beforehand.  Marxist totality, on the other hand, is a totality of method.  It is thus quintessentially modern and dedicated to the uncertainties of historical change.  In contrast, Brown’s form of totality remains fundamentally ahistorical – for the common ground between Dante and Jameson is nothing other than a reified conceptual similarity, an a priori belief that totality is, inevitably, totalitarian.

Curiously enough, it is Brown who ends up having internalized religious totality – insofar as he replicates its investment in a priori, ahistorical structures – and who also relegates it to an inaccessible outside.  His argument ends up as a strangely meta description of itself.  (It is, in this sense, postmodern).  And the unfortunate effect of this move is to make religious totality impervious to critical thought, eviscerating our ability to understand the actions of Al Qaida which must remain “acts of faith,” rather than choices made within the definable limits of a historical moment.   

         Which returns us to the movies, for here we see that the actions of Al Qaida are not, in fact, radically other, but rather internal to our own cultural fantasies.  The “internalization of religion” of which Brown speaks is most present in American popular culture, and in order to understand this fact – in order, that is, to discern whether or not there really is such a thing as a post 9/11 world – we cannot abandon the effort to totalize.  Instead we need to try to sort out the relationship between us and them.

        And if we are honest with ourselves – and I use “we” here to address those on the anti-capitalist left – it is not the religious aims of Al-Qaida that we find we have internalized or occluded.  Rather what is most striking about the destruction of the World Trade Center is that it represents an attack on exactly the forces of global capital to which many of us are also opposed.  This jarring fact is the kernel of truth contained in the Baudrillard quotation I’ve used as my epigraph –  “It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it” – and it forms the core of the analysis offered in the San Francisco based collective RETORT’s recent book Afflicted Powers.

        What is most interesting about Afflicted Powers is the parallel it draws between Al-Qaida and Leninism.  What links the two, according to RETORT, is an interest in the concepts of the vanguard and violence, and “it is the thinking of each concept strictly and exclusively in terms of the other that is the essential inheritance” (151).  9/11 represents for RETORT “the arrival in the heartland of global capital of a new model vanguard.  Islamism:  the new International” (133).  This sentence is not merely a rhetorical flourish.  Rather “the Islamist intelligentsia was most often the product not of the religious schools but of universities with a curriculum . . . centered on Marxism, Third Worldism, and the literature of national liberation struggle” (150).  Furthermore, “its tactics and strategies borrow heavily from the Marxist canon:  vanguardism, anti-imperialism, revolutionary terror, and popular justice” (149).  Political Islam is, thus, a fundamentally modern phenomenon, modern precisely because of its “utterly hybrid” character (149).

        To fail to recognize this common ground is to reject the essential hybridity constitutive, not only of our current post-modern condition, but of culture itself; it is to perpetuate the division of the world into an us and a them, and to replicate the desire for purity constitutive of anti-modern nostalgia.  Refusing the common ground we might have with Al Qaida’s politics is, in a curious way, to accede to their religious totality.  And it is also to accede to the ideology represented in the movies, in television, and in the speeches of our political leaders.  Most importantly, however, it is to replicate the real grounds of that ideology, the world in which dramatic inequalities between us and them are reproduced daily.  It does not seem to me accurate to call this world “post-secular.”  Instead it seems to me to be pre-secular, in the precise sense in which Marx considered capitalism to be the pre-history of humanity.     

        It may be that the only way to get beyond the ideology that ignores its own complicity in creating these inequalities, is to attempt to understand the common ground that exists across the divides our social order continually replicates.  In a curious way this is the truth represented in movies like Star Wars and the sympathy for rebellion the movie displays is not only the false consciousness of an America that refuses to believe in its own imperial violence.  It also represents a potential sympathy for the oppressed.  If we can understand that Iraqi freedom fighters also see themselves as Luke Skywalker, we might be forced to go past the passive totality of global capital; we might, that is, be forced to construct our own world views, to accept, finally, some measure of responsibility for the world in which we live.  Instead of looking back to the pre-modern then, as Islamism seems to do, radical critique must keep its totalizing thought focused on the hope of actually becoming modern.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 6, January-February 2009, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] The Onion, vol. 37, number 34, September 26, 2001, available at

[2] Ron Moreau, "Delivered from Evil," Newsweek, November 26, 2001, pp. 52-3.  I was led to both The Onion article and the Newsweek piece by Wendy Doniger’s “Terror and Gallows Humor:  After September 11?” available at