Credibility and Certainty: 9/11 Conspiracy Theories
Published on March 14th, 2007
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In a 2004 poll conducted by Zogby international, 49.3% percent of New York City residents said that some U.S. leaders “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001 and that they consciously failed to act.” According to a New York Times -CBS News poll carried out in October 2006, only 16% of those surveyed thought the Bush administration was telling the truth about what it knew prior to September 11 th about possible terrorist attacks on the United States. 53 % of respondents said that they thought the administration was hiding something. 28% thought the administration was mostly lying. A Scripps Survey Research Center-Ohio University poll carried out in July 2006 asked the more pointed question as to whether respondents thought 9/11 was an “inside job.” 36% of respondents found it very or somewhat likely that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them ‘because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.’” The press release notes that this 36% is slightly less than the 40% convinced that a lone gunman was not responsible for the death of President John F. Kennedy and the 38% who believe the government is withholding proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life. It also reports that those suspecting 9/11 was an inside job are more likely to get their news from the internet than from mainstream media sources, which is hardly surprising given the hundreds of websites devoted to investigating the day’s events, criticizing the official account, and finding patterns in facts scattered throughout and virtually ignored by the mainstream media.
What, if anything, might these numbers mean for democratic politics in the United States? Does the movement loosely organized around 9/11 truth involve dynamic political struggle? Is the movement an essential site of resistance against the Bush administration, its illegal wars, and its attempt to increase executive power and stifle civil liberties? Insofar as information at odds with the official story of 9/11 circulates primarily on the internet, do we find in the truth movement an example of the power of alternative and participatory media over the corporate-controlled mainstream media?
The conflict over 9/11 truth is a battle over facts, knowledge, who knew, who knows, and who has a right to know. Pervasive skepticism renders every fact, every claim, suspect. So does the push to uncover the truth of September 11 th continue the democratic project of undermining the sovereign privilege of secrecy by making hidden knowledge public?
Most mainstream discussions of the 9/11 truth movement, as well as many who find the administration’s account of the events of September 11 th inadequate, dismiss truth activists as a lunatic fringe, as paranoid conspiracy theorists with a fragile hold on reality. This gap between the official and the alternative accounts raises the question of the possibility of facts credible both to those
convinced by the official account and to those who reject it. Could any information exist that would disprove the suspicions of the MIHOP or made-it-happen-on-purpose segment of the 9/11 truth movement (the other segment is LIHOP, let it happen on purpose)? Conversely, could any facts be revealed that would firmly establish the Bush administration’s complicity in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Differently put, is the matter simply one of revelation and disconcealment such that a smoking gun could emerge that all would agree is definitive proof of the truth of the event? Or is something else at stake, something that concerns the conditions of possibility for knowledge and credibility?
Confronting this dilemma is crucial for thinking through the role of media—old and new—as well as the setting of contemporary politics: if facts and information are introduced into a media environment wherein they are rejected or suspected in advance, that is to say, if facts are immediately presumed to be either lies in the service of ideology or the irrelevant factoids of the reality-based community, and if they circulate primarily as eyeball bait in communicative capitalism’s endless circuits, then are they necessary for or relevant to democratic, progressive, or left political projects? What if the so-called facts circulate tribally, consolidating communities of the like-minded even as they fail to impress—or even register to—anyone else? Building movements, particularly of those alienated from the mainstream, is no trivial task; indeed, it’s been a key tactic in culture war—as the success of the previously discredited school of neoliberal economics as well as of Christian fundamentalism indicates. Nonetheless, new media producers often proceed as if networked and participatory media—say, blogging, the introduction of videos onto the web, or even the independent journalism associated with indy-media—is necessarily progressive, as if radical and left politics is somehow built into the technology. Moreover, some proceed as if their introduction of information into the media stream is a crucial element in progressive struggle or anti-capitalist resistance. Not only do they assume that the information or images they produce are visible and known, that it registers, but they presume as well that the information they provide is meaningful, credible, that standards for the assessment and evaluation of this information actually exist and that they are widely, rather than tribally, shared.
Most political discussion (as well as democratic theory) also takes for granted the existence of a consensus regarding the rules and conditions for establishing truth and falsity, not to mention a shared notion of reality. These presumptions are misplaced: our current political-medialogical condition is characterized by dissensus, incredulity, and competing conceptions of reality. Communicative capitalism thrives under these conditions—but can a progressive politics and a progressive media?
In my book, Publicity’s Secret, I discuss the deep imbrications of conspiracy thinking and the hope for an American public, imbrications that demonstrate the ways democracy relies on publicity as a “system of distrust,” to use the words of Jeremy Bentham. Crucial to democracy’s triumph over absolutism was the power of revelation, a power claimed for the people over and against the arcane mysteries of monarchy. As Carl Schmitt explained over eighty years ago, belief in openness as a value for its own sake is a product of this time, a product ill-suited to the practicalities of party politics under mass democracy where electoral victories and defeats depend on much more than a revelation here or there. I argue that belief in openness, publicity, and the power of revelation is not only ill-suited to a mass political age but also part of the ideological apparatus that furthers the expansion of networked information technologies to consolidate communicative capitalism. Materializing democratic aspirations and suspicions, the adoption, expansion, and intensification of communicative technologies is urged—on all sides, by left and right, privileged and disadvantaged—as vital to increasing democratic participation (as if a deficit in participation were the primary problem confronting democracy today).
The ideal of publicity or openness functions ideologically, serving and protecting global capitalism’s reliance on networked information technologies and consumers convinced that their every blog post, virtual march, or You Tube upload is a radical act rather than an entertaining diversion. Communicative capitalism mobilizes the faith in exposure animating democracy as the perfect lure: subjects feel themselves to be active even as their every activity reinforces the status quo; revelation can be celebrated, furthered, because it is ineffectual; its results are medialogical, just another contribution to the circulation of content with no impact on power or policy.
Is the 9/11 truth movement another instance of the convergence of conspiracy thinking and the internet, another manifestation of the desire to make the links, to enact the fantasy of publicity by revealing the secrets. No. Something different is going on. The movement associated with 9/11 truth manifests a shift in conspiracy thinking, a shift from questioning to certainty and from a logic of desire to a logic of drive. Moreover, this shift isn’t confined to the conspiratorial fringes. On the contrary, it is symptomatic of a larger socio-cultural development that involves a new constellation of questioning, doubt, credibility, and certainty.
To make this argument, I draw from Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, and Eric Santner. I explain the shift as one from the discourse of the hysteric to a new form of psychotic discourse, a shift that replaces a logic or economy of desire with one of drive. For Lacan, the discourse of the hysteric is one of four kinds of social link. Its primary characteristic is questioning: the hysteric constantly asks the Master, “am I what you say am I? What are you saying and why are you saying that”? The discourse of the hysteric can thus be understood as providing the basic form of democratic discourse—which reminds us that these Lacanian terms are offered as analytical categories, not means of pathologization.
Like the hysteric, democracy challenges claims coming from a master. It is motivated by desire, a desire enabled by the very law that seems to block its fulfillment. By way of an example, we might note how various Democrats and journalists contested the Bush administration’s classifying of previously public knowledge, its removal of all sorts of documents from the internet after 9/11.
It’s unlikely that these Democrats and journalists knew or even cared about this information while it was public. After it was secretized, however, then they desired it. In any case, some conspiracy theories echo democratic assumptions insofar as they don’t provide theories but instead ask questions; they desire the truth; they want to know. They endeavor to reveal secrets and in so doing call into being a public that will get rid of the corrupt conspirators and restore legitimate government. In so doing, they situate themselves firmly in the democratic, anti-absolutist tradition (a tradition in which the American Declaration of Independence also belongs). Asking questions, making links, such conspiracy theorists try to persuade readers and hearers to think, to find out for themselves.
Although such appeals to “find out for yourself” appear in the videos, books, and websites of those involved in 9/11 truth, they are sometimes accompanied by claims to certainty. The mode of the injunction to “find out for oneself” thus changes: now it indicates less the openness of desire, a desire to know, than it does the closed circuit of drive: the facts are already there; we can be certain of that; there’s no need to accept anything on the basis of belief . Commemorating the first anniversary of the group Scholars for 9/11 Truth, founder James Fetzer writes:
We have established beyond reasonable doubt that the Twin Towers were destroyed by a novel form of controlled demolition from the top down, that WTC-7 was brought down by a classic form of controlled demolition from the bottom up, and that, whatever may have hit the Pentagon, multiple lines of argument support the conclusion that it was not a Boeing 757.
Fetzer is certain. The Scholars for 9/11 truth know some things to be true. Persuasion retreats, replaced by confrontation with the actual facts.
Zizek explains that, unlike in desire, where the object emerges at the moment of its loss, in drive loss itself is an object. We can understand 9/11 as naming such a loss. They very term designates not just a day but a traumatic loss. 9/11 has become a meme for loss, repeated endlessly in official accounts and reiterated in unofficial ones. In all these accounts, moreover, 9/11 marks loss resulting from excessive, impersonal, obscene power, power with little regard life, power permeated with the jouissance of its conviction. Both the official and unofficial theories of the events of September 11 th circle around this knot of obscenity and loss, albeit in different circuits. Zizek further links drive to constituent anxiety, to pure confrontation with the void (objet petit a). Both the official and unofficial theories of the events of 9/11 rely on and reinforce this constituent anxiety as they confront the specific horror of the disintegration of the social link, the destruction of the symbolic pact promising security and holding society together.
In much of the production of the 9/11 truth movement, we find this confrontationwith a hole in the symbolic order accompanied by jouissance —repetition,intensity, affect. The jouissance connecting each fact to anotherproduces certainty as an effect. Indeed, jouissance arises through connectivity, through the specificity and systematicity of the facts circling the hole of loss. We see this in the excesses of connections: everything specificfact—exact times and temperatures, flight schedules and passenger manifests—is linked, everything is meaningful. Enjoyment is produced by the very drive to link, connect, document, by the intensity of detail and specificity. Because the most central component of the explanation remains unknown—who did it?—the evidence accumulates in extreme and specific detail, establishing connections without ever reaching its goal.
The 9/11 truth movement combines its intense certainty with an overwhelming skepticism. Explanations are doubted: why does the administration’s story change over several years? Why are there differences in the official times of the planes crashing and the towers following? Why is a close associate of Condolezza Rice’s, Philip Zelikow, appointed to head the commission investigating 9/11?
A volatile mix of certainty and skepticism thus occupies the place of the lack of belief in the official story. I read this combination in terms of what Lacanformalizes as the discourse of the university. In university discourse, the facts speak for themselves; experts claim objectivity even as they attempt to overlook the institutional power that supports their claims to expertise. We can understand scientific socialism, the press, and, economics all in terms of university discourse, for in each the emphasis is on facts; facts are supposed to determine outcomes independent of power. Following Lacan, Zizek characterizes contemporary capitalism as well as the post-political bureaucratic arrangements surrounding it in terms of the dominance of university discourse. With its emphasis on letting the facts speak for themselves, the 9/11 truth movement very much resembles university discourse. Yet, it lacks its authorizing support. Accordingly, I understand it as a clone of university discourse, a psychotic clone.
Why psychotic? Because of Lacanian psychoanalysis’s account of psychosis in terms of a missing signifier, an absence and a foreclosure. Drawing from Lacan and Santner, I emphasize the loss of authority on September 11 th , the hole produced in the symbolic order. The Bush administration explains the events of September 11 th as acts of terrorism. The psychotic response rejects this explanation and builds a discourse around the hole that is left. In an effort to hold its speculations together and to valorize, support, them, the psychotic discourse models itself on other, more conventional discourses such as university discourse. Given the ubiquity of university discourse, it should come as no surprise that psychotic discourse might attempt to model itself, conform to, precisely these terms and join it in letting the facts speak for themselves.
While I focus on the 9/11 truth movement as exemplary of the psychotic doubling or cloning of university discourse, I am more concerned with the likelihood of such discourses flourishing in the fragile discursive habitats of communicative capitalism. Characterized by the circuit of drive, by an intensity, certainty, and skepticism that circles around a fundamental loss, psychotic discourse perpetuates anxiety. It renders all that comes into contact with it suspect, uncertain, permeated with possible meaning.
The gap or blindspot that emerges between the official story of 9/11 and the 9/11 truth movement, and that reappears within the movement, suggests less the possibility or place of political struggle than it does the very deadlock that displaces politics onto impossible subjects, futures, and terrains. I can put this as a question: is politics possible when there is knowledge without belief, when certainty and skepticism persist in tandem, each supporting but immune to the other? And, if so, what kind of politics is this?
Two factors contributing to the production and circulation of alternativeclaims for what happened in the United States on September 11th distinguish the 9/11 Truth movement from other assemblages associated with conspiracy theories—one, the way that the ideas circulate on the internet as videos and, two, the participation of a variety of highly reputable and regarded academics. These same factors also make 9/11 truth a central site for examining contemporary problems around credibility and certainty.
The most prominent video associated with 9/11 truth is “Loose Change,” an 80 minute documentary made by Dylan Avery, a twenty-two year old from Oneota, New York. It first appeared on the web in the summer of 2005. Since then has had at least 10 million viewings. The magazine Vanity Fair calls “Loose Change” “the first internet blockbuster.”
The most striking aspect of the video is its production of certainty through repetition, intensity, and affect, in other words, the way it performs the shift from the questioning of the hysteric toward a certainty more characteristic of psychosis. Here is its version of “find out for yourself” in the film’s final voiceover:
I’ll say it again: why are they hiding from us? What are they hiding from us? And what’s it going to take until people in this country give a damn and do something about it? Now that the evidence has been presented, what will you do about it? Will you find comfort in the official version of events? Or will you go out and investigate for yourselves? Will you share this information or will you ignore it? Will you be at ground zero on September 11th? America has been hijacked. Is it more likely by Osama bin Laden and his ragtag group of Arabs with boxcutters or by a group of tyrants within our own government, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to keep their stranglehold on this country? It’s up to you. Ask questions. Demand answers.
To whom is this demand raised? To the tyrants, the all powerful obscene tyrants supposed/produced through the operation of the theory. The same tyrants who allegedly committed the crime are here demanded to expose themselves, to admit to it, to come clean. There is thus a strangeness to this demand, an incompatibility between it and the crime and criminals it is raised to expose.
More interesting is the attitude of certainty: the viewer is enjoined to investigate. Yet, the film presents itself as already knowing what the subject will find out. It’s certain and it manifests this certainty straightforwardly in the evidence presented, the information shared, the America hijacked. Even if “it’s up to you” the film already knows what you will discover, as long, that is, as you are brave enough to leave the comfort of the official version of events. Overlaying the final credits is an austere hip-hop piece with a strong base line. The vocals begin: “we all know where you’re goin,’ we know that you’re out there.”
The effective and affective success of “Loose Change” stems from its use of music, from the way music provides the connections between different images, different screens, different facts. A compelling drumbeat, strong base line, and repetitive samples bypass the mediation of argument to establish a feeling of certainty. The first eight minutes of the film, for example, feature images and a voice-over enumeration of a number of items: contradictory quotes from Condolezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Ari Fleischer, and Richard Clarke; a description of Operation Northwoods, a 1962 plan involving a faked hijacking submitted by the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense; the 1984 test of a remote controlled Boeing Aircraft; and, so on up through news reports in early September 2001. The reports mention the significant increase in put options placed on United Airlines, Boeing, and American Airlines, Larry Silverstein’s purchase of the World Trade Center and the accompanying 3.5 billion dollar insurance policy, and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s shift to traveling with private rather than commercial aircraft. The items are presented chronologically, events on a time-line leading up to September 11th. Because the underlying music, particularly through its repetitions and driving base line, establishes continuity among the images, the viewer gets the sense that events are already
connected to one another in the Real. Differently put, taking the connections between the events for granted, surrendering to the hypnotic rhythm, is easier than disrupting one’s jouissance in the music.
The remainder of the film follows the pattern of voice-over, sampling from news media and interviews, and a sort of fort/da pattern wherein the ambient/chill/lounge samples reemerge. Most often, they reemerge at those moments when the voice over is mentioning particularly telling facts, facts that need to be connected to other facts, facts the connection together of which produces the knowledge of a conspiracy within the U.S. government. A segment on Hani Hanjour, the alleged pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, the one presumed to have crashed into the Pentagon, features an interview with a staff member from Hanjour’s training school. The hypnotic beat and repetitive sampling come in just after the staff member finishes describing how inept Hanjour was as a pilot and the voice over mentions that air traffic controllers at Dulles presumed the plane was flown by a military pilot.
The satisfying repetitions of the ambient/chill/lounge techno soundtracks also reinforce the pleasures of conspiracy theory. They provide the film with an edginess, a trangressive allure that reiterates, mirrors, the transgressions the film purports to reveal. It’s a soundtrack of revelation and disconcealment that invites viewers and hearers to share in the secret, the secret knowledge of political violence and obscenity. As mainstream a magazine as Time gets it. In a page one article from the September 11, 2006 issue, columnist Lev Grossman writes: “Watching Loose Change, you feel as if you are participating in the great American tradition of self-reliance and nonconformist, antiauthoritarian dissent. You’re fighting the power. You’re thinking different.” We don’t need to believe the Bush administration’s lies when we can see the evidence and know what really happened.
One of the final clips featured in the film provides a bridge to the academicscredentialing the larger 9/11 truth movement. The clip is from “Hannity and Colmes,” a nightly program on the Fox News Channel. Hannity and Colmes are interviewing Kevin Barrett, the adjunct professor teaching an introductory course on Islam at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hannity attempts to browbeat and stigmatize Barrett as a crazed conspiracy theorist, asking about Barrett’s opinion and whether he believes 9/11 was an inside job. Barrett responds that he knows, he doesn’t believe, he knows. He has studied the evidence for two and a half years and he knows.
Scholars for 9/11 Truth
Barrett is a key point of overlap between the video and the second aspect of the 9/11 truth movement that distinguishes it from other conspiracy theories, the emergence of the group Scholars for 9/11 Truth. The group was founded on December 15, 2005 by James H. Fetzer, Distinguished McKnight Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and Steven E. Jones, Professor of Physics, at Brigham Young University. Affiliated with the group is the peer-reviewed Journal of 9/11 Studies . Fetzer is the author and editor of a number of books on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, including Murder in Dealey Plaza: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then , The Great Zapruder Film Hoax: Deceit and Deception in the Death of JFK, and Assassination Science: Experts Speak Out on the Death of JFK . In November 2005, Jones posted a paper on the Web in which he argued that the World Trade Center towers fell as a result of a controlled demolition. As John Gravois notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education , “His paper—written by an actual professor who works at an actual research university—has made him a celebrity in the conspiracy universe.” ABC News picked up an AP wire feature on Scholars for 9/11 Truth citing a Canadian chemist critical of Jones’s account of the collapse of the twin towers. According to the chemist, members of the conspiracy community “practically worship the ground (Jones) walks on because he’s seen as a scientist who’s preaching to their side.” So even as the ABC feature notes that few mainstream scientists will engage the work of Scholars for 9/11 Truth so as not to lend it “unwarranted credibility” it recognizes that the academic credentials of the groups “could do that anyway.” And, perhaps more importantly, the feature alludes to a fundamental characteristic of the group: they already know that the official story of 9/11 is wrong; their effort is expended so as to prove it.
The 9/11 truth movement gained in momentum because of the involvement of credentialed academics. For those in the movement, these scholars provide the expert knowledge,the credibility, they need to fight their battle for truth in the public sphere.Among the most important and influential is David Ray Griffin, a well established theology professor. Not only did Griffin synthesize in a clear, systematic study many of the criticisms of the official account circulating on the Internet and published in European presses, but his book, The New Pearl Harbor , was endorsed by renowned history professor Howard Zinn and provided with a forward from Richard Falk, an emeritus professor of International Law at Princeton.
The combination of Scholars for 9/11 truth and the popularity of videos of videos like “Loose Change” make the 9/11 truth movement an interesting site for thinking about problems of credibility. For some in the movement, the slickness and popularity of “Loose Change” is propagandistic, and in effect make the film into an instrument for disinformation instead of for scientific inquiry into 9/11. Writing for the 9/11 Research website, Victoria Ashley, in an article praising the contribution of Steven Jones, criticizes “Loose Change:” “Propaganda techniques, such as repeating an emotionally charged scene over and over, or approaching the unanswered questions of 9/11 in the manner of a ghost story telling, keep viewers transfixed by the presentation without any involvement of a rational evaluation of evidence.” The very aspects of the film that make it powerful and popular thus seem, to some, to undermine the movement’s efforts toward challenging the Bush administration’s version, as well as that provided by the 9/11 commission, and keeping inquiry open.
Additionally, the scholars whose work rejects the official story have had to fight to defend their academic freedom and their scholarly credentials. In October 2006, Brigham Young University announced Jones’ retirement. This announcement followed a month after Jones had been relieved of his teaching responsibilities and placed on leave. Lawmakers have also challenged the academic integrity, not to mention the intellectual honesty and overall sanity of scholars working in the area of 9/11 truth. During the summer of 2006, Wisconsin legislators pressured the University of Wisconsin-Madison to fire Kevin Barrett for his view that September 11 th was an inside job. The provost, Patrick Farrell, defended Barrett, although he warned him that should he continue to “illustrate an inability to control” his interest in garnering publicity for his ideals, he would have less confidence in Barrett’s ability to teach the course. The same academic credentials providing credibility to the 9/11 truth movement are being called into question and, to some extent, revoked.
In yet a further twist, the challenges to scholars’ credibility arise from within the ranks of those working on 9/11 truth. In late November 2006, Jones and others split from Scholars for 9/11 Truth. The following month, they formed a new group, Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice.
Some lamented the infighting among the Scholars, recognizing the link between this fighting and the larger struggle for credibility even as they displaced the fundamental problem. In the words of “Lividlarry:” “ I’ve been somewhat ‘torn’ on this infighting issue for quite some time and can see some truth in at least two positions with regard to what information is ‘credible.’ It comes as no surprise that disinformation agents are busy sowing confusing anywhere that they can when such a horrible reality is at stake.” Aware of the problem of credibility, Lividlarry subsumes it under conviction and suspicion. A horrible reality is at stake, a certain horror and a certain reality. Confusion is thus a matter not of this reality but of disinformation, of those who want to cast doubt on what he, and others, already know for certain. In fact, Lividlarry is particularly skeptical regarding efforts to establish credibility. He continues, “when those interested in accumulating whatever information and/or insights are out there fall into the trap of determining ‘credibility’ based on their interpretation of plausibility there is a danger that a piece of the puzzle might go unnoticed.” What happened on September 11 th was incredible, implausible. To limit oneself to these terms, then, avoids encountering what is already certain.
Factions among the Scholars offered different explanations for the split. Fetzer claimed that Jones was blocking people from posting on the Scholars’ website and trying to take over the group. He also charged Jones with attempting to keep controversial theories about 9/11 out of the public eye. The theories in question were proposed by Judy Wood, a former assistant professor at Clemson University with a Ph.D. in Materials Engineering Science, and Morgan Reynolds, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Texas A & M.. Reynolds and Wood had posted a number of critiques of Jones’ work on the internet. Challenging Jones’ claim that “nano-enhanced thermite or thermate” was used to bring down the WTC in a controlled demolition, they point out that Jones does not establish that thermite or thermate has ever been used to bring down large building much less pulverize them. They note as well that Jones doesn’t account for how much thermite or thermate would need to have been used, where it would need to have been placed, and how it would have been ignited.
Additionally, Reynolds and Wood accuse Jones of failing to credit the work of others on 9/11 truth, ignoring the fact that “no Boeing757 went into the Pentagon was proven years ago,” and basically upholding too many components of the official government conspiracy theory. Wood suggests that space-based laser beams perhaps in connection with very large mirrors, brought down the WTC. Jones both rejects the “no planes hit the Towers” theory and charges Wood and Reynolds with engaging in ad hominem attacks, in part because they mention his previous work on cold fusion. In a January 2007 broadcast of Fetzer’s radio show, “The Dynamic Duo,” on which Reynolds and Wood appeared as guests, Fetzer, in what he claims is not an ad hominem , mentions a paper written by Jones wherein Jones uses archaeological evidence to prove the Mormon claim that Jesus Christ visited the Americas. For much of the remaining portion of the show, Fetzer, Jones, and Wood discuss problems in Jones’ claims to follow the scientific method and suggest that his work has more in common with pseudo-science.
In yet a more fundamental critique, Gerard Holmgren, criticizes the entire community of Scholars for 9/11 Truth (including Fetzer and Jones by name) for plagiarizing the earlier work of internet researchers. In Holmgren’s words:
The scholars make their presence in the media felt not through original research (they haven’t done any), nor through quality of presentation (they make frequent factual errors—if indeed they are “errors”). They make their presence felt purely by swagger in parading that Jones and number of his associates are professors . . . Not only do the scholars plagiarize their “research” articles, but their press statements are calculated to reinforce the false notion that their work is original, that the revelations are new, and also to play the hero card by claiming personal risk in unveiling these shocking new revelations.
On his website, Holmgren explains that the so-called 9/11 truth movement is actually controlled by the very people who perpetrated the crimes of September 11 th . This control relies on carefully placed disinformation and on the careerism and opportunism of those who want to profit from the 9/11 truth industry. This disinformation keeps the myth that planes actually crashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center alive. Holmgren knows that these are fabrications. American Airlines flights 77 and 11 (the ones allegedly hitting the Pentagon and the North Tower) never existed. The well-known footage of the plane striking the South Tower is an animated cartoon. In sum, Holmgren is convinced that the events of 9/11 are like a giant snuff film consisting of real explosions and fake planes and hijackers.
Skepticism and Certainty
To sort through these layers of credibility, incredibility, and certainty, I turn to psychoanalysis, specifically, Zizek’s account of the decline of symbolic efficiency, Santner’s discussion of the crisis of investiture, and Lacan’s teaching on psychosis. Together, these ideas help us understand the problem posed by 9/11 truth not as one of credibility but of its absence, more specifically, as the absence of conditions of possibility for something like belief or credibility.
I begin with Zizek. Most generally, the decline of symbolic efficiency refers to a breakdown in signification: identities, arguments, or signs that are clear and compelling in some settings, carry little weight in others. One might imagine Britney Spears and Jurgen Habermas in an airport waiting area. Neither would recognize the other’s symbolic weight or be able to assess the other’s cultural
That identities, arguments, and signs are limited in their power and range, that they fail to be thoroughly compelling in a variety of contexts, has repercussions for contemporary subjects. We are often skeptical about what we hear. To approach this from the other side, Zizek frequently describes symbolic efficiency with the question, “what do you believe, your eyes or my words?” The idea is that in a functioning symbolic order, we believe the words, no matter what our eyes tell us: we recognize that the judge is not just the man that we see but the office that he holds; we recognize that the doctor is more than the woman before us; she is also the trained, experienced, expert on whom we depend. These days, however, we don’t believe their words. We believe our eyes. Contemporary subjects accept very little on face value. We don’t believe what we hear. If a doctor gives us bad news, we’ll get a second or third opinion and then reject Western medicine in favor of more authentic folk remedies. If the judge makes a ruling we reject, we suspect that he was paid off, corrupt, or invested in an opposing ideology. And, even when we concede that another is likely using his or her best judgment in as fair a way as possible, we find ourselves emphasizing the plurality of possible views: everyone has her own opinion; experts disagree.
So, we are skeptical. But, often our skepticism is combined with a kind of certainty or conviction. We don’t challenge or reject everything all the time. To keep going, we have to keep some aspects of our lives stabile and secure. We need base points from which to navigate. Skepticism toward the news media, then, is combined with an increased division between who watches what and who trusts whom. Some sources can be trusted. Republicans in the United States are more likely to watch Fox News and report that they trust what they hear on Fox. Vice President Dick Cheney has said that he only watches Fox. The notion of the decline of symbolic efficiency clicks on this fragmentation, on the inability of elements that flourish in one discursive habitat to take root and thrive in another.
As Zizek points out, Donald Davidson uses the notion of the principle of charity to designate the background assumption that everything an other says is not completely wrong; it’s a presumption of underlying agreement on which disagreement rests. Indeed, Davidson argues that “charity is not an option…charity is forced on us; whether we like it or not, if we want to understand others, we must count them right in most matters.” The decline of symbolic efficiency points to the withering away of this principle of charity—less and less are people today forced to presume charity. There are strong material-technological explanations for this withering away: not only are communication technologies charitable in our stead, making connections with other machines, but the interconnecting of ever more people lets us find enough of those who share our convictions that we don’t have to believe. In a previous age, we may have been isolated in our views, village idiots roaming the streets, madwomen in the attics, or psychotic judges driven to document our illness and our discoveries. Now we’re part of a discourse, community, or movement.
I mention psychotic judges because Eric L. Santer’s discussion of the memoirs of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber provides a second element useful for thinking about contemporary problems around credibility and certainty. Whereas Freud’s reading of Schreber was central to his understanding of paranoia (particularly with regard to its presumed link with homosexuality), Santner underscores the similarity between the crises leading to Schreber’s psychotic breakdown and those facing modernity more generally. He understands these crises as crises of symbolic investiture.
Symbolic investiture refers to the way a person becomes endowed with a new social status that informs his or her identity in the community. Examples might include the ordination of a priest, a marriage ceremony, graduation and the conferral of a degree, or winning a prestigious prize. In modernity, Santner argues, symbolic identities become ever more fragile, less able to “seize” the subject at the core of her self-understanding. Modern subjects, then, understand themselves as never fully occupying their identities; there is always more to the modern subject than her role. And this means that the roles themselves are less than they had been; they carry less meaning and weight; they are less impressive, less efficacious. In fact, fully aware of the distance between the person and her role, we are inclined to see the role as a sham, a ruse, a cover for corruption or abuse. We become aware, in other words, of the tautological character of symbolic roles and social institutions: the judge is a judge because we treat him as a judge; people become married in a marriage ceremony because that’s what a marriage ceremony does.
The crisis of symbolic investiture impacting modernity thus reveals the violence and compulsion, the “vicious circularity,” underlying social order (a point Santner explores with reference to Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”). Typically, subjects forget or repress their knowledge of violence. This forgetting and repressing is necessary for the continued function of the social field and the credibility of symbolic identities. At points of crisis, however, knowledge of the dependence of the social function on coercion and repetition becomes difficult to repress. At these points, Santner tells us, “we are at the threshold of a psychotic universe where the subject has become unable to forget, unable (primordially) to repress the drive dimension of the symbolic function, which expands into a general state of rottenness and decay.”
Santner’s crisis of symbolic investiture deepens and extends Zizek’s account of the decline of symbolic efficiency insofar as it connects the crisis of symbolic investiture to paranoid psychosis. Santner argues that a central lesson of the Schreber case is that a generalized loss of symbolic power can generate feelings of overproximity, “loss of distance to some obscene and malevolent presence that appears to have a direct hold on one’s inner parts.” Confronted with the excessive proximity of authority, the subject can’t continue to play the game of everyday life, a game that requires it to deny the “impasses and dilemmas of symbolic power and authority.” A challenge to or the traumatic loss of symbolic authority impacts the subject such that he feels this now missing authority to be all the more close, powerful, and intrusive, and confronts the underlying irrationality or violence underpinning authority per se—the tautological way we obey law because it is law and accept the judgments of a judge because she is the judge. Santner’s psychotic, then, is not delusional because he accepts as certain what is necessarily false, but because he denies the falsity, the fiction, the lie necessary for the functioning of the symbolic order. The psychotic doesn’t fall for the performative magic of utterances backed by symbolic authority; he focuses instead on the “rottenness and decay” that underlies them.
Before I turn to Lacan, I want to draw out the implications of Zizek’s notion of the decline of symbolic efficiency and Santner’s discussion of the crisis of symbolic investiture for thinking through the problems posed by the 9/11 truth movement. Zizek draws our attention to the movement’s setting in a context of profound skepticism: contemporary subjects don’t have to believe; they can find out. This skepticism is coupled, moreover, with a sense of certainty or confidence—not everything is called into question at the same time, and, some sources are more reliable than others. So, contemporary Americans might claim the media cannot be trusted and support that claim with evidence taken from media that they actually find trustworthy. Their trust, however, doesn’t travel from one setting to another. What they find to be authoritative, to count as expert knowledge, is similarly limited.
I read Santner as extending Zizek’s point in a more specific direction, one characterized by the loss of a powerful authority or of authorizing power. The subject responds to this loss by positing an all the more intrusive, invasive, and proximate power, by failing to believe the fiction of the symbolic order and suppress the sense in which it covers over arbitrary power. As a model for understanding some responses to 9/11, Santner’s “crisis of symbolic investiture” suggests that those who see the event in terms of the United State’s government’s failure, its inability to secure its citizens and its territory, might respond to this loss by positing another power and by tracing the workings of this other power throughout the socio-political terrain. For them, the loss of US power is accompanied by a loss of signifying authority, an ability to provide meaning, and to authorize an explanation of the events of 9/11. They don’t accept the authority of the administration’s signification of the event; instead, they focus on the “rottenness and decay” underlying political and state power.
I turn now to Lacan so as to specify the discourse that arises at the site of this crisis of loss . In Seminar III , Lacan distinguishes between the psychotic and the normal subject, writing:
What characterizes a normal subject is precisely that he never takes seriously certain realities that he recognizes exist. You are surrounded by all sorts of realities about which you are in doubt, some of which are particularly threatening, but you don’t take them fully seriously, for you think … that the worst is not always certain , and maintain yourselves in an average, basic–in the sense of relation to the base–state of blissful uncertainty, which makes possible for you a sufficiently relaxed existence. Surely, certainty is the rarest of things for the normal subject.
The normal person has a lot of doubt, but he doesn’t let these doubts get in the way of his everyday functioning. There are many things he doesn’t know for sure, but this doesn’t bother him. He doesn’t worry about it. In fact, his happy persistence requires him not to ask questions or look to closely at things. The normal subject carries on in an uncertain world where many things are unknown and lies are pervasive. Indeed, Lacan says “the normal subject spontaneously rejects certainty,” he may deny the truth that is right before his eyes just so he can keep on going.
In contrast, for the psychotic, “reality is not the issue,” certainty is. What he is certain of may well be ambiguous, unclear, opaque. But, he is certain, nonetheless. And this certainty does not correspond directly with reality; reality isn’t at stake; after all, normal subjects persist in a terrain of reality filled with uncertainty and falsity. The psychotic rejects this ambiguity, the ambiguity of the everyday, of language, replacing it with certainty. Further, Lacan notes that the psychotic’s certainty is often be expressed through writing. The paranoid write, they produce “sheets of paper covered with writing.” Schreber, for example, published his writings on his psychosis, which raises the question for Lacan of what the need for recognition might mean. Perhaps it might be a need for acknowledgement or community as a way of lessening the unbearable and direct confrontation with power alone; perhaps Schreber’s desire for recognition is a desire for conversation and camaraderie, for others with whom he might discuss and compare his findings such that he might escape the isolation of his certainty. At any rate, networked communication technologies provide ways of meeting this need.
Lacan defines psychosis in terms of the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father and the hole this creates in the chain of significations. As he puts its, “something primordial regarding the subject’s being does not enter into symbolization and is not repressed, but rejected.” Because the Name-of-the-Father or master signifier stabilizes and makes possible language and signification as such, in its absence there is chaos. The psychotic responds to this hole, this chaos, in various ways. He may affirm, emphatically, another Other. Most of us are familiar with paranoia as positing an Other behind the scenes, pulling the strings. Often, this Other remains mysterious, enigmatic. This comes as no surprise given the absence of a way to hold the signifying chain together. The lack of such an anchoring point perpetually stimulates the effort to find meaning.
To compensate for the hole in the symbolic, the psychotic turns to the imaginary. Lacan refers to a “captivating image.” The psychotic fastens on this image, positioning himself in relation to it. Insofar as this relation remains at the level of the imaginary, it is not a symbolic relation capable of anchoring meaning or offering a clear degree of separation between the subject and the other. On the contrary, precisely because the relation is on the imaginary plane, it is characterized by fear, rivalry, and aggression. He enters into a rivalrous game with the imaginary other, a game of deception and deceit that turns the subject’s world into a kind of fantasmagoria, an uncertain terrain where nothing is as it seems, where everything is permeated by meaning and significance. The subject may try to mimic the conformist behaviors of those around him as he grapples with the intensity of his fears and of this rivalry. He may seek to avoid confronting his awareness of the power and aggression, but as his psychosis becomes more acute, he will be less able to deny the obscene intrusions of power that surround him.
Thus far I’ve emphasized several aspects of the Lacanian account of psychosis: that psychosis is a reaction to a hole or absence, that this reaction takes place on the level of the imaginary, and that it involves certainty, fear, distrust, and a sense of permeating meaning that may be expressed through writing and publication. I want to add one more aspect of Lacan’s discussion, an aspect that returns us to the setting of psychosis. Lacan writes:
To be more or less captivated, captured, by a meaning is not the same thing as to express that meaning in a discourse designed to communicate it and reconcile it with other variously received meanings. In this term received lies the driving force of what makes discourse a common discourse, a commonly admitted discourse.
The hole to which the psychotic responds, the hole constitutive of psychosis, is a gap or absence in the “commonly admitted discourse.” Normal subjects don’t perceive the hole; for them, the symbolic order is intact and they ignore, as best they can, the ruptures of the Real. The psychotic perceives the hole and reacts to it, but he reacts in a way that he can’t fully communicate. The image that covers over or takes the place of the hole doesn’t function in the same way for normal subjects because for them its place is already occupied. Thus, they can’t reconcile the psychotic’s image, no matter how certain it may be, with the other meanings constitutive of reality. It is simply not part of a common discourse.
But, what if discourse is not common? What if our conditions are characterized by the decline of symbolic efficiency and the presence of a variety of differentiated discursive habitats? What, in other words, if the words of the government are already greeted with skepticism and doubt? Today, in part because of the internet and in part because of market driven publishing, texts that might have once remained solitary, like Schreber’s, can become part of a group, a scene, a genre, a movement, a community. Schreber’s psychotic writings don’t establish a social link; even as he narrates his experience, his writings remain an object within psychoanalytic discourse. Networked information and communication technologies end this isolation, allowing for the emergence of a discourse of the psychotic, a discourse that reacts to a hole with certainty, fear, distrust, and a permeating sense of meaning.
Because it is built around a hole, an absence, this discourse has trouble communicating its findings, its discoveries, to other discourses, to discourses that have already integrated a signifier in the place of the hole. So even as the psychotic discourse may adopt the patterns of other discourses, the hole which generates its investigations remains unrecognized, disallowed. What it finds meaningful cannot be reconciled in their terms.
As it tries to find acceptance, to be recognized, confirmed, as it tries to transmit its findings, the psychotic discourse tends to hold itself together by mimicking other discourses. It forms itself in their image, as their clone, attempting thereby to attract to itself their already established credibility. Particularly compelling in this psychotic attempt is its reliance on fundamental aspects of language and sociality. Psychotic discourse accentuates the truth that, as Lacan says, “language entirely operates within ambiguity, and most of the time you know absolutely nothing about what you are saying.” The psychotic confronts us with the lacks in languages, with indeterminancies that we normally overlook. And, more fundamentally, he reminds us of the violence and irrationality underlying the symbolic order, the way law “is sustained not by reason alone but also by the force/violence of a tautological enunciation, ‘The law is the law,’” as Santner explains. The psychotic discourse thus tries to prevent us from repressing what we already know, undermining thereby the conditions of possibility for credibility.
The Truth of 9/11
Having set out the idea of a psychotic discourse in terms of a hole around which a certainty, fear, distrust, and conviction of meaning circulate, I return now to September 11 th .
Both the official and the unofficial accounts of the events of 9/11 confront the specific horror of the disintegration of the social link, of the symbolic pact holding society together. The official story emphasizes the incompetence of the US government, its failure to deliver on its trillion dollar defense budget and actually defend. In the face of this overwhelming display of the broken promise of security, Bush repeats, almost daily, his promise to protect the American people, to secure freedom and the
American way of life. The repetition reminds us of the loss that compels it.
Part of what gives the administration’s account of 9/11 its force is the way it hammers home a fact of which we are all secretly aware, namely, that of our underlying passivity, how we are “helplessly thrown around by forces out of our control.” Rooted in this passivity, the logic of the incompetence theory is a drive for more power, more security, more surveillance. As it reiterates the meme of loss, the Bush administration seems almost to enjoy its own passivity, its own failure, finding therein a way to ask for, and get, more power.
Fortified by the efforts of the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Defense, and various foreign intelligence agencies, the Bush administration is certain it knows who did it and why. Initially, the administration didn’t feel the need to back up its certainty with proof and was thus reluctant to provide evidence for its claims: the administration failed adequately to fund the 9/11 commission, fought over the release of documents, and resisted testifying before the commission; Bush and Cheney ultimately testified, but in the Oval Office and not under oath; any notes the Commissioners made during the meeting were confiscated. We should also note that even as the administration now claims to know who did it, it emphasizes that it did not know who was going to do it or when they were going to do it. They didn’t have advance warning or information. Their incompetence is thereby rendered as their failure to function properly as a subject supposed to know. They didn’t know, but now they do and they will continue to know. And, it doesn’t matter if anyone believes them. Bush’s conviction doesn’t depend on polls, on what people think. He acts on what he knows—in his gut, a clear pervert in the Lacanian sense.
The 9/11 conspiracy theories follow a different circuit. Although certain, their certainty is not, like Bush’s, that of the pervert who makes himself an instrument of the big Other. Rather, it is a psychotic certainty, a certainty that something horrible happened and that the evidence for this horror is clearly before us, if we only know how to see it. They know that some in the administration are not victims but criminals, powerful, wicked, evil criminals able to carry out a conspiracy that took the lives of nearly 3000 Americans, sent the economy into a tailspin, and led to two wars. Countering the official story of passivity, here the government acts, ruthlessly. It’s organized, efficient, able to execute its plans without a hitch. Those arguing that 9/11 was an inside job challenge the Bush administration’s efforts to reinforce its by power by drawing attention to the already excessive, obscene power on which the administration rests. It can already do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, and get away with it. It has the means, the capability, and, most of all, the will. The underlying conviction affect that this view generates, then, lies from its expression of our fundamental unfreedom—an unfreedom awareness of which we normally repress.
One might wonder why, if the government or a subgroup within it already has this sort of power it would go to the trouble of taking down the World Trade Center, particularly in the redoubled fashion that appears in emphases on both controlled demolition and airplanes. If the Bush administration, Cheney, or some secret cabal wanted war, and some advocates of alternative explanations point out that plans to invade Afghanistan were already in play as early as June of 2001, why would they go to the trouble of an elaborate attack on US office buildings rather than just going to war? If they are so powerful do they really need permission, consent, legitimation? Or, if they wanted to attack Iraq, why not blame the Iraqis for the destruction of the World Trade Center directly, why not have Iraqi hijackers rather than Saudi and Yemeni hijackers, particularly given the close relationship between the Bush family and the House of Saud? Or why not just attack Iraq on trumped up intelligence of an imminent nuclear threat? Given power’s demonstrable excess—which is what the 9/11 conspiracy theories demonstrate, what they can’t repress—why would power need to display this excess? For whom is it staged?
In the psychotic discourse of 9/11 truth, power is staged for itself. It’s the way that power is trying to produce itself as new world order, a new big Other at the site of loss. 9/11, in other words, was power’s attempt to found a world through the massive expenditure of jouissance and institution of the Law. From the standpoint of the conspiracy theories, 9/11 is the founding obscenity or crime that initiates a new order. For those involved with 9/11 truth the primary political task is dissolving this order. Yet, at this point, they come up against the passivity underlying their fundamental fantasy: the subjects or, in their words, “sheeple” who fail to share their certainty. And, here they overlap with the official discourse on 9/11
I think of the problem posed by this passivity in two ways. First, the excess of obscene power is so overwhelming that one is rendered powerless in its presence. In the official discourse, this appears in the impossibility of being able to prevent another attack, in guaranteeing safety—measures like taking off our shoes and belts and putting liquids in tiny bottles in clear plastic bags accentuate this pervasive helplessness. Anything could happen. Everything is dangerous. In the psychotic discourse of 9/11 truth, passivity before power appears in the way that, if the government or a secret cabal of insiders could carry out so effectively the incredible conspiracy of 9/11, then it can do anything. We can do nothing to stop it. Its control is everywhere, an octopus with eye-covered tentacles. Second, insofar as the psychotic certainty displaces belief, it comes under the pressure of its own drive. On the one hand, its knowledge persists despite disproof of certain claims—as David Ray Griffin argues, the knowledge of 9/11 is cumulative, not deductive. On the other, such certainty tends to demand uniformity—we can’t necessarily believe those in our own movement. Thus, already members of the 9/11 truth movement accuse one another of spreading disinformation or of producing unreliable and unverifiable studies. We know government is all powerful—and if it’s all powerful, how can we trust anything we know? How do I know I’m not being manipulated?
This is where the conflict over the truth of September 11th comes up against the hard rock of the Real. And, not surprisingly, this doesn’t provide us with a way out, with a way through the radically incommensurable perspectives on 9/11 that we see in the official and unofficial theories. Instead we have the “impossibility of ever attaining the neutral nonperspectival view of the object.” The gap between the official and unofficial accounts of events can’t be filled in with a set of facts. It’s more fundamental, an indication of the larger disintegration of symbolic efficiency, diminution of the conditions of credibility, and change in the status of knowing and knowledge. Indeed, as an event that can be signified, it’s “never fully verified precisely because … there is no external limit to it.” The official and unofficial accounts thus perpetually circle around a void that cannot be filled, deriving their enjoyment from the circuit of drive.
What is the role of alternative or progressive media in this environment? My discussion of 9/11 truth shows that new media can be vitally and virally effective. It helps build movements and communities. It provides alternative sources of knowledge and information. The counterknowledge it produces enables the emergence, and the flourishing, of epistemologically differentiated spaces. Networked communications—particularly in their continued entanglements with the mainstream media—format the terrain of battle between competing conceptions of the Real.
Of course, the subjects navigating these spaces cannot be understood as modernity’s typical rational individuals. It’s not the case that they simply evaluate the available alternatives, choosing among them on the basis of the best evidence. Far from it—they have no basis for evaluation, particularly insofar as they confront the competing alternatives daily, alternatives about which some are certain, others skeptical, and few actually believe, precisely because of the persistent undermining of belief under conditions of the decline of symbolic efficiency.
The proliferation of contents and voices, sources and alternatives, links and possibilities so vital a counter to corporate media’s investments in and support of global capitalism—particularly in its neoliberal form—creates conditions amenable to the flourishing of psychotic discourses. Does it make sense to try to learn from them? Is it possible that endless confrontation with skepticism combined with an inability to repress our knowledge of power’s obscene underpinnings could potentially release people from acceptance of the status quo, from the law, from the powers that be? Or does constituent anxiety render us passive, fearful, vulnerable to the lure of the more powerful, the more authoritative? I don’t know. But I believe that confronting this impasse is vital and necessary. Such confrontation, moreover, could well suggest that progressive energies are better spent outside the media apparatus.
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