“9-11” and Other Failures of Imagination

It probably strikes you as counterintuitive to learn (via) that the Eredo in western Nigeria — “A six thousand five hundred kilometres square cluster of community earthworks [that] runs for about sixteen thousand kilometers” and dates back to the 8th century AD — required more earth to be moved than the Great Pyramids at Giza.

This is a massive freaking structure, but because it’s so ancient and because it required such a gigantic social effort to build, recognizing its existence requires us to think two thoughts that don’t fit easily into the narrative of “Africa”:

1. That Africa had old societies; and

2. That these societies could be as constituted by powerful social discipline as any other society.

Not that the slave labor that built that big wall is particularly praiseworthy, of course; I’m not going to get all Skip Gates here or anything. But when we think the Egyptian pyramids, we have a set of narratives available to us to make them thinkable: despotic Oriental despot building massive “look on my works ye mighty and despair!” type structures built by slave labor. When we think “Africa,” on the other hand, I suspect the first narrative that comes to mind is the Heart of Darkness way of framing Africa as “the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings,” the primeval jungles of unchanging (and unchangeable) permanent pastness.

You probably know that narrative is basically bullshit. But while we might know its insufficiency, that knowledge is, itself, insufficient. For example, when I asked my class whether they trusted Joseph Conrad’s account of Africa, no one was going to say yes, and not only because they could tell what I wanted their answer to be; those lines are just obviously a scared and ignorant man making grand claims about the thing he’s scared and ignorant of. But knowing the colonialist propaganda to be colonialist propaganda isn’t enough: unless you have a compelling counter-narrative, you’re still locked into the terms of the original formulation. You can know that Africa isn’t what Conrad shows it to be. But what is it instead?

In my class, I’ll move on from Conrad to Achebe and Yvonne Vera, and suggest that they offer different ways of narrating Africa, both tuned to and struggling against the narrative trap Conrad puts them in. But neither of those frameworks will tell me anything about the Eredo, will it? The problem is much, much bigger than that.


I’m thinking about this, really, because I just read Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and I found it both brilliant and frustrating. Thinking through the why of that reaction, I think it comes down to the sense that while I’ve not read a more compelling demonstration of how insidious, perverse, and nightmarishly fictional our “war on terror” narratives are, how deeply infused our thinking is with a categorical “failure of imagination” which overdetermines our failing over and over again to make sense of what has happened to the world in the last decade or so, Kumar’s book is not, by a long shot, a solution to the problem.

This is less a criticism of Kumar’s small book, of course, than a recognition of how deep we are wedged up our own assholes in this regard. We’re very far from having any alternate narratives. But what Kumar’s very small book accomplishes is still significant; as Manan put it in a nice review:

It is when [Kumar] widens his gaze from the terrorists to the arts, to public speech and to advocacy, in order to highlight the efforts of artists to observe, catalogue and explain – and the efforts of the state to control, coerce and regulate – that his book becomes a truly horrific indictment of post-September 11 “failure of imagination”. He correctly identifies “all of us” as participants in the state’s war on terror – sanctioning the drone attacks, extra-judicial assassinations and extraordinary renditions. By focusing on the banality of the state’s cases against the old, the infirm, the misfits, the ill-suited, Kumar reminds us that the war raging far from our doorsteps is also all around us.

To put it another way, if we must, Kumar’s accomplishment is to make a compelling case that the 9/11 Commission was right to blame what happened on a “failure of imagination,” but that the problem is not only much, much bigger than that, but it’s metastasized into a problem that has little to do with 9-11 any more. While the narrative frames that were used to deal with terrorism before 9/11 were shown to be spectacularly insufficient by the events of 9/11, the problem now is that we’ve not only not learned anything in the years since, but — if anything — we’ve actually unlearned quite a lot more.

After all, the 9/11 Commission wanted to know what would be needed to stop another such attack, and they came to realize that the attack succeeded because no one in a position to stop it was able to imagine the possibility of it. The “terrorist” is a narrative that does more to impede useful action against the people it is meant to describe; on 9/10, what people thought they knew about terrorists — for one thing, the belief that they did know what a terrorist was — was exactly the thing that prevented them from recognizing the possibility of a terrorist that didn’t fit that model. The more secure you are in your belief that terrorists do x and y, the less secure you will be against a terrorist who does Z.

But that was only what the 9/11 Commission realized, and even Donald Rumsfeld’s famous bit on “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” showed real engagement with the problem of how you anticipate an enemy you know nothing about. In 2001, the security establishment was reeling and shocked, and a certain amount of creative engagement with the failures of their own epistemology was the result. What Kumar demonstrates in his book, I think, is something scarier, that the window of opportunity in which our political and cultural apparatus could have been re-configured — in which a “we” could have formed uniting those who wanted neither Islamist terrorism nor the foreign policy that makes them inevitable —  has not only closed with a resounding bang, but that precisely because we’re still trying to understand what a “terrorist” is, we’re just as far from being able to understand the world process going on that makes them inevitable.

This is what animates Kumar’s interest in people like Hemant Lakhani, for example, the sad-sack Willy Loman who was entrapped into buying a missile from the FBI and selling it back the FBI (after the FBI shipped it to itself). It seems eminently clear that Lakhani could never and would never have committed an act of terrorism without someone else basically doing it for him, and yet the point is that when the FBI basically handed him a willing seller and buyer, he was ready without hesitation to be the middleman. Where does such a person come from? The question of whether or not he is or isn’t a “terrorist” — Kumar argues — is not only irrelevant, but distracts us from the much more pressing issue of why there are so many people like him, the vast mass of “small people,” as Kumar puts it, who share an experience of the United States that makes terrorism thinkable to them, regardless of whether they ever would or could do anything. Our “failure to imagine” them and why they exist makes us unable to see the things they see, a safe obliviousness which is precisely why memorializing 9-11 is so useful to amoral people who want to use it.

I’m not done with this problem. None of us are. I want to look again at Kumar’s book, which I read so quickly I’m not sure I digested it carefully or critically enough. I want to think more about that weird mix of fascination and frustration I had. But this line of thinking gave out on me when I got caught up in other things; as is often the case with blogging, this was written in a sudden burst of inspiration, but that muse departed when I got caught up in the banality of classes and other reading and varium, and I’ve learned enough about how I write to know that, when the original spirit is done moving, it‘s time to get off the pot. And today seems an a propos moment to post this, even though I feel like I’ve only just started thinking about the problem and haven‘t satisfied myself with my answers. But we’ve got the rest of our lives to deal with this shit, don’t we? I have friends whose children weren’t born when 9-11 happened, and students whose memories of it are faint and childish, and yet how fucking long are we going to have to deal with shit like Terry Jones on this day going forward? The world that began when America troops launched a war on “terror” wasn’t as different as the one we lived in before then — at least not as different as the one we’d like to think it was — but it’s the one we’re going to grow old in.

So let me stop for now with some thoughts I had on reading the Criterion Contraption’s review of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Starting with the storm of controversy that greeted its release in 1989 — in which every respectable reviewer tried to answer the question of whether the movie was at fault for racial violence or just violently negligent in refusing to condemn black violence — the great Matthew Dessum notes that while “Lee doesn’t say anything about institutionalized racism that would have been out of place on the editorial pages of the New York Times,” Lee’s crime “was to make a film where a perceptive viewer will identify to a disturbing degree with the anger felt by all of the characters, to understand why Sal smashes Raheem’s boombox and why Mookie throws the garbage can.” It was a movie that made rage thinkable, in other words. It neither defended nor condemned that rage — indeed, the movie makes it clear that that’s the wrong question — but it forces you to understand how and why someone might do what Sal and Mookie do, to imagine yourself in their shoes and feel yourself smashing that boom box or throwing a garbage can through a window. But we can’t have that, can we? To imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who could imagine taking part in an act of terrorism is almost completely verboten, even as it‘s the thing that even the 9-11 commission was trying to argue was necessary.