In October, 2001, Giovanna Borradori conducted an interview with Jacques Derrida about the 9/11 attacks. The result was paired with a similar conversation with Jurgen Habermas, and published as Philosophy in a Time of Terror. You can read exerpts of both interviews online.

I happened to read the interview only recently, right around the same time that the supposed “Derrida Wars”, to use Peter Gratton’s phrase burst forth on the internet.

At the risk of reopening that debate, I was struck by just how much of the interview surrounds language. Here’s how it begins:

Giovanna Borradori: September 11 [le 11 septembre] gave us the impression of being a major event, one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through a world war. Do you agree?

Jacques Derrida: Le 11 septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak two languages, “September 11.” We will have to return later to this question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing more. When you say “September 11” you are already citing, are you not? You are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private lives for five weeks now.

To be sure, politics, geography, war, religion, the future and other matters come up in the discussion. But so do phrases, words, metonymies, synechdoches. Bin Laden becomes both of the latter (“Bin Laden,” that is).

It’s not that Derrida’s position is objectionable (even if some of his prose is). But it is striking more that the “event” (see, I can use scare quotes too) seems to me to invite reflection on so much more than just “this question of language,” as Derrida calls it. And more than just “this question of politics,” too.

We often hear talk about “politics after X” or “philosophy after X” (or just a “whatever after X”). Perhaps the rise of objects is, in part, a “philosophy after September 11.” Not because of the Arab world—although, indeed, one cannot ignore that Harman has spent that entire time in this world, and more recently Brassier too (relevant even if the latter is not an object-oriented thinker). Nor because of some political or philosophical (read: ethical) exigency that that day entreated. Rather, and once more I mean this just in part, 9/11 issued a whole slew of new attentions to objects. Broken-tool-like, suddenly it became impossible to ignore Boeing 767s, steel, fire, human flesh, bricks, smoke, subway trains, anthrax powder, unmarked letters, liquids/gels/aerosols, shoes, zip-top baggies, grey plastic security bins, and so forth. One need not ignore the tragic loss of human life nine years ago today to also see how it forcibly thrust things before us.

published September 11, 2010


  1. Mark N.

    When I saw the first question and first two paragraphs of this interview quoted online somewhere, I thought at first it was a Derrida parody rather than an actual interview. It seems much too close to the old jokes along the lines of “How does a deconstructionist answer a question?”

    But it seems to be a genuine interview! Some things, you can’t parody.

    He does seem to catch himself about halfway through, noticing that he’s spent the entire interview interrogating the interviewer’s choice of language, and issues a sort of preemptive defense:

    I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating […] Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language…

    But it seems he’s using language to get at something else that’s… also language. He’s interrogating these choices of words, bundles like “September 11” and so on, in order to uncover something about the reaction people have had to the event, the discourses built around that reaction, etc. But he isn’t really interested in telling us what, if anything, he, Jacques Derrida, thinks about planes, buildings, planes flying into buildings, military conflicts, etc.

    Not that it isn’t also interesting to interrogate stock phrases like “9/11”, but it seems his thing is to always interrogate those instead of ever interrogating any of the things he’s asked about.

  2. Scared&Anon

    Funny because Derrida in that quote reads like a parody of the many ‘derridaeans’ out there.

    It’s hard to take Derrida serious when you read things like that. He tried to make himself more politically relevant in the 90s (although he’d of told you that ‘Deconstruction’ was always ‘political’). But I don’t at all see the political relevance in him when he goes on like that. I find that when many continental philosophers talk about real world politics they very often end up embarrassing themselves.

    He does have a remarkable cross-over, as you probably know, he’s taught across sociology, law, political science, cultural studies, health studies etc etc.

    But I just don’t know how long we can go on pedalling Derrida and pretending to be ‘political’, his work is afterall based on a very dodgy understanding of language which will probably be considered untenable before long anyway (if it hasn’t already)…

    Point being, I enjoy Derrida for what he is, but he’s better offer being consigned to the history books and taught that way, as opposed to being considered ‘politically’ relevant. As he often is in departments ‘strong’ on critical theory and cultural sociology.

  3. Previn Karian

    The racism against ‘Continental’ philosophy aside, especially in the comment to Bogost’s post above, I am slightly overwhelmed at the incredible lack of argument and self assured dismissal of Derrida on politics. Statements such as “Funny because Derrida in that quote reads like a parody of the many ‘derridaeans’ out there” don’t prove a thing about Derrida, let alone explain where exactly the fun is supposed to be located. And not wishing to draw too much attention to language, the first sentence of the last paragraph in the comment could do with some spell check and serious editing.

    So for sure, go ahead and slap a few of your imaginary ‘objects’ around in the void if it makes your egos feel better and fuels your academic sound and fury, signifying nothing. But please don’t confuse it with any understanding or considered evaluation of ‘Continental’ philosophy. Because it is so clear to everyone, isn’t it, that your ‘OOP’ is going to make a huge difference to world politics and the resolution of sadism, masochism, perversion and cannibalism in group psychology. Ha!

  4. Tim Morton

    I beg to differ on this one. Derrida is taking issue with the way BUSH et al. turned the killing of 3000 people into an “event” with a “name” just days afterward, thus providing an excuse for killing Muslims and hijacking the feelings of the grief stricken.

  5. Mark Thompsong

    It’s hard to take your observation seriously, mainly because of the self-righteous tone (so appropriate when one opens his/her mouth about 9/11 these days) and all that nonsense about “just a question of language” – as you point out yourself, read in context, Derrida does not say that 9/11 is somehow just a question of language, but that, among other things, it is also a question of language, a question of labeling/naming – there’s absolutely nothing especially Derridean about it, it’s a very banal and even mundane observation that many made on multiple occasions. Your post reads like those annoying book reviews that tsk-tsk the author for not writing about their favorite topic – “yes, this is a good book about bananas, but where, I ask you, dear readers, are the monkeys? how can you write about bananas and not write about monkeys?” Did you really think Derrida would be talking about human flesh, bricks and stones?

    But of course you must twist Derrida’s words around to make him look like an insensitive jerk who when asked about 9/11 just went off on his favorite topic. This is just sad. I doubt this will somehow restart “Derrida Wars” – everyone of both sides already decided that love/hate Derrida. Now it’s just a game of appropriate quotations (“see, it’s all about language for him!” – “No, look, he’s talking about his cat”).

    So somehow Derrida’s raising of question of language is strange, but your very own conclusion – perhaps this awesomely wonderful rise of objects must be labeled “philosophy after 9/11” – is somehow excluded from the Derridean nonsense about “language”? Of all the online blogging philosophical “movements” object-orientated philosophy is the most sensitive to the questions of language, of how they are labeled – notice proliferation of labels (OOO, OOP, onticology etc etc).

  6. Mark N.

    But of course you must twist Derrida’s words around to make him look like an insensitive jerk who when asked about 9/11 just went off on his favorite topic.

    But isn’t that what happened? He didn’t really answer any of the interviewer’s questions at all, but changed the subject and discussed different topics, which he preferred. The interviewer sort of tried to get him back on track, but failed.

    Imagine if, say, I asked you about the siege of Gaza, and wanted to talk about food, medicine, tunnels, bombs, checkpoints, etc., and you instead kept trying to turn the conversation to interrogating the word “siege”, problematizing the socially constructed identities of “Palestinian” and “Israeli”, what is meant by the territory of “Gaza”, etc. All things one can legitimately investigate, but it would sure seem like you were trying to avoid the subject that was originally raised. Why the unwillingness to discuss medicine, tunnels, and checkpoints? And why won’t Derrida discuss the things his interviewer was trying to ask about, but instead keeps turning the discussion back to language and discourse?

  7. Ian Bogost

    Tim, why do you need to beg to differ? Surely it’s worth noting that the turning of the event into an “event” with a name is the only sort of discussion that we get. As I said in the post, it’s not that Derrida’s analysis is wrong or bad or uninteresting, but that it doesn’t in this case take up the fire and steel and so forth. Surely this isn’t an all or nothing gambit, as some of the other comments seem to believe?

  8. Erik

    this is taken completly out of context, he uproots several idiosyncrasies surrounding sept 11, that led to its particular historical treatment, that i doubt many of you were aware of. we never disconnect from how we take some terror meme. it is very relevant, and probably cannot understand his implications. hes was just consuming his literally self, all of this was probably stated in his later writings such as “on the name”.

  9. Erik

    also, i want to make a comment about new philosophy. mellisoux’s hyper-chaos might as well be equivalent to kant’s thing-in-tself and the continuum described by cantor.

  10. Tim Morton

    Ian: Tim, why do you need to beg to differ?

    Me: I see what you’re saying more clearly now. My inner Derridean wanted to differentiate himself from Baudrillard, who truly did say that 9/11 did not happen.

    Perhaps it would be fairer to say that while BushCo encapsulated the event as a unit (with a name, 9/11), JD doesn’t move much beyond this at least in the passage quoted.

  11. Tim Morton

    …and I have been known to be wrong. And dumb as a post.

  12. Andrew Uroskie

    Andrew Uroskie — Without getting into some long discussion, I find that original post on LarvalSubjects to be highly objectionable in its reading of Derrida, with a passive aggressive tone and dismissive condescension that instantly makes me what to read less about object-oriented philosophy, not more. To say that the event of “Sept 11” and the subsequent decade-long “war on terror” were not primarily about rhetoric, and the political effects of the cognitive frames that rhetoric served to establish, seems to miss a good bit of the forest in order to initiate a conversation about the objecthood of trees.

    Mark Nelson — It seems kind of absurd to claim that a mass killing was *primarily* about rhetoric. Are all events primarily about rhetoric? Certainly there was much rhetoric in the response to it, but it seems that those focusing on rhetoric are the ones missing the forest of reality for the trees of discourse about reality.

    Andrew Uroskie — If you mean the mass killing of 100,000 Iraqis in the ongoing iraq war, then indeed, rhetoric was primarily at issue in the requiring an American-led war in response to “Terror” (a noun, not a verb) rather than the establishment of an international police force directed to thwarting international terrorist actions. And that replacement of a noun for a verb has not only cost us untold international support and moral legitimacy, but a trillion dollars that could have staved off America’s recent economic decline.

    Neither events nor objects can be thought or discussed except through a rhetorical lens – that does not make them language, but it does reveal the dream of setting aside language to deal with the things themselves to be the oldest rhetorical trope in the book.

    Mark Nelson — It’s interesting that in the reply you talk about real objects! Real Iraqis were killed, by actual perpetrators, spending actual dollars, which had a real impact on a real economic system. I of course agree, but surely this is not a deconstructionist response to the Iraq War? We might instead want to problematize the notion of “Iraqis” being “killed” in a “war”, and wonder about the assumption that “dollars” were “spent” (in what sense do “dollars” exist, anyway?). Is it so strange to think that 3000 people were killed in New York City, and lots more were killed in Iraq, and both were real events that happened in the real world, not primarily in the domain of discourse? Of course, there is discourse surrounding both— “September 11” is used as a hammer by some, and “Abu Ghraib” by others. But people were really killed in NYC, and in Iraq, and people were really tortured in Iraq— it’s not just all discourse.

    Andrew Uroskie — But who on earth would think that it IS all discourse?! That’s the thing I don’t understand here. It’s like there’s desire to set up Derrida as God, who has a Theory of Everything. He’s just talking about language, and the way language works. And it’s an interesting way to look at certain things in the world. But that’s all it is – a lens, one particular lens. Of course you need all kinds of other ways to look at it as well. But language is pretty important, and not just for “them” but for “us.” Simply look at the number of times you just used the word “real.” The word “real” is itself a metaphor, of course, and not a particularly interesting one. Listen to the most idiotic politicians rant, and I guarantee the word will be one of the most often used.

    In any case, this “return to the object” is old beer for Art History – we’ve long beat up on others for not paying sufficient attention to the “materiality of the object”. So of course, I’m all for objects. I’m just curious if it’s not acting here as a defense against new media studies’s disciplinary origins in literary criticism. (?)

    Ian Bogost — Did you read the interview? It’s all about discourse, and not at all about fire or metal or plastic. That’s all I’m saying.

    Andrew Uroskie — â??@ ian – no, I didn’t. And the ironic thing is, I really should have posted this to your Blog rather than your FB page, because I was responding about 10% to your post and about 90% to the first comment you got on your blog 😉 The other ironic thing is I’m not really a huge fan of Derrida. I just hate to see people (like that first poster) dismiss the importance of language and/or rhetorical framing, since I believe it is massively important (while certainly not being all-important.)

  13. Michael

    Derrida speaks about this topic in full in Fichus; read it people.

  14. Jesse dziedzic

    You couldnt be more precise!!!