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monstrous knowledge Arrow vol 1 no 1 manifesto
About borderlands Volume 1 Number 1, 2002

Monstrous knowledge
in a world without borders

Robert Hodge

University of Western Sydney

1. As is now well known, at the end of 2001 three hijacked planes crashed into three buildings in the U.S.A - an event that was immediately labelled, by left and right, by local and global media, as ‘an event that changed the world’. Meanwhile in Australia, unnoticed by the world media, a small group of academics was preparing to launch an interdisciplinary electronic journal called borderlands. One event, the Event, quickly symbolised a new awareness of the fragility of borders, and constructed a new generation of monsters to inhabit this too-open world. The other was a small monster created to thrive in interstices, between and across borders. In this article I want to trace interconnections between these two events, and begin to theorize a context in which such interconnections can become a richer, more powerful basis for a more effective practice.

2. The Event smashed into many things, amongst which was the current organization of knowledge in institutions of learning in Universities in the ‘western’ tradition. In 1995 I described that organization as a dual structure, in which a dominant disciplinary form of knowledge is contested by a looser, critical transdisciplinary form I called variously ‘new Humanities’, ‘postmodern’ or ‘monstrous’ knowledge (Hodge 1995). In the scenario I sketched then, disciplinary knowledge still dominated most institutions and areas of study, but the fluid, dynamic strategies of transdisciplinarity were inherently better able to understand the multitude of new objects and new connections constantly thrown up by a dynamic post modern world.

3. That still seems more or less true to me, but at the same time the Event has posed a major challenge to this whole situation, including current assumptions and strategies in various branches of ‘postmodern’ knowledges. It is not that disciplinary forms of knowledge suddenly came into their own, but the Event has dramatically drawn attention to an object in the world today that needs more than current forms of transdisciplinarity. That object is a new, dynamic and chaotic relationship between the three elements that make up the simple sentence ‘an event that changed the world’: events, change and the world. Where Lyotard famously saw the essence of the ‘postmodern condition’ as a ‘turn to language’ (1986) there is now an irrestible pressure for another turn: a ‘turn to chaos’.

4. From this perspective, ‘events’, big and little, cannot so easily be separated out from the structures that are still primary in late as in early Foucault, in theorists as diverse as Bauman, Jameson and Derrida. Some events cannot be treated merely as epiphenomenal effects of underlying causes, but themselves have potent agency, in a dynamic interaction between causes and effects, systems and structures at every level. ‘Eventology’ might be constructed as a new focus of studies, which centre on disruptions: earthquakes, hurricanes, El Niño the African droughts, and other physical disasters, epidemics like AIDS, political events like the Tampa effect in Australia, the attacks of September 11.

Shock waves in Australian academe

5. In an article in The Australian (24 October 2001, p 31) headed ‘Wake up and smell the cordite’, Luke Slattery draws a clear lesson for Australian academics from the Event. His wake-up call is directed only to one kind of academic, ‘postmodernist intellectuals’ and their ‘relativism’. They need a ‘reality check’, he proclaims. More than 5000 people dead in the attacks is the smack of reality the postmodern somnambulists surely cannot ignore, he argues, though his tone suggests he thinks that even this will not be enough.

6. He has an important point. Whether the body count is more than 5000 or less than 4000, as in later reports, the difference is not important. This number of people killed is far too many to be sacrificed to make a symbolic point. The Pentagon and the ‘twin towers’ of New York are ideal symbols of US economic and military empire, but no ideological point justifies the waste of human life. It is time to start counting, and to place a higher value on human lives.

7. But Slattery’s concern with ‘reality’ begins and ends with the events of September 11, 2001. It is significant that the Event is normally referred to in US media as ‘911’: the date turned into a triple numbered code, a secret shared by the whole population. In Mexico, where I write this reflection on the impact of an event in New York on Australian intellectual life, the normal term is ‘las torres gemellas’, the Twin Towers. The Mexicans forget the Pentagon and turn the event into a myth, where it connects with the blockbuster ‘Lord of the Rings’ which played to packed houses at the same time. The US form refers to a date, but it is only another way of taking the event outside normal time. The complex history that led up to the attack is removed from the number. The actions that flowed from it, its complex ongoing effects, are less obviously but just as completely removed by this linguistic device. Slattery’s body count begins and ends with the deaths of 9-11. The open-ended destruction that followed is motivated and legitimated by the attack, but not part of the same order of reality, not part of the ‘wake-up call’.

8. The number of innocent people killed in the terrorist attacks was outrageous and indefensible, on moral grounds that were shared by most nations and cultures on the planet. By the same principle, the well-documented deaths caused directly by US state policy are also outrageous, numerous, and indefensible. The modern world is a dangerous place, too full of injustice and deaths of innocent people. But the paradox of Slattery’s position is that he shows an extreme form of the ‘relativism’ he accuses postmodernists of. For him, death is not death if it happens to non-Americans, or not on American soil, or not on prime time TV, but in vast tracts of the ‘third world’ beyond the gaze of US media. Politically-motivated relativism like this is collateral damage from the Event.

9. Slattery’s attack on ‘postmodernism’ in Australia is a reprise of another Event, on a smaller scale, which took place some years before. In 1996 Alan Sokal, a physicist with a secret hostility to ‘postmodernism’, submitted an article from a critical (‘postmodern’) point of view to a special issue of the New York journal Social Text. After it was published, he claimed it was a hoax, because he didn’t really believe in postmodern ideas. The fact that Social Text published it proved that postmodernism lacked standards and was intellectually bankrupt. (See Hodge 1999 for a discussion of the controversy). In Australia, other anti-pomos dominated strategic sites like The Australian with claims Sokal had proved a case by pulling off his trick. Slattery, former editor of The Australian's "Education" section, clearly drew confidence from this earlier triumph. In his mind the postmodern enemy had already been routed by Sokal. This final blow to a defeated foe was like saturation bombing on the last caves where the last Taliban huddled in terrified defeat.

10. But from another point of view, Sokal’s tactic had more in common with the ‘terrorists’ of September 11. He tricked his way past the defences of a too-trusting New York monument and crashed into it, an intellectual kamikaze attempting to destroy a symbol of the enemy, incidentally but without remorse causing extensive ‘collateral damage’ (to reputations of fellow New York academics and many others, to academic standards, which previously would not have seen a hoax as acceptable professional behaviour, nor any kind of proof). The narrative is similar: only the signs are changed, with different outcomes. The New York terrorists provoked a far more powerful enemy to retaliate with overwhelming force. Sokal’s terrorists already commanded most of the resources in the world of the academy. His ‘postmodern’ enemy have not retaliated like Bush’s USA, partly because they do not command such unequal forces.

11. The lesson I draw from this is not the need for ‘postmodernists’ to buy arms for a new war of terror against the disciplinary establishment, to catch the enemy with surprise attacks or nuke them through their defences. On the contrary, it points out the dangerous, counter-productive stupidity of that whole cast of thinking, the urgent need for an approach which does not create any such boundary. The Event is a challenge to many current branches of knowledge. It is multidisciplinary in its demands, covering far too many areas of knowledge for any individual to know them all in any depth. This creates problems for disciplinary knowledge, since no one discipline will provide more than a fragment of what is needed. Yet it also creates problems for most current forms of ‘transdisciplinary’ studies, because too many relevant ideas and information are buried in disciplinary or non-academic hiding places, not part of a ‘transdisciplinary’ formation.

Monsters and borders

12. The world today is chaotic and turbulent, interconnected on an ever-increasing scale, moving ever farther from equilibrium. On that there is more or less general agreement. But there are two diametrically opposed kinds of response to this agreed state of affairs. One is the turn to chaos, in science and humanities (‘chaos theory’ see Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, Gleick 1988; ‘postmodernism’, see Lyotard 1986). The other is a turn to order, as in the hostility to postmodernism represented by Sokal and Slattery. These moves in the world of ideas are mirrored and driven by a similar set of responses in the political and social world. The laws and forces that operate in these two worlds are so similar, drawing on underlying common attributes, that I want to outline a single theory to begin to understand them: a theory of monsters and their borders, of borders and their monsters, five laws that describe stages in a process.

1. In conditions far from equilibrium, borders are simultaneously more impossible and more desired.

2. Borders are created as reactions to the monstrosity of chaos, and monsters are created by these borders, in a dialectic process in which both borders and monsters acquire material dimensions, becoming ‘real’, having ‘real’ effects.

3. The ‘real’ penetration of borders in such conditions then projects a multiplicity of phantom monsters, and glimpses of ‘real’ monsters across these penetrated borders produce a multiplicity of new borders, real and phantom.

4. Attempts to impose order produce more chaos, in the form of excessive borders and empowered monsters, thereby producing a sense of isolation and risk behind these excessive borders, leading to a desire for new alliances and new connections, and to new breaches in the new borders, which the patchwork of created borders puts at risk.

5. As meanings cross and recross these borders they shift and change, sometimes inverting and reinverting until each side is full of contradictions, becoming a distorted reflection of the other.

13. The ‘new world order’ and the vicissitudes of ‘neoliberalism’ are cases in point. ‘Neoliberalism’ is the name given to an economic doctrine which is played out minimally on a global stage, with economic premises (a global free market) at its core, and a political program attached. In this form it is a doctrine based on the elimination of borders. But at every point in practice there is a continual equivocation with borders and their monsters. As boundaries between nation states dissolve (as Hardt and Negri 2000 proclaim has already happened) a massive, new more problematic boundary develops, between ‘North’ and ‘South’ (a rough map that tries to contain the problem within real though highly fuzzy geography) or between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, rich and poor. But these latter categories are so widely distributed they cannot be located in any map: with the poor inside even the richest nations, and the rich in control of many of the poorest. The new border is impossible to draw, and even more impossible to police, since there is no authority empowered to do so. Hardt and Negri claim that a new monster has emerged to oversee this process, to manage the otherwise incomprehensible and uncontrollable flows of globalisation, and they name it ‘Empire’. But like so many other ‘monsters’ created out of a contemplation of borders and their problems, ‘Empire’ still does not evidently exist, for good or ill.

14. The ‘new world order’ is a Disequilibrium Machine, a manic device which produces exponentially increasing inequality (of power, wealth, health, conditions of life) on a planetary scale, affecting all nations and peoples, transforming political and cultural relations between people, changing the relations between humans and all other species, between humans and the life processes of the planet itself. It is a single process at every fractal scale, to use the useful concept developed by Mandelbrot (1977), in which every level (from ‘global’ to ‘local’ and ‘individual’, with countless homologous levels in between) exhibits a common form, characterized by a radical transgression of boundaries, and the production of new forms, new ‘monsters’ to fear or welcome.

15. Paradoxically, one strategy that has developed to cope with the terrified perception of uncontrollable flows has been a neo-liberal theory of a benignly borderless world, which celebrates the free flow of goods and money across previous borders which effectively cease to exist as a result of these flows (flows which can only exist, in all their freedom, if the borders are first dismantled). A necessary side of this argument is that the other, more problematic border (between rich and poor) does not exist either, because everyone on both sides of it benefits, now or in the future. The potential monstrosity of the other is normalised by terms like ‘developing world’ (‘they’ are not monsters, but on the way to being like ‘us’). But as the ‘developing’ world develops only increasing impoverishment, a gulf is projected between what is seen now as ‘two worlds’. The more the ‘other’ protests that there is indeed a gulf, that ‘they’ are not becoming more like but more different, the more anger and suffering are projected onto the other side of a boundary which is too vast and unlocated to be thinkable in practical terms. They become monsters on the other side of a border: the more monstrous the more the border is denied.

16. If the ideological effort that went into sustaining this fiction is shattered, as it was by the Event, then the energy that was locked up in creating an image of a world without borders or monsters is released, available to be invested in the creation of monsters and borders in an explosive abundance. Borders that were denied are aggressively accepted, and along with them hyper-borders emerge, justified by the monster it created.

17. In academic knowledges there is a parallel process. Since ‘globalization’ has been recognised, for about two decades, to be a world-transforming force, there is a perceived need for something like ‘globalization studies’ to study it. Countless special conferences and forums have sprung up around globalization and related themes. But if ‘globalization studies’ need to exist, as they clearly do, they must emerge fully grown like Athena from the head of a disciplinary Zeus: interdisciplinarity on a radical new scale, out of a body of knowledges still organised primarily along disciplinary lines.

18. Inertia on its own would produce formidable problems in the generation of such interdisciplinarity, but to inertia is added another motive. If the problematic boundaries in the world produce inconvenient and inexplicable contradictions, then the dominant ideology of neoliberalism can then reproduce those boundaries in the form of borders between disciplines. If for instance the (claimed) economic benefits of neoliberal policies produce dangerous political, social, cultural and environmental consequences the contradiction can be controlled by uncoupling economic analysis from political, social, cultural and ecological analysis.

19. If these forms of analysis cumulatively produce a comprehensive critique of neo-liberalism, then the dangerous possibility of an alliance between them all (and with critical economic theory, which also exists: eg Sen 1997) can be controlled by policing disciplinary boundaries: at least, this illusion drives this tendency of thought. The monster (‘globalization’, ‘neoliberalism’ ‘terrorism’, ‘resistance’) is thereby banished from most authorised courses in universities, insofar as they are organised in disciplinary terms. But this device is powerless to prevent the monster, the monsters, from being thinkable. They breed and propagate with frightening speed and force in spaces that cannot be policed by disciplinary machines, in extra-territorial conferences, in new journals (like borderlands), in popular debates, in the unregulated spaces of the Net.

20. But as with the world outside the academy, globalization produces a new, amorphous border within the field of knowledge itself, which mirrors in a complex double form the contradictions of the globalizing world itself. In countless spaces, disciplinary and transdisciplinary, in universities in every country in an academic system which has long shown all the features of advanced ‘integration’ into a single global system, there is a division which crosses all these other boundaries, organised fundamentally by attitudes to boundaries. Since Lyotard we can call this tendency ‘postmodern’, although the term has been appropriated by its opponents in order to construct it as a monster (used of mostly faceless groups attributed with almost total power). We can call the opposing tendency ‘traditional’, recognizing again that this term is mainly used by opponents to construct the monster that has monstered them.

21. A number of paradoxes circulate around this situation. The first is that the boundary in this case is as diffuse and impossible to locate as the boundary between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, but this phantom boundary creates monsters on either side, who then emerge, in shadowy but ‘real’ form, to attack opposing monsters or their phantom representatives, and to build and defend walls that become ‘real’ as well as phantasmatic.

22. Unlike the world of knowledge, in the material world material equality seems sufficiently evident to be beyond dispute. The ‘rich’ (people, nations etc.) seem visibly far richer and more powerful than the ‘poor’. Counting (of incomes, possessions, rates of disease and mortality) seems to work as an agreed common language. But even in the material world, things are not always so beyond dispute. Osama bin Laden in a video interview claimed the attack was not only a triumph beyond all expectations, but that Allah would guarantee an ultimate victory as well. The apparently weak will be powerful in two senses: morally (in the eyes of Allah) and materially, in events as they will unfold.

23. The immediate aftermath – rapid US military success in Afghanistan, the burgeoning war on terror legitimated by the attack – seemed to demonstrate unequivocally, to anyone with eyes to see, what ‘reality’ really was. Yet reality exists at many levels, in many time frames. The short-term outcome seems clear enough, but not the longer-term consequences, which will be equally real when they happen. Even in the short term, the world and US economies were damaged by 911, so that ‘capitalism’ was actually as well as symbolically struck a significant though not decisive blow.

24. In the academic war, it is harder to identify ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, but many indicators suggest that disciplinary forms of knowledge are still dominant. In Australia for instance, the Australian Research Council is the peak government body distributing the majority of research funding, which is increasingly used to divide the academic community into ‘research’ universities and teaching universities, and within institutions, between ‘active researchers’ (full citizens of the academic community) and others. The categories used by ARC are primarily discipline based, and ensure that the bulk of money and prestige still flow into disciplinary research. In recent years some new transdisciplinary categories have been added to the list, but the majority of categories are still firmly disciplinary. In these terms, disciplinary knowledge is the marker of the ‘haves’, and transdisciplinary knowledge marks the ‘have nots’. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is still the intellectual third world in the Australian system.

25. Yet critics of ‘postmodernism’ like Slattery and Sokal write passionately as if pomos dominate most key sites, as if disciplinary knowledge has been dispossessed, as if their intellectual terrorism is justified by the overwhelming power of their enemy. There is a similar contradiction at the heart of the widespread US response to the Event: simultaneous fear and sense of total vulnerability, and arrogant confidence in the unlimited US might. For all the appeal of Slattery and Sokal to ‘reality’, the reality that drives their position likewise is the reality of their own contradictory desires and fears, projecting a lurid substitute for the kind of reality (material, objective) they claim. At the same time they renounce any interest in ‘reality’ on behalf of their enemies, the pomos.

26. In all this, it would be foolish and dangerous for pomos to accept in any way the present anti-‘postmodern’ exclusive claim to ‘reality’, as implied by Slattery, and their own exclusion from any such appeal. ‘Reality’ is the site and stake of every intellectual struggle, every intellectual search. Exclusive claims to truth are the intellectual equivalent of a land grab: normally based on dubious grounds backed up by some kind of terror, in which only the land and the fraud are real. No serious intellectual should renounce any interest in ‘reality’: especially not to anti-pomo tricksters like Sokal or Slattery.

27. To dismantle the borders that create monsters, transdisciplinarity needs to draw on some of the disciplines that deal in and scrutinize various relevant kinds of ‘fact’, whether taken for granted or in dispute. At the same time, appeals to ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ are never enough across a monstrous border. Fears and desires on either side can turn all arguments into their opposite. The fears and desires themselves need to be heard, even if they seem as deluded as bin Laden does to Slattery or Sokal, or as they would to him.

Transdisciplinary strategies and the challenge of Events

28. The Event is a monster, from the point of view of current forms of knowledge, because it is so huge, so amorphous and with such potent effects. In different aspects it involves such disparate disciplines as politics, economics, law, engineering, geography, anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy and comparative religion (including Islamic Studies and Capitalism Studies, if such exists) among traditional disciplines, and semiotics, discourse analysis and cultural studies among more transdisciplinary studies, along with many kinds of history. As a global event it touches on all forms of area studies, most obviously American Studies and Middle Eastern Studies and, from Australia’s point of view, an Australian Studies rather different from current forms, but also all other regions where ‘terrorism’ is an issue, where support for terrorists or the war on terror may come from: European studies, Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, African Studies. Only Antarctic Studies does not seem relevant, for the moment, but I could be proved wrong about that. I list them all to make the point: the globalizing world is very large, very interconnected and very complex.

29. There are many different points of entry into something as complex as the Event, whether from different disciplinary or transdisciplinary bases or area studies. Yet the complexity of the Event continually exceeds each of these, in their present form, creating a pressure to follow up other lines, find other connections with other sources of data, other methods of inquiry, other disciplinary areas. If these pressures are firmly resisted the result is likely to be a tight, ‘disciplined’ article or book which will be systematically obtuse about whole classes of relevant factors, whose ‘explanations’ will impress only a small circle of disciplinary affiliates. High boundaries guarantee partiality and irrelevance. Outside the disciplined world made safe with all these compartments, the monster still prowls, unexplained by bodies of practice whose primary task is to explain. Yet the demands of a fully transdisciplinary or global enquiry seem impossibly demanding: so many different connections to be made across a vast, open-ended and constantly changing field. Low boundaries and chaotic flows mirror the phenomena but seem to undermine the possibility of understanding.

30. The Event has exposed weaknesses in all three forms of organization in Australian universities. There is no strong Middle Eastern studies centre, for instance, and the level of understanding of the Middle East and the Arab world in Australian universities is dangerously close to negligible in disciplinary departments, and transdisciplinary groups alike. In Cultural Studies, for instance, Edward Said is almost the only known voice from the ‘Arab world’. However fine his books, they do not give a sense of the range of what is thought, felt and experienced in a large, diverse region. It is far from enough. And the next major Event may come from a different region, from Africa, Latin America or some part of Asia. Even worse, it may come from a part of the world Australians do not know enough about to realise it is a major Event (like genocide in African countries that dwarfs the body count in New York, Washington and Afghanistan combined).

31. As a start towards addressing the problem of total transdisciplinarity on a global scale, I look to where borderlands has found a niche: cyberspace. Cyberspace is a far from equilibrium, borderless world in which information and money flows with new speed and freedom on behalf of transnational capitalism. It is also a source of models and strategies for coping with unlimited connectivity. Of all aspects of cyberculture, the most distinctive and radically new is the concept of ‘hypertext’, invented by Ted Nelson, a founding father of cyber-theory (Feizabeidi 1998:6). It takes many forms, from the small closed sets of linked texts of Home Pages to open sets constructed by surfers on the net, to the very large sets of various search engines or the World Wide Web itself. Nelson proposed ‘Xanadu’ as a vast hypertext consisting of linked texts, a ‘backend’ system consisting of all the print works of a culture, accessed through local stations with their own data bases as ‘front-end’ systems.

32. The World Wide Web drew on the Xanadu concept and realizes most of its aims and more, in a multimedia world larger than Xanadu, with texts in different semiotic forms, or from domains that otherwise are rarely in contact. Nelson’s model can be adapted to current realities to see the totality of systems of a culture as a vast ‘backend’ global system, accessed through a variety of local ‘frontend’ processors, which include other local systems outside the Internet itself. I combine the concept of the hypertext with a development of a critical project into a strategy I call ‘Critical Hypertext Analysis’ (Hodge 2000, Coronado 2002).

33. Something like Critical Hypertext Analysis may prove to be part of the solution for what is no less than a crisis in all forms of academic knowledge, disciplinary, area studies and transdisciplinary alike, to different degrees. The idea of the hypertext grows out of earlier notions of intertextuality, combined with the dream of the borderless world of cyberspace. Where the rich hypertext of intertextuality remained within a very well-educated head, the electronic hypertext is out there, dynamic, demotic and monstrous. A critical hypertext in my sense is not the full set of available texts, which is without limit, but a set of critically motivated routes between texts and groups of texts, links which activate relations of similarity and difference, patterns of meaning which form and can be fixed against the infinite, swirling sea of the chaos of information.

34. Within a critical hypertext framework, knowledge can be accessed from different data types, including disciplinary and transdisciplinary, expert and popular sources, from many different regions, in as many different languages as can be understood by a given user. Within such a framework, disciplinary and transdisciplinary bodies of knowledge become something different and more comparable: different forms of organisation, with their own entry conditions and constraints, their borders still policed, to some extent, but crossed by too many hypertextual routes for any knowledges to remain pure.

35. Traditional disciplines (history, politics, economics etc.) become different in a critical hypertext framework. Each hypertextual discipline can be the initial point of contact with some aspect of an Event, a relay point with links to many other sites that emerge as relevant to a particular critical enquiry, which may be a different set with a new Event, a new crisis. Without borders, with multiple links, they become functionally transdisciplinary yet maintain their own coherence, held together by a set of connections that continues to make sense. Sterile wars between individual disciplines and between ‘disciplinarity’ and ‘transdisciplinarity’ would have no intellectual reason to exist.

36. The configuration of knowledges which has stabilized in ‘transdisciplinary’ formations like cultural studies or various area studies has similar needs: for looser boundaries, multiple connections, the freedom to rapidly take on any issue which emerges as important. ‘Meta-disciplines’ (like philosophy, mathematics, theories of chaos and complexity, semiotics, cultural theory) can co-exist in the same space, thriving or withering by the number of links they make with others, or others make with them. For any user, in whatever kind of academic setting, the domain of knowledge can now be a single hypertext of hypertexts.

37. There still remains the problem of the size and indivisibility of the Event as monster. Where does it begin and end? How far back does its history have to go, to capture its roots, chains of cause and effect that concatenate in its irruption as monster? How far forward will it have consequence to challenge current generalizations? What are its parts, its divisions, and how do they relate to one another? As a methodological guide I suggest that events like the Event always have a fractal structure, consisting of many smaller moments, each as complex as the Event in its totality, a totality whose boundaries are arbitrary and never reached. As in ancient magical beliefs, even a claw or a scale from a monster contains an enigmatic key to its meaning. In modern terms, each cell contains its genetic code. Moments at every level are never identical, never comprehensible on their own, but they are linked by the same kind of network as everything else, made comprehensible through the multitude of other moments that are also accessible, to some degree, via existing networks of knowledge, on the Net or outside it.

The mind of a monster

38. To illustrate, I will discuss one moment from among many in the strings of moments that flowed into and out of the Event to become part of it: as fractal, as a link in many chains, as nodes connecting to many other nodes located in many forms of knowledge. The moment I have chosen is President Bush’s speech to a joint sitting of both houses on 20 September. As a speech it was highly successful: ‘2988 words that changed a presidency’ (D Max, Good Weekend 10/11/2001, p 28). Before September 11, Bush’s popularity languished at around 51% approval. After the speech it reached 86%, and was still in the high 70s in February, 2002. (Economist 2/2/2002, p. 27).

39. That seems like a spectacular success, reason for specialists in discourse analysis or political rhetoric to study the words minutely, to discover the secret ingredient. I don’t believe there is any such ‘fact’ to be studied within the domain of one discipline. Before, during and after September 11 and 20th, Bush has given abundant signs that he is a man of very average intellectual or political skills. There is no evidence that a fragment from the attack landed in the oval office laden with miraculous, kryptonlike powers, courtesy of bin Laden, to change his mediocrity. The speech was a medium through which forces flowed. Bush’s mind resonated with the forms of the monster, generating the logic through which it reproduced as a cataclysmic global force. Only a hypertextual form of discourse analysis could hope to track this wider process.

40. It was of course a political event, not just a string of words: a speech in a particular place, after a particular event, by the person designated the President of USA. It was transmitted by TV to most US homes, and sections of it published in most newspapers in USA, and in many other countries, including Australia. It was also reproduced on the government web page, accessed (in audio and video as well as print) via the presidential web page (http:www.whitehouse/gov/). Such media reach seems an image of communication power. Yet paradoxically as messages travel across borders they can change dramatically. Bin Laden’s video, treated with contempt by US officials as worthless propaganda, combined with the image of 911 in Arab minds to produce a 95% approval among ‘educated Saudis, aged between 25 and 41’, according to a Saudi intelligence survey (Economist 2/2/2002, p 15). Bush’s speech is over-exposed internationally. In Mexico there were many highly critical analyses. On the government web page it stays still, a sitting target for critics all over the world: including Australia. In a far from equilibrium world causes can produce unpredictable and even opposite effects.

41. Bush’s aim was to construct a monster, and he did. It was a curious kind of monster, huge enough to justify the terror and the size of the response, small enough to be certain to be defeated. The solution to the conceptual problem was the idea of a network. ‘There are thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries.’ Thousands does not sound like many, but they are in ‘more than 60 countries’. That is an average of only about 50 per country: not a problem. But as a network they have a power to affect more than 60 countries: a big problem. The problem can be contained: it cannot be contained. In Bateson’s terms (1973) this is a classic double message, which according to Bateson conduces to schizophrenia and paranoia.

42. This vagueness is turned into something far more dangerous by its apparent opposite: a simple binary logic in the form of a challenge. ‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. (Applause).’ This is a decision which every nation must make, (or USA will make on its behalf). But how many nations will be turned into an enemy by this simplistic logic? More than 60? Or less? But how much less? But these doubts were not uppermost in the minds of those who applauded, in Congress or outside.

43. Defenders of the President in USA, and there are many, praise his simplicity, based on simple binary divisions which declare an absence of confusions: strong borders as a sign of intellectual power and political strength. Walter Russell Mead, for instance, senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: ‘U.S foreign policy has pundits and politicians worldwide reaching for words like "unilateral" and "simplistic"’. (in The News Mexico 24/3/2002, p 13). But he does not worry. These are just the words of the ‘global chattering classes’. Reality will vindicate US logic, he claims. For example, he predicts that US will invade Iraq, with total success, which will silence the ‘chattering classes’:

With Hussein out of the way, U.S. troops can leave Saudi Arabia. Israel, freed from its fear of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, undoubtedly will find it easier to compromise with the Palestinians. Palestinian radicals and Arab rejectionists will lose much support and prestige with a new demonstration of U.S power and will, strengthening the hands of those within the Palestinian leadership who are ready to deal seriously for peace.

In other words, by dealing with Iraq, the United States will be doing exactly what the allies keep telling the United States they wish it would do – attack the root causes of terrorism in the Middle East. (Ibid.)

44. As a member of the ‘global chattering classes’ I am amazed at the staggering unrealism of this realism. It is a fantasy of linearity: x follows from y follows from z. The U.S gets exactly what it wants, and everyone else is happy too. But it is not so clear that the U.S. will leave Saudi Arabia, or Israel will compromise with the Palestinians, or their radicals will lose prestige with this show of force, etc. Every link of this chain is in doubt. Yet this is presented in a respectable U.S newspaper as sound analysis: the ‘realism’ that the chattering classes are unable to attain.

45. The causes of terrorism are a topic Bush addressed:

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what they see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

46. The question is better than the answer, which makes no attempt to address the serious grievances many people have about the U.S role as a global super-power. For instance, since the second world war USA has bombarded 24 countries, in campaigns that lasted a total of 80 war-years. Of these Asian countries have been the victims of 34, and Latin Americans 32. Middle-eastern countries (12) have suffered less than these others. Australia is the only continent the U.S haven’t bombed. (Abu-Jamal 2001: 20). Being bombed or invaded might seem reasons to hate USA, but these facts are part of a ‘reality’ Bush is not wanting to explain. Instead, he constructs the monster as an inverse image of US values, hating what Americans love, loving what they hate: so inverted that they cannot be understood, except as inverted forms of life.

47. Some American critics have tried to provide the counter-evidence to Bush’s rhetoric. For instance, Noam Chomsky (2001) made a comparison between U.S. actions and those of what they claim are terrorists. He uses the example of Nicaragua, because the International Court of Justice considered their claims and ruled that the U.S. had used excessive and illegal force against a sovereign country, killing tens of thousands of its people, destroying its economy. The court ordered the U.S. to desist, and pay reparations. They paid nothing, and escalated the war, to a ‘successful’ conclusion: a ravaged and exhausted country governed by politicians chosen by the U.S. Who is the ‘terrorist’ here? Chomsky asks rhetorically. Bush doesn’t reply. Chomsky’s claims rest on careful research and public evidence. Bush’s aren’t. Yet Bush’s argument prevails, Chomsky’s is marginalised. It is partly that Bush is US President, but also that in far from equilibrium conditions, appeals to ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ have to cross too many borders to be heard.

48. As I have briefly indicated, these and many more lines of enquiry meet in Bush’s text, not as its ‘meaning’ but as multiple connections with other issues, other texts, other aspects of a context that is too complex to understand, too important to ignore. ‘Reality’ of various kinds is always important, insofar as it can be determined: whether the speech was successful or not, with whom and why, whether facts he mentions were as he said. The critical hypertext includes and goes beyond such issues, into a context that is a network without end: never separate from ‘reality’, always touching on its different aspects. Ultimately there is no border between understanding the speech and understanding the highly complex world the speech smashed into, like the high-jacked plane, like Sokal’s fraud.

49. If monsters are created by borders, they can be captured by Nets: by networks which create and recognize a labyrinth of interconnections in and between subject and object, between what can be known and how it is known. I return to the seeming coincidence that happened at the end of 2001: the eruption of the Event as a monster, the emergence of the transdisciplinary electronic journal borderlands. However different they seem, each needs the other. The Event needs this form of organization of knowledge to be understood, for its positive possibilities to be recognized and fostered. Borderlands can thrive from its capacity to recognize where the real challenges are, where the energy is located from which its own growth may come.


Bob Hodge is Foundation Professor of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. He is the author of 'monstrous knowledge' (1995) and other reflections on transdisciplinary research, most recently Anamorfosis (2002, in Spanish, with Lema and Satterle), as well as work on the politics of Chinese language and culture (1998, with Louie) and applications of chaos theory and fuzzy logic to language, culture and society (2002, with Dimitrov). Email:


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