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responsibility in a placeArrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004


Responsibility in a Place and Time of Terror

Rosalyn Diprose
University of New South Wales



1. On July 14, 2003, under the leading headline "The Traitors Within", the Sydney Morning Herald outlined ways that Australia harbours a "network of terrorist sympathisers" that supports and exports "offshore extremists" (p.1). This knowledge, that covert unforeseeable aggression directed against a sovereign state is not only possible but may come from within its territory, is one defining feature of this place and time of terror; another is knowing that one’s sovereignty will be targeted but without knowing when. Knowing that one’s sovereignty is targeted but not knowing from where, whom, or when renders the borders of sovereignty and its future uncertain. It is this uncertainty of place and time that inspires and characterises terror. At the same time, certain Government-led responses to terrorism (the ‘finger-pointing’ headlines and Government policies of surveillance, exclusion, and of pre-emptive strikes against ‘outsiders’), responses that presume to know, delimit, and seek to protect the borders of sovereignty, contribute to the terror. Assuming to know what is impossible to know, the spatio-temporal borders of sovereignty and the origin of unforeseeable threats to it, can not only instil terror in those ‘outsiders’ targeted and excluded, but also in those ‘outsiders’ arising within one’s territory. Such self-certainty in a place and time of terror effects an implosion that Derrida, in Philosophy in the Time of Terror, has called an "autoimmunitary process", where a living being "works to destroy its own protection" (Derrida 2003, 94).

2. Rather than re-tracing Derrida’s account of this "autoimmunity" I will examine the related issue of responsibility that he explicitly sets aside (2003, 98). This paper argues that the implosion from within that proliferates terror arises through the severe self-responsibility characteristic of a sovereignty that, in seeking to secure its future in advance, denies its dependence on what Levinas refers to as unassumable responsibility for the other. At the same time, as this responsibility for the other is by definition "utopian" (Levinas 1998, 216), a call from, and a movement toward, the other arising from no-place and no-time, the passivity of being given for the other that Levinas’ formula of responsibility implies could be equally terrifying. Hence, I will argue, some self-responsibility must be assumed in assuming responsibility for others. This has implications for an account of responsible government: Responsibility in a place and time of terror requires a liberal democratic politics more responsive than the Australian Government has been to its own responsibility for the proliferation of terror and to its responsibility for the ‘outsiders’ within the territory that it assumes to govern.

Community and the No-Place and No-Time of Terror

3. Tracing my Government’s responsibility requires, however, attending to my own. I do so, not because my reduced capacity to respond responsibly to 9/11 was unique, but precisely because it wasn’t; and, because tracing my own responsibility illustrates how the capacity to respond, and the affective and corporeal basis of this, is what grounds responsibility and community. A reduced capacity for responsibility and therefore community is precisely what has been fostered, censored, and left out of account in the politics surrounding the "war against terror"

4. I was outside familiar territory, in Manchester, on September 11, 2001. I was about to present a paper on politics and community framed, ironically it seems now, in terms of the Australian Government's move to shore up the borders of its sovereign territory by preventing those 430 Afghan asylum seekers, rescued by the Tampa, from landing on its shores. Poised ready to unleash 4000 cleverly chosen words I saw, next to the registration desk, the image of the World Trade Centre hit time and time again. Over the next 24 hours as that image was repeated from every possible angle, but always ending in a pile of rubble on top of 3000 lives, it captured my eyes, tore through my skin, and left my body as an open wound. Is this wound, this sensation without sense that so many of us felt, a touch of terror? Is this the "negative pleasure" of Kant’s sublime provoked by images that exceed my powers of representation? This open wound filled out into a thickness at the back of my throat, at the top of my lungs, and behind my eyes. No clever words came to close up this wound, no jokes, no sense, no thoughts, no aesthetic ideas that would enhance moral ideas of reason, as Kant would have it. I lost my sense of humour, my "she'll be right mate". I felt sick, homesick, and alone. That loss of capacity for community could have been felt even if I had been home. That sense of aloneness could be the singularity, the individualisation, the "impassioned freedom" awakened by being thrown back on oneself as being one's ownmost possibilities for existence that Heidegger says arises when confronted by the death of others that we cannot share (Heidegger 1962, s.46-53).

5. But if it was the death of unknown others that inspired this felt response this was only because those deaths arose in a socio-political context that implicated my community, my being-with others, in a way that I could not escape. For how many times before have we been exposed, via a television screen, to similar imagistic indicators of death and destruction without much affect: Rwanda, the first Gulf war, Kosovo, East Timor, and even the Tampa? From the safety of our lounge rooms we may feel reassured that we are not involved, or even compassion or concern for the targets of violence, or shame and disgust at the complicity of our own governments. But rarely do we, in middle-class Australia, witness such events in the speechless terror that accompanies a threat to sovereignty. Usually those events that the West have deemed acts of terrorism and that have punctuated my adult life - beginning with the Palestinian siege of the Israeli sector of Munich’s Olympic village in 1972 - could be expunged as having nothing to do with me. What made the images of September 11 different for me was that I could not stand outside the picture: I was immediately there as both a perpetrator and a target.

6. This exposure to the finitude of others that suggested my own, came not so much from being confronted by the death of unknown others foreign to my territory, as via the destruction of a monument to Western global imperialism of which I am a part. This was a monument to a long-standing venture both covert and overt, economic and military, that would build a world "order which is, in fact, the worst of all disorders" (Agamben 2002, 5), with no borders and no outside; a venture that does not respect sovereignty, except its own, and whose own sovereignty and force of law only become apparent when called into account. For the guardians of Western capital and of its "force of law" (Derrida 2003, 95) are elusive and irresponsible; they work in mysterious ways in extending the borders of their territory, in measuring the value and meaning of what lies within, and in deciding what counts as acceptable collateral damage in the maintenance of disordered global order. The images of the World Trade Centre being reduced to rubble, then, were not entirely without meaning for me: what they signified in what I felt was a calling into account of the guardians of Western imperialism. And if I felt for anyone beside myself on September 11 it was for the deaths of those others so easily dismissed as collateral damage: not just the deaths signified by the destruction of the World Trade Centre in the present, but also the collateral damage of the past, and mostly for the possible collateral damage in the future, which, as the images suggested, could now include me and those I know and love who live within the global shadow of the World Trade Centre. So, along with that sense of aloneness, and contrary to what Heidegger says, the thickness at the back of my throat, at the top of my lungs, and behind my eyes threw me back upon my being-with those other others whose immediate absence I so palpably felt. For, as Jean-Luc Nancy suggests, "it is through death that the community reveals itself – and reciprocally" (Nancy 1991, 14).

7. These communities, local, national, global, are formed, not by association between autonomous, free individuals who respect the same sovereign power and freedom they find, by analogy, in others. Rather, community arises from the way that, as finite or mortal beings our finitude and hence our uniqueness can only mean something of value to others. It is as bodies that we are mortal, finite, vulnerable, and make unique sense as an expression of belonging to social worlds in a way that no one has access to and, with this, as the basis of moral value. But the body’s unique sense only appears and makes sense, not as a sign of sovereignty, but by exposure, through death and through birth, to the finitude (and hence uniqueness) of other bodies in community (Nancy 1991, 28; 1993, 204). At the same time, community, and the circulation of meaning that sustains it, only arises and makes sense through the sharing and preservation of this uniqueness. A community, however large and however disordered, cannot be maintained when suffering inflicted by these elusive forces of Western imperialism strip the bodies of others of the opportunity for community. Under such conditions community, meaning, and Being will implode. In the extreme, those guardians of a disorder that is maintained by so much collateral damage may be called into account and reminded of their community and, therefore, of the effects of their imperialism, by violence in return. Then there may be no future toward which impassioned freedom extends, and no home to want to come home to. Terror: the disabling of the future and an attendant implosion of meaning and Being, not from a single event that we might call 9/11, but without a locatable origin and possibly without end.

8. Sovereign power rendered explicit in being called into question is simultaneously sovereignty wounded. In the absence of anything that can immediately heal this wound and restore sense, there is the tendency to close it over with hate, blame, retribution, and anger against those we would perceive as belonging outside the territory under attack. And I am no less guilty of this tendency than anyone else. But the menace that haunted my nightmares immediately following September 11 was not a Muslim fundamentalist with gun raised in the air. It was the Lone Ranger who, sitting tall and proud on his reared white horse, has linked the body of my community to the wild west of American culture since childhood. As the thickness at the back of my throat, at the top of my lungs, and behind my eyes turned to anger and blame it was that menace, that aspect of my being with that I tried to expunge from my territory. The rhetoric of indignation, patriotism, retribution, and war, that flowed out of George Bush's mouth only served to fuel my anger and the blame. "No" I said to Bush's TV image, and to Tony Blair's as he joined the chorus, "this is not an attack on democracy and freedom but a response to the economic, military, and cultural imperialism that has been carried out in their names."

9. Viewing this event as an attack on the freedom of the sovereign individual or a State raises the spectre of responsibility. Under the umbrella of such a notion of individual freedom, someone or something, considered equally free, can be held responsible for the action that puts my freedom under threat. As Judith Butler explains: talk of rooting out the agents of terrorism "accords with our own idea of personal responsibility" allowing a plan of retribution against an agent of terror that is "easier to hear" than an account of our "collective responsibility" for the pre-history of September 11, a pre-history of Western imperialism that contributes to the conditions that give rise to agents of terror (Butler 2002, 4 & 11-12). Armed with these ideas of responsibility and freedom the Lone Rangers of the 'Coalition of the Willing' hold Osama bin Laden responsible and target territories that might harbour him. Failing to find that agent in Afghanistan, and by some weird twist of logic, Saddam Hussein is held responsible and countless others as the deck of cards fall. I take the opposite, but no less easy, option and blame the US, at least initially. But holding the US solely responsible for this place and time of terror is just as dependent on a spurious notion of individual responsibility that would order, rank, and target a deck of cards.

10. And besides, it denies the Lone Ranger in me. As Anthony Burke (2001), among others, has shown, events like the Tampa symbolised the first of only the most recent of Australia’s "Pacific Solutions" to perceived threats to its territorial integrity. So, true to its history of nation-building and within weeks, Australia added its meagre forces to a Will that was set for an expression of sovereign power that Foucault, with his emphasis on disciplinary power, had not envisaged for our time and that I could not hope to escape. With the aim of protecting and reasserting its own sovereign territory, the Coalition of the Willing set about making explicit what had been largely implicit in the ordering of things: it will take responsibility only for imposing the force of law and order; in a denial of community, it will not accept responsibility for the effects of that ordering; and those who dissent or retaliate will be held responsible for disorder and the terror that this implies. That this response could only perpetuate the conditions that give rise to terror is revealed by examining more closely the pre-history, not so much of September 11 per se, but the notion of responsibility that has been evoked in attempts to heal the wound it exposed.

Self-Responsibility: From a Body Opened to a Future to Pre-emption

11. If there is such a being as the sovereign individual who is either the agent or the target of terrorism then, as Nietzsche reminds us in On the Genealogy of Morals, s/he is made rather than given. How the sovereign individual is made through the "force of law" provides some insight into the same operation of territorialisation by the forces of Western imperialism mentioned above. The notion of responsibility at issue presupposes a being who is considered the cause of their acts, can be held accountable, and so has the right to make promises and participate, by way of contract to uphold prevailing laws, in the benefits of law-governed sociality. But creating this being first of all involves time; time and meaning. If we are by nature creatures that rarely attend to impressions and barely grasp what they mean let alone attribute them to an agent in the past (whether oneself or another), then self-responsibility requires the temporalisation and signification of events. It requires the disruption of presence and the ordering of personal time into a recognisable past, present and future, all potentially accessible to the subject in the present. This temporalisation in turn requires the attaching of meaning and value to some events rather than others. Only through the codification of events can the individual recognise some events as significant and as belonging to them as opposed to events caused by someone or something else. And, most fundamentally, self-responsibility requires being open to a future with the ability to project ahead of oneself events, their meaning, and the self who owns them. In sum, self-responsibility originates, says Nietzsche, with the creation of a "real memory of the will" through a socio-political disciplinary regime and its force of law that, by ordering events and their significance, opens a gap between the decision (I will) and the future discharge of the will (the act), and a causal link between them; opens a gap between one will and another, and opens the ability to anticipate a future and, through a selective memory, to recoup in the future a past that is now present (Nietzsche GM II 1; 1967, 58). With this much Emmanuel Levinas agrees: for subjectivity, "time is needed"; there must be a "getting out of phase with the instant"; a "divergence of the identical from itself", a divergence of the present from past and future (Levinas 1981, 28).

12. Aside from the usual tendency to emphasise the time of being in the constitution of subjectivity, Nietzsche notes that creating this responsible self also requires the constitution of the place, the territory, of responsibility. And this place of temporalisation and signification of events, and its product, is a body that can act, that has a meaningful world, and is obliged to uphold the values and laws that govern that world. The responsible agent is created through the "mnemotechnics" of pleasure and pain whereby sensations are ordered and make sense. It is by discipline of a body through the force of law that some ideas become "unforgettable" (Nietzsche GM II 3; 1967, 60-1). Not only are events (like the destruction of the World Trade Centre) and moral ideas (including the idea of responsibility) thus lived by the body, but also innocuous ideas of custom such as the idea that the sun will rise tomorrow and will be the same sun that I saw yesterday. It is the repetitious association between sensations and their social meanings that the body is both spatialised and temporalised, a futural gap opens between the body that wills, the body that acts, the body that has done, and the body of another. Insofar as a body bears the burden of meaning incorporated through its social governance, it also bears the burden of responsibility and with this a past that it can own in the present and the compulsion of a future opened in advance.

13. There are two interim points arising from this account of the constitution of the self-responsible individual. The first is that, to the extent that responsibility depends on the spatio-temporalisation of a body, this is enabled by a socio-political disciplinary system that governs the circulation of meaning, law, and value. A democratic government guiding this force of law is therefore responsible, not directly for the acts of individuals within its care, but for providing the conditions that enable bodies to be open to a future so they can thereby act and make sense. Second, it is these bodies, acting in a meaningful world and open to a future, that are at stake in the battle over responsibility between sovereign powers that refuse to be called into account for the effects of their force of law and the terror that this unleashes. It is these bodies that are undone, rendered senseless, and barred from a future in a place and time of terror. I will return to both these points.

14.. The minimal requirement then for agency, for sensibility that makes sense, is the opening of a body to a future; not a future formulated in advance, just a future per se. Responsibility, decision-making, and agency, do not rely on certain knowledge of the future but rather on "risk and …an act of faith" (Derrida 2003, 118). In assuming responsibility, the self risks itself for a future; the self "goes under" as Nietzsche puts it (eg. Nietzsche Z Prologue; 1978, 9-25). But the ideas of responsibility and freedom assumed by the Coalition of the Willing would remove this risk: it expects the preservation of its autonomy, the endurance of its image of itself, and certainty about what its future should look like. Under such conditions the self or a sovereign State is expected to be pre-emptive. The key to such a responsible will certain of the truth and goodness of its ordering of things is a "temporality of time [that] makes possible, however, a recuperation in which nothing is lost", at least nothing of significance to the self (Levinas 1981, 28-9). As Nietzsche puts it:

To ordain the future in advance in this way, man must first have learned to distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present, to decide with certainty what is the goal and what the means to it, and in general be able to calculate and compute. Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does! (Nietzsche GM II 1; 1967, 58)

15. The question is whether and at what cost such autonomous self-responsibility is assumable, whether one’s future can be ordained in advance and recuperated in the end, and whether and at what cost an individual or a Government of a sovereign territory can claim responsibility for itself, its force of law, without taking responsibility for its effects on others. While Nietzsche is critical of how the process of spatio-temporalisation that constitutes the responsible self is normalising, (it takes place under the guidance of a "social straightjacket of moral values" and so is not genuine self-responsibility), he does think that a truly sovereign individual can emerge from this disciplinary regime in the end. This would be the individual or state who becomes its own measure of value, its own law, who is "liberated again from the morality of custom", who is thereby autonomous, and so is a genuinely responsible and free agent with power over him/her self and his/her fate (Nietzsche GM II 2; 1967, 59-60).

16. Even if such "genuine" self-responsibility were possible it has not been manifest in agents who, as products of Western imperialism, would now seek revenge for past suffering inflicted on them; nor is it manifest in the defenders of Western sovereignty who seek retribution in response. For what characterises the genuinely sovereign individual or state, for Nietzsche, is not revenge against those who transgress its apparent integrity, but forgiveness. If the place and time of sovereignty could be secured pre-emptively through the self-legislation of meaning and value it should be secure enough to forgive transgressions of the meanings and force of law that sustain its sovereign territory (Nietzsche GM II 10; 1967, 72-3). Only the most secure, the most unified, the most self-responsible community could endure such injury "without suffering from it"; "it goes without saying," although Nietzsche says it, "that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man" (Nietzsche GM II 10; 1967, 72-3). Arguably, such privilege is not enjoyed by those who have suffered under the forces of Western imperialism (although such impotence in no way justifies the events of 9/11). But given the military, economic, and codifying might of the Coalition of the Willing, why is there no sign of mercy or forgiveness from that quarter? Why does the Coalition of the Willing resort instead to the kind of justice characteristic of a half-baked responsibility; "revenge" sanctified "under the name of justice"? (Nietzsche GM II 11; 1967, 73-4)

17. Recourse to revenge rather than mercy suggests that our ideas of freedom, autonomous responsibility, and sovereignty remain ideals and therefore insecure. Moreover these ideals are necessarily insecure because, insofar as they rely on shoring up a future pre-emptively, they support the transgression of the uniqueness and extra-territoriality of others. Nietzsche admits to the suffering inflicted on others in maintaining the self as the measure of meaning and value in the "social contracts" for which these self-responsible subjects are destined (Nietzsche GM II 5 & 8; 1967, 64 & 70). In a sociality of individuals responsible only for themselves, justice becomes a struggle, an exercise in measurement, the establishing of equivalences across different centres of freedom. Disagreement over law and challenges to the force of law that guides the establishing of equivalences are thus viewed and lived as the breaking of the contract, as ingratitude, as a wounding of the sovereign self. And, for this, debts must be extracted from the dissident other, pain must be inflicted, dissent censored.

18. Under this idea of autonomous self-responsibility it is therefore difficult to tell the difference between an agent of freedom and an agent of terror. For, as Nietzsche suggests, freedom, as the "will to self-responsibility," is not autonomous; it is measured "by the resistance which has to be overcome … to stay aloft" (Nietzsche TI 9:38, 1968, 92). Moreover, the amount of resistance to this self-proclaimed freedom of Western democracies and to their force of law is a measure of just how far the borders of that sovereign territory have been extended in appropriating its future in advance; the resistance is a measure of just how much difference and dissidence must be quashed to keep that force of law aloft; and, as a consequence, it is a measure of just how fragile that sovereign territory is. This freedom of self-responsibility is not self-sufficient; nor is it extended democratically. That is why those images of September 11 were so terrifying - not so much because the seemingly impenetrable borders of US sovereignty, and by implication Australia’s, had been infiltrated by its enemies for the first time, but because the borders of US sovereignty, and by implication our own, have been covertly extended so far in the past thirty years that those enemies have been made, through collateral damage, to lie within. That the force of law of Western territorialisation is inseparable from its sometimes terrifying effects is why for all its attempts to find the agent of terror outside itself, the US cannot. And this is why, as a citizen of one of those nations that stand along side the US in its struggle to root out the agents of terror, I cannot stand outside the picture either.

19. That the ideal of autonomous self-responsibility must continue to reassure itself by claiming responsibility only for maintaining law and order rather than also taking responsibility for the effects of its freedom is why even Kant, for all his talk of peace, as good as justifies war in the Critique of Judgment. War, he says, is "sublime" in the way it allows a nation to take pleasure in and so reassert the sovereignty of the moral self that has been temporarily undone by the terror of an infinite power that it cannot represent nor thereby contain (Kant CJ 263:2-8; 1952, 112-3). It is for this need to secure the dominance of autonomous reason that Nietzsche says "[n]ot even in good old Kant" has the world "lost a certain odor of blood and torture": "the categorical imperative smells of cruelty" (Nietzsche GM II 6; 1967, 65). Since Kant, "[w]e have been accustomed to reason in the name of the freedom of the ego – as though I had witnessed the creation of the world, and as though I could only have been in charge of a world that would have issued out of my free will" (Levinas 1981, 122). Only an ego that deludes itself in believing the self-sufficiency of its own power of creation, and in the goodness of this (and I include myself in this delusion) would attempt to heal the wound that now marks a challenge to its sovereignty by persisting in reassuring itself that its future can be ordained in advance through expressions of sovereign power; and this despite all indications that this just proliferates the collateral damage and so raises the stakes. But such autonomous self-responsibility comes late if ever, forgetting the imperialism that supports it.

20. So, too late and in our names, the Australian Prime Minister and his Government denies the pre-history of Australian sovereignty and its force of law, denies the effects of our freedom, pretends our borders always stopped at Bondi Beach and Darwin, assumes a unity of meaning and value within, claims responsibility for only the good, remembers the bad as caused by agents outside us, willingly assists in launching strikes blindly against those outsiders (in Afghanistan and Iraq) deemed responsible for our suffering, and having thereby re-coded the borders of our sovereignty at Bondi and Darwin, exports our self-responsibility and its creative powers again in the name of law and order and a second Pacific solution: to Bali, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. While it is impossible to live without some borders, these forms of border protection only proliferate conditions for terror. As September 11 was not enough to remind us that self-responsibility is not self-sufficient and not separated from its effects, we will also need to remain alert and alarmed, mobilise truckies to keep tabs on suspicious behaviour, and censor dissent. For as the Sydney Morning Herald suggests, the traitors to the image of unified national sovereignty being codified by these border-protection policies indeed do lie within, beginning with the expressions of the uniqueness of all of us.

Responsibility for the Other

21. If assuming responsibility by reasserting sovereignty does not heal the wounds of September 11, what can? Levinas would say that the wound that challenges the sovereignty of an imperialistic ego is always already there and cannot be healed without inflicting more suffering on others. While, as Nietzsche suggests, the responsible self may be built through a socio-political disciplinary regime and its force of law, "the condition for, or the unconditionality of, the self does not begin in the auto-affection of a sovereign ego that would be, after the event, ‘compassionate’ for another. Quite the contrary" (Levinas 1981, 123). The self begins in ‘compassion’ for the other, in response to the other’s finitude and uniqueness. Only by admitting that self-responsibility carries this relation to otherness within can we explain why others can challenge our assumption of sovereignty even at a distance and why we cannot expel such a challenge to our imperialism by reasserting sovereignty.

22. Freedom of the will to self-responsibility, while lived and real, is, as Levinas suggests, neither original nor unlimited (Levinas 1981, 122-29). As the ability to speak, reason, signify, decide, act, the ability to respond, respons-ability is founded in response to the irreducible difference, the uniqueness, of the other, subjectivity is a unique, non-volitional response to, and ongoing responsibility for, the other (Levinas 1981, 110-118). It is, for Levinas, the other’s uniqueness, therefore, that inaugurates the getting out of phase of the instant, the temporalisation of time, which constitutes a self who would be self-responsible. But, as this alterity affects me before and beyond the temporality of time, the opening toward a future it inaugurates cannot be closed: recuperation of the self through memory and by securing the future in advance is impossible. This is also true of the constitution of the place of self-responsibility: the body that acts is dependent on responsibility for the other that enables it. It is the strangeness of others, the extra-territoriality of a no-place unconstituted by me, that I feel, rather than anything that I recognise, judge, or can measure, that moves me to act. And the response that I am is corporeal and affective; respons-ability is sensibility beyond, and as a condition of, a body with meaningful projects open to a future.

23. Naming this affective response to alterity respons-ability is not just a play on words: unassumable responsibility for the other is, for Levinas, an ethical relation where meaning and value are introduced into being. The other’s "absolute" otherness signifies, through a body, a "unique sense" that inaugurates and situates the production of social meaning and the attendant ordering of the responsible self (Levinas 1987, 95-6 & 88-9). While Levinas does not put it this way, it can be said that the other’s otherness signifies their unique value, as an expression of belonging to a world that I do not have access to, and their vulnerability and resistance to my projects, evaluations, and judgments. What Levinas does say is that this expression of uniqueness of the other puts existence on a human and moral plane; it says "thou shalt not kill" and this unique sense starts the circulation of meaning that constitutes responsibility and community. As a response to the other’s finitude I am therefore responsible for the other who moves me and who I cannot contain (although Levinas sometimes extends this responsibility for the other further by saying that I am "responsible for what they do or suffer" (Levinas 1981, 112)). This is a responsibility that puts the freedom of the ego and its imperialism into question (Levinas 1981, 110) by limiting my freedom to possess, kill, or in any way negate the other’s uniqueness. And, more positively, this responsibility, as compassion for another, supports our humanitarian and liberal democratic principles: responsibility is "impassioned freedom" that would build a world in which the other’s uniqueness would be free. It is, therefore, for the other’s future, beyond the place and time of my sovereignty, that I am responsible. Political and personal attempts to secure one’s future in advance, through reasserting the borders of one’s sovereign territory, by imposing one’s reason upon the world, and through vengeful pre-emptive strikes against strangers, effectively deny one’s responsibility for others and, with this, risk the community of all of us.

24. If we add to this analysis Nancy’s model of community with which I began, such a philosophy of war and politics of exclusion not only kills off the uniqueness or extra-territoriality of others but also, in codifying national sovereignty in these terms, kills off the conditions of one’s own subjectivity and community (Diprose 2003). If responsibility for others enables an open future necessary to sustain oneself in a meaningful world in community with others, the attempts of Coalition of the Willing to ordain the future of its own sovereign territory in advance by denying its responsibility for the future of others, actually closes down the future, not only to those targeted, but also, simultaneously, to those within its territory. While the self is given the place and time of self-responsibility through responsibility for others, this place and time, as I have argued above, is actualised in bodies under the guidance of political regime that governs the circulation of law, meaning, and values. Politics, therefore, matters in keeping these bodies open to the other and thereby open to a future. Just as these bodies within Australia therefore bear the burden of self-responsibility made by politics, they bear the burden of terrifying expressions of "freedom" that would dissolve the place and time of subjectivity and prevent the expression of its uniqueness within community.

25. The image of Australian sovereignty being codified through policies of exclusion of, and pre-emptive strikes against, others who have done it no harm, is of a unified self, held to itself, severed from others, and thereby deprived of the means of expressing its own finitude and uniqueness in community. For people who have already lost some capacity for community through the pre-history of September 11, its interpretation and aftermath, this is not an image of our future from which we can derive much comfort. By holding us to this image of ourselves, we are held to the present, risking nothing for a future, marking time, transfixed in one place, and afraid of strangers and changed circumstances. Perhaps it was in order to reopen ourselves to a future, by reopening the possibility of the reciprocal expression of the uniqueness of others in community, that 70 per cent of Australians said of Australia’s proposed participation in the war in Iraq either "Not without the United Nations" or "Not at all in my Name". The Australian Prime Minister, in dismissing such protests as mere opinion in comparison with his own plan for ordaining a future in advance for an Australia made in his image, maintained the conditions for the dissolution of community.

Responsibility on a Place and Time of Terror

26. This is not to suggest, however, that peace, meaning, and openness toward a future can be restored after 9/11 by doing nothing, by giving up the will to self-responsibility and submitting ourselves passively to the accusations of, and suffering inflicted by, others. It needs to be said that whatever the suffering inflicted by Western imperialism that may have given rise to the agents of the events of 9/11, the challenge to that imperialism issued by those agents, and the suffering inflicted as a result, is no more justified and no less a misplaced expression of self-serving freedom that overrides the uniqueness and extra-territoriality of others than the imperialism that may have given rise to it.

27. Any suffering undergone as a dissolution of the place and time of subjectivity is by definition meaningless, useless, for no purpose. Useless, unwitnessed suffering, as both Nietzsche and Levinas suggest, is what we deem "evil" (Nietzsche GM II 7, 1967, 68-9; Levinas 1998, 92-3). But both also suggest that useless suffering is to some extent "congenital". For Nietzsche, the useless suffering that is congenital is the suffering inflicted as a consequence of the deification of cruelty in the figure of the sovereign individual. For Levinas, however, suffering inflicted by such sovereign forces is not congenital nor, therefore, inevitable; this is "suffering and evil inflicted deliberately … in a manner … of a reason become political and detached from all ethics" (Levinas 1998, 97). This is what covert Western imperialism, the "terrorism" of 9/11, and the subsequent "wars against terrorism" share: they are all manifestation of a politics detached from ethical responsibility for others. On the other hand, for Levinas, the suffering that is congenital is that of responsibility for the other, "the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering of the other" (Levinas 1998, 94). While Levinas’ privileging of responsibility for others would thereby keep a check on a politics that justifies the suffering of others in the name of asserting sovereignty, responsibility as "suffering for the suffering of others", risks proposing, not a political reason detached from ethics, but an ethical openness to the extraterritorial that is detached from politics. Levinas’ tendency to privilege ethics over politics (eg Levinas 1986, 29), and a passive, affective responsibility for and giving to others over law and self-responsibility, would privilege the dissolution of self, the undoing of place and time of bodies into sensation without sense, a utopian no-place, no-time, and no-meaning. This may be characteristic of unconditional responsibility for others but is also characteristic of terror. This does not suggest any viable political response to the events of September 11.

28. If, through 9/11, we bore witness to the suffering of others, to the collateral damage, past, present, and future, of the forces of Western imperialism, some meaning needs to be restored to our suffering for the suffering of others that emerged in this bearing witness. While a politics of revenge that reasserts territorial integrity and fosters a fear of strangers does not restore meaning to this suffering, nor does undergoing it in speechless passivity. Restoring some meaning to this useless suffering requires acting responsibly for oneself by acting responsibly for others. This implies, however, a reciprocal, rather than asymmetrical, relation between ethics and politics, between responsibility for others and self-responsibility. What is congenital is not "evil" but bodies supporting a link between the two: It is a body that links ethics to politics reciprocally, that links responsibility for the other to responsibility for oneself. Bodies that act with meaning, that enact the spatio-temporalisation of being, are also bodies that are affected by the other, that feel compassion for the other, that suffer for the suffering of others. These bodies are at risk, not from that suffering or from an unknown future, but from being deprived of community. Just as responsibility for the other opens a future for the self so it can act, the act, to have meaning and value, must be as much for the preservation of the other’s uniqueness, and with that community, as it is for itself.

29. Australia is abundant with such responsible bodies, bodies that are attempting to regain their impassioned freedom with gestures toward the uniqueness of others that would circumvent the Government’s politics of war and exclusion. Gestures that are obviously of this order include work being done to welcome asylum seekers and the largest anti-war protests Australia has seen in thirty years. Less obvious work for an open, heterogeneous future, but no less passionate (and arguably more characteristically Australian), can be found in unprecedented devotion to international sporting events of all kinds (with more than the usual support for the other team and the "underdog") and an upsurge in interest in comic political commentary. These responsible bodies open to a future require, however, a responsible politics that would sustain them. So do those bodies that do not yet have at their disposal the time or resources to regain their capacity for community.

30. Politically this means, as Levinas emphasises more in his later work, that it is for the sake of maintaining the uniqueness, "extra-territoriality", or independence for the other that liberal democracy is inspired toward justice for the other. In so far as ethical responsibility for the other supports liberal and democratic principles and the community it inspires, the liberal democratic state is not defined by asserting the unity of its sovereignty territory, by ordaining the future in advance, nor by justice based upon revenge; rather, the "capacity to guarantee that extra-territoriality and that independence defines the liberal state and describes the modality according to which the conjunction between politics and ethics is intrinsically possible" (Levinas 1993, 123). While, as Moira Gatens (1996, ch.2) and Anthony Burke (2001) have argued, liberal democracies arose for less liberal reasons, have been built on the exclusion of others, and fail to deal well with the "foreign", this analysis suggests that this failure is not inevitable – only to the extent that a liberal democratic polity, in the context of globalisation, ignores the principles that are now said to ground its existence. It is not just for the sake of the preserving uniqueness of peoples deemed external to one’s territory that liberal democracies exist, but also and more so for the "extra-territoriality" and uniqueness of those within. Liberal democracy disappears in proportion to a Government’s failure to take responsibility for the uniqueness, the suffering, and the capacity for community of those within its care.

31. It seems to me that this disappearance of democratic liberalism is what we are witnessing in the wake of the Australian Government’s response to 9/11 (a tendency already apparent prior to 9/11 in various attempts to reassert territorial integrity, exclude otherness from without but also within, and to censor dissent). It is not just the Australian Government’s willingness to wage war against strangers that undermines the principles of maintaining and fostering the uniqueness of others; it is also that in codifying its national sovereignty in these terms, the Government denies both the uniqueness and self-responsibility of those citizens within its territory and so undermines their capacity for community and responsibility for others. A responsible democratic politics would build its self-responsibility on responsibility for the uniqueness of others. Such responsibility would minimally involve reopening one’s territory, to strangers and a future in ways that are less marked by the assumption of sovereign power, whether asserted in the name of freedom or terror, and less driven by the desire to control what the future might be.

32. In this task, the Australian Government could take a leaf out of the book of my friend's four-year old boy. When I returned to Australia after 9/11 he welcomed me with open arms and with a smile as big as the world. Aged two, as he was then, he was touched enough by others to welcome; not yet self-possessed or defensive enough to fear the response. His welcome restored to me the capacity for community through which bodies make sense in expressing their uniqueness. But, like all welcomes, his was conditional - I had to sit down and join with him in naming the animals in his picture book. While I continued to call a snake a snake, he was open enough to call a zebra a dog and make me laugh, not at his mistake, but at the rigidity of my own force of law and the ordering of meaning it involves. If he can be open enough to the strangeness of others and to a different order of things, then so can we all. As my anger, fear, and blame subsided toward the restoration of community, that thickness at the back of my throat, at the top of my lungs, and behind my eyes was for him and for the open future that he inspires. What he inspires is a politics that understands that to build one’s self-responsibility though responsibility for the uniqueness and suffering of others is to work for a future beyond the present place and time of one’s sovereignty. A democratic Government that works for this would be welcome to act in my name.


Rosalyn Diprose teaches in the School of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. Her publications include The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment, and Sexual Difference (Routledge, 1994) and Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas (State University of New York Press, 2002). Her current research focuses on the relation between ethics and politics in the formation and dissolution of communal 'bonds'. Email:


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