The night of May 26th, i went to Black Oak Books in Berkeley to hear the presentation by members of the San Francisco Bay Area group Retort regarding their new book, "Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War" . The writers are Iain Boal, TJ Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts, all associated with UC Berkeley in one form or another, and they claim "situationist" politics. They contend that 9/11 was an effective attack on the empire and the Spectacle, with airliners "detourned" into bombers, as one asserted during the presentation. A close friend of mine asked the first question, brought up the work by situationists Sanguinetti and Debord in exposing Italian state terrorism in the '70s, including "On Terrorism and the State". He pointed out some evidence re 9/11 being an inside job, such as "suicide hijackers" who are still alive, people standing in the WTC North Tower impact zone, where supposedly fires were melting steel, the relatively low temperatures of these fires as noted by the government's own reports, and asked why they accept the official story. (A discussion of such evidence can be found in my last article, "Left Denial on 9/11 Turns Irrational", posted here. Joe Matthews simply said "Because it's true", drawing some laughs from the audience, and went on to the next question.
Several questions all followed, none challenging the team in any way, it seemed like the audience was for the most part made up of academic and political friends of theirs. Then another 9/11 activist whom i know asked some more questions about the physical evidence, and was told to talk to my friend, chuckle chuckle, on to the next question. He, my friend and i tried shouting about the questions not being answered but were ignored. No one really wanted to discuss the matter, it seemed. And several people in the audience who i know think like us stayed silent.
Surprisingly, a woman who appeared to be part of Retort's circle of friends said that she didn't think it was right of the panel to be so dismissive a priori without at least making it appear that they have examined the evidence. The panel called upon an associate of theirs in the audience, Eddie Yuen, who edited a recent book about the anti-globalization movement. He attacked the notion of "conspiracism", i.e., seeking immediately to blame every event upon some conspiracy, as if the official story which Retort accepts isn't based upon the assertion of a conspiracy. He seemed to be dismissing the inside job angle a priori. TJ Clarke realized this didn't look good, so he proceeded to make his own remarks. He assured the assembled that "we share more with Capital than otherwise;" and lamented that the Left suffers from the "disease" of wishing to assert opposing narratives different in every particular from State mythographers. He then declared that the evidence for "conspiracy" is thin, and voluminous evidence exists for 9/11 being an outside attack, again without any such evidence being presented, as much an a priori statement as the one he seemed to want to correct.
As the crowd was leaving, one woman told my friend she thought the panel's reaction was stupid, she heard Webster Tarpley (author of "Synthetic Terrorism")a few weeks before and found the inside job evidence overwhelming. Someone else talked to the second questioner and told him he couldn't explain the physical evidence. Eddie Yuen, whom my friend used to know in anarchist politics in the '80s, told him he couldn't disprove/dismiss the inside job view, but didn't think it made a difference now after the fact (a point members of the panel hinted at as well), and then quickly excused himself.
Lots of things wrong with this picture. We have indeed an a priori acceptance of the truth of the official account of the 9/11 events, the Spectacle's biggest show ever, and an a priori dismissal of any evidence critical of this official version, proof by assertion. This alone amounts to a massive case of intellectual dishonesty. But on top of that we see a claim that what actually took place that day isn't all that important now that it's in the past, when in fact a specific version of that day's events is a key element in the case the book makes, that 9/11 represents an outside attack on the Spectacle and is a vivid demonstration of how it can still be attacked from the outside, that all opposition has not been coopted, and that radical Islamism is a force which presents a threat to the empire's well-being. If this isn't fundamentally dishonest, nothing is.
More can be said about the book. The authors make the very elementary and basic error of identifying Marx's concept of value with price, which leads to a confusion of market phenomena with the underlying processes of capital of which market relations are but a representation, and an increasingly inaccurate one at that. And they dismiss the reality of Peak Oil, which they label a neo-Malthusian myth, with an assertion that lots of oil is still out there to be exploited. One example they point to is Canada's tar sands, which in fact require the input 1 unit of energy for every 1.5 units units obtained (vs a ratio of 1 to 30 for conventional oil), energy in the form of natural gas which is itself facing a supply situation that is going over a cliff, and huge amounts of water, not exactly an abundant resource. Another example they give is liquefied natural gas, which in fact requires very specialized and expensive terminals to process, is very expensive, requires hard-to-produce tankers to transport, and is very dangerous to handle. And yet another is the supposedly huge field in the Atlantic off Mexico, which has been revealed to be mostly a mirage used by Mexico's oil company Pemex to make its balance sheets look better than their miserable state would otherwise indicate. On a radio program (KPFA's "Against the Grain", 6/8/05) Mr Matthews asserted that even if the Peak is here, that means half the earth's oil is still around, and that's plenty, showing extreme cluelessness. Good information is available here and here. But i have focused on their 9/11 analysis, since it displays a fundamental flaw. Their basic unwillingness to tackle the truth behind the 9/11 story because the truth may undermine the fundamental premises of their analysis, coupled with an expression of sharing interests with capital, should make anyone who desires a fundamentally different world absolutely suspicious of anything presented to us by Retort, whose name in the interest of honesty should perhaps be Regurgitate.
Retort appears to be an example of something the Situationist International (SI) feared, situationism, the taking of situationist analysis from a particular moment in history and ossifying it into an ideology. It then becomes part of the Spectacle, yet another cultural commodity to be bought, sold and consumed, yet another way to perpetuate passivity and the consumption of the appearance of rebellion. A good situationist critique of Retort can be read here. As a friend of mine put it, "Are we simply turning into consumers of radical images, rather than real agents having to make consequential decisions in a real, uncertain world?" To paraphrase the words of the SI--"Retort: many more steps if you want to be situationists, let alone revolutionaries."
This article was posted on June 12, 2005 at http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2005/06/319333.shtml