March 11

All day yesterday I kept looking at the date, March 11, March 11, March 11, and thinking: why does this date mean something to me? Is it a friend’s birthday?   3/11.   March 11.   A blank.

Today it just hit me, March 11, 2004, the day of the Madrid train bombings, the day I heard the resounding echo of the repetition compulsion of trauma, the calamity and destruction that seem to know no end; the day I heard a Spanish minister promising to hunt Spain’s enemies down, annihilate them, never talk with them. And I wondered, will this never end?

That day I started writing a book — Democracy and the Political Unconscious — that’s about to be published by Columbia University Press, a book that tries to fathom the roots of terror and trauma and possible avenues for working through it all and getting past the repetition compulsion also known as the endless war on terror.

I began writing this book on the day of the Madrid bombings, when it seemed that the clash of civilizations between East and West was suffering a repetition compulsion, with each side promising to annihilate the other and both sides vowing to kill rather than ever talk. Why not talk? I wondered. Why this thought that talking with perpetrators was a kind of caving in, a submission, a negotiation (as in, “we do not negotiate with terrorists”)? Why the terrible apprehension about engaging the other? What was going on, to put it boldly, in the world’s political unconscious? How might we get out of this seemingly endless cycle of traumas and repetitions, this endless war on terror? Putting these questions in this way, as addressed to national and even global psyches, calls for an answer that is bold, even preposterous. It calls for mapping out and conceptualizing the subterranean repressions, longings, and misconceptions of a political unconscious. At the same time it call for teasing out the potential within the political unconscious for democratic transformations.

Four years later, the book is now a few days away from publication. And four years later it’s clear that war has indeed only furthered these repetitions. It’s time to start talking with each other; it’s time to aim for democratic change and engagement, not more death and destruction.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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