Surrealpolitik: Terrorism and Modern Literature

Author: Alex Houen

New York: Oxford University Press (2002)

Quick Summary

Originally his PhD thesis, this book explores terrorism through literary reactions as a way of getting at its strangeness, the ground it occupies somewhere between fictionality/spectacle/symbolism/discourse and the realities of it as physical violence. One of Houen's preoccupations is not to let terrorism-as-mediated-spectacle overshadow the real violence on its real victims. Nevertheless, the terrorism-as-fictive-discourse angle is explored from a variety of philosophical angles (and the discussion of most of the books goes well beyond strict relevance to terrorism as well); stark in its absence, however, is any acknowledgement of terrorism as false-flag provocation, entirely missing even in a whole chapter devoted to Conrad's The Secret Agent, which is the story of a false flag terror event designed to induce political change. The books contains several mentions of conspiracy theory -- all of them contemptuous and hostile, and includes the standard: "Of course, terrorist groups are in some cases supported by other larger political or financial bodies. But..." [continue on to dismiss the fact just acknowledged].


There are 18 quotes currently associated with this book.

It appeared to be unanimous: unless you were one of the victims, the terrifying reality of the events could only be experienced and expressed as hyperbole -- as surpassing the normal limits of experience and expression. All of a sudden, then, the figurative, if not the fictional, was at the very heart of the disaster. (page 2)
Tags: [Terror, Simulacra/Illusion]
Osama bin Laden...offered similar interpretations:

'...America has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west, and thanks be to God that what America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted.' [quote from Audrey Gillan, 'Bin Laden Appears on Video to Threaten US', The Guardian, 8 October 2001; emphasis added by Houen]

...The attacks are thus simultaneously hyperbolized and diminished through being explained as figurative events. As imitations, the effects, in reality, are nothing compared to American precedents; as iconic attacks their material impact extends to more than the destruction of the buildings and people involved. (page 3)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Conspiracy]
With the predominance of information technology and global networks of power, war has become both 'postmodern' and 'discursive', [Chris Hables Gray] argues: 'its unity is rhetorical'. What characterizes it are 'the metaphors and symbols that structure it, not...any direct continuity of weapons, tactics, or strategy between its various manifestations...'...Any survey of statements made by politicians in the aftermath of 11 September would certainly suggest that rhetoric and the figurative did play a major part in the event and the responses to it...The attacks on the buildings were declared to be not just an attack on the US as a whole, as bin Laden suggested; for US Secretary of State Colin Powell, 'It wasn't an assault on America. It was an assault on civilization, it was an assault on democracy', and on 'the twenty first century' itself. (page 4)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Propaganda, Postmodernism, Universality, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Rationality]
The hyperbolic as I have described it is not limited to 11 September, though; rather, it is an index of the way that performative aspects of discourse generally, and figurative language in particular, can affect the nature of material events, just as material events can modulate discursive practices. (page 6)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Myth, Media]
Considering the growing debates and expanding legislative definitions of terrorism, it is little wonder that 'terrorism studies' has burgeoned so dramatically over the last three decades. In addition to the increasing number of government-funded institutes, 'terrorology' has taken root in a range of academic fields, including political science, history, sociology, social anthropology, and international relations. The explosion of interest has not resulted in greater consensus, though. As Guelke has argued, 'By the 1990s, the concept of terrorism had become so elastic that there seemed to be virtually no limit to what could be described as terrorism.' This general vagueness of the term is precisely what has led commentators such as the social-anthropologists Zulaika and Douglass to assert that terrorism is 'first and foremost discourse', and that this discourse is largely a matter of 'fictionalization'. As I have argued, though, such a view becomes problematic if the focus on the fictional and the figurative obscures the physical effects of terrorist violence. (page 9)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Myth]
The view that terrorism and the media form a 'symbiotic relationship' is certainly commonplace, although there is significant disagreement about what form the symbiosis takes. For commentators such as Russell F. Farnen, the media is the dominant partner: 'what we know as terrorism is actually a media creation: mass media define, delimit, delegitimize, and discredit events that we have not actually seen...' Those like H.H.A. Cooper are more cautious: 'The media certainly does not create the terrorist, but like a skilful make-up artist, can assuredly make of him either a Saint or a Frankenstein's monster.' In contrast to these views, other commentators assert that it is the terrorists who direct the show. J. Bowyer Bell, for example, argues that 'To be free means that the media are open to capture by spectacular events. And the media have been captured, have proven totally defenseless, absolutely vulnerable.' This has certainly been a view held by governments in the past, the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, famously declaring that the media provides 'the oxygen of publicity on which [terrorists] depend'. Accordingly, the UK government at one time placed a Broadcast Ban preventing members of proscribed organizations in Northern Ireland from talking on UK television or radio. (page 11)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Media]
Anthony Kubiak, in Stages of Terror (1991), does endeavour to offer a theory of how terrorism's violence and mediation become entangled. Like Zulaika and Douglass, he prefaces his investigation by foregrounding the role played by the media: 'Terrorism first appears in culture as a media event. The terrorist, consequently, does not exist before the media image, and only exists subsequently as a media image in culture.' In light of this, Kubiak argues that we need to 'reverse' the usual emphasis on the 'symbiosis' of the two: 'the media do not merely need and support terrorism, they construct it mimetically as a phenomenon'. As I have already shown, such a view is not uncommon in terrorism studies more generally, and not without its critics. (page 17)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Terror, Media]
My analysis of terrorism through literature is also intended as a contribution to debates about terrorism's figurative aspects more generally. For while many literary and critical theorists contend that we have moved from modernity to postmodernity, from capitalism to 'late-capitalism', from structuralism to poststructuralism -- and, moreover, that these shifts have had profound influences on socio-political practices generally -- it is rare to see these terms or debates being filtered into terrorism studies, despite its frequent references to fictionalization and theories of discourse. (page 20)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Terror, Media]
An act of terrorism in the name of government; a work of destruction so expressive it is incomprehensible; an event so strategic that it appears to be insane. It is a matter of a phantom event. This paradoxical state of affairs is precisely what Privy Councillor Wurmt, the Chancelier d'Ambassade at the London embassy of a 'great power', invokes as a means of sorting out the affairs of state within England in his meeting with Adolf Verloc, agent provocateur: 'What is required at present is not writing, but the bringing to light of a distinct, a significant fact', in order to exacerbate national 'unrest'. The central terrorist action of [Joseph Conrad's] The Secret Agent (1907), based on the actual self-detonation of the Anarchist Martial Bourdin in Greenwich in 1894, is thus prefigured as state 'propagande par le fait' -- 'propaganda by deed', as it is translated in English, though it could equally be rendered 'propaganda by fact'. The term was officially introduced in 1876 at the Anarchist International to inaugurate a policy of political violence that would assert a radical materiality for overturning metaphysics and the state in one blow. Yet in The Secret Agent it is to be put to wholly different ends. Provocation is necessary, Verloc is told by Wurmt, because of the 'general leniency of the judicial procedure' in Britain, a point Mr Vladimir, the First Secretary of the embassy, reiterates: 'This country is absurd with its regard for individual liberty'. (page 34)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Conspiracy]
In an extreme way, Britain's paradoxical stance on political violence is what Mr Vladimir is attempting to match with his plan of creating a terrorist 'outrage' in order to elicit more stringent policing. His idea takes on an absurdist tone, though, when he explains to Verloc his 'philosophy of the bomb': 'A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism', he argues: 'it must be purely destructive. It must be that, and only that...'. Attacks on property, religion, and churches fail to disturb the quiescence of the everyday, he states, for insurrection has become a mere media phenomenon: 'Every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away'. An act without authorship is thus required, he argues, an epiphanous devastation irreducible to the familiar: 'what is one to say to an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad?' [emphasis added by Houen] (page 36-37)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Fascism, Postmodernism, Terror, Conspiracy]
The unconscious itself is a secret agent, for the traumatic event already exists as a memory but never ceases to happen again, forming links with other times: 'traumatic scenes do not form a simple view, like a string of pearls, but ramify and are interconnected like genealogical trees' [Freud and Breuer]. In this sense, Freud's and Breuer's early psychoanalytic writings on hysteria and trauma are particularly pertinent to the issue of terrorism at the time -- particularly in so far as they posit transferences between the body and mind, violence and terror...In Conrad's novel, though, the image of a political unconscious begins to develop around transferences between subjects, such that interconnections of terror and violence are more actively involved in a wider social field. (page 47)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror]
Grant Allen had already seen the potential for linking terrorism to the unconscious in his popular novel For Maimie's Sake: A Tale of Love and Dynamite (1886). The main terrorist group in the text is ruled over by a power called 'the Unconscious', which the Polish revolutionary Benyowski describes after having been chosen to carry out an assassination: 'The old fashioned mind would have seen in this the finger of providence. We see in it rather the working of the Unconscious. Both are immutable, divine, mysterious.' (page 47-48)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror]
The imbrication of 'state' molarity with 'collective' or 'mass' molecularity made by Deleuze and Guattari is evident throughout The Secret Agent, producing a vision of what we might term entropolitics that disrupts the opposition between a revolutionary and a conservative ethos. For example, the phantasmic transformation of energy problematizes Michaelis's idea of pure materiality, but turns texts and images themselves into quasi-corporeal events, and so facilitates precisely the type of contagion frequently associated with the Anarchist threat: 'it has become a disease which is transmitted from one mad dog to another as hydrophobia is transmitted from one mad dog to another', declared the Saturday Review. (page 53)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Terror]
For Bradbury, however, the affinity between Abish's prose and the postmodern is 'misleading', although he does assert that they 'share' one 'tendency': 'a refusal to name what we call reality as real, a sense that the language which authenticates this or that as history, geography or biography is a language of human invention'. Given that Abish wrote How German Is It without ever having visited Germany, Bradbury's comment seems apposite. And certainly there is an ongoing fascination in Abish's fiction with what the writer has termed 'defamiliarization'-- which is no doubt partly attributable to his having lived in a number of countries from a young age. (page 192)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism]
In combining issues of terrorism, Holocaust memory, and narrative, Abish's How German Is It certainly educes the salient antagonisms of the period. Yet I would argue that it also engages directly in the entwining of discourse and violence, memory and performance, that I have been discussing to produce its own image of fiction's potential for intervention. Towards the end of the fourth and penultimate part of the novel, 'Sweet truth', the narrator raises the question: 'Can only revolutions undermine the tyranny of the familiar day-to-day events?' (page 222-223)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism, Everyday Life, Terror]
Politics and fabulation overlap further towards the end of Part Five of How German Is It in a section entitled 'The purpose of an antiterrorist film'. According to Wurtenhberg's chief of police, the purpose of such a film amounts to constructing a complete terrorist profile that identifies 'their slang, their gestures, their preferences, their way of dressing...their weapons, their techniques, their political rhetoric...' in order to 'Depict as accurately as possible the threat they pose to the stability of this society'. However, as the narrative voice points out, presenting an authentic picture of the threat is fundamentally a matter of deciding how to 'minimize' or 'exaggerate' the terrorists' 'strength' and 'callousness'. Determining a special-effect of realism appears to be the only way the desired political effects can be realized: 'In order to clarify, to make evident a terrorist threat, the film has to distort, fabricate and often lie. But no matter how great these flaws are, the need for the film is self evident'...That this whole procedure requires that the distinctions between events and representations, facts and fictions, 'terrorism' and counter-terrorism, become totally unclear in order to manipulate the public is no doubt why there is 'always a possibility' that it will not succeed. (page 227-228)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror, The Other, Simulacra/Illusion, Conspiracy]
Germany in [How German Is It] is not simply a 'human invention', then, nor is it reducible to terrors of the past or present. Similarly, the terrorism depicted in [the novel] cannot simply be reduced to a media construction, or a state fabrication, or the detonation of a bomb by a group of radicals, for all these things are implicated in a more general topography. Inhabiting an ironic space in this topography of everyday life, Abish has stated that he endeavours to stake out a utopic field of resistance in his fiction. (page 231-232)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism, Terror]
How German Is It is certainly not a terrorist attack. What it does do is present an effective engagement with issues of postmodernism, history, and culture that are implicated in terrorism's impact. As Sadie Plant has argued, the postmodern writings of Baudrillard and Lyotard in particular are 'underwritten by situationist theory and the social and cultural agitations in which it is placed'. Moreover, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Jameson all invoke terrorism when characterizing dominant tendencies of contemporary culture. (page 233)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism, Situationism, Everyday Life, Postmodernism, Terror]