Theory Ground Zero: Terror, Theory and the Humanities after 9/11
The opening of the twenty-first century was cast in the crucible of terror. The world watched in fear as the clock struck midnight and carried us into the year 2000. Many feared the world was going to end; many others expected a massive computer crash that would bring down the stock market and global markets; the emotion of terror rang in the new millennium. In retrospect, this fear turned out to be only a prelude to the turning loose of this emotion on the morning of September 11, 2001. As planes struck the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, many in America watched—and rewatched—their televisions in terror.
While there was no doubt that the towers were falling—and that many people were killed as a result—the emotions that were aroused by the media reportage of the events often mirrored those felt while watching a classic Hollywood disaster movie like The Towering Inferno or reading a Stephen King novel. Film and literature have long used similar storylines to arouse the emotions and engage the imagination. In fact, Nosebleed, a film starring Jackie Chan about a plot to blow up the World Trade Center, was under production at the time of the attacks, and was subsequently cancelled. Of course, the attacks were no movie, but the emotions they brought out (fear and pity), especially for those who were not experiencing these events firsthand, bore an uncanny and uncomfortable relationship with the arts and the emotions associated with them.
One need only recall Aristotle’s view that good tragedy “must imitate actions arousing fear and pity, since that is the distinctive function of this kind of imitation” (Poetics 1452b31–33) to gain a sense of the type of relationship to which we are alluding. For him, too, the plot of a tragedy “should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents; which is just the effect that the mere recital of the story in Oedipus would have on one” (Poetics 1453b4–6). Is this not what most felt when the events were relayed to them by email or phone? Life was imitating drama in these attacks—which films like Nosebleed provided an all too proximate reminder.
And what of the fear that was aroused when we heard about the events of September 11, 2001? Aristotle’s term for it is phobos, and it is sometimes translated as “terror”—or even “horror.” He defines it as “a sort of pain or agitation derived from imagination of a future destructive or painful evil” (Rhetoric 1382a1). He continues that this evil is near at hand, and not far off, and that the persons threatened are ourselves. But, as Hans-Georg Gadamer has noticed, the translation of phobos as “fear” gives it a “far too subjective ring” (130). Aristotle’s phobos “is not just a state of mind but,” notes Gadamer, “a cold shudder that makes one’s blood run cold, that makes one shiver” (130). While one may question whether a recital of the story in Oedipus still elicits phobos—especially after being told and retold for thousands of years—there is no doubt about the presence of this emotion when recounting the story of 9/11, for which, even ten years later, the evil continues to be near at hand.
Perhaps it is this uncanny and uncomfortable relationship that has brought so many scholars in the humanities to think and write about the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath. Or perhaps it is because contemporary theoretical discussions can provide much insight into the attacks and the emotions associated with them. Whatever the reason, there has been a wealth of work in the humanities over the past ten years that has provided much insight into what happened on September 11, 2001, why it happened, and what and how it means. The attacks not only opened a new chapter for contemporary theory, but also provided the humanities a subject ideally suited to their expertise—and one which theorists could help others understand. From the rhetoric and politics of the attacks to their philosophical foundations and historical roots, the humanities have had a lot to say about the new world order of terror and terrorism that has radically shaped the structure of the new millennium. Perhaps this is only fitting, for as Aristotle contends, fear and terror do not make us irrational; rather, “fear makes people inclined to deliberation” (Rhetoric 1383a14).
Very few historical events define a generation—and fewer still become the central focus of the theoretical energies of its scholars. For example, while the war in Vietnam occupied our attention for most of the sixties and early seventies, and defined a generation, it is still difficult to argue that the war became the central focus of our theoretical energies during this same period. In American philosophy, conceptual analysis and analytic methodology dominated the Vietnam era, whereas during the same period, the New Criticism was in vogue in progressive English departments, with structuralism and semiotics just beginning to become more mainstream within the humanities. Given then the dominant theoretical climate of this period, it seems a stretch to maintain that the roots of the New Criticism or analytic philosophy were grounded or determined by the major historical events of the sixties and early seventies. While events like Vietnam, Watergate and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. “shocked” and defined a generation, they did not become the central focus of our theoretical attention nor did they dominate the scholarly critical agenda.
In fact, only a handful of events across history even seem to qualify for the kind of impact that we are describing, which is namely, the ability of a historical event to configure—or even reconfigure—theoretical discourse around or through it. The French Revolution immediately comes to mind as a good example of the kind of impact a major event can have on theoretical discourse, as well as the two world wars of the last century. With these thoughts in mind, the uniqueness of the theoretical situation brought about by the events of September 11, 2001 should stand out. Even a cursory survey of contemporary scholarship will reveal the extraordinary degree of critical and theoretical attention that has been afforded this event over the last ten years. Consequently, it seems reasonable to at least postulate that the foreign terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 qualify as both defining a generation and occupying the center of our theoretical energies.
One of the sure signs of a historical event dominating the theoretical landscape is when words or concepts associated with that event come to mean something very different after the occurrence of the event—when they in effect become “infected” with or “inflected” through that event to the extent that the event and the word or concept associated with that event become indistinguishable or dissociable with each other. For example, after the French Revolution, “liberty” became dissociable with this historical event in the same way that “holocaust” became indistinguishable from the genocidal events that occurred during World War II. Moreover, these major—or better yet, “extreme”—historical events tend to reify terms and concepts. “Liberty,” for example, became reified by the French Revolution in the same way “terror” has come to be reified as a consequence of the events of September 11, 2001. “Terror,” prior to September 11, 2011, was simply an emotional state describable as being greatly frightened or being in a state of intense fear. However, after September 11, 2011, terror became more than simply a mental state that most seek to avoid—or to experience through artworks such as horror movies or tragic plays in an act of catharsis. Rather, it was hypostatized into something that exists—or persists—in the world; something with which we are at “war.”
To notice this transformation is to notice one of the ways in which an historical event can go from being a “mere” event to a “major” one. One would assume that any event that has the power to reify an emotion is one that warrants the term “major.” However, this is not an uncontroversial assumption. And it should not be surprising that strong resistance to it comes, for example, from someone who throughout his career sought to undermine or put under “erasure” the difference between the ideal and the real—between the conceptual and the empirical—namely, Jacques Derrida—one of our generation’s exemplary theorists.
In a wonderful interview with him on October 22, 2001, just weeks after the US terrorist attacks, Giovanna Borradori asks Derrida whether he regarded them as a “major event.” “September 11 [le 11 septembre] gave us the impression of being a major event,” says Borradori, “one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through a world war” (85). Then she asks Derrida whether he agrees with her. Unlike just about everyone else at that time—and after—Derrida will not concede that the attacks were a “major event”—nor will he concede that they were not. “I agree with you: without any doubt, this ‘thing,’ ‘September 11,’ ‘gave us the impression of being a major event,’” comments Derrida, “But what is an impression in this case? And an event? And especially a ‘major event’?” (88). Rather, after a lengthy philosophical commentary on what a “major event” is and is not, he finally says, “A major event should be so unforeseeable and irruptive that it disturbs even the horizon of the concept or essence on the basis of which we believe we recognize an event as such” (90).
Derrida is of course right to complicate Borradori (and our) “impression” that September 11, 2001 is a “major” event. However, in deconstructing the ways in which September 11, 2001 is commonly fashioned, Derrida risks deflating his entire response to a mere philosophical quibble or exercise. Derrida, who towered over theory beginning with his criticisms of structuralism in the late sixties and elegant deconstructive readings of literature and philosophy in the seventies and eighties, seems out of place in the wake of the events of September 11, 2011; he appears as a representative of theory’s playful intellectual capacities as opposed to its power to bring about social and political change. While it might have been possible for Jean Baudrillard to theoretically play with the notion of whether the Gulf War “really took place” in 1991—though he took a lot of flack for it—the events of September 11, 2001 don’t seem to be as open to similar deconstructive play. Why?
Perhaps it is because September 11 was a major event, and hesitation on Derrida’s part to regard it as such shows how his approach to historical events might be better suited to a theoretical epoch that is not centered upon a major event. Still, however, his speculation as to what it would mean to regard it “as such”—that is, as a “major event”—is important because it opens up a new vista for theory. By arguing that a major event “disturbs even the horizon of the concept or essence on the basis of which we believe we recognize an event as such,” Derrida is opening September 11, 2001 up for a species of event for which very few can qualify—namely, one that fundamentally undermines our notion of “event”—and other concepts associated with the specifics of the event.
Later in his conversation with Borradori, Derrida asserts that regardless of whether September 11 is regarded as a “major” event,
It is this space of “new philosophical reflection” awakened or brought about by the events of September 11, 2001 that we would like to say that “terror” has refigured the landscape of twenty-first century theory. Prior to September 11, 2001, critical theory and philosophy was in a sort of “dogmatic slumber.” However, this “event” has not only reawakened “reflection on philosophy”—it has also reawakened reflection on “theory.” In many ways, the events of September 11, 2001 were also theory’s “ground zero.” But how?
Theory Ground Zero
The events of September 11, 2001 were a wake-up call for theory. Prior to these terrorist attacks, theory was on life support—and toying with the notion of whether it was or should be dead. To a large extent, the question of theory’s death was brought about by its continued reluctance to fully embrace its political dimensions—a change for theory that could only be accomplished at the expense of the epistemological net it had cast over the preceding twenty-five or so years. Or, to put it somewhat differently, if the 1970s and 1980s allowed theorists to talk about politics, albeit through an epistemological shadow, and if the rise of cultural, postcolonial, and other studies in the 1990s back-doored politics into theory, then 2001 was the year when theory’s political unconscious became conscious—and desperately significant.
Derrida was right to posit in the weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks that received concepts like “war,” “terror,” and “terrorism” do not adequately account for what happened. They didn’t—and don’t—as efforts like those of many contemporary Anglo-American philosophers after September 11, 2001 to deal with these concepts in the “standard” way have revealed. In Anglo-American philosophy prior to September 11, 2001, there was nary any discussion of “terrorism” (and far less discussion of “terror”). However, after this date, there has been a flurry of activity to both “define” terrorism as well as to address the question “Can terrorism ever be morally justified?” However, by and large, work in this area suffers because most of the definitions and moral justifications follow the well-worn and expected lines of response, that is, largely fall into either a consequentialist or non-consequentialist framework. 
And, for the most part, they do not, as Derrida says, open up “reflection on philosophy.” Nevertheless, they are still valuable as they both reveal the limits of contemporary philosophy to account for events like those of September 11, 2001, and in toto demonstrate the need for “a new philosophical reflection”—which we simply prefer to call “theory,” particularly if it is a form of reflection that re-grounds speculation on global culture, politics and society. To a large extent, rethinking concepts and questions related to “terrorism” has become the cause célèbre for progressive thinkers over the past ten years—and in many ways represents the best of what theoretical work in the humanities has to offer. Not only has this work taken theory off of life-support, but it has also opened up a fertile debate as to what theory is and should be after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Theory today (as the essays in this collection amply demonstrate) is now more heterogeneous than ever. The post-theory generation of the 1990s opened the path for less doctrinaire approaches to theory. No more is it “By their theoretical camp they shall be known”—or judged. And no more is theory the sole province of English and comparative literature departments. Rather, theoretical work today is distributed across the disciplines more evenly than ever before. And, public access to theory has come to be more important than theoretical rigor and complexity. While well-thought out theoretical work is still valuable, it should not come at the cost of severely restricting its audience. Moreover, in the 1990s, which theoretical approach one utilized came to be secondary to the object of theoretical work. “Literary” theory just became “theory” in the post-theoretical 1990s.
In many ways, the events of September 11, 2001 saved theory from complete dissolution by recalibrating its concepts, object, and objective. They also blew theory once and for all out of its social and political amnesia—and foregrounded its engagement with social and political philosophy. Post-9/11, it no longer seems responsible for theorists to engage in apolitical analysis; to dwell on the concept at the expense of the empirical; to ignore the social while reveling in the ideal. Cultural capital gave way to financial capital after 9/11. But something else happened to theory in the wake of 9/11: it became more difficult for theorists to voice dissent without fear of reprisal.
The Terror of Dissent
Not only did the events of September 11, 2001 change the character of theory, they also changed the relationship between theory and the academy, and between theory and the public sphere. As theorists began to increasingly comment on the events of September 11, 2001, the academy and the public began to react to them with a weakening sense of free speech and academic freedom, particularly to comments expressing dissenting interpretations of the events. The most well-known instance of this is the case of University of Colorado humanities scholar Ward Churchill’s comments about the events of September 11, 2001. 
In an essay entitled “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” published one day after the attacks, Ward Churchill wrote that the events of September 11, 2001 are “chickens [coming] home to roost in a very big way at the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center.” In the increasingly polarized idiom of contemporary American politics, the University of Colorado professor’s comments on the terrorist attacks drew much attention from both the “progressive Left” (who aimed to champion them) and the “reactionary Right” (who aimed to demonize them).
Churchill’s comments were largely viewed by the progressive Left as clearly within the domain of his First Amendment right to free speech and were staunchly defended by the ACLU. The reactionary Right, however, most visibly represented by the Board of Regents and upper administration of the University of Colorado, David Horowitz, and Fox News, used Churchill’s comments as an opportunity restrict academic freedom and intellectual activism that was out of line with their ideology—and the logic of patriotism.
For some, the Churchill’s “chickens” incident was just another—albeit more extreme—chapter in the culture wars that had been ongoing between the progressive Left and reactionary Right since the late 1980s. For others, however, something of a different order occurred; namely, the events of September 11, 2001 created a critical climate so sensitive that expressing dissenting views could override one’s right to academic freedom—and lead to dismissal from a tenured faculty position. What is most discouraging about this is that tenure was invented in the early part of the twentieth-century, in part, to protect the professoriate from situations like this, where faculty could lose their jobs for expressing politically unpopular opinions. The terrorist attacks in the United States—in conjunction with increasingly neoliberal university administration—changed this.
September 11, 2001 brought about a critical climate for theorists in the humanities such that it was no longer permissible to make critical statements or draw theoretical conclusions without fear of reprisal. Whereas even ten years earlier (that is, in 1991, before the attacks), comments like Churchill’s would have been controversial, but probably would not have triggered a series of events leading to dismissal from an academic position, the reactionary Right used the attacks as an opportunity to make headway in the culture wars against the Left and discourage dissent.
One of the unfortunate consequences for theory and the humanities as a result of the awakening of the spectre of terror in the United States is that humanities discourse now needs to be highly attuned not only to what it says, but also to how it says it. For some, Churchill’s problems came not from simply expressing a dissident position on the events of September 11, 2001, but rather for not doing it more “respectfully” or “artfully.” For example, instead of using simple and direct statements, he should have provided more complex and indirect commentary on the events—and in so doing, he would have shielded his dissent more effectively from easy criticism from the logic of patriotism.  For others, the problem was not the aesthetics and rhetoric of the essay, but rather its psychology. Churchill should have been more sensitive to the emotional needs of post-trauma.  Doing so would have led him to avoid, for example, comparing the financial workers who were killed in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns,” that is, as cogs in the American gears of financial empire and war. But what does this case—and related ones—mean for theory and the humanities in the age of terror?
The response to Churchill was many times more vicious than the attacks on Baudrillard ten years earlier for questioning whether the Gulf War took place. To us, the age of terror presents a more complicated situation for theorists to engage in publicly accessible discourse. On the one hand, there is an obligation to take theory out of the classroom and the library, and to bring it into the public arena; on the other hand, there are cases like Churchill’s which illustrate the new restrictions which humanities academics face in the shadow of the events of September 11, 2001. Balancing rigor with access, and direct statement with respect, is perhaps the best way to sum up the goal of theory, which aims to avoid political confrontation in the age of terror. Dissent is possible without negative ramifications only if it carefully avoids divisive rhetoric and emotional upheaval.
This situation puts theorists whose work touches on both events with direct connections to the attacks—for example, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and events with less direct connections, such as the increasing restrictions to academic freedom and frequent challenges to intellectual activism—on notice. Though the attacks of September 11, 2001 may be regarded as theory’s event, theorists must be more careful than usual in discussing them, especially theorists in Middle Eastern, Near Eastern, and Islamic Studies, one of the few areas of growth in higher education since September 11, 2001 (Wilson A11). Theorists in these positions should be aware that they are both crisis-driven as well as crisis-prone: one misstatement can easily compromise one’s academic position.
The essays in this book, however, are all both direct in the positions which they seek to advance, but also highly rigorous in their approach. And those in the first half expand upon many of the critical concerns raised by bringing terror and theory both to bear in the humanities classroom and the university at large.
The first, Christian Moraru’s “‘Cosmopolitisme ou barbarie’? September 11, Higher Education, and Cosmopolitan Literacy: An Asymmetric Manifesto,” stresses the need to teach a cosmopolitan literacy based on an attempt to understand the other in his/her material, particular humanness rather than as an allegorical other. Moraru’s essay both establishes not only new classroom imperatives in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, but also suggests that cosmopolitan literacy should be regarded as the preferred literacy in the age of terror.
The next essay, “Universities, Terrorists, Narrative, Porcupines” by Terry Caesar, uses Donald Barthelme’s short story “Porcupines at the University” and John Updike’s novel Terrorist as means of exploring the university as an unlikely site of terror. Caesar suggests that the university is part of two contradictory narratives relative to terror: the self-enclosed physical site impervious to the world, and the ideologically open space that is home to all manner of radical experiments. Rather than see the two narratives as oppositional, we should see them as interacting in troubling ways that Caesar suggests keep the university oscillating between a target for ideological terror and an exception for physical terror.
In “World Bank University: The War on Terror and the Battles for the Global Commons,” David B. Downing focuses on the political usage of “the war on terror.” According to Downing, the “War on Terror” has become a cause which licenses all manner of regressive policies. Education has been further commodified and emphasis has been placed on vocational skills. The World Bank and the IMF continue to pursue economic policies which, combined with military policy, lead to a greater proportion of the education commons becoming privatized.
“The Company They Keep: How Apologists for Faith Rationalize Terrorism” by Horace L. Fairlamb considers the epistemic practices that allow for religious terrorism in academic examinations of the links between faith and terror. He suggests that all too often, Western philosophers of religion are actually pursuing an apologetics of faith in place of an inquiry of faith. Apologetics puts certain beliefs beyond question and such a demarcation renders full inquiry impossible.
The final essay in this section, Emory Elliott’s “Terror, Aesthetics, and the Humanities in the Public Sphere,” opens with the question of speaking truth to power by pointing out that writers past and present have found ways to critique the political and military rhetoric of war. In this paper Elliott suggests that both Don DeLillo and Philip Roth use the aesthetics of astonishment to shock their audience into seeing beyond the well-crafted and simplistic post 9/11 representations employed by the powerful to control popular dissent.
Terror, Film, and Exceptionalism
Terrorism is a form—and perhaps the most extreme form—of political violence. It is violence that is generally regarded as “unofficial” or “unauthorized,” though always said to be in pursuit of some political end or ends. In many ways, it is the paradigmatic form of political violence in a group of violent acts that includes demonstrations, revolutions, and civil war. As such, for an event to count as terrorism, it needs to be not only a violent or intimidating action, but, more importantly, it needs to be unofficial or unauthorized. An authorized or official action using violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims is not terrorism but war. As an act of war, such an official action can count on indignation and an attempt at retaliation. The official warrant of an act of violence provides it with a comprehension of moral clarity that is denied the act of terrorism or that terrorism, it might be more accurate to say, denies its target.
The response to terrorism is at first fear and confusion. After the initial casting about for the source of the terroristic attack, the questions circulate around the motivations of the attackers. People ask each other who might possibly have done such a horrible and frightening thing. Even after a group or individual takes responsibility for the action, there is a gap between the professed identity and the action. The gap in comprehension widens and swallows even the professed political aims clearly stated by those responsible. Indeed, for terrorism to function as terrorism, the agents of the terror must claim responsibility and provide a statement of intent.
The significant terrorist attack forces a culture to question both itself and the terrorist. Indeed, many Americans wondered why anyone would wish to harm them. The naïveté of the question is surprising only if it is taken as an actual question seeking a specific answer. The bewilderment has more to do with a key aspect of American identity, exceptionalism, than ignorance of American involvement in world affairs (although that too plays a larger part than one would hope).
The United States is either lucky or—as many in this country believe—divinely favored. For two-hundred and twenty-five years, there has not been an act of foreign terrorism on American soil. It is no wonder that just as many believe that we have “God on our side”—more too believe in America’s “exceptionalism.” And why not? What other country—now or across world history—can claim to be both free of foreign terrorist attacks and to be the most powerful global empire in the world—if not world history?
It is probably only against such an overblown bas-relief that one can begin to understand the type of effect produced when two hi-jacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. With this major event, along with the concurrent plane crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the destruction of the Pentagon in Washington, DC, the United States experienced its first act of foreign terrorism on American soil. It also, arguably, experienced the first serious challenge in its history to its alleged “exceptionalism”—along with a severe test to the limits of its pluralism and tolerance.
It is no overstatement to say that the attacks of September 11, 2001 had immediate and significant political, economic, and social effects like no event since Pearl Harbor. And even though there have not been any reported acts of foreign terrorism in the United States since the destruction of the Twin Towers, a decade later, we are still experiencing the effects of 9/11. In addition to the thousands of lives taken or altered by the terrorist acts on September 11, 2001, the most devastating effects, of course, come from the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan (justified, according to the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively), which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries (and the numbers continue to mount in Afghanistan and spill over into Pakistan).
Domestically, American rights to privacy have been attenuated as the number of employees and agencies devoted to gathering information has increased dramatically. According to a recent investigative report for The Washington Post, “the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106” (Priest and Arkin n.p.). And ten years after 9/11, one need only try to board an airplane with a king size tube of toothpaste for a real-time demonstration of the continuing presence of post-9/11 culture.
As then-President George Bush’s response made clear, Americans see themselves in the role of the good in the moral order of the world. Having been attacked unofficially has forced an examination of that identity, with one immediate result being a greater sense of justified aggression against a questionable target. While the Bush administration was making the case for war to a public groping for a response, it was also urging a continuation of another aspect of American identity, consumerism.
Much commentary on the cultural effects of 9/11 has necessarily focused on trauma. While public health therapists and researchers have sought to offer treatment to individuals traumatized by the attacks, many humanities researchers have studied primarily larger cultural effects. Earlier horrific events such as the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, the Partition of India into Pakistan and India, and the history of slavery in the US can provide a frame of study for the cultural trauma of 9/11. All three have had immediate, direct effects, as well as long-term insidious effects (common memory vs. deep memory as commonly termed in Holocaust studies).
In cultural terms, national and racial identities, as well as the responsibilities of artists and scholars, have been effected. After despairing at the genocide at Auschwitz, Adorno famously questions the possibility of art and culture to exist in the face of such barbarity. One of the important tasks Indian writers gave themselves in pre-independence India was the construction of a pan-Indian identity. Bollywood films and fiction continue to extol the virtues of a pluralist pan-Indian identity, especially in the face of the provocations of an orthodox Hindu majority that sees its identity under threat by further linguistic and cultural divisions. Postcolonial thought has benefited tremendously from W.E.B. DuBois’ understanding that one of the strongest effects of slavery on African American identity is the development of a double consciousness.
While the theorists, critics, and philosophers may have been remiss in trying to understand terror, the writers have been wrestling with its aesthetic and ethical dimensions for quite a long time. As noted earlier, Aristotle’s analysis of Oedipus gives us our earliest formulation of the importance of the arousal of terror and pity. Not much more is said on the subject until the beginning of the gothic with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. In the preface to the first edition, Walpole defends his writing by informing the reader that he keeps up the narrative force of the story by the contrasting emotions of terror and pity. Make no mistake, though, terror is “the author’s principal engine [by which] the mind is kept in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions” (Walpole).
Edmund Burke’s understanding of the sublime in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful makes terror the centerpiece. Contra Aristotle, who believed, as mentioned earlier, that fear makes us more deliberative, Burke held that “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear” (Burke, “Terror” n.p.). For him, the two qualities that evoke terror in us are size and obscurity, with the latter being more important. Although Burke’s focus is on actual visual obscurity, he is clearly also mindful of knowledge or awareness: “When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes” (Burke, “Obscurity” n.p.). Knowing that danger is imminent but not knowing its severity or the time or manner of its realization produces a variety of emotional and psychic states that were, for the large part, absent from the baby-boomer generation of Americans.
Other people in other lands in other times have become all too accustomed to living with terror. And writers from other lands have certainly been eloquent about the effects of terror. Writing in English alone, Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Mulk Raj Anand, J. M. Coetzee, and Arundhati Roy immediately spring to mind, not to mention those writing in other languages, such as Franz Kafka, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But those with even a passing familiarity with an introductory survey course in American literature know that there are American writers who have explored more than the bored lives of middle-class anglos nattering on and on about self-actualization or extra-marital affairs.
Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and many other “war” stories depict American life that is certainly not charmed. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, and Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer portray the lives of those “lesser” Americans for whom the American Dream is more frequently a nightmare. In a recent interview with the magazine Foreign Policy, Alice Walker casts such a life as one lived under terrorism: “I know what terrorism feels like—when your father could be taken out in the middle of the night and lynched just because he didn’t look like he was in an obeying frame of mind when a white person said something he must do. I mean, that’s terrorism…” (Walker par. 24). In that same interview (the occasion for which is her presence on a flotilla planning to disrupt the Israeli maritime blockade of the Gaza strip), Walker offers a succinct definition of terrorism: “When you terrorize people, when you make them so afraid of you that they are just mentally and psychologically wounded for life—that’s terrorism” (Walker).
So some American writers have, then, written about what it is like to live in terror, but for the majority, difficult lives are distinguished by a set period of turbulence. Their characters make accommodations to specific conditions that amount to life during wartime. There is a qualitative difference between an awareness of imminent danger in a restricted setting and understanding that the safe contours of your mundane life, the kind of life that most Americans had learned to take for granted, have been blown away. The fates are back.
The connection between acts of terrorism and terror is apparent to Walker: when your actions make others “mentally and psychologically wounded for life—that’s terrorism.” But what are these wounds, these signs of terror written upon the self? Since the attacks of 9/11, American writers have begun to explore this altered American psyche.
Americans, post 9/11, have a much more difficult time convincing ourselves and others that the US is an exceptional country, and the fear and anger have brought about a hardening of the categories of good and bad: 24, the popular television show that debuted two months after 9/11, portrayed torture as an effective means of gathering intelligence. And we have all witnessed the semantic and moral contortions of Bush administration lawyers and spokespersons as they tried to reconcile Bush’s assertion that we don’t torture with the facts.
Perversely, reactionaries and progressives both looked to the decadence of American culture as our fatal flaw. While not naming specific groups of people or “lifestyles” as the cultural conservatives did, a number of more liberal commentators and essayists in the US announced the death of irony. A columnist for Time magazine, Roger Rosenblatt,  and the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, Graydon Carter,  were the quickest off the mark. Rosenblatt and Carter both hoped that the attacks would end a period of superficiality and fascination with surfaces and usher in a return to sincerity, earnestness, and true identity. While the response to Rosenblatt and Carter was quick and correctly pointed out that neither understood the potent subversive power of irony which was needed now more than ever, the proclamation did tap into a feeling that something momentous had happened. If Virginia Woolf were alive today, she too would have recognized that there was now a “before” and an “after”; she may have said that “on or about September 11, 2001 human character changed.”
Woolf made her pronouncement a good fourteen years after December 1900 and could include in her selected date the build-up to World War I, the dramatic political shift in Britain, the first show of Modernist art in England, and any number of personal events associated with the Bloomsbury group. Ten years after 9/11, we have a major event, and we also have military and political “adventures” that might have led to our change in human character.
The essays in the second part of this book examine some of the aesthetic, cultural, and political dimensions of our responses to terror. Elaine Martin’s essay “Films about Terrorism, Cinema Studies and the Academy” is based on her examination of a number of films about terrorism. Martin finds a number of shared concerns and methodologies in three contemporary films from Brazil, India, and Palestine (Four Days in September, The Terrorist, and Paradise Now, respectively). The films from various parts of the world find not only a commonality in a renewed interest in Third Cinema aesthetics but also in socio-political orientations which might suggest a universal frame for films about terror.
Robin Truth Goodman’s essay “Shaherazad On-Line: Women’s Work and Technologies of War” discusses the relations of technology to transformations in women’s work. Goodman applies the comparison between the philosophy of Donna Haraway and that of Herbert Marcuse to the Iraqi blog Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq and notes that Haraway’s disruption of the private/public and male/female and machine/human binaries is a richer approach to understanding how women trapped in a narrative of terror might create spaces for themselves through the various technologies currently available.
“Neoliberalism as Terrorism; or State of Disaster Exceptionalism” by Sophia A. McClennen argues that the post 9/11 US state incorporates two fundamental shifts: the permanent state of exception caused by the war on terror and the corporate state of neoliberalism. Both radically alter civic identities on US soil and abroad. The civic identities McClennen then focuses on involve the representation of Afghanistan as a failed state that both precedes the war on terror and is also a large part of the current rhetoric about the country. Continuing to characterize Afghanistan as a failed state allows the US to pursue policies that it might not otherwise.
“Terror and American Exceptionalism” by William V. Spanos finds in Melville’s work an early instance of American exceptionalism. Spanos traces the psychological and social effects of placing an entity (administration, nation, ship) outside the norms that govern daily interactions. Spanos strongly suggests that such exceptionalism leads to a diminution not only of ideals but of civilization.
The essay by Zahi Zalloua, “The Ethics of Trauma/The Trauma of Ethics: Terror After Levinas,” examines the Levinasian understanding of self and other that might illuminate terror’s othering of social relations. Although Levinas provides an ethical frame for seeing the other necessarily as a radical other, an other who forces the self to see more than simply the self’s reflection, he has a blind spot when it comes to accepting the universalizing of the Jewish experience of the holocaust and of slavery in ancient Egypt into the Jew as the victim. This, in turn, makes it problematic then in the case of Israel where the Jew is not the victim. Zalloua suggests that critics be wary of the intersection of the philosophical and political in the Levinasian ethical framework.
The events of September 11, 2001 have had a strong impact on theory and the humanities. Whether or not the attacks were “theory’s event” is not as important as a recognition of the way in which they have provided theorists with an historical event to ground their work. For most, the attacks were so “unforeseeable and irruptive,” such that, in Derrida’s words, they disrupted “even the horizon of the concept or essence on the basis of which we believe we recognize an event as such.” They do call for a new philosophy, as the old philosophy is inadequate to account for them. They also call for both reflection on theory, philosophy, and the humanities in general, which is what the essays in this collection provide.
But also, in an important way, the events of September 11, 2001 have changed the academy—or refigured it through the lens of terror. We now study “religious terrorism” rather than “religion”; we encourage the study of Arabic while closing Romance language departments; we are encouraged to engage in scholarship which helps us to understand and perhaps avoid events like the attacks—though always with the fear that our academic freedom cannot protect us from negative consequences for everything that we say; and so on. It is a positive sign for theory and the humanities that many academics have responded to the events of September 11, 2001 with conferences, symposia, books, articles, and special journal issues. And even ten years after the event, ours is still the age of terror—in much the same way that the late sixties were the age of love.
Perhaps the recent location and killing of the leader of the militant Islamic group al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan on May 2, 2011—almost ten years after he and his confederates carried out the 9/11 attacks—has ended the age of terror. However, it has not ended the journey to understand what it means to be a theorist in the age of phobos—nor the effort to create a new philosophy that measures up with life in the new millennium. It is in the spirit of hope—the hope that theory will help to bring us out of the age of terror—that we offer the essays in this collection to you.
- Carvalho, Edward J., ed. “Academic Freedom and Intellectual Activism in the Post-9/11 University.” Works and Days 51.52 and 53.54 (2008–2009).
- Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. In Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, Fourth Edition. North Carolina: Dover Publications, Inc., 1951.
- Baudrillard, Jean. La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu. Paris: Galilée, 1991.
- Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Burke, Edmund. “Terror.” On the Sublime and Beautiful, Part II, Section 2. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. http://www.bartleby.com/24/2/203.html. Accessed 15 July 2011.
- Burke, Edmund. “Obscurity.” On the Sublime and Beautiful, Part II, Section 3. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. http://www.bartleby.com/24/2/203.html. Accessed 15 July 2011.
- Churchill, Ward. “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Dark Night Field Notes, Pockets of Resistance 11.12 (Sept. 2001). http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/WC091201.html.
- Coady, Tony, and Michael O’Keefe, eds. Terrorism and Justice: Moral Argument in a Threatened World. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002.
- Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, Second Revised Edition. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad Publishing Corporation, 1991.
- Govier, Trudy. A Delicate Balance: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about Terrorism. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2002.
- Honderich, Ted. After the Terror, Second Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
- Honderich, Ted. Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War. London and New York: Continuum, 2006.
- Ivie, Robert L. “Academic Freedon and Antiwar Dissent in a Democratic Idiom.” College Literature (Fall 2006): 76–92.
- Lakoff, George. “Beyond the War on Terror: Understanding Reflexive Thought.” Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World. Eds. Karin Lofthus Carrington and Susan Griffin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 43–46.
- Mnookin, Seth. “In Disaster’s Aftermath, Once-Cocky Media Culture Disses the Age of Irony.” 18 Sept. 2001. Inside.com.
- Priest, Dan and William M. Arkin. “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control.” 19 July 2010. Washington Post. http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/a-hidden-world-growing-beyond-control/. Accessed 15 July 2011.
- Primoratz, Igor, ed. Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
- Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Age of Irony Comes to an End: No Longer Will We Fail to Take Things Seriously.” Time. 16 Sept. 2001. Time.com http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101010924/esroger.html. Accessed 15 July 2011.
- Schulz, David P. and G. Mitchell Reyes. “Ward Churchill and the Politics of Public Memory.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 11 (2008): 631–58.
- Shanahan, Timothy, ed. Philosophy 9/11: Thinking about the War on Terrorism. Chicago: Open Court, 2005.
- Sterba, James P., ed. Terrorism and International Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Walker, Alice. “Interview with Robert Zeliger.” 23 June 2011. Foreign Policy. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/06/23/interview_alice_walker. Accessed 15 July 2011.
- Walpole, Horace. “Preface to the First Edition.” The Castle of Otranto. http://castleofotranto.blogspot.com/2004/09/preface-to-first-edition.html. Accessed 15 July 2011.
- Wilson, Robin. “Interest in the Islamic World Produces Academic Jobs in U.S.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (1 Mar. 2002): A10–A12.
- See, for example, Coady and O’Keefe, Govier, Honderich (After the Terror and Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War), Primoratz, Shanahan, and Sterba.
- Much has been written about this topic. However, for a comprehensive introduction, see the 2008/09 special issue of the journal Works and Days, “Academic Freedom and Intellectual Activism in the Post-9/11 University.” As evidence that dissident readings of the events of September 11, 2001 (still) elicit powerful reactions, it should be noted that an evening of readings from the issue was threatened with cancellation.
- See, for example, Ivie.
- See, for example, Schulz and Reyes.
- See Rosenblatt: “One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony” (par. 1).
- Carter was quoted by Seth Mnookin as saying “It’s the end of the age of irony.” See “In Disaster’s Aftermath, Once-Cocky Media Culture Disses the Age of Irony,” Inside.com, Sept. 18, 2001.