Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> War, Terrorism, and Spectacle
Peter Krapp on Fri, 6 Dec 2002 03:15:22 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> War, Terrorism, and Spectacle

++the demise of the caves and the second coming of the towers++
(Excerpt from Samuel Weber: "War, Terrorism, and Spectacle")

War and terrorism have traditionally been associated with one another, 
but to link them both to spectacle constitutes a relatively new 
phenomenon and strikes me then as a distinctively contemporary topic. To 
link does not, of course, mean to identify: it does not suggest that 
war, terrorism, and spectacle are the same. Yet it implies that there is 
a necessary relationship between them, and that much is new. But it is 
new in a very specific way. For although war has traditionally been 
associated with pageantry, parades, intimidation, and demonstrations of 
all kinds, never before perhaps has what I would call 
"theatricalization" played such an integral role in the strategic 
planning itself. Of course, such a linkage was not selected out of a 
vacuum. The destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the 
Pentagon on September 11 has resulted in what the American president 
Bush has declared to be a "War against Terrorism." And the "theater of 
operations" in and on which this "war" is being fought encompasses not 
just Afghanistan, but also the media of the world: in the United States, 
Europe, but also in Qatar and throughout the world. It is often said 
that the attacks of September 11 changed everything. It certainly 
changed the perceptions of those living in the United States who were 
convinced that "it can't happen here": namely, that organized, mass 
destruction was something that was exclusively limited to the nightly 
news. The bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, of course, 
marked a first breach in this widely held belief. Yet it could still be 
regarded as the exception that confirms the rule. That rule, however, 
collapsed altogether with the imploding towers on September 11.

[...] for a general public whose collective memory these days seems 
measured in months rather than in years, much less decades or centuries, 
and which is shrinking rapidly all the time for this public, organized 
violence that attempts to challenge the prevailing social order as a 
whole, appears to be an entirely new and unprecedented phenomenon. Such 
a perception fits very nicely with the War against Terrorism, which was 
the response of the U.S. government to the attacks of September 11. Its 
response follows an established pattern. This is not the first such 
"war" declared by American governments. Following the assassination of 
President John F. Kennedy, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson declared a 
War against Poverty, while pursuing the less metaphorical war in Vietnam 
and Southeast Asia. Succeeding presidents declared the War against 
Drugs. Now, we have the War against Terrorism. As commonly understood, 
war generally implies a conflict between states. Notable exceptions, of 
course, are civil and guerrilla wars, in which the conflict is not 
between states, but within a single state. In both cases, it is state 
power that of an organized polity with a delimited territory that is at 
stake. From a point of view that associates war with a constituted 
state, terrorism can be seen as its excluded other. For what is 
generally designated as terrorism is the more or less organized use of 
violence by entities other than established states. Terrorism is, of 
course, never merely a descriptive, constative term: it is an evaluative 
one. Traditionally the word is used to designate a violence considered 
to be illegitimate, evil, and morally reprehensible because it is 
exercised by nonstate organizations, groups, or individuals.

[...] If nation-states are constituted in violence, (for instance, 
through a "revolution") and maintained through the exercise of force, 
both external and domestic, then the difference between "terror" and 
"legitimate force" is never simply a neutral assessment, but rather a 
function of perspective, situation, interpretation, and evaluation. This 
does not mean that it is entirely arbitrary, of course, but rather that 
it is always relational: a function of its relation to other elements, 
never simply a judgment that can be self-contained. It can be noted, in 
this context, that the BBC World Service was sharply criticized recently 
by American authorities for its policy of using the word terrorism all 
too sparingly, at least by comparison with the American media. A 
longtime viewer-listener of the BBC which I am   not has noted that over 
the past decades the BBC has rarely if ever referred to the IRA, for 
instance, as a terrorist organization. Despite such problems, however, 
terrorism continues to be defined as the enemy of the State as such: and 
if, as Carl Schmitt persuasively argues, the concept of the political is 
based on the identification of the "enemy," then this discursive 
practice amounts to nothing less than identifying the terrorist as the 
enabling other of the state: its negative justification, so to speak. 
The more powerful the terrorist organization(s), the more powerful the 
state in its military political security functions must become, and   
correspondingly, the weaker its civilian and civil functions must be 
made. Such a tendency takes on a special signification in a period when 
the traditional conception, if not functions of the nation-state are 
more in question than at any time probably since its inception. In the 
post cold  war period of "globalization" and transnational capitalism, a 
new "enemy" seems to be needed to consolidate the role and to reinforce 
the legitimacy of nation-states that are ever more openly dependent on, 
and agents of, transnational corporate interests.

[...] The notion of spectacle can, if we take the time to reflect a bit, 
help us describe just what is distinctive about International Terrorism 
being declared Public Enemy Number One. For in order for something to be 
a spectacle, it must, quite simply, take place, which is to say, it must 
be localizable. Whether inside, in a theater (of whatever kind), or 
outside, in the open, a spectacle must be placed in order to be seen 
(and heard). But the place, and taking-place of a spectacle is no 
ordinary locality not at least in the way place has traditionally been 
defined: namely, as a stable, self-contained container. For the stage or 
scene of a spectacle is never fully self-contained. To function as a 
stage or a scene, a place must itself take place in relation to another 
place, the place of spectators or of an audience. The space of a theater 
is divided into the space of the stage and that of the audience. This 
makes the place and taking-place of a spectacle singularly difficult to 
pin down, since, as Guy Debord put it, in his book The Society of the 
Spectacle (1967): "the world the spectacle holds up to view is at once 
here and elsewhere; it is the world of the commodity ruling over all 
lived experience. The commodity world is thus shown as it really is, for 
its logic is one with men's estrangement from one another and from. . . 
what they produce."

[...] In the images of catastrophe that dominate broadcastmedia "news," 
the disunity is projected into the image itself, while the desired unity 
is reserved for the spectator off-scene (and for the media itself as 
global network). To support such identification and the binary 
opposition on which its success depends, images must appear to be 
clearly localizable, self-contained, and meaningful at the same time 
that they englobe destruction, mutilation, and implosion. They must 
contain and comprehend the catastrophes that thereby appear to be 
intelligible in and of themselves, without requiring the spectator to 
look elsewhere. The spectator thus can sustain the illusion of occupying 
a stable and enduring position that allows one to "stay the same" 
indefinitely. This is the moral of the story, whether it is called 
"Enduring Freedom" or "Infinite Justice."

The War against Terrorism is thus conducted in the name of enduring 
freedom as the freedom to remain the same, to keep one's place 
indefinitely. This is also the message of infinite justice: to remain 
indefinitely the same is to pursue the enemy relentlessly, without end, 
until he is cornered in his innermost redoubts and destroyed. The 
trajectory that leads from the Twin Towers to the caves of Tora Bora 
marks the will to power as a will to endure. This is the not-so-hidden 
religious subtext of the ostensibly secular War against Terrorism, which 
is above all a defense and an affirmation of "globalization" as the 
right to rule the earth. To rule the planet, one must survive. But to 
survive, one must rule. Western television (and often print) media 
appeal to their viewers by promising them the continued rule of such 
survival. "Stay with us: we'll be right back after the break." Stay with 
us and survive; leave us and perish. The spectacle of the Twin Towers 
imploding a phallic fate if there   ever was one and of a portion of the 
Pentagon in ruins, broadcast in "real time," had two effects. On the one 
hand, it heightened the anxiety of the "break" on which the appeal of 
consumption is based. Consumer confidence was shattered, at least 
temporarily, and after a period of mourning, the official discourse had 
to urge all citizens not, as one might have expected, to "get back to 
work," but to "get back to consuming," and start spending again. The 
promise of immortality was broken, for the time being at least. Since 
precisely such traumatic breaks are at the origin of the compulsion to 
consume, the basic structure and process was not fundamentally altered 
as long as the putative cause of such anxiety could be located in an 
image, confined to a site, a stage or, rather, relegated to multiple 
sites and stages,   but in succession, one after the other. This is the 
end of the military response to terrorism: it must be named (al-Qaeda), 
given a face (Osama bin Laden), and then above all located (Afghanistan, 
Tora Bora, Sudan, Somalia, etc.) in order then to be depicted, if 
possible, and destroyed.

[...] On the other hand, when terrorism is defined as "international," 
it becomes more difficult to locate, situate, personify, and identify  
or, rather, it can only be located in sequence, one site after the 
other, not all at once. From this point on, the War against Terrorism 
becomes a scenario that unfolds step-by-step, yet intrinsically without 
end in its effort to bring the global enemy to "infinite justice." 
Almost from the beginning of this "war," the Bush administration 
asserted that the enemy was "international" in character, neither 
limited to one person, however important, nor to one state, however 
nefarious. Thus, the War against Terrorism, unlike the cold war, cannot 
be defined primarily as a war against a single state, the Soviet Union, 
or against its international emanation, the "Communist Conspiracy." It 
is not even a war against a single terrorist organization, however 
decentralized, such as al-Qaeda. International Terrorism englobes all 
the "rogue" states that for years have been designated by the U.S. State 
Department as aiding and abetting terrorism: Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, 
Syria, and so on. What characterizes this policy is its continuing 
effort to tie terrorist networks to nation-states. This identification 
both supplies and supplants any discussion of other possible "causes," 
conditions, or ramifications. In this view, all of these can be located 
in the pathological behavior of individual "rogue" states, whose 
roguishness consists in their refusal to follow the norms of 
international behavior as laid down by the United States government. (In 
passing, it should be noted that the political use of the word rogue has 
an interesting history. The first time I became aware of the word was in 
relation to the assassination of President Kennedy, when it was used by 
investigators though certainly not by the government to describe 
elements of the government ["rogue" elements of the "intelligence" 
services or military] that might have acted secretly, outside the 
official chain of command. Later the term was used to designate states 
that did not comply with American expectations of proper political 
behavior, such as Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, and the like. In 
short, from a term designating the disunity of "official" state 
organizations, it became a designator of abnormal political-state 
behavior, a symptomatic development, to say the least.) In conclusion, 
the spectacle, at least as staged by the mainstream broadcast media, 
seeks simultaneously to assuage and exacerbate anxieties of all sorts by 
providing images on which anxieties can be projected, ostensibly 
comprehended, and above all removed. Schematically, the fear of death is 
encouraged to project itself onto the vulnerability of the other which 
as enemy is the other to be liquidated or subjugated. The viewer is 
encouraged to look forward and simultaneously forget the past; 
encouraged to identify with the ostensibly invulnerable perspective of 
the camera registering the earthbound destruction as blips tens of 
thousand of feet below. Such a position seems to assure the triumph of 
the spectator over the mortality of earthbound life.

The trails of the B-52s in the stratosphere high above the earth 
announce the Demise of the Caves and the Second Coming of the Towers. 
And with these Good Tidings, the first global spectacle of the 
twenty-first century appears to approach a Happy Ending, at least on our 
television screens. Yet it leaves a gnawing suspicion: that if the 
spectacle seems to be drawing to a close, for the time being at least, 
the scenario itself is far from over.


Samuel Weber, "War, Terrorism, and Spectacle: of Towers and Caves," The 
South Atlantic Quarterly 101:3 (Summer 2002), Special Issue: Medium Cool 
ed. Andrew McNamara and Peter Krapp, 449-458

Samuel Weber is the Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at 
Northwestern University. He is the author of The Legend of Freud (1982), 
Institution and Interpretation (1987), Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan's 
Dislocation of Psychoanalysis (1991), and Mass Mediauras: Form, 
Technics, Media (1996). He is about to publish Theatricality As Medium 
(2003) and is finishing a book-length study of Walter Benjamin's 

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net