The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror

The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror

The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror

The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror

Synopsis

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, did symbolic as well as literal damage. A trace of this cultural shock echoes in the American idiom 9/11: a bare name-date conveying both a trauma (the unspeakable happened then) and a claim on our knowledge. In the first of the two interlinkedessays making up The Rhetoric of Terror, Marc Redfield proposes the notion of virtual trauma to describe the cultural wound that this name-date both deflects and relays. Virtual trauma describes the shock of an event at once terribly real and utterly mediated. In consequence, a tormentedself-reflexivity has tended to characterize representations of 9/11 in texts, discussions, and films, such as World Trade Center and United 93. In the second half of the book, Redfield examines the historical and philosophical infrastructure of the notion of war on terror. Redfield argues that the declaration of war on terror is the exemplary postmodern sovereign speech act: it unleashes war as terror and terror as war, while remaining acrazed, even in a certain sense fictional performative utterance. Only a pseudosovereign - the executive officer of the world's superpower - could have declared this absolute, phantasmatic, yet terribly damaging war. Though politicized terror and absolute war have their roots in the French Revolution and the emergence of the modern nation-state, Redfield suggests that the idea of a war on terror relays the complex, spectral afterlife of sovereignty in an era of biopower, global capital, and telecommunication. A moving, wide-ranging, and rigorous meditation on the cultural tragedy of our era, The Rhetoric of Terror also unfolds as an act of mourning for Jacques Derrida. Derrida's groundbreaking philosophical analysis of iterability - iterability as the exposure to repetition with a difference elsewherethat makes all technics, signification, and psychic life possible - helps us understand why questions of mediation and aesthetics so rapidly become so fraught in our culture; why efforts to repress our essential political, psychic, and ontological vulnerability generate recursive spasms of violence;why ethical living-together involves uninsurable acts of hospitality. The Rhetoric of Terror closes with an affirmation of eirenic cosmopolitanism.

Excerpt

Surely there could not be, in our time, a book about 9/11 that did not originate in shock. Even the confession of a conspirator, one hypothesizes, would record somehow in its texture the impact of an event outstripping the imaginings of its perpetrators—even though one easily imagines the perpetrators imagining the attacks as precisely the kind of cinematic spectacle they went on to achieve. The shock of the attacks, inseparable from spectacle but irreducible to it, was registered (and thus partly absorbed) by the emergence of a name for this event: a bare name-date, “September 11,” “9/11.” Very quickly the name-date became a slogan, a blank little scar around which nationalist energies could be marshaled.

The two essays that comprise this book try to analyze how “9/11” unfolded and continues to unfold as a haunting event and why the language of war—of a putatively new kind of absolute war, a “war on terror”—so definitively closed down other possibilities for official response to this atrocity. Of course there are immediate and persuasive answers to those questions. The attacks haunt us because they were horrific; because they involved planes and skyscrapers, which form an essential part of modern life and in which we can feel particularly trapped and vulnerable; because they took place in the capital cities of a nation unused to suffering invasive violence; because they targeted and in one case utterly destroyed two prominent military and commercial symbols of the world’s superpower. As for the idiom of war, since this superpower is famously jealous of its sovereignty, highly if erratically militarized in its culture, and, at the time of the attacks, governed by bellicose leaders, one would hardly expect it to have denied itself military acts of vengeance.

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