Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Spelling It Out: Narrative Typologies of Terror

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Spelling It Out: Narrative Typologies of Terror

Article excerpt

Midway through Don DeLillo's Mao II, failed novelist Bill Gray expresses what has become a kind of anthem in the critical attitudes toward terrorism and the anti-aesthetic it represents:

   For some time now I've had the feeling that novelists and terrorists
   are playing a zero-sum game.... What terrorists gain, novelists
   lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the
   extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The
   danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.
   (156-57)

Indeed, after the fearsome enormity of the collapse of the twin towers, what possible spectacle could art give us that even comes close to the power of this moment of distilled awe and grief?. What story could be told that would fall anywhere within the dusty perimeter of such an event? Echoing Theodore Adorno, arguing that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," how could any of us entertain an "aesthetic" after that groaning, smoking, blood-soaked monument rose from the ground?

The moment of terror and grief, though, like the quote from DeLillo's novel, exposes a tendency to conflate terror's various discourses. But terrorist writing is not all equal, and is of radically different rhetorical modes. I would, in this essay, like to suggest, as a way of disentangling the motives and means of art and terrorism, three different types of terrorist narratives (understanding, of course, the likely overlap between them). Before I do this, however, I would like to underscore the fact that I will not be using the term "narrative" in its usual sense. I am, in this essay, moving away from notions that see narrativity merely in terms of plot, genre, or point-of-view. I am, in my discussions of narrativity, after something at once more basic and more elusive.

In the work of some recent writers, (1) narrative is not merely story-telling, or even simply linguistic, but is a structuring principle that precedes language, even gives it birth. Some recent narrative theory, in fact, attempts to rethink the bias of some eighty or more years of theoretical and philosophic thought that locates the principle of human identity-in-creation in language, or the language-like activity of mind. Indeed, the paradigm of language as that which constitutes the human is so pervasive, it has become in many cases virtually invisible. Thus although much recent work demarcates the structuring activity of mind in narrative, oftentimes narrative itself is assumed to be a syntactic, language-based activity, ignoring the possibility that language itself might be a product of narrative. I would like to suggest here that the structural principle of mind is not language, but that language itself represents the outcome of a prior operation of narration: that mind is narration first, is "always already" narration, but narration of a very particular sort. Such a possibility (that narrative represents something more primal than language in mind, that narrative as a process requires agency, but not necessarily human agency) can be glimpsed in some of the foundational texts of poststructuralism. In "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives," for example, Roland Barthes sets the stage for later discussions of universal narrativity by situating the issue in these terms: "[N]arrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative ... narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself" (79). Narrative is, Barthes thinks, the one universal of cultural mind, the "always already" of consciousness, something akin to a Kantian a priori, or the narrative insistence of the Freudian Unconscious. This narrative drive is no mere device or filter through which somatic perception is molded or shaped into story and memory; it is, it seems, a first principle, the means by which thought and memory come into being (unlike poetry or essay, which, Barthes feels, are cultural forms, a posteriori structuring principles). …

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