Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Monsters of Biopower: Terror(ism) and Horror in the Era of Affect

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Monsters of Biopower: Terror(ism) and Horror in the Era of Affect

Article excerpt

The modern Greek word for "monster" is "τ?ρας," a word which, according to J. B. Hofmann's Etymological Dictionary of Ancient Greek, in ancient Greek meant a "rare sign, an unusual natural phenomenon," including a "wonder" and "everything that functioned as a portent sign," an "inauspicious omen," not unlike the Latin "monstrum," which also meant an "abnormal shape" that functioned as a "divine omen" or "portent sign," deriving from the word "monere," to "warn," the link between abnormal or unusual shape and warning being established from the fact that "abnormal or prodigious animals were regarded as signs or omens of impeding evil." Although "terror" seems to have its origin in another Greek word, "τρ?ειν" (to "tremble), both words "monstrous" and "terrifying" would be translated in Greek as "τερατ?δες."

However relevant or not the above etymological observations may be, the fact is that in contemporary English, terror and the monstrous meet in the context of acts classified as "terrorist," notably in the case of "suicide bombing," which, as Jacqueline Rose notes, "is most often considered a peculiarly monstrous . . . inhuman aberration" performed by "freaks of nature (or culture)."1 In addition to "terror," a third signifier attaches itself to the contemporary English semantic cluster of the "monstrous": "horror," as the reaction with which "monstrous" acts, such as suicide bombing, are supposed to be met. In his On Suicide Bombing, Talal Asad devotes an entire chapter, titled "Horror at Suicide Terrorism," to the question: "Why do people in the West," at least "liberal moralists," "react to verbal and visual representations of suicide bombing with . . . such horror?"2 Though I will propose a different response than Asad's, I concur with him, and with Rose, that, in her words, "suicide bombing kills far fewer people than conventional warfare," so that "the reactions it provokes must . . . reside somewhere other than in the number of the dead." Evidently, Rose continues, "dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior" and, hence, a human rather than a monstrous act. Beyond our history of official nuclear attacks, as Asad reminds us,

Unimaginable cruelties perpetrated in secret or openly, by dictatorships and democracies, criminals and prison systems, racially oriented immigration policies and ethnic cleansing, torture and imperial wars are all evident in the world today.3

And, while the official and mainstream discourse labors to justify such policies and acts as reasonable and necessary for the sustenance of civilization and freedom, "why," as Asad asks, "are there so many articles, books, TV documentaries, and films" dedicated to reinforcing suicide bombing as a horrendous monstrosity?4

Incitement to Horror

I would like to begin by foregrounding that meeting representations of "terrorist" acts with horror is the reaction that reconfirms and seals the labor of their characterization as "monstrous," namely, to render them cases of "inhuman aberration," thereby relegating them to a domain outside humanity. If the oldest, most ingrained definition of the human is a thinking animal, the experience of horror deprives the human of its humanity, insofar as horror excludes, precisely, thought.

That horror and thought exclude each other is confirmed by otherwise divergent theoreticians who unanimously concur in that horror is not a cognitive but a physiological or affective extra-discursive state of being. Not unlike the state of, say, feeling nausea, horror is a state of being, whose manifestation, based on the etymologies of the Greek φρiκη [phrike] and the Latin horror, may be described, as Adriana Cavarero writes, as "a state of paralysis, reinforced by the feeling of growing stiffon the part of someone who is freezing," and further, through her mythological reference to the prototypical figure of horror, Medusa, as a state of "petrification. …

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