Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Spectacle of terror

When one asks: What is terrorism then?.... Images of terror are ubiquitous yet no term is more contested and more opaque than 'terrorism.' 

Samir Gandesha
14 August 2021, 1.22pm
Arrested Taliban militants presented to the media in Jalalabad, Afghanistan March 14, 2021.
REUTERS / Alamy. All rights reserved.

In a celebrated passage of Confessions, St. Augustine asks: “What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know: but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not.” When one asks: What is terrorism then? If no one asks us, we know: but if we are desirous to explain it to one that should ask us, plainly we do not know. Images of terror are ubiquitous yet no term is more contested and more opaque than ‘terrorism.’ We both know and do not know what it is. Terrorism’s effect – which, of course, principally lies in its affect – is transmitted and felt not via the event-like eruption violence of itself, but via the spectacular threat of its purely arbitrary, contingent random manifestation. Terrorists don’t trade in fear as such, insofar as fear takes a specific, finite object, but rather an infinite atmospheric anxiety. We might look to Guy Debord to shed light on the spectacle of terror.

As is well-known, in his epochal Society of the Spectacle, published over fifty years ago, Debord divides the spectacle into its concentrated and diffuse forms. The former is that of fascism, in which the spectacle revolves around the cult of personality of leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. The latter manifests itself in post-war consumer society, dominated by advertising images in which the worker participates not simply in the shadowy realm of production but also in the glittery realm of consumption, which is how capitalism manages to solve, within the framework of the nation-state, its accumulation crises.

In his 1988 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord identifies a third form – a synthesis of the first two: “This is the integrated spectacle, which has tended to impose itself globally.” Such a spectacle is characterized by five main characteristics: incessant technological innovation, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, an eternal present. Uncannily anticipating the advent of a truly planetary form of capitalism, Debord argues that the integrated spectacle entails “the globalization of the false and the falsification of the globe.” If the third form of the spectacle entails a hybrid of the concentrated and diffuse, we might recognize it today in the form of neo-liberalism mediated by ever more rigid and bureaucratic forms of international law and international organizations – a “democratic deficit” that goes well beyond its original European referent.

The “globalization of the false and the falsification of the globe” that the integrated spectacle heralds ought to be understood, in terms of the rise of the shifting role of the U.S. state. Terror here, remains simultaneously exterior yet also interior to the integrated spectacle. It is in the phenomenon of terror and its construction by the state that we see the various elements of the integrated spectacle. As Debord argues:

Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results (emphasis in original). The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.

It is not difficult to see the way in which the five elements of the integrated spectacle crystallize in the contemporary on-going ‘War on Terror’: 1. Incessant technological renewal: the production of new knowledge/power about terrorism and concomitant discourses of securitization, specifically in the following areas: (i) systems integration; (ii) biometrics; (iii) non-lethal weapons; (iv) data mining and link analysis technologies; (v) nano-technology.

  1. The development of such technologies is one important axis of the integration of state and economy, often referred to as “military Keynesianism,” and, as we’ve recently witnessed, the staggering increase to the US military budget bears this out.
  2. As the terrorist threat looms, there is an increase in general secrecy. According to the ACLU, the fifth worst abuse of state power since the attacks of 11 September 2001, is the increasing reliance on secrecy to block legislation from judicial review.
  3. The spread of unanswerable lies has become endemic in the form of “fake news” since the advent of the Trump Presidency and, of course, the state has always relied on the dissemination of the false. However, the use of the 9/11 attacks to justify the Bush regime’s restructuring of US power in the “New American Century,” and, in particular, the invasion of Iraq, required, it could be argued, an especially deliberate policy of lies.
  4. Finally, the integrated spectacle was, as suggested above with the other forms of spectacle, the unfolding of the logic of reification and therefore the present made eternal. Another way of stating this, in the wake of the dominance, lies within the integrated spectacle of the power of the purest logic of commodification, namely money-capital or finance, the literal colonization of the not yet via derivatives and futures markets.

What, then, does Debord have to teach us about terror?

This piece was originally published in the August, 2021 edition of Splinters.

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