Terrorism and American Literature

Thesis (M.A.), 2003

66 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Introduction - The Age of Terrorism

1. Don DeLillo's Mao II – The 'zero sum game' of novelists and terrorists
2. Postmodernism, late capitalism, and art
2.1. Postmodernism as aesthetic project and historical epoch
2.2. Jameson: Postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism
2.3. Late capitalist culture
2.4. The loss of the "Real"
2.5. Postmodernism as a cultural dominant

3. Postmodernism as a cultural dominant in Mao II

4. The writer
4.1. Postmodern mass culture and the culture industry
4.2. Bill's modernist view of art

5. The terrorist
5.1. The terrorist as spectacular author
5.2. Spectacles of violence


Works Cited

Introduction - The Age of Terrorism

In his essay "'God save us from the bourgeois adventure': The Figure of the Terrorist in Contemporary American Conspiracy Fiction" (1996), written in the aftermath of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Steffen Hantke remarks how quickly politicians, the media, and the public at that time agreed that the bombing had to be understood as part of a larger confrontation between Western democracies and 'Islamic Fundamentalism' (for the following comp. 1996: 219-222). He goes on to argue that the then newly discovered enemy 'Islamic terrorism' had filled the vacancy in the collective political imagination that was left by the demise of Communism in the late 1980ies, and that this new conflict continued the kind of cultural paranoia that had sustained the historical narrative of the Cold War era. Hantke describes cultural paranoia as the effect of a cultural machinery that amalgamates complex political contexts and historical developments into homogeneous and larger-than-life cultural abstractions against which the collective political imagination can construct itself as a unified entity. In other words, cultural paranoia creates a sprawling narrative of the nation/the American way of life/Western civilization under threat that legitimizes state power, ensures compliance with dominant social norms and unifies the nation by stigmatizing dissent as treason.

Writing about literature and terrorism a little more than a year after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers, Hantke's analysis proves to be more relevant than ever as cultural paranoia seems to have become the official doctrine in what CNN promptly termed the global "War on Terrorism." After September 11, the kind of conspiracy thinking that enables cultural paranoia quickly focused on Osama bin Laden and his Al Quaeda network. Through countless news reports, the public learned that, spurned by unlimited hatred and fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, Osama bin Laden had formed his Al Quaeda network as a pan-Islamic conspiracy against the West. Since then, bin Laden and Al Quaeda have become cultural icons representing a pre-modern Islamic culture that indiscriminately hates the West and especially the USA. While the paranoid fear of terrorism has, to various degrees, taken hold of most Western societies, cultural paranoia seems to be most acute in the US. Not only has the threat from 'Islamic terrorism' lent overwhelming bipartisan support to an administration fraught with scandal, a huge wave of patriotism moreover ensured that any kind of dissent from government policies or mainstream public opinion could be disqualified as un- American and potentially sympathetic to terrorism. Externally, the fight against 'Islamic Terrorism' has given the US the opportunity to demonstrate its geopolitical dominance and to protect its economic interests justifying not only the war in Afghanistan but also various other military and intelligence operations around the globe, from the deployment of military advisers in the Philippines to the assassination of suspected al Quaeda members in Yemen and a possible second war on Iraq.

Considering the threat from 'Islamic Terrorism' as a case of cultural paranoia, however, is not to say that such a threat is overrated or even only imaginary. The point is rather that the 'Islamic Terrorism' the public has learned to associate with bin Laden can be regarded as a cultural construct that serves as an instrument of power. The conspiracy theory built around bin Laden in the aftermath of the WTC attacks assures the public that there is a single and accessible story behind acts of violence which in fact have complex and heterogeneous origins. By personalizing and allegorizing conflict, conspiracy theories reduce confusing political realities to the personal hostility of 'us' vs. 'them' and the moral certainty of 'good' vs. 'evil' (Hantke 1996: 222). In this way, terrorist acts originating in diverse and complex political circumstances – from the bomb attacks on tourists in Bali or Tunisia to the fight of the Abu Sayyaf rebels on the Philippines and the attacks on US troops in Kuwait – can all be understood in the simple pattern of 'Islamic Terrorism' vs. the 'Western World.' Similarly, any kind of government action against a state, group, or person can immediately be justified by linking them to bin Laden or al Quaeda.[1]

In their function as forum for and shaper of public opinion, the mass media are instrumental in the construction and proliferation of such cultural abstractions as 'Islamic Terrorism.' As Bruce Hoffman points out, terrorist incidents are central in "network television's entertainment/news calculus" (1998: 140), because they combine the newsworthiness of international politics with the audience-pulling factor of human interest. Trying to piece together the 'story behind the headlines' the mass media seize on the emotional resonance of terrorist attacks to create the stock narratives of the innocently victimized 'pillar of the community' and the 'cunning but evil arch villain.' What is lost in the process is the 'bigger picture' of the political and historical context of terrorist violence. Hoffman concludes: "In essence what is broadcast is the 'big picture' writ so small that the average television viewer can understand it, the story 'packaged' to suit the typical audience's short attention span" (1998: 140).

However, the terrorist story is a contested narrative. Just as the media narrate terrorism, terrorists consciously use the media to stylize themselves as fighters for a just cause and to generate the fear that gives weight to their ideological message (comp. Hoffman 1998: 131-132). Though terrorist violence often seems random in the first shock of the event, because it victimizes innocent bystanders, terrorist attacks are not perpetrated by fanatical madmen fascinated by destruction. Terrorism is a strategy adopted by small groups facing an enemy whom they cannot hope to defeat by conventional means. Rather than aiming to achieve a material victory over their enemy, terrorist acts are therefore usually carefully calculated to function as a violent means of communication (Scanlan 2001: 5). On the one hand, terrorist violence may be designed to pressurize a government by intimidating the public. On the other hand, terrorist acts are often meant to work as "'propaganda by deed'" (Laqueur 1987: 48) and therefore have a symbolic dimension, most often in their choice of target, that endows the violence at the core of the attack with meaning.

As most of a terrorist attack's impact depends on the amount of public attention it is able to attract, terrorist acts are often specifically set up to make use of the mechanisms of news coverage. Thus, during the hostage crisis following the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985, the terrorists exploited the competition between the three major US television networks so effectively that nearly 500 news segments dealing with the crisis were broadcast during a 17 day period (Hoffman 1998: 132). Moreover, in an attempt to keep control of their own terrorist narrative and to shape their public image, terrorists deliberately stage spectacular events for the benefit of the media. During the 1975 seizure of the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, for example, Carlos 'the Jackal' reportedly waited for the camera crews to arrive before fleeing the building with his hostages (Hoffman 1998: 142). Another prime example of terrorists' efforts to control media coverage are, of course, the recent World Trade Center attacks, in which the interval between the impact of the two planes ensured maximum media attention for the second attack.

It is this use of the mass media to move its marginalized political aims into the center of attention that marks contemporary terrorism as a distinctly (post-)modern phenomenon (Scanlan 2001: 5). Whereas more traditional political conspiracies are focused on the actual act of violence, usually the assassination of a political rival, contemporary terrorism stages spectacles of violence meant to capture the public imagination. This strategy of systematic terrorism as 'propaganda by deed' can be traced to the social revolutionaries of the second half of the nineteenth century (comp. Laqueur 1987: 48-52). In this first age of terrorism,. Irish nationalist, Italian anarchists, and Russian socialists covered Europe in a wave of assassinations and bombings in the hope to instill the fervor of revolution in the hearts of the masses.[2] However, as a revolutionary strategy, terrorism enjoyed only a brief popularity, because the lack of efficient means of mass communication limited the expected propaganda effect of terrorism.

Nevertheless, terrorism had left its trace in the cultural imagination. Next to a wave of popular novels about dynamiters, such mainstays of the literary canon as Dostoevski's Demons (1871), James's The Princess Casamassima (1886) or Conrad's Under Western Eyes (1910) evolve around terrorist themes. As Margaret Scanlan argues, the central theme in all of these novels is the relationship between the literary intellectual and the revolutionary (for the following comp. Scanlan 2001: 6-12). In Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, for example, young Hyacinth Robinson, who, according to the critical consensus, shares many qualities with the novel's author, is torn between his allegiance to a terrorist movement and his friendship to the eponymous princess whose patronage gives him access to the world of beauty and art. Forced to choose between art and revolution by his promise to assassinate a prominent aristocrat, Hyacinth kills himself rather than betray either the revolution or the world of culture associated with the aristocracy. Generally, Scanlan points out, all of these novels take issue with the romantic alliance between the writer and the revolutionary. Given the negative connotations of the term 'terrorist', this alliance is a contested one in all of these novels. In Demons the writer is betrayed by the revolutionary, while in Under Western Eyes the opposite is the case. Yet, no matter how the configuration of the two sides, all three novels see only a very bleak chance for both the writer and the terrorist to make a positive impact on society.

Considered almost extinct at the beginning of the twentieth century, terrorism made a spectacular comeback with the introduction of live television broadcasts in the 1970ies (Hoffman 1998: 137). Since then, terrorist spectacles of violence – from the 1972 attack of the Munich Olympics to the recent attacks on the World Trade Centres – have inscribed themselves deeply in global culture, making the last 30 years a veritable second age of terrorism. Not surprisingly, the significance of terrorism as a cultural phenomenon has made it a recurring theme in contemporary cultural theory and literature. Postcolonial theory, for example, tries to elucidate the complex cultural and political underpinnings of terrorism in the context of decolonisation (Hantke 1996: 220). However, as the phenomenon of terrorism touches a number of key issues in theories of postmodernism, this paper will examine terrorism from a postmodern point of view.

Fredric Jameson's view of postmodernism as the cultural expression of a hegemonic late capitalism provides an initial connection to the phenomenon of contemporary terrorism. In Jameson's view, late capitalism has created a global space of multinational capital (Jameson 1991: xviii-xix). This global expansion of late capitalism is accompanied by a proliferation of its cultural values. Hence, the tendency towards global commodification leads to the blurring of cultural boundaries and the leveling of differences that will eventually see the triumph of late capitalism in a total homogenization of global space (Schulenberg 2002: 34). What Jameson theorizes as the homogenization of global space, however, translates easily into the hegemony of Western and especially American cultural values held in place by American economic and military power that has motivated the left-wing terrorists of the 1970ies and 1980ies and continues to motivate many contemporary Islamic terrorists.

Moreover, as a reaction to the dominance of late capitalist culture, terrorism can be regarded as a form of 'agency panic.' 'Agency panic' designates the reaction to the perception that the individual is not able to take full control of its destiny, i.e. a feeling of being dwarfed by, for example, the total dominance of the logic of late capitalism in all fields of experience. The system's seemingly unlimited capability of co-opting and reabsorbing all forms of counterculture or dissent creates a "sense of diminished human agency, the feeling that individuals cannot effect meaningful social action" (Melley 2000: 11). In this case, terrorism, always considered a powerful tool for the powerless, may appear as a way of reaffirming individual agency.

Yet most importantly, terrorism's peculiar double existence – as actual violence and as fictional construct – links it to one of the key issues in postmodernist literature and theory, i.e. the fictionalization or loss of the real in a culture suffused with media images. The reality of terrorism, as argued above, is defined neither by the actual violence it perpetrates nor by the factual existence and organization of the terrorist groups who perpetrate the violence.[3] Rather, this factual existence of terrorism is eclipsed by its mass-mediated image as paranoid conspiracy theory or orchestrated spectacle of violence. In both cases the meaning of terrorism is a larger-than-life construct which is virtually disconnected from the events it means to signify. Terrorism can therefore be considered a typical example of the way in which mass-mediated simulacra permeate our experience of the world, seamlessly merging the real and the fictional, until, as Baudrillard argues, the real and its representations dissolve into the hyperreal (comp. Baudrillard 1983; Smith 2001).

1. Don DeLillo's Mao II – The 'zero sum game' of novelists and terrorists

The hegemony of late capitalist space, the loss of the real in a culture suffused with media images, and the question of individual agency are all prominent themes in the fiction of Don DeLillo. Publishing since the 1970ies, Don DeLillo has moreover come back again and again to the topic of terrorism throughout his career as a writer. Novels like The Names (1982) or Libra (1988), for example, evolve around conspiracies to commit terrorist acts – the assassination of President Kennedy in the latter and the assassination of random victims by a fictional cult in the former – while his early novel The Players (1977) picks up on the current of Puerto Rican terrorism in the 1970ies to portray an anomic Wall Street broker's fascination with revolutionary chic and violence. In the record of DeLillo’s continuous occupation with terrorism and terror, Mao II (1991) can perhaps be regarded as a provisional culmination, because here he at last confronts the question of the significance of terrorism as a contemporary cultural phenomenon head-on.

The plot of Mao II is simple. Bill Gray, a famous reclusive writer leaves his hermitage and travels to London to help ensure the release of a Swiss poet and aid worker, who has been taken hostage by terrorists in Lebanon. When things do not develop as planned, Gray follows the terrorist's emissary to Athens, Greece, on the promise to work out a solution. In Greece, he eventually comes to the conclusion that only a direct confrontation between him and the terrorist leader can solve the situation. While waiting for a chance to travel to Beirut, Gray is hit by a car in the streets of Athens. Finally on the ferry to Beirut, Gray dies from the internal wounds sustained in this accident, forestalling the showdown between the novelist and the terrorist. With Gray’s disappearance – a fellow passenger strips his corpse of all personal belongings, making him in effect another anonymous victim in a civil war – the plight of the hostage is eventually forgotten and he is traded off to another terrorist organization.

For all its ostensible simplicity, this plot stages a complex discussion of postmodern culture. Mao II confronts the reader with a culture working along the logic of commodity fetishism and the spectacle, a culture which exorcizes the idea of history by turning it into a series of disconnected, readily consumable media events. It is in this cultural context that DeLillo asks the reader to reconsider the old alliance/rivalry of the writer and the revolutionary. Proceeding from the basic assumption that in the "corporate, collectivized, [and] post-individualistic age" (Jameson 1991: 306) of postmodernism the "future belongs to crowds" (DeLillo 1991: 16; subsequently quoted as "M" in the texts), Mao II measures the power of the writer as the champion of the individual against the cultural influence of the terrorist whose spectacles of violence shape the cultural imagination.

Terrorism is a ubiquitous presence in the world of Mao II. Sometimes this presence surfaces as an inconsequential detail. Scott's boss in the mailroom of Bill Gray's publisher, for example, is a "friendly sleepy former IRA man named Joe Doheny" (M 59). At other times, it is the stuff of anecdotes, as when the smiling old statesman of Scott's story, who is waving at the cameras on the steps of a hotel in Athens, turns out to be Yasir Arafat in his trademark "khaki field jacket and checkered headscarf" (M 50). Yet, the terrorists' appearance as friendly older men – George Haddad, the Lebanese terrorists' spokesman, is another example – takes a sinister turn if one considers how hard the threat of terrorist violence bears on people's minds. It is a persistent buzz in the background noise of life, a threat whose subliminal presence can instantly become acute when extraordinary events like "water-main breaks and steam-pipe explosions" (M 146) upset the carefully balanced routine of people's daily lives. Then suddenly, an ordinary New York neighborhood turns into a spectacle of terror with "asbestos flying everywhere, mud propelled from caved-in pavement" (M 146) and people feel "'It's just like Beirut. It looks like Beirut" (M 146). In cases like that of the photographer Brita, for example, the unobtrusive buzz regularly turns into a deafening drone:

Yes I travel. Which means there is no moment on certain days when I'm not thinking terror. They have us in their power. In boarding areas I never sit near windows in case of flying glass. I carry a Swedish passport so that's okay unless you believe that terrorists killed the prime minister. Then maybe it's not so good (M 40-41).

Thus, though terrorism may make itself felt in various forms and to various degrees, it is always only one step away. Keenly aware of the potential of catastrophe inherent in our high-tech culture and already obsessed with the idea of terrorism, the world of Mao II, it seems, is on the the verge of cultural paranoia.

For Bill Gray, the writer-protagonist of Mao II, the omnipresence of terror is of more than personal concern. It is not so much that he fears getting physically hurt or even killed, like Brita does, instead he regards terrorism, over and above any political dimension it may have, as primarily a cultural phenomenon. And as such, he feels, it encroaches on his very own territory. Bill is particularly irritated by terrorism's ability to "influence mass consciousness" (M 157). Its spectacles of violence seem to capture the public's imagination in a way his literary work is no longer able to. He feels that "novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game" (M 156). Terrorists seem to gain an increasing share of cultural power, while at the same time writers lose their function as "shapers of sensibility and thought" (M 157).

This pessimistic assessment of the critical potential of contemporary literature – and of the ability of art in general to "alter the inner life of the culture" (M 41) – echoes the views of cultural theorists from Adorno and Horkheimer to Fredric Jameson. Therefore, this paper sets out to illustrate how Mao II 's assessment of the cultural significance of literature, on the one hand, and terrorism, on the other, can be developed on the background of Fredric Jameson's notion of postmodernism as the cultural expression of late capitalism. In the first part of this paper, I will develop a number of relevant features in Jameson's theory of postmodernism, including the colonization of the sphere of culture by the logic of capitalism, the loss of the real, and the notion of postmodernism as a cultural dominant. I will then argue that in Mao II the dominance of late capitalism and the disorienting effect of hyperreality produce a consumerist subject marked by a 'diminished sense of agency' and paranoia. The last part of this paper will focus on Mao II 's discussion of the rivalry between writer and terrorist. Tracing the romantic roots of the belief that charismatic individuals can alter the course of history, I will argue that neither the writer nor the terrorist in Mao II occupy an autonomous space from which to confront power. Both the writer and the terrorist are inevitably caught up in the postmodern media culture.

2. Postmodernism, late capitalism, and art

2.1. Postmodernism as aesthetic project and historical epoch

Postmodernism is a term that can assume a variety of meanings in a variety of contexts. In its widest sense, postmodernism marks the contemporary as the historical epoch after modernism (Jameson 1991: 1). Modernism here is used not in its narrow sense as referring to the aesthetic project that dominated western culture well into the first half of the 20th century, but, rather taking the point of view of the historian, denotes the concomitant epoch of groundbreaking technological innovations and the belief in progress, the age of mass industrialization and urbanization. Although these processes continue to shape our contemporary world, they appear to have lost their former dynamism. Thus, it seems that the age of modernism has come to an end and is superseded by our contemporary world (Jameson 1991: 1). This sense of a break with the older world of modernity is usually attributed to the social, economic, and cultural developments beginning with the end of World War II (Jameson 1991: 1). Most important among these are the impact of electronic mass media such as TV, the counterculture movement of the 1960ies, the 'end of progress' and the advent of ecological thinking, but also economic globalization and consumerism.

Yet, like modernism, postmodernism is also used in a more narrowly defined aesthetic sense. In this context, it refers to the wave of stylistic innovations in architecture, drama, painting, and other fields of cultural production beginning in the 1960ies (Huyssen 1986: 13). Though postmodernism manifests itself in different aspects in each form of art – as historicism in architecture (Huyssen 1986: 14), for example, or in the challenging of conventional theatrical spaces in dance (Hutcheon 1988: 9) – all of these postmodernisms share a basic rationale. What they share, according to Linda Hutcheon, is a spirit of contradiction (1988: 4-5). The common denominator of postmodernist art is its challenge to all kinds of orthodoxies. Eclectically mixing styles, testing and transgressing the boundaries of genres, and blurring the distinction between theory and art, art and life, non-fiction and fiction (Hutcheon 1988: 9-10), postmodernism seems to chip away at the authority of such basic principles as "value, order, meaning, control, and identity" (Hutcheon 1988: 13). The effect is a diffusion of meaning, which is variously interpreted as a thinning out, an abandoning of the notion of truth resulting in a "'loss of meaning'" (Hutcheon 1988: 6) or as a dissemination of truths that acknowledges difference and multiplies possible meanings emphasizing that there are rules or standards from which to judge the validity of truth claims, but that those rules rather than being absolutes, are a matter of consensus (Hutcheon 1988: 6-7).

2.2. Jameson: Postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism

By analyzing postmodernism as the cultural expression of late capitalism (Jameson 1991: xxi), Fredric Jameson seeks to integrate the wider historical and the specifically aesthetic meanings of the term. Jameson's view of postmodern aesthetics is characterized by a general sense of loss. For example, he diagnoses postmodernism's eclectic use of historical connotations, be it in architecture or film, as the symptom of a loss of temporality in which "'real' history" (1991: 1) is replaced by mere signs of "'pastness'" (1991: 19). Inasmuch as this displacement of "genuine historicity" (Jameson 1991: 18) by signs of 'pastness' obviates a comprehension of the present as the result of a historical development, it also contributes to a general "waning of narrative" (Homer 1998: 145).


[1] Writing, like Tate, after the 1993 attacks on the WTC, Peter Baker similarly remarks that "the terms 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' are markers invoked to build ideological consensus for certain kinds of U.S. domination abroad" (1994: 22).

[2] Laqueur (1987) gives an excellent overview of the origins and early history of terrorism. Although he traces terrorist tactics as far back as to the Zealot struggle in Palestine (AD 66-73), Laqueur argues that the contemporary phenomenon of terrorism began with the invention of dynamite and its use by the Russian revolutionaries and European anarchists of the middle and late nineteenth century (1987: 11-71).

[3] As Laqueur points out, the fear generated by terrorist attacks bears no relation to the actual chance of being victimized or even the combined number of terrorist victims which pales in comparison to the number of dead in a conventional war (1987: 298). As to the discrepancy between the media image of terrorist conspiracies and the actual structure of such groups, Hoffmann points out that for a variety of reasons terrorist groups have frequently acted under assumed identities. The Japanese Red Army, for example, carried out several attacks adopting the alias Anti Imperialist International Brigades in the 1980ies (comp. Hoffman 1998: 185-191).

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Terrorism and American Literature
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Terrorism, American, Literature
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Horst Baumann (Author), 2003, Terrorism and American Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/113099


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