States of Terror: History, Theory, Literature

After 9/11 The USA declared war on an emotion. Words in the fear-terror cluster have a long history of ambiguously referencing internal states and external agents. My project will examine key moments in that history. The King James Bible translators are significant for their dissemination of God’s terrors ( as opposed to fear or dread, for example). Aesthetic theorists of the late 17th and 18th centuries often choose to render Aristotle’s phobos, along with related words in Homer, as terror rather than fear, and terror thereby finds its way into definitions of the sublime. The French Revolution, in one of its critical phases (1793-94), deploys state violence in a mode that soon came to be known (retroactively) as the Terror. Other terrors (Stalinist, Nazi etc) have been so nominated following its example. Terrorism and terrorist also first come into the European vocabularies in the 1790s, as describing the behavior of the republican state. They reappear, inverted, as anti-state activities in the ‘dynamite’ movements of the late 19th century and in Germany in the 1970s, among other cases. This complex history, reflected in literature, political theory and philosophy, lies behind the recent mobilization of terror as a media-political address to western electorates.

Project leader(s):
  • David Simpson (Department of English, University of California, Davis)

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