The power of words – Fellows’ seminar by David Simpson

21 August 2017

“After 9/11, the USA declared war on an emotion – terror. Like many who followed the political and media representation of the events of 9/11, I was struck by the absence of a robust critical response to the invocation of a ‘war on terror’. Only a few left-wing intellectuals (who were kept away from US TV talk shows) pointed out the oddity of declaring war on what was a personification and/or an emotion.”

  FullSizeRender 4 STIAS Fellow David Simpson during his seminar presentation on 17 August 2017

“The words terror and terrorism have a complex history reflected in literature, political theory and philosophy. But, unlike terrorism, which is well-researched and has generated journals, degree programmes and research institutes, terror is a little understood concept.”

This led David Simpson, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Davis and current STIAS fellow to develop his project States of Terror: History, Theory, Literature. He presented some of this work in a seminar with STIAS fellows.

“9/11 got me thinking in particular ways about language,” he said. “In a short space of time ‘Attack on America’ became ‘War on America’ became ‘War on Terror’.”

“It made me question who takes on a word, when, and what do they do with it.”

“I was struck by the absence of the word horror in 9/11 press outputs,” he continued. “Terror and horror run together and change places throughout the history of the English language. Why was one privileged over the other? Horror was arguably a better word but it suggests distance while terror suggests capture by a threat. Horror disappeared from the descriptions – what people had to feel was terror – this is part of the political manipulation.”

“I believe a critical-historical philology of terror has much to teach us about the function of fear-terror terms as opportunistically available for political management. There has been an absence of critical awareness of how these words are used in English. We have to ask whether our self-imposed poverty of theory is also a reason for the relative failure of informed critique of the war on terror?”

Simpson’s work is therefore examining key moments in the history of the use of these words.

“The King James Bible translators, for example, notably used terror as opposed to fear or dread. Similarly Aristotle’s phobos, was translated as terror rather than fear at the turn of the 18th Century.”

He has also traced the use of the words in works by Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Conrad, Balzac, Sartre and Burke, as well as in the Gothic Novels of the 1790s.

“The post-9/11 obsession with terror as enemy number one runs against centuries of restraint.”

Simpson pointed that initially terrorism was more associated with state behaviour. In one of the critical phases (1793-94) of the French Revolution state violence was deployed in a mode that came to be known (retroactively) as The Terror. Terrorism and terrorist therefore first came into European vocabularies in the 1790s, as describing the behaviour 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.”

“In the Cold War period you would have expected a lot of terror talk and fear mongering but terror barely features. Instead panic was the primary theme, the need to police oneself, a civil defence culture where violent activities could be controlled. It was about knowledge, self-reliance, preventing fear from turning into panic. Panic is more manageable,” he said.

“The message was that war would be won by the hearts and minds of the survivors certainly not by terror. This was in notable contrast to 9/11.”

Simpson highlighted that terror talk was also absent in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 although Kennedy did make the first reference to weapons of mass destruction. It was also absent from the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

“Between 1962 and 1993 the word terrorism shifted to describe Soviet-sponsored operations, to the Palestinians and to the ‘evil forces of barbarism’,” he continued. “Now terrorism means the other lot, the enemy, those to be oppressed. It only really came into use in this way from the 1970s/80s when Benjamin Netanyahu associated terrorism with antagonists to the nation state.”

Weaponisation of emotions

“Since then terror has become a condition for US military dominance – the global population is terrorised therefore the US has the power to strike anywhere.”

“Initially in 9/11 the lessons of the Cold War civil defence model were very much in place. There was little initial panic – in fact, panic might have saved lives. The initial destruction seemed contained – almost like a planned detonation – until the towers actually collapsed!”

“From then terror and war became part of the common language. The traumatised masses were encouraged to support military revenge by repeated visuals of the images. The message was to inform on your neighbours and to feel the power of terror.”

Simpson added that the strategy was not a total success but it made the war on Iraq a possibility. “The government was looking for an excuse to invade Iraq and this opportunity was too good to miss.”

“After 9/11 there were some dissident voices – notably among those directly affected and families of emergency workers.”

“I believe Hurricane Katrina challenged some of the last beliefs in the government’s role in protecting its citizens,” said Simpson. “There was still some attempt to keep citizens enthralled by military rhetoric – for example, the use of ‘War on Poverty’ – but the exposure of massive incompetence eventually tends to erode the power of the ruling classes.”

Not enough just to say it

Simpson also more broadly discussed the ways in which writing about the aesthetic experience can make a difference in the world.

“Those of us in literary studies are asking ourselves about accountability,” he said. “about what we are doing. We have to ask about the effect our work is having in the world. It’s probably not enough just to say it.”

“There was an outpouring of poetry after 9/11 all of which protested the idea of going to war – you couldn’t have asked for more effort – but it produced minimal response.”

“Without the invasion of Iraq we would have had no ISIS and no refugee crisis – these crises were made by the US. They caused the problem but take no responsibility for it and have assisted the least in taking in refugees,” he added.

“The people who saw this at the time were not able to make their case.”

“These kinds of debates and critiques are not happening in political centres like Washington,” he continued. “Who would fund and read such globalised critique?”

However, he added that he sees some hope in non-American Anglophone literature and in reaching people through the education system.

“Criticism and understanding the use of words is important in political and public argument. But it can only happen in a culture where aesthetics are taught. Maybe we shouldn’t be fussing at academic conferences but rather aiming to get such discussions into secondary schools,” he concluded.

Words: Michelle Galloway, Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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