July 19, 2024

Terror And Performance – Asymmetric Warfare, Martyrdom, And Necropolitics (Axelle Van Wynsberghe)

[The Fourth World War is] a fractal war of all cells, all singularities,  revolting in the form of antibodies. A confrontation so impossible to pin down that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular set-pieces, such as the Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan. But the Fourth World War is elsewhere. It is what haunts every world order, all hegemonic domination—if Islam dominated the world, terrorism would rise against Islam, for it is the world, the globe itself, which resists globalization.

-Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism

Terrorism is not just an act of warfare, it is one which assumes an audience and is considered by some as a form of performance art. Terrorist organizations such as Daesh, Hamas, al-Qaïda and Hezbollah make use of spectacles and extreme performances in order to accomplish their aims. Martyr videos, suicide bombing coverage, speeches by heads of state, activist recordings, satellite images on smartphones, and drone footage all take part in this ideological “war on terror”.

This is a symptom of what Baudrillard calls the “Fourth World War”, a war in which “what is at stake is globalization itself”.(11) First, Achille Mbembe’s theoretical framework on race and colonization will be used to outline contemporary necropolitics, and showcase how race, terrorism and death are intertwined. Second, I will analyze how terrorist attacks hijack death as ‘sacrifice’. Third, I will outline the aesthetics of violence, and the performativity of terror, in order to showcase how violence and terror are used to “make meaning”. Fourth, I will illustrate the performativity of terrorism, showcasing how, viewed through the lens of ‘performance art’, military action is inefficient as a counter-terrorism effort.

Necropolitics – Power and Decolonization

Achille Mbembe’s theory on necropolitics will be used in order to examine the ways in which the sovereign state necessitates the doing-away of an enemy’s subjectivity before it can kill—without it being considered murder or sacrifice by society. Within this process, “the other” must be abstracted, and control over death must be limitless.

In the sovereign world, the limitation of death is “done away with”; instead the control over mortality is exercised and legitimated so that it cannot be conceived as murder or sacrifice. The sovereign is that which transgresses all limits, and “is he who is, as if death were not”. Furthermore, racism is engraved within the mechanisms of the sovereign state, because as Mbmebe states: “the politics of race is ultimately linked to the politics of death.” Indeed, “the function of racism is to regulate the distribution of death and to make possible the murderous functions of the state.”(17)

Foucault’s account of biopower explains how the state categorizes the human body, and how this process contributed to the creation of a racial discourse. Today, racism has taken on a new character; although the discourse no longer occurs through the topic of “race”, different ethnic groups remain racialized—inferiority is judged based on one’s culture, language, or history, as Russell Brand has observed.

Additionally, Mbembe notes that the “stateless people” of the industrial world are compared to the “savages” of the colonial world. Race is additionally not just a social construct, it is also “image, form, surface, figure, and—especially—a structure of the imagination,” and thereby necessitates an analysis that moves into the realm of representation and performativity.(x) Edward Saïd notes how the categories of “muslims”, “islam”, and “terrorists” have emerged, and states that these “malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West,” noting how these labels create more hostility and obscure history.(xii) The sovereign state needs to abstract persons and revive racial discourse, however, in order to achieve its neocolonialist ends.

Ideological language and imagery creates the performative backdrop necessary in order to cast particular groups of people as inherently undignified. As Rustom Bharucha states, performance does not only preclude creativity, it is also inextricably linked to human sociality—it is inherently anthropomorphic. It is linked to “social interactions, behaviours, strategies, deceptions, manipulations,  and negotiations of terror in the public sphere” (20). Bharucha analyses the performative language of war,  in which words are embodiments of particular actions.

A Prisoner of War (POW) has recently become a “Person under Control (PUC), which is  pronounced “puck” , as in “fuck a puck”, which literally means to “administer a beating’. (5). Even the word “terrorist”—along with “rogue”, “beast”, and other associations, denote a being that is somehow not ‘human’.

Joe Kelleher additionally notes how images draw our attention to the “political scene”, and how “the scenes that appear only to play before us in an external world ‘out there’ also involve ourselves; that we are also in the picture, that we may also be actors in the scene, even when the picture is of events taking place on the other side of the globe.”(13) Saïd addresses the way in which mass media creates a ‘picture’ about Islam which provides a powerful context, feelings, values, and creates in the beholder a particular attitude towards Muslims. As he states, “today’s climate favors—one might even say requires—Islam to be a menace.”(xx)

Saïd contends that claims about Arabs are used to obfuscate what the United States and Israel have been complicit of doing in the region. As he points out, it is their bombings, invasions, and military occupations which have created fear and grievance in Muslim communities, and not an irrational rage against Western “modernity”.  In fact, when asked about their heinous acts, several terrorists have come forth to state that it is the seemingly indiscriminate cruelty with which drone air strike attacks are conducted that pushed them to terrorist acts.

As Farea Al-Muslimi states, “When they think of America, they think of the terror that they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at anytime.” American military forces are increasingly deploying drones on those they deem to be “terrorists”. An officer states: “I’m looking to know whether or not they have hostile intentions”, explaining that if they do, it’s enough to begin an air strike. The drone footage, however, is grainy and dark, and they have to base themselves on the appearances of shadows and silhouettes in order to determine if someone may or may not be carrying a weapon. T

he very concept of “terrorist” itself has been made to bring a particular “picture” in mind—a picture which is increasingly used to uncover their “dividualized” identities through the use of big data. As Slavoj Žižek points out, we must be careful not to fall into the naive and arrogant leftist belief that citizens of so-called “Third World Countries” do not even have “the capacity to be evil”.  However, the aim is not to absolve victims of the colonialist and neocolonialist rule of responsibility when it comes to terrorist attacks.

Nevertheless, there remains a correlation between colonialism and neocolonialism, and the ideology which fuels terrorism. An Islamic State fighter asks his son why they kill infidels, and his son replies “because they kill Muslims”, and the fighter adds: “God willing the Caliphate has been established, and we are going to invade you as you invaded us. We will capture your women as you captured our women. We will orphan your children as you have orphaned our children.” The Sykes-Picot agreement, in which France and Britain had divided up the Ottoman Empire—is key to the anger and rage of the Islamic States (IS) fighters. According to Žižek, “if you are a terrorist, my god what are then they who accuse you of terrorism?”.

Extreme Performance – Martyrdom and Simulation Under Sovereign Rule

How could the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11 not be considered one of the most impactful performances of this century—not only due to its symbolic character but also due to its geopolitical impact. Audiences from around the globe were struck with the same images of the twin planes and black smoke, the World Trade Center turning to rubble in a few minutes. The image of the world trade center being hit by two planes is repeated over and over like a skipping disk in the collective imagination. As Andy Beckett emphasizes, al-Qaïda succeeded in creating “the most spectacular attack”.

The stage was set, the World Trade Center being the ultimate symbol of the United States’ power and imperial reign over global affairs. As Baudrillard notes, it was a “symbolic event”: “Their end in material space has borne them off into a definite imaginary space. By the grace of terrorism, the World Trade Center has become the world’s most beautiful building.”

Famously, the Karlheinz Stockhausen is even quoted to have called the attack “the greatest work of art that ever existed”, comparing his life’s work as a German composer to the monumental audience and impact of the event. Terrorist attacks do not seek to completely eliminate the enemy, or even to “win”. The 9/11 attacks did not affect the political or military power of the United States. Rather, they seek to create symbolic events through which the representation of Western power is, as Baudrillard would state, “suicided”.

As Baudrillard illustrates, “When the two towers collapsed, you had the impression that they were responding to the suicide of the suicide-planes with their own suicides.”(7)  The performative hijacking of death as sacrifice is what can create this impact. In fact, Brecht Savelkoul argues that terrorism is performance art: “They want to convince us (the audience) that we should be afraid of them (the actors) by putting up a terrifying show (the act of terror) to make us listen to their message. That’s not just like performance art, that is performance art.”

Furthermore, due to the terrorist attack the system falls back in on itself. “The terrorist hypothesis”, writes Baudrillard, “is that the system itself will commit suicide in response to the multiple challenges posed by deaths and suicides.”(17)  The symbolic act of a suicide bombing also goes further, to redeem death from the crypt of necropolitics, in which it no longer holds any meaning and is limitless. Caroline Heinrich, for example, states that “against the logic of indifference, the terrorists trying to restore a meaning to something that no longer holds any.”(Baudrillard, 71)  This terrorist situational transfer creates an onslaught on the logic of simulation and indifference on which the ‘war on terror’ and the global order preside.

The Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué’s piece On Three Posters showcases how martyr videos are performed for the global audience—which is posited as a neocolonialist threat to Islam.  Mroué has created work which reflects on this performativity. The theatre piece notes the extraordinary way in which martyrs start their performance with “I am the martyr…”—as if emerging on a screen as a specter. When we watch the video, they will be dead, but are not dead yet. He also notes how martyrs prepare themselves for these videos as if for a Hollywood film.

In a leaked video showcasing the propaganda techniques of Al-Qaïda, Ziad Jarrah is seen being coached through his martyr video by his handlers. When he stumbles, they say, “this speech requires passion. Why don’t you try a different approach?”.  The incident showcases how these videos are scripted, edited, stylized, with the suicide bombers starring as leading actors. Their training videos also illustrate their ability to create high quality visual content, since “the highlight of the video consists of a mock Kung Fu battle, complete with bad acting and special effects.”

As Žižek states, these organizations have made use of the weapons of modernity and globalism, “money and stock-market speculation, computer technology and aeronautics, spectacle and the media network, and all without altering their goal of destroying that dominant power”(15). However, terrorist organizations are not the only ones who use the spectacle and the media in their favor. The United States make their own attempts to recruit the circulating images, videos, and attacks to their own ideological advantage in shock politics.

In fact, it even appears that the Pentagon engaged the aid of Hollywood in November 2001 in order to imagine terrorist scenarios and their solutions. Furthermore, in the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which prisoners were photographed in humiliating and dehumanizing scenes of torture, it was later revealed that some scenes were staged. As Caton and Zacka state, “The photograph ironically performs the torture”.(x) War photography and videos are therefore often staged and performed, in order to actualize a particular conscious or subconscious ideological message. In some cases, the media themselves are the main weaponry used in torture and attack missions.

Asymmetric Warfare – Globalization and the Staging of Military Action

Today’s terrorism, Žižek points out, attempts to work in opposition to the abstracted warfare which makes structural decisions that affect “the painful reality of millions”.  The rise of paranoia has created the “terrorist”, and inscribed within it is “an irrational abstract agency”, serving as the rationale for indiscriminate killings and  justification for the “war on terror”. (36) As the ultimate tool for legitimating death, racism is not an external phenomenon, but one endemic in the sovereign state and the global neocolonialist regime.

As Foucault argues, its discourse is “always available for recuperation, and integral to the workings of the biopolitical state”.(112) After all, it is in Mbembe’s words the “fierce colonial desire” which strives to classify and categorize peoples, and “blackness or race have never been fixed, they have always belonged to a chain of open-ended signifiers.”(6)

We are therefore not in a post-racial moment, since not only is racial discourse revived and instrumentalized for the benefits of the sovereign state’s foreign affairs, but it is used to institutionalize a new regime of existence in which people become abstractions and signifiers, agents in a staged and asymmetrical war that they never ascribed to. After all, the use of big data in order to classify “terrorist” activity has already been used against climate change activists in the United States, who were also accused of terrorist activity in their own country. The “state of exception” created through the reign of terror on foreign and home soil creates a dangerous volatile environment.

The asymmetric warfare occurring in today’s Fourth World War is not only played on the geopolitical field, it is also played on the ideological one through spectacles and extreme performances, video testimonials and leaked government files. Contemporary war zones have become more blurred and ubiquitous—taking place outside of designated war zones; as cyber warfare, terrorism, and its complementary “war on terror”.

he military is not only deployed, it is also orchestrated; war becomes an installation; and its warfare is curated by edited drone footage, press releases, cinematic documentaries, and activist phone videos. War has become staged, curated, and installed, and as Kelleher states: “the scene does not just happen of its own accord but is put together in a particular way for our benefit, which means also put together to ‘work’ on us in particular ways.”(8) The term theatre of war, for example, refers to the way, according to Hito Steyerl, in which military action is deployed and staged.

Photography, dramaturgy, and visual art are also instrumentalized in order to persuade, manipulate, and create political illusions that displace subjectivities, geographical borders, public morals, and legislation. They are increasingly used within the context of warfare in order to create proxys and confusion. This performative analysis has vast implications, because if terrorism is performance art, it cannot be militarily defeated.

Furthermore, the response to terrorism with military action has the tendency to feed the ‘event’ by meeting it on the same stage. It is a well known fact that videos and testimonies of the United States’ atrocities abroad have been used to recruit more terrorists. As Žižek states: “we tend to forget we all are not just abstract individuals of a world”; rather than feed the abstraction of the “war on terror”, perhaps it is time to lift the veil in order to see the real war: that of the economic neocolonialist regime.

Rather than let American patriotism render September 11 a device for state ideology, we should note the way in which the economy increasingly takes more primacy over democracy. Despite the United States’ denouncements of the state of a ‘backwards Middle East’, their simulational values mask their interests, which is precisely to keep these states undemocratic to protect the unfettered power they have over the regional oil reserves.

Terrorism can be seen as a decolonizing practice through which the neocolonialist reign of terror and impunity is hijacked through an embrace of death as sacrifice. Terrorism succeeds as a decolonizing practice by 1) using martyrdom in order to hijack to logic of necropolitics, signifying death as sacrifice, 2) using extreme performances in order to inspire the similar fear and impunity as the neocolonialist regime, challenging the moral legitimacy of the West, 3) using global spectacles in order to create symbolic events, and 4) instrumentalizing media in order to take part in the global “shock politics” and “politics of illusion”.

The “Fourth World War” functions through abstraction, and through the dehumanization of a peoples in order to legitimize their deaths. To this end, racial discourse is “revived” and instrumentalized by the global neocolonialist regime in favor of their economic interests abroad. The dramaturgical and semiotic analysis of the “war on terror” showcases how, through engaging on the global media stage, both parties are feeding the ‘theatre of war’. It also showcases that terrorism cannot be defeated through military action, since its impact is geared towards the symbolic event.

Axelle Van Wynsberghe is a member of the “KnowledgeManagement: Concepts and Methods” Unit (H1) at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy.  She holds an M.A. degree from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

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