ISIS as an Empty Text

Devji’s assertion that perhaps, in our current moment, it may be more useful to read the actions and origins of ISIS at the level of pure appearance is a fascinating one. Especially since the events of 9/11, there has been a large degree of interest, both in the academic and public spheres, in trying to figure out where and when this apparent Islam vs. the West dichotomy appears. As Devji notes, people have looked to history as recent Israel’s presence in Lebanon and as far back as the Crusades, or even the foundation of Islam. There is an impulse to slot ISIS into clear and distinct historical, sociological, and ideological frameworks and that tendency may itself be a scientific impulse, resting on the notion that if we can categorize something we can control it. However, the way Devji frames ISIS is precisely the opposite: the group is ahistorical, ideologically inconsistent, and sociologically multiform. One can imagine (delivered in Norbert Wiener deadpan) an anecdote about an analyst who probes every molecule of a planarian, but has no clue what the creature actually looks like.

He notes that built into many of the actors people identify as Islamic terrorists groups is a resistance to depth, a resistance to reading the symbol. A fear and rejection of hypocrisy is also central to these groups, a structural device that does not assuage the dissonance in the politics of some of these groups, but one that produces a transparent organization nonetheless. This transparency in turn leads to ISIS as an organization with one central referent, acting as a reaction to an excrescent Western influence or intervention, but without any relation to anything outside of that. Devji relates the strange religious and political leadership of ISIS and how its central publication is almost “anodyne.” This combined with the public brutality and transparency of the organization lead him to assert that ISIS is an immanent, not transcendent, set of relations. ISIS then exists almost purely as a source of disruption, a reification of dialectic principles. It is often said that we conjure our own enemies.

Of course, as with most things we’ve read thus far, I’m tempted to read this characterization of ISIS in light of the work of Jean Baudrillard. This short excerpt from Simulation and Simulacra (1981) resonates especially with Devji’s approach to ISIS:

Melancholia is the brutal disaffection that characterizes our saturated systems. Once the hope of balancing good and evil, true and false, indeed of confronting some values of the same order, once the more general hope of a relation of forces and a stake has vanished. Everywhere, always, the system is too strong: hegemonic.


Against this hegemony of the system, one can exalt the ruses of desire, practice revolutionary micrology of the quotidian, exalt the molecular drift or even defend cooking. This does not resolve the imperious necessity of checking the system in broad daylight.


This, only terrorism can do.


It is the trait of reversion that effaces the remainder, just as a single ironic smile effaces a whole discourse, just as a single flash of denial in a slave effaces all the power and pleasure of the master.


The more hegemonic the system, the more the imagination is struck by the smallest of its reversals. The challenge, even infinitesimal, is the image of a chain failure. Only this reversibility without a counterpart is an event today, on the nihilistic and disaffected stage of the political. Only it mobilizes the imaginary.

Perhaps this provides a way to consider the strange composition of ISIS and similar transparent organizations. The lack of depth and resistance to hypocrisy, the ahistorical and ideologically discrepant (as both dissident and ‘a noise apart’) nature are the result of a nihilism. This bizarre current of the non-referential in ISIS is a somewhat vexing question and nihilism provides a route towards conceptualizing it. It is admittedly an easy answer to a question that is too complex to entertain such explanations, but it provides an interesting way of analyzing an organization that does not view violence as an unfortunate consequence of political change, but an act of value unto itself. Taken with some of Baudrillard’s thought, Devji’s essay could provide a description of ISIS as a post-political entity, certainly an intriguing notion. Perhaps such an idea is merely audacious.


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