Ticking Timebombs

“Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs-in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity-it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. . . .” -Sam Harris

“Unlike previous wars our enemy now is a stateless network of religious extremists. They do not obey the laws of war, they hide among peaceful populations and launch surprise attacks on civilians. They have no armed forces per se, no territory or citizens to defend and no fear of dying during their attacks.” -John Yoo

The first thing I thought of after reading Erik Saar’s account was this article published a few years ago: “Tortured Sympathies: Victorian Literature and the Ticking Time-Bomb Scenario.” In this article, Rachel Ablow makes the case that the urgency with which we approach torture is actually based in a Victorian understanding of the human, pain, and sympathy. While there are some pretty obvious flaws in her article, the main point is still very relevant.

She discusses the various scenarios in which someone, anyone, could be driven to commit acts of torture in service of extracting vital information. In fact, she says repeatedly that even anti-torture advocates concede that there exists some situation that could drive even them to torture. In the event outlined in the paragraph at the top, the imminent nature of the event and the weight of its catastrophe, the lives of the many very quickly outstrip the life of one. Not to mention, that the one is this case has established a certain contemptibly for the people to be afflicted by his crime. In this event, our natural response towards sympathy, one bolstered by certain ethical evaluations, is diminished, or at least directed strongly away from the subject to be tortured.

This provides a logical basis for how we can arrive at torture as a solution, but perhaps most interesting is how Ablow argues we can determine a talking body. She states that in eighteenth century thought, it was believed that truth could only be delivered through self-reflection in moment of control. However, the notion of a tortured body eliciting the truth stems from an older model of thinking, one that argues a tainted soul will never volunteer the truth; it must be coerced out of the body. She ultimately settles on a distinction that emerges completely in the nineteenth century: “[T]hose who sympathize with others and so are available to our sympathy are ordinarily cast as exempt from or impervious to torture; meanwhile, those who are exempt from or impervious to sympathy are ordinarily described as consistently responsive to pain.”

Ablow argues that this is the position currently active in our modern schema of torture. The lack of human sympathy and the dehumanization of torture subjects lend themselves to this logic. It is impossible to conceive of someone who you can’t identify with as telling the truth without coercion. They are your enemy and, even worse, enemy to all like you, therefore there is no way to extract the truth from a subject in a timely manner. It’s a vivisectionist approach, but it fails to contend with the fact that such a procedure will damage and distort the tissue to be analyzed by the very nature of the operation.

There is, of course, more to this article and her analyses of 24, the television series with Kiefer Sutherland, are quite interesting, especially in the context of our discussions.

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.


Appropriating the War Machine

Though there have been a number of treatments of war as it exists in the aftermath of  Thousand Plateaus, (Manuel de Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines immediately comes to mind) this is the I’ve first of read of any military actually putting such ideas into practice. The fluency of Naveh’s Deleuzean vocabulary is interesting enough, but the reading about its actual implementation certainly lends a whole new perspective on Deleuze and Guattari’s near-lysergic ramblings.

What is most fascinating to me, though, is how Naveh adapts the technologies of the nomadic war machine without any hint of irony. As the duo states in A Thousand Plateaus:

One of the fundamental tasks of the State is to striate the space over which it reigns, or to utilize smooth spaces as a means of communication in the service of striated space. It is a vital concern of every State not only to vanquish nomadism but to control migrations and more generally, to establish a zone of rights over an entire “exterior,” over all flows traversing the ecumenon. If it can help it, the State does not dissociate itself from a process of capture of flows of all kinds, populations, commodities or commerce, money or capital, etc. There is still a need for fixed paths in well-defined directions, which restrict speed, regulate circulation, relativize movement, and measure in detail the relative movements of subjects and objects.  (ATM 385-6)


The State’s primary function is the regulation of these untamed spaces, however, Naveh manages to complicate this, although in ways that the two predict will occur. As the duo figures it, the war machine is precisely an operational or organizational scheme that exists against the State. It is aleatory and heterogeneous, a decentralized network that bifurcates and rejoins as a constant project of immanence. Some theorists have included terrorist organizations as potential war machines due to their provisional and becoming (as a process) structure. The smooth space that Naveh discusses is the space of the war machine, but he acknowledges it as the space actors of the State must reterritorialize. It does offer a somewhat terrifying prospect for the cultural theorist (I have to imagine Debord turning over in his grave) since, as several of them have anticipated, the only true end for their work is to be subordinated into the mechanism of the State. Deleuze and Guattari. being very well aware of this, include a figure that closely mirrors Naveh:

As for the other pole, the jurist-king is a great organizer of war; but he gives it laws, lays out a field for it, makes it principled, imposes a discipline upon it, subordinates it to political ends. He turns the war machine into a military institution, he appropriates the war machine for the State apparatus. (ATM 425)

The jurist-king, as opposed to the magic emperor, continues and begins again and re-appropriates when necessary. For him, war lacks a telos. We can see Virilio here as well. I don’t know if it would be exactly appropriate to refer to Naveh as such a figure, although his zeal for the work leads one to imagine he would find something attractive in the notion of subordinating the tools of the lawless in order to bring them into nomos.


Deleuze & Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus 

Risk Towards a New Society

One of the central aspects of Beck’s argument is the importance of modernity in the construction of the globalized risk society. Implicit within this charge is the notion of velocity and acceleration along channels of communication and development. His primary focus on the extreme integration of the world is an optimistic one. He sees the potential within globalized risk and its concomitant catastrophes as a unifying force capable of engendering a certain cosmopolitanism. The basic logic is that catastrophes are no longer localized and the scope that they operate on not only disregards territory, but demolishes it. The cooperation is somewhat forced at this stage, but he believes that it could contain the kernel of a restructured global posture. Beck notes that in the wake of some catastrophes, new institutional forces can arise that move towards an “impure” cosmopolitanism, one that while still an optimistic position is divorced from the notion of “pure” philosophical cosmopolitanism.

However, the logic behind this assertion does not flow neatly. He argues that catastrophe draws attention to the issues of the world risk society and that modernity allows for a polyvocality to emerge, composed of groups that prior would be excluded from consideration in these of events. He fails to draw a conclusive  link between the awareness of catastrophe and the necessity of a globalized response. In fact, despite his claims of not-knowing, his argument seems to gesture towards the normative and obligatory cosmopolitanism he claims is not at work. His claims that actors are begrudgingly brought into interaction does not seem to engage with the highly provisional nature of these arrangements. An alliance formed on the basis of catastrophe is not one of mutual interest at all. As he claims, the neo-liberal impulse and the saturation of global capitalism seem to be key drivers in relationships between nation-states, but his article does not explain the transition between a neo-liberal and global civil society other than with the notion that risk renders capital functionally valueless. It’s certainly a very interesting article, especially its optimism, but as he himself admits, there is no certainty even when just discussing risk. Like risk itself, it appears that the societies he describes are diffuse and exist in fields of potentialization, taking on accidental properties only as an emergent function. Like catastrophe, these societies come into form as events, as ruptures.

Remaining is the question of whether or not omnipresent risk will actually usher a new global cosmopolitan structure or if it will just recede back into the medium that bore it. Will society move into a new age of global/local relations or will neo-liberalism simply improvise ameliorative measures as necessary?


Terror as State Apparatus

Hoffmann’s initial chapter closes with a laundry list of terrorist qualities, that when his historical treatment of the term is considered, seems to be the current stage of the terrorist figure at the time of publishing in 1998. They are as follows:

  • Political in aim and motivation
  • Violent or suggestive of violence
  • Intended to proliferate psychological distress
  • Conducted by a hierarchical, conspiratorial cabal
  • Maintained by non-state actors

While from most perspectives, the list seems fairly comprehensive, it is rather obvious that the final proposition poses something of a problem. He has not meaningfully substantiated the claim that terrorist activities cannot be carried out by state entities, especially when his historical analysis reveals that terrorism is, in fact, a governmental rule through fear. What are we to make of activities such as the Petrus Killings of the Suharto regime when viewed through Hoffmann’s schema? Hoffmann’s initial characterization of terrorism completely excludes the reciprocal relationship between terrorist organizations and the states their actions target.

Published in 1983—though not available in English translation until 1990—Fatal Strategies contains an analysis of the figure Baudrillard considers central to the contemporary economy of fear, the hostage. Concomitant with the notion of the hostage are the actors necessary to create it: the terrorist and the state.

Baudrillard contends that we have passed from the age of security into the age of terror:

The problem of security, as we know, haunts our societies and long ago replaced the problem of liberty. This is not as much a moral or philosophical change as an evolution in the objective state of systems:


—a relatively loose, diffuse and extensive state of the                system produces liberty;

—a different state of the system (denser) produces                    security (self-regulation, control, feedback, etc.);

—a further state of the system, that of proliferation and

saturation, produces panic and terror.


There is no metaphysics in any of this: these are the objective states of the system.  (Fatal Strategies 58, 2008)

The proliferation and saturation that Baudrillard refers to here, and very explicitly covers in nearby passages, is one of responsibility, a specter of terror that hovers—orbits might be more appropriate given Baudrillard’s technological focus—over each member of a society. In a society that has suffered the death of the subject, there is no cause, no locus of responsibility, for an event and each effect then draws to itself a generalized culpability: “The world is held collectively responsible for the order that reigns there” (60). Baudrillard concludes that, in such a society, terrorism limns a circuit of exchange, one undergoing positive feedback, wherein all participants engage in the production of terror and then suffer as the victims of it. In fact, the terrorist is as much a hostage: “And it is true that terrorism does not exist in itself as an original political act: it is the hostage of the media, just as they are hostage to it. There is no end to this chain of blackmail” (66).

Terrorism has become naturalized in the activities of states and non-state organizations to the point that, in the large number of cases, it is no longer a political act, but a transpolitical one, one that exists in asemic excess of the political. To illuminate the transpolitical:

The era of the political was one of anomie: crisis, violence, madness, and revolution. The era of the transpolitical is that of anomaly: an aberration with no consequence, contemporaneous with the event of no consequence. (46)

Anomie is figured against law, while anomaly against norm. The transpolitical is a position of law so inured to the social consciousness that meaningless aberration is the site of reaction, even though it is functionally harmless.

All of this is to say that, at this stage, terrorism becomes purely an act of symbolic exchange, aiming to disrupt and reveal the transpolitical, but instead manages to perpetuate it. Baudrillard asserts that we make a compromise for terrorism: “Understood: terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it. […] it’s a secret balance of terror that makes us guess that a spasmodic eruption of violence is preferable to its rational exercise in the framework of the state” (69). In this sense, we, as constituent parts of the state, act alongside the state in conjuring the phantom of terrorism. Baudrillard grounds this conclusion in a fundamental of problem of exchange within the world of terror, where exchange has begun to lose its rules. Terrorism becomes something of a game, designed to perpetuate exchange, even though it will still fall apart as the transpolitical generates the inexchangeable. The question of eliminating terrorism then becomes one of a complete cessation of exchange:

In any case this ultimatum [“What price will you pay to be rid of terrorism?”] leaves the state with no response left, for it calls on it to makes itself more terrorist than the terrorists. And it throws the media into an insoluble dilemma: if you want no more terrorism, then you must renounce information itself. (70)

Of course, Hoffmann’s evaluation of terrorism is intended to a practical one. There is a striving to create a clear category of terrorist activity with the intention that such a demarcation will be actionable. However, it is clear that he writes from the perspective of a victimized state, one that participates in terrorist actions as a one-sided exchange, and ignores the notion of complicity in terrorist activity. Terrorist activity generates the illusion of accidental death in a society that only has access to systematized or programmed death, it nurtures anomie, as Baudrillard enacts it. Though perhaps long-winded, not very clearly explained and a tad conspiratorial, this movement towards a diffuse terrorism—if one can abide by the death of the subject—takes into much greater account the consequences of such activity, not only on an immediate political scale, but a larger societal one by examining it from the level of exchange. Hoffmann’s chapter is by no means a failure in its goals to define terrorism, but there needs to be a discussion on the actual causes and effects of terrorism.