An excerpt from W. J. T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror

November 17, 2015
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An excerpt from W. J. T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present

One further thought on the unspeakable and unimaginable: as tropes, they are turns in the stream of discourse, swerves in the temporal unfolding of speech and spectacle. The unspeakable and unimaginable are, to put it bluntly, always temporary. Which means they exist in historical time as well as the discursive time of the unfolding utterance, or the temporality of personal experience. What was once unspeakable and unimaginable is always a matter of becoming, of a speech and an image to come—often rather quickly. If I tell you not to think of the face or name of your mother, you will not be able to prevent yourself from conjuring up her image and name. Declare that God is unrepresentable, and you also declare yourself a representative of the truth about him; you make a representation, an authoritative declaration, of his unrepresentability. Declare that something is invisible, accessible to visual imaging, and someone (usually an artist or scientist) will find a way to depict it. Prohibit something from being shown, hide it away from view, and its power as a concealed image outstrips anything it could have achieved by being shown. We should always say, then, this is unspeakable or unimaginable—up till now. The law against the representation of something in words or images must, in effect, always break itself, because it must name, describe, define—that is, represent—the very thing that it prohibits. That is why the law is so parsimonious and discreet in representing that which it prohibits from representation. Laws against pornography (unspeakable, unimaginable acts of lust, sadism, and animality) thus fall back on the “I know it when I see it” formula, to avoid specifying (and thus inspiring) the prohibited acts. Both the divine and the demonic, the ultimate good and the ultimate evil, inhabit the extreme zones of the human imagination of which we cannot or should not speak, and which we certainly should not depict in visual images.

I hope it is becoming clear what all this has to do with terror, which fuses the divine and the demonic in a single unspeakable and unimaginable compound. The terrorist is a holy warrior or a devil, depending upon your point of view, or your historical positioning (yesterday’s terrorist is today’s hero of the glorious revolution). Terror is also the deliberate combining of the semiotics and aesthetics of the unimaginable with those of the unspeakable. You can’t imagine anyone doing this, going this far? You think the unnamable horror, the indescribable, unspeakable act cannot be named, described, and reenacted? Terrorists speak the language of the unspeakable. They perform and state the unimaginable. Their acts as producers of words and images, symbolic forms of violence, are much more important than their acts of actual physical violence. Strategic forms of violence such as war or police action are not essential to their repertoire. The main weapon of terror is the violent spectacle, the image of destruction, or the destruction of an image, or both, as in the mightiest spectacle of them all, the destruction of the World Trade Center, in which the destruction of a globally recognizable icon was staged, quite deliberately, as an icon of its own right. The people consumed with the image are collateral damage, “enemies of God” who are of no interest. Or they are holy sacrifices, whose innocence is precisely the point. From the standpoint of the terrorist, their innocence makes them appropriate sacrificial victims. From the standpoint of counterterror, their innocence confirms the absolute, unspeakable evil and injustice of the terrorist cause. (There is, of course, the intermediate, compromise position common in state terrorism known as “collateral damage,” which expresses regret for the loss of innocent life, but claims nevertheless a statistical kind of justice in [often] unverifiable claims about the number of guilty terrorists killed; see the previous chapter on the very high percentage of innocent civilians killed by bombing and drones.) Either way, the point of terrorist violence is not the killing of the enemy as such, but the terrorizing of the enemy with a traumatizing spectacle. “Shock and awe” are the tactics that unite nonstate with state terrorism, and in both cases the traumatic spectacle can be rationalized as a humane act of restraint. Instead of killing large masses of people, it is sufficient to “sent them a message” by subjecting them to shocking displays of destruction.

To read more about Cloning Terror, click here.

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