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States of Paralysis: America’s Surrender to the Spectacle of Terror

The spectacle of terror and fear has developed a singular focus of communication and control.

Part of the Series

As the link between the media and corporate power becomes more integrated, the visual theater of terror mimics the politics of the “official” war on terror. Echoing the discourse of the “official” war on terror, the violence of extremist groups as well as state-sanctioned and corporate violence are understood almost exclusively within the discourse of moral absolutes pitting good against evil. Whether it is former President George W. Bush’s claim, “You are either with us or against us,”(2) or Osama bin Laden’s injunction, “You are either a believer or an infidel,”(3) this is a repressive binary logic that not only comes from the mouth of too many politicians, but also saturates the media.

Within the current spectacle of politics, fear and the rhetoric of terror prevail. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, lashes out at leftist critics suggesting they are both losers and drug users. As Glenn Greenwald points out, Gibbs seems to be in denial over a number of substantive criticisms of the Obama administration raised by the left, including the fact they have “done so little about crisis-level unemployment, foreclosures and widespread economic misery,” exhibited an “endless devotion to Wall Street,” expanded “a miserable, pointless and unwinnable war that is entering its ninth year…. claimed the power to imprison people for life with no charges and to assassinate American citizens without due process, intensified the secrecy weapons and immunity instruments abused by his predecessor, … found all new ways of denying habeas corpus…. granted full-scale legal immunity to those who committed serious crimes in the last administration [and] failed to fulfill – or affirmatively broken – promises ranging from transparency to gay rights.(4)

Many of these claims are also backed up by a recent ACLU report, which, as Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, states:

So, some of the places we point to in the report include the endorsement of indefinite detention for some of the people who are now held at Guantánamo, the failure to hold accountable the people who endorsed torture. The last administration built a framework for torture, but this administration, we say in the report, is building a framework for impunity. Allowing those senior officials who endorsed torture to get away with it leaves torture on the table as a permissible policy option, if not for this president, then for the next president.(5)

In spite of the seriousness of such claims, the possibility of genuine criticism coming from the left is dismissed by Gibbs through character assassination and the false and disabling lens of the friend/enemy distinction. The message is clear: any sort of criticism is to be associated with an unjustifiable attack, and any response must be directed toward a newly constituted enemy.

Sarah Palin shares the same culture of fear stage with Ben Quayle – son of former Vice President Day Quayle – who is running for Congress in Arizona. Palin titillates her audiences with a lock-and-load metaphor and carries her militant rhetoric to new extremes on her Facebook page, which “now carries a map featuring 20 gun sights, one for each of the Democrats targeted this year by her political action committee SarahPAC.”(6) Quayle, who tells his audiences, “someone has to go to Washington and knock the hell out of the place,”(7) engages in mode of address that devalues reasoned debate and dialogue in favor of feeding an apocalyptic desire for destruction, fear and militarism.

Just as the necessity of fighting terror has become the central rationale for war by the Bush administration and the Obama regime, a visual culture of fear and humiliation has emerged, made ubiquitous by commercial television, the Internet and 24-hour cable news shows devoted to representations of the everyday violence, ranging from the spectacle of spousal abuse, extreme sports, reality TV and the ongoing pornographic violence of war that is fed to the public by “in bed” news reporters nightly.

The visual theater of terror, fear and humiliation aestheticizes politics while celebrating the glory and spectacle of a permanent war machine. At the same time, raw violence becomes stylized as it is integrated into audio-visual spectacles that shock and massage the mind and emotions with a theatricality of power and a steady regimen of fear, violence and vengeance. If the media are to be believed, every aspect of life, as Brian Massumi has argued, increasingly appears as “a workstation in the mass production line of fear.”(8)

The spectacle of terror and fear has become America’s chief source of entertainment, and not only requires a new conception of politics, pedagogy and society; it also raises significant questions about the new media and its centrality to democracy. Image-based technologies have redefined the relationship among the ethical, political and aesthetic. While “the proximity is perhaps discomforting to some, … it is also the condition of any serious intervention”(9) into what it means to connect cultural politics to matters of political and social responsibility. This is especially true at a time when, as Frank Rich has pointed out, “We live in a culture where accountability and responsibility are forgotten vales.”(10) The spectacle of terror and raw violence as entertainment along with the conditions that have produced it do not sound the death knell of democracy, but demand that we “begin to rethink democracy from within these conditions.”(11)

How might we construct a cultural politics based on social relations that enable individuals and social groups to rethink the crucial nature of pedagogy, agency and social responsibility in a media-violence-saturated global sphere? How can we begin to address these new technologies within a democratic cultural politics that challenges religious fundamentalism, neoliberal ideology, militarism and the cult of mindless violent entertainment?

Such a collective project requires a politics that is in the process of being invented, one that has to be attentive to the new realities of power, global social movements and the promise of a planetary democracy. At stake here are both modes of critical education and public spheres that develops those modes of knowledge and skills needed to critically understand the new visual and visualizing technologies and their attendant screen culture, not simply as new modes of communication, but as structural forces and educational tools capable of expanding critical citizenship, animating public life and extending democratic public spheres.

It would be a mistake to simply align the new media exclusively with the forces of domination and commercialism, or what Allen Feldman calls “total spectrum violence.”(12) Instead, what has to be stressed is the complex role of the new media within the larger political, social and communicative landscape. It is too easy either to overly romanticize the new image-based technologies or to simply dismiss them as new sources of oppressive control. Whether we are talking about the Internet, the emergence of powerful social media networks or the new digital technologies, what we cannot pretend is that these new information technologies represent a new utopia.

In fact, they are technologies supported by a formative culture that carries both the residues of dominant power and the possibilities of new forms of resistance. Even within the spectacle of terror, there are hints of structural forces and elements of resistance that could be used for emancipatory rather than oppressive purposes.

Historically, both the spectacle of the 9/11 bombings and the beheading videos that followed, communicated far more than grisly acts of terror and atrocity. They also “point[ed] to … a new structural feature of the international state system: that the historical monopoly of the means of destruction by the state is now at risk.”(13)

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates denounced the web site WikiLeaks for disclosing 75,000 classified documents about the Afghanistan war, he was not simply arguing that a security leak had taken place that might jeopardize state secrets, he was also implicitly acknowledging what the administration did not want the public to know. In this case that the leaks made public both the distortions and misrepresentations the government has used to defend the war. The buried order of politics in his condemnation of WikiLeaks is that the leak laid bare what Ray McGovern calls rightly the “brutality and fecklessness of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan” as well as making visible serious questions about the billions of dollars wasted in such a shameful and unnecessary war.(14) Similarly, such leaks not only revealed the power of the Internet and screen culture to challenge official power, they also indicted a fourth estate that has largely been bought and sold by corporate and political power.

At the same time, terrorist spectacles harbor great danger to both humanity and the fate of democracy. In complex ways, they illustrate how important it is to engage in struggles to defend democracy in part through attempts to reclaim the social media, public values, public spheres and the new emerging screen culture from the death-provoking, zombie politics of both state-sanctioned and stateless terrorists.(15)

The spectacle of terror, with its recognition of the image as a key force of social power, makes clear that cultural politics is now constituted by a plurality of sites of resistance and social struggle, offering up new ways for progressives to conceptualize how the media might be used to create alternative public spheres, as in, for instance, pirate radio, alternative film production, new interactive forms of communication, and so on.

Theorists such as Thomas Keenan, Mark Poster, Douglas Kellner and Jacques Derrida are right in suggesting that the new electronic technologies and media publics “remove restrictions on the horizon of possible communications”(16) and, in doing so, suggest new possibilities for engaging the media as a democratic force both for critique and for positive intervention and change. The spectacle of terror and its expanding culture of fear and cruelty, if examined closely, provide some resources for rethinking how the political is connected to particular understandings of the social; how distinctive modes of address are used to marshal specific identities, memories and histories; and how certain pedagogical practices are employed to mobilize a range of affective investments around images of trauma and suffering.

A democratic defense of the social and public values also has to be waged on another front, currently dominated by a market-driven discourse, by asking hard questions concerning not only how to imagine the basic elements of a social democracy, but also what it would mean to expand the reach of democratic values by placing limits on markets and the drive for efficiency, profits and privatization.

Equally important, a defense of common social goods, substantive equality, public services, redistribution of wealth, collective protection against risk, racial and economic justice, public ownership and critical education has to take place at a time when democracy is being endlessly invoked as a justification for the culture of fear. Any viable democracy requires informed citizens with access to information that enables them to govern rather than simply be governed. By reasserting a notion of democracy that rejects the concept of passive citizenry, it will be possible to resurrect the concept of an expansive social contract that views economic equality and difference as inseparable from political democracy.

Democracy implies an experience in which power is shared; dialogue is connected to involvement in the public sphere; competency is linked to intervention; and education enables a public capacity to deal with and respect differences that expand the range of values, capacities and social forms that inform public life.

Politicians now act as if a public and informed citizenry is irrelevant to politics itself. How else to explain the egregious call by Republicans for tax cuts for the rich and the cutting of social benefits for the millions of Americans who are unemployed, homeless, lack food and are suffering unimaginable hardships. House Minority Leader John Boehner denounces the Obama administration’s $26 billion state-aid bill to save the jobs of 300,000 teachers and other public employees as irresponsible, claiming it is a “bailout to the teachers unions”(forgetting that the teachers’ unions have no love for Obama’s educational policies). At the same time, he calls for cutting the deficit and the taxes of the rich. This is a version of zombie politics where the living dead feed off the ailing, democratic polity.

Fear and terror are cultural constructs deeply embedded in diverse sites and locations in American culture. They now shape the cultural apparatus that haunts our dreams and destroys our political landscape.

Central to a rethinking of cultural politics is the issue of pedagogy both as a structural formation and as a moral and political practice. Pedagogy is now primarily public, no longer restricted to traditional sites of learning such as the school, family or place of worship. Diverse material contexts and institutional forces, such as conservative foundations in the United States, fund new sites for the dissemination of knowledge, ranging from radio, cable and television stations to high-speed Internet connections offering magazine and newspaper sites.(17) Think-tanks vie with pirate radio stations, alternative online zines and blogs. These diverse pedagogical sites also organize “personal and public structures of attention” within specific circuits of power as part of their attempt to reach distinct audiences.(18)

The combination of new technologies and diverse modes of circulation and interaction is mediated, in turn, through various interpretative communities, which both situate texts and confer meanings in ways that cannot be specified in advance. Meanings are received, but they are not guaranteed and posit an important terrain of struggle. And, while public pedagogy is the outgrowth of new public technologies,(19) the particular forms and ideologies it produces are almost always open to interpretation and resistance.

Roger Simon has suggested that there is a need for various individuals and groups to develop pedagogical practices, which encourage a form of attentiveness that enables audiences to engage in a dialogue with the stories told by spectacles of terror and fear, regardless of their source.(20) Such a pedagogy would reject the anti-intellectualism, the fear of critical dialogue and the general indifference to the stories of others that are embedded in the pedagogy of the spectacle.

In addressing what kind of pedagogical work is performed by the spectacle of terror and the culture of fear and cruelty, audiences would analyze, first, how their own gaze might be aligned with the insidious modes and bodies of power that participate in images of destruction, humiliation and fear; second, what is at stake in their attraction, expanding upon the highly individuated response solicited by the spectacle.

The experience of the spectacle must be critically examined by analyzing the power relations and institutions that make up its social networks, modes of storytelling. Crucial here is how the spectacle works to eliminate memory, history and reduce public issues to private concerns. How does the spectacle and the formative culture that support it, whether in the world of newspapers, television, the Internet, and other forms of public pedagogy undercut those modes of power, contexts and relations that can address a public rather than a merely private sensibility?

The spectacle of terror currently resonates with the entrenched spirit of social Darwinism, endemic to neoliberalism and the contemporary racial backlash. The spectacle of cruelty, consumption and terror paralyzes critical agency through the regressive retreat into privatized worries and fears and powerfully undermines all notions of dialogue, critical engagement and historical remembrance.(21) Against such a spectacle, there is the need for modes of critical education and social movements that value a culture of questioning, view critical agency as a condition of public life and reject voyeurism in favor of the search for justice.

The screen culture, which now envelopes our lives through a vast array of technologies ranging from smart phones to computers to televisions are is inextricably linked to how we understand ourselves and our relationship to others within a democratic global public sphere. But it also contributes to policies such as the racist laws being enacted in Arizona and other states, which exemplify the power of fear and the appeal to terror to short circuit any appeal to reason, justice and freedom. The cultural front is one of our most important pedagogical sites and it must be rethought, appropriated and used to reject the dystopian, anti-intellectual and often racist vision at work in the spectacle of terror and culture of fear and, in doing so, provide a language of both criticism and hope as a condition for rethinking the possibilities of the future and the promise of global democracy itself.

As Tony Judt reminds us in “Ill Fares the Land,” we need a new language, a new way to think about politics, one that rejects the current cruel and zombie-like discourse reproduced endlessly by the rich and powerful, regardless of whether they are located in government or in the corporate world.

We need to begin from somewhere other than a market-driven language. We need to start from a discourse that imagines democracy in its most productive forms and what it would take to resist those forces that undermine it while imagining the policies, institutions, values and social relations that would give it substantive meaning. We need to rethink a new future out of the currently dismal present.

The discourse of the market privileges the needs and interests of the powerful and enshrines profit margins over human and environmental needs, while ignoring the vital concerns of those who need jobs, housing, public services, social protections, decent public schools, health care and a life with dignity and justice.

Arguing for tax cuts for the rich while cutting social services in the name of deficit reduction is a prime example of the discourse of injustice and privilege that now is touted as common sense in the political arena. This is really the discourse that accompanies a culture of cruelty and terror. Put differently, we need a language born out of critique and possibility – one that rejects the discourse of the rich, powerful and corporate elites while envisioning new kind of society in which wealth, freedom and justice benefit the common god and expand the rights and entitlements that provide a life of dignity to everyone.

Finally, any viable political and pedagogical struggle against the spectacle of terror and fear must work diligently to rescue the promise of a radical democracy from the clutches of religious, market and militaristic fundamentalists who have hijacked a once-rich social imagination, reducing politics to the rabid discourse of neoliberal individualism, the utterly sectarian impulses of the authoritarian values of a newly energized militarism.

Although the spectacle of terror and fear connects directly to affairs of state through the new media, any politics that matters will have to engage both the culture of the image and screen and those material relations of power and institutions on local, national and global levels that deploy information technologies.

Under the shadow of a growing authoritarianism, the spectacle of terror gives meaning to public life primarily through the modalities of xenophobia, violence and fear and, in doing so, makes shared irresponsible and unwarranted fears the condition of unity and surrendering dissent and freedom the condition of agency. Any effective challenge to the spectacle of terror and fear must embrace those strategies and movements willing to raise “democracy and politics to the global level at which capital seeks and enjoys its freedom from human ideas of decency and justice.”(22)

This suggests that any viable oppositional politics must get beyond the growing isolation of intellectuals from the activist movements that are developing both within America and across the globe. As Stanley Aronowitz points out, a global politics cannot afford to ignore the new possibilities arising from the 1999 demonstrations by students and workers in Seattle, the “subsequent mass demonstrations at Quebec, Genoa and Spain against the key institutions of global capital and the development of the World Social Forum, whose location in Brazil’s Porto Alegre was symbolic of a global shift, as both an attempt to create a new civil society and a post-9/11 continuation of the protests.”(23) Integrating a global perspective and reclaiming the social as part of a broader democratic imaginary means drawing attention to the realities of power and authority and locating across multiple and diverse spaces and borders what Edward Said calls “the energy of resistance … to all totalizing political movements and institutions and systems of thought.”(24)

What can be learned from the democratic relations that are being developed in places such as Northern?(25) What is to be learned from the new South Africa as it mediates the legacy, torture and abuses of apartheid through the forging of a new state, legal system and set of social relations?(26) What is to be critically appropriated from oppositional cultures and their use of the new media as part of a large attempt to keep democracy alive? What might it mean to address the spectacle of terror and fear as part of a broader attempt to make education more political by developing social relations grounded in a sense of power, history, memory, justice, ethics and hope, all of which would be seen as central to connecting the new media to democratic struggles both in the US and abroad?

The spectacle of terror and fear has developed a singular focus of communication and control, in part because of the atrophy of public discourse. The central challenge here is to develop new forms of solidarity, new institutions and new public spheres in order to not only address the conditions of authoritarianism and various fundamentalisms, which increasingly generate a culture of fear and insecurity, but also provide new ways of dealing with and defusing the experiences of fear, threat and terror. Such a challenge points to the necessity of providing the public with an expanded vision and a productive sense of the common good, a new language for what it means to translate private considerations into public concerns and a deeply felt concern with how power can work in both the symbolic and material realms to produce vocabularies of critique and possibility in the service of a substantive and inclusive global democracy.


1. Toni Morrison, “Racism and Fascism,” The Nation 260:21 (May 29, 1995), p. 760.
2. President George W. Bush, “President Welcomes President Chirac to the White House,” White House News Release, November 6, 2001, available online.
3. Adnan R. Kahn, “Piety and Profits,”, December 27, 2004, available online.
4. Glenn Greenwald, “Robert Gibbs Attacks the Fringe Losers of the Left,” (August 10, 2010). Online here.
5. Amy Goodman, “As Gibbs Attacks Progressive Critics, ACLU Says Obama White House Enshrining Bush-Era Policies,” Democracy Now!, (April 12, 2010). Online here.
6. Huffington Post, “Sarah Palin’s PAC Puts Gun Sights On Democrats She’s Targeting In 2010,” (March 24, 2010). Online here.
7. Cited in Gail Collins, “More American Idols,” New York Times (August 11, 2010), p., A31.
8. Brian Massumi, “Preface,” in “The Politics of Everyday Fear,” ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. viii.
9. Thomas Keenan, “Mobilizing Shame,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3, (Summer 2004), p. 447. Keenan explores the relationship between ethics and responsibility in even greater detail in his “Fables of Responsibility,” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).
10. Frank Rich, “No One is to Blame for Anything,” New York Times (April 11, 2010), p. Wk10
11. Jacques Derrida cited in Michael Peters, “The Promise of Politics and Pedagogy in Derrida,” Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies (in press).
12. Allen Feldman, “On the Actuarial Gaze: from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib,” Cultural Studies 19:2 (March 2005), p. 212.
13. Retort (Ian Boal, T.J.Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts), “Afflicted Powers – the State, the Spectacle and September 11,” New Left Review 27, (May/June 2005), p. 17.
14. Ray McGovern, “WikiLeaks Bombshell Docs Paint Afghan War as Utter Disaster – Will We Finally Stop Throwing Money and Lives at This Catastrophe?,” AlterNet, (July 29, 2010). Online here.
15. I take this up in more detail in “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism,” (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, forthcoming).
16. Jürgen Habermas, “Theory of Communicative Action,” Vol. 2. “Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason,” trans. Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1987), p. 390.
17. Lewis H. Lapham, “Tentacles of Rage – The Republican Propaganda Mill, A Brief History,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2004, pp. 31-41.
18. Sharon Sliwinski, “A Painful Labour: Responsibility and Photography,” Visual Studies 19, no. 2 (2004): 148.
19. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transfiguration, Recognition,” Public Culture 15, no. 3 (2003): 385-397.
20. See Roger I. Simon, Mario DiPaolantoni and Mark Clamen, “Remembrance as Praxis and the Ethics of the Inter Human,” Culture Machine, (October 24, 2004). Online here.
21. Some excellent sources on neoliberalism are Pierre Bourdieu, “Acts of Resistance,” (New York: Free Press, 1989); Noam Chomsky, “Profit over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order,” (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999); Zygmunt Bauman, “The Individualized Society,” (London: Polity Press, 2001); Colin Leys, “Market Driven Politics,” (London: Verso, 2001); Jean and John Comaroff, eds., “Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Doug Henwood, “After the New Economy,” (New York: The New Press, 2003); Kevin Phillips, “Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich,” (New York: Broadway, 2003); Paul Krugman, “The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century,” (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); David Harvey, “The New Imperialism,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Lisa Duggan, “The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy,” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); Henry A. Giroux, “Against The Terror of Neoliberalism,” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).
22. Daniel Leighton, “Searching for Politics in an Uncertain World: Interview with Zygmunt Bauman,” Renewal: A Journal of Labour Politics 10, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 14.
23. Stanley Aronowitz, “The Retreat to Postmodern Politics,” Situations 1, no. 1 (April 2005), p. 43.
24. Edward W. Said, “Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews With Edward W. Said,” ed. Gauri Viswanathan (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), p. 65.
25. I want to thank Roger Simon for this suggestion.
26. Some of the most important work on South Africa and postcolonialism can be found in various essays by John and Jean Comaroff. See, for example, John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, “Nurturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Post Colonial State,” Journal of South African Studies 27, no. 3 (September 2001): 627-651; John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, “Cultural Policing in Postcolonial South Africa,” (Chicago: American Bar Federation, 1999); John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, “Reflections on the Colonial State, in South Africa and Elsewhere: Factions, Fragments, Facts and Fictions,” Social Identities 4, no. 3 (October 1998): 321-361; and John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, eds., “Civil Society and Political Imagination in South Africa,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

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