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Empires of the Senseless: (The Response to) Terror and (the end of) History
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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 105-113



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Reflections and Reports

Empires of the Senseless:
(The Response to) Terror and (the End of) History

Walter Benn Michaels


You make a mistake," says Adolf Hitler in one of the opening epigraphs to Bret Easton Ellis's Glamorama (1998), "if you see what we do as merely political." 1 In Glamorama, however, it is hard to see how "what we do" or what anyone does is at all political, much less merely political. Glamorama is about models and terrorists—about models-slash-terrorists. The acts of destruction its model/terrorists perform are unlinked to any particular political program, while the terrorists themselves belong to rival factions whose differences are equally unlinked to politics. In an earlier terrorist novel, Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991), the terrorists are at least supposed to represent a new communist element, "an assertion that not every weapon in Lebanon has to be marked Muslim, Christian or Zionist." 2 But even Mao II isn't early enough to make the appeal to communism anything more than a gesture of posthistoricist nostalgia; by the time it was published, there were hardly any communists in Russia, much less in Lebanon. And Glamorama, whose terrorists have allies in Dublin and Virginia as well as Beirut and Baghdad, can't work up any more interest in their religion or nationality than it can in their ideology.

But then this presumably is part of Ellis's point, that terrorism cannot be linked to any particular political position. And even if such a judgment seems at best a little premature—even if those who currently commit acts of terrorism may still be able to articulate a connection between their acts and some identifiable political [End Page 105] goal—it is certainly true that our so-called war on terrorism remains rigorously indifferent (one might say, indifferent in principle) to the reasons terrorists might give for their acts. Indeed, although the war on terrorism is not exactly unprecedented—it has been anticipated, even prepared for by wars on poverty, crime, and drugs—it is nevertheless importantly new, since, like the cold war, the war on terrorism is not a war against some nation (say, Germany or Japan) but, unlike the cold war, it is not a war against some ideology (say, communism) either. Terrorism is like communism in that we are at war with it and only incidentally at war with some nation. Just as Russia was an enemy only insofar as it was the site of communism, nations like Afghanistan matter only insofar they harbor terrorists. But if communism had only an incidental relation to a nation, it had an essential relation to an ideology—it was an ideology. Terrorism, however, is not. So the question of what terrorists believe is made as irrelevant as the question of what nation they come from.

And this irrelevance of belief puts both terrorism itself and the war against it on firm and familiar postmodernist ground. Imagine that the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center (WTC) were communists. The ensuing war against them would be one between liberal capitalism and socialism—a war produced by fundamental political disagreement. Imagine even that we took the terrorists who attacked New York to be Muslims; the ensuing war would be between liberalism and Islam. But virtually no one in the United States understands the war against terrorism as a war against Islam. Indeed, no one really thinks of Islam, or any other religion, as a set of beliefs in the same way that communism was. We treat religion on the model of a culture, which is to say, we treat people who belong to other religions not as if they have false beliefs, but as if they have different identities. Religious belief as belief, which would require a commitment on the part of people who didn't believe in Islam to the idea that people who did believe in Islam were mistaken, is replaced by religion as a kind of identity, from which standpoint people who...