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  • Reading 'Terror'Reflections on François Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics
  • Upendra Baxi (bio)
François Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics New York Routledge. 2007. 175pp. $34.95 pbk.

1. Described differently as 'the Chernobyl of globalization,'i and as a 'crime of New York',ii 9/11, and all its cruel aftermath, has generated an enormously varied genera of 'terror'–talk. Tabloid Terror makes a fascinating contribution towards understanding complexity and contradiction of the 'terror' talk since 9/11. François Debrix presents and critiques the ways in which the American mass media have proceeded to create and sustain justificatory public cultures for the 'war on terror' (hereafter WOT). In a sense, Debrix exemplifies the importance of media studies, even for normative thinkers, in making 'sense' of pleas for ethical violence. To those averse to media studies in general (or U.S. media-averse in particular), I may say only this much: it is worth developing an interest in media studies in order to read Francois Debrix!

2. This contribution proves important in four domains, which I address in turn: (a) the analytic of 'terror,' (b) the problem of narrative, (c) 'justifications' for ethical violence; and (d) concerns about parlous futures of human rights and approaches to global justice. At the outset, it remains necessary to briefly state my reading of Debirx's complex notion of 'tabloid terror forming a subset of tabloid culture.' An obvious question is: Why analyze the construction of tabloid culture if it is no more than propaganda? If propaganda signifies conversion of special interests into 'the' public interest in times of peace and forms of nationalization of the 'truth' as well as mobilization of political loyalties and the militant forms of constitutional patriotism in times of war, tabloid culture may exemplify a further development of propaganda rather than a new point of departure. If normative arrangements of legitimacy, ideology, and hegemony depend to considerable extent on efficacious acts of propagandistic political communication, how may we narrate tabloid cultures as an altogether different genre? Propaganda has, empirically speaking, produced social meanings for the question of politics (as 'hegemonic' articulations of competition for sovereign power) and the stakes in constructing the 'political' (as 'counter-hegemonic' sites of construction of truth, justice, and rights.) At first sight, then, tabloid cultures seem to partake of the very same features central to the power of propaganda, one studied by communication theorists in terms of 'political advertisement' as shaping the markets of 'public opinion,' and ( to evoke a phrase from Jürgen Habermas) 'systematically distorted communication.'

3. Such political propaganda valorises the exclusion of 'non- American ideals and people,' and the protection of 'the American nation behind a 'rhetoric of securitization,' in ways that 'redraw the map of the world so that it would evidence an obvious West versus East dichotomy' (47.) Both produce fairy tales (progress narratives) and horror stories (suicide bombings and WOT practices). Perhaps, the notion of tabloid culture may be grasped not so much by the telos of propaganda, but rather by the advent of technoscientific modes of production. Both the old and new tabloid cultures construct their 'narrative topography' through development of new technologies; yet the older forms (print media, radio, and the early cinematographic technologies) pale in comparison with the new cultures that marshal tremendous accretion of powers for the Fourth Estate, given the fantastic developments in information, communication, and info-entertainment techno-industries.

4. The 'scopic'iii for 'tabloid' is audiovisual: American radio talk shows constitute as integral a part of the new tabloid culture as the television anchors and broadcasters. Both the spoken and televisual proliferations of the word and the image constitute the spectacle of WOT that escalate the integrity of the idea of America and its ethical role as a solitary superpower. If the distinction between 'news' (accuracy of presentations of events as these occur) and 'views' (the impositions of some privileged worldviews) may ever fully hold, the old and the new tabloid cultures resemble each other in terms of the constitution of vanguard epistemic priesthoods associated with the rise of American power. However, the new tabloid cultures suggest a new and poignant product mix resulting...

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