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  • Global Romantics and the Cultural Etymology of Terrorism
  • Padma Rangarajan (bio)

Now that the work of acknowledging and recuperating literature of, about, and from the "periphery" is well underway, the next step is braiding together the metropolitan, colonial, and indigenous. The construction of distinct imperial and national histories is itself a function of nineteenth-century British historiography. Writing the empire away from the nation favors a vision of modernity that is unambiguously yoked to the West as its locus of origin, and the nation-state as its political telos. In this arrangement imperialism may be an archaic model of foreign governance, but empire is the tool required to bring modernity to non-national spaces.

Increasingly, a Mercator-guided mindset is being replaced by one which recognizes that nation and empire exist not as consecutive, or even parallel political states, but as constitutively entwined ones: the modern as double helix. The model of successively bidirectional exchange (pepper for railways, sugar for Christianity, tale for novel) is being challenged by dynamic models of mutual recursion. Recent critical work that embraces the archipelagic and the oceanic, the tropicopolitan and the diasporic points the way, but we may also look to the Romantics themselves.

Take, for example, Edmund Burke's pairing of Indianism and Jacobinism as the two greatest threats to the British polity.1 Jacobinism we know, but "Indianism"—Burke's own idiosyncratic term—refers to not the savagery of native Indians, but, surprisingly, to the corruption [End Page 164] of colonial administrators. Burke's coupling of revolutionary terror in France and colonial malfeasance in India in a letter written to a man he hoped would quell Protestant Ascendancy depravation in Ireland is a striking example of a Romantic global consciousness. His knitting together of revolutionary and colonial terror can be usefully paired with Achille Mbembe's identification of the multifarious links between terror and modernity: not just during the Revolution, but on the plantation as well.2 The story of modernity's violent inauguration in the Paris Commune is incomplete without simultaneously acknowledging the British fascination with Tipu Sultan (the fanatical oriental iteration of Jacobin terror), the Irish Revolution (during which both sides lobbed accusations of terrorism against each other), and the hysteria caused by Haiti's "Black Terror." These events are a concatenation of that seemingly oppositional entity, the imperial nation, and the story of modern terrorism emerges from this binary.

In a seminal article that helped launch contemporary terrorism studies in the 1980s, David Rapoport defines modern terrorism as temporally Victorian and ideologically anarchistic. Yet for his analysis of the late twentieth-century resurgence of an atavistic, sacred terror, he turns to Thomas De Quincey, "the first student of comparative terrorism," in Rapoport's reckoning, as an important scholarly precursor.3 Rapoport's embrace of De Quincey's genealogy of an implicitly exotic, antimodern and anti-state terrorism in a "Second Paper on Murder" is a stunning example of Romanticism's dangerous contemporaneity, just as De Quincey's enactment of the reader's complicity in an aesthetic of terror accurately captures terrorism's performativity. Since Rapoport, the conversation about modern terrorism's origins has drawn back a century from Bakunin to Robespierre. But by bringing Burke and De Quincey into the conversation, we begin to realize how the cultural etymology of "terrorism" owes as much to global imperial expansion as it does to the relationship between terreur and vertu. [End Page 165]

Padma Rangarajan

Padma Rangarajan is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside.


1. Edmund Burke, to Earl Fitzwilliam: "Our Government and our Laws are beset by two different Enemies, which are sapping its foundations, Indianism and Jacobinism. In some Cases they act separately, in some they are in conjunction: But of this I am sure; that the first is the worst by far, and the hardest to deal with …" The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. Thomas Copeland, 10 vols. (Cambridge, 1958–78), VIII, 432.

2. Achille Mbembe, "Necropolitics," Public Culture, 15:1 (2003), 11-40.

3. David Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling in Three Religious Traditions," The American Political Science Review, 78.3 (1984), 658–77.


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