Reinhold Görling
The Intrigue of Terrorism

On the 15th September 2013 at the National Theatre of Oslo, Reinhold Görling (Professor of media and cultural studies at the Heinrich-Heine-University, Düsseldorf, Germany) held a lecture as part of the conference that launched the TERRORisms project. Please find his text below.


I'm proud and happy to be part of this fascinating and important project. When I accepted giving an introductory talk I didn't do this because I believed that philosophy or cultural and media studies would know what terrorism is better than art and especially theatre. On the contrary. I think it is theatre that gives us the most precise idea of the phenomenon we call terrorism. I will try to explain why. My thoughts come in 5 sections: they are entitled 1) scenario; 2) intrigue; 3) theatre and theatricality; 4) violence and communication; 5) public feelings.

1. Scenario

The first proof that theatre knows more about terrorism than others, including those who are protagonists of terrorism, is the title of our project. When you google the term terrorisms, the plural, you pretty soon come to the home page of the Union des Théâtres de l'Europe. There are very few other entries to be found. There is one quite small current of studies in political sciences interested in policy advise that speaks of different terrorisms, often in quotation marks. Most of them differentiate between four kinds of motivation of terrorist groups – national-seperatist, reactionary, revolutionary, religious – and argue that state politics should handle them differently because each of them reacts in a specific way to politics of conciliation, legal reform, repression, or violence.

The decision of those who invented this/our project to speak of terrorisms may have known these arguments to be found in political sciences but I'm sure that they had a more complex idea in mind. There is one problem, a key or categorial problem in this argument mentioned, that people with a sense for theatre, rituals, performance of social relations would never neglect: There are different motivations and these motivations express themselves in different discourses that might be categorized with these four concepts that I've mentioned: national-speratist, reactionary, revolutionary, religious. But: very few of those who are called terrorists by one political camp would call themselves terrorists, and the few who do it often do it in an ironic manner.

This ironic use of the notion of terrorism makes clear that it would be too easy to just turn the concept around and say that terrorism would be a term used only to signify the other. We all have something in mind when we speak about terrorism. And this is not just something cognitive. We have emotions, affects, even our bodies react in a certain way. Terrorism seems to be a much more complex thing. It is something we are involved in, not only the other. It is something that ties us together: us, the other, us and the other. Some scholars in political science say that terrorism works by exclusion of a third position. That is not exactly true. We are often confronted with violence in media or perhaps even in the streets and show no necessity to join a party. Most of us will remember watching the Twin Towers burn and crumble down. It was horrible. But we will remember too, that this was not all, that there was a kind of beauty there, a kind of fascination that we felt and that left us with quite an ambivalent consciousness. It doesn't seem to be forbidden to stay neutral, but to articulate an ambivalence. We can look and then turn a blind eye to it. But we are not allowed to look and say that seeing or hearing things is a multilevel event. That there is no automatism that looking at strange, dangerous, unknown or even ugly or cruel things leads to a moral objection.

Terrorism is no isolated act. It is an act that cannot be understood as something that only happens between two people, between a perpetrator and a victim. Terrorism is something that involves a perpetrator, a victim, a spectator, a bystander, a witness.

If this is right, then it would be consequent to speak of terrorism not as a single act, but as a certain network or assemblage of feelings, thoughts, acts, institutions, things. Diana Taylor, professor of Performance Studies at New York University, speaks of terrorism as a scenario. I quote an article by her, written in 2009:

“Albeit in different ways, we are all required to participate in the scenario, to undergo ritual acts of surveillance by showing our IDs, submitting to searches, taking off our shoes, reacting to color-coded alerts, and having our phones tapped. We perform terror every day; we incorporate it.”

Using the term terrorism in plural implies two ideas: on the one hand, we always have a very special scenario, an always singular assemblage of institutions, organizations, notions, weapons, things, mediations, traditions, histories, subjectivities, memories, imaginations, phantasies, actors and actions. On the other hand there are some common ways this assemblage or scenario is bound together, there is some common scene interwoven into the scenario, some kind of intrigue. To speak about terrorisms means: we have an always singular and constantly changing assemblage of persons, things, institutions etc, that compose the scenario. And it means that there is a certain power, a certain set of affects, that different terrorisms have in common. I will now focus mainly on this: the intrigue of terrorism.

2. The Intrigue of terrorism

Intrigue is a term used in theatre theory. But be frank, I didn't come across this concept in the context of theatre but by reading a philosophical text. The Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas borrows this theatrical concept for his ethics and uses it to describe the relation of the self to the other. One gets involved into this relation without ever having decided to be in relation, without ever having been conscious about the reason and the origin. We are always already addressed before we answer. The intrigue, for Lévinas, is a non-intended, non-linear, irreversible relation to the other. One is at the same time bound to the other and separated from the other. For Lévinas, this “intrigue dia-chronique … entre le Même et l'Autre” becomes the knot of subjectivity. This intrigue is diachronic in the sense that it is a co-presence of two times. I'm always already addressed and affected by the other before I know who or what is addressing and affecting me, before I can intentionally refer to something or someone that would be an object. This time lag cannot be bridged.

An intrigue can be a relation to another person, but there are a lot more relations that can have this quality. We are in a complex relation of exchange with our environment, my surroundings have always already addressed me, affected me, before I relate to them: the atmosphere, the air, the light, the chirping of the birds, the rhythm people express when thy cross the street, the voice I hear and can perhaps distinguish from a dozen other ones who are speaking in the restaurant, the way someone moves his head or his arms that let my senses or my body know that he or she is there long before my consciousness has grasped what is going on. Most of these scenes are intrigues that help me through the day, that help me getting up in the morning and indicate, what kind of music I would like to hear when I come home after a day of work. And there are intrigues that leave a mark on our lives.

Most of us wouldn't really be able to say why we are falling in love with this woman or man and not with somebody else. And why we continue to love her or him. When we start to explain it we immediately feel that we breath the thin air of rationalizations. We live quite well with a lot of such intrigues. They stabilize us in the world, they prevent us from falling. But there are other intrigues we feel insecure with, persecuted, frightened.

Most of the latter have a double bind structure: They are threatening and give a kind of release or at least a kind of promise for a release at the same time. The intrigue of terrorism has such a double bind structure: It demonstrates how vulnerable we are, how easy it is to fall. But in doing this terrorism provides us with a picture, an ideology, even a feeling of community. After three years of research in Rwanda Philip Gurjevich wrote: “Genocide, after all is an exercise in community building.”

Not every terror is terrorism. There is a kind of terror that even destroys the scenario in which it takes place. The African sociologist Achile Mbembe calls this necropolitic. It involves another kind of intruigue: intended traumatization. The intrigue of traumatization is an expropriation of all that gives place to the self: the body, the senses, the social relation, the environment. Torture and genocide realize this intrigue.

Terrorism works differently. People directly involved in violent events can be traumatized by them, that is obvious. But mediated traumatization is very rare. Watching the twin towers fall on the tv screen may re-actualize an existing trauma, but does not cause it. We have the picture of the falling towers im mind. And they don't have the quality of flash backs.

What is at the core of the double bind of terrorism, why is it so powerful? It is not only a problem of paradoxical communication, as Gregory Bateson and his colleagues who coined this term in the 1960ties thought. It has something to do with the nature of fear. Fear is an anticipatory faculty. We never exactly know what we are afraid of. But the anticipatory faculty works in relation to a remembrance that we don't have in mind as an exact idea or picture. In the centre of our sensation of fear there is a vague remembrance of breakdown. It originates in experiences of falling, of helplessness, probably all of us have suffered in early childhood, as Donald W. Winnicott assumes. In this age of development the child hasn't yet developed a psychic structure that would allow to archive experiences in the way that psychoanalysis calls psychic representation. When there is no psychic representation of an experience the experience is archived in a kind of mood or affect. To fall, to lose social bonds, to be helpless is less a remembrance than an affect. If we can relate these affects to images, stories, and even to the schemes of ideologies, it helps us to regulate these affects. Perhaps this explanation cannot cover all of the fascination and ambivalence we feel looking at horrifying events. But it's an important element to understand the dynamics of terrorism.

3. Theatre and Theatricality

It is certainly not casual that intrigue is a term derived from the theory of theatre. If we follow Lévinas in seeing the intrigue as dia-chronic, as something we feel adressed by that always precedes us and that therefore can never be represented as an object – and you probably notice the similarity to Winnicott's idea of the fear of breakdown – if this is so, than the only way to get in touch with what cannot be represented is to stage it, to perform it. To put it more carefully said: the most important way European culture has invented to do this is to stage it. That is why theatre is at the core of European culture - as Ruth has shown in her book Erfahrung des Unmöglichen: Experience of the Impossible. Sigmund Freud was aware of this crucial role of theatre for our culture. Not only because he practically developed all his analyses of intrigues by reflecting on theatre: on Sophocles, Shakespeare etc. He has shown that dreams follow the form of theatrical performances, and our phantasy does it too. The origin of phantasy is a scene.

In October 1984, Harper's magazine published a set of articles bound together under the title “Lost in the Terrorist Theatre.” The Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981 was one of the examples the articles referred to. It was the start up of a discussion we still haven't finished, the start up of the main global scenario of a terrorism we are still embodying. But already then there was a categorial impreciseness in such a title. There is a theatricality of practically all human forms of expression; and above all there is a theatricality of violence I will come back to in a minute. We call it theatricality because we have developed a tool that helps us to get an idea of this mechanism, this structure that is at the core of the relation between me and the other, and perhaps also at the core of the relation between the individual and the society. We call this tool theatre. But what it helps to understand is not the theatre of violence or everyday life but the theatricality (– or it's performativity as Samuel Weber proposes to highlight the difference.)

But what do we do with phrases like these: „The theatre must give us everything that is in crime, love, war or madness, if it wants to recover its necessity... Hence this appeal to cruelty and terror … on a vast scale.“ This is from Antonin Artauds Theatre of Cruelty, 1933. Let me read the French original to you: Tout ce qui est dans l'amour, dans le crime, dans la guerre, ou dans la folie, il faut que le théâtre nous le rendre, s'il veut retrouver sa nécessité. …. D'ou cet appel à la cruauté et à la terreur, mais sur un plane vast...” Richard Schechner quotes this phrases in an essay about terrorism called “9/11 as avantgarde”. Even Schechner, professor of performance studies at NYU who wrote so many important books on performance art, looses the ability to distinguish between theatre and theatricality. Artaud didn't plead for a representation of violence and cruelty. He talks about the sensibility, la sensibilité du spectateur. He pleads for a theatre that is able to perform the intrigues to make them visible, sensible, to open up the coercion of the double bind. And when he wrote these lines in 1933, he had as strong and realistic feeling of the catastrophe that was on the way. Perhaps you remember the end of this text: I”Il s'agit maintenant de savoir si, à Paris, avant les catcylsmes qui s'annoncent, on pourra trouver assez de moyens de réalization, financiers ou autres, pour permettre à un Semblable théâtre de vivre...”

I could stop here with these quotes by Artaud, but I have two more points that perhaps could be helpful for our discussion.

4. Violence and Communication

Isn't art a kind of terrorism? This question came up during the preparation for this conference. Why does even someone like Schechner quote Artaud when he writes about terrorism? His own argument is that the boundaries between reality and media have been blurred. But has there ever been a clear boundary? Has there ever been an unmediated reality? You might answer no, there never was. But the intensity has changed, mediation has become ubiquitous. Sure, but I think Artaud's Théâtre de la Cruauté already has to be understood as an answer to this development.

But there is an other problem behind it. We tend to avoid talking about the relation between violence and communication.

At least in Germany with the strong impact of philosophers like Jürgen Habermas we always think that communication would be a thing without violence and violence would be a kind of disruption of communication. But this is misleading in both directions. Violence always includes communication; and communication is never completely free of violence. You address me, you call my name or just say “hi”: it affects me, I feel touched, moved. Lévinas' notion of intrigue implies violence, rapture, obsession, even trauma.

The reason for this supposition which is often unquestioned can be seen in an underestimation of the intensity of the non-cognitive or non-linguistic that is part of every communication and that works even when we don't speak. And it is again theatre that is able to give us the most precise impression of it: Someone is on the stage looking to the audience. Another person is entering the stage. Perhaps he or she isn't seen, but felt by the first person. And all people present in the theatre react, communicate, including the spectators. And if you add one single chair somewhere on the stage, or just one line drawn on the floor, theatre begins.

The Western cultures tend to avoid or even deny the violence of communication. When we notice it, we feel irritated because we begin to see the violence of what we call normality. And this is not a comfortable situation, because we urgently need to have an idea how to decide what kind of violence is tolerable and what kind of violence should be condemned. So what is there to do?

Isn't it again theatre that shows a way to find an answer by inventing a space to stage and to reenact the intrigue? It is a way to interrupt the automatisms of the intrigue,to open up the possibility of new assemblages.

There is no agency that would not be communication. And this is true especially for violent acts. There is no act of war that would be realized without the motive to show something to the enemy: to show him his vulnerability, his weakness, my power, my cruelty, my unlimited capacity to destroy. And this is also true for terrorist acts. But what they intend to say, tacitly or consciously, how the addressed understands the act, how he answers, this is the always specific scenario of very terrorism.

5. Public Feelings

It is part of the same underestimation of non cognitive dimensions of communication and of society that we so rarely talk about public feelings. But our feelings are not enclosed in our body. The world with all the things it brings with it addresses me, affects me. Shame, thread, joy, excitement, obsession, mourning, abjection, exclusion: all these qualities are public feelings articulated in things and scenes.

Trust is another public feeling and an important one. Trust is a basic clue of modern societies, or, to put it differently, of societies that don't rely on codified roles and are subject to a constant change. I have to trust my neighbour recognizing my existence, my vulnerability, my needs at least in a basic way. But there are modern societies that don't trust in acknowledging the other but in violence. Jan Philipp Reemtsma writes in his book Trust and Violence that the European history of the first half of the 20ties century is characterized by an increasing trust in violence. We do not always notice early enough that this process of replacing the trust in recognition of the other and of social institutions is taking place. It can be a subtle process that we only notice when the catastrophe is already happening. The logic of terrorism initiates and fuels this replacement. Here again theatre can play an important role. It has played it throughout its history: from Greek theatre to Shakespeare to this project by the Union des Théâtres de l'Europe.

Thank you.


Reinhold Görling, Professor of media and cultural studies at Heinrich-Heine-University, Düsseldorf, Germany

TERROR | inaugural conference in Oslo
14 - 15 September, 2013