On the Genealogy of Terrorism

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Contribution to Books

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This chapter offers a genealogy of the concept of terrorism and a critique of the Bush Administration's rhetoric of global war. The global war on terrorism is here defined as a new mode of of imperialism and subjection by means of a global "victimage ritual". Employing a theory of how ritual discourse functions in power struggles, it describes how the discourse of terrorism legitimates the imperial politics of liberal-democratic states. The theory integrates concepts derived from Michel Foucault's studies of discourse and subjection, and Kenneth Burke's rhetorical analysis of victimage rituals and scapegoating (Blain 1976; 1988, 1994, 1995, 2005). Employing these ideas and a quantitative analysis to index 240 of President Bush's speeches (January 2001 -- August 2005), this chapter maps the dynamics of ritual victimage in the Bush Administration's global war on terrorism. My argument is presented in two steps. It begins with a genealogy of the emergence and descent of the Anglo-American discourse of "terrorism". Drawing on Foucault's method for writing a history of the present, the aim here is to describe what "is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints" in the discourse of terrorism, that is currently treated as "universal, necessary, obligatory" (2003 [1984], 53).1 This history will link the rise of the "terrorist" to Foucaultian accounts of the emergence of liberal modes of government and knowledge (see Rose 1999; Hardt and Negri 2000). This genealogy shows how a political concept of terror first entered the English lexicon during the French Revolutionary era, providing government and imperial administrators with a practical solution to the problem of how to differentiate legitimate from illegitimate forms of political violence. Evidence from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is also employed to establish the precise etymology of the Anglo-American discourse of terrorism. By these means this chapter attempts to problematise the discourses legitimating the global war on terrorism.