Eileen A. Joy

Dept. Of English Language & Literature


College of Arts & Sciences Colloquium

Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville

“Thinking About Empire”

22-23 April 2004



Empire and the Obscure Object of Terrorism


“He who does not realize to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow-creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss. The variety of constraints pressing upon man give rise to the illusion of several distinct species that cannot communicate. Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.”

                                                                        —Simone Weil1


“To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught.”

                                                                        —Emmanuel Levinas2


“I’ll have you know, I’m not afraid of witches, spirits, phantoms, boastful giants, rogues, knaves, etc., nor do I fear any kind of beings except human ones.”

                                                                        —Francisco Goya3


Prolegomenon: What I offer here is a rumination that is related to a larger project having to do with the relationship between monstrosity and terrorism, and between violence and justice, in both Beowulf and contemporary life; relevant to this colloquium’s subject, “Thinking About Empire,” I have been thinking a lot lately about asymmetry as one of the defining features of empire, and terrorism as one of the natural (even, inevitable) outcomes of empire’s asymmetrical relationship to those who have, in Jean Baudrillard’s words, “ended up on the wrong side of the global order.”4 In an essay on the events of September 11th, Baudrillard wrote that, “by seizing all the cards for itself,” Western global power “forced the Other to change the rules. And the new rules are fierce ones, because the stakes are fierce. To a system whose very excess of power poses an insoluble challenge, the terrorists respond with a definitive act which is also not susceptible of exchange.”5 But even more troubling, perhaps, is that while many in the West would like to blame a singular entity or philosophy for terrorism—say, Islam, or organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah—as Baudrillard also writes, these entities are just “moving fronts” for terrorism. Ultimately, “The antagonism is everywhere, and in every one of us,” and further, because we in the West have all dreamed, even before it happened, of an ultimate terrorist event, terrorism is also our “obscure object of desire.”6 What is needed then, is a psychological excursion into the deep heart of this obscure object, as well as an ethics for our finding our way back out again.


I           It captivates by its grace7

            For a while now, I have been worrying the beads of the twins strands of two obsessions: the ethical philosophy of Emamnuel Levinas and suicide bombers. I have been thinking a lot about Levinas’s statement in Time and the Other, that “the encroachment of the present on the future is not the feat of the subject alone, but the intersubjective relationship,” and further, “[t]he condition of time lies in the relationship between humans, or in history.”8 Levinas’s philosophy is deeply concerned with the metaphysical excellency of the moral subject who understands that ethics comes before ontology, or being—“Morality is not a branch of philosophy, but first philosophy,”9 and is rooted in a fierce attention and subjection to the command of the Other [l’autre], who is both the proximate neighbor and the unknown stranger. For Levinas, morality posits a face-to-face relationship with the Other—what he termed le face-B-face sans intermediaire—in which the Other is not so much an actual face as “pure expression, an extradition without defense or cover, precisely the extreme rectitude of a facing, which in this nudity is an exposure unto death.”10 Moreover, this “pure expression” always exceeds any limits we might put on it—“Expression, or the face, overflows images.”11 Further, as Levinas writes,

There is in the Other a meaning and an obligation that oblige me beyond my death! . . . Responsibility for the Other, responding to the Other’s death, vows itself to an alterity that is no longer within the province of re-presentation. This way of being avowed—or this devotion—is time. It remains a relationship to the other as other, and not a reduction of the other to the same. It is transcendence.12

But we mustn’t assume, either, that the I, or ego, is left aside in this encounter, for as Levinas reminds us, “Only an I can respond to the injunction of a face.”13

            Even though I know that, in Levinas’s scheme of things, the face is not really a face, per se, but rather, an expression—and even, the overflowing of expression—I find myself thinking, obsessively, about faces, and more specifically, about the face of Zalikhan Yelikhadzhiyeva, the twenty-year-old Chechen woman who approached the admissions booth of an outdoor rock festival in Moscow on July 5, 2003 and detonated the explosives strapped to her belt, killing only herself (apparently, the explosives in her “martyr’s belt” were faulty somehow, and did not detonate properly). Another female suicide bomber accompanying her was more successful—if that is the right word—and managed to kill sixteen people, along with herself.14 Browsing the Internet one day searching for pictures of this event, I came across a photograph of Yelikhadzhiyeva lying on her back between police barricades, one first clenched on her chest, an empty beer can on the ground beside her head, her eyes closed, and her mouth half-open—the scene is almost peaceful, and the face, serene, if also vulnerable; after all, she was only twenty years old, the same age as many of my students. I have never considered a twenty-year-old as someone who could be capable of such a fierce will and desire to kill herself and others, out of vengeance, or perhaps, a desperate powerlessness (which could also be a desperate facelessness). While many were transfixed by the gruesome images of the shredded bodies of bombing victims under white sheets, I couldn’t get this face out of my mind, nor can I, even now. Yelikhadzhieyeva’s face haunts me precisely because it is what Levinas would have said is not really a face, but a façade, in which “the thing which keeps its secret is exposed and enclosed in its monumental essence and in its myth, in which it gleams like a splendor but does not deliver itself. It captivates by its grace as by magic, but does not reveal itself.”15

II            Exteriority is not a negation, but a marvel16

            Between August of 2002 and just this past February when a bomb explosion on a crowded Moscow subway train killed over forty people, Russia and Chechnya have witnessed the emergence of what many consider to be a shocking phenomenon—female suicide bombers. Because many Chechens reject the idea that these women have embraced a radical Islamic fundamentalism, and many Russians, conversely, have assumed that these women embody what they see as the “Palestinianization” of the Chechen rebellion,17 a certain tension, confusion, and even hysteria, attaches to the ways in which ordinary Russians and Chechens, government officials, and the international press have attempted to describe these women. It has been said about the female Chechen suicide bombers, alternatively, that they have been kidnapped by Islamic extremists, given psychotropic drugs, and then raped as part of their coercion into doing what no woman would supposedly do of her own accord;18 that they are emotionless “brick walls,” “pre-programmed,” “brainwashed,” and “de-humanised”;19 that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder;20 that they are blackmailed “zombies”;21 and that they are the harbingers of the fact that “something has come unglued at the heart of Chechen society.”22 But even more central to the issue of what might be called the troubling, yet intimate alterity of these women, is the name given to them, as a collectivity, by the Russian government and happily picked up by the international press: they are the “black widows” of Chechnya–that is to say, they are the actual widows, mothers, sisters, and daughters of men killed in two wars with Russia that have claimed over 100,000 lives, but they are also venomous black widow spiders, who kill with one bite. They are therefore both intimately familiar, yet also monstrously Other, and as such, they embody the phenomenon labeled by Jacques Lacan as “extimité,” explained by Jacques Alain Miller as designating “in a problematic manner the real in the symbolic.”23 More simply put, this is the state of affairs where the exterior is always present in the interior, and further, “Extimacy is not the contrary of intimacy [but rather] . . . the intimate is Other—like a foreign body.”24 In this sense, those whom we perceive to be Others, and whom we assume are distantly foreign and opaque, are really our intimates—our excluded interior—and it is precisely because of their intimacy, that they frighten us. Terrorists, especially, frighten us, because we believe, naively, that they cross over from somewhere out there to here (the home), and threaten our fragile bodies, which we believe are bounded and inviolable territories of identity unto themselves. And this is why terrorists are often referred to as being inhuman, and even, monstrous, and their acts, evil and unspeakable. Terrorists are ultimately the figures of what Freud termed the Uncanny (or, unheimlich, both “not like home” and “like home” simultaneously)—they are the shadow-stalking phantasms of the Unconscious who have been repressed but never stop returning to view in various distorted shapes;25 further, terrorists frighten because they represent the excess, or exorbitance, of our nightmares. Their acts, as Baudrillard writes, represent “an excess of reality,” for terrorist violence is both the “exorbitant mirror” of the West’s own violence as well as “the model of a symbolic violence forbidden to it, the only violence it cannot exert—that of its own death.”26

            We must never forget that terrorists are real persons with real lives grounded in all the material and psychic particularities of the local—Zalikhan Yelikhadzhiyeva, for instance, lived with her sister in a brick house in a small Chechen village and studied at the medical vocational school there27—and furthermore, that the terrorist’s acts are both real and immoral. But our understanding of the terrorist, if we are willing to embark on such a project, will have to begin with an understanding of our perception of them as monsters. As Jeffrey Cohen reminds us, the monster’s body is always a cultural body:

The monster is born . . . as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture.28

In his “seven theses toward understanding cultures through the monsters they bear,” Cohen argues that the monster is always a “harbinger of a category crisis.”29 In other words, monsters are “disturbing hybrids” who resist easy categorization and, in fact, threaten to smash the distinctions in any system we might devise to describe their freakishness: “In the face of the monster, scientific inquiry and its ordered rationality crumble,” and further, “the geography of the monster is an imperiling expanse.”30 Because the monster also always embodies difference writ large (usually along lines that are sexual, racial, and cultural), “the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur” in the body of the monster which always threatens “to fragment the delicate matrix of relational systems that unite every private body to the public world.”31 The Chechen suicide bombers are especially troubling in this scenario because they bring together in their cultural bodies two “signs” that have traditionally terrified through their Otherness: “woman” and “nonwhite” (what Cohen terms She and Them!).32

            And where is it, exactly, that the monster make its home? According to Cohen, the monster resides “in that marginal geography of the Exterior, beyond the limits of the Thinkable, a place that is doubly dangerous: simultaneously ‘exorbitant’ and ‘quite close’.”33 The female Chechen terrorists are strange to many Russians, yet also lie very close to the heart of what Russia is, as a state, and therefore, it will never be a matter of simply driving them back to the wilderness from which they supposedly came, nor of just destroying them (Russia’s “official policy”), for as Cohen also reminds us, “No monster tastes of death but once.”34 There is always a revenant.

            1Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” trans. Mary McCarthy (1945), in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles (New York: Grove Press, 1986), 192.

            2Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, Penn.: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 51.

            3Letter from Francisco Goya to Martin Zapater, February 1784, in Francisco Goya, Letters of Love and Friendship in Translation, trans. Jacqueline Hara (Lewiston, 1997), 650.

            4Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (London: Verso, 2002), 6.

            5Ibid., 9.

            6Ibid., 15, 6.

            7Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 193.

            8Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, Penn.: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 79.

            9Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 304.

            10Levinas, “Diachrony and Representation,” in Time and the Other, 107.

            11Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 297.

            12Ibid., 115.

            13Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 305.

            14For more details regarding this story and other terrorist incidents in Russia and Chechnya involving female suicide bombers, dubbed “black widows” by the Russian government and the international press, see Stephen Brown, “Russia’s ‘Black Widows’,” 25 July 2003, FrontPageMagazine.com (available at: http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Printable.asp?ID=9088); “Chechnya’s ‘black widow’ bombers,” 11 July 2003, CNN.com/World (available at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/07/11/russia.black.widows/index.html); Steven Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online 7 July 2003 (available at: http://news.bbc.uk.co/1/hi/world/europe/3052934.stm); “Inside the mind of a ‘black widow’,” BBC News Online 4 Sep. 2003 (available at: http://news.bbc.uk.co/1/hi/world/europe/3081126.stm); Steven Lee Meyers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times 7 Aug. 2003; Tom Parfitt, “Suicide Bombers’ Chief Revealed,” The Telegraph, London 21 July 2003; “Suicide bombers hit Moscow concert,” BBC News Online 5 July 2003 (available at: http://news.bbc.uk.co/1/hi/world/europe/3047386.stm); “Two Moscow concert bombers kill 14,” 5 July 2003, CNN.com/World (available at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/07/05/russia.blast/index.html); Fred Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” The Christian Science Monitor 12 June 2003; Fareed Zakaria, “Suicide Bombers Can Be Stopped,” Newsweek 25 Aug. 2003 (available at: http://www.fareedzakaria.com/articles/newsweek/082503.html).

            15Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 193.

            16Ibid., 22.

            17Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online.

            18Myers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times and Parfitt, “Suicide Bombers’ Chief Revealed,” The Telegraph, London.

            19“Inside the mind of a ‘black widow’,” BBC News Online.

            20Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online.

            21Myers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times. The fact that the female suicide bombers have been typified as “zombies” is especially interesting in light of Slavoj Zizek’s statement that the return of the living dead is “the fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture” (Looking Awry: An Introduction to Lacan through Popular Culture [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991], 22).

            22Irina Zvigeskaya, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow; quoted in Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” The Christian Science Monitor. Standing in stark opposition, of course, to the idea that the female bombers are somehow not in their right mind, are the statements of the women themselves. In September of 2003, an anonymous Chechen woman (going by the pseudonym “Kowa”) told a BBC World Service reporter the following: “I have only one dream now, only one missionto blow myself up somewhere in Russia, ideally in Moscow. . . . To take as many Russian lives as possible—this is the only way to stop the Russians from killing my people. . . . Maybe this way they will get the message once and for all.” Kowa’s husband, only twenty-four-years old, was killed by the Russians, and she indicated that she wanted revenge and was “ready for it.” Further, she said, “In my case—as with most cases with female suicide bombers—the motive is revenge. No one is forcing us and I am not afraid” (quoted in “Inside the mind of a ‘black widow’,” BBC News Online). Further, a surviving hostage of the Chechen rebel takeover of a theater in Moscow in October 2002, told an Associated Press reporter that one of her female captors, whose husband and brother has been killed in the war with Russia, said the following: “I have nothing to lose, I have nobody left. So I’ll go all the way with this, even though I don’t think it’s the right thing to do” (quoted in Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” The Christian Science Monitor).

            23Jacques Alain Miller, “Extimité,” in Mark Bracher et al., eds., Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure, and Society (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 75.

            24Miller, “Extimité,” 76. This idea is further elaborated in Charles Shepherdson, “The Initmate Alterity of the Real: A Response to Reader Commentary on ‘History and the Real’,” Postmodern Culture 6 (1996).

            25In his well-known paper of 1919, Das Unheimliche, Freud deconstructed the supposed opposition between the heimlich, the “intimate” or “domestic,” and the unheimlich, the “strange” or “uncanny.” For Freud, “the uncanny (unheimlich) is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar, and furthermore, “the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ is the token of repression,” and thus the uncanny always involves something “that ought to have remained hidden, but has come to light” (Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” Complete Psychological Works, vol. 17, Standard Edition, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1963), 217-56.

            26Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, 18. Given the West’s stance toward terrorism (which is, for the most part, to regard it as extra-juridical, illegal, inhumane, amoral, and evil), an area ripe for investigation in relation to this stance would be the relationship in Western society between vengeance, violence, justice, and the rule of law. According to Walter Benjamin, in his 1921 essay “Toward a Critique of Violence,” violence essentially defines the law (and on multiple levels). For a thoughtful rumination upon Benajmin’s essay as well as Jacques Derrida’s later reading of that essay, Force de loi (Paris: Galilée, 1994), see Robert Gibbs, “Philosophy and Law: Questioning Justice,” in Edith Wyschogrod and Gerald P. McKenny, eds., The Ethical (London: Blackwell, 2003), 101-16.

            27Myers, “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times.

            28Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 4.

            29Ibid., 4, 6.

            30Ibid., 7.

            31Ibid., 10, 12.

            32Further, Cohen writes, “Feminine and cultural others are monstrous enough by themselves in patriarchal society, but when they threaten to mingle, the entire economy of desire comes under attack” (“Monster Culture [Seven Theses],” 15).

            33Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” 20.

            34Ibid., 5. The policy toward Chechen terrorists that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has adopted is precisely one of flat-out extermination (on this point, see Eke, “Chechnya’s female bombers,” BBC News Online). In fact, during the Chechen seizure of about 800 hostages in a theater in Moscow in October 2002, Russian soldiers stormed the theater with experimental knockout gas, and executed, on the spot, all of the Chechen rebels (including two dozen women) while they were still unconscious from the gas. 129 Russians civilians also inadvertently died from the gas (see Weir, “Chechen Women Join Terror’s Ranks,” Christian Science Monitor).