Ross Birrell -Glasgow
The Gift of Terror: Suicide-Bombing as Potlach
'Let us emphasize the word
"gift." Between on the one hand this denial that involves
renouncing the self, this abnegation of the gift, of goodness,
or of the generosity of the gift that must withdraw, hide, in
fact sacrifice itself in order to give, and on the other hand
the repression that would transform the gift into an economy
of sacrifice, is there not a secret affinity, an unavoidable
risk of contamination of two possibilities as close one to the
other as they are different from each other? For what is given
in this trembling, in the actual trembling of terror, is nothing
other than death itself, a new significance for death, a new
apprehension of death, a new way in which to give oneself death
or to put oneself to death [se donner la mort]." (Jacques
Derrida, The Gift of Death)
In Godfather II, Robert
De Niro as the young Vito Corleone is choosing oranges in a market
stall in Little Italy, New York. From the look of fear on the
stallholder's face it is clear the man is terrified to discover
he is serving the Godfather. When De Niro selects an orange,
the stallholder offers it free of charge: 'No, no. I don't want
money. It is a gift.' Corleone responds with customary gratitude,
offering his service in the future should the stallholder ever
be in need of a favour. It is a symbolic exchange, a contract
outwith written law. The gift speaks that which must remain unspoken;
it is the token of a fraternity founded upon fear. This is the
gift of terror.
Writing in response to the
suicide attacks upon the World Trade Centre of 11th September
2001, Jean Baudrillard commented: 'This is terror against terror
there is no longer any ideology behind it. We are far beyond
ideology and politics now. No ideology, no cause not even
the Islamic cause can account for the energy which fuels
terror. The aim is no longer even to transform the world, but
(as the heresies did in their day) to radicalize the world by
sacrifice' (Baudrillard, 2002: 9-10). The contention that
there is no ideology or cause which can 'account' for the 'energy
which fuels terror' prompts us to consider a 'general economy'
of suicide-terrorism, in particular the way in which the sacrificial
logic of suicide-terrorism mounts a direct challenge to the capitalist
logic of accumulation and growth. It is my argument that, as
an anti-capitalist strategy, suicide-bombing follows the logic
of gift-exchange, that is to say, suicide-terrorism is 'the gift
that must sacrifice itself in order to give' (Derrida, 1995:
30). But if suicide-terrorism is a sacrificial gift then its
gift is death: 'What is the relation between se donner la
mort and sacrifice? Between putting oneself to death and
dying for another? What are the relations among sacrifice, suicide,
and the economy of this gift?' (Derrida, 1995: 10). One way of
addressing the question which Derrida posed in The Gift of
Death, is by reading suicide-bombing as an extreme form of
Part 1. Georges Bataille
and 'the Potlach
of Destruction': Towards a General Economy of Suicide-Terrorism
'Changing from the perspective of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking and of ethics.' (Bataille, 1988: 25)
In his study of the ritual
prestation and gift-exchange among the tribes of North-Western
American Indians, Marcel Mauss outlines the system of obligations
which surrounds the potlach; the obligation to give: 'This
is the essence of potlach' (Mauss, 1969: 37); the obligation
to receive: 'One does not have the right to refuse a gift or
a potlach. To do so would show fear of having to repay,
and of being abased in default. One would "lose the weight"
of one's name by admitting defeat in advance' (Mauss, 1969: 39);
and the obligation to repay the gift: 'Outside pure destruction
the obligation to repay is the essence of potlach' (Mauss,
1969: 40). It is this emphasis upon 'obligation' as the 'essence
of potlach' which prevents any misrecognition of
gift-exchange as simply an example of a restricted economy (such
as barter-system) and which constitutes potlach as an
economy 'without reserve': 'Consumption and destruction are here
really without limits. In certain kinds of potlach one
must expend all one has, keeping nothing back' (Mauss, 1969:
35). It is this aspect of unlimited generosity in the gift-exchange
of potlach which allows Georges Bataille to consider it
a general economy of useless expenditure and sacrifice.
It would be futile, he claims, to consider the economic aspects
of potlach without first formulating the perspective of
the general economy; a perspective best encapsulated for
Bataille in his insistence on the claim that 'there is generally
no growth but only luxurious squandering of energy in every form!
The history of life on earth is mainly the effect of a wild exuberance'
(Bataille, 1988: 33). Given his belief in the excess of 'solar
energy' fuelling the exuberant life of man it is unsurprising
that Bataille's reading of the potlach and its power to
combine 'the limitless movements of the universe' with the limits
of man (Bataille, 1988: 70) is inflected with the language of
sacrifice and luxurious squander to the point of violent destruction:
' what general economy defines first is the explosive
character of this world, carried to the extreme degree of explosive
tension in the present time' (Bataille, 1988: 40). As a result,
Bataille's general economy is governed not by acquisition,
accumulation and growth (as in Capitalism) but by dissipation
and destruction, squandering and sacrifice (Bataille, 1988: 68-70).
Nonetheless, as a 'gift of rivalry' the potlach still
expects a return in that 'the recipient is obligated to nullify
that power by repaying the gift. The rivalry even entails the
return of a greater gift: In order to get even the giver
must not only redeem himself, but he must also impose the "power
of the gift" on his rival in turn' (Bataille, 1988: 70).
'For political economy only exists by default: death is its blind spot, the absence haunting all its calculations.' (Baudrillard, 1993: 154)
As Baudrillard has noted, for Bataille death has a luxurious character which transgresses the orthodox political economy of capitalism founded upon growth and accumulation:
In Bataille there is a vision of death as a principle of excess and an anti-economy. Hence the metaphor of luxury and the luxurious character of death. Only sumptuous and useless expenditure has meaning; the economy has no meaning, it is only a residue that has been made into the law of life If life is only a need to survive at any cost, then annihilation is a priceless luxury. In a system where life is ruled by value and utility, death becomes a useless luxury, and the only alternative (Baudrillard, 1993: 155-6).
Death, Baudrillard claims,
was really only born in the sixteenth century. 'From this point
on', he writes, 'the obsession with death and the will to abolish
death through accumulation become the fundamental motor of the
rationality of political economy' (Baudrillard, 1993: 146). Baudrillard's
position echoes Foucault's assertion in volume one of The
History of Sexuality that the significant aspect of the transition
from feudalism to capitalism was not only the transformation
in the legitimate authority of the state but the concomitant
shift in emphasis from death to life. Foucault delineates the
privileges of sovereign power over life and death, a legitimate
power to inflict death at will, to capitalism's rationalisation
of life processes in the diverse 'administration of life' (Foucault,
1979: 139-40; 142-3).
The Palestinians or the rebellious Blacks setting fire to their own district become suicidal, as is resistance to the security forces in all its forms, as are the neurotic behaviour and multiple breakdowns by which we challenge the system's capacity to ever fully integrate us. Also suicidal are all political practices (demos, disorder, provocation, etc.) whose objective is to arouse repression, the 'repressive nature of the system', not as a secondary consequence, but as the immediacy of death: the game of death unmasks the system's own function of death. The order has possession of death, but it cannot play it out only those who set death playing against itself win (Baudrillard, 1993: 176).
In Bataille's terms, the subversive suicidal political acts of Palestinians can be regarded as luxurious in that within the limits of the enforced poverty of the Palestinian territories the only luxury which can be afforded is death. Bataille's logic can also be found in Baudrillard's reading of the rebellious Black's 'setting fire to their own district', a reference to the Watts riots in LA (13-16 August 1965) which the Situationists had described as 'the potlach of destruction'. Benjamin Noys relates:
What seemed most irrational to many commentators on the events was the self-destructive nature of what happened as people destroyed their own communities rather than strike out at the affluent areas around them. Here, however, could be read another sign of the potlach, where in the act of self-destruction a challenge is thrown down for the dominant powers to respond to (Noys, 2000: 110).
The potlach of destruction
is a direct challenge to the authority of the system. Thus, suicide
and by extension suicidal terror is the logical extension of
the potlach: the gift of rivalry. But the gift of rivalry
of suicide-terror is not simply directed at the oppressor; it
is directed firstly to oneself: 'in this symbolic short-circuit,
the gift-exchange is the challenge to oneself and one's
own life, and is carried out through death' (Baudrillard, 1993:
177). Suicide-bombing is not simply a challenge to Israeli terror,
a challenge to Israel to do its worst (following the spiralling
logic of terrorism-counter terrorism, gift-counter-gift). Suicide-terrorism
is a challenge directed also toward oneself, toward fellow Arabs
to match the ostentatious display of the gift of death, the revolutionary
challenge of martyrdom. This is why any analysis of the economic
logic of suicide-bombing which is trapped in the law of accumulation
and quantitative growth, cannot but fail to recognize either
the complexity of suicide-terror or its subversive potential.
Only through a reading of Bataille's and Baudrillard's considerations
on the subversive potential of the anti-economy of death in its
sacrificial form is it possible to arrive at a general
economy of suicide-terror, that is to say, of suicide-bombing
as potlach. Furthermore, it is my contention that in an
economic system in which symbolic exchange has become an impossibility,
death no longer manifests the 'imaginary' of the system (as Baudrillard
once claimed). It is the real. The gift of terror is the real
which has the power to 'knock' capitalism awake from its dream
of democratic freedom. Baudrillard himself would seem to suggest
such a reading when he considers the 9/11 attack on the Twin
Towers an attempt to destroy the system of capitalism with 'a
gift to which it cannot respond except by its own death and its
own collapse' (Baudrillard, 2002: 17).
'There is terror (dar) in martak.' (An old
We are asked why we do not examine the etymology of gift, translation of the Latin dosis, itself a transcription of the Greek dosis, dose, dose of poison  We compare the uncertainty of the meaning of gift with that of the Latin venenum and the Greek philtron and pharmakon; one should also add venia, venus, venenum from vanati (Sanskrit, to give pleasure) and gewinnen, win (Cited in Derrida, 1992: 36).
The relationship between ritual prestations and auspiciousness/inauspiciousness is the foundation for Gloria Goodwin Raheja's study, The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village (1988). In this detailed work, Raheja makes reference to the potential transference of inauspiciousness and evil through gifts (dan), in particular those ritual prestations given on the occasion of a death and referred to as martak (from the Hindi word for death):
When, for instance, I asked Gujar villagers why they give the martak pujapa to their Brahman purohit, while Brahmans give it to dhiyane, they generally replied in much the same way as Bugli, an old Gujar woman: 'There is terror (dar) in martak; why should we give it to our bahenoi or phupha when we can give it to our Brahman? Our dhiyane are not our puj, Brahmans are our puj' (Raheja, 1988: 152).
The response of Bugli, the
old Gujar woman, to the inauspiciousness latent in the gift of
martak - that there was 'terror' in the gift - points
to a clear case of ritual prestation as gift of terror.
Honour is a well-known feature of Mediterranean societies. It is usually described as a code of conduct for individuals, families and groups, all constantly exposed to the regard of public opinion. This form of honour exists among the Iqar'iyen [tribes of the Moroccan Rif]. Every man of honour or group of honour exercises authority over a 'forbidden domain' or haram, embracing land, women, and houses, which must be preserved from scandal and defended against attack. However, the term r'ird, which we translate here as 'honour, has a verbal form with the connotations 'to invite' or 'to display ostentatiously', which incorporate an idea of challenge. It is unthinkable simply to defend one's honour passively. A man of honour must seek out others like him, provoke them, challenge them to act as he does. He must display his wealth and spend to the point of ruin, forcing the person who receives from him to do the same. Exchange is thus an essential aspect of honour (Barraud et al., 1994: 19-20). [My italics]
As is evident in the above
quotation, the work of these French anthropologists makes explicit
the relationship between gift, rivalry, and ultimately self-destruction
in Arab culture: 'He must display his wealth and spend to the
point of ruin, forcing the person who receives from him to do
The squandering intractable and savage warrior, lover and beloved of young women, hero of the tribe's poetry, gives way to the devout soldier, the formal observer of discipline and rites. The custom of praying in common was a constant external affirmation of this change; it has rightly been compared to military exercise, which unifies and mechanizes hearts. The contrast of the Koran (and the hadith) with the capricious world of poetry symbolizes this repudiation. It was only after the irresistible wave of conquest by the devout army that the tradition was resumed: Victorious Islam was not held by the same severity; generous squander, for which the longing remained, ceased to be a danger once the empire had consolidated its dominion (Bataille, 1988: 86-7).
It is with an examination of the potlach in Arab culture that I turn finally to an examination of the relationship between the gift of terror and revolutionary martyrdom.
Part 2. Don't Forget to Die: Suicide-Bombing Between Two Deaths
'There is no spontaneous suicide terrorism.' (Laquer, 2003: 91)
In order to examine the conditions of the general economy of martyrdom it is perhaps useful first to explore the nature of its manifestation in the restrictive economy of the voluntary contract. Harrison notes that in terrorist organizations , the contract plays a crucial role. Suicide-terrorism, Harrison argues, is the outcome of a contract between the suicide-bomber and the terrorist group. From the perspective of a restrictive economy, the terrorist group demands the death of the volunteer in the service of the revolution. The payment which the terrorist attacker receives in return for the labour of his/her death is martyrdom. The terrorist group agrees to provides the means of destruction and to promote the volunteer's identity as a martyr. The risk of a broken contract, Harrison suggests, is covered (or insured against) by the widespread promotion of the 'living martyr'. The role played by the contract in Harrison's analysis is performed by the 'oath' or 'pledge' in Sartre's commentary upon terrorism contained in Critique of Dialectical Reason: I (1976). To Sartre, the existence of the pledge constitutes the terrorist group as a fraternity founded upon fear, in which terror is internalized:
To swear is to say, as a common individual: you must kill me if I secede. And this demand has no other aim than to install Terror within myself as a free defence against the fear of the enemy (at the same time as reassuring me about the third party who will be confirmed by the same Terror). At this level, the pledge becomes a material operation. The first moment, 'Let us swear', corresponds to the practical transformation of the common statute: the common freedom constitutes itself as Terror. The second moment the successive or simultaneous giving of pledges is a materialisation of Terror, its embodiment in a material object (swearing on the sword; signing the text of the common pledge or creating organs of coercion) (Sartre, 1976: 431).
The suicide-bomber's equivalent
of swearing an oath on the sword is the final testimony in which
they record in photographs, videos, and letters their joy at
becoming a martyr. 'When the recording has been distributed and
the letters and photographs have been sent', Harrison continues,
'each side is fully committed and neither can draw back since
each will now lose more by breaking the contract than by implementing
it.' Although Harrison's analysis is instructive his error is
to shift the perspective from a sacrificial economy of martyrdom
to an economy of utility, or in other words to transform a 'symbolic
process (exchange ritual) into an economic process (redemption,
labour, debt, individual)' (Baudrillard, 1993: 134-5). From
the perspective of restrictive economy of the suicide-bomber
under contract, the explosivity of suicide-terror is contained
within a mirror of capitalist production. Yet from the perspective
of general economy, which encounters the sacrificial logic
of martyrdom, the obligation of the gift of terror (as embodied
in the pledge or oath of the ambiguous figure of the 'living
martyr') manifests what Derrida refers to as a 'spectre, lodged
within the political itself' (Derrida, 1997: 138). It is with
this spectral existence of the suicide-bomber which I
wish to conclude.
"He is dead and he is going to die" (Barthes on Alexander Gardner: Portrait of Lewis Payne. 1865)
The performance of Khoury's and Mroué's Three Posters revolves around a found video tape recorded in 1985 by Jamal Satti, a member of the Lebanese communist party and combatant for the National Resistance Front. In the unedited master copy of the tape it is discovered that the resistance fighter takes three attempts to record his final testimony. The tape was recorded only a few hours before he carried out a suicide operation against the Israeli army then occupying southern Lebanon and the final edited version was broadcast on the 8 p.m. news on Lebanese Television on Tuesday, 6 August 1985. In an essay which accompanies the performance text, entitled 'The Fabrication of Truth' (Tamáss, p. 114-7), Mroué explains:
By chance we came across the original, uncut video tape. Here, Jamal Satti repeats his testimony three times in front of the camera before deciding on the best version to present before the public. Yet the difference between these three versions is minimal, without importance. The public was supposed to see only one of his attempts, an incontestable, unequivocal document. Upon viewing the original cassette, we immediately fell beneath the spell of these repeated attempts, we gave into temptation despite ourselves, and we decided to present the tape to the public as is, without editing. We even made it the subject of our theatrical performance, Three Posters (Tamáss, p. 114).
The hesitation and repetition contained in the original uncut version of Satti's recording prompts Mroué to ask questions of the performative aspects of the terrorists testimony: 'Why does he act?'
Jamal Satti is a fighter who
does not fear death. As proof, he goes voluntarily out to meet
it. Yet as soon as he steps before the camera to film his testimony,
his words betray him, hesitating and stumbling between his lips.
His gaze is unable to focus, it wavers and gets lost. These different
takes are like those of an actor getting ready to play his role.
Why does Jamal Satti try to act? Does his martyrdom then need
some trace more effective than the one to result from his suicide
operation, which is nonetheless supposed to 'cause great damage
to the Israeli enemy'? Is the media image more effective than
martyrdom in itself, than physical death?
I will examine the relationship between the photographic image and death in more detail below. For the moment, however, I would like to address the temporality of the suicide-bomber's recorded declaration or oath for the ambiguous status of this 'living death' is the kernal of our remaining discussion. Mroué perceives the immanent spectrality of revolutionaries when he considers the recorded testimonies of suicide-bombers as 'unutterable instants of a non-place between life and death' (Tamáss, p. 114). If Mroué employs a spatial metaphor in his reading of the displacement of the physical in the death of the martyr, it is also possible to address the temporal qualities of the revolutionary's death between 'the "two moments of time" which the contract unites' (Mauss, 1969: 35). Here it is pertinent to recall that, in Humanism and Terror, Maurice Merleau-Ponty characterized revolutionaries as 'men who are convinced that they are making history and who consequently already see the present as past' (Merleau-Ponty, 1969: 29). To Zizek, the tendency of revolutionaries to see the present as past amounts to a view of History from the 'perspective of the last judgement', that is to say, 'in the eyes of the big Other of history' (Zizek, 1989: 142). It is this perspective of the symbolic destiny of the revolution in the last judgement which prompts Merleau-Ponty's formulation: 'History is Terror' (Merleau-Ponty, 1969: 91). In Lacanian terms, the last recorded testimony of the revolutionary and martyred suicide-bomber is thus situated 'between two deaths':
Lacan conceives this difference between the two deaths as the difference between real (biological) death and its symbolization, the 'settling of accounts', the accomplishment of symbolic destiny (deathbed confession in Catholicism, for example) The place 'between the two deaths', a place of sublime beauty as well as terrifying monsters, is the site of das Ding, of the real-traumatic kernel in the midst of the symbolic order. This place is opened by symbolization/historicization: the process of historicization implies an empty place, a non-historical kernel around which the symbolic network is articulated (Zizek, 1989: 135).
Before analyzing Satti's testimony and Mroué's reading in relation to Lacan in more detail it is important to address the materiality of Satti's existence between two deaths: namely, the relation between video and death. Paradoxically, however, in order to explore the material relationship between video and death in this context, it is pertinent to recall the long established link between death and the photographic image documented by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. For Sontag, 'a photograph is not only an image it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask' (Sontag, 1979: 154). Sontag's intimation of a relationship between death and the real is significant and I will return to this presently. Similarly, Barthes identifies a relation between the photographic image and death which he encounters in the inauthentic act of posing for a portrait, which he considers 'a micro-version of death' and claims: 'I am truly becoming a spectre I have become Total-Image, which is to say, Death in person' (Barthes, 1984: 13-4). Barthes expands his analysis from an initial response to a feeling of 'death' in the event of having his photograph taken to the relationship of photography to the 'crisis of death' in modernity (which I outlined previously in its economic relation to capitalism): 'With the photograph,' he concludes, 'we enter into flat Death' (Barthes, 1984: 92). In short, Barthes articulates what might be called the photographic condition of death in late capitalism. But the relationship between the camera and death in late capitalism is not restricted to the still photographic image. It is also found in writings on the condition of video, the art form which Frederic Jameson considered most 'rigorously coterminous with postmodernism itself as a historical period' (Jameson, 1991: 73). For example, in 'Video Black The Mortality of the Image', Bill Viola remarks: 'Once there was a train of images sequentially unfolding in time, there was "a moving image" and with it, by necessity, a beginning and end; mortal images, with the camera as death' (Hall and Fifer, 1990: 483). The video camera in front of which Satti records his public proclamation of martyrdom is also an apparatus of intimacy a man hesitating before the intimate terror of death. As Lyotard claimed: 'Terror is exerted intimately' (Lyotard, 1997: 212). By screening the unedited testimony Mroué is effectively intruding on that which is also already public. But this is the very condition of the video testimony itself, that of external intimacy - that traumatic kernal of the real which cannot be integrated into the symbolic order, which Lacan called L'extimité. Witnessing the recorded testimony of a suicide-bomber who is already dead is perhaps a way of looking awry at a death stretched out beyond its logical duration. For external intimacy is also the traumatic non-place of ghosts: 'The return of the dead is a sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt' (Zizek, 1992: 23). But the return of the dead suicide-bomber is also a manifestation of our obligation to repay the gift of terror.
'Father, can't you see I'm burning?' (Sigmund Freud, 1976)
In Camera Lucida, Barthes comments upon Alexander Gardner's Portrait of Lewis Payne (1865):
In 1865, the young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W.H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake (Barthes, 1984: 96).
The ambiguity of the 'anterior future of which death is the stake' which Barthes recognizes in the photograph of Lewis Payne and which renders visible Lacan's ghostly concept of 'between two deaths' is also evident in the recorded testimony of Jamal Satti. And this ambiguous temporality of the spectral existence between two deaths is embodied in the very grammar of Satti's testimony. As Mroué points out:
The young man begins by introducing
himself: 'I am the martyred comrade Jamal Satti' In an uncertain
non-place, antagonistic to both of the known worlds, those of
the living and the dead, he presents himself as a martyr through
the image. But in reality his martyrdom has not yet been actualized
and only will be after a certain lapse of time whose duration
is unknown to us, but which stretches from the instant of filming
to the instant of the mission's fulfilment.
The employment of the past
tense to describe a future event situates the suicide-bomber
between two deaths, but not, as might be expected, between the
real death of the flesh and blood individual and his symbolic
death in martyrdom, but between his death in the symbolic (martyrdom)
and the imaginary (witnessed in Satti's identification with Che
Guevara). But when faced with the terror of History in the form
of 'the machine of the photographic apparatus peering across
like a gun barrel at the subject' (Jameson, 1991: 73) the revolutionary
subject falters. The hesitation and repetition contained in
the unedited recording opens up a gap between the imaginary (Ideal-Ego)
and the symbolic (Ego-Ideal) death of the suicide-bomber. In
short, the slippages in Satti's attempt to record his final testimony
on video reveal the faltering of the symbolic and the imaginary
on the kernal of the real.
It is Batista's Cuba in the late 1950s. On his way to the Capri Hotel owned by Hyman Roth (Lee Strasburg), Michael Corleone witnesses a police round up of pro-Castro rebels. During the operation a guerrilla breaks free from the police line up and runs across the road shouting 'Viva Fidel!' The rebel pushes the police captain into his patrol car and explodes a concealed hand grenade, killing them both. Later, at the Capri, a small celebration is being held to mark the occasion of Roth's 67th birthday. Sensing an impending revolution in Cuba, Michael reflects on the rebel's tactic:
Michael: 'A rebel was being
arrested by the military police, and rather than be taken alive,
he exploded the grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He killed
himself and he took a captain of the command with him It occurred
to me, the soldiers are paid to fight, the rebels aren't.'
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