Ross Birrell -Glasgow
The Gift of Terror: Suicide-Bombing as Potlach
Video version from article, arranged by Dominic
(English, 41 Min)



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)
'Potlach enables one to perceive a connection between religious behaviours and economic ones.' (Georges Bataille, 'The Gift of Rivalry: "Potlach"', The Accursed Share)



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.
The scene of the gift of terror is a paradoxical foreshadowing of an event which has already taken place, namely, the assassination attempt in Part I of The Godfather on the life of Marlon Brando as the old Vito Corleone, which takes place while Brando is picking oranges from a market stall. To return to the scene with De Niro, the gift of terror recalls us to the prior event and the knowledge of a death to come.
With the gift of terror we enter into a kind of spectral economy, an economic relay between gifts and ghosts. And it should be remembered that we encounter the entire sepia-toned sequence with De Niro - the living ghost of Brando - as an apparition, a present as past conjured from the fireside reverie of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, the present incarnation of the Godfather. In one of the opening scenes of the film, Michael receives a gift of a Florida orange from Johnny Ola, an assassin in the pay of Hyman Roth.



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 potlach.
Before proceeding to outline the potlach it should be noted that to consider suicide bombing as potlach is to propose a shift in perspective from the prevailing economic accounts of suicide-terrorism. For example, in a recent research paper 'The Logic of Suicide Terrorism', Professor Mark Harrison (an economist at the University of Warwick) attempts to understand the actions of suicide bombers, which appear to defy the logic of economic theories based on self interest. In an attempt to account for the rise of suicide terrorism amongst Arab youth, Harrison pursues his analysis from within a restrictive economy of self-interest and capitalist accumulation to suggest that suicide-bombing is an attempt by young individuals to establish a positive identity in the wake of the failure of globalization to address issues of poverty in the Middle East. What Harrison's reading amounts to, in effect, is an understanding of suicide-terror as the sole remaining choice in a series of more or less failed investments in capitalist identities. In contrast, the argument which follows adopts a radical change in perspective; from a restrictive economy to a general economy of suicide-terrorism. My analysis locates the impetus for suicide-terrorism not in the investment in private identities but in relation to the potlach or 'gift of rivalry', which I read in relation to revolutionary 'martyrdom' both in the secular context of radical politics and the religious context of Islamic shahid. That is to say, suicide-bombing undertaken not as 'individual choice' but as 'ritual obligation'.
My use of 'general economy' is a reference to the work of Georges Bataille and, in particular, I draw upon his essay 'The Gift of Rivalry: "Potlach"', chapter four of The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume 1 Consumption (1988). Bataille's understanding of potlach as an economy of sacrifice is, of course, developed from Marcel Mauss's anthropological study The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies first published in France in 1925. In Part 1, my reading of the general economy of potlach pays respect to Mauss and Bataille but expands the counter-economics of the gift in relation to Foucault, Baudrillard and Derrida. Here the concept of the potlach is more clearly drawn in relation to 'the gift of death' and the proximity between gift and death is further explored with reference to prestation rituals in India and the ritual of rivalry in Arabic society.
Having established in Part 1 the potlach of destruction as a gift of death, in Part 2 I return to the logic of suicide-terrorism in relation to the desire for 'martyrdom' in order to explore the 'obligation' of the gift of death as a revolutionary strategy. With reference to Three Posters, a performance-video by Elias Khoury and Rabih Mroué, a work which incorporates actual video testimony by a Lebanese suicide-bomber broadcast in 1985, I return to expand Harrison's restrictive economy of the contract between individual suicide-bomber and resistance leaders with a reading of Mroué's response to the martyr's video in 'The Fabrication of Truth', a text which accompanies the script of Three Posters. Mroué's reading is expanded with reference to the ideas of Barthes, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan and Zizek, concluding that the recorded testimony of the revolutionary martyr not only exists 'between two deaths' but moreover that all suicide-bombers explode three times: in the symbolic, the imaginary and the real.
In considering suicide-bombing as an extreme form of potlach I do not aim to 'account' for individual instances of suicidal terror according to the logic of a political economy of capitalist accumulation. Further, in claiming suicide-bombing as a form of potlach I do not propose to set out the 'essential relations' of terrorism, which may be said to constitute an 'essence of Terror'. Although, as Walter Laquer has claimed, 'a review of the history of terrorism over the ages up to the 1960s shows that in the great majority of cases, all terrorism was suicide terrorism' (Laquer, 2003: 71) and that, therefore, suicide-bombing may provide us with a viable essence of terror, I follow Sartre in his belief that there is no such essence (Sartre, 1976: 597 n. 73). The opposite, as Alain Badiou contends, is in fact the case: 'It is obvious that "terrorism" is a non-existent substance, an empty name. But this void is precious because it can be filled' (Badiou, 2004: 146). My aim here is merely to outline the foundations for a general economy of the obligation to give, to receive and to repay the gift of terror.


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).
The obligation to repay the gift, to 'get even', can be witnessed in the sacrificial logic of the escalation of terror and counter-terror in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is here I come to the logical conclusion of the potlach as a ritual of squander, destruction and expenditure without reserve; for the ultimate gift of rivalry is, of course, the gift of one's own death. Understanding potlach as ultimately a 'gift of death' obliges us to consider, on the one hand, the political economy of death (and suicide in particular) as antagonistic to the interests of capitalism and, on the other hand, the gift of terror as sacrificial obligation for both political revolutionary and religious martyr alike.



'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).
In Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993), death (as sacrifice, as gift) is a spectre which haunts capitalism, ever threatening to subvert a political economy which 'intends to eliminate death through accumulation' (Baudrillard, 1993: 147): 'the price we pay for the "reality" of this life, to live it as a positive value, is the ever present phantasm of death. For us, defined as living beings, death is our imaginary' (Baudrillard, 1993: 133). If capitalism sets about monopolising its claims on life (life insurance, health insurance, safety belts), then death becomes a disruptive force: 'This is why every death and all violence that escapes the State monopoly is subversive; it is a prefiguration of the abolition of power' (Baudrillard, 1993: 175). And the most subversive of deaths in terms of the political economy of capitalism, is suicide 'which in our societies has taken on a different extension and definition, to the point of becoming, in the context of the offensive reversibility of death, the form of subversion itself' (Baudrillard, 1993: 175-6). 'Through suicide,' Baudrillard continues, 'the individual tries and condemns society in accordance with its own norms It is against this orthodoxy of value that the suicide revolts by destroying the parcel of capital he has at his disposal' (Baudrillard, 1993: 176). It is this spectral anti-economy of death which lends death and suicidal acts their power in the hands of opponents of regimes of accumulation:

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).
In order to attempt to establish in more convincing detail the proximity of the potlach to the idea of 'terror' it is necessary to return to Mauss as well as to more recent anthropological studies of prestation rituals in non-Western culture. Here the relationship established between honour and violence in the social rituals of Arabic potlach is examined alongside Bataille's writings on gift-exchange in pre-Islamic Arab culture.


'There is terror (dar) in martak.' (An old Gujar woman)

In The Gift, Mauss draws our attention to the double meaning of the word Gift 'as gift and poison' and goes on to illustrate this double identity of the gift with reference to the theme of the 'fateful gift' prevalent in Germanic folklore (Mauss, 1969: 62). It is clear, then, that it would be unwise to ignore the potential inauspicious destiny of the gift. From the outset, there is poison in the gift. As Mauss notes elsewhere:

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.
In relation to the ritual of gift-exchange in Arabic culture, the work of Cécile Barraud, Daniel de Coppet, André Iteanu and Raymond Jamous (1994) has been helpful in understanding the relationship between gift-exchange, ostentatious display and rivalry:

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 same.'
The origins of Arabic potlach may be found in pre-Islamic and Islamic Arab culture as articulated by Bataille: 'Ostentatious giving and squandering were rampant and one can doubtless infer the existence of a ritual form of potlach from a prescription of the Koran: "Do not give in order to have more" (LXXIV, 6) Blood vengeance, the obligation for the relatives of a man killed to take their revenge on a killer's relatives, completed this tableau of wasteful acts of violence' (Bataille, 1988: 85). But Bataille is careful to distinguish between Arabic culture and the religious puritanism of Islam which opposed or reformed elements of pre-Islamic Arab society, including pronouncements upon the role of gift-exchange:

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.
For this part of my analysis I turn to the example of a video tape of the final testimony of a Lebanese suicide-bomber which provided the inspiration for Three Posters: A Performance-video by Elias Khoury and Rabih Mroué, first performed on 5 September 2000 at the Samaha House, Beirut, for the Ayloul Festival. I analyse this recording (which was included in the final performance) not simply to suggest that the recorded testimony of the Lebanese resistance fighter transforms the suicide-bomber into a spectre which exists in a 'non-place' between life and death and which thereby haunts the political economy of capitalism. Rather, by introducing a Lacanian reading of the desire for revolutionary martyrdom, I wish to suggest that Satti's testimony is not recorded between life and death but, in fact, between two deaths.




"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?
These questions, although simple, are violent (Tamáss, p. 114-5).

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.
Does the martyrdom then take place directly before us, through the filmic image of the video tape?
Indeed, it seems that the martyrdom is actualized at the very instant when the young man announces his martyrdom before the camera, through the very fact of this announcement. This is why it is so natural for him to introduce himself by saying: 'I am the martyred comrade Jamal Satti' and not 'I am Jamal Satti, soon to be a martyr' The martyrdom has taken place before the suicide mission, and therefore, whether this operation has effectively taken place or not no longer makes any real difference (Tamáss, p. 115).

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.
The enigma of the repetition of the suicide-bomber's testimony suggests that it shares a similar status to the dead boy's speech in the father's dream related by Freud in Chapter VII of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In Freud's account, a bereaved father is sleeping in the room next to his dead son, who is being watched over by an elderly gentleman. The father dreams that the boy is standing over him and is trying to wake him because he has been set alight by a toppled candle. The boy calls out 'Father, can't you see I'm burning?' and the father awakes to discover the fire. According to Freud, the father preferred the dream warning by the child compared to any tangibile waking signal because in the dream it was as if the child was alive once more. If the father had woken up before the boy's dream warning, Freud states, 'he would, as it were, have shortened his child's life by that moment of time' (Freud, 1976: 653). As a result, when the father awakes from his dream the boy effectively dies a second time. Thus, Lacan goes on to formulate the momentary afterlife in the dream as a realm between two deaths. For Lacan, in the boy's sentence, his final testimony, as it were, is the encounter with the real: 'Father, can't you see I'm burning? This sentence is itself a firebrand ­ of itself it brings fire where it falls ­ and one cannot see what is burning, for the flames blind us to the fact that the fire bears on the Unterlegt, on the Untertragen, on the real' (Lacan, 1979: 59). Is not, then, the hesitation and repetition in Jamal Satti's video testimony perhaps the kernal of the real which escapes the gift of terror and 'knocks' awake the symbolic order from its dream of revolutionary martyrdom? As Merleau-Ponty points out, hesitation is an unconscious betrayal of the revolution, for the revolutionary 'sees those who hesitate as traitors' (Merleau-Ponty). And in the spectral economy of revolutionary martyrdom, the betrayal of the revolution is manifest in the desire for life itself. In the end Mroué cannot help but interpret the repeated attempts of Jamal Satti as a desire for the deferral of death 'in these depressing lands where the desire to live is considered a shameful betrayal of the State, of the Nation-State, of the Father-Motherland' (Tamáss, p. 117).
'All men are explosive' claims Bataille (Bataille, 1988: 75). The event of Bataille's provocation would lend credence to Baudrillard's proposition: 'Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a system of generalized exchange' (Baudrillard, 2002: 9). But Satti records his testimony three times, a repetition which shatters the singularity of the event in a triadic structure which suggests that all suicide-bombers explode three times: in the symbolic, the imaginary and the real. It is a structure which mirrors the general economy of the potlach in the obligation to give, to receive and to repay the gift of terror.





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.'
Roth: 'What does that tell you?'
Michael: 'They can win.'


Ross Birrell
November 2004





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