Literature and Terrorism
There are several different ways for ‘Literature’ and ‘Terrorism’ to be linked by an
‘and’. The most obvious way comes when ‘Literature’ is understood as ‘Imaginative
Literature’ or ‘Creative Writing’. Imaginative literature has written about terrorism
often, going back to early Jewish and Greco-Roman mythology. Find a case of
political violence outside of warfare or revolution in a work of creative literature,
violence intended to change the balance of power in a society through symbolic as
well as coercive means, and you have probably found a case of ‘terrorism’, or at
least of something very similar to it. The study of ‘Literature and Terrorism’ in this
case is a study of what imaginative literature represents when it represents such
cases of violence, along with how, why and in what context the literature
But ‘Literature’ isn’t always ‘Creative’, in either a relative or an absolute sense.
Some literature is based on true events, or refers very closely to it. The real life
terrorist Sergey Gennadiyevich Nechayev (1847-1882) was an inspiration for any
number of works, among them Dostoevsky’s Demons, Conrad’s Under Western
Eyes, Ambler’s The Care of Time, and Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. Another
real life terrorist, Marcus Junius Brutus (85–42 BC) has been the subject of a large
number of factual stories, histories and dramas, among them Plutarch’s Parallel
Lives and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. One can try to separate the factual from
the imaginative in Demons or Julius Caesar, but the works themselves ask us not
to. The study of ‘Literature and Terrorism’ in these cases is still, on one level, a
study of representation, of what happens in the world of the texts. But it must
also be the study of what literature does to terrorism, or does with it. That is, it
must also be a study of fictionalisation and of the uses of fiction in relation to
historical life and everyday reality.
There is also the case of non-mimetic literature: writings about terrorism, from
sermons written, in 1606, on the occasion of the Gunpowder Plot to sociological
studies, being written today, of suicide bombers and national security agencies.
The study of ‘Literature and Terrorism’ may well be about these kinds of writings
And there is finally the case of the writings of terrorists themselves, and the
writings from which terrorists might draw inspiration, purpose and strategy.
Nechayev published his Catechism of a Revolutionary in 1869. The study of
‘Literature and Terrorism’ may include this kind of literature as well, not only
because it may have become absorbed into the background of a Dostoevsky novel,
but because it is itself an example of ‘Literature’, and indeed of the coupling of
Literature and Terrorism.
My own published work on Literature and Terrorism includes the following three
‘Fantasias of Terrorism’, Journal for Cultural Research 18.2 (2014), 99-113.
‘Terrorism and the Novel, 1970-2001’, Poetics Today 29.3 (2008), 387-436.
‘Milton, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Mythography of Terror’, Modern Language
Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History, 68.4 (2007), 461-93.
I include information about my new work, Terrorism Before Letter: The
Mythography of Political Violence in England, Scotland and France, 1559-1642,
here on this website. It is soon to be published by Oxford University Press.
A current course syllabus is here.
Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, Engraving from 1605-06
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