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Welcoming a Knowledge of the Pack

Mike Haley

  1. 1.Uncovering “Something Else Besides…”


You can only hope to learn so much about something while intending to destroy it. Let’s look at the example of the hunter: a hunter can learn certain things about the animal he hunts—where it lives, what it eats, when it sleeps—but it is unlikely that he will ever, or that he would ever care to, acquire a deeply nuanced understanding of the animal’s lifecycle—he will never understand how the animal has developed into the thing it is; he will never understand the animal’s emotions; and he will never care to. At best, the hunter is able to produce something I will term a ‘hunter’s knowledge’ of that which he hunts. Moreover, as Achille Mbembe writes in On the Postcolony: “There is, then, a connection between the act of colonizing and the act of hunting.”  Mbembe may have written this considering how it is that something like a Hegelian subjectivity is manufactured in each act,  but we can nevertheless understand that there is something distinctly colonial about compiling a hunter’s knowledge—about collecting and archiving knowledge on an inhuman life form so as to more effectively stalk and exploit it.


Most of the literature produced hitherto on the topic of suicide bombing constitutes a hunter’s knowledge. This is to say:, it is interested in understanding suicide bombing only insofar as it in interested in dismantling it, or in annihilating it. This literature has strong links to the hegemon, as well as to hegemonic methods, both of which severely limit its usefulness—and its usefulness is limited, even if the hunter appears satisfied. The following discussion is an attempt to begin working outside of the sovereign’s court, to understand the tactic—or rather, the phenomenon—of the suicide bomb(er) outside of these limits. It is, above all, an attempt to produce something other than a hunter’s knowledge on the topic. This is not to say, importantly, that this discussion should be interpreted as ‘sympathetic’ or, worse, as celebratory—because it is neither. Rather, this discussion should be interpreted as an attempt to understand the suicide bomb at a remove from the contemporary political pressures that have proven themselves so relentless and effective at disabling modes of analysis that might produce a revealing, or satisfying, analysis of the phenomenon. However, this discussion’s goal is not simply to be goalless. This alternative to the hunter’s methods works to generate knowledge at and of the interior of the phenomenon—it works to compile something like a “knowledge of the pack.” This internal evaluation of—this entering into—the phenomenon begins to clarify how it is that the suicide bomb(er) is so prominently embedded—and indeed: is emblematic of—the contemporary state of global affairs. This knowledge of the pack is one that probes the ways in which this figure—this act—is both descendant from, and uniquely revelatory of, specific constellations of violence, power, space, and time—ones which belong uniquely to the contemporary moment. This is a knowledge the hunter is simply unable to produce. It is a knowledge for which I attempt to open the door in the following discussion.


Of course, this sort of evaluation necessitates that we first recognize the limits of the preexisting literature—that we understand precisely how it is that this predatory literature, owing allegiance to the hegemon, tends to produce only a partial knowledge. The guiding case study for this prefacing examination will be Mia Bloom’s Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.  This is an evaluation of suicide bombing that, as we can tell after just two sentences,  cannot be mistaken for an exhaustive, or deeply penetrating, analysis. Further, and central to our concerns is the following: this is an analysis performed by the sovereign’s side. —Bloom writes, “By understanding the dynamics of suicide bombing, we are better able to devise strategies to combat it.”  This phrase, and countless others like it, let us know that this is a predatory text, or that it is a hunter’s knowledge, that is being developed. Further, the we here is a hegemonic we, and this we makes it perfectly clear that Dying to Kill is performing a study on behalf of, or in service of, (let’s say) Empire (even if Bloom is most likely thinking of the United States, or of something like the free world, or the West). This allegiance to an ambiguous hegemon is visible throughout the text, and especially in moments of [1] prescription, [2] genuflection, and [3] discrediting. Bloom [1] prescribes strategies to the hegemon –“A three-pronged approach to conflict resolution is needed…”  In addition, she [2] genuflects to him, looking to the State Department for her definition of terrorism (“The U.S. State Department acknowledges that there is no single definition of terrorism….” ). Finally, Bloom [3] discredits his adversaries, writing in reference to Kamikaze pilots: “The September 11th operation was not the first time that terrorists succeeded in crashing airliners into well-chosen targets to cause significant causalities on the ground.”  This last excerpt, in which Kamikaze pilots are construed—and disparaged, or dismissed—as terrorists, is of particular interest insofar as it employs a concept of terrorist—one seemingly inclusive of lawful combatants—contradictory to the one she receives from the State Department.  As we can see, then, Bloom is situated unambiguously in the sovereign’s court—even if the sovereign himself is ambiguous—and this, we will see, certainly limits the usefulness of Dying to Kill.


Of course, even though the usefulness of Dying to Kill is limited, this does not mean that the text—or that texts like it (and there are many)—is useless. On the contrary, Bloom’s research brings to surface many relevant points, several of which I will review here. Bloom makes clear, for one, that—in the case of Palestine, at least—“Martyrdom reinforces the Palestinian self-image as an oppressed people.”  She also brings attention to the fact that suicide bombing is one of the few violent acts that is successful in “making yourself the victim of your own act, and thereby putting your tormentors to moral shame.”  Further, Bloom’s mode of analysis, which will be examined more closely in the coming pages, does prove productive in describing how it is that a strategically timed suicide attack can operate in “a strategic ‘spoiler role’ to the peace process.”  Finally, Bloom’s research allows her to comment on the ways in which suicide bombs may operate as “a method of recruitment…[and in this effect] give legitimacy to outlier militant groups who compete.”

The hunter, in these senses, does indeed make a number of relevant contributions—ones we simply cannot ignore—and yet the extent to which she is able to comment productively is limited by the frameworks in which she is operating, and this is true in a number of ways. Let’s first consider her observations on how it is that suicide bombing functions in the supranational context. Bloom begins a chapter dedicated to this topic, “Terror 101: The Transnational Contagion Effects of Suicide Bombing,” by citing Claire Sterling: “In 1981, Claire Sterling linked countless terrorist organizations together—contending that they all provided each other with some level of support.”  The insights Dying to Kill develops outside of this observation are limited. Bloom writes of “the ‘CNN factor,’”  and details the tendency suicide bombings demonstrate towards being “contagious”  at the national and international levels: “If it is applauded, it will flourish.”  Bloom’s submissions, if not preposterous, are also hardly earth shattering.


Let’s now consider the model of conflict underlying the insights offered by Dying to Kill, as well as the way in which this model, a hunter’s model, tends to be restrictive: While Bloom never makes it explicitly clear—she never, for instance, simply says—how she conceptualizes contemporary conflict, it is nevertheless quite clear that she is working with a schema that does not acknowledge fundamental reconfigurations in—or, say, the postmodernization of—the structure of global conflict. Bloom’s is a warfare that is still more or less dissociable from “politics”—it is a model of war that is essentially modern. There is nothing outlandish in Bloom’s model, and yet it is not appropriate to the sites and moment she is examining; it is simply outdated. As Mbembe, in a gesture repeated elsewhere, writes in “Necropolitics”: “Contemporary wars belong to a new moment that can hardly be understood through earlier theories of ‘contractual violence’ or typologies of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ wars or even Carl von Clausewitz’s instrumentalism.”  Mbembe’s comment can be amended to read: contemporary wars may be understood through modern conceptual apparatus, but only incompletely. As we can see, it is only a partial and—importantly—an obscuring understanding that is achieved by Dying to Kill, a text whose modern understanding of war—and this is also a hegemonic understanding—loosely approximates those called out by Mbembe. Of course, we can only certify that the text’s understanding is partial by recognizing what it remainders. Put another way: in making these statements, it becomes necessary that we understand, that I demonstrate, how a schema that does acknowledge structural changes in sovereignty and conflict, when applied to the same set of information Bloom presents in her text, reveals something Bloom (or rather the notions of, say, conflict structuring Bloom’s analysis) cannot see.

A useful and familiar theorization here can be found in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude.  This text understands contemporary global conflict as “civil war…between sovereign and/or nonsovereign combatants within a single sovereign territory [within Empire].”  This war is, above all, “a general condition,”  a “permanent social relation…the primary organizing principle of society, and politics merely one of its means or guises” ; it operates as “the general matrix for all relations of power.”  Vitally, this is “a general global state of war that erodes the distinction between war and peace.”  Dying to Kill does not situate suicide bombing within this matrix, and yet suicide bombing is—of course—not spectator to the state of global conflict, it is not passively embedded in this matrix. Rather, it is participant to and effective of it in an especial manner. Bloom writes of Hamas and similar groups:


Finally, terrorists use suicide bombing and violent strategies to delegitimize the state. Part of the Palestinian goal has been to force Israel’s hand, drive it to massively retaliate, betray its democratic principles and force it to rip off the mask of legal justice—to show it to be the ravening beast that the Palestinians claim.


Suicide bombings operate, in this sense, to goad the nation-state (Israel is the immediate example, but this tends to be true most everywhere) into massive retaliations and to bring to surface something like a subterraneous tendency, or predisposition, towards the war-like. The omnipresence of the suicide bomb works gradually, then, to effect and to demonstrate the commingling, the mounting indissociabilitiy, of war and politics, something which we see numerous theorists comment on. This effecting and demonstrative work, or capacity, is something Dying to Kill does not recognize; it is something the episteme in which Bloom functions—the hunter’s—cannot hope to recognize. We can see, then, how the conceptual apparatus underlying Dying to Kill’s specific claims—a hegemon’s apparatus, a predatory apparatus—may be understood as limiting.


The most notable manner in which this apparatus delimits concerns affect. Multitude, again, is illustrative to juxtapose to Bloom: Multitude stresses the contemporary prominence of the “immaterial”  and brings to our attention how the immaterial dimensions of the (figure of the) suicide bomb(er) remain elusive to Bloom. Dying to Kill, I should clarify, does—at intermittent moments—consider how “pain and personal loss,”  as well as “a general feeling of hopelessness,”  are relevant factors for those who elect to become suicide bombers. However, more than satisfactorily addressing the ways in which the suicide bomb has an immaterial product, these unsatisfying comments bring to attention to the fact that Dying to Kill does not, in fact, adequately address the question of the immaterial. In effect, these moments draw our attention to the fact that Bloom has reached an impasse; they force us to recognize both that the suicide bomb does perform affective and immaterial tasks, and that the text is unable to explore them satisfactorily. This second point owes to the fact that Dying to Kill is limited by preeminent methods of contemporary Western political science, ones which are prohibitive of such an understanding. These methods focus attention either on the individual or (more frequently) upon the political party, and are geared towards tracing the movements of interests rather than affects. Let’s take a look at two of the first sentences in Bloom’s text:

This book investigates what motivates young men and a growing number of young women to do this. Terrorist groups appear to use suicide bombing under two conditions: when other terrorist or military tactics fail, and when they are in competition with other terrorist groups for popular or financial support.


These sentences register the desire to understand this affect—a recognition of its prominence—but the way they go about trying to understand it is complicated and disabled—immediately—by the apparatus of her analysis: Bloom here, and throughout the text, thinks primarily in terms of the organization/political party and she typically understands the immateriality of the suicide bomb “politically” (through approval ratings, polls, etc.). Dying to Kill also tends to fixate on applying reason  to the problem; this approach (a common one) prevents her from nearing a useful, sought-after affective appreciation of the phenomenon. Her approach is—vitally—not autochtonous to the regions she is discussing. It is in important ways alien to, and unaware of, the historical events and trends that have inaugurated the specific conditions under which suicide bombing occur, conditions that resist understanding though artifacts like reason.  Put another way, Dying to Kill represents the application of a disembodied politics of reason in a scenario where the embodied politics of passion (or of affect) can be more revealingly applied. This is not to say that the matrix in which the suicide bomb is enmeshed is hopelessly chaotic, that it resists conforming to theory, or that its actors are somehow irrational—this is simply not the case. There is, in fact, an internal coherence to this matrix, and it is certainly possible to sift through the many surrounding and interlocking complexities in order to glimpse it. However, this sifting is impossible to conduct through inflexible, reductive, ommissive, and “privileged normative theories,’ those for whom “reason”   is absolutely central—a reason, that is, which divorces affect from interest, and understands it largely through the terms and structures of interest.

Dying to Kill—to close our discussion of this text—exhibits a tendency common in the literature on suicide bombing. It is a piece of predatory literature in the sense that it is interested in understanding suicide bombing insofar as it is interested in destroying it. Bloom’s text is allied to the hegemon and it compiles a hunter’s knowledge on his behalf, and on his terms: it operates on the predominant schema of Western political science and the usefulness of its findings are, as a result, severely limited: it is unable, for instance, to take note of the suicide bomb’s unique embeddedness within current configurations of global conflict, and it is incapable of satisfactorily discussing affect, or the immaterial. It is precisely the sort of delimiting we see accomplished in (or rather: against) Bloom’s analysis that I understand as problematic and unproductive—it is the pressures effecting this delimiting (pressures against anything but cool and prescriptive condemnation) that I hope to evade in the following discussion.


Of course, the affective side of suicide bombing has been examined before—often in relation to the September 11 attacks.  Slajov Žižek, in his Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, for one, relates the collapse of the World Trade Center to a specifically psychoanalytic affectivity.  He offers the attack may be understood as a culminating and concluding expression of what he cites Badiou as naming “the ‘passion of the Real/la passion du reel.’”  Jean Baudrillard, in his similarly-toned The Spirit of Terrorism, writes of “the absolute event, the ‘mother’ of events, the pure event.”  Both theorists are concerned with understanding how the West is psychically complicit in imagining the attacks—and each makes reference Hollywood film’s pseudo-prediction of the attack.


While Zizek and Baudrillard are indeed discussing affect, they are not developing the same sort of understanding I am hoping to. For one, they are discussing an exceptional event, whereas this conversation is concerned with a generalized and regular phenomenon. Moreover, both Zizek and Baudrillard—while certainly not developing a predatory knowledge—are examining the suicide attack’s external coherence; they are onlookers contributing what we can term a “spectator’s knowledge.” While Zizek and Baudrillard’s contributions are relevant, it is the internal coherence of the suicide bomb(er) that interests the present evaluation—something neither theorist uncovers. Our knowledge of the pack, which rejects the hunter’s methods and moves beyond the spectator’s, uncovers—to hijack Bhabha’s comments in “A Commitment to Theory”—“something else besides, which contests the terms and categories of both.”  This is an evaluation that develops a knowledge—again—at and of the interior of the phenomenon, and this is naturally a knowledge that cannot be compiled from the exterior; it is a knowledge remaindered by both the hunter and the spectator. It is, after all, only this knowledge of the pack that develops the ways in which the suicide bomb(er) descends from, and especially reveals, the specific constellations of violence, power, space, and time—ones which belong uniquely to, and which emblematize, the contemporary moment. Of course, such a knowledge demands specific points of entry into this interior, and it is precisely these texts to which I turn in the second section.


2. The Battle of Algiers & the Arrival of Fanon


Subterraneously, and always in the background, there is the question of how an interior evaluation can be useful to an external predatory force—there is always the question of how it is that a knowledge of pack may serve the hunter. This sort of question rises to the surface when we look to our first point of entry: Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966),  the centerpiece of Third Cinema and a film that was screened—relatively recently—at the Pentagon, just as the occupational phase of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” began. Michael Kaufman, in a September 2003 headline for The New York Times (“What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?”), describes an invitation to the screening:


…the flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening declared: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”


As Kaufman reports, the Pentagon was—and perhaps unsurprisingly—conducting a rather narrow reading of the film, one focusing specifically on what he calls ‘the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.”  The screening, taking place not long after the seizure of Baghdad and before the occupation reached its present disastrous status, was held as a sort of precaution. There is also a way in which the screening may be understood as functional in denigrating France, (whose popularity we can imagine was especially low at the CIA at the time of the screening), through drawing attention to a particularly embarrassing—and equalizing—moment in France’s recent history in such a way as to enable the construction of a series of public comments originating in France, which were critical of the pending but inevitable invasion, as somehow hypocritical. Whatever the reasons for the screening—perhaps these will never be entirely clear, and what they are precisely is ultimately irrelevant—the simple fact of its existence grafts an especial, and an especially urgent, critical agency onto a reading of Pontecorvo’s film, the centerpiece of Third Cinema. 


However, it is not simply the CIA’s interest in The Battle of Algiers that prompts an evaluation of the film in this discussion. If the Pentagon screening of The Battle of Algiers has certified the film’s messianism, “the ‘return’ of this film,” as Ranjana Khanna writes in her recent “Post-Palliative: Coloniality’s Affective Dissonance,” is something which cannot be traced exclusively to—which is larger than—this one very publicized screening.  It is, Khanna continues, “not only coincidence that at this moment The Battle of Algiers made a comeback, and indeed that analogies with Algeria seem to be common at this time.”  Of course, Pontecorvo’s text is more than simply fashionable. It seems to me—just as it seemed to the Pentagon—useful to read the suicide bomb(er) next to The Battle of Algiers, if for an entirely different reason. Bringing Third Cinema and the suicide bomb(er) into conversation is useful both insofar as it [1] brings (anti-)colonial configurations of violence to the fore of the discussion—considerations remaindered by standard discourses—as well as insofar as it [2] is illustrative of a specific claim, one that will have to be detailed at length elsewhere and at a later date: the suicide bomb, more than simply a tactic, is a problematic, and perhaps a necessarily problematic, expression, iteration, or postmodernization, of anti-colonial tendencies. Put differently: in addition to bringing the colony back into the discussion, looking at the suicide bomb in relation to Third Cinema lets us see how the suicide bomb—in acting against (something like) coloniality—seems to ventriloquize, literalize, and demetaphorize the general tactics or tendencies of previous modes of colonial struggle. (Here our example tactic will be Third Cinema, as emblematized by The Battle of Algiers). The comparisons I draw here, and the continuity I emphasize, constitute the majority of this section and ultimately lead us to the arrival of Fanon.


When first considering The Battle of Algiers in the general way I intend to, it is always tempting to juxtapose the bombing scenes at its center to suicide bombs—indeed, it is impossible now to watch these scenes and to not think of the suicide bomber, even if the attacks they represent are not suicide attacks. The impulse towards this juxtaposition, which leads to something like an inevitable gesture, is—however—something I will defer for the moment in order to consider the ways in which Third Cinema and the suicide bomb are structurally correspondent—in order to consider how it is that the tendencies of Third Cinema, understood here primarily through the example of Pontecorvo’s film, are present within, and are demetaphorized by, those of the suicide bomber. Here, I am thinking specifically in terms of the relationship each has to negativity, image, and testimony.


And both Third Cinema and the suicide bomb are, after all, exercises in negativity. as René Vautier writes, cited here in Khanna’s “The Battle of Algiers and The Nouba of the Women of Mont Chenuoa: From Third to Fourth Cinema”: “I was not doing it for the Africans, for the Tunisians, for the Algerians. I was doing it against the colonial system built in my name.”  This negativity is something we see demetaphorized and absolutely at the site of the suicide bomb: it too is an act against; it forms a scene of literal, unqualified, and spatial—or geographical—negativity.

Moreover, both Third Cinema and the suicide bomb rely on the image, and for each the image is weaponized: in The Battle of Algiers, “images become part of the weaponry,”  these are images that are “destabilizing to the viewer [and interruptive of the dominant constellations of images] because derived from such different Imaginary stock.”  If the way in which the imagery of Third Cinema, a rivaling and destabilizing glimpse of an ulterior Imaginary, is obviously a weapon—an abstract and psychical weapon, but a weapon nonetheless—the ways in which the imagery of the suicide bomb is not only a weapon, but specifically a material weapon, is quite a bit more vague. (This imagery is, for example, not simply demetaphorized in the sense that it documents real events, as opposed to staged real events—as in the case of Third Cinema.) Indeed: how is the image weaponized by the suicide bomber? This, it turns out, is a rather complicated question, and one that we simply have to defer. Yet, even if I cannot in this discussion duly detail (and even if perhaps we can never fully understand) how it is that the image acts as a weapon—an especially literal weapon—we can nevertheless be content to intuit, for now, and perhaps considering the example of the eerie and combative images of the crumbling twin towers, that the image of the suicide attack does itself seem to act the part of a material weapon.


Finally—and here I open up room for a productive digression—it must be mentioned that both the suicide bomb and Third Cinema act simultaneously as weapon and testimony. For Third Cinema, “film is both a weapon of…revolution, and a means by which testimony can be given.”  Similarly, the suicide bomb—and really martyrdom quite generally—is, and always has been, a form of testimony, but this is a testimony written in blood, and not on celluloid. This issue of testimony, which calls upon the term martyrdom, is useful in bringing to our attention the fact that suicide attacks tend to be framed religiously,  even if the centrality, or the vitalness, of this frame it debatable. Suicide bombers, for instance, do not refer to suicide bombing as such: in Palestine, for example, “istash’had,”  or martyrdom, is used to such an extent that “suicide bomber” has become a metonym for “martyrdom” and vice versa. This second term, which has overt linkages to a specifically religious genealogy, has always been associated with testimony. As Agamben details in Remnants of Auschwitz, for example: “The first Church Fathers coined the word matirium from martis [the Greek word for ‘witness’] to indicate the death of persecuted Christians, who thus bore witness to their faith.”  This testimonial function—which, importantly: is religiously framed—is unmistakable in Bloom’s Dying to Kill when she cites the comments of an art history graduate student preparing for a suicide bombing: “At the moment of executing my mission, it will not be purely to kill Israelis, The killing is not my ultimate goal…My act will carry a message beyond to those responsible and the world at large that the ugliest thing for a human being is to be forced to live without freedom.”  Hardt and Negri’s brief comments in Multitude are helpful here; in the following excerpt the authors frame two types of martyrdom:


The one form, which is exemplified by the suicide bomber, poses martyrdom as a response of destruction, including self-destruction, to an act of injustice. The other form of martyrdom, however, is completely different. In this form the martyr does not seek destruction but is rather struck down by the violence of the powerful. Martyrdom in this form [Gandhi’s martyrdom, we might say] is really a kind of testimony—testimony not so much to the injustices of power but to the possibility of a new world, an alternative not only to that specific destructive power but to every such power.


While I agree that these are discossiable martyrdoms, I also submit that—and we can see this clearly looking at the comments of the graduate student—the suicide bomber conceives of herself, or himself, as acting the part of this second martyr. Of course, the way in which the suicide bomb(er) gives testimony, the way in which (s)he pursues a vague and mysterious form of liberation, is highly problematic for obvious reasons.

Naturally, this fact corresponds to the way in which the suicide bomb demonstrates the specific anti-colonial tendencies of The Battle of Algiers in a uniquely problematic manner—namely through demetaphorization. It is tempting to invite the suicide bomber into a genealogy of anti-colonial resistance insofar as doing so makes the shared drives and tendencies of each quite visible, and insofar as it traces the actions and tendencies of the suicide bomber to the colonial moment. Yet, whether or not it is appropriate to implant the suicide bomb(er) into this genealogy is external to my immediate purposes. Important here is simply that we note the suicide bomb(er)’s tendency to enact, and to literalize, the tendencies of this genealogy, and that this enactment is a problematized and a mutilated one. Perhaps we can close this segment of the discussion by returning to an earlier citation from Khanna’s “The Battle of Algiers and The Nouba of the Women of Mont Chenoua,” which focuses—again—on Third Cinema: “film is both a weapon of…revolution, and a means by which testimony can be given…This cinema of decolonization…dramatises the impossibility of representing the trauma of revolution.”  The suicide bomb bears witness to a comparable, if distinct and nearly indefinable, representational impasse, one which it mourns—only this mourning (necessarily) is incomplete and improper.


Having digressed, we can now succumb to the initial temptation posed by The Battle of Algiers and confront the ways in which the film is overtly conversant with our discussion of the suicide bomb. This is to say: we can now consider the role of the retaliatory bombing scenes, those that occupy the film’s center, in relation to our topical phenomenon. These scenes, which closely follow three Algerian women who—deployed by the FLN—dress in French clothes and hide bombs at various locations in the French quarter, are the closest we get to a documentation of the suicide bomb in Pontecorvo’s film. It is necessary to mention, as Khanna does: “Pontecorvo is very influenced by Fanon’s essay, ‘Algeria Unveiled’, and the potential of this essay for filmic dramatization is one that Pontecorvo takes up.”  For this reason, it becomes impossible to discuss these scenes apart from Fanon’s famous essay; it is here that Fanon’s inevitable arrival occurs.


“Algeria Unveiled,”  in addition to the scenes it inspires, allows us to follow the path of the suicide bomber for some distance. It is a path that is at once terrifying and empowering: the women see without being seen, they possess an immediate epistemic power—and yet they are incredibly vulnerable; in a new form of conflict, they relearn their bodies, and every contact becomes a falsehood. These comments are relevant as we can imagine the journey of the women in the film and that of the suicide bomber are similar, but Pontecorvo and—centrally—Fanon are discussing a bombing, not a suicide bombing, and so the analysis backs out at the vital moment. Self-detonation—the simultaneous accomplishment of homicide and suicide—is the central feature to the suicide bomb, and this is naturally something that “Algeria Unveiled” does not detail. While the usefulness of “Algeria Unveiled” is rather limited for my purposes, other selections from Fanon’s sustained and extensive commentary on anti-colonial violence—and especially The Wretched of the Earth —tend to be quite revealing, and hold the potential for framing and grounding a better understanding of the suicide bomb.


Re-engaging Fanon, perhaps the single most cited—and possibly the single least pedestrian—theorist of anti-colonial violence allows us to conceptualize a productive violence that may be adapted to discussions of the suicide bomb(er). Importantly, this is a violence—or, I suppose: a theory of violence—formed in and framed by specifically colonial constellations of violence and space; it is a violence that cannot, in this way, forget or be divorced from the colony. Succumbing to Fanon’s messianism allows us to observe one of the guiding tenets of this discussion, iterated succinctly in “Necropolitics”: “Any historical account of the rise of modern terror needs to address slavery.”  Mbembe elaborates elsewhere, in his previous On the Postcolony: the “‘slave’ is the forename we must give to a man or woman whose body can be degraded, whose life can be mutilated, and whose work and resources can be squandered—with impunity.”  The slave, then, is functionally the colonized.  Fanon forces us to address the colony and to think in relation to it—and this is necessary. Moreover, the generalizable nature of Fanon’s comments on anti-colonial violence allows his texts to function as a matrix through which multiple and diverse projects may intersect and converse. Fanon’s comments offer to enable a particular concept of violence—a distinctly and particularly productive violence—one which promises to be vital to later discussions of the suicide bomb. This is a violence I attempt to sketch and to contextualize—outside of Fanon—in the closing section.


3. Concluding


The causes for the return of The Battle of Algiers remain somewhat mysterious. It is to be argued—though this will have to be at a later date—that It is to be argued—though this will have to be at a later date—that the film’s return owes to the ways in which it, at particular and vital moments, previews uniquely contemporary constellations of power and space, constellations forming a matrix in which the suicide bomb(er) must necessarily be understood. As Khanna remarks in her recent “Post-Palliative: Coloniality’s Affective Dissonance,” the film

depicts a people brilliantly and clandestinely organized, whose guerilla strategies are as unmappable as the casbah into which they disappear. The casbah, in true modernist binary opposition, is shown to function as an organ, in contrast to the modern French city. When parts of it are destroyed with French explosives, the whole complex network appears to weep, and paradoxically is strengthened in its pursuit of sovereignty. This sense of organic cohesion is particularly striking in the film once the narrative has moved past the FLN’s troubling “clean-up” of the casbah.

The Battle of Algiers, as I have attempted to demonstrate above, can be revealing to discuss in relation to the suicide bomb(er) in that it brings the discursively remaindered colony to the fore, and in that it provides us with a specific model, one through which we can conceptualize the problematic—and perhaps the melancholic—iterative tendencies of the suicide bomb. However, the film’s communication of a distinctly organic reciprocity between a people and a geography, to which Khanna draws our attention, is the film’s greatest topical contribution. It is no coincidence that the suicide bomb(er) virtually always emerges in conflicts involving a disputed territory. An understanding of the interactivity of a people—specifically: an oppressed, disempowered people—and their environment—specifically: an environment that entraps, encloses, contains, and which registers and reinforces pain—is absolutely vital.


Relatively recent technological advances, and the emergence of new military philosophies (I am thinking specifically of the RMA ), work in tandem to develop and to perfect a new urban geography, one that inaugurates a fresh and frightening paradigm in landscape-subject interactivity. This geography re-constellates violence, power, space, and time and generates a particularized organic cohesiveness, an especial type of reciprocity, between a disempowered people and a landscape structured to entrap them. This new geography demands a new language, and new forms of theorization; it flexes, contorts, inverts, and otherwise resists prior systems of understanding; it forces us to reassess traditional binaries including, for example, what is destructive and what is productive. This new geography gives rise to the suicide bomb just as the phenomenon, in turn, condenses and metonymizes its environment’s newness, and reveals all that has changed. For instance, it may be argued not only that the suicide bomb(er)—functioning in the context of this new geography—can be considered to be acting productively, but rather that the act the suicide bomb(er) performs can, in certain sense, only ever be understood in this way, that the figure of the bomber reveals an inversion and a re-coding of destruction / production. The work of the suicide bomb is a work of the slave in the Hegelian sense, and yet it is also an aesthetic work, and an affective work—or a work of melancholia.

The specific nature of new and organic subject-landscape reciprocations has been detailed by only a small number of theorists—Achille Mbembe conspicuous among them—and yet concern with this organicism, represented in The Battle of Algiers, must move to the fore if we are ever to theorize fruitfully on the suicide bomb(er). Abandoning the seats of both predator and spectator, and constructing our knowledge of the pack, requires—once again—an evaluation and theorization at and of the interior of the phenomenon. This entails a theorization of and at this new geography, and a willingness to accept the mutative acts it performs upon traditional systems of thought. This knowledge cannot be afraid to suggest the suicide bomb(er) is embedded centrally in new constellations of space, power, time, bodies, and violence and that it—as a consequence—holds the potential to teach us a great deal about them. Producing a knowledge of the pack demands, moreover, a willingness to accept this new geography’s capacity for generating what appear to be the most impermissible heresies. It is with the hope of encouraging the development of this knowledge, and it is with the intent of welcoming a radically new and a radically untied mode of theorization, that I have composed the above thoughts.

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