the zero trope

November 27, 2008 § 6 Comments

so, about this time last year, mike was developing this idea of the zero trope with regards to the terrorist, the ground zero creating the terrorist.  we had a lively exchange on the subject, mostly categorised by me playing the role i apparently am supposed to, which is the cranky historian historicising the discussion.  anyway.  last week, i was at a public lecture by katie gough, a visiting professor in irish studies at concordia university, on irish theatre, and a representation of the slave ship zong in elizabeth kuti’s 2005 play, the sugar wife

in her talk, gough referred to the zong as the “ground zero” of the anti-slavery movement, due to the events on board the zong which resulted in the massacre of 60 african slaves in 1781.  in other words, the zong was the event that lead to the beginnings of an anti-slavery movement in england and the rest of the british isles, culminating in the abolition of the slave trade in the united kingdom and its empire in 1833. 

so this got me thinking about mike’s idea of the zero trope and terrorism, and since he’s probably the only person who bothers reading this blog, i’m sure he’ll have something to say in response.  i argued last winter that finding a ground zero for terrorism is probably impossible, because all forms of terrorist activity owe some sort of debt to what came before them.  al-qaeda is in the debt of the mujahaddin, who owe something to the viet cong, the plo owes something to the ira and the stern gang.  and so on and so forth.

but, terrorism as a largely over-arching concept is one thing, but the terrorist is another.  i’m still not entirely sure you can find one event, one moment that makes a terrorist.  but maybe you can find one event, one moment that gives birth to a new movement?  to take the example of the provisional irish republican army: it grew up in 1969, claiming to be a continuation of the irish republican army that had fought, first in the irish war of independence and then the irish civil war in the early 1920s.  the provos, as they are called, argued that neither the republic or ireland nor the northern irish government were legitimate, and that only the 1919 irish republic is/was.  and thus, they continued the fight to push the british out of ireland.  the provos emerged out of a split of the irish republican army over abstentionism and the explosion of violence in derry and belfast in 1969.  thus, we have a ground zero for the provisional irish republican army.  sort of.  because the provos are connected with the independence-era irish republican army.  that body, however, is murkier in terms of defining whether or not it was a terrorist organisation because, of course, it won irish independence (though it lost the civil war, sort of, as the irish civil war was a battle between ira members who supported the treaty granting independence to ireland by britain and those who opposed the treaty).  moreover, whilst forming an army for independence was a new one, sort of, in 1913, when the ira was founded, it grew out of the irish volunteers, a military organisation formed around the same time out of various other para-military secret societies agitating for irish independence in some shape or form.  in other words, finding ground zero of an armed struggle for irish independence is nigh-on impossible, and the provisional ira claims to be a descendant of that struggle, as it argues that ireland is still not free and united, or at least it did before the current round of peace that has exited in ireland and northern ireland for the past decade.  but even the last major terrorist act, that in omagh, northern ireland, in august 1998, was carried out by the real ira, itself a splinter group from the provos.  and so on and so forth.

i guess, though, at the end of the day, what my problem with this trope is that it compartmenatlises too much, it breaks down and separates too much.  terrorism is an ancient concept, and has existed as long as there has been organised violence.  but individual terrorist groups, ok, maybe they do develop, but they don’t do so in a vacuum, the idea comes from somewhere.  and that idea has historical antecedents, though perhaps they are cast anew with each new form.  

but does this mean we can find the ‘ground zero’ of a terrorist, a terrorist organisation?  of that i am not so sure.

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§ 6 Responses to the zero trope

  • Sigh… fine: I’ll post the zero tropes piece out in the open. Happy? I’ve, errrr, been busy with a few things. Anyway, since the original blog scratchings on this notion had more to do with concepts of nihilism and narcissistic reductivism than with attempting to identify root causes.

  • ransacktheelder says:

    sure, but those concepts of nihilism and reductivism are not produced in a vacuum. they have historical antecedents, they come from somewhere, they are not philosophically unique to each terrorist or terrorist organisation.

  • That’s an interesting point. And true. But I was also thinking of how the nihilism and reductivism is symptomatic of context, rather than philosophies of. Think of the ahistorical framing of these issues since 2001 (that’s not a contradictory statement!), in which the focus is on reducing and eliminating spatial terms of reference – longtidinally and materially – so that terrorists “have nowhere to hide”.

    So there’s a tension. As we academics must say.

  • longtitudinally, not longtidinally – I don’t know what that second word is, or who wrote it in the middle of my post.

  • ransacktheelder says:

    but if you engage in this ahistorical framing of the issue post-9/11 are you not then guilty of doing the same thing? of being reductionist? but, reducing that longitudinal and material space, so that they have nowhere to hide: that’s also hardly a new concept. i’m stealing margo’s argument here, but she has a whole bit on this with respect to what the british army, british government and urban planners did in derry to root out the ira in the bogside neighbourhood there.

    and even if that’s the goal, that has hardly been the end result of the invasions of afghanistan and iraq: giving the terrorists nowhere to hide. in that respect, there’s been a massive cock up.

  • I suppose it might be inherently reductivist to point out the reductivism in other discourses, but I forgive myself the flaw by ensuring an historical approach as corrective… so take that.

    So yes, nothing new. Thanks a lot. The point is that historical context has taken an arse-kicking since 2001, and bringing it back in is an important exercise. That said, you miss my eternal point re. spatial reductivism: what’s the tipping point/event horizon/vanishing point/zero trope, at the infinitely micro end of that spectrum, when the physical that’s been coordinated and spatialized (see Foucault) – reduced to bare sovereignty (see Agamben) – when “hiding”, “refuge”, “sanctuary” becomes an internal, individual, cognitive process?

    I was wondering about British approaches to space. Has your better half read Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land? Fascinating. Had me wondering about earlier case studies. Anyway,

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