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New Left Review 40, July-August 2006

Media projections of the ‘war on terror’ as manipulations of shock and time, purveyed through a perpetual present of 24-hour coverage and on-line news. Lessons from Hitchcock, Conrad and Benjamin on the poetics of suspense and possibilities for a rehistoricization of the attentat.



Comparisons of 9.11 with digital disasters in blockbuster films abound. The collapse of the Twin Towers was quickly linked to film scenes such as the destruction of the White House by aliens in Independence Day. In staging such sensational acts of destruction for the media, Al Qaeda terrorists also participate, of course, in the Western capitalist spectacle they profess to abhor. Terrorism’s role within the spectacle has been imaginatively conceptualized in Retort’s Afflicted Powers. But as Guy Debord argued, this ‘inconceivable foe’ is also constructed by the West itself: ‘the story of terrorism is written by the state’. [1] Retort, Afflicted Powers, London 2005; Julian Stallabrass, ‘Spectacle and Terror’, nlr 37, Jan–Feb 2006; Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, London 1990, p. 24. What remains underdeveloped is the analysis of the ‘perpetual present’ of the contemporary spectacle through which that tale is told, and the temporal politics which constitute it. This present is ruled by media events, structured in turn by a dialectic of suspense and surprise; it is through their manipulation of time that the larger historical picture is obscured. Under threat of terrorism, bloody surprises are accompanied by a sustained—or sometimes nagging, low-key—suspense, that can be perpetuated for weeks, months or even years on end. Historically, twentieth-century filmmakers took cues from terrorism when perfecting their production of suspense and surprise. Today those engaged in the production and mediation of ‘terror’ and ‘war on terror’ appear as savvy manipulators of people’s experience of time, masters of the bad infinity of that present in which nothing ever happens.

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Sven Lütticken, ‘Suspense and . . . Surprise’, NLR 40: £3

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