Robert Appelbaum

Terrorism before the letter

It turns out, the most visited page of my website is a page
I didn’t know was still on-line:

This is a course syllabus for an M.A. seminar I convened in 2006 and repeated in 2008,
based on earlier seminars I taught at the University of San Diego.  I don’t know if I will ever be
teaching this seminar again; if I do, I will certainly add more selections from what is now called
the ‘post-9/11 novel’.  Obvious examples would include Ian McEwan’s Saturday, John
Updike's Terrorist and Don Dellilo’s Falling Man.  I would also recommend two novels written
from an Arabic point of view: The Sirens of Baghdad, by Yamina Khadra, and Last Night of a
Damned Soul by Slimaine Benaissa.  Many of my fellow lefties are also enamoured by Mohsin
Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist; but apart from admiring the work’s artistic merits,
such as they are, I think the book is a load of guff.

Theoretical/critical literature since 2006, it seems to me, has not been as interesting as
fiction since then.  I have myself written a couple of contributions to the literature: ‘
and the Novel, 1970-2001’ (Poetics Today 29.3 (2008), 387-436) and ‘Milton, the
Gunpowder Plot, and the Mythography of Terror’, Modern Language Quarterly, 68.4 (2007),
461-93), and they may be a load of guff too.  But be that as it may, the problem in the critical
community seems twofold:

1. We don’t seem to know from what position to conceptualise the phenomena of terrorism
just now.  Novelists can dramatize this ‘not knowing’, but critics are obliged to try to move
beyond not knowing into knowledge.  But from where are we to search for this knowledge?  
From what position are we able to put into action our desire to know?  And what, after all, is
this desire to know?  A lot of critics (many of whose works are collected in the anthology,
Terror and the Postcolonial: A Concise Companion (Wiley-Blackwell 2009)
) seem determined
to vaunt their negative desire, their desire not to know.  For ‘knowledge’ of ‘terrorism’ these
days (which they prefer in fact to call, more ambiguously, ‘terror’) is the knowledge of power
and authority, of anti-terrorist reaction, is it not?  Knowledge of terror and the terrorist as ‘the
other’, ‘the enemy’, the 'one we have to protect ourselves from' – who has the desire to know
this, of all things?  Who has the desire to approach the phenomenon of terrorism merely from
the position of rejectionism and fear?  What could possibly be known from that?

2. We don’t seem to know what our history with regard to terrorism is.  Where are we now
with regard to a history where terrorist violence has had a decisive impact on political and
social life, on how we think about this life, and how we imagine ourselves going forward into
the future?  How are we associated, as creatures in time and of time, and as residents of
post-post-modern moment in political and social history, with the figure of terrorist violence,
and the threats, hopes, disasters and revolutions that that figure has come to represent?

In my new book, currently in manuscript and inching toward completion,
Before the Letter: Britain and France, 1559-1642,
I try to answer these
questions, or at least to provide a kind of way forward in answering them.  And I try to do this
by squarely looking at the past, at the figures of the past, during a period when terrorist
violence was rife but no one seemed to 'know' it.  Terrorism did not have a name, or a theory
attached to it.  But terrorism was decisive for political and social history in England, Scotland
and France alike.
 And so . . . it seems time to write a history of this terrorism before the letter.