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: ‘Terrorism 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?  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 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-terror, is
it not?  It is knowledge of terror and the terrorist as ‘the other’, ‘the enemy’ – and
who has the desire to know this?  Who has the desire to approach the phenomenon
of terrorism merely from the position of rejectionism?  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,
Terrorism Before the Letter, 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.