by Henry A. Giroux
The use of new digital technologies and social media by ISIS has drawn a great deal of attention by the dominant media not only because the extremists have used them as a form of visual terrorism to graphically portray the beheadings of captured American and British civilians, but also because of its alleged sophistication as a marketing tool. Examining ISIS’s propaganda machine within a neoliberal frame of reference that responds to the latter in the language of the market does more than depoliticize the use of the media as a spectacle of terrorism; it also suggests that the new media’s most important role lies in creating a brand, establishing a presence on Twitter, and producing a buzz among those individuals sympathetic to its violent, ideological vision. For instance, Dinah Alobeid, a spokesperson for social analytics company Brandwatch, told VICE News:
Everyone needs a social media campaign today, even political movements in the Middle East it seems. The type of highly focused marketing and social media community building as exhibited by ISIS is something that brands strive for to get their message across. . . . Taking out the political and human rights implications of this situation, ISIS has a keen sense of how to attract their target demographics, keep them engaged, and spread their messaging and news via social to highly interested individuals. ISIS’ strength lies in the recognizability of its brand, the reach of its network, and its capacity to boost its Twitter presence through a combination of carefully crafted “official” messages, as well as the buzz and volume of fans sharing content across the globe.
Power disappears in this analysis as the social media is stripped of its diverse sites and complex usages, defined largely in terms of its presence as a marketing campaign. What is missing is the recognition that as the link between the media and power becomes more integrated, the visual theater of terrorism mimics the politics of the “official” war on terrorism. Violence not only becomes performative, functioning as a kind of representational politics linked to the death drive, but it is also packaged so as to mimic the unbridled monopolization of pleasure now associated with extreme and sensational images of brutality and cruelty. Moreover, representational shocks and outrages are now presented as either legitimate sources of entertainment or as part of a survival-of-the-fittest ethic endemic to neoliberal spectacles of misery, all of which are used by the major cultural apparatuses to flood the culture in spectacularized images of violence and graphic displays of terrorism. It should come as no surprise that when mainstream media report on the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq they accompany their comments with images of the actual bombings as if the viewer were looking at a video game.
Echoing the discourse of the “official” war on terrorism, the violence of extremist groups such as ISIS is produced almost exclusively within the vocabulary of moral absolutes pitting good against evil. Ironically, this is a binary discourse that mirrors a similar vocabulary used in the interest of the national security-surveillance state and the corporate sponsored war machines of battle-ready domestic and global forces of repression. What is clear is that the spectacle of terrorism trades in moral absolutes whether it makes such claims in the name of religion or human rights. This friend/enemy distinction wipes out any sense of uncertainty, need for thoughtful debate, and reason itself. Whether it’s George W. Bush’s now infamous claim that “You are either with us or against us” or ISIS’s insistence that their enemies are infidels for whom there will be no mercy, this is a repressive binary logic that devalues democratic, reasoned debate in favor of feeding an apocalyptic desire for destruction and death.
Hence, it is all the more surprising to see this binary repeated in a September 29, 2014, New York Times op-ed by Roger Cohen titled “Here There Is No Why: For ISIS, Slaughter Is an End in Itself.” In referring to the US war against ISIS, Cohen states bluntly that “presented with the counter-human, the human must fight back.” Surely, fighting “the inhuman” does not justify the indiscriminate killing of Syrian civilians by drones and high-tech fighter jets, among other dastardly crimes? The human and inhuman too often bleed into each other, destroying this wretched, unreflective rhetoric. This is a dangerous binary because it closes down questions of history, politics, power, justice and the ethical imagination while legitimating revenge and militarism through the language of an unchecked moralism.
Just as the necessity of fighting terror has become the central rationale for war by the Obama administration and other governments, a visual culture of shock and awe has become ubiquitous by the intensified and expanding presence of the internet and 24-hour cable news shows devoted to representations of the horrific violence associated with terrorism – ranging from images of bombing raids in Syria to the countervailing imagery of grotesque killings of hostages by ISIS fundamentalists. The visual theater of terrorism aestheticizes politics, celebrates a sacralization of politics as war, and stylizes raw violence as it is integrated into audio-visual spectacles that shock and massage the mind and emotions with the theatricality of power and a steady regimen of fear, extreme violence and the drum beat of a hyper-charged masculinity. If the media are to be believed, every aspect of life, as Brian Massumi has argued, increasingly appears as “a workstation in the mass production line of fear.” It gets worse. It is not unreasonable to assume that if the sheer brutality and barbarism of ISIS did not exist, it would have to be invented by the United States. ISIS not only symbolizes rightfully an extreme form of fundamentalist barbarism, but also offers the United States a new enemy that fits right into its need to legitimate its own culture and apparatuses of fear, spectacle of terrorism and machinery of militarism, regardless of its disingenuous appeal to human rights.
As the US war machine increases the intensity of its bombing of Muslim fundamentalists and political extremists in various parts of the world, but especially in Syria and Iraq at the present moment, the official “workstations” of CNN and other news outlets engage in a kind of grotesque production of moral panics in their appeal to fear, insecurity and imminent danger. Violence is not something to be condemned but to be appropriated as a productive source for higher Nielsen ratings and more advertising revenue. The television and news reports read like scripts that have been written by ghostwriters from the Defense Department and the National Rifle Association. Violence, coupled with a disingenuous appeal to human rights, become both the only register to understand the conflicts in which the United States is engaged and to be used for solving the problems it evokes as a necessity for military action. The history, interests and power relations behind such military actions, violations of international law and global aggression that function almost exclusively in the service of violence, war and global domination are eviscerated from any official government reporting or the staged performances of the dominant media. Armed struggle feeds the call for more weapons to be sold across the globe, more guns to be used at home, the ever-expanding militarization of all aspects of social life and the production of desires, identities and modes of subjectivity conducive to living in a state of permanent war. ISIS represents only one part, though highly extreme, of the machinery of social and civil death that now drives and thrives on the spectacle of terrorism.
The spectacle of neoliberal terrorism, violence and misery has become one of the major organizing principles of everyday life. Hence, it is all the more imperative for progressives and others to examine the centrality of a wide range of old and new media apparatuses as powerful political and pedagogical forces that shape the spectacle of terrorism. What is especially necessary is for educators, critics, journalists and other cultural workers to provide thorough analyses of how such ideological workstations redefine the very nature of politics itself. The pressing nature of such a task is crucial because the spectacle of terrorism is unlike anything Americans have faced in the past – with its enshrinement of hyper-real violence, its unadulterated appeal to fear, and its elevation of the digital, aural and visual to a prominent feature of social and political power.
The use of the new corporate-controlled media and technologies now propelling the spectacle of terrorism constitute a distinct influence in their ability to undermine the radical imagination through a celebration of violence and an equally powerful disdain for all democratic values making it all the more crucial to remember, as Hannah Tennant-Moore reminds us, that it is of the utmost importance to remember that “fear loves nothing so much as punishment.” While it is important to acknowledge that the spectacle of terrorism has played a significant role in propelling the United States into what Hannah Arendt once called “dark times,” at the same time, it is also crucial to remind ourselves as Catherine Clement has noted that “every culture has an imaginary zone for what it excludes, and it is that zone that we must remember today.” And what has been excluded in this instance is the role alternative forms of the new media have played in producing a new language and notion of solidarity in which matters of justice and equality can be understood as part of a new historical moment in which politics and power as presently conceived no longer rule uncontested and are subject to repeated challenges and modes of resistance. Needless to say, the current neoliberal order will not loosen its grip on the machineries of war, inequality, finance and disposability without a fight and if any mode of collective resistance is to be successful what is needed on the part of progressives and others is a new understanding of the relationship among culture and power on the one hand and politics and pedagogy on the other.
The spectacle of terrorism not only requires a new conception of politics, pedagogy, strategy and society; it also raises significant questions about the new media and its centrality to democracy. In the United States and many other countries, the corporate media is under the control of a savage form of neoliberalism that decries the ethical imagination, human rights and the fundamental elements of a democratic society. One consequence is that as image-based technologies have redefined the relationship between the ethical, political and aesthetic, they are largely used to service the soft war of consumerism and the hard war of militarism. This is an all-embracing form of domination in which the symbolic and material forces of repression reinforce each other.
Yet, the spectacle of terrorism, consumerism and the increasing privatization of everyday life are not the only elements that drive the new media technologies. The spectacle of terrorism and the conditions that have produced it neither sound the death knell of democracy, nor do they insure that the new media are only on the side of domination. What they do point to is the need to rethink democracy as an antidote and form of resistance to the elevation of terror as a mode of neoliberal militarization and entertainment. And key to this challenge is how the new media might be used in the interest of the practice of freedom, social change and new modes of communication in the interest of solidarity and justice. For instance, how might we imagine the relations between culture and politics based on social relations that enable individuals and social groups to rethink the crucial nature of pedagogy, agency and social responsibility in a media-saturated global sphere? How can we begin to address these new technologies and social media within a democratic, cultural politics that challenges religious fundamentalism, neoliberal ideology, militarism and the cult of entertainment? Such a project is collective by nature and requires a politics that is in the process of being invented, one that has to be attentive to the new realities of power, global social movements and the promise of a planetary democracy. At stake here is a pedagogical and political ritual that necessitates new forms of knowledge and skills in order to critically understand the new visual and visualizing technologies and their attendant image-based pedagogies and cultural practices, not simply as new modes of communication, but as structural forces and pedagogical tools capable of expanding critical citizenship, animating public life and extending democratic public spheres.
It would be a mistake to simply align the new media exclusively with the forces of domination and commercialism, or what Allen Feldman calls “total spectrum violence.” Instead, what has to be stressed is the complex and layered role of the new media within the larger political, social and communicative landscape. It is too easy either to overly romanticize the new image-based technologies or to simply dismiss them as new sources of oppressive control. Even within the spectacle of terrorism, there are hints of structural forces and elements of resistance that could be used for emancipatory rather than oppressive purposes. Both the now shattering spectacle of the September 11th bombings and the more recent beheading videos produced by ISIS communicate far more than grisly acts of terror and atrocity. They also “point to . . . a new structural feature of the international state system: that the historical monopoly of the means of destruction by the state is now at risk.”
Destruction and violence have become decentered, infused with possibilities for new and more global forms of public pedagogy that are inventive, inspiring and energizing. Power now resides as much in the production of images as it does in the traditional machineries of violence colonized by the state. At the same time, terrorist spectacles illustrate how important it is to speak to the very forces that undermine them, that is to engage in struggles to defend democracy and reclaim the social from the death-dealing politics of state-sanctioned and stateless terrorists. The danger and seduction offered by the spectacle of terrorism is that it thrives on new configurations of emotive and pedagogical violence that constitutes subjects who rather than being alarmed by violence seek out more extreme spectacles of violence as a way to ramp up the collective desire for instant pleasure and the need to feel something, anything. The cultural and pedagogical “workstations” that produce this latest form of ideological monstrosity undermine any sense of justice, social responsibility and compassion for others and must be addressed as part of the struggle against the spectacle of terrorism.
With its recognition of the image as a key force of social power, the spectacle of terrorism makes clear that culture deploys power and is now constituted by a plurality of sites of domination and resistance, offering up not simply ideological machineries of death but also new ways for progressives, not only terrorists – old and new – to conceptualize how the media might be used to create alternative public spheres, provide democratic platforms for marginalized voices and radical imaginaries, and nurture the development of new forms of solidarity and modes of critique that rattle, upset and critique the spectacle. This is evident in the emergence of new media such as Truthout, Counterpunch and Truthdig as well as in the development of pirate radio, alternative film productions, new interactive forms of communication, smartphones being used as “cop watching devices and Twitter being employed to organize demonstrations and diverse modes of collective resistance.” Theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida are right in suggesting that the new electronic technologies and media publics “remove restrictions on the horizon of possible communications” and, in doing so, suggest new possibilities for engaging the media as a democratic force both for critique and for positive intervention and change.
We see evidence of such possibilities in the ways the new technologies or social media, whether they be cellphones, the Internet or Twitter, have exposed the everyday violence of the police, the military and the state in ways that a few decades ago would have been impossible. The Orwellian nightmare of being watched has been modified into a form of resistance as the foot soldiers of the Orwellian state now find themselves in the eye of surveillance conducted by bystanders, concerned citizens and even by politicians calling for the police, for instance, to wear miniature video cameras. The spectacle of terrorism, if examined closely, provides some resources for rethinking how the political is connected to particular understandings of the social, how distinctive modes of address are used to marshal specific identities, memories and histories, and how certain pedagogical practices are employed to mobilize a range of affective investments around images of trauma and suffering.
We live in a historical moment in which fear has become the primary pedagogical weapon of the new digital authoritarianism, whether on the part of the state or free floating extremists groups. Fear redefines security as a legitimation for a military metaphysics that limits the reach of agency, empties out the social by creating armies of frightened, atomized individuals, and elevates an inflated and limited notion of security as the only basis for governance. The convergence of politics, power, subjectivity and the new technologies demands that progressives ask hard questions about not only how to imagine the basic elements and long-term institutions of a radical democracy but also what it would mean to expand the reach of democratic values by placing limits on markets and the drive for efficiency, profits and privatization. Let’s be clear that placing limits on markets is not a call for reform; it is a call for completely transforming capitalism into a form of democratic socialism.
Equally important, the debate over the spectacle of terrorism must be part of a larger dialogue about the defense of public goods, substantive equality, and the redistribution of power and wealth downward to the people rather than upward to the 1 percent. In addition, such a debate must address the rising tide of militarism, racism, and economic injustice. The debate over terrorism cannot be isolated from a larger, comprehensive understanding of the diverse threats to democracy taking place under the regime of neoliberalism. It is impossible to take up the new media and its use as an extension of war and violence without addressing these issues because what is at stake here is not simply how such technologies are changing the political, emotive and pedagogical landscape of American life, but how they need to be analyzed against the recognition that any viable democracy requires informed citizens with access to information that enables them to reject the concept of passive citizenry. This is not merely a concern with how technologies can be mastered, what they communicate or how they are used but most importantly how they interface with matters of politics, power, inequality and justice. At issue here is how the new technologies might be used to undercut their legitimating role in the production of violence and the culture of cruelty and violence in order to resurrect the concept of an expansive social contract that views economic equality and difference as inseparable from political democracy.
Democracy implies an experience in which power is shared, dialogue is connected to involvement in the public sphere, competency is linked to intervention, and education enables a public to expand the new technologies, capacities and social forms that inform public life. None of these issues can be separated from the current mobilization and needed debate about the spectacle of terrorism in the service of extremists or state power. Central to a rethinking of the spectacle of terrorism is the issue of pedagogy both as a structural formation and as a moral and political practice. Pedagogy is now primarily public, no longer restricted to traditional sites of learning such as the school, family or place of worship. Diverse material contexts and institutional forces, such as conservative foundations in the United States, fund new sites for the dissemination of knowledge, ranging from radio, cable and television stations to high-speed internet connections offering magazine and newspaper sites, which are workstations in the production of the spectacle of terrorism and violence.  Think tanks vie with pirate radio stations, alternative online zines and blogs.
These diverse pedagogical sites also organize “personal and public structures of attention” within specific circuits of power as part of their attempt to reach distinct audiences. The combination of new technologies and diverse modes of circulation and interaction is mediated, in turn, through various interpretative communities, which both situate texts and confer meanings in ways that cannot be specified in advance. As I have suggested throughout this essay, domination is never completely on the side of power and this suggests rightly that meanings are received, but never guaranteed, and posit an important terrain of struggle. And, while public pedagogy is the outgrowth of new public technologies, the particular forms and ideologies it produces are almost always open to interpretation and resistance.
The current spectacle of terrorism suggests the need for educators and others to develop pedagogical practices which encourage a form of attentiveness that enable audiences to engage in a dialogue with the stories told by spectacles of terrorism. A pedagogy of moral witnessing must inform the necessity for a formative culture in which power is made visible and held accountable while also producing the conditions for a more robust form of critical and engaged agency. Such a pedagogy would reject the anti-intellectualism, the fear of critical dialogue and the general indifference to the stories of others that are embedded in the pedagogy of the spectacle. In addressing what kind of pedagogical work is performed by the spectacle of terrorism, audiences would analyze, first, how their own gaze might be aligned with the insidious modes and bodies of power that participate in images of destruction and, second, what is at stake in their attraction, expanding upon the highly individuated response solicited by the spectacle. The experience of the spectacle must be collectivized through pedagogical practices that assert its social articulations – that is, articulations of “remembering” how it is intimately connected to historical struggles over power and mediates among different stories, contexts and relations that can address a public rather than a merely private sensibility. The spectacle of terrorism currently resonates with the entrenched spirit of social Darwinism, endemic to neoliberalism and the contemporary racial backlash. This entrenchment paralyzes critical agency through the regressive retreat into privatized worries and fears and powerfully undermines all notions of dialogue, critical engagement and historical remembrance.
Against such a pedagogy of closure, there is the need for a pedagogy that values a culture of questioning, views critical agency as a condition of public life, and rejects voyeurism in favor of the search for justice which is inextricably linked to how we understand our relationship to others within a democratic, global public sphere. Such a pedagogy must reject the dystopian, anti-intellectual and often racist vision at work in the spectacle of terrorism and, in doing so, provide a language of both criticism and hope as a condition for rethinking the possibilities of the future and the promise of global democracy itself. At the same time, it must struggle against the concentration of power in the hands of the few who now use the instruments that promote the spectacle of terrorism as an oppressive ideological and pedagogical tool. The struggle over the spectacle of terrorism is symbolic and material, ideological and economic.
Finally, any viable pedagogical struggle against the spectacle of terrorism must work diligently to rescue the promise of a radical democracy from the clutches of religious, market, educational and militaristic evangelicals who have hijacked a once-rich social imaginary, reducing the politics of a radical democracy to the rabid discourses of economic, religious and political fundamentalism, particularly as they are expressed in the conceits of neoliberal individualism, the utterly sectarian impulses of religious extremists and the authoritarian values of a newly energized militarism. Although the spectacle of terrorism connects directly to affairs of state through the power of the corporate controlled media, any politics that matter will have to engage both the screen culture of the image and those underlying related material relations of power and institutions on local, national and global levels that deploy information technologies.
Under the shadow of a growing authoritarianism, the spectacle of terrorism gives meaning to the social primarily through the modalities of xenophobia, violence, war and death and, in doing so, makes fear the condition of unity and surrendering dissent and freedom the condition of agency. Any effective challenge to the spectacle of terrorism must embrace those strategies and movements willing to raise “democracy and politics to the global level at which capital seeks and enjoys its freedom from human ideas of decency and justice.” Integrating a global perspective and reclaiming the social as part of a broader radical democratic imagination means drawing attention to the realities of power and authority and locating across multiple and diverse spaces and borders what Edward Said calls “the energy of resistance . . . to all totalizing political movements and institutions and systems of thought.”
What might it mean to address the spectacle of terrorism as part of a broader attempt to make the pedagogical more political by developing social relations grounded in a sense of power, history, memory, justice, ethics and hope, all of which would be seen as central to connecting the new media to global democratic struggles? The spectacle of terrorism has developed a singular and successful form of public pedagogy and control, in part, because of the atrophy of public discourse. The central challenge here is to develop new forms of consciousness and solidarity in order to not only address the conditions of authoritarianism and various fundamentalisms, which increasingly generate a culture of fear and insecurity, but also provide new ways of dealing with and defusing the experiences of fear, threat and terror. Ideas matter and changing consciousness is fundamental to any viable form of individual and collective resistance. Such a challenge points to the necessity of providing the public with an expanded vision and a productive sense of the common good, a new language for what it means to translate private considerations into public concerns, and a deeply felt concern with how power can work in both the symbolic and material realms to produce vocabularies of critique and possibility in the service of a substantive and inclusive global democracy. The essence of politics is as much about pedagogy and changing the way people think and act as it is about the use of the repressive state apparatuses. James Baldwin’s notion that education is a paradox in that “as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated” may be far more revolutionary than he imagined and far more necessary than is currently understood by the American public. 
2. Alice Speri, “ISIS Fighters and Their Friends Are Total Social Media Pros,” Vice News (January 17, 2014). Online: https://news.vice.com/article/isis-fighters-and-their-friends-are-total-social-media-pros
4. President George W. Bush, “President Welcomes President Chirac to the White House,” White House News Release, November 6, 2001, available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/print/20011106-4.html.
8. Robert W. McChesney, “This Isn’t What Democracy Looks like,” Monthly Review 64:6 (2012); Robert McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New York: New Press, 2013).
12. See Stanley Aronowitz’s brilliant analysis of this issue in Stanley Aronowitz, “What Kind of Left Does America Need?,” Tikkun, (April 14, 2014). Online: http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/what-kind-of-left-does-america-need
[Thank you Henry for this piece. This essay first appeared on Truthout.org.]
The writer is the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. His web site is http://www.henryagiroux.com and his other site is MCSPI.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.