The vocabulary of fear-terror has been confused and confusing throughout its expression in the classical and modern languages, whether in literature, in aesthetics, or in political science. As such, it is unlikely ever to be tamed by the rigors of philosophy, with its aspiration to definitive meanings and exact differences. The more open conventions of theory present a better model for this task of description and analysis. A historical account of the unstable associations of terror reveals how limiting and how aggressively polemical the post-9/11 anglophone attributions of terror have been in disavowing its long-standing identification with the power of the state (rather than of nonstate agents), its identity and nonidentity with terrorism, and its supple relation to other terms (most critically, horror) that were very deliberately not deployed by the media and political establishment in modeling a national response to 9/11, and that might have worked against the reification of a unitary terror as the exclusive property of the enemy-other. English novels of the 1790s (Gothic novels) and the 1890s (Marsh, The Beetle) offer a comparatively flexible language for registering the affective dynamics of fear and terror, and as such can serve as a measure of the purposive impoverishment of the currently prevailing rhetoric.
David Simpson; Toward a Theory of Terror. boundary 2 1 August 2014; 41 (3): 1–25. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-2812049
Download citation file: