By Sebastian Berchesan
Following 9/11 the word ‘terrorist’ came to be used as a stand-alone term with no need for explanation. Post-structuralist theory would use this as an example that the mainstream political discourse nowadays tends to get dominated by universalist assertions based on subjective notions, often ‘produced’ rather than ‘discovered’. In this context, language can be seen as the core aspect in the formulation and preservation of what philosophers such as Foucault call ‘dominant discourse’ based on pairs of opposite terms that will always favour one to the detriment of the other. The ‘War on Terror’ showcases how such public speech can propagate certain political attitudes even at the heart of consolidated democracies, denouncing its dangers.
On the evening of 11 September 2001, US President George W. Bush addressed the nation following the terrorist attacks that shocked New Yorkers, Americans and to a larger extent the Western World that day. In his discourse, the former president used the words “our” and “us” 25 times. A few days later he held a speech in a joint session of Congress, reinforcing similar points and repeating the word “terror(ist)” no less than 33 times. Although some may have found his words reassuring, the rhetoric of such language was by no chance incidental. Poststructuralists argue that discourse cannot be formulated in objective terms as it is a product of pre-existing assumptions of what is true, which are emphasized and capitalized by those in power. Such assumptions have been increasingly made following the events of 9/11 on the word “terrorist”, implying a certain understanding that was intrinsically transmitted from the political speech towards public opinion (Hansen, 2020). Poststructuralist assertions aim at analyzing and explaining how language is used in a dichotomic manner to propagate certain political attitudes in the public space.
The universalist assertions of mainstream positivist IR theories have been challenged by scholars arguing that the world cannot be explained in absolute terms from a neutral perspective. Poststructuralists make the claim that there is no outer point from which IR theorists could have a detached, demiurgical view of the system they are describing but rather they are participants in the political structures that they are further consolidating (Edkins, 2007). Poststructuralist criticism directly targets any claims of identifying objective facts given that truth and knowledge are subjective notions that are produced rather than discovered (Mc Morrow, 2018). In this view, “knowledge” becomes accepted per se because of the power of those key societal actors described as “elites”, who are able to rule it upon others. Furthermore, elites occupy a wide range of positions in contemporary society, from state officials generating policy focus and direction for states to corporate managers disposing of their capital to influence market trends and “experts” holding the authority to underpin certain points of view that best serve their interests (Mc Morrow, 2018). In spite of the fact that there is some stress placed on the authority of the elites to determine what can be considered valid knowledge in contrast to simple assumptions, poststructuralists conclude that this power is consolidated through the manipulation of discourse. Therefore, discourse represents the tool to establish information as unquestionable truth. Poststructuralists label the discourses that enforce the power of elites as dominant or official discourse, and they assert as a main strength its ability to suppress contradictory opinions that are rejected and marked as irrational (Hansen, 2020).
Language is seen by the prominent poststructuralist French philosopher Michel Foucault as a core aspect in the formulation and preservation of dominant discourse (Mc Morrow, 2018). Through language, concepts, events and societal actors are placed in hierarchical pairs called binary oppositions or dichotomies according to Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction (Hansen, 2020). Those antithetic pairs carry favourable meanings for one term while the other is automatically denounced as inferior by comparison as in developed-civilized vs. underdeveloped-barbaric. One particularly important dichotomy is based on the distinction of the Self in contrast with the dangers, threats and challenges of the outside world, that is the Other(s) (Der Derian & Shapiro, 1989) or put differently, the binary opposition of “us” vs “them”. The outcomes of the tragic events of 9/11 represent a vibrant example of this dichotomy. In his speech, President Bush depicted Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil”, denouncing those states as political antagonists under the category of “them”, placed in direct opposition to the innocent “us” represented by the United States and its allies. This kind of rhetoric permitted the Bush administration to launch extensive global military campaigns against the countries that were blamed for supporting or exporting terrorists, known as the War on Terror (Esch, 2010).
Michel Foucault signals that the presence of elites, dominant discourses, power of language and dichotomies leads to the creation of what he designates as “regimes of truth”. The term was used to coin systems in which truth is not a concept situated outside of the realms of power but rather it is produced by it and thus the official discourse becomes legitimized as absolute truth or unquestionable fact, serving the interests of the powerful actors (Lorenzini, 2015). The significance of poststructuralist criticism lies in the ability to reveal such regimes of truth and to demonstrate that traditional viewpoints in International Relations theories omit certain possibilities from the very beginning through this type of rhetoric. Butler (2009) develops this idea in dichotomic terms and claims that in armed conflicts and terrorist attacks, certain lives tend to be more “grievable” than others in what she describes as the “hierarchy of grief”. This can be seen in the (lack of) media coverage of the thousands of lives that were lost in conflict areas such as the Near and Middle East (Palestine, Syria, and Afghanistan to name just a few), quite often on the account of Western military intervention. Moreover, it further illustrates the good-evil opposition between the innocent American Self, vulnerable to hate and the irrational, toxic and inhumane terrorist madness of the Other. More problematically, this dominant discourse dispersed through American society has been associating the Arab world with negative implications and eventually extending it to every Muslim, every Arab person and every non-Westerner (Mc Morrow, 2018).
However, this manipulative approach is not necessarily a definitory trait of our times, but it can be traced back to the Imperialist period in the 19th century. Edward Said has coined the term Orientalism as a ‘created body of theory and practice’ constructing representations of the East directed towards those in the West, primarily originating from important events and expeditions to the Orient in the 1800s’. Depictions of the East as exotic, mysterious but chaotic reflect in fact how the West viewed itself in opposition to this. These severe dichotomies between the two geographic clusters relate to aspects varying from behaviour and cultural customs to language, history and religion, essentially deeming the West as civilized and superior. Therefore, depictions of the East as a threat to the Occident have not simply appeared overnight, but they have been built up through the use of dominant discourse throughout time.
To conclude, the poststructuralist critical analysis of the political discourse is essentially important in denouncing how “regimes of truth” manage to generate universalist standpoints over certain actors, events or concepts. As it can be seen in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the dominant discourse of the actors in power was used in order to legitimize the following military campaigns in the War on Terror. Thus, the public speech of officials and the media coverage has automatically propagated a certain image of the perpetrators transforming the word “terrorist” into a self-explanatory term constructed on assumptions labeled as factual knowledge and neutral truths. However, as poststructuralist scholars argue, given that language is not a neutral transmitter and there is no such objective truth, the official discourse is consolidating the authority to react based on the Self vs Other(s) dichotomy.
Butler, J. (2009). Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? New York: Verso.
Der Derian, J., and Shapiro, M. J. (1989), International/ Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Edkins, J. (2007). Poststructuralism. International Relations Theory for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge
Esch, J. (2010). Legitimizing the “War on Terror”: Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric. Political Psychology, 31(3), 357–391.
Hansen, L. (2020). Chapter 11. Poststructuralism. In In J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens (Eds.), The Globalization of World Politics, (pp. 178-187). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lorenzini, D. (2015). “What is a regime of truth?”. Le foucaldien, 1(1), pp. 3-5 DOI: 10.16995/lefou.2
Mc Morrow, A. (2018, February 13). Introducing Poststructuralism in International Relations Theory. E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/2018/02/13/introducing-poststructuralism-in-international-relations-theory/