Thursday, March 24, 2016

Brussels under siege: on terrorism and the death of mobilities

A thanatourist occurrence
Let’s have a look at the recurring spectacle of death in Brussels: currently, the international press is having a feast on the ruins of sites of capitalist reproduction; the debris of crumbling structures in shopping malls; the foggy landscape signifying the collapse of the city’s aeromobile centre. The holes and rocks that appear in photographs that circulate in press and digital networks stand for a sort of visual cacophony – in reality, a social death that simulates life in the spaces of disaster.

10 January 2010 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

For a critical social scientist like myself the fast digital and journalist dissemination of image and discourse stands at the heart of thanatourism as the visitation of sites of tragedy for purposes of consumption through mourning (Sather-Wagstaff, 2014; Korstanje & Tarlow, 2012). In this case, Brussel sites are mostly ‘sights’, travel glances for those in the business of providing consumption stimuli – and, ironically, by proxy also those holding jobs in news reporting. And we, the distant viewers, are simulating participation, so we are also ‘in it’ – the business. To escape this cage for a while it helps to reflect on what this ‘thing’ is: the consumption of terror. As far as I am concerned, reflecting negates positive participation, thus turning consumption into a post-tourist act of resistance.

A globally mobile theatre
The attacks themselves merit a separate discussion before connecting them to this problematic. One may hypothesise, for example, that they were not intended to capture the public imagination through a shocking spectacle of death; they were more about creating inner confusion in as many humans as possible. The proximate many of the city of Brussels stand at the top of this terrorist strategy, but a global audience is also a dead certainty to follow with disgust and fear for the future.

But let’s consider the Brussels stage of death first and its reluctant actors: settled into grief as an emotion (if losing a loved one) and grieving as a public ritual (invariably performed by politicians and common people), confusion plays a pivotal role in the production of a gap, a loss: of humans, the architectural harmony of the build environments the bombs destroyed and an all-encompassing notion of order (of life, lifestyle and well-being). Lefebvre (1992/2004) would think of it as the onset of arrhythmia (with)in an organic whole of natural/cultural habitats – and indeed, this is what it is about. It will take time to rebuild landscapes but even more time to put hearts and minds in the place they were before and probably a lifetime or several generations to airbrush tragedy. Just like vicious artists, terrorists change their audiences’ perspectival point, presenting them with a world in dirty, incongruous shards instead of aesthetically pleasing fragments. If fragments hold the potential to reform a whole, shards can only be sent for recycling – a possibility nobody would endeavour to put in motion in terrorist violence.

Stages-landscapes need actors, agents and audiences, so it is not incorrect to consider the terrorist events as part of a ‘play’ on the siege of Brussels. It is as if the terrorists assumed two contradictory roles in this social drama: on the one hand, their iconoclastic ideology destroyed a localised ‘world picture’; on the other, it inscribed a new multisensory experience of loss through sound, smells and images of disaster onto the body politic. Settled into an exteriorised ritual, grief can then transform again into an image: dead nature. This recycling (of shards!) is, if anything, exhausting, and achieves what thorough planning cannot do: it reduces the recipients of the ‘IS message’ into a divided mass of onlookers with vested self-interest (to save themselves and their own) and philanthropic prosumers (to provide recuperation through more ritual, serious festivity in televised concerts and thanatourist visitations of the Ground Zero type). The reproduction of 9/11 binarisms in Brussels is as banal as it is gruelling – again, like bad art forced upon the consumer.

Utopia banished”, by kr428, 1 April 2007 (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Soundtrack: Flesh Field - "voice of dissent"
"...So just give in
And follow the drones
A nation of consumption
Shouldn’t challenge its role
Just believe, and fall in line
Freedom is a privilege
That’s been left behind ..."

The active spectators and the death of mobilities
If these are among the consequences, the very organisation of the tragic event points to another strange merging of terrorist roles that defies Hannah Arendt’s neat division between action and spectatorship (Taminiaux, 1996). If the victims, their surviving loved ones and legitimate state power are positioned as spectators, the terrorist nicely moves observation, calculation of moves and physical/emotional violence, hence action, only to return to the position of a gratified spectator after the fact. There is a vicious choreography in such mobilities hard to miss. And there is more: if the terrorist does not survive, their place is taken by the community they represent. This post-Arendtian cycle may be seamlessly just that (repetitive) from the perspective of the victimised, but for the terrorist it encloses interpretative possibilities.

Alas, this sort of ‘world-making’ activity is in fact a world-breaking move: the ultimate dystopia of lifelessness in favour of a shadowy fundamentalism. A separate discussion is necessary on the beginnings and origins of this bigotry – East? West? North? South? Europe? America? Asia? Personally, I begin to suspect that genealogies feed off and into such fundamentalist cycles – for, they perpetuate the attribution of fault and give more power to those politicising grief. Others may think otherwise. One thing is clear to me: its by-product, terrorism, may kill mobilities (tourism, consumption, technologies), but it based on them and seems to be generative of new ones, based on their death.

Korstanje, M.E. and Tarlow, P. (2012) ’Being lost: tourism, risk and vulnerability in the post-“9/11” entertainment industry’, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 10 (1): 22-33.
Lefebvre, H. (1992/2004) Rhythmanalysis, trans. By S. Elden and G. Moore. London: Bloomsbury.
Sather-Wagstaff, J. (2011) Heritage that Hurts. California: Left Coast Press.

Taminiaux, J. (1996) ‘Bios politikos and bios theoritikos in the phenomenology of Hannah Arendt’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 4 (2): 215-32.