Counter- terrorism: the ends of a secular ministry
Introduction It can reasonably be said that political systems require a continued belief from their subjects in order to exist. The collapse of political authority during revolutionary turmoil, where states lose their ability to convince and command, provides a pertinent example of this. Using insights from Lacan and Zizek this paper argues that political authority is produced within a multi-directional relationship between people and state, where the maintenance of belief contributes to the illusion of a foundation beneath law and governance. This symbolic order requires a continuous ideological labour. For example, just as the conception of God disappears without constant efforts by ministers and followers, political authority requires constant ideological reinforcement to maintain its performance. The chapter argues that the practice of counter-terrorism speaks clearly of this ‘secular ministry’. Where terrorism challenges the foundations of political authority by destroying aspects of the symbolic order, counter-terrorism attempts to reinstitute the sanctity of the order by silencing the challenge. Across history the secular ministry of counter-terrorism has usually silenced the heretic with force, but the recent emergence of the radicalisation discourse (and its precursors in 1970s dissociation programmes) has focused the unmaking of political challenges upon mindsets. The production of ‘radicalisation knowledge’ about the vulnerabilities of certain subjects to ideological manipulation has led the secular ministry of counter-terrorism towards the pre-emption and governance of those subjects who deviate from the prescribed symbolic order. In essence, the paper argues that the ends of counter-terrorism are concerned with the continued performance of political authority. To begin this discussion of secular ministry, it is perhaps best to acknowledge that it is not easy to define sovereignty. How can we quantify the mysterious ability to command with authority? How should we consider the sovereign foundation which underwrites law? There is a wealth of literature in political science which attempts to grapple with this question, but this chapter sides with the philosophical trajectories of figures such as Derrida, Walter Benjamin, Lacan and Žižek and starts from the claim that sovereignty is foundationless. It is instead performed, reproduced and invented. I suggest, following these scholars,
that the concept somehow eludes the grasp of easy representation and it requires a sideways glance to capture any of its meaning. We cannot adequately look directly at sovereignty and frame it descriptive terms. Instead it is shrouded in ritual and ceremony. For example, as Shirin Rai (2010) has argued, parliamentary democracy is purposely performed through majestic rituals in grand buildings – and dry analyses of law and political procedure miss the reproduction of political authority through ceremony. These performances and rituals work to constitute the meaning of political authority: the chimera of the sovereign foundation upon which politics rests. And language struggles to approximate this powerful signification work. In this chapter I will argue that there is a continuous ideological labour undertaken to reproduce the political authority which underwrites state functionality, with a particular focus on practices of counter-terrorism. I will suggest that these processes are the performance of a secular ministry, where foundations are performed in order to underwrite the performance of governance. I will make analogies to the performance of Judeo-Christian religion, which avoids the solid definition of God and, importantly, is founded upon the prohibition of saying his revealed name. This – as with sovereignty – is a tradition which deploys a range of practices to constitute meaning through ‘sideways glances’ of ritual. The production of centrally important meanings and concepts like sovereignty and God, which cannot otherwise be directly accessed through language, through symbolic performances speaks to psychoanalytic readings of language – where central concepts have a spectre-like existence, and are inaccessible despite (and because of ) their importance. In the appropriations of psychoanalytic theory used in international politics, the symbolic order is conceived as the mass of signs, symbols and practices, which make up structures of understanding. The coherence of the symbolic order (that which connects the linguistic signifier with its signified referent) rests upon a lynchpin called the ‘master signifier’. The master signifier itself resists signification – it occupies the place of key concepts such as ‘God’ or ‘sovereignty’ which cannot be explained without tautology. They are radically absent from language, and as a result they can hold the symbolic order together. In Zizek’s analogy, the symbolic order enables language and politics to function but is itself requiring of ideological labour. Using a reference to the ‘point de capiton’ (meaning ‘upholstery button’ or ‘anchoring point’) he suggests that systems of meaning are held together like upholstery, where buttons pin down stuffing inside a quilt and stop it sliding around. ‘Point de capiton’ arrest the sliding around between words and their objects in the world. They are anchoring points that temporarily stop the constant shifting of language (Zizek 1989: 102-103). For example, the word ‘freedom’ does not mean the same thing to all people. Zizek points to how there are varying understandings of the concept, from bourgeois to Marxist. Given all possible interpretations, the meaning of the word freedom could float around endlessly. So how do we ever follow someone’s speech when they use the word ‘freedom’? Zizek argues, following Lacan, that in every instance the floating of the signifier is arrested retroactively by the ‘point de capiton’ which locates the word within
either left-wing or right-wing constellations (ibid.). There is no inherent meaning to the word, but its usage is fixed for us within constellations of other words. How does this relate to the performance of political authority? In the same way that monetary value and economic systems require continuous faith in order to exist (the loss of ‘market confidence’ being so evidently devastating), so political authority disintegrates if people lose faith in it. Authority, like the notion of the ‘state’ itself, requires belief. Of course, should its salience become questioned, the state resorts to force in an attempt to reinstate itself, but the importance of the intact symbolic order is clear. Systems which arrest the slippage of signifiers must be kept in place – otherwise the performance of authority becomes meaningless. In the following section I link the practice of terrorism to the exposure of this ideological labour and the exploitation of gaps within the symbolic order. Counterterrorism then emerges as a practice which aims to plug the gaps in the performance of order and security, and to reinstate the symbolic order.