Symposium Introduction

When we classify an act as terrorism, or an agent as a terrorist, we are not just describing these things, but evaluating them. The label situates us, the act and agent, and an audience. And it implies a set of sanctioned responses. With Genealogies of Terrorism, Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson analyzes this developing nexus of meanings, evaluations, and directives. In particular, Erlenbusch-Anderson reveals that the conditions for use, the sanctioned responses, and the groups evaluated change over time. This book is a historical-philosophical evaluation of the use of the term terrorism, it is a genealogy of its contested application and criticism. Targets for Erlenbusch-Anderson are instances in the French Revolution, late-imperial Russia, its seminal usage in the Algerian war (1954–62), and its usage in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Terrorism for Erlenbusch-Anderson is a dispositif, “a historical formation that has a particular strategic purpose, but it is simultaneously functionally overdetermined and permanently readjusted or modified” (12). One conclusion that Erlenbusch-Anderson draws in light of these functions is that invocations of terrorism define political membership, be it the nation, a class, citizenship, or humanity, negatively, in that excluding the terrorist (and the terrorist’s aims), civic virtues as opposed are in sharper contrast. And a further consequence is that, given the parameters provided by the genealogy, much of the neoconservative foreign policy of the United States, has a double-face, in that it is “underwritten by a sort of imperial raison d’État that permits and requires the suspension of law and the use of force in defense of society at home and humanity abroad” (142).

Michael Clifford


Comments on Genealogies of Terrorism

Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson’s genealogy takes us from 1794 when the term “terrorism” was first used by Jean-Lambert Tallien, to the Algerian War, in which the Battle of Algiers helped solidify both the modern mechanisms and methods of terrorism as well as counterterrorists tactics, to 9/11 and beyond. Along the way, she identifies a number of “conceptual and practical” forms of terrorism: systemic, doxastic, charismatic, identarian, strategic, criminal, polemic, and, finally, synthetic terrorism. Each has its respective character as a historical emergence peculiar to the period in which it arose, elements of which still largely persist in the form of synthetic terrorism. What they have in common is that each is part of a larger “dispositif” of discursive and nondiscursive practices in which terrorism, and the historical responses to terrorism, function “as a mechanism of social defense that is deployed when biopolitical concerns about the life of the population and the survival of the nation come into tension with traditional sovereign interests” (11).

One can only be impressed by the depth and scope of Erlenbusch-Anderson’s treatment of terrorism. The way that she delves into some of the most obscure archives and brings them to life in support of her project is remarkable. All in all, her book is a truly successful genealogy that would make even the obstreperous Foucault proud.

There are a number of directions one might go here. Since Erlenbusch-Anderson relies heavily on Michel Foucault, both methodologically and conceptually, I have chosen to focus on Foucault’s thought on subjectivation—what he called the “genealogy of ethics”—i.e., the technologies of the self through which individuals constitute themselves as subjects. Although Erlenbusch-Anderson does discuss subjectivation to some degree, I think that a more detailed application would be helpful to her project.

Foucault identifies four major components of such technologies of the self: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, ethical work, and the telos. The ethical substance can be defined as the aspect of the self that will be the primary object of one’s moral concern. This might be, for example, one’s actions or intentions or desires. Foucault calls this the “ontology” of subjectivation. That is, the individual establishes for herself that which she perceives to be the essence of the ethical matter in question. The determination of the ethical substance requires, secondly, the determination of a rule, or precept, or standard of conduct that defines the individual’s moral obligations to the ethical substance. This aspect of subjectivation Foucault refers to as the mode of subjection, meaning “the way in which people are invited or incited to recognize their moral obligation.” The rule or code through which one’s relationship to the ethical substance is defined represents an active appropriation on the part of the individual, an appropriation through which one understands oneself as moral. The rule or code of conduct may be derived from a sacred text, law, philosophical principles or homely rules of local custom. The third aspect of subjectivation is the ethical work (travail éthique), the work the individual actually performs on him- or herself so that his/her actions or behavior conform consistently with the relation to the rule or standard of conduct. Foucault calls this ethical work a “self-forming activity (pratique de soi).” This usually involves the development of some sort of regimen or routine, the exercise or cultivation of certain habits. The main purpose of such activity, says Foucault, is “to attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one’s behavior.” All of this is done, finally, for the sake of producing a “certain mode of being” that represents the telos of the ethical subject, that is, “the kind of being to which we aspire when we behave in a moral way.”1

What is the telos of the terrorist? To what kind of being does he or she aspire? What kind of ethical work does the terrorist perform on him- or herself to reach the fulfillment of this telos? What is it to be “radicalized”? What sort of regime or ethical work does the individual perform on him- or herself to become a terrorist? How does the terrorist rationalize his activities, which of course are violent and often indiscriminant (intentionally so)? In other words, what is the mode of subjection which justifies and even morally requires that he commit terrorist violence? What is the source of the rule or standard of conduct—the Koran, Sharia law? And finally, what is the ethical substance for the terrorist?

On the other hand, and just as important, what technologies of the self contribute to the self-constitution of the counterterrorist, to the drone operator for instance? In my opinion, a genealogy is not “complete” which does not attempt to answer these questions.2

In his essay “Heroes and Cowards: Genealogy, Subjectivity and War in the Twenty-First Century,” Peter Lee conducts a genealogical study of the ethical subjects of the war on terrorism and how they are self-constituted in the contemporary era in the forms of the drone operator and the jihadist.3 Genealogy makes it possible to better understand the ethical subjectivity of Islamic terrorists by concentrating on the “moral basis of their actions; their justifications for killing non-combatants and the relationship between” religion and violence. By the same token, genealogy reveals “a deeper understanding of the subjectivity of the drone operator who conducts lethal operations.” There is a certain mutuality of self-constitution on the part of the jihadist and the drone operator, the terrorist and the counterterrorist, an agonistic relationship through which the heroism or cowardice of the other is seen through their respective prisms of what constitutes a just war and of how they understand themselves as respective participants in such a war.4

Lee’s analysis is similar to that conducted by Engin Isin on the relational character between citizens and noncitizens.5 Says Isin, “Citizenship and its alterity always emerged simultaneously in a dialogical manner and constituted each other.” According to Isin, what we call groups, whether dominant or dominated, are better understood as “projects” of citizenship. These projects involve strategies which are solidaristic, enjoining individuals under a mantle of likeness and identity, or antagonistic, wherein these same individuals orient themselves to others as outsiders or strangers. But the dialogical character of this process means that both the dominant group and the dominated group are mutually constituted through the very same gestures. Like Lee, Isin sees these projects of identity formation as reflective of what Foucault’s calls technologies of the self. These technologies, says Isin, enable “individuals to effect by their own means or with others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts and conduct, so as to transform themselves.” Through such processes individuals transform themselves into identities, such as the citizen and the noncitizen, or, for example, the jihadist and the drone operator.

Erlenbusch-Anderson examines these very issues in a section called “Terrorism and Citizenship” (152). Terrorism produces “norms of citizenship and humanity,” she says, through complex processes of mutual self-constitution and mutual identification and disidentification.

The notion of citizenship does not precede our understanding of terrorism, whose perpetrators are then excluded from the social. Instead, the interpellation of certain subjects as terrorists serves to define citizenship negatively by marking who is not included in a notion of citizenship understood as a collective identity. This is not simply an exclusion of the terrorist other from the fabric of citizenship but rather the simultaneous production of citizen and terrorist as “reciprocal and incompatible” identities.

This strikes me as exactly right and represents some of the most interesting and important parts of the book. A genealogy of terrorism must account for the ways that both terrorist and citizen (or counterterrorist) are reciprocally constituted. One reason, among many, for this is the constitution of a notion of humanity and of dehumanization. This notion, or norm, creates and coincides with power relations that justify, in the name of protecting society, such practices as detention, torture, even killing. Moreover, these practices are themselves “key mechanisms” in the process of disidentification and dehumanization, says Erlenbusch-Anderson, following Judith Butler. I would argue that the same mechanisms are developed and deployed by the terrorist proper. That is, it is a key part of the identity of the jihadist to view his victims as infidels, less than human, and deserving of being kidnapped, tortured, and beheaded.

Finally, I should like to go a bit outside of Erlenbusch-Anderson’s historical frame between the Reign of Terror of the late eighteenth century and present-day terrorism by considering what many consider the first terrorist act, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Guy Fawkes and his accomplices intended to assassinate King James 1 by blowing up Parliament. Although the attempt failed, it has been compared, both in its magnitude and in its intention, to more contemporary acts of terrorism. Says Graham Holderness, “Both the Gunpowder Plot and 9/11 represent forms of terrorist violence.”6 The Washington Post compared Fawkes and his compatriots to modern-day jihadists in that both are forms of religious terrorism.

I would like to draw a parallel between the famous Guy Fawkes mask and the mask of the hooded jihadist.7 The Fawkes mask has been adopted by protestors around the world. As a symbol of protest it represents a symbolic threat of terrorism, if not actual terrorist acts. However, the mask has been responded to as a potential threat of terrorism by governments as different as Saudi Arabia and Canada, which passed laws against wearing the mask holding a sentence of up to ten years.

Can we understand the masks of terrorists in terms of what Erlenbusch-Anderson calls identarian terrorism? The purpose, or at least the function, of the mask is not just to hide the identity of the perpetrators. The anonymity of the mask heightens the level of terror. It would be interesting to analyze this from the standpoint of the reciprocity of identity formation mentioned earlier. The mask seems to be a material representation of the kind of disidentification and dehumanization of which Erlenbusch-Anderson speaks. But its willful appropriation also empowers the terrorist. Anonymity is a strength, a weapon, in the service of terror.

What I have offered here are less criticisms than they are questions. These questions are inspired by the richness and fecundity of Erlenbusch-Anderson’s analysis. I should think that the impact of her book will reach beyond philosophy and political theory, beyond the academy. It is, to borrow a phrase, must reading for anyone who wants to understand the historical emergence of terrorism and how it continues to shape the contemporary world.

  1. See Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progess,” in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Rabinow, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1983). We should comment on what Foucault means by moral and ethical; his discussion of ethics is descriptive rather than normative.

  2. Says the author, “The genealogy I present in this book is complete insofar as it performatively constructs an analytic model appropriate for studying the historical formation or dispositif of terrorism” (20). To the extent to which the issue of subjectivation can be fleshed out, especially with respect to technologies of the self, I agree with the author that the analytic model she constructs here is broad enough in its umbrella to constitute a certain “completeness” of elaboration.

  3. Peter Lee, “Heroes and Cowards: Genealogy, Subjectivity and War in the Twenty-First Century,” Genealogy, April 2018.

  4. Since the question of what constitutes a just war informs both sides of the terrorist/counterterrorist divide, it is worthwhile to include in a genealogy the emergence of the concept, going back to Augustine. See Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War against Terrorism: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (Basic Books, 2003).

  5. Engin F. Isin, Being Political: Genealogies of Citizenship (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

  6. “Terrorism and Culture: Macbeth, 9/11 and the Gunpowder Plot,” Société Française Shakespeare 36 (2018).

  7. I have in mind, for example, “Jihady John.”

  • Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson

    Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson


    Response to Michael Clifford

    Michael Clifford raises two provocations about the question of subjectivity, on the one hand, and the Gunpowder Plot, on the other. With regard to the first point, he draws on Foucault’s work on practices of the self to ask about the telos of the terrorist, the kind of being to which they aspire, and the ethical work they perform to fulfill this telos and to become a terrorist, and, ultimately, the mode of subjection and the source of the rule that justifies and requires that one commit terrorist violence. These questions rely on a set of presuppositions that my book aims to problematize. In particular, Clifford assumes that there is a specific kind of violence that is terrorism and that requires a certain mode of subjectivity to be perpetrated. But as I argue, there is no “terrorist proper,” as Clifford puts it, whose self-making practices we can identify once and for all. Rather, my aim is to ask why it is that it is these particular subjectivities, such as the jihadist or the Islamist, to which we have fixed the label “terrorism” and what the historically specific conditions are that make this ascription so obvious for us.

    This is not to say that those who are labeled “terrorists” do not engage in practices of the self to become the kinds of subjects who engage in activities we typically call “terrorism.” As my discussions of Gracchus Babeuf (chapter 2), Russian social revolutionaries (chapter 3), and proponents of Algerian independence (chapter 4) show, there are a plethora of ways in which these actors engage in careful and deliberate practices of self-making in pursuit of their political goals. For Babeuf, for instance, being a terrorist was a political identity that required the cultivation and defense of French revolutionary values like liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty. But whereas Babeuf proudly claimed the term “terrorism” as a means of self-identification, others did not understand themselves in this way. The Algerian FLN member Zohra Drif vividly describes the measures she took to become a combatant in a war that France had waged on Algeria, for example by transforming herself into the colonizer’s ideal of a “European woman” to navigate seamlessly between colonized and European space. These two cases show that there is no one ethical substance, rule of conduct, or mode of subjectivation but a variety of actions, identities, and behaviors that shape self-making in highly circumscribed contexts. They also suggest that the dispositif of terrorism does not merely generate the terrorist as a subject position. As Clifford notes, and as the case studies in my book are designed to show, terrorism functions, precisely, to define what it means to be a member of the nation, a class, the citizenry, and humanity in distinction from the terrorist enemy. That is, the dispositif of terrorism produces a whole range of subject positions in relation to who is part of a given community and worthy of protection and those who are perceived as threats to the life and integrity of the community.

    I remain agnostic, here, about the relationship between the Gunpowder Plot, anonymity, and identarian terrorism. The notion of identarian terrorism is a contextually specific concept that captures a particular, historically situated understanding of the term “terrorism” as it was articulated in the French Revolution as well as its subsequent integration, in modified form, into our current concept of synthetic terrorism. Whether it applies to the Gunpowder Plot is a question that is to be determined through genealogical analysis of that case. Without empirical study of the archive of the Gunpowder Plot, I hesitate to retroactively ascribe the label “terrorism” to it, because I simply do not know whether the case was understood in these terms at the time. And as I argue in the first chapter of my book, this form of conceptual retrojection is precisely what genealogy rejects, because it constitutes a privileging of our own concept of terrorism that distorts the past by rendering it in the terms of the present.

Sarah DiMaggio


Limits of Genealogical Method

In Genealogies of Terrorism: Revolution, State Violence, Empire, Erlenbusch-Anderson attends to the specific historical context in which different instantiations of the concept “terrorism” emerge. Recognizing the circularity of attempting to define terrorism due to our implicit assumptions and biases about what terrorism is, she locates specific historical instantiations of the concept “terrorism” to gain an understanding of how the concept has emerged and evolved throughout the history of its use. Erlenbusch-Anderson provides an eloquent account of terrorism as a dispositif and compiles an impressive amount of historical evidence to locate and excavate various uses of the word “terrorism” throughout its history. Her genealogical method allows us to see the ways in which our use of the word has emerged and transformed but fails to recognize the power that accounts of phenomenal experiences have in addressing normative questions about the contemporary concept of “terrorism” and the contexts in which it is employed. In this response to Genealogies, I provide a brief account of Erlenbusch-Anderson’s genealogical method before arguing that understanding terrorism as a dispositif raises important normative questions that can be addressed through phenomenological exploration in addition to her genealogical account.

Erlenbusch-Anderson begins Genealogies by addressing the difficulties that arise when trying to give definitions of terrorism. She illustrates the fallibility of phenomenological accounts of the concept of terrorism by providing examples of phenomenally identical actions that are “perceived rather differently depending on the identity of the perpetrator and the perspective from which these actions are described” (2). Asking how we are to proceed in understanding what terrorism is, Erlenbusch-Anderson addresses the problems with three common approaches to the question: descriptive, classificatory, and normative approaches. She argues that these approaches are “only analytically distinct” and they all encounter the problem of “incorrigible positions, which are unacknowledged suppositions that correlate with a particular epistemic standpoint or cultural system” (3). Because any descriptive or normative attempts to understand terrorism are unable to account for implicit biases, she avoids this circularity by taking a genealogical approach that is “keenly aware of the limitations of our own forms of thought” and instead attempts to locate various instantiations of the concept of terrorism in its specific historical context (3).

Drawing on Foucault’s account of modern economies of power, Erlenbusch-Anderson employs his term dispositif to argue that terrorism functions as “a mechanism of social defense that is deployed when biopolitical concerns about the life of the population and the survival of the nation come into tension with traditional sovereign power” (11). Reiterated by our author, a dispositif is “a historical formation with a particular strategic purpose, but it is simultaneously functionally overdetermined and permanently readjusted or modified. That is, although a dispositif responds to a particular problem or urgency, it produces effects that enter into new relations with other elements of the dispositif and engender new and unintended consequences that are co-opted for other ends” (12). Just as Foucault identified the prison system as a dispositif—something introduced as the most rational means for addressing criminality and producing a milieu of illegality, which was seized on by the state to be reintegrated, exploited, and made profitable—our author suggests that terrorism “responds to historically specific urgencies” but additionally “provides a framework within which bodies of knowledge, norms of behavior, forms of resistance, and modes of being a subject are formed and acquire meaning” (12). Understanding terrorism as a dispositif illustrates the significance of the concept in shaping knowledge and our modes of being—meaning that there are many ways in which the concept can be co-opted and manipulated for specific purposes of shaping our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Given this, it does not seem to be enough to examine how the term has been used, but we must also ask normative questions about how the term should be understood.

While at the end of her book Erlenbusch-Anderson does address normative questions regarding how we ought to proceed in thinking about the concept of terrorism, she rejects phenomenological accounts as being able to aid in this critical process. She seems to view her genealogical project as a kind of baseline for a critical theory of terrorism, in the same way that she recognizes Foucault as not aiming to “deliver normative judgment about or a solution to a given situation, phenomenon, or practice, but rather to problematize it” in the sense that genealogy is able to excavate how the phenomenon emerged and problematize our understandings of it today (164). Erlenbusch-Anderson takes issue with the consistency-first view that attempts to apply the term “terrorism” to phenomenally identical acts, seeming to suggest, as she does in the first chapter, that just because something looks, smells, and kills like terrorism, does not mean that we should understand it as such (2, 169). Erlenbusch-Anderson argues against a phenomenological “consistency” method, citing Gessen, who states expanding the term “terrorism” to actions on the basis of phenomenal similarity would have “considerable legal, extralegal, and rhetorical consequences” (170).

Erlenbusch-Anderson does not reject normative approaches to defining terrorism overall and endorses an approach that allows norms to be “articulated by activists in and for concrete political struggles” (178). This seems to be the ultimate way in which we are able to move forward in critically examining the concept of terrorism and understanding the normative weight that it carries. It seems as though phenomenological accounts of acts of violence could prove as powerful tools to social and political activists facing these concrete struggles. These accounts bear witness to the actual experiences of living under acts of violence that might not be considered terrorism, but activists argue perhaps should be understood as such. For example, phenomenal accounts of living under drone warfare could serve to critique the often racists ways in which the term “terrorism” is employed. These accounts could carry significant normative weight in arguing that acts of violence such as these perpetrated against people of color should be recognized as terrorism just as much of acts of violence perpetrated by people of color due to the phenomenal indistinguishability of these acts of violence.

This is not to say that phenomenological accounts could do this work alone in shaping the concept of terrorism, but rather that they could play an important role in precisely what Erlenbusch-Anderson seems to advocate for. However, given her rejection of the theoretical work that phenomenology might do in shaping our understanding of terrorism, it is not clear that she would endorse the use of it by political and social activists. I believe that to fail to do so would be a mistake insofar as it would deny the power of such accounts. Furthermore, if Erlenbusch-Anderson does accept the use of accounts of phenomenal experiences in activism, but not theory, this could lead to conclusions involving strong distinctions between scholarship and activism that we would like to avoid.

  • Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson

    Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson


    Response to Sarah DiMaggio

    Sarah DiMaggio rightly emphasizes the critical, or diagnostic, aim of genealogy as a mode of critical inquiry that allows us to understand how terrorism has become a pressing political problem of our times. While there is a general sense that we know what terrorism is and that it is, therefore, fairly easy to identify acts of terrorism when they occur in the world, my book aims to demonstrate that this is, in fact, far from obvious. That is to say, we do not actually know very well what terrorism is. But rather than saying what it really is, my book seeks to offer a better description of the problem of terrorism. To do so, I suggest, we should suspend the idea that terrorism is a readily identifiable kind of violence and instead study a variety of contexts in which the term is used to determine what people mean when they call something “terrorism” and what this act of naming allows them to do. That is to say, whether terrorism really is a particular kind of violence must be established through empirical analysis rather than through deduction from ostensibly universal definitions. The result of my examination of a range of concrete cases is that terrorism is not a form of violence to which one must react but a problem that has been created as a response to variable political needs and interests.

    Insofar as my book traces the historical constitution of terrorism as a political problem from the French Revolution to late-imperial Russia, the Algerian Revolution, and the War on Terror, it is a descriptive project that (1) tracks how the term “terrorism” is actually used by a wide range of political agents in a variety of historical contexts; and (2) illuminates the political rationalities and practices that both permit and require these variable concepts of terrorism. I demonstrate that the term “terrorism” does not simply name political violence used by non-state actors against innocent bystanders, as many commentators would have it, but also functions as an identity category, a moral epithet, a legal or criminal category, and as a name for an ideology, among other things. By examining the concrete historical contexts in which these uses emerged, I further show that terrorism is best understood as a political tool that serves to justify a variety of practices that would otherwise be very difficult and even impossible to justify. While these practices are said to be necessary for the defense and protection of the political community, they actually define who counts as a member of the community worthy of protection in the first place.

    What the book rejects, then, is the assumption that we can identify acts of terrorism based on phenomenal qualities of certain behaviors—that is, qualities that are perceptible by the senses and given to experience. I take no position at all in the book on whether a phenomenology of terrorism, however this would be cashed out, is a viable or productive philosophical project.

Lisa Madura


A Distinction Without a Difference

On Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson’s Conception of Synthetic Terrorism

Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson submits her book Genealogies of Terrorism as an intervention into an existing discourse on terrorism that she regards as wanting. As our author sees it, the approaches to terrorism and the ways the term has come to be understood that are in circulation today tend to fall short in capturing the many dimensions and manifestations of terrorism as it actually functions, because they lack an appreciation for the material and discursive conditions of its emergence. Her project is thus moved by a need for a truer and thereby more effective conception of a very real social affliction, one that has been a prominent organizing element of modern global politics, not only as an ongoing threat to life but also as a force that influences our understanding of who or what is under threat, which in turn shapes national identity; produces new forms of subjectivity and draws boundaries of exclusion, specifically by producing citizen and terrorist as reciprocal and incompatible identities; and justifies invidious discrimination and violence in the name of protecting and preserving “humanity.”

To that end, this book examines the diverse historical contexts within which the word “terrorism” has been operational. Its central insight is that terrorism functions—and has functioned since the eighteenth century—predominantly as a mechanism of social defense. It further claims that the contemporary notion of terrorism is neither equivalent to any previous notion, nor is it a wholly new notion simply to be added to the list, but terrorism today is a synthesis of the previous incarnations. The author justifies her view that contemporary terrorism is synthetic through an account of the rise of neoconservatism. I will provide a brief overview of the methodology of the book as presented by our author, followed by a summary of the major moves of the text in order to conclude with a critical reflection on Erlenbusch-Anderson’s use of “synthetic” in describing contemporary terrorism.

Approaching “Terrorism” through Genealogy

Erlenbusch-Anderson categorizes dominant approaches to terrorism under three broad headings: Descriptive, Classificatory, and Normative. Our author points out that these approaches are only analytically distinct but overlap in practice, and so privileging any one does us little good. For instance, she argues that if what we call terrorism is determined based on phenomenal similarity, that is, “what looks, smells, and kills like terrorism,” to quote our author quoting Jeremy Greenstock, then we run into problems. A drone strike, as Erlenbusch-Anderson points out, is phenomenally identical with any other terrorist action from the perspective of those being targeted, but from the seat of the striker, it is a violent measure taken in the name of ending terrorism. Similarly, gun violence in the United States may be designated as a “mass shooting” or “rampage killing” unless the perpetrator is Muslim, or a “Muslim-looking person” (7). We cannot, therefore, rely on phenomenal identity as a criterion for picking out and naming terrorism. This is because, as these examples demonstrate, phenomenally identical actions are perceived differently depending on certain contextual factors, including on which side of the violence one is standing and the identity of the person committing the act. For this reason among others, definitions of terrorism are notoriously hard to pin down.

Rather than attempting to identify the universal structures of terrorism, this book follows a Foucauldian trajectory in being “genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method” (14). The archaeological method treats the discursive and nondiscursive moments out of which terrorism becomes articulated as so many historical events that give terrorism its sense or meaning. This is opposed to something like a transcendental analytic of terrorism that might seek to identify what remains constant across instantiations and thus determine in absolute terms what is, or can be, terrorism. In opting for an archeological-genealogical approach, Erlenbusch-Anderson is not denying that no patterns or consistencies are to be found in a genealogy of terrorism, but that the patterns of interest are functional patterns which do not place absolute limits on what is, or can be, named “terrorism.”

The Argument: “Terrorism” as Dispositif

Thus, to better understand how terrorism functions, the book traces a genealogy of terrorism as it has evolved from the time of its inaugural appearance, which Erlenbusch-Anderson locates in eighteenth-century France. She identifies three major moments in European history as sites of reincarnation and transformation of what terrorism means: the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the colonization of Algeria and the subsequent revolutionary uprising by French-Algerians against their colonizer.

The author presents the various forms of terrorism as emerging in correlation with that new economy of power Foucault calls “biopower”—a power concerned primarily with the protection and improvement of life and investing in associated technologies created for the purpose of social defense (8). Erlenbusch-Anderson states that terrorism is a mechanism of social defense deployed “when biopolitical concerns about the life of the population and the survival of the nation come into tension with traditional sovereign interests. In the name of defending society against the threat of terrorism, the use of violence is justified as necessary for the protection of life. In this sense, terrorism is best understood as what Foucault called a dispositif” (11). In characterizing terrorism as a dispositif, our author highlights the way in which acts of terrorism are not just phenomenally identical violent events but, properly understood, terrorism is a device that has its place within, and is sustained by, a historically formed network of heterogeneous elements consisting of discourses and institutions; regulations and laws; scientific, philosophic, and moral dictates; as well as political and military tactics (11).

And so, Erlenbusch-Anderson proposes that the contemporary US context calls for a conception of terrorism as synthetic. She describes what this means as follows: “It is a composite of loosely bound elements that can be distinguished as a matter of rationality, even if they often overlap on the register of acts, devices, methods, and tactics” (136). The book goes on to argue that since the 1980s, and more specifically since the early days of American neoconservatism, a notion of terrorism has emerged that is not reducible to any conception previously in operation but is best understood as a composite term that blends these previous notions—what she has termed synthetic terrorism. The context for synthetic terrorism is the neoconservative belief that America-style liberal democracy is the only viable political model and therefore the “final form of government” (138)—an idea elaborated and popularized by Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 article “The End of History.” According to this way of thinking, anyone hostile to American values and free-market exchange are thus a threat to humanity and so expelled from the domain of humanity worthy of protection. As a consequence, neoconservatism encourages American expansionism as a matter of national and humanitarian security. Erlenbusch-Anderson argues that 9/11 did not inaugurate a new political project but was an occasion to further an already operational biopolitical rationality. She writes, “The neoconservative project is thus underwritten by a sort of imperial raison d’État that permits and requires the suspension of law and the use of force in defense of society at home and humanity abroad” (142). The old sovereign right to kill is thus put to work in the name of humanity, which only extends as far as those who endorse American Western values. The name “terrorism” thus becomes a powerful instrument of social control. As our author puts it, “The identification of some subjects, worldviews, forms of government, and strategies with terrorism serves to single out and denounce as inhumane values, practices, or beliefs that are perceived as inimical to U.S. interests” (158).

“Synthetic”: Why and How?

With these details now laid out, I would like to critically engage with the notion of “synthesis” that is distinctive of Erlenbusch-Anderson’s understanding of contemporary terrorism. It is unclear how the characterization of “synthetic” works as a different-in-kind form of dispositif positioned in contrast to the other manifestations of terrorism under consideration. Putting this idea somewhat differently, we might ask on what grounds does the author justify applying this characterization to terrorism at this moment in history, rather than any prior moment or future moment? And what, exactly, are the terms of the synthesis? The notions of terrorism enumerated in this genealogy are fixed with predicates which describe their function as defined within certain historical contexts. Unlike each and all prior conceptions, terrorism as of the late twentieth century is supposed to take shape around and through some combination of these prior conceptions. As I mentioned above, Erlenbusch-Anderson offers the idea of polysemy as another way of describing how the word terrorism works, but polysemy seems different than synthesis. If we say that terrorism is polysemous, we are just saying that the word can meaningfully signal a number of different things, or have different meanings. But I take it that our author wants to say more than this. The idea of synthesis introduces a sense of simultaneous and overlapping multiplicity; a partial carrying forward of prior notions. It would not be appropriate to call terrorism “synthetic” if all one means to say is that any event or action properly called “terrorism” will fit neatly into one or another of the previously established conceptions. Instead, the term “synthetic” indicates that all prior conceptions are present and operational in the contemporary context. It is unclear to me how this is so.

One feature that the book suggests is unique to contemporary terrorism is that it serves a multidimensional or multilevel functionality. We might say that, when used, the label “terrorism” invokes one or another of the historically generated conceptions in the public imaginary. But this is not all the work that the invocation is doing. By installing a certain conception of what some act of violence means into the public imaginary, the label of terrorism does creative work. It generates factions (“us” against “them”), it defines subjectivity according to those factions (“we” are the citizens and victims of humanity under attack, “they” are a threat to humanity), it engenders enmity (the individuals and life-forms associated with “them” become regarded as antithetical to all that is good and in need of protection), and on the basis of this enmity, new forms of violence and policing are sanctioned and put into effect under the auspice of “counterterrorism” and which are often phenomenally indistinguishable from the acts of violence they are meant to combat. The “terrorism” label thus reaches far beyond its apparent descriptive function and is productive in its application. But under this description, synthetic terrorism is not a merging of multiple prior conceptions but a combination of some first-order conception and the multiple heterogeneous effects pursuant of applying the label. This seems to just be what is meant by a dispositif. Erlenbusch-Anderson writes, “Strategies implemented under the pretext of combating terrorism have effects that, whether by design or by accident, serve ostensibly unrelated ends like border control, lead to a transformation of the science and practices of mental health, and facilitate the transfer of pubic money to corporations through the privatization of warfare and postwar reconstruction in the so-called war on terror” (12–13). This seems right, but it remains unclear why contemporary terrorism is a synthetic dispositif rather than a dispositif of some other kind, updated according to the contemporary situation.



Erlenbusch-Anderson, Verena. Genealogies of Terrorism: Revolution, State Violence, Empire. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” National Interest 16 (1989) 3–18.

  • Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson

    Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson


    Response to Lisa Madura

    In Discipline and Punish, Foucault famously defended his study of the history of penal institutions as motivated not by an interest in the past but by a concern with the present. His genealogies are not histories in the terms of the present but histories of the present—that is, they aim to reveal how the present has emerged though contingent historical processes in order to enable us to change it. In the same way, my book’s primary interest is terrorism as a present political problem. My aim is to examine how it has become the problem it currently is in order to improve our position in the struggle against its most noxious deployments, including the War on Terror, the dismantling of the rule of law, old and new forms of racism and Islamophobia, ever increasing surveillance and militarization, etc.

    Terrorism has this political purchase, or so I argue, because its history supplies it with a wide range of meanings and uses that allow us to apply the term not only to a particular kind of political violence but also to political regimes, ideologies, religious beliefs, racial identities, criminal acts, tactics of warfare, dictators, and so forth. That is to say, the word “terrorism” has a range of meanings and serves to justify a variety of practices that otherwise could not, or at least not easily, be justified. In my book, I aim to show how some of these meanings emerged throughout terrorism’s long and winding history, on the one hand, and explain what political rationalities made these particular meanings and uses possible, on the other.

    The analysis I offer thus proceeds at two levels. The first is the conceptual or archaeological level, to use Foucault’s term, which examines the conditions of existence of statements about terrorism and the discursive norms that make such statements intelligible, meaningful, and possible candidates for truth and falsehood. As Lisa Stampnitzky shows in the opening paragraphs of her terrific book Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism” (2013), a high-profile hijacking in 1961 was described as a “wild adventure” and reporting about the case was subdued to avoid “overdramatizing” the issue and upsetting passengers. The hijackers were tried and ultimately convicted of obstruction of international commerce. At the time, it simply would have made no sense to call the case “terrorism,” since that term was not available until the mid-1970s as an appropriate label for hijackings, kidnappings, bombings, and similar crimes. While Stampnitzky shows how terrorism was constituted as an object of knowledge within the academic field of Terrorism Studies, my book offers a broader genealogy that shows how it was possible for terrorism to become this catchall term. In particular, I trace how terrorism was produced as a justificatory mechanism for otherwise unjustifiable violence in the name of defending society, the nation, the class, or humanity against a terrorist enemy in eighteenth-century France, nineteenth-century Russia, twentieth-century Algeria, and twenty-first-century America.

    It is against the background of this twofold methodological program that my use of “synthetic terrorism” should be understood. My suggestion is that “synthetic terrorism” is a mode of understanding terrorism (the archaeological claim) that is itself made possible by the rise of American neoconservatism since the 1970s (the genealogical claim). It is at the archaeological level of analysis that the term “synthetic” is intended to mark a particular concept of terrorism that can be distinguished from other concepts like “systemic terrorism,” “charismatic terrorism,” “polemic terrorism,” and so on. Insofar as these labels serve to differentiate between various meanings of the word “terrorism” that we can describe based on how people actually use the term, there is nothing particularly significant about the choice of the term “synthetic.” But insofar as I also aim to say something about these various concepts of terrorism, the terms “systemic,” “charismatic,” “synthetic,” etc., are significant because they indicate what people mean when they use the word. The label “synthetic terrorism” signifies that this particular concept of terrorism acquires its meaning by co-positing or synthesizing all prior modes of understanding terrorism that I trace in the book.

    Whether these prior concepts—“systemic terrorism,” “charismatic terrorism,” “identarian terrorism,” “strategic terrorism,” “criminal terrorism,” and “polemic terrorism”—are also synthetic, in the sense that they bring into play a range of prior meanings, is a question that is certainly worthy of investigation, but this exceeds the scope of analysis I pursue in my book. Since my interest is in the present concept of terrorism, my project is not a chronological tracing of meanings and uses of the term but a genealogical history of the present that seeks to say something about terrorism in the current moment. The particular genealogy of terrorism offered in my book is thus intended to show that the present concept of terrorism is synthetic and that this concept of synthetic terrorism is part of a historically specific formation of terrorism—what Foucault calls a dispositif—that joins together discursive and nondiscursive practices, laws, institutions, political decisions, military measures, moral judgments, etc., in order to respond to a problem or urgency. A different genealogy would be necessary to determine whether prior modes of understanding terrorism are synthetic in this sense as well.