The term terrorism has been applied to a large spectrum of events and motives: from targeted and symbolic actions to mass shootings; from political radicalism at the turn-of-the-century to present-day religious fundamentalism.

Yet underlying its diversity, the asymmetrical violence of terrorism plunges the gaze of both terrorized and terrorist into the other’s subjectivity. With what effect? 

Baudrillard on 9/11

Jean Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism may be one of his most read essays yet it is also one of his most commonly misinterpreted texts. Drawing on the works of Mauss and Bataille, Baudrillard’s essay illustrates how the terrorists’ logic is still buried deep within us.

Jean Baudrillard World Trade Center

Symbolic and Capitalist Orders of Value

Baudrillard’s analysis takes its cue from the attacks of 9/11. In his account, the main fault line revealed by the event isn’t that of a clash of civilizations between East and West but a deeper rift dormant in all of the Western psyche: that between symbolic and capitalist orders of value.

The modern, capitalist order of value is based on commodity exchange: all resources can be used until they are depleted and time is represented along an axis. A more ancient order of value – the symbolic – predates this paradigm. Baudrillard’s understanding of it is characterized by its infinite and circular logic: beings continue to be thought of as living long after their physical existence has ceased and time is an endless cycle continuously renewed.

Baudrillard argues that this semiotic order hasn’t been substituted by the novel one, and terrorism, through the impact of its pre-modern logic, is used as his theoretical case and point.

Terrorism and Gift Exchange

The all-embracing, ever-circulating nature of the pre-modern order of value finds itself epitomized in gift exchange: an ancient practice by which each gift calls for reciprocation in a new, larger gift. For Baudrillard, terrorism reactivates this archaic notion.

One of terrorism’s most eerie effects is the fascination it imposes on the observer. For Baudrillard, that hypnotic power is a clear sign of the remains of the symbolic order of value in the Western mind. Suicide bombers or kamikaze assaults enact the cardinal sin of the capitalist order of value: spoiling valuable resources. Moreover, it gives the system a gift that it cannot return.

Calling on the ancient order of value, the un-reciprocated gift leaves the system indebted to the terrorists in a way that releases a symbolic energy far greater than the actual destruction. Through it, we are made to realize that the terrorists’ primitive logic is still dormant within us. Because of it, we are forced to accept that linearity which would depict every gain for a good cause as a loss for an evil one (and vice versa) is false: instead, every increase on the camp of the good is met by a corresponding increase on the side of evil.

Žižek on Charlie Hebdo

Slavoj Žižek’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015 is as short as it is poignant. Based on Lacan’s understanding of alterity and the figure of “le petit a” (the little other), it debunks the view of radical, fundamentalist terrorism.


Le petit a

Though the main fault line revealed by terrorism may appear to be that between a hedonistic West and a fundementalistic terrorist ready to dedicate his life to a transcendent cause, for Žižek the real schism is located at the level of the terrorist’s psyche.

While the first explanation would have the West appear as “le grand A” (the big Other) to terrorist, he argues instead that the relation is more akin to that described by Jacques Lacan as “le petit a” and by which the ego identifies with the other.

Indeed, if there was a relation of radical alterity between terrorists and Westerners as there is with other types of fundamentalists (Žižek cites Tibetan Buddhists and American Amish as examples), then terrorists would not feel threatened by satire or differences in values. Instead, Žižek notes a deep discomfort in terrorists with regard to the life of westerners: an almost perverse obsession in the sinful and irreverent ways of the non-believer.

Terrorism and the Ego

The terrorist’s ego is thoroughly identified to Western values and norms. For Žižek, the murderous terror of religious pseudo-fundamentalist is not the expression of a defense of identity in the face of a spreading global consumerism. It is violence turned outwards against the terrorist’s own desires – embodied by the Westerners which he targets in his violence.

The issue then, can no longer be attributed to cultural difference and a reaction to a perceived imposition of foreign norms. Instead, it is the product of an overly successful assimilation: terrorist’s pose as hostile to Western standards and norms which they have already internalized. The problem is not of too much difference, but of too little.

Terrorism therefore does not mark the end of a universalist project, rather it crowns its success.

The mirror of violence

More so than any violence, terroristic violence epitomizes structures of asymmetrical relations. Yet, through the deadly embrace, the mirror of the Other is held up on both parts.

Whether the Other is seen as having a logic we have long lost and are still mourning or whether it is the other that is seen to indulge in repressed desire, whether it is radical alterity or feigned difference, the terrorist/terrorized binome are locked in the deadly embrace of confronting a foreign subjectivity.

assassination franz ferdinand

Therein lies the true spirit of terrorism: being forced to acknowledge another subjectivity and projecting our perceived lacks upon them. As such, a Westerner perceives a connection to tradition that he has long lost and craves while a pseudo-fundamentalist sees the standards which he wishes to erase from himself.

The Tragic End

The meeting of the subjectivities in terrorism must necessarily end in death. As for Baudrillard, the system must return the gift of the terrorists by the suicide of the towers, so too – for Žižek – the terrorists need to commit suicide to erase the “petit a” which they seek to destroy.

Hence the often shared story of the survivor: “When our gazes locked, I knew he was going to kill me.”