States of Terror History, Theory, Literature
by David Simpson
University of Chicago Press, 2019
Cloth: 978-0-226-60019-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-60022-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-60036-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226600369.001.0001


How have we come to depend so greatly on the words terror and terrorism to describe broad categories of violence? David Simpson offers here a philology of terror, tracking the concept’s long, complicated history across literature, philosophy, political science, and theology—from Plato to NATO.

Introducing the concept of the “fear-terror cluster,” Simpson is able to capture the wide range of terms that we have used to express extreme emotional states over the centuries—from anxiety, awe, and concern to dread, fear, and horror. He shows that the choices we make among such words to describe shades of feeling have seriously shaped the attribution of motives, causes, and effects of the word “terror” today, particularly when violence is deployed by or against the state. At a time when terror-talk is widely and damagingly exploited by politicians and the media, this book unpacks the slippery rhetoric of terror and will prove a vital resource across humanistic and social sciences disciplines.


David Simpson is distinguished professor and G. B. Needham Chair of English at the University of California, Davis. He is the author, most recently, of Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger.


“The word ‘terror,’ translated across many languages and contexts, has left its mark on diverse literary traditions—tragedy, the Gothic novel, the sublime. Once the attribute of gods and kings, in the modern era it charts a course from the French Revolution to the ‘war on terror,’ and at a certain point in that trajectory enters into an ambivalent symbiosis with ‘terrorism.’ Many cultural critics have addressed themselves to the later phases of this word’s history, but, as far as I know, no one prior to David Simpson has taken on the task of untangling—insofar as this is possible—the entire philological knot that ‘terror’ represents for us. This powerful, wide-ranging study helps us reimagine the function of criticism in dark times.”
— Marc Redfield, author of The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror

“Simpson is a lucid and stylish writer who has accomplished the always difficult task of making a thoroughly scholarly work entirely readable and even compelling. The questions he poses serve to reorient our thinking, upsetting received assumptions about the historical continuity or commonsensicality of such apparently basic emotions or affects as fear, anxiety, panic, and terror. The reader, no matter how well versed in the general arguments or periods, constantly learns something new and often paradoxical or unexpected, whether about Greek philosophy or contemporary affect theory. A pleasure to read.”
— David Lloyd, University of California, Riverside


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226600369.003.0001
[concept history;Reinhart Koselleck;Peter de Bolla;military strategy;Raymond Williams;Charles Darwin;Jerome Kagan;emotions;security;Shock and Awe]
This chapter frames the question of terror in relation to critical philology and concept history, briefly summarizing recent usages of the term in the early twenty-first century (after 9/11) in relation to pre-existing military strategy. It addresses the conceptual profile of terror in the light of the work of Reinhart Koselleck and Peter de Bolla, itself pursued in the tradition of earlier work by William Empson and Raymond Williams. Barack Obama’s attempt to defuse the polemical use of terror-talk (and to reestablish a more restrained use of “terrorism”) has been overtaken by subsequent events: the Benghazi attack and its aftermath, and the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS).The rhetoric of terror remains dominant.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226600369.003.0002
[Plato;Aristotle;Homer;Virgil;Edmund Burke;John Dennis;John Dryden;sublime;aesthetics]
The debate over word choice between Socrates and Prodicus in Plato’s Protagoras introduces the significance of the fear-terror word cluster for the critical tradition, which also draws on important moments in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy and in Homer’s Iliad. Homer employs a vast range of fear-terror terms (most famously deos and phobos) needing simplification and rationalization in the hands of his various translators. So too does Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by Dryden with exceptional sensitivity to the nuances of the Latin fear-terror vocabulary. In the eighteenth century, especially in the work of Edmund Burke and John Dennis, there emerges a model of the aesthetic sublime in which terror is proposed as a pleasurable experience. This legacy continues to inform the discussion of terror even in its more restricted modern forms.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226600369.003.0003
[English bible;John Bunyan;Daniel Defoe;Jonathan Edwards;Walter Benjamin;violence against women;Samson Agonistes;Jean-Jacques Rousseau]
The English bible is a crucial disseminator of the modern vernacular, most importantly in the King James version, which turns out to have been much more committed to the word terror and its affiliates than any previous English bible. This chapter examines the word choices made by the King James translators in relation to rival English bibles and Luther’s bible. It then assesses the incidence of terror terms in early English fiction (Defoe) and religious writing (Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards), and in adaptations of stories from the Book of Judges by Milton (Samson Agonistes) and Rousseau (The Levite of Ephraim). A final section examines Walter Benjamin’s much-discussed essay "Critique of Violence" as an effort to theorize radical change without terror, a topic also taken up in the Pauline turns of Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226600369.003.0004
[Gothic novel;Edmund Burke;Honoré de Balzac;Charles Dickens;Ann Radcliffe;French Revolution;reign of terror;Jacobins;Medusa]
The term terror in the French Revolution has taken on mythic stature, but the actual incidence of the word reflects a complicated and ambiguous history.Analyzed here, the “reign of terror” is an invention of those who displaced the Jacobins in 1794 and popularized (and demonized) both terror and terrorism (the second for the first time) in the European languages. Edmund Burke, throughout the 1790s, proved very sparing in his references to terror, understanding that to accord the power of terror to the French state would be to endorse its power and prestige at the expense of British opposition. The European gothic novel, so popularin the 1790s, is also surprisingly astute, for all its sensationalism, in displacing the vocabulary of terror away from contemporary politics into a historically remote psychoaesthetic sphere. Subsequent historical novels (Balzac, Dumas, Hugo,Dickens) are yet more fastidious in avoiding the excesses of terror-talk as they seek to comprehend (rather than parody) the dynamics of the Revolution.The figure of the Medusa in A Tale of Two Cities draws upon a rich iconographic legacy, in which it figures sometimes as a victim and (more often) as an avenging feminine spirit dispensing a terrible justice upon oppressors.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226600369.003.0005
[Dostoevsky;dynamite novels;Don DeLillo;Fenians;Baader-Meinhoff;The Beetle;Salman Rushdie;Kamila Shamsie;Mohsin Hamid;Joseph Conrad]
Beginning with Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, a number of late nineteenth-century novels take up the question of violence against the state, a form of terror made possible by the invention and circulation of dynamite among radical groups who do not have access to full military resources. This very modern form of terror figures in novels by Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Frank Harris, and others; terror is reimagined as a supernatural agency by Richard Marsh in The Beetle. In almost all of these cases, there is a non-reductive reading of terror as more than simply the attribute of the enemy other. A similar scrupulousness informs German writers who fictionalize the Baader-Meinhoff events, where radical terrorism is often understood as a response to the legacy of Nazi state terror. The career of Don DeLillo embodies a long-standing attention to the relations between writing and violence, most visibly in Mao II and Falling Man. In recent novels by others who are marginal to or critical of the white-Anglophone tradition (Brink, Rushdie, Shamsie, Hamid), terror is fully staged as a resource of the global-liberal hegemony.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226600369.003.0006
[Jean-Paul Sartre;Martin Heidegger;Alexandre Kojève;Sigmund Freud;G. W. F. Hegel;affect theory;anxiety;subjectivity;master and slave;Civil Defense]
The last chapter in this bookcontends that the critical vacuum around the concept of terror in Anglophone culture may be partly explained by its indifference or hostility to Continental philosophy, which has long maintained an important role for fear-terror paradigms in its theories of human subjectivity. Bluntly put: to be is to be in terror. Sartre, Hegel, Kojève and Heidegger, like Kierkegaard and (to some degree) Freud, all understand experience as threatening, and threat as in some way constructive. Heidegger comes full circle in his attention to the Sophoclean deinos as the uncanny. Anxiety is the Anglophone analogue, though it subsists largely as a popular concept with little specificity in affect theory. Civil Defense publicity in the 1950s turns to panic (not terror) as its most serious threat.