Feeling Persecuted? The definitive role of paranoid anxiety in the constitution of ‘war on terror’ television

Ortega Breton, Hugh orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-6777-6522 (2010) Feeling Persecuted? The definitive role of paranoid anxiety in the constitution of ‘war on terror’ television. In: Discourses and Practices of Terrorism: Interrogating Terror. Routledge, London. ISBN 9781135156503

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203857342


The material and discursive consequences of counter-terror discourse on the organization of life in democratic societies are already apparent, but what about the functions of this discourse in and of itself, as a mode of communication and
engagement? Through the expression and transmission of fear and paranoid anxiety this discourse justified the extension of security agency powers and legitimizes a ‘politics’ of securitization, by redefining political and social subjectivity
in terms of security and safety through ‘worst case scenario’ thinking. But does this description of effects not read history backwards and neglect other functions of this discourse? The increased significance of emotion in public discourses
as a substitute for traditional politics in the last fifteen years is not addressed by the conventional criticism that politicians have solely an instrumental orientation towards emotion. The more immediate concerns of the political
élite and media producers, to connect meaningfully with the public, are not considered
in such claims. Discourse does not simply frame, it functions to connect, make sense, evacuate and render meaningful difficult emotions. Political élite actors and broadcast media producers are embedded, like all western actors, in the shared experience of a culture of fear, but disproportionately express this as a result of the loss of our conventional left-right political web of meaning most acutely felt in the domain of politics.1 Whilst some studies explain the growth of fear as a framing discourse independent of actual events, or treat fear discourse as symptomatic of the problem of disengagement with politics,2 none demonstrate the interlinked functions of political discourses: emotional expression, the constitution of identities or roles and, most importantly, the production of meaning to connect with the public through discourse. To date neither evidence nor detailed discourse analysis has been produced to show how popular discourses of terror function to try and create specific meanings and produce specific identities through emotionally driven mechanisms.

This chapter analyzes the audio-visual language of televized terror as a transmitter of public emotions in British political culture. Analyzing televisual texts addresses the spectral power of images of violence, which are central to the popular rhetorical force of counter-terrorist discourse. I argue that (counter-) terror discourse functions primarily to produce emotional meanings and new roles or identities that reify vulnerability in the period 1998–2007 and demonstrate through an analysis of that discourse that it is shaped by paranoid structures of communication in order to cope with a lack of meaning and a surfeit of anxiety in political culture. Through case studies of British main news programmes, documentaries, films, the spy-thriller series Spooks, and the documentary drama Dirty War, I identify characteristics that demonstrate the attempt to cope with uncertainty and anxiety by creating paranoid identities and understandings. This is not to pathologize or derogate this discourse. ‘Paranoid’ here refers to a technique of perception and understanding, which is used as a response to the loss of identity and meaning. Each example represents a consistent emotional perspective present in each text. Substantively I am looking at rhetorical devices in dialogue, speed of frames, editing, and the tone, frequency and pace of non-diegetic, (soundtrack) sound.

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