Screening for Meaning: Terrorism as the product of a Paranoid Style in Politics and Popular Culture

Ortega Breton, Hugh orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-6777-6522 (2011) Screening for Meaning: Terrorism as the product of a Paranoid Style in Politics and Popular Culture. In: Screens of Terror. Arima, Bury St. Edmunds, pp. 223-242. ISBN 9781845495015

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Since the mid 1990s danger, risk and conspiratorial fears have appeared to characterise the safety-conscious world we inhabit. Since President Bill Clinton’s declaration of a war on terrorism in 1998, and particularly since the attacks on the US in 2001, the response has been an expansion, or rather an irruption (Baudrillard 2003) in representations of the terrorist threat. A glut of representations in news, current affairs, documentary and drama using the genres of investigation, thriller and melodrama in particular, testify to a fantasy world of conspiratorial fears and terrorist dangers. Such programmes extend the speculation prominent in news and political discourse about the forms and severity of the terrorist threat. In a period of increased emotional expression, decreased political engagement and aversion to taking risks, the representation of subjectivity is driven from the perspective of a fearful, isolated self. It is important to assess and evaluate this shift in popular conceptions of subjectivity because these representations can help us to understand why fear, security, persecution and victimhood dominate political and popular discourse today.Using a psycho-cultural studies approach I will present analyses of the representation of subjectivity in terrorism-related factual and fictional programmes.1 I will suggest that ‘paranoid’2 subjectivities and recurring ideas in these television narratives elicit and are determined by a crisis of meaning and identity. In object relations psychoanalysis, ‘paranoid’ refers to a coping technique for such a crisis which can also be formulated as a mode of representation, as in Richard Hofstadter’s (2008 [1964]) The Paranoid Style in American Politics (see also Knight 2008). The analysis will show how communicative mechanisms driven by socially repressed fears shape the representation of terrorism, counterterrorism and extremism in a manner which can resonate with fundamental aspects of individuated emotional experience by representing fears of persecution. Examples from the successful espionage-thriller-melodrama Spooks (Kudos Productions, 2002-2011 – titled MI-5 in the US) and from the documentaries Dispatches: Undercover Mosque (Hardcash Productions, 2007) and Dr David Kelly: The Conspiracy Files (BBC, 2007) will be used. Before doing this it is necessary to outline the politico-cultural context shaping the creative process of these programmes.

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