This Reading Room reflected on the mechanisms of terrorist image production. Which visual qualities and media strategies – strategies that are now deployed just as effectively by nation states – are mobilised in the spectacle of terror? With Felix Ensslin, Professor of Aesthetics and Art Mediation at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design and Laurent de Sutter, Professor of Legal Theory at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Moderated by Marten Kuijpers (Het Nieuwe Instituut). Read the report of the lecture by Ensslin or listen to the de audio.
On 5 September 1972, eleven members of the Black September group infiltrated the Olympic Village in Munich, taking the Israeli team hostage. The Munich Olympics were used as a platform to raise international awareness of the Palestinian cause. Hundreds of cameras recorded the spectacle orchestrated by Issa, the group’s leader, to focus the world’s attention. The siege ended with the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes and officials, a German policeman and eight of the attackers. Many consider Munich 1972 to be the birth of modern terrorism, which employs media images as a powerful weapon.
In this Reading Room, Felix Ensslin reflected on the actions of Black September from a philosophical perspective. Munich 1972 was meant to celebrate the success of the post-war democratic re-education of the German population through rational design, pedagogy and the re-entry into aesthetic modernity. The terror attacks directed at members of the Israeli Olympic delegation have been read in the context of supposedly exposing these assumptions as so many ideological veils of the society of the spectacle. Yet according to Felix Ensslin, besides producing unintelligible ethical relationships between ideology critique, the critique of capitalism and an affirmation of terror tactics as a political instrument, this analysis is philosophically insufficient. This is due to its implicit affirmation of a metaphysical binary framework which forecloses the space of a missing third. Ensslin will present this thesis with reference to thinkers like Guy Debord, Giorgio Agamben en Jacques Lacan and, of course, to the discourse of situationism.
In his lecture, Laurent de Sutter presented an alternative take on of suicide terrorists, which he also expressed in his recent book Théorie du kamikaze (Puf, 2016). De Stutter asks whether we shouldn’t treat suicide terrorism as part of an attempt to dominate the media, instead of focusing its links to war, religion and ideology, as was done again in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris and Brussels. In his lecture he presented a brief history of the spectacle of destruction. He began with Japanese Kamikaze suicide pilots in the Second World War, who were named after a divine wind that was said to have averted attacks on Japan in ancient times. He then went on to look at St Petersburg in 1881, where an attack on the Tsar was carried out using newly invented dynamite. The attacker killed himself by mistake in the process. De Stutter then discussed the origins of ‘the sublime’ in England; the overwhelming majesty of nature, which renders Man insignificant, with all the religious connotations that brings. Via Roland Emmerich’s film 2012, in which California is destroyed by a tsunami in a style he calls ‘destruction porn’, De Stutter ended on a painting of a Parisian crowd, which gathered in 1793 to watch King Louis XVI being beheaded. Down the centuries, the spectacle of destruction and terror has always attracted large audiences.
This Thursday Night was part of the exhibition Munich 1972. The Design of a Democratic Body, on show in Het Nieuwe Instituut until 8 January 2017.
Felix Ensslin is Professor of Aesthetics and Art Mediation at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design. In 2005, Ensslin co-curated the exhibition, Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition, in the KW-Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, which took account of the perception of the RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion) formed in and through the media, and displayed artistic positions directly or indirectly addressing the history of the RAF.
Laurent de Sutter
Laurent de Sutter is Professor of Legal Theory at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He is the author of numerous books dedicated to the relationship between law and transgression, such as Accélération! (Puf, 2016, dir.), Théorie du kamikaze (Puf, 2016) and Quand l'inspecteur s'emmêle de Blake Edwards (Yellow Now, 2016). He has been considered by Le Monde and GQ as one of the most influential French intellectuals of the present time.
The Reading Room is a series of evenings dedicated to the act of collective reading. It is a place to decipher and interpret the world with its countless languages and systems, including phenomena that by their ubiquity evade investigation. Led by an artist, researcher or designer, a small audience will reflect upon a concept, a text, an object or an image. The Reading Room is a space for intimate, provocative conversations. It is a place for creative confusion and sometimes even frustration, in which speakers and audience are not looking for concrete solutions but for higher resolutions. Subjects in previous Reading Rooms include exhibition, surveillance, migration, liquidity, museum, insecurity.