Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Report: The "War on Terror" Narrative by Adam Hodges

Immediately upon the impact of the first plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, people began talking.
It's the talking that Adam Hodges is interested in.  The "War on Terror" Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality is a work of critical discourse analysis of the Narrative itself: how it was formed and maintained by the political discourse of the Bush Administration; how it was decontextualized and recontextualized by the media and by the citizenry (or at least by a group of politically-inclined college students he interviewed).

The first half of the book--probably the more interesting half--is an analysis of some of Bush's speeches.  Hodges emphasizes that Bush [and I'm just going to use "Bush" here instead of the more cumbersome, nebulous "Bush Administration" and I think you'll know what I mean] chose to frame the Narrative in precisely the way he did.  Bush chose to frame our understanding of September 11 and the appropriate response by appropriating the genre of "a nation at war."  The use of this genre, though, opens up intertextual gaps in the narrative between the recognizable elements that make up that genre and the particularities of the situation that contradict those elements.  For example, the "nation at war" genre requires military action by a nation-state actor, and the reaction would require a similar response, but the al Qaeda operatives responsible were not military representatives of any nation.  This is just one of many, many, many more.

Thankfully, Hodges isn't interested in simply exposing such gaps.  Such a book would be hundreds of pages of "Bush said this, which is a lie, because this is really what was going on."  He seems to understand that his audience is aware of the inconsistencies that permeated the Narrative from the beginning.  Rather, Hodges shows how the use of the TERRORISM IS WAR metaphor (as opposed to the much less intertextually porous TERRORISM IS CRIME metaphor) on which the Narrative was founded and the careful deployment of "canonical episodes from the nation's history" (i.e., Pearl Harbor and the U.S. involvement in WW II and the Cold War) served to close those intertextual gaps, or at least to occlude them--to brush them aside.  Bush's unwavering insistence on the TERRORISM IS WAR metaphor and his frequent linkages to past conflicts delimited the ways the media and the general public could speak meaningfully about what happened and what the appropriate response should be.  Writes Hodges:
In this way the past is both represented and representing.  That is, mythologized images of the past are both illuminated in the Narrative and are used to interpret the present.
This book was good for me at this point in my studies.  Hodges puts some principles of critical discourse analysis and some complicated Bakhtinian and Foucauldian theories to work in ways that made them clear.  The latter half wasn't quite as useful to me, as I've heard firsthand how the media and fellow politically-inclined students have de- and recontextualized the Narrative, and Hodges doesn't introduce too many new ideas.

Maybe the best thing I can say about The "War on Terror" Narrative is that Hodges does a fantastic job of sticking to his subject.  It must have been tempting to stare into the intertextual gaps and criticize the media and under-informed students who spouted such wisdom as "There's no reason why we should be talking about bringing troops home right now."  But like I said, this is a book about talking, and Hodges sticks to what was said without digging into the validity and/or truthfulness of such statements.  "The point," writes Hodges, "is to focus on the way discourse effectively brings into existence a "truth" with real world consequences . . . In Foucalt's terms, the Bush 'War on Terror' Narrative is a type of discursive formation that sustains a regime of truth."  The Narrative was so effective because it shaped what could and couldn't be considered "valid" and/or "truthful."  That's what a regime of truth does.  Hodges ends his book by noting that since Obama took office the phrase "war on terror" has "subtly slipped out of presidential discourse."  While the Narrative still has its weird hold on the way we talk about terrorism in a lot of social spheres, maybe this subtle slippage is indicative of some kind of regime change.

No comments:

Post a Comment