New Left Review No. 40: Suspense and Surprise

My essay “Suspense and…Surprise” in New Left Review no. 40 (July-August 2006, pp. 95-109) takes cues from filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Malle and Buñuel to analyse the temporality of the “War on Terror”. Revisiting Joseph Conrad’s tale of anarchist terrorism, The Secret Agent, as well as Hitchcock’s 1936 film version, Sabotage, the text investigates the complicity of mass media and terrorism, both feeding off each other in their attempts to shape time through supense and suspense. The text is part of a continuing series of texts called “Interesting Times”, which investigates the ways in which the media - especially the visual media – shape the production of contemporary time, making history precisely by containing and curtailing the potential(s) of history.

From the introduction:

“Comparisons of 9.11 with digital disasters in blockbuster films abound. The collapse of the Twin Towers was quickly linked to film scenes such as the destruction of the White House by aliens in Independence Day. In staging such sensational acts of destruction for the media, Al Qaeda terrorists also participate, of course, in the Western capitalist spectacle they profess to abhor. Terrorism’s role within the spectacle has been imaginatively conceptualized in Retort’s Afflicted Powers. But as Guy Debord argued, this ‘inconceivable foe’ is also constructed by the West itself: ‘the story of terrorism is written by the state’. What remains underdeveloped is the analysis of the ‘perpetual present’ of the contemporary spectacle through which that tale is told, and the temporal politics which constitute it. This present is ruled by media events, structured in turn by a dialectic of suspense and surprise; it is through their manipulation of time that the larger historical picture is obscured. Under threat of terrorism, bloody surprises are accompanied by a sustained—or sometimes nagging, low-key—suspense, that can be perpetuated for weeks, months or even years on end. Historically, twentieth-century filmmakers took cues from terrorism when perfecting their production of suspense and surprise. Today those engaged in the production and mediation of ‘terror’ and ‘war on terror’ appear as savvy manipulators of people’s experience of time, masters of the bad infinity of that present in which nothing ever happens.”

Image: Lobby card for Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936).