By Andi McDaniel
A summer conference explored the meaning of terrorism
For most Americans, thinking about terrorism means thinking about the events of September 11—and all of the trauma, fear, and confusion that come with it. But while France certainly feels the impact of 9/11, for the French, the concept of terrorism goes much further back.
“France has a long history of thinking about terror and terrorism," explains French studies professor Bruno Chaouat. “It was during the French Revolution that the concept of terrorism first appeared." Of course, the terrorism of the French Revolution varies greatly from what we now tend to call terrorism. Among other differences, the terrorism of the French Revolution (coined the “Reign of Terror") was state-sponsored, unlike today’s decentralized terrorism—which isn’t easily attributed to a single, definable enemy. The French also associate terrorism with the struggles around Algeria’s decolonization and with the French resistance during WWII.
In an effort to integrate different perspectives on terrorism, Chaouat organized “Imagining Terror," a conference held at Cerisy-la-Salle castle in Normandy during the last week of July. The conference brought together scholars from a wide variety of disciplines—including philosophy, law, psychoanalysis, and literature—with attendees from France, Canada, and the United States. By creating a dialogue among diverse disciplines and cultures, the conference aimed to better equip scholars to address terrorism in their individual academic fields.
For his part, Chaouat spoke on the effects of 9/11 on French and American Jews, based on his study of French Jewish theorists and novelists, as well as the political comic art of Jewish American artist Art Spiegelman. In his paper, “New Jewish Questions after September 11th," Chaouat wrote that the Jewish community was inevitably changed by this historical event, in part due to their prior traumatic history. “For Jews in the United States and France, it’s practically impossible to interpret a catastrophic event (such as 9/11) without seeing it through the filter of the Holocaust," he says.
Representing another perspective on the Jewish experience of terrorism was Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born French sociologist and writer whose works, The Colonizer and the Colonized and Portrait of the Decolonized examine the psychology of oppressed peoples and their oppressors. Memmi, who is in his 80s, was “shattered" by the resurgence of anti-Semitic sentiments in France that followed 9/11. French sociologists documented this resurgence and attributed it to disgruntled and disenfranchised French Muslim youth who are growing increasingly hostile to the state of Israel, a hostility nurtured by the internet and satellite television.
Giovanna Borradori of Vassar College, who interviews legendary thinkers Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas about their reactions to 9/11 in her book, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, asked Habermas about the “new meaning" of terrorism since September 11. “What was new was the symbolic force of the targets struck," he says. “The attackers did not just physically cause the highest buildings in Manhattan to collapse; they also destroyed an icon in the household imagery of the American nation."
In addition to Chaouat, a handful of other people from CLA attended the conference. Juliette Cherbuliez, associate professor of French, spoke on terrorism as it relates to the myth of Medea; Mira Reinberg, a graduate student in French, explored Jean Genet’s writings on Palestine; and undergraduates Michael Otremba and Emily Lechner served as Chaouat’s research assistants.
While terrorism may not be the first issue most people associate with French studies, that was partly the point of the conference. “French studies is not just about learning the subjunctive; it’s also about engaging with burning global issues, such as terror and terrorism," says Chaouat. “‘Imagining Terror’ was a conference on a question at the crossroads of many disciplines, as well as a question that has ethical, legal, and political implications." And French studies is on a quest for answers.