October 14, 2005

Prof Traces Etymology Of U.S. 'War on Terror'

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Prof. Marc Redfield, Claremont Graduate University, presented the Gottschalk Memorial Lecture yesterday evening as part of the English department’s two-day conference on “Unconfinable Romanticism.” The annual lecture is “a staple of the English department’s programs,” according to Jonathan Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English & Comparative Literature, and is held in memory of Cornell professor and author Paul Gottschalk.

Redfield, who obtained his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1990, holds the John D. and Lillian Maguire Distinguished Chair in the Humanities at Claremont Graduate University. He specializes in romanticism, comparative literature and the nineteenth century novel. In keeping with his fields of expertise, Redfield’s talk focused on “Sovereignty, Romanticism and the War on Terror.”

Culler introduced Redfield as one of the most “accomplished scholars in this generation in literary theory.”

Redfield is the author of several scholarly books, including “Phantom Formations: Aesthetic Ideology and the Bildungsroman,” which analyzes “life as an aesthetic object, and what it is for life to have shape and a meaning,” Culler said.

Redfield’s talk compared romanticism with the U.S. “war on terror.” In particular, Redfield focused on the etymology and meaning of the phrase “war on terror.”

“The U.S. government and [Western] media declared the war on terror, and the whole world is enduring the consequences,” Redfield said. He said that “the declaration of a ‘war on terror’ is an exemplary speech act of sovereignty,” but one that is “strangely familiar.”

According to Redfield, the phrase “war on terror” first took shape idiomatically in Europe during the 1790s, as a way to describe the French Revolution. He mentioned that the earliest citing of the phrase “war on terror” in the United States was in a 1977 Newsweek article.

Redfield said phrases such as “war on terror” can change public opinion on military endeavors. He said the phrases contain an air of “uncertainty,” in which it is not clear if the war is literal or figurative. Regarding the current war on terror, Redfield said, “is this war like Vietnam, Korea, or the ‘war on drugs,’ which is primarily in the hands of law enforcement? If war is at times invisible, how do you know if it’s going on?”

Redfield noted how immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the media called the war a “war on terrorism,” from 2001 to 2002. Later, the term changed to “war on terror,” which Redfield described as “more amorphous and elastic, describing both the actions of terrorists and fear … it is an abstractly oriented phrase.”

He also described how, in borrowing from the field of epidemiology, terror has taken on a disease-like quality “like typhus … an endemic condition that can not be totally eliminated, almost like a social plague, where the terrorist is a germ … a parasite which needs to be terminated or exterminated.”

Redfield’s research will be analyzed in greater detail in his forthcoming book, “Romanticism and the War on Terror.” “[Redfield’s work] demonstrates the relevance of romanticism to contemporary times,” Culler emphasized.

The two-day conference on “Unconfinable Romanticism” will be held today and tomorrow in the English Lounge, located at 258 Goldwin Smith Hall.

Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer