In The Poetics of Fear: A Human Response to Human Security, Chris Erickson analyses how fear operates in international politics. His account constructs an unconventional juxtaposition between the literary and philosophical worlds of the classics and the narratives of post-9/11 presidential speeches. The affective workings of fear are framed within a binary logic, which Erickson associates with the realist tradition in International Relations (IR) theory. This approach connects a nonnegotiable and imposing view of reality (“this is the way things are”) with a declaration of the subject’s impotence vis-à-vis the power of government decisions (“there is nothing you can do about it”). The objective of The Poetics of Fear is thus to illuminate the logic of fear in current American politics with a particular focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a literary-theoretical analysis. The intention of such investigation is to open up spaces for noncompliant responses to fear, and for critiquing and subverting the binary logic of Realpolitik thinking in IR.
Drawing on the assumption that practices of security are, at the level of their discursive enunciation, instances of “speech performance” (which aligns The Poetics of Fear with linguistic and constructivist approaches to international politics), Erickson offers an explanation and understanding of post-9/11 politics through the metaphor of the “Shield of Achilles.” Through a detailed reading of Homer’s Illiad , he proceeds to suggest that the Shield of Achilles connotes a process of extreme securitisation and, at the affective level, a process of generating fear among the potential opponents of such measure in order ensure their compliance and nonresistance. As Erickson puts, the shield “paralyzes” the audience by its contradictory effects of “beauty and terror, repulsion and attraction” (pp. 11, 22) of its decorative images, which produce the “poetics of fear.”
Erickson suggests that in contemporary contexts the logic of the shield is present in the American “shock and awe” response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – president Bush’s speeches enunciating the “war on terror” provide an evocative example of an attempt at enforcing a particular hegemonic historical narrative. At the same time, such statements paralyse their audience by projections of military grandeur. In contrast to Achilles, however, whose fierce desire to exact revenge upon Hector ultimately capitulates in the face of Priam’s plea for his son’s body, the rhetoric of the Bush administra tion offers no space for any such ethical relation with the other. Importantly, the Shield of Achilles not only paralyses the opponents with terror and awe, but also poses profound risks to its bearer. By offering an insightful analysis of Sophocles’ plays Ajax and Philoctetes and of the works of Thucydides and Machiavelli, Erickson uncovers that what is at play in the use of the post-9/11 security narratives is a transformed relationship between the language and the world.
The second part of the book focuses on the possible responses to, and resistances against, the securitising logic of the shield metaphor. According to some commentators, one such possibility is the concept of mimesis (understood broadly as imitative action). Erickson traces the mimetic tradition to Plato’s Republic, as well as to the writings of Jean Baudrillard on simulacrum and hyper-reality. In spite of the critical potential of mimesis, however, he concludes that this idea ultimately falls far short of constructing a viable resistance against the shield logic. Instead, The Poetics of Fear proposes that one looks at the concept of ekphrasis in order to articulate such critical responses. Within classical rhetoric, ekphrasis has referred to the description of a visual art object: it has been famously elaborated in Plato’s discussion of forms. In this context, its paradigmatic use is precisely the Homeric description of the Shield of Achilles as an ekphrasis (pp.148-149). Its four constituent parts can be identified in any political speech: (i) identification of a referent; (ii) focusing on a particular physical medium; (iii) prioritising the creator and creation of the work; and (iv) emphasising the effects of the work (p. 154). Treating ekphrasis as a critical tool of analysis, The Poetics of Fear undertakes a detailed analysis of US President Barack Obama’s speech in March 2009 on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Through such discursive dissection Erickson demonstrates the possibility of critiquing and subverting the dominant logic of the shield metaphore by approaching it purely as instance of ekphrasis.
This book will be of interest and use to those students and researchers of international affairs, who have recognised the importance of affects and emotions in foreign politics. It will also benefit those scholars, who are interested in developing more sophisticate interdisciplinary approaches to IR by bringing together the study of world politics and the theoretical humanities.