The Embedded Screen and the State of Exception: Counterterrorist Narratives and the War on Terror – Cormac Deane

Abstract: The embedded screen is a key feature of contemporary film and television texts featuring ‘terrorism’. Recurring chronotopes in these narratives, such as the control room and television news programmes, present us with frames within frames that have two complementary functions. First, embedded frames enact circular modes of logic, such as tautology and autology, which are crucial in the creation of a coherent notion of ‘terrorism’. Second, embedded frames are the screen-manifestation of the legal concept of the state of exception, which must be invoked so that the forces of law and order can take extraordinary measures in the face of a ‘terrorist’ threat. The rhetoric of interiority/exteriority that is enunciated by the frame within a frame reflects and constitutes sovereignty’s reliance on the notion of the state of exception in order to establish and consolidate itself. Just as, following Giorgio Agamben and others, the state of exception is at the heart of the power of the state, so is the embedded frame at the heart of the depiction of power in contemporary narratives. This analysis is based primarily on the television series 24 and on films based on novels by Tom Clancy.

This article proposes a political reading of certain aesthetic tendencies in contemporary action thrillers about “terrorism”. In particular, I examine the embedded screen, where the frame of one screen is enclosed within the frame of an outer screen. This is a prominent device in highly technologized thriller narratives concerning the pursuit of “terrorists” by counterterrorist agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Patriot Games (Phillip Noyce, 1992) or the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) in the television series 24 (Fox Network 2001-). I propose that the rhetorical effect of the embedded screen as it appears in these narratives is to establish a political norm, thereby sanctioning certain political acts. It does this by indicating that, in contrast to the full screen, an embedded zone exists in a state of exception. This embedded screen offers us a manifestation, therefore, of the political situation where sovereignty or political authority is established and consolidated in the act of declaring a state of exception (also known, depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances, as martial law, state of emergency, state of siege, etc.). The description of certain types of violence (such as “terrorism”) as deserving special treatment by the forces of law and order is familiar both in the real world (as in the contemporary “War on Terror”) and in screen narratives concerning “terrorism”. In the following, several political science concepts are introduced in some detail before the film/television analysis proper, which attempts to show how these concepts are manifested in Patriot Games, 24 and other narratives.


At its simplest, “embeddedness” is the appearance of one image inside the frame of another. There does not necessarily have to be a similarity between the two images for us to use the term, though it is often the case that there is a resemblance of type, proportion or dimension. Where there is a distinct similarity between the two images in question, we usually speak of mise en abyme, which refers originally to an element of a heraldic device which is itself a facsimile of the entire device in which it is embedded. When applied in non-heraldic contexts such as painting (e.g. Velázquez’ Las Meninas) or film, the peculiar power of this type of embeddedness is realised by extrapolating its logic on either an increasing or a decreasing scale, or on both scales simultaneously. For example, if an image contains itself in miniature, then the smaller version must also contain that image, which in turn must also contain the image, and so on – a process of extrapolation that can have dizzying consequences (abyme means “abyss”). The same effect is achieved if a given image is regarded as already being part of a greater whole, which can be perceived only by zooming out, so to speak.

In 24 , there are multiple instances of screens embedded in the screen that we are watching. The key characteristic of 24 is simultaneity; the countdown of the clock of each episode is supposed to correspond with the passage of time as experienced by the viewer. Several narrative strands run simultaneously throughout each episode, but the links between the various plot lines are not achieved by standard parallel editing, such as that developed in The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), where the audience is presented with alternating scenes from separate fields of action, such as the chasing posse and the pursued man. Rather, 24 accentuates the simultaneity effect by tiling the screen with two or more of the various fields of action that are currently in play. The tiling effect is reminiscent of the manipulation of windows on a computer screen-desktop and is therefore in keeping with the highly-technologized aesthetic of the show; in this way the television screen suggests that it may be more than the one-way medium it is conventionally taken to be, intimating instead the interactive possibilities of computers and of digital television.[1]

I suggest that in relation to scenes such as that illustrated below, the term “embeddedness” is more useful than the commonly used phrase “split-screen” because it describes both how the screen has been split and how any given image can also contain further framed screens within itself (as is the case at top left). Regarding all of the various frames in this image as instances of embeddedness emphasises the fact that what we usually regard simply as split-screen is in fact the emplacement of multiple frames inside the main frame of the primary screen. This emphasis draws attention more effectively, in my opinion, to the fact that the establishment of any frame both sets the ground for an act of enunciation to be made and is itself an enunciation. The importance of this will become more apparent later when we examine the political theory that argues that power establishes itself through acts of decisive enunciation.

Fig.1: 24 Season 6, 4am-5am. Jack races in a car towards Josh, who is awaiting rescue on the beach, while Josh’s movements are monitored on computer screens at CTU. Source: 4 Season 6, DVD. Beverly Hills, CA: © Fox Network, 2007.

Circular Logic

Moving away from screen studies for a moment, I would like here to delineate some of the distinctive rhetorical features of academic discourses of “terrorism”. The aim here is to identify what I call the circular logic of these discourses and then to show how it manifests itself in screen narratives concerning “terrorism”. The most consistent work that has been done in trying to reach agreement on the meaning and usage of the term “terrorism” (and “terrorist”, “terror”, etc.) is in the interlocking fields of international studies, terrorism studies, conflict studies, security studies and peace studies. One of the more prominent authors in these fields is Alex P. Schmid, who in 1993 published the results of his attempt to achieve consensus among his peers whose multiple and varying definitions of “terrorism” were not simply causing confusion among academics, but which were, he claimed, the root cause of the failure of governments to combat the phenomenon effectively. It may come as no surprise that his multiply parenthetical final definition, achieved after consultation with other experts, is blindingly vague:

Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organisation), (imperiled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought (Schmid and Crelinsten 1993, 8; Schmid 2000, 76).

Schmid’s attachment to the idea that there is such a thing as a “terrorist”, that the term corresponds to an ontological reality, is what makes his acts of definition here and elsewhere paradoxical. He persists, for example, in using those very contested terms that require definition within the definition itself (“terrorist” and “terror” appear in the second sentence). Even in the abstract of the essay that presents this research, he openly admits to the subjective nature of deciding what these contested terms ought to mean: “Such definition of terrorist acts would narrow what can be rightfully called terrorism, but broaden the consensus as to the unacceptability of terrorist methods.” (Schmid and Crelinsten 1993, 7) Schmid’s project, and that of many others like him (such as Walter Laqueur, Paul Wilkinson, Benjamin Netanyahu, David C. Rapoport, and Martha Crenshaw) is dogged by a priori ideas about the nature of “terrorism”, which it seems, at bottom, to define as a form of violence that Schmid and his colleagues find unacceptable.

Seeing as the term is so contested (the truism that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is after all a truism and not a falsehood), and seeing that it is the discourse of “terrorism” that is our main interest here, it seems logical to restrict the present field of enquiry to works which include mention of any of the terms “terrorism”, “terrorist”, the contiguous usage of “terror” and their derivations, such as “bio-terror”, “anti-terrorist” and “archterrorist”. These works, most of them fictional, and most of them created in print, film or television, may be categorised as terrorist narratives, thereby removing the need of the cumbersome inverted commas. Thus, for example, we must consider the film Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (Jan de Bont, 2003) to be a terrorist narrative because the villain is at one point said to have committed “bio-terror”. Thus, even though the trigger word occurs only once, and even though this is not a film that would be normally described as being concerned with “terrorism”, it is nevertheless a terrorist narrative for our purposes. In short, a terrorist narrative is a narrative that contains our troublesome signifier “terrorist” and its cognates.

The trouble with “terrorism”, however, is that the term is so persistently used. The fog of definitional confusion does not prevent us from using it in all kinds of contexts because there is a general feeling that we all know what we are talking about when we talk about “terrorism”. There are many keywords in everyday and specialist discourse that are hotly contested, but this does not mean that they are not used, rather the opposite (see Williams 1976). Of course, as students of cultural studies know, when a cultural norm presents itself as natural, such as when the meaning of “terrorism” is accepted as common sense, we have an instance of ideology at play. Slavoj Zizek suggests that ideology forms itself by clustering meaning around certain keywords in a process that he calls, borrowing from Lacan, capitonnage. Each keyword in an ideological structure occupies a point in the quilt of meaning that may be thought of as a point de capiton, or quilting point. Capitonnage is the process by which meanings, which are normally free-floating, become temporarily fixed, and they do this by repeated usage:

The crucial step in the analysis of an ideological edifice is thus to detect, behind the dazzling splendour of the element which holds it together (‘God’, ‘Country’, ‘Party’, ‘Class’ …) this self-referential, tautological, performative operation (Zizek 1989, 99).

Following one of Zizek’s examples, when a culture repeatedly tells itself what, for instance, “God” is by using essentially meaningless phrases (God is love; God is the holy spirit; God is life; God is the creator; God is in us; God is everywhere; God is prana; God is woman; God is great), the ultimate result is that the culture absorbs the ideological impression simply that “God is”.

Therefore an alertness to those moments in our culture when self-reference, tautology and performative speech are noticeably abundant should signal where ideology is at work. We have already put one instance of social science writing on “terrorism” to the test in this respect, and our reason for doing so is that, of all genres that orbit around depictions of “terrorism”, that is the one that lays its methodological cards most openly on the table, and so its logical discontinuities are easily found (indeed, they are hard to miss). In their most pronounced instances, these forms betray a highly developed devotion to sameness that, if we treat it as a symptom, seems to betray a certain anxiety about a lack of self-identity. This hysterical positivism has autological tendencies: an autological description being one which describes itself. Thus, “short” is an autological word because its meaning (the opposite of “long”) is a description of the word itself (i.e. it consists of only one syllable). By contrast, “long” is an example of a non-autological word because its length is not commensurate with its meaning. Thus an autology occurs when the link between a signifier and a signified is intrinsic to the essence of both components.

Social science writing on “terrorism” is full of autological descriptions. For example, in the midst of Richard Thackrah’s effort to arrive at a coherent definition of “terrorism”, he argues that it may be regarded as the cause of a certain effect: “In describing an act of terrorism, there must be a terror outcome, or else the process could hardly be labelled as terrorism.” (1987, 34) Equally, one could determine from the evidence of a certain result (“a terror outcome”) that its corresponding cause (“terrorism”) had come into play. If we read Thackrah’s statement literally and disingenuously, it could mean that the “terror outcome” is a result not of “terrorism” but of the act of describing it. The context of the article does not support this reading, of course, but it is nevertheless the unspoken truth of his logic, disingenuous reading or not. I suggest that “terrorism” is autological insofar as the term is as capable of causing a fear-reaction in the hearer as is an act of “terrorist” violence. By extension, we may say the same thing about “terrorist” and “terror”. If we say that these words are themselves autological, then it is terroristic to speak about them. To use them is the offence, because they are what spreads/creates/is terror. The use of these terms may provoke a similar reaction to the phenomena that they refer to, as a result of the supposedly extra-strong bond between them (in contrast to the floating character of signifiers as we already “know” them, which are held together by a much weaker bond). The word is the thing itself. Later, we will examine how the multiple embedded screens of terrorist narratives can produce autological dynamics. These screens, in other words, describe what they themselves are doing, primarily through the device of embedded, secondary screens. Before that, however, it is necessary to set out the basic features of the political critique of sovereignty and the state of exception, in order to pinpoint the connection to screen aesthetics.

The State of Exception

At its simplest, the embedded screen is an exception in relation to the main image in the frame. This topological arrangement, where the excluded frame is simultaneously also included, is exactly that which we find in the state of exception. The key proponent of the view that contemporary sovereignty is inextricably linked to the state of exception is Giorgio Agamben, whose argument grows out of the aim to locate the “hidden point of intersection between the juridico-institutional and the biopolitical modes of power” (1998: 6). In this section I will explore how the logical tensions that are present in tautology/autology and embeddedness are also to be found in the concepts of sovereignty (based as it is simultaneously on legal interiority and exteriority) and the state of exception/emergency legislation (both extra-legal, yet legal, phenomena). In this way, I want to underline how a pattern of circular logic permeates several interlinked phenomena, from the mise en abyme of the embedded screen, to the autological and tautological statements of political science writing on “terrorism”, to the mechanism by which sovereignty establishes itself. Ultimately, this section aims to demonstrate how power is not only expressed but also asserted by means of a rhetorical paradigm, the traces of which are to be found both in the screen representations and in the juridico-institutional instruments of counterterrorism/”terrorism”.

Agamben’s view is that the true nature of sovereignty, and therefore of the entire juridico-institutional system, is hidden. It is hidden because the ambiguities at its heart are incompatible with the supposed certainties supplied by constitutions and their laws. At times of legal and political crisis, however, we can glimpse the paradoxes that are not simply an anomalous feature of, but are in fact constitutive of, the juridico-institutional mode of power. One such crisis is the extralegal activities of western states in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001 (Agamben 2005, 3 and 87), or what is known as the “War on Terror”. Agamben does not suggest that these repressive acts are illegal, rather the opposite. He suggests that the legal frameworks that were brought into being in order for these actions to be carried out according to the law throw into relief the politico-legal frameworks that are always latent in western political systems.

At the basis of Agamben’s approach is his analysis of the concept of the state of exception. Conventionally, the state of exception may be regarded as the measure that is called into being when the state is understood to be under threat (e.g. in wartime, in a natural disaster, in social upheaval, etc.). As such, it is a mode of self-preservation for the law, whereby it temporarily suspends itself, or certain aspects of itself, in order to survive intact. The paradox of the state of exception, identified succinctly by Carl Schmitt, is that the sovereign logically, indeed legally, occupies two positions at once: “Although [the sovereign] stands outside the normally valid legal system, he nevertheless belongs to it, for it is he who must decide whether the constitution needs to be suspended in its entirety.” (Schmitt 2005, 7) The sovereign simultaneously occupies this inside/outside position at all times and not just during the state of exception, argues Agamben, although it takes a certain kind of crisis for this to become apparent.

Agamben’s debt to Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is obvious in this respect because it is here that Benjamin points out that the crisis that he was experiencing – the coming to power of fascism in Weimar Germany with its alarmist warnings about Bolshevik and Jewish conspiracies – was simply an instance of the normal functioning of power: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” (Benjamin 1999, 248) What Benjamin and then Agamben are drawing attention to is the degree to which violence, which in the final analysis is always arbitrarily exercised, is a constituent part of political power and not just something that it claims to have a monopoly over. The state of exception is the means by which the sovereign can use violence, or the threat of it, without seeming to act arbitrarily:

The state of exception is the device that must ultimately articulate and hold together the two aspects of the juridico-political machine by instituting a threshold of undecidability between anomie and nomos, between life and law … As long as the two elements remain correlated yet … distinct … [their dialectic] can nevertheless function in some way. But when they tend to coincide in a single person, when the state of exception, in which they are bound and blurred together, becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine (Agamben 2005, 86).

For Agamben the law, and for our purposes, both the law and the screen, is the manifestation of patterns of thought that are otherwise abstract. For this reason, I suggest that the embedded screen of terrorist narratives presents us with a manifestation of the state of exception. Embeddedness arises in terrorist narratives from the logical/legal/political tensions inherent in the state of exception, and “terrorism” can be located in this dynamic process as the name which is given to a source of tension that is both repressed and irrepressible.

The Control Room

When we consider the many moments in 24, Patriot Games, Die Hard 4.0 (Len Wiseman, 2007), The Siege (Edward Zwick, 1998) and other terrorist fictions when those who are manipulating cameras and screens get it wrong by misidentifying, overlooking, relying on faulty equipment, looking in the wrong direction, believing fake images, etc., we are seeing the blindness that is a component of the enhanced vision that technology promises the observer. The failures are attributable, however, not only to the technology. Rather, it sometimes happens that the protagonists can see the thing that they cannot see: they have insufficient visual detail and must re-task a satellite, or they can identify the location of a person in a building but not who they are, or a vital piece of information has been available all along without anyone recognising its significance. One example is the scene in Patriot Games when an attack is launched by British Special Forces troops on the terrorist camp in the Sahara that the hero Jack Ryan has identified as containing the Irish terrorists who have been targeting him and his family. The attack is witnessed via satellite by Jack and his colleagues in a restricted control room inside the CIA.

Fig.2: Establishing shot of the control room scene, with Jack (Harrison Ford) partially silhouetted against the green screen on the left. Source: Patriot Games, DVD. Los Angeles, CA: © Paramount Pictures, 2003.

Jack has been brought into this room with its banks of screens with no explanation of what he is about to see, other than that he is going “into battle”. It takes him a few moments to realise that he is witnessing a real-life, live attack that has been sanctioned on the basis of his analysis of satellite photographs in an earlier scene. As the realization dawns on him, Jack turns to look at his two superiors as if to say “Is this really what I think it is?”

Fig.3: Patriot Games, DVD. Los Angeles, CA: © Paramount Pictures, 2003.

This questioning by Jack is in one sense purely technical, in that he has to overcome the shock of immediacy that the technology creates. It should be remembered that this film was released in 1992, before the technology of satellites, high-speed data streams and high-resolution live-action cameras was commonplace. It was only the previous year that similar images presented by the US and UK military of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait had caught the public imagination (see fig.s 5 & 6). His doubt also concerns his own role as observer and participant, or in other words, his ontological relationship to the events that are unfolding before him. Until now, he had been viewing these desert scenes at a distance, but they suddenly approach very close. He registers shock that he is witnessing the deaths of real people. Significantly, in a later scene when the bad guys crop up alive and well in another attack on Jack and his family, it becomes clear that in fact Jack had misidentified this camp. The entire desert attack is therefore flawed as is the scene in the control room because what everyone thought they were watching was in fact something else, and Jack’s initial questioning of the veracity or reliability of what he is seeing turns out not to have been so naïve after all.

Fig.4: Patriot Games, DVD. Los Angeles, CA: © Paramount Pictures, 2003.

Fig.5: Gulf War target cam. Sources: & (accessed 15 June 2008).

Fig.6: Views of US targeting cameras released to the press during the Gulf War of 1991.
Sources: & (both accessed 15 June 2008).

Fig.7: Satellite view of the desert camp attack in Patriot Games. Source: Patriot Games, DVD. Los Angeles, CA: © Paramount Pictures, 2003.

The other unspoken question that Jack is asking of his superiors is: Are we really doing this? As well as being shocked at his side’s technological capability, Jack is also taken aback that his side will carry out extrajudicial killings in this secret, undercover way. The legal framework for this action is not supplied explicitly; it is enough merely that the target is identified (by Jack). It turns out that to identify a target is to describe it as such, and that to describe something as a target is to make it a target. The operation is all the more disturbing for Jack because, when presenting his analysis of the satellite photos, he says there is a high probability that this is the correct camp but stops short of a definitive identification. What is disturbing for him in the control room sequence is that he had not contemplated the violence that would follow from his drawing a frame around a particular camp. Jack Ryan is a military historian by trade, not a CIA man, so he is not a seasoned wielder of direct violence but rather of its seemingly softer counterpart: intelligence. The control room sequence makes Benjamin’s and Agamben’s point for us that violence is a constituent part of power, not merely something that power is capable of.

Fig.8: Jack Ryan presenting his analysis of satellite images of terrorist camps in Patriot Games. Patriot Games, DVD. Los Angeles, CA: © Paramount Pictures, 2003.

There is a strong sense that whoever is inside the frame of the satellite image deserves to be killed. After all, the satellite is programmed to monitor all of these 182 camps where the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Red Brigade, Action Directe, the West German Red Army Faction and Shining Path, as well as Irish groups, are in training. So, even when the CIA are wrong, they are right; everything that a counterterrorist does is by definition directed against terrorism. Similarly, the sovereign does not need to appeal to a greater authority, to some other, outer law because everything the sovereign does is by definition within the law. In the case of Jack Ryan, what is important is that he acts in concord with the spirit of the sovereignty that the CIA achieves through violence. He must be on the correct side of the friend-enemy distinction that is at the heart of the operation, a distinction that Carl Schmitt argued (more than a decade before he joined the Nazi Party) was the essential criterion of politics (2005, 26); we cannot help being reminded of George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror” (CNN 2001). Jack’s allegiance is assured in the narrative by the attacks that the terrorists make on his family, resulting in injury to his young daughter, and it is used as a piece of evidence that makes his identification of the correct camp incontrovertible when he presents his analysis:

Jack: “I don’t know, there’s no way I can be absolutely certain.”
Admiral Greer: “Excuse me, Jack, tell me one thing in life that is absolutely for certain.”
Jack: “My daughter’s love.”

It is clear that the CIA in Patriot Games, the CTU agents of 24 and similar agents of the state both in fiction (John Clarke in Tom Clancy fictions, James Bond, Deep Throat in All the President’s Men [Alan J. Pakula, 1976]) and non-fiction (Oliver North, Erik Prince of Blackwater, US Abu Ghraib soldiers Sabrina Harman and Lynndie England) are instances of what Michel Foucault calls governmentality, as opposed to sovereignty. For Foucault, the former emerges to revitalise power after the latter has gone into abeyance. As a consequence of the normative rationality that characterizes the advent of biopower in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to Foucault, sovereignty seems to remain intact but is in fact a shell of itself, and has been replaced with governmentality (Foucault 1991, 87-104; Butler 2004, 50-56). In “The Great Confinement”, Foucault identifies L’Hôpital Générale as a place of its own law, separate from the outer judicial system, established by “a strange power that the king establishes between the police and the courts, at the limits of the law: a third order of repression” (Foucault 1988, 40). In governmentality, those who wield power directly are no longer the sovereign (or the president, prime minister, etc.) but are functionaries who, like the sovereign, are in a position of enforcing law while not being quite part of it. This explains why, in our primary example, the CTU of 24 is in an ambiguous position not under the direct control of any government agency and this is why it is routinely able to contravene attempts to check its activities. The forcefulness of Agamben’s analysis (pace Kalyvas 2005 and Passavant 2007) is that it shows how two modes of politics can not only coexist but complement each other – Foucauldian biopower operates (perhaps we may say, most efficiently) with spasmodic interruptions of Schmittian sovereign power.

Agamben’s analysis gives us, in other words, a coherent political explanation for the various agencies, both in fact and fiction, that are given extraordinary powers in order to do the work that the state may not openly do itself. Examples include the Israeli secret assassination team – more secret than Mossad itself – directly sanctioned by prime minister Golda Meir in Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005); “The Campus”, the intelligence agency set up by the outgoing US president that is “one step further” than the “black” of traditional “black ops”, or “black operations”, in Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger (Clancy 2004, 116); the Rainbow counter-terrorist strike force of Rainbow Six, which is “blacker than black” (Clancy 1999, 27); GAL, the Spanish government’s secret hit squad that operated against Basque separatists during the 1980s; the unacknowledged shoot-to-kill policy operated by UK state agencies against Irish targets in the 1980s; the secret US government agency that trains assassins using mind-control techniques in the Bourne film trilogy (The Bourne Identity [Doug Liman, 2002], The Bourne Supremacy [Paul Greengrass, 2004], The Bourne Ultimatum [Paul Greengrass, 2007]); the Agency of International Development and the Alliance pour le Progrès, which are the thinly-disguised CIA operations in the Uruguay of State of Siege (Costa Gavras, 1973). Existing outside the legal framework, the point of such organizations is that they act in the name of the law without being encumbered by any particular piece of legislation.


Terrorist narratives are marked by a propensity to feature scenarios, such as control rooms in crisis and television news segments, which involve the embedding of screens within the main screen of the narrative. In this analysis, I have argued that these instances of embeddedness display a strange logic that we also find in contemporary political structures. Although it is at first tempting to characterize the occurrence of alternative narratives within a main narrative as a decentering technique that exposes the aporias that are not otherwise apparent in a screen text, I argue that embeddedness in fact embodies the logic according to which repressive, violent political power operates. This is specifically the case with the state of exception.

This strange logic draws its strength from a set of paradoxes connected to “terrorism”. First, there is the paradoxical nature of the autological term “terrorism”, which is an instance of a signifier having an unusually close, power-laden relation with its signified. The act of uttering the term “terrorism” makes one a sovereign by doing it – because to utter it is to position oneself as the arbiter of the contours of the political field. Second, there is the paradoxical nature of embeddedness. This is most readily understood by examining the concept of mise en abyme, which is the most ostentatiously paradoxical form of embeddedness. Its paradox is that the artist must continually step outside the frame of the work (or ever deeper into it) in order to create the work. This is to position oneself as the arbiter of the contours of the visual field, which is a sovereign act in the sense that the sovereign is the one who determines which level (of law, of frame) is the norm and which level exists in a state of exception. Third, there is the paradoxical nature of sovereignty, whereby power must arbitrarily impose itself at a particular foundational moment in order to establish itself as the always existing norm. The terrorist narrative of recent decades has become the place where this strange logic is played out, with the result that the state of exception has become our fictional, and perhaps also our factual, norm.


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1. For analyses of the shifting degrees of interactivity offered by television, home computers and cinema , see Bolter and Grusin 1999, Leconte 2000 and 2004, Manovich 2001 and Nelson 2007.

Author Bio

Cormac Deane is a doctoral researcher at Birkbeck College, University of London, where he is a member of the London Consortium programme. His supervisors are Costas Douzinas and Joanna Bourke, both of Birkbeck College. His research is on manifestations of ‘terrorism’ in contemporary television and cinema. He is the translator of Christian Metz’s final work, L’énonciation impersonnelle ou le site du film, which will be published in English in 2010. Under the name Cormac Ó Duibhne, he published The Field Day Archive (2007), a guide to an Irish literary and cultural archive. He teaches at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin.
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