Heath-Kelly -Forgetting ISIS: enmity, drive and repetition in security discourse

This week we are considering Forgetting ISIS: enmity, drive and repetition in security discourse by Charlotte Heath-Kelly (Critical Studies on Security, 6:1, 85-99). It’s available here (open access). This article is a look at the security discourse of threat using psychoanalytical tools to investigate how and why threats never seem to be dealt with and how security never seems to be reached.

Here’s what we thought below. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

I have a problem with this paper. I think mainly, this is because, to me at least, it demonstrates just why some researchers are suspicious of interdisciplinarity, and the more abstract modes of thought.

At the core of this paper, the author argues that ‘Security never seems to make any progress’ (96) – there is always a new enemy, and the old enemy soon becomes forgotten. I am sure many readers would agree with this assertion, and certainly, in my own research, I have argued that security discourse is key to the operation of power both between discrete individuals, and between the individual and the state.

Where this paper goes wrong, however, I fear is in its focus specifically on the abstract with no recourse to the real world. In one example, the author argues that ‘Security is averse to vanquishing a particular enemy […] and making progress towards a state of security because the object of desire can never satisfy the fantasy. It fails and enmity must be restaged with a new enemy blocking the path to ontological security’ (90). However, there can be no escaping the fact that many threats are of themselves real, and make themselves known in a number of ways, even if their categorisation under a single banner of ‘terror’ is somewhat problematic.

The author argues then that if security were to ‘make progress’ it would thus ‘expose lack as a permanent condition of being, damaging interpolation in the social fantasy’ (97). However, it is also the case that if security were to ‘make progress’, there would be no threat, and people would not suffer at the hands of suicide bombers, knife attackers, hit-and-run drivers etc. There are also many other factors beside security that serve to construct social identity, and even if terrorism were not a thing, the absence of security discourse would not in itself expose lack as a permanent condition of being.

While I agree that security discourse is and of itself is something we should scrutinise for its discursive influence on daily lives, I fear that the author is over-analysing the problem and reading it in terms that are far too abstract, neglecting the real-world impact of the terrorism that feeds the security discourse to begin with. She also then ignores other factors feeding into this same discourse including media coverage, social media and the internet that locates threats within the knowable present. While the author may point to a ‘discursive forgetting’ (92) (a point which to some extent I agree with), I would rather argue that it’s not so much a ‘forgetting’ as such, but rather a ‘moving-on’, for the old enemy is required in order to position security apparatus as competent and thus legitimise the use of further powers to protect against future threats. It is not so much that we forget the old enemy, but rather that we know we defeated the old enemy, and as such are able to ‘defeat’ the next.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


This article is an interesting take upon securitisation. Generally I agree with the author that security discourse does seem to constantly need a new bigger enemy. The discourse always sounds like a Hollywood movie sequel where the new antagonist is always bigger and badder, and the good guys will have to dig deeper into themselves than they ever have before, etc., etc.. Plus, the next threat is always on the security horizon (pg.93), like a trailer for the next movie in the pipe line – although actually having intelligence agencies be aware of what might come next is of course a good thing. Issues might arise where the threat is overblown).

However, there are a few issues I have with it. First, the authors thoughts that a continuing military role after the liberation of ISIS-held territories is somehow problematic (pg.93). Of course there needs to be a continuing role for foreign-backed forces. How else to shattered communities rebuild their lives and cities? We know from the 2003 Iraq war and the War in Afghanistan that not doing enough reconstruction after high-intensity fighting is over results in problems later on.

Whilst reading this article I couldn’t help thinking of the constant pushing of a secruitisation discourse from US foreign policy magazines, periodicals, and think tanks. Many of them seem to be in a race to describe the newest threat and how bad it could be. Perhaps expanding upon this article to incorporate some ideas from media studies would create a greater understanding.

Further, the author (or perhaps the security discourse itself) doesn’t engage with the reality of threat. As we know from Steven Pinker’s work, we live in the safest time the world has ever known. I think acknowledging that whilst securitisation makes the threat of Islamic terrorists seem like the worst thing the world has ever seen, it is, of course, nothing of the sort. Although perhaps this criticism applies more to those people in the US foreign policy think tanks who never seem to remember this.

Overall, I enjoyed this article and found it to be greatly improved over an earlier version I heard as a conference paper.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.