origin of science fiction is twentieth-century Futurism. For the largest part
of the twentieth century, science fiction maintained an optimistic attitude
towards the future. At the end of the 1970s, the modern, optimistic, and
futurist vision of the future, typical for avant-garde movements of the 1930s,
took a negative turn and became dark, pessimistic, and cynical, in a postmodern
sense; it became what would be called, in a word, 'cyberpunk.' In this article,
I want to show that the terrorist organization generally known as ISIS (Islamic
State) intends, or rather intended, to go back to futurism and modernism by
overcoming postmodernism and cyberpunk. At the center of the futurist ISIS
imagination is the machine. This is not the virtual, postmodern bio-digital
machine inserted in bodies and manipulating a universe made up of data; rather,
it is the analog, mechanical machine.
cyberpunk; ISIS; Italian Futurism; terrorism; violence
essay, I attempt to metaphorically connect the emergence of radical Islamic
terrorism to a recent shift in cultural thought, namely the shift from
postmodern cyberpunk to futurist modernity. More specifically, I compare the
aesthetic attitudes of early twenty-first-century Islamic terrorism to the
aesthetic ideas and practices of twentieth-century Futurism.
is a sub-branch of science fiction most often depicting the fusion of high
technology and low life in postindustrial urban contexts. It started as a
literary genre with the works of Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, Bruce
Sterling, and Bruce Bethke, who were building on the earlier work of George
Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and J.G. Ballard. Cyberpunk was popularized by movies
such as Blade Runner and The Matrix and, by the 1990s,
had become a catchword or a symbol for a certain cultural attitude developed in
postindustrial Western countries and Japan. Today cyberpunk is not merely a
genre, but stands for an aesthetic or perhaps even an ethical code.
Science fiction has not always espoused the negative and
dystopian view of the future, but for the largest part of the twentieth century
replicated the optimistic spirit projected by the Italian and Russian
futurists. Futurism was utopian and vibrated
with a positive attitude towards a bright and technicized future. Futurists
believed that a new and better world could be built once the old one had been
end of the 1970s, the dystopian, postmodern view of science fiction, cyberpunk,
moved to the foreground. The modern(ist) and optimistic visions of the future
typical for avant-garde movements between 1910 and 1930 took a negative turn
and became darker, more pessimistic, more cynical, but also more ironic. What
this paper will try to show is that radical Islam, and ISIS, in particular,
wants to leave dystopian, postmodern cyberpunk behind and return to the more
modern, utopian expressions of Futurism. Futurism is a Western movement, but it
can be metaphorically applied to non-Western phenomena that, technically, are
not related to it. The world of ISIS is neither that of Blade Runner nor
that of Akira. ISIS
effectuates the transfer from dystopia back to utopia by using religious
elements in addition to specific futurist aesthetic codes.
2. The twin towers through futurism
can be seen as the ideological origin of science fiction. Thomas Michaud, in
his history of science fiction, writes that "the futurists' belief in machines
has served as the founding postulate of Science Fiction." For the
largest part of the twentieth century, the futurist love of machines left its mark on science fiction. Futurists had
not only extolled speed as a central value of technological societies; they had
also thought about androids and the impact of technology on society. This
futurist heritage remained dominant in science fiction until the 1970s when the
mood gradually changed. The "cyber"
aspect of science fiction began to present the future through a dystopian
filter. Much of cyberpunk takes place in the aftermath of nuclear disasters,
which strongly contrasts with typical futurist visions. As cyberpunk emphasizes
the aesthetics of catastrophe and ruin, the machine becomes part of the general
disaster. It no longer rules over the world but
tends to disintegrate, either by being fused with organic matter or by being
torn to shreds.
Cyberpunk became a popular and full-fledged aesthetic
expression in the 1990s. During the same period, a new form of Islamic
terrorism appeared on the international stage and quickly became important. Islamic terrorism had existed before, but the
Soviet–Afghan War (1979-1989) had sparked a new wave of radical Islamism. The
world became fully aware of the existence of radical Islamism when Al-Qaeda
opened the twenty-first century by destroying the World Trade Center in New
York City in 2001. The twenty-first century, which represents the mythical age
of cyberpunk, could not have been inaugurated in a more futurist fashion:
airplanes were sent into the skyscrapers. The Twin Towers explosion can be
perceived as an explosion of colors similar to the one depicted in Umberto
Boccioni's Elasticity (1912). Like in Boccioni's painting, the
"elastic" and dynamic fire cloud is orange.
Tower attacks announced the end of cyberpunk and inaugurated a futurist era of
Islamism that can be called "Islamic Futurism." Italian Futurism
utilized airplanes and aviation. "Aeropittura" (air painting) became
one of the most important expressions of futurist aesthetics, especially
through the work of Tullio Crali, Giacomo Balla, Giulio D'Anna, and Tato. Several
of those paintings show airplanes almost crashing into modern skyscrapers, or
they deal with the threatening nature of other modern machines. 9/11
announces the rise of a futurist aesthetics that is not linked to communism or
fascism, as was the case with Italian Futurism, but to Islamism. It is the same
futurist aesthetics that would later be developed by ISIS in its modernist
cyberpunk, the acceleration of speed leads to the acceleration of time. This is
the basis of cyberculture, as was shown by Mark Dery in Escape Velocity:
Cyberculture at the End of the Century (1996), and also by Paul Virilio in La
Vitesse de liberation (1995). Cyberpunk experiments with mind-body
relationships, which suggests new perceptions of reality and the invention of
alternative realities. It is this fantasizing about different realities that
makes cyberpunk different from Futurism. Futurism, too, is about experiments
with speed and, at times, even about experiments with the body, but those
experiments are not supposed to generate an alternative reality. According to
David Tomas, "Cyberpunk centers around an alternative postindustrial
culture predicated on the interface of biotechnologically enhanced human
bodies, interactive information technology, and omniscient corporate
three items are new and cannot be found in Futurism.
thoughts on the relationships between futurism and cyberpunk are very much
inspired by Franco Berardi's book Dopo il futuro: Dal Futurism al Cyberpunk.
L'esaurimento della Modernità [After the Future: From Futurism to
Cyberpunk. The Exhaustion of Modernity] (2013). In this book,
Berardi explains that much of contemporary Western culture has shifted from an
optimistic vision of the future that was still present in Italian Futurism,
towards the pessimistic perceptions of the future, of which cyberpunk has
become the ideology and the aesthetic expression. However, what I want to
demonstrate is that ISIS, in Western imagination, tends to shift the vision of
reality back to futurism.
is to place the most recent emanations of terrorism into the picture that
emerges from the above "cyberpunk-futurism" opposition. What status
does Islamic terrorism have within the landscape of different futurisms? While
Western and Japanese cultures evolved, over a course of almost a hundred years,
from futurism to cyberpunk, a new, global, and immensely intriguing cultural
phenomenon developed almost in parallel: Islamic fundamentalism. On a
superficial level, the apparently nihilistic ideology of terrorism that is
openly preaching murder and destruction might yield the impression of being
just another derivation of dystopian and pessimistic cyberpunk attitudes.
However, the contrary is the case. Alberto Fernandez, who works for the
Brookings Institute specializing in terrorism, holds that "the seemingly
authentic black flag, the savage videos, and the black dress—all this is not
nihilism, but extremely violent idealism." This
means that Islamic terrorism is not "cyberpunk" but
"futurist." ISIS, metaphorically speaking, marks a reaction to cyberpunk.
Given the particular religious background of ISIS, such a realization should
not come as a surprise. ISIS culture is radically opposed to most movements by
which Cyberpunk was influenced: New Age, with its relativism and
anti-authoritarianism, or the avant-garde, especially when the latter includes
3. Terrorism and Cyberpunk
general, the cultural environment in which cyberpunk developed is very
different from that of the early avant-garde. First of all, there is a large
difference between futurism and cyberpunk in economic terms. Cyberpunk thrived
in postindustrial societies in which unprecedented economic affluence and the
satiation of basic material needs fostered individual creativity but, at the
same time, spawned boredom; it is obvious that when the economy's service
sector generates more wealth than the manufacturing sector it is no longer
necessary to toil for a living. At the same time, an entire optimistic,
work-oriented industrial world fell into ruins. Such a negative reading of
postindustrialism leads to the perception of a cyberpunk reality that was
unique to the Western world and Japan. "Postindustrial" signifies
that the so-called industrial world has disappeared not because energies
were used on wars or the world's destruction, but because society has been
taken over by weakness, anomie, and change.
effect is the weakening of the sense of reality. In postindustrial economies
there is no lack of money or goods, but a lack of reality. The industrial
society still produced "real goods," even if those goods were often
mass-produced and "entfremdet," that is, cut off, from the laborer.
In the postindustrial world, the Entfremdung (alienation or distancing)
is taken one step further. It has become an information society where tangible
goods have been replaced by images and abstractions. The postindustrial economy
is an "information economy" peddling, mainly, information. The
non-real aspect of this society is reinforced as the entire economy is driven
by digital technology combined with corporate demands that cannot be directly
traced to real people. In this economy, markets and services have been
centralized, bureaucratized, and rationalized. Reality itself is no longer
experienced first-hand but has undergone the same process of rationalization
and centralization. As a result, human experience becomes simulated, not only
in economic terms but in all aspects of life. The difference between the
original and the copy becomes insignificant. In the end, the new kind of
simulated, postmodern, reality will be marketed by corporate giants who
specialize in the new business of "reality peddling." Greil Marcus
describes the cyberpunk world as a world in which
have turned upon individual men and women, seized their subjective emotions and
experiences, changed those once evanescent phenomena into objective, replicable
commodities, placed them on the market, set their prices, and sold them back to
those who had, once, brought emotions and experiences out of themselves—to
people who, as prisoners of the spectacle, could now find such things only on
of values becomes unavoidable. Correspondingly, in cyberpunk literature, the
postindustrial world is described as a world of social isolation, disintegrated
families, political corruption, scientific charlatanism, and juvenile
delinquency, and one in which consumerism is left as the only available ideal.
that ISIS interferes in this crisis and suggests an alternative life
style which is, most probably unconsciously, inspired by futurism. As long as
there was industry, the world was futurist. Cyberpunk has plunged the world
into a dystopia in which values, even the value of reality, are in decline,
having been replaced by pseudo-values and a mediatized pseudo-reality. A
slightly mocking statement about Westerners' addiction to "your lattes and
Timberlakes," made in a recent issue of the ISIS magazine Dabiq,
suggests an admittedly confused critique of Western postindustrial consumer
culture. ISIS has
moralistic concerns regarding the danger of corruption by the materialism,
mechanization, and hedonism inherent in Americanism, and also its degraded
popular culture. The terrorist organization contests all Western
discourses, regardless of whether they are based on capitalism, communism,
nationalism, or democracy.
4. The "derealization" effect in modern wars
important "reality problem" concerns war. In the world of futurists,
wars were still "real" wars rather than cold wars or cyberwars.
Winning a war would lead to a better life, which is not necessarily the case
today. The "derealization" of wars began at a time when futurists
were most active, more precisely during the combats of World War I. Paul
Virilio described World War I as the "first mediated conflict in history,
because rapid-firing guns largely replaced the plethora of individual weapons.
Hand-to-hand fighting and physical confrontation were superseded by long-range
Jünger, in his novel Storms of Steel (1920), depicted the industrialized
warfare he had experienced in World War I in such a derealized way that reality
became distantiated through the photographic lens. In his literary portraits of
battlefields, Jünger appeared affected and, simultaneously, strangely
unaffected and distanced. These are probably the first signs of cyberpunk. In
the art of that time, the distorted perception of the reality of war goes often
hand in hand with avant-gardist techniques. Jünger's descriptions seemed to be
surrealist, while Italian and Russian futurists distorted the reality of war in
their own avant-garde ways. Mayakovsky, for example, glorified the violence he
perceived in the Russian Revolution, though he was more critical of the World
War violence, by miniaturizing the shocking force and the graphic naturalism of
warfare and by replacing it "by the style of folk-song and fairy
Russian futurist poet, Khlebnikov, conveyed a "hyperbolized self-image, claiming
that wars, like birds, peck grain from his hands."
new technologies would change the standards of how wars can be perceived
because they would most radically change the criteria concerning what can be
seen and what cannot be seen. War became less real and more
"cinematic." In other words, techno-culture was slowly moving from
futurism to cyberpunk.
It is in
the 1960s that an essential decision regarding futurism or cyberpunk had to be
made. The 1960s saw the creation of a variety of modern postwar utopias, but
there was a red line distinguishing the two ways of conceiving the utopia: as
something dogmatic or something that leaned towards relativism and irony.
Franco Berardi explains that the dogmatic version would lead towards terrorism,
while the ironic version would lead towards progress. Sixty
years later, the question emerges in an altered context. This time, it is
addressed to Islamic terrorists who have made their choice very clear. They
will go for dogmatism and not for irony. In other words, Islamic terrorists opt
for a futurist, as opposed to a cyberpunk, vision of the future. While the
progressive cyberpunk culture of irony has taken over much of the West, ISIS
decided to revert to futurism.
the difference between an ironic and a dogmatic culture? In general, ironic
cultures consider the link between signifier and signified as loose and open to
interpretation, while dogmatic cultures attempt to firmly reattach the
signifier to the signified. ISIS has applied this strategy in many fields. For
ISIS, words do not fly around in a deconstructed universe, but are rooted in a
geographical ground as well as the "ground" provided by sacred texts.
This insistence on an absolute overlap of signifier and signified has become
one of the main sources of a culture clash by which the world is rocked at
earlier, ISIS and much of radical Islam—Islamism—have decided to go back to a
futurist logic. This was an entirely free decision. It is not backwardness that
determines the actions of ISIS, but rather a firm belief in the future, which
is a modernist tendency. The problem is, as Bassam Tibi points out, that
radical Islam "Islamize[s] modernity [without making] an effort to come to
terms with modernity by accommodating it culturally into Islam." It is
the same belief that led not only to fascism and futurism, but also to the
consolidation of modern capitalism and communism. "Modernist terrorism
produces the fanatic of a future creed," writes Roger Griffin, while
Thomas Hegghammer highlights the "thrill of adventurism, the joy of
camaraderie, and the sense of living an authentic Islamic life" that
attract both Western and non-Western recruits. In the
past, ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb, a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood,
and Abdullah Azzam, a founding member of Al-Qaeda, presented Islam as a
perfect, all-encompassing guide for individual and collective life. There was
no space for nihilism in those ideologies, but only for the optimistic belief
in the future. Utopianists are optimistic by definition. Qutb summarizes in his
text, This Religion of Islam (Hadha
al-din), the Islamic methodology (manhaj) and its positive
effect on the world in the past and in the future.
similarly optimistic utopianism underlies Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism and the
Iranian revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini. The eighteenth-century founder of
Wahhabism, Abd Al-Wahhab (1703-92), saw traditional Islam as a degenerate
version of pristine Islam that had to be supplanted by an entirely new, utopian
formation of Islamic culture, while Ayatollah Khomeini saw himself as a
progressive innovator of Shia thought. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood from
Egypt perceived themselves to be an "avant-garde that was ahead of and
even above the ordinary masses." ISIS is
not much different in its utopianism. John Gray, in his book on religion and
utopia, argues along the same lines: "Islamist movements think of violence
as a means of creating a new world, and in this they belong not in the medieval
past but the modern West.”
futurist vision of Europe and the US as hubs of civilized solidarity fades into
the past, some people are trying to violently push the wheel of time back
towards an optimistic version of the future. Exactly one hundred years after
the invention of Futurism, they want to reestablish the future as it had been
imagined in the first decades of the twentieth century.
5. The real machine versus the virtual machine
future that futurists and ISIS want to reestablish is a future in which the
world will be "real" as opposed to virtual. Reality has become
mediated at the age of cyberpunk, and ISIS-futurism opposes its own conception
of a wild and violent palpable reality to the virtual reality of cyberpunk. For
many young people who grew up in a cyberpunk environment, the mediated world is
the only world they ever came to know. That's why they find the futurist
reality of ISIS so fascinating. This idea itself—the plan to go back from the
virtual to the real through futurist devices—could be considered an interesting
project. The problem is that "going back to the future,” as planned by
ISIS, also reintroduces many negative components. What will be rediscovered in
this "real future" are not only values like solidarity, unity, and
empathy. "Going back to the future" also means reinserting some of
the infamous creations of the modernity of the early twentieth century:
totalitarianisms like fascism and communism, irrationalism, and the culture of
violence that was preached by futurism. The shift from virtual cyberpunk to a
"futurism of the real" has had immense repercussions on Islamist
center of the futurist ISIS imagination is the machine. The ISIS futurist
machine is not the postmodern bio-digital machine inserted in bodies and
manipulating a universe made up of data; rather, it is the conventional
"mechanical" machine that is visible, edgy, bulky, and noisy.
Marinetti, the father-figure of futurism, speaks of the "deafening din of
the motor, bone shaking reverberations of the chassis, [and the] cheek-coloring
massage of a frenzied wind."
Similarly, when Raqqa and Mosul became again accessible to outsiders, the world
was fascinated by what the press would soon dub "Mad-Max-style"
armored cars and bulldozers. Those civilian vehicles with steel plates bolted
to their bodies and other strange weapons of war often required remarkable
engineering skills. ISIS could attract talents able to tamper with "heavy
metal." Lacking its own sophisticated weapons factories and cut off from
the international market, ISIS depended on improvisation. "In Syria and
Iraq, ISIS has elevated the technical to an art form," wrote Kimberly
Dozier and David Axe in The Daily Beast." ISIS
vehicles have also been compared to Burning Man art cars. Some bulldozers were
filled with explosives leading the US army to coin the name "vehicle-borne
improvised explosive devices" ("VBIED"). The same sort of crude
but highly functional do-it-yourself technology is found in tunneling machines
that ISIS engineers fabricated using old farm equipment. There were also drone
factories and similar workshops. Self-made explosive drones feed into a myth of
primitive but efficient technology. All this brings us back to the 1940s, when
the British military, short on purpose-built armored vehicles, slapped sheets
of steel armor on civilian trucks. The ISIS
"Franken-trucks" could become relatively high tech as is evident from
a special ISIS video from 2015, entitled "Jihadi University Video."
engineering has become a matter of grinding, fixing, and explosions, exactly as
it was in earlier days. ISIS hammered out medieval torture devices, such as the
“biter," by using the skills of an old-fashioned blacksmith.
Especially for people who grew up on the internet thinking that the computer
and software stand for technology, those machines must be fascinating. As was
recently claimed, young people need to discover the tactile world outside the
house and feel the "wind on their phizogs." Such a
statement sounds very much like a futurist recommendation. Being steeped in the
"puritanism" of the internet, where the human body cannot be smelled
or touched, but only seen and heard on a small screen, young Westerners flocked
to Syria to join the Islamic State because they were longing for physical
reality. For once, reality was not a desert, as Baudrillard had argued, but
contained actual machines. Apart
from that, ISIS achieved a reality effect by resorting to, and showing,
execution, torture and murder. Death became more real as the act of killing
shifted back to the mechanical. Malcolm James notes that
the guillotine onwards, modern Europe has associated just killing with modern
mechanical efficiency, and with the alienation of the killer from the killed.
In this way, deaths from drones or cruise missiles have come to be represented
as moral, civilized and modern (regardless of who they kill or how they kill
them). When mechanical killing at distance is represented as being modern and
civilized, killing at close quarters represents what is pre-modern and
uncivilized about the East.
reality, or palpability, of death has been reestablished. Such a reality is
extremely analogical. Representation can be overcome through cruelty, as
Jacques Derrida famously demonstrated in his text on Artaud: "The theater
of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which
life is unrepresentable (irrépresentable). Life is the nonrepresentable
(non représentable) origin of representation."
Derrida's insight is in agreement with Futurist principles of representation.
Likewise, for ISIS, things simply are what they represent. First of all,
the curious principle of exerting "violence for its own sake" turns
violence into a reality that is not mainly political. ISIS' violence is not
"reasonable" violence directed at the destruction of an enemy. According
to Olivier Roy, it is much "more anthropological than political."
Furthermore, the hypermediatization of ISIS propaganda videos benefits from
this pattern. Manni Crone holds that "the current rise of visual and
social media" enables anthropological violence to be shown through
"aesthetic technologies of the self, such as, for instance, jihad and
a certain machine aesthetic at work here. In ISIS reality, machines tend to be
very large, while in postmodern reality machines are getting smaller and smaller
until they reach nano size or disappear into a virtual universe where reality,
even the biological one, is merely simulated. ISIS looted tanks and hi-tech
weapons from the Iraqi army, and those machines were constantly paraded through
the cities they had conquered. Long rows of SUVs became the trademark of the
ISIS imagology. A video titled, There is no Life without Jihad (2014),
is the most famous documentation of this.  In the
ISIS universe, machines are used as torture instruments and cars are used as
killing machines. The "German chair,”
apparently invented in the Communist Democratic Republic of Germany, and other
machines were used to torture hundreds of people in a quasi-industrial fashion. Therefore, the machine becomes very closely related to the
real, living body.
postmodern reality, the human body is no longer a real body but a gene machine,
that is, a chain of interlinked signs. Postmodern (cyberpunk) bodies often have
prosthetic limbs or have gone through genetic alteration. The postmodern body
is not, according to Kevin McCarron, "a biological essence but a site for
cultural enscription." As a
result, "the interest cyberpunk writers take in the body is of a strictly
negative kind." For
ISIS-futurism, by contrast, biology and technology are not supposed to be made
up of signs but of "real," palpable, things that exist objectively in
time and space. While cyberpunk uses technology to dehumanize the body and
humanity as a whole, ISIS arguably reconstructs humanity and the body through futurism.
In a world where humanity has been deconstructed and subjected to the forces of
capitalism and digitization, since information is prized above all else, ISIS
offers an "old world" vision of reality, in which, amongst other
things, the machine remains a masculine, dominating, and frightening device. For Islamists, body politics and cyborgization
cannot be subjects of interest because permanent body modification is forbidden
technologically advanced, but its progress is based neither on gene technology
nor on algorithms. By affirming its particularly concrete techno-ideology, ISIS
sheds the pessimistic (cyberpunk) dystopia of postmodernity and points towards
a bright technological future based on simple principles that men and women are
supposed to easily believe in. In other words, ISIS replaces the complex
automatized cognitive reactions of thinking machines determined by algorithms
with simple binary reflections. Some of those reflections are supported by
religious prescripts. Salafism, which relies upon scriptural literalism,
revolves around binary opposites such as tawhid (oneness of God) versus shirk
(idolatry), or religious ritual versus bid'a (innovation), and so on.
Religion can be a great source of inspiration here because it has its own
inherent logic and does not need the help of computers.
decided to reinvent reality, and reality always takes place in the future. The
entire ISIS project is a big anti-"No Future" cry. For youngsters who
grew up in social desolation, who are continually fed with reality shows and
are exposed to images of eroticism that ironically preclude any actual contact
with the body of the other, who also suffer from the lack of community spirit,
and for whom sexual reality has been replaced not even by symbols, but by mere
signs (the cum-shot in pornography is the peak of this development), a new kind
of futurism can hand back many of the things that had been swept under the
dystopian carpet of cyberpunk and virtual reality. ISIS understood all this
instinctively. Manifesting a sense of historical coherence, ISIS picked up
where the hippies had left off. It reinstalled in its universe the hairy,
smelly, imperfect real body that postmodern culture had replaced with the
digital, sleek, sterile, modular, and connected body. Beards and long hair,
often dramatically flowing in the wind, display a strange break with military
dress code. Al Qaeda started this project, but ISIS perfected it by overly
video generations from the 1990s onwards have excelled in playing virtual wars,
ISIS shoots in real time. Whereas for the former everything is mediated, the
latter reestablishes contact with the materiality of the human body.
‘Postmodern’ signifies decarnalization, until the body has become an interface
just smooth enough to transport the flux of information. ISIS plunges the body
back into a futurist type of modernity, where humans were not merely machines
but driving machines. Real, hairy, analog, living bodies are driving
through the concrete conquered space called the Caliphate. Those bodies can
also be tortured. A more authentic and masculine lifestyle is supposed to bring
back the "reality" that postindustrial culture has buried under a
heap of rational calculations. Reality is made into something real (material)
again through the development of the imagery of masculine action and violence.
There are clearly futurist resonances in such imagery. ISIS seems to reenact
the futurist myth of the techno-man in the form of the jihadi fighter sleeping
with his Kalashnikov.
6. The reinvention of space
world is not composed of codified signs but of concrete matter. In this world, space
is no longer virtual but unmistakably material. Postmodernity had abolished not
only the body, but also the space that bodies are supposed to live in, by
turning space into an abstract cyberspace that can only be thought but not felt
through the body. Since the day ISIS began conquering a part of the real world,
we began to read maps again, even if those maps were only on Google. ISIS wants
to turn the wheel backwards by reintroducing an ontological anchor into
geographical space, in the form of stable points and positions. Through ISIS we
discover that there is more to geography than multiplicities, lines of
stratification, motion, change, and flight. In this war, borders are erased by
real humans, who are able to draw new borders into the sand with their own
feet. The ISIS
war is neither a Star Wars project nor a virtual Cold War, but it is about
conquering stretches of real land inch by inch. Accordingly, the ISIS magazine Dabiq
would give lengthy accounts of the geography of the new Caliphate. Space
has once again become a grand narrative. After years of deterritorialization,
ISIS reterritorializes space. This is a remarkable achievement for terrorists.
Usually terrorists have no real territory, but they act on the territory of
ISIS adjusts its actions to what happened in older wars: that is, space is
fought for by real, breathing bodies driving real, steaming machines. Is it
surprising that this scenario appeals to a generation raised in virtual space
with very little bodily contact? Also, speed has once again become important. I
am talking about real speed measured by the movement of bodies within space,
not abstract speed witnessed in computer games. In the modern, as opposed to
the postmodern, war, the fastest fighter could claim the territory. That's
precisely what is happening with ISIS today, which reminds one of how Hitler
gained territory in World War II: his transport structures were more efficient
than those of the enemy. At a time when every millimeter of earthly space has
been conquered and colonized to the point of having to go into outer space or
into cyberspace to experience real adventures, ISIS discovers a space that is
not merely mental, but palpably real, because it can be perceived by our five
senses. This is exactly the space in which ISIS wants, or wanted, to build a
"real" future. Life in the ISIS universe is not an amalgam of
information and virtualized nano-technology; it rather constitutes a utopia for
women and men manipulating real machines. The simplest machine is the sword
and, as explained earlier, the act of killing with a sword emblematizes
potentially a return to a more authentic, because more primitive, civilization.
The sword is also a symbol of masculinity. Analysts
found that ISIS' beheading videos are "symbolic rituals of confrontation,”
in which sexual identity and gender are performed and communicated through
violence. The videos are a display of masculinity and also a war of
postmodernism "lost" the future, ISIS re-installs it in the same
futurist-like ontological terms. By doing so, ISIS brings back many elements,
most strikingly a revolution that could be experienced in terms of a corpo-reality.
Whoever thought that contemporary revolutions are electronic was proven wrong
by ISIS. Revolutions are not limited to digital ones taking place in nano
dimensions and silently undermining existing digital systems; and the economy
is not an automatized technical system that nobody can escape. On the contrary,
the economy can be destroyed and rebuilt because it is a concrete activity
involving the exchange of real goods. This is another fascinating aspect of the
so-called Islamic State: it is disconnected from international financial
systems. ISIS is exchanging real goods for oil. A vigorous black market has
replaced a virtual financial system and this market is, first of all, palpably real.
futurism was the most explicit expression of the modern masculine spirit, that
is, the masculine soul that is unable to accept defeat, shame, and depression.
The only thing that men would allegedly need is a strong will, and here ISIS
espoused the futurist idea of voluntarism fed by a long tradition of European
philosophy, ranging from Nietzsche via Bergson to Sorel. Those philosophers had
revolted against a rationalized environment that was no longer considered real.
Unfortunately, Sorel's ideas inspired not only futurists, but also the mystifying
and irrational ideologies of the Nazis. According to Arendt, at the time of
World War I, "all traditional values had evaporated" and
"vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted
theories" became more acceptable than reasonable theories and old
parallel with ISIS is obvious. In the roughly thirty years preceding World War
I, voluntarist subjectivism, neo-idealism, in addition to the search for a
certain “spirituality," created an increasingly dense irrational nimbus in
European culture. Voluntarism is the principle
of relying on voluntary action, which happens to be a supreme principle of
jihadism. Harleen Gambhir writes that "action precedes authority in
this philosophy: Baghdadi is the Caliph because of his military victories; the
victories did not come because Baghdadi was the caliph. The legitimacy of the
Caliphate hangs on military victory and consolidation success, as proof of
God's approval." This
sounds very similar to fascist and futurist principles of activism fed by
futurist world, the future has once again become predictable. In cyberpunk, the
future is not predictable, though not because the number of options is so
overwhelmingly large that nothing can be said about the future. In the
dystopian imagination of cyberpunk, there is no time, or at least no real time.
Time is abstract and contains no durée in the Bergsonian sense. As a
result, there is no future, only an endless present, and the existence of any
prophet in such a context will look awkward and inappropriate. In the futurism
of ISIS, we have a prophet who makes predictions with absolute certainty.
Whatever he says, will happen literally in real time. ISIS believes
in the future, and the word 'belief' here has the connotations that it had in
Futurism. It is a belief in progress, a belief that cynical cyberpunk
completely abandoned. ISIS converts a virtual future of smooth and hairless people into a real
future of manly and hairy ones. During this conversion many things happen. For example,
youngsters begin to read. Young Western converts who have been raised on the
internet and never touched a book in their lives are now reading the Quran. The
ISIS future is not the future of the post-alphabetical YouTube generation, but
the future of people who believe in texts again. In other words, postmoderns
have been reconverted to modernity.
will really achieve the creation of a new reality or not is an entirely
different question; in 2019 they have failed to. At the end of the day,
religious fanatics are puritans whose minds are attuned to what they think of
as transcendental ideas. Instead of believing in a concrete world of mundane
enjoyments, such as good food, drink, music, and art, they, at least
ostensibly, cling to abstract principles, thus creating their own virtual
reality. However, even though they aspire to a metaphysical world, quite
paradoxically it is concrete corporeal pleasures that allegedly await them in
the metaphysical afterlife. The contrast between these two attitudes is indeed
Botz-Bornstein is Associate Professor at Gulf University for Science and
Technology, Kuwait. He teaches philosophy and works on intercultural philosophy
and aesthetics. He has recently published The Political Aesthetics of ISIS
and Italian Futurism (Lexington, 2018) and The New Aesthetics of
Deculturation: Neoliberalism, Fundamentalism and Kitsch
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
Published on October 31, 2019.
 Akira is a cyberpunk manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo
that ran from 1982 to 1990. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The
animated film version (anime) came out in 1988 and is set in a dystopian 2019.
 Thomas Michaud, Télécommunications et
science-fiction (Paris : Marsisme, 2008), p. 215 ; my
 See Tullio Crali's Aeroplani sulla metropolieliche,
Tricolore, Bombardamento Aereo,
and Volo Radente [strafe] as well as Giacomo Balla's Balbo and the
Italian Transatlantic Flyers, Giulio D'Anna's Dynamism of Train, Ship
and Plane, and Tato's Metropolitan Airplane.
 David Tomas, "The Technophilic Body: On Technicity in William
Gibson's Cyborg Culture," New Formations, 8 (1989), pp. 113–129;
ref. p. 113.
 Franco Berardi, Dopo il futuro: Dal Futurism
al Cyberpunk. L'esaurimento della Modernità (Rome: Derive Approdi, 2013). To some extent, the Italian movement of Futurism obviously asks for
more nuanced views. The seeds of a dystopian vision of the future were already
present in Futurism itself, which was constantly expressing not only hopes but also fears about the future. The
machine might occasionally have been depicted as dangerous (but then, in
return, the futurist man was able to tame it).
 Alberto M. Fernandez, Here to Stay and Growing: Combating ISIS
Propaganda Networks (Washington: CMEP at Brookings, 2015), p. 11.
 Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th
Century (Boston: The Belknap Press, 1989), p. 101.
 Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception
(London: Verso, 1989), pp. 69–70.
 Katharine Hodgson, "Myth-Making in Russian War Poetry," The
Violent Muse: Violence and the Artistic Imagination in Europe, 1910-1939,
eds., J. Howlett and R. Mengham (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp.
65-76; ref. on p. 75.
 Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and
the New World Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p.
 Roger Griffin, Terrorist's Creed:
Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning (Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2012), p. 21; Thomas Hegghammer, "Jihadism: Seven Assumptions
Shaken by the Arab Spring," Project on Middle East Political Science, January
2014, http://pomeps.org/2014/02/03/jihadism-seven-assumptions-shaken-by-the-arab-spring, accessed 10/10/2016.
 Sayyid Qutb, This Religion of Islam (Hadha al-din)
(Kuwait: International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations, 1972).
 Leila Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the
Middle East to America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011),
 John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and
the Death of Utopia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), p. 70.
 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, "The New Ethical
Religion of Speed," Critical Writings: New Edition, ed. G.
Berghaus, trans. D. Thompson (New York: Macmillan, 2007), p. 257.
 See Trent Baker, "Islamic State
Suicide Bombers Unleashing 'Franken-Truck' on Kurds: 'Something Out of a
Movie.'" Breitbart, 22 Nov. 2015,
 Patrick Cockburn, "ISIS in Mosul," The
Independent, 24 February 2016,
 Welcome to the Desert of the Real is the
title of a book by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2002). The book's title comes
from a quote delivered by the character Morpheus in the 1999 film The Matrix:
"Welcome to the desert of the real." The Matrix quote, in turn,
alludes to the phrase "desert of the real" to be found in Jean
Baudrillard's Simulacres et Simulation (Paris: Galilée, 1981).
 Malcolm James, "The Colonial Representation of Jihadi John:
Matters of Life and Death in the 'War on Terror,'" Soundings: A Journal
of Politics and Culture, 62 (2016), pp. 138–149; ref. on p. 143. The switch
of vocabulary is puzzling here. Where James says ‘modern,’ I would say
‘postmodern,’ and where he says ‘premodern,’ I would rather prefer the term
 Jacques Derrida,
Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1978), p. 294.
 Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 148.
 Manni Crone, "Religion and Violence: Governing Muslim Militancy
through Aesthetic Assemblages," Millennium: Journal of International
Studies, 43, 1 (2014), pp.1-17; ref. on p.
2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0305829814541166, accessed 2/12019.
 Kevin McCarron, "Corpses, Machines and Mannequins: The Body and Cyberpunk,"
Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment,
eds. M. Featherstone and R. Burrows (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1996), pp. 261-273,
ref. on p. 262.
 Sometimes cyberpunk attempts to humanize the machine,
too. This has mainly been the task of Japanese cyberpunk, which tends to depict
machines as "cute." Japanese cute robots are unique and gynoids.
Sexy cyborgs, first appearing in Gwyneth Jones 1985 novel Divine Endurance,
and Hajime Sorayama's cyborgs from the 1980s, have become standard in cyberpunk
 In Islamic scriptures, there are four hadiths
speaking out against tattoos, one of them putting forward the argument that the
body should not be permanently changed. The hadiths are: Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 7,
Book 72, No 815; Sahih Bukhari, No. 823; Sahih Muslim, Book 24, No. 5300; and
Abu Dawud, Book 28, No. 4157.
 It should rather be "wars" because we are
talking about the Iraqi Civil War and the Syrian Civil War.
 Jeffrey Juris, "Violence Performed and
Imagined: Militant Action, the Black Bloc and the Mass Media in
Genoa," Critique of Anthropology, 25, 4 (2005), pp. 413-432.
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland and
New York, The World Publishing Company, 1973 ), p. 334.
Harleen Gambhir, "Dabiq: Strategic Messaging of
the Islamic State," Backgrounder: Institute for the Study of War,
15 August 2014, pp.1–12; ref. on pp. 6–7.