Archives of the Insensible Of War, Photopolitics, and Dead Memory
by Allen Feldman
University of Chicago Press, 2015
Cloth: 978-0-226-27716-5 | Paper: 978-0-226-27733-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-27747-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.001.0001


In this jarring look at contemporary warfare and political visuality, renowned anthropologist of violence Allen Feldman provocatively argues that contemporary sovereign power mobilizes asymmetric, clandestine, and ultimately unending war as a will to truth. Whether responding to the fantasy of weapons of mass destruction or an existential threat to civilization, Western political sovereignty seeks to align justice, humanitarian right, and democracy with technocratic violence and visual dominance. Connecting Guantánamo tribunals to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, American counterfeit killings in Afghanistan to the Baader-Meinhof paintings of Gerhard Richter, and the video erasure of Rodney King to lynching photography and political animality, among other scenes of terror, Feldman contests sovereignty’s claims to transcendental right —whether humanitarian, neoliberal, or democratic—by showing how dogmatic truth is crafted and terror indemnified by the prosecutorial media and materiality of war.
Excavating a scenography of trials—formal or covert, orchestrated or improvised, criminalizing or criminal—Feldman shows how the will to truth disappears into the very violence it interrogates. He maps the sensory inscriptions and erasures of war, highlighting war as a media that severs factuality from actuality to render violence just. He proposes that war promotes an anesthesiology that interdicts the witness of a sensory and affective commons that has the capacity to speak truth to war. Feldman uses layered deconstructive description to decelerate the ballistical tempo of war to salvage the embodied actualities and material histories that war reduces to the ashes of collateral damage, the automatism of drones, and the opacities of black sites. The result is a penetrating work that marries critical visual theory, political philosophy, anthropology, and media archeology into a trenchant dissection of emerging forms of sovereignty and state power that war now makes possible. 


Allen Feldman is professor in the Department of Media Culture and Communication at New York University. He is the author of Formations of Violence, published by the University of Chicago Press. 


“Feldman delivers an essential dossier on the conceptual straitjacketing to which every terrestrial being, whether ethically bound or in the wild, is currently subjected. Scouring the political unconscious with exquisite precision and sovereign decisiveness—all the while leaving intact the blurs and shudders of discursive power failures—Archives of the Insensible will become the go-to work to help us confront unmanageably traumatizing realities by which we are seized and the cutthroat politics of our era. From media-theoretical downloads to subtle philosophical sting operations, the book doesn’t let up. Ever.
— Avital Ronell, author of Loser Sons: Politics and Authority

Archives of the Insensible is a remarkable diagnosis of our time, tracing with great subtlety the multiple ways in which violence is transformed into justice and justice gives birth to destruction. This is a startling book written with passion and insight, and a valuable contribution to our understanding of the relationship of violence to international law in the contemporary world.”
— Talal Asad, author of On Suicide Bombing

“The indefatigable rigor with which Feldman limns the media, archives, practices, and metaphysics of contemporary sovereignty, along with its myriad forms of victimage, has the potential to educate and inspire a generation or more of counter-hegemonic, social-justice workers across multiple institutions, media, and national contexts. Feldman relentlessly pursues a mode of geopolitically emergent sovereignty that is fundamentally inseparable from war, terror, torture, clandestinity, and the programmed prohibition of the comprehension of these violent processes.”
— Jonathan Beller, author of The Cinematic Mode of Production

"I am struck by the rich and provocative detail of this remarkable book and by the disturbing insights it offers into the performance of violence in our time and how its representations make it banal and acceptable."
— Social Text Journal



Introduction: Enigmatic Dispersals

Part I: Desisting Sovereignties

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.005.0001
[Guantanamo tribunals, Kafka, deconstructionist state, denegation, scenic affirmation, media theology, public secret, homines manus mortuae, odious debt]
In Kafka's fable 'Before the Law' the appeal to higher authority promotes the illusion of an interiority of law, that someone or something is within this hallowed and hollowed abode, even if this presence only manifests as withholding law from others. The Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Guantanamo similarly inscribed a sovereignty of the state as the event of law retracted. In its infinite regress securocratic law holds to both its bare-life of withholding law and to the exposed life from which law is withheld. In the security state as a series of empty recesses the law itself is subjected to an extraordinary rendition to a black site from which all other black sites are authored and emitted. This regime of juridical denegation does not omit or preclude, silence or repress that which lies outside a normative or procedural frame. Rather, the state presents itself as a fractured frame, as dismedia, and as the broken middle which frames only in the breaking of frames-- legal, political and communicative. As with Kafka, the Guantanamo tribunal promises passageways and portals to law that frame and support nothing; their architectural-juridical violence originates in a negative theology of law. (pages 33 - 68)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.005.0002
[Apophatic body, negative theology, kill-teams, Gerhard Richter, Baader-Meinhof, saturated image, apotropaic signatures, surplus immanence, forensic phantasms, corporeality/incorporeality]
Reading comparatively across the falsification of extra-judicial assassinations by American "kill-teams" and Gerhard Richter's photopaintings of Baader-Meinhof "suicides," this chapter explores the circulation of apophatic bodies and saturated images in wars on terror. There is a necessary imbrication between counterfeiting, the mass production of forensic phantasms, and extra-juridical assassination as interlacing signatures of counterinsurgency. The imagery extracted from Afghani homicides and the Baader-Meinhoff "suicides" is distended along the curvature between disembodying acquisition by various powers, politico-military and mediatic, and a now defaced, blurred inaccessible, destructible, creaturely and subjective life. In the Stammheim prison "suicides/murders" and the biometric counterfeiting of Afghani terrorists, a blurring effect captures the entry of power into a body that can neither contain nor condition the surplus materiality of such invasion. Violence deposits a surplus immanence and saturation in that which cannot hold this archive of sovereignty except as a wound in the visual field of the spectator. The saturating blur is an incision that marks an excision, a disfiguration beyond the visual frame that is the condition of that frame. With chronic, predatory image saturation politeia is no longer secured as the phenomenality of a transparent and public space of illumination. (pages 69 - 116)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.005.0003
[Jean- Luc Godard, Sarajevo, first-person shooter, practico inert, monopolized violence, political unconscious, potentiality/impotentiality, Gaza, genocidal desistance.]
In the Cartesian optics of "first-person-shooter" media mastery this sovereign figure stands outside the ludic arenas of history that are staged and played as historical panorama. The FPS addictively manipulates life forms, transmuting them into blackened silhouettes and performs war by remote location and split location in which targets die as detachable drones of an ineffable and incorporeal apparatus of fatal material inscription. The FPS practices history as photography where the serial arc of photographic dead flesh stretching towards cinematic infinity produces trans-historical efficacy. In this artefactory of history the conscripted dead are superimposed on, or sedimented into the seriality of other such bodies as a stratigraphy of optico-species-being. These necrographs are just so many snap shots, frames of the rigor-mortified, that have been dropped and scattered on the presenting surface of a conclusive history. This essay is concerned with political and empowering antecedence of the FPS gaming function in the optics of political sovereignty. This inquiry crafts a first person shooter itinerary traversing Hobbes' Leviathan, the Markala massacre, sectarian assassination, the Godardian dialectics of war and montage, the televisual aesthetics of Rodney King's beat down, Sartrean serialization, and the violence of Israeli genocidal desistance in Gaza. (pages 117 - 182)

Part II: Amputating Archives

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.005.0004
[predatory archive, lost enemy, hypomnemata, ethical drones, retentional-attentional apparatus, ontotypography, ipsocracy, Jacques Derrida, dangerous supplement, hostipitality.]
The formative division of inside and outside is a founding condition of both war and the archive and suggests their structural convergence. In war, the friend/enemy matrix is the self-archiving and conservation of sovereignty in the exterior figure of the enemy as a retentional apparatus. In this echographic archive of reversible transcription the sovereign and the enemy inhabit and house each other, each becoming the host, hostage, and habitus of the other. This dynamic of haunting and hosting re-emerges in relation to those surrogating derivatives, a mobile multiplicity of interchangeable adversaries as a precarious and evaporating archive of the principial enemy. Derrida presents a dialectical law of the enemy; the present enemy and the promised enemy contaminate and interpenetrate each other; the structuring enemy is an amalgam of mimetic surrogates promised, manifest, and receding, within and without, forthcoming and withheld. Rather than focus on how critical memory can be recovered from the destruction, attrition, and erasures of war, to which numerous cultural memory and human rights theorists aspire, I contend that war in its destruction, and technicity can be remapped as hypomnemata, the supplemental, artificed devices that support, repeat, and preserve political memory and jus as bellum in prosthetic and phantasmatic media. (pages 185 - 228)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.005.0005
[South Africa, Amnesty, Disproportionality, Dismediation, transcorporeal assemblages, braai torture, economimesis, bulimic politics, pharmakon]
This essay identifies the traumatropes in South Africa's amnesty procedure that impeded the critique of raced violence by transitional justice. My concern is the self-traumatization of the truth commission through what it consigned to juridical and ethical exteriority. The amnesty protocol bracketed racialized percepts and fetishes in the apartheid state's execution of war. This protocol can be read against its humanitarian grain to advance a critique of violence and its indemnification through a philosophy of means and media. This ethnography does not claim that racialized violence was not witnessed at the TRC, for such testimony is extensively dissected in reference to braai torture as labor discipline and demonic addiction. Irrespective of this horrific testimony, the TRC constructed a moralized, teleocratic subject of just war through its amnesty protocol. The amnesty hearing performed the deracialization of state violence as a means to "reconciliation." The metric of violence in amnesty adjudications opened an aporia: the relation between political program as performative pro-duction to the de-mediatization of violence as purposiveness without purpose. De-mediatized violence provokes a rethinking of the ethicality of force in terms of the withdrawal of any norm-giving ground to political action. (pages 229 - 292)

Part III: Committing Anthropology

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.005.0006
[antiphony, pathemata mathemata, deinos, self-scarifying anthropologies, Reiner Schurmann, Cornelius Castoriadis, Jacques Derrida, Edward Said.]
The aporia of those intersecting, yet discordant, theaters of witnessing violence, transitional justice and Greek tragedy, is the violence of being after violence. This is the impossibility of a clarified return that would recuperate the linearity of history in the conversion of justice to violence. Violence is theatricized to address, successfully or not, the loss of loss crucial to the scenic affirmations of transitional justice and classical tragedy. Tragedy, unlike transitional justice, hesitated before teleocratic truth procedures and to the contrary staged itself as tribunal of tribunals in order to interrogate the derelictions hidden within the unilateral will to truth. However, both theaters bestow a paradoxical legacy: that the proscenium presentation of both violence and its on-stage witnessing is meant to coincide with an operant knowledge constitutive of a democratic habitus. This chapter concludes by considering how contemporary humanitarian anthropology, which sustains the moral ideality of the canonical victim, under the legend of crimes against humanity, mediates and masters violence through the exemplifying repetition of the victim as both the container and ethical containment of force, damage, and destitution. It is this mastery of violence through the mastery of victimage which clarifies the profundity of Said's ethic of the victim of the victim. (pages 295 - 353)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226277479.005.0007
[political animality, inhumanization, natality, prosopon, biosemiotics, Benommenheit, Nudity, Monstrosity, lynching postcards, thanatochromatic body]
If, as Derrida asserts, the unrecognizable begins ethics, then the assault on 'illegitimate' humanity that passes through the interface and ensign of animality forecloses ethicality. An ethics based on unrecognizability precedes and subverts the political speciation of humanity and animality. Political violence gestates 'animality' in the "fellow," rendering "the neighbor" unrecognizable and therefore disposable. Violence both presumes and makes the unrecognizable in a vicious circularity that is the tell-tail signature of sovereignty as an act of auto-speciation. Political animality proceeds through inhumanization, which is not the maltreatment of humanity, but rather the immunization of sovereign anthropology through and against animality. Inhumanization is distilled from humanity's imputed negations, altars, and antagonists--all that which lacks humanity and yet are conscripted to signify humanity through lack. If the political entrenchment of the animal occurs through chronic misrecognition, then might the missed encounter with the animal real be the condition of possibility of the political? This chapter reads Agamben, Foucault, Arendt, Derrida, racialized lynchings, a Talmudic gnat and an Athenian cockroach through a foundational traumatropology and zoopolitics of power. (pages 354 - 410)