Skip to content Skip to footer
On War, Photopolitics, White Public-Space and the Body: A Conversation with Allen Feldman

AA: I was thinking about the new modalities of warfare; it is no longer a war between two countries, there’s no warfront.  I was just reading some statement from a US Military general about how they don’t release details about who is wounded in the fight against ISIS, even though American troops have noncombatant status. This general was arguing that there is no frontline to this war, so there’s no front that needs to be reported on in terms of causalities, military or civilian. And related to this war in Syria, Turkey is implicated through its Syrian border, through this borderline form of conflict. It is a war within a war, because the Turkish state is waging war on Kurdish militias who are waging war on ISIS and other militias. This also relates to the Pakistani border, the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a global war on terror happening, but the Pakistani state is fighting its own war against the Pakistani Taliban or Baloch insurgents etc. How do we think about this new type of geopolitical rationality of war within war?

AF: Althusser would describe this war within war as a politics of the aleatory not because it occurred by chance, but because it randomizes war. He wrote: “And supposing that this place… [of the political] … is a point, it would not be fixed, but mobile—better still, unstable in its very being, since all its effort must tend towards giving itself existence: not a transient existence …but historical existence.”1 The self-surpassing of the fixed point of the state marks the difference between the front and the frontier in war as the threshold between constituted and constitutive power. The front is the facade of an instituted sovereignty—the frontality of implanted procedural force. Around what object, space, or event can a war or political front now be formed? Recently, the ontology of the front has become so fractured that its institution gravitates to a singular punctum, like 9/11 or 7 /7. These numerals are rendered momentous in search of the lost gravity that enabled the normative cohesions of the front—a pull that such anniversaries finds difficult to exert with each surpassing of the front-line, each jettisoning of a previously grounded and now disposable front –first Afghanistan then Iraq with its confected WMDs and 9/11 culpability, then Yemen or Libya, then back to Afghanistan, then Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria—not to mention all the proxy wars you identify authorized by the inflated meta-front called the war on terror. The commemorative date is given a face because the enemy that punctured that punctum lacks one. The aleatory frontiers of war unfold the dissolution of the systematized front that accompanies the serial dissolution of a stabilized frontality of the enemy. From this locus of citational failure as regards the structuring enemy arises the shibboleth of the front called ground zero, authorizing one war and death after another in an infinite kill chain, and doing so each time with greater and greater loss of forensic value, historical memory, and achievable targets and ends. Yet, there is no longer any ground zero, but serial ungrounded ground zeros that nullify the entire concept of the front—zero it out. Ground zero is the front that inaugurated the era of the non-front, it has become an historical abyss, the abgrund of the war on terror. Derrida writes of the front:

Frons names what faces, at the highest part of the head and the chef (kephale, caput) above the gaze, at the capital height of what is capital, the capitol, capital itself. On the eminent face or façade of what is most sovereign, the head, oriented locality, a surface of exposure but also of protection turned toward the outside, ily a lieu de faire front, as one says in French, that is, there is place and reason to form a front, a united front, to close ranks against the outside, or even against the outsider and stranger…2

The origin or arkhe of a war is a front; its commencement institutes frontiers with little or no linear connection to the origin point of the war. The frontline initially appears as an instituted space, the border zone where the state as an intensive totality is deposited. However, the front is both a site upon which the state both reposes and displaces itself. The frontier is Althusser’s aleatory void- the countertemporal zone exemplified. Unlike the front, the frontier is the edge zone of war and its conceptualization, it is a faceless, virtualizing and constitutive power in media res that deposits anachronistic fronts behind it that become serially obsolete in the wake of war’s passage to an end that cannot be defined.

The becoming war of the state is a groundless self-evacuating kinesis which implants sovereignty effects in site-specific frontiers of slaughter and terror that unfold as conceptual frontiers beyond juridified war. The frontier of war, as that which borders the borders of war, expresses the concept of the concept of war in marking all that which is as yet unthinkable in war and within its various constative fronts and checkpoints, both territorial and ideological. The frontier affronts the war front, waging internal war against the latter’s juridification and against the fixed hegemonic frontality of war’s facades through the hyper-kinesis and hyper-performance of a violence that cuts away the normative grounding of jus ad bellum. If war and its discourses are modes of motion, then the state as a fixed point cannot be encapsulated as the fully constituted author or origin (arkhe) of that motion but is rather an effect of that motion and is reconstituted from out of war’s ever-shifting technological, thanatological and ideological frontiers. The mode of motion of war registers the difference between instated fronts and murky frontiers; the latter are a formative shapelessness and anticipatory topos that lie ahead of any legible political shape as the virtualized threshold of war. Topology is concerned with how bodies, discourses, and spaces are to be organized and related, and with the political connectivity arising from these fronts. For Reiner Schürmann, in contrast, the frontier zone of anticipatory topology, “… deals with a possible historial locus, one already given, yet still to be occupied; thus, it is a locus spaced out from within. Its description is first of all negative, since topos here no longer signifies any region of beings whose relations can be maximized to produce some archic referent.”3

The trench warfare of War I, the paradigmatic war of fronts, concretized modern war as the self-cancelling mutually assured consumption of antagonistic, yet essentially identical, mediologies of destruction that accelerated the war-drive culminating in a frontier of accelerated hyper-violence. This was the other side of Ernst Junger’s analogy of the battlefield to the factory. 4 World War I became a surrogating historical theatre of capitalism’s self-sacrificial acceleration, which capital itself never truly undergoes in its totality. The polemological logic, territorial predication and anarchic aesthetic of trench warfare (the very epitome of the self-negating front) was a crude topographic precursor of an emerging topology of the state-in-war as a formation bifurcated into destabilized fronts and contingent frontiers. World War II gave us Stalingrad where soldiers and civilians died for an unseizable front, an assemblage of ruins and debris that ceased to functionally exist as a human habitat. World War II, accellerated the shift from front to frontier, it gave us the frontier of the death camp that contributed little or nothing to the furtherance of a German front but rather impeded it. The Allied fire-bombing of German cities and the American nuclear weapons dropped on Japan radically civilianized the front—the domestic habitus and the routines of urban life became the destructible micro-frontiers of war. The frontality of war shifted to its former backspaces, recesses and to non-military alcoves. The nation state as such, became the targetable front in its entirety, thus anticipating the current inflated culture of securitization. As you described it, the nation state now ceases to function as a coherent front in asymmetric low intensity war.


SK Two of the concepts that stuck out for me in of your new book Archives of the Insensible are the containerization of war and the other is counter-insurgent governmentality, both of which I find very useful. I was wondering in terms of conceptualizing a breakdown of traditional state sovereignty in the way war has been conducted in the past 20 years or longer, how do these concepts do some kind of conceptual work for us? Assuming that the way in which war is fought has affected the type of sovereignty that this type of warfare stems from in the first place. Can you speak to this idea of the state itself as a container bounded by borders, deploying smaller containerized theaters of warfare or ‘small war’ that are fragmenting this bigger container that existed in the cold war?

AF: Containerization escalates the severance of the monolithic and centering war front from the pointillist frontiers of war. Which means an executive power, as a bounded and delimitable entity, is now open to question. I was influenced by the work of Alan Sekula on containerized transnationalized economies– how corporations are offshoring themselves, outsourcing themselves, juridically containerizing themselves, to escape legal accountability in order to intensify their predatory practices.5 Archives of the Insensible is concerned with state formation through the off-shoring of war in which war becomes the mode by which executive power is implanted and expanded through dispersal and perceptual scattering. Countinsurgent governmentality is at war with the witnessing of war and invests in the violence of blanking out violence through the perceptual severance of decentralizing containerization. Preemption applies not only to the exercise of violence beyond the letter of the law, but also to the foreclosure of public accountability as regards state violence. Governmentality in the war on terror resides in archival control over the apparition of threat. The powers of threat revealability are self-referential idioms of government; traversing the state, the media, and public culture; sovereignty itself is containerized in select scenic affirmations through its visible presentation, timing, and spacing of peril. This providential scenography determines not only what and how danger may appear, but also what threats will never be allowed to come before the public gaze, including the political formation of that gaze.

Warfare has containerized violence in rarefied channels of computation, performance, and anomaly detection. The destructive effects of these grooves of power are frequently camouflaged by the doctrine of collateral damage, by the split location and elongated kill chains of drones, and by the black sites hosting extraordinary renditions. Through containerization war itself has been subjected to an extraordinary rendition. Containerized war is far from the containment of violence, in its limiting or pacific sense; instead, it is the play of war’s visibility/invisibility through strategies of structural deniability, cutouts, and perceptual and juridical blurring. Containerization of war into the visible and invisible interdicts courts of conscience as organs of witnessing, jurisdiction, and veridiction as regards the harms of war and the reversal of its rationality.

The state no longer maintains borders, external and internal, rather the precarious border maintains the state.  Sovereign power replicates itself through a border spillage; the homeland has shifted its habitus to the extremity of the border which has become a mobile frontier zone—I refer to the security checkpoint, the dwell-time of the drone overflight, surveillance metadata, orbiting satellites, the circulating bodies of migrants and asylums seekers and to African-American “citizens” whose difference must be mastered through immobilization, both murderous and bureaucratic.  All these entities support and circulate the border which exists as a performance, an instant and an apparition and not as a line drawn in the sand.  The border is containerized to move it elsewhere. The border no longer contains, it expands and inflates and consumes bodies that border the border. The border is neuralgic, nomadic, insecure and all the more paranoid for its liquefaction.

The bodies of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Grey, Philando Castile became border zones and containers for the visible exercise of racialized state power, for white public space. American domestic and international ‘policing’ is invariably concerned with liquefying the border between law and nonlaw and ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ bodies of color are fabricated as frontiers that incarnate this zone of indistinction upon which racialized state power is based. This is not a matter of personal psychology, but of the requisitioned materiél of power—historically American white public space, national and transnational, must pass through, and containerize itself in vulnerable bodies of color in order to display its hegemonic frontiers.

Containerization also addresses how an organ of violence, like the border or the police, might sever itself from an originating or underlying body politic and procedural order and become self-organ-izing, self-contained and dismediating as the expansive power of ever-shifting centers and points of force. This returns us to the passage from the topos of the front to the specter of the frontier. Containerized war is described in my book Archives of the Insensible as an organogenesis in which the increasingly detachable organology of war is no longer a subordinate organ of the state, but rather of the state’s dis-organ-ization. My project is to explore the contemporary organology of the war as a self-organizing mediology of war, which in my view is no longer anchored in an authorizing body politic or law. The emergence of this dis-organology of war runs in tandem with the escalating immateriality of counterinsurgent violence as an insular zone of political insensibility and anesthesia. War no longer solely deploys camouflage as a tactic – war itself is camouflaged and perceptually and experientially outsourced which is why it can go on for 16 years without tangible impact on quotidian life in America. National insecurity and public safety have been containerized in the black box of Islamo-fascist terrorism and rendered discontinuous with, and inapplicable to the violence of climate change and environmental degradation which are afforded no security clearance despite our exposure to their negativity.

The off-shoring of a war, consequently rendered unwitnessable, is exemplified in the drone as a hydra headed assemblage of sovereign satellites that autonomously deliver capital sentences through a petrifying nonhuman gaze. This is an old idea for it was Hobbes who described the state as an automaton and as potentially divisible into its constituent parts through “intestinal discord.” However, today political discordance or stasis is not about civil war but about the stasiology of the state wherein sovereign power is multiplied through the discontinuous self-division and growing autonomy of its organs of war. The concept of stasis here partially references the classical Greco-Latin concept of an agonistic division and/or paralysis of a polity as well as the progression of a disease through a body, including a body politic. Stasis invokes the Latin cognate, seditio(sedition), a going aside, a going apart, and insurrectionary separation. At the level of witnessing, stasis applies to the divisibility and discordance of the presenting official facts of war and the extra factual surplus damage of the state’s prosecutory force. The stasiology of the state delineates the divisibility of executive force into the material and immaterial, the visible and invisible, the perceptual and imperceptual.

SK: When your second book Formations of Violence was published in 1991 it caused quite a stir in academia; it received significant resistance to your desanitization of violence in general. Some of the critiques accused you of the crime of generating a pornography of political violence. In the very end of the introduction of your current book you are again sending a message to your readers and critics on the question of writing of violence. What was at stake in 1991, when you were writing FoV? In a way, your book was a bomb, and today you have reinvented again the way we speak about violence through Archives of the Insensible. So, what is at stake today in how we speak about violence?

AF: This will entail a long response that must weave in and out of both books. But this question gets to the core of these texts and of numerous essays I have written between their publication. By deliberately interlocking the aisthesis, anesthesia and aesthetics of violence in both books and the intervening essays I engaged what Jacques Ranciere termed the political distribution of the sensible in our public culture.  My work seems to transgress the existing distribution of the sensible in anthropology and the wider human sciences as regards the proper way to write violence. The “bomb” response that you speak of and the accompanying accusations against FoV systematically bypassed violence as the pornography of the state, to which the Abu Ghraib torture photos ultimately bore eloquent witness, and consigned it to FoV’s author as his violence.

Though most published reviews of FoV were positive, I mainly encountered the reaction you spoke of at conferences and lectures. Your use of the metaphor of the bomb is quite telling because the object lesson that was imparted to me by these contentious encounters was that this bomb has a collateral anti-personnel capacity: the comprehension of violence as abnormal, pathogenic and anomalous migrated through my book to its author. I was cast as a Robespierre and de Sade in relation to the Enlightenment project and ascetic reason of the social sciences. The charges you rehearsed, projected and imagined a visual sexualization of warfare for which I was held accountable. This was in part due to my focus on violence as an embodied practice and experience detachable from its formal ideological justifications and norms. There is no form of war where ideological justification stands in a 1:1 symmetrical relation to the material practices of destruction which give rise to their own norms or anomia– the body in war, as agent or recipient of violence, is where this disconnection can be made tangible. Conditions of embodiment/disembodiment are the truth of the truth of war, to the degree that the latter is designed as a politics of truth. Violence becomes a measure without measure. This was my shift from the conditions of antagonism to the relations of antagonism, from jus ad bellum, justified war, to jus in bello, justice in war, which in effect is absent. And here it must be noted that the privation of jus in bello can be attributed to the historical shift, that since Hobbes, the state is longer designed to deliver justice but to deliver security, which requires its ongoing creation of insecurity as the justification of war.

The “bomb” thrown at me was iconoclasm, in which the censor’s gaze was more indicative of the academy than of what I had actually written. In effect, these moralizing, eroticized and optical condemnations were themselves an attempt to purge terror through a vicarious catharsis secured by aesthetic distance. Titillating optical and gendered metaphors and related theodicies permeated this critique (“anti-humanist,” “voyeurism,” ethnoporn” the speculum of violence” — we know the orificial and gendered function of the speculum). I found these traumatropes to be very American, and having little to do with how the people I spoke with in Northern Ireland or later in South Africa enacted and experienced violence. In Northern Ireland in the 1980s, whether in reference to released detainees from Long Kesh, to mothers struggling to sustain the integrity of domestic spaces under state raids and surveillance, and to veterans of police torture, the abuse of prescription tranquilizers was endemic. They did not experience or describe violence as erotic. The Blanket-men and Blanket-women in the H-Blocks and other prisons, who co-existed with their feces and urine in their cells during their No Wash protests, did not find their situation erotic. I was generously given their oral histories and heard occasional distant explosions– my relation to violence was sonic, not visual.

What academic critics found offensive was my putting these folks’ oral histories into conversation with philosophical discourse that advanced a descriptive intimacy with conditions of embodiment/disembodiment based on a phenomenological intensity rooted in Hegel, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. Yet, descriptive intimacy and intensity is meant to be the graphic vocation of ethnography, and no description is atheoretical nor devoid of normativity. This juxtaposition of violence and philosophy was a deliberate textual strategy on my part to minimize the moral ghettoizing of Northern Ireland, to prevent its scholarly relegation to a state of exception that could then be dismissed and forgotten as Other, as abnormal, particular and idiosyncratic. Any ethnography of Ireland was at that time consigned to an “Europeanist Anthropology” which had little canonical caché in the discipline. Ireland was not seen as relevant to colonial/postcolonial/subaltern studies. However, later events such as the War on Terror validated my intuition that Northern Ireland was one paradigmatic neocolonial site for the birth of a global biapolitics I term counterinsurgent governmentality. (Biapolitics derives from the Hellenic bia, biasmos meaning violence and force).

From where did they speak, those who charged my writing as aestheticizing violence? Where was this non-aesthetic and apparently ’commonsensical’ ground (simply another aesthetic system) on which they based their discourse, and why was this terrain from which such classifications issued not subject to a similar cultural interrogation? Was a discourse that conserved the realist. parsimonious writing of Anglo-Saxon social science a non-aestheticizing approach? Did the mechanical or organicist reduction of violence to functionalist models, modes and relations of production, dematerializing statistical quantification or a datable event history avoid aestheticization? Such stratagems, in not giving cultural offense in their presentation of violence implicitly gave aesthetic pleasure in their filtering of violence. Consider that the statistical representation of war causalities presupposes an aesthetic of equivalence based on numerability. The war dead and damaged may be countable, however they are not numerable insofar as numerability implies the exchangeability or equivalence of each death with another. The proper number of a death in war is one- the measure of irreplaceable singularity that cannot be compressed or adequated; death’s iteration would then produce another one. The historical continua in which such deaths occur are likewise not numerable and therefore inequivalent and inasesthetic to the degree that these continua render numerability inoperable. 

I responded to this canonical iconoclasm in a series of essays most notably “On Cultural Aesthesia: from Desert Storm to Rodney King (1994) and Violence and Vision: the Prosthetics and Aesthetics of Terror (1997). These essays contested the unquestioned hegemony of synoptic and visual realism in the mediatic and academic depiction of violence as an aesthetic that disavowed the social conditions of its production. I view many of the reactions to FoV as embedded in formulaic realisms that dominate anthropology and other empiricist scholarship that disavow the political and media history of their descriptive norms and idioms. I critiqued visual and synoptic realism as the “cult of the immediately ascertainable fact” (Ernst Bloch). Synoptic and visual realism can be traced back to 19th century practices of bio-social typification and anomaly detection through case histories and photography instituted by the police, prisons, asylums poor houses, and colonial regimes respectively targeting criminals, the mentally disabled, immigrants, the indigent, the racialized and the primitivized. These figures were juridically, textually and photographically abstracted from the threatening crowd created by industrial capitalism or colonial pacification.  The body and its circulation became the metadata permitting the detection of the socially anomalous. The narrative aesthetics of contemporary social sciences and regimes of care descend from this political technology of the dossier and case history. The medical and social-psychological terminology that brands the body as “presenting” something anomalous to a disembodied, sovereign gaze that eschews its own presentation is indicative of this archival legacy.  Individuated bodies were collated into precomprehended  collectivities that required hierarchical observation and compulsory visibility. The case history genre radicalized the juridical decoporealization of the text in relation to its author and its subject so that these files and folders autonomously circulated as simulacra, of the embodied anomaly that they enframed and incarcerated in sentencing paper and power.

In the above essays, I argued that aestheticization is not only an opportunistic narrative norm, but an embedded dispositif, a power-knowledge apparatus, mobilized through in-situ performances of force by executive power. In anatomizing the reedited and aestheticized video used to exonerate the police officers who beat Rodney King, I advanced the concept of cultural anesthesia—defined as the testimonial pre-emption of the sensorial and embodied experience of victims and witnesses of violence in a public culture. The knowledge claims of survivors of violence are rendered culturally inadmissable along lines of race, class, gender, ethnicity, geography and religion. Consider the common-sense knowledge in the African-American community concerning the risks of police encounters that are illegible to the white majority. I argued that many survivors of transacted and structural violence at home and abroad are subjected to iconoclastic strictures that impose pre-emptive cultural insensitivity to their suffering and testimony. I anatomized a self-indemnifying racial aesthetics in police violence used against King that later reappeared in the trials of the killers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others. The presumption of black culpability and white innocence in the police-vigilante “pre-emptive” killings of African-Americans executes an aesthetics of race, a pornography of American violence, that re-enacts a 500-year-old slavocratic surveillance apparatus.

In an essay on the policing of the AIDs affected and infected unhoused in NYC, I advanced the scopic dispositif of a white public space that instates the civic dereliction of the racially subjugated that informs police terror. 6 The aesthetics of white public space and its fixation on inadmissible and anomalous raced bodies and their history has recently come to the fore with Trump’s suppression of embodied protests against racial violence on the nation’s playing fields. His politics of the pose, of the proper posture to be accorded to subordinating symbols of fidelity resurrects the colonial era discourse on disaffection from the sovereign as a political crime. Coupled with his condemnation of head injury prevention measures in football, Trump personifies a racial anaesthesiology, in which Black lives do not matter, except under the optical aesthetics and spectacle of entertaining and disposable life.

In Archives of the Insensible violence is read as a photography of history and cinematic aesthetic (which is not reducible to what is conventionally termed cinema). In the opening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1999 film Notre Musique he unfolds a cinematics of war by montaging and historically leveling diverse cinematic genres traversing documentary, found footage, Hollywood epics, silent and sound cinema. Godard further eschews all chronological sequence of genres of war and cinema by moving backwards and forwards in both historical and cinematic time as if in a dream or trance.  He delivers Kittler’s reverse time axis through Benjamin’s tactile and ballistical image, that deliberately leaves no time for coherent or ethical witnessing of what he violently unspools. In my view Godard’s montage instructs the historical witness that we can have no memory or experience of 20th and 21th century war outside of cinema. We enter war through the future anterior of a cinematic lens of scopics and targets and in-place moralizing frames or emplotments. In war, as a cinematics of history, it is the ideal arc of damaged photopolitical flesh unspooling towards an iconological infinity that produces war as materializing the idea of progress. The elliptic technicity of cinematic cuts, shot/reverse shot and montage instate the elliptical ordering of historical experience.

I write from the body as a volume in perpetual disintegration as Foucault describes it. This plasticity of the body points to the inscriptive movement of historical time on and through the membrane of the body as a medium of historial affect and appearing. We can ask why historical transformation for war, peace, justice and mastery tends to be rendered visible and monstrated through the radical alterations of material substrates like the scarified body or the ruined built environment? This is Godard’s question in Notre Musique: what is the historical structure of destructibility? Why are programs for the acceleration and cinematic compression of historical time, for the temporalization of history dramatized on the surface of the body through transcriptions of force?  Writing from the body excavates the dehistoricized as Hélène Cixous

has argued.

I ask how does the body become a historiographic surface an archival apparatus as the support of political codes and their locus of actualization? In war, the act of striking, as a flattening inscriptive impress and graphic force, is a double marking of the receiving body as substrate, for it simultaneously creates both the archived and a war archive in a single blow. This installation becomes apparent when we detach transcribed surfaces of writing, commemorating, and archiving from technocratic and communicative neutrality and recognize that the enveloped surface of violent inscription can encompass political geography, daily habitus, and the body in which the act of striking, stamping, or impress, can entail graphic projectiles and missives, from smart bombs and armed drones to the electric current coursing across the body of the tortured.

In Archives of the Insensible I describe writing violence, as shooting blanks. Shooting blanks means centering on the empty spaces around the manifest scripts and graphemes of war machines, puncturing or filling in their omissions, blind spots, aversions, disavowals, negative space, white noise, and counterfeit utilities. Shooting blanks means that writing violence never resolves war’s horror or effectuates its termination. To write violence is to enter a labyrinth from which there are no easy exits that would let one move past violence to the post-violent. We have no definition of the latter—peace is characterized as the absence of war, that is as a privation of a privation without positive substance. The task of the theorist is to rewrite that labyrinth of violence, to remap it in-situ in order to think it otherwise.

SK: I enjoyed Chapter 6 of Archives of the Insensible the most. I was quite thrilled with the way in which you tackle the question of the scar and scarring and the way in which it forms socialities. There is a certain unevenness in the book, yet at the same time one can see when the essays speak to each other through their respective passages as with Foucault’s work.

AF:  The scar is an archive of historical time written into and onto the body, the politico-temporal circumcision that produces the historical subject. Scarification as political circumcision is the passage into the space of law and language as institutions that cut and demarcate the singularizing name and the exclusive community. The scar installs a possibility of community among those so marked and divided, an ethnicity, a race, a nationality, a belonging and nonbelonging.

The passage on the scar extends Derrida insight that we cannot turn around scars. He writes “You can’t turn around your wound. A wound has taken place in the body. And how can you turn around a wound which in one way is your own? From a topological point of view this already resembles the game of an impossible geometry: you can’t turn around your wound.  .  . it forbids you this distance.”7The section on embodied history as scar was written against the predominant trajectory of so called trauma studies in the humanities which theorizes trauma as privation and as a breakdown experience that is disempowering through paralyzing repetition and limit experiences.  Traumatization is predominantly theorized as setting a narratological limit beyond which the traumatized cannot fully narrate themselves and the history they have undergone. This incision is line that cannot be crossed that bars historical transformation and in its place, substitutes a regime of care. The discourse on political trauma confesses a desire for the end of history, the impossibility of historicizability as such. Such narrative limits certainly do exist as I discussed in reference to the South African truth commission that proved unable to narrate racialized violence in its amnesty tribunals, despite the biographies of it personnel and despite the weight of evidence attesting to the racializing of bodies through extreme acts of force by the apartheid regime. However, I also pose political scarification as historically generative which is evident in how the collective topographic and chronic scar known as 9/11 functions as endlessly convertible violence, a serial political automatism, that triggers one war after another with increasingly anorexic justification.  That frozen point in time and space termed ground zero is a shibboleth (a password or code) that in being enunciated correctly, even orthopedically and therapeutically functions as an origin point, debt, ever-withdrawing abyss, void, hole, crevice, and demand. Appealing to the scarifying archive of ground zero is the precondition for anything to happen politically in America, from war to the mass surveillance of civilian populations to winning presidential elections.  Though the war on terror is meant to redress ground zero it has become a rescarification of this historical wound. As I wrote “If one cannot turn around a scar, it is because we do not know how to turn a scar without making a scar, which is to scar a scar. “One cannot depart from a scar without leaving a scar”

Or at another more fundamental level, in Archives of the Insensible I described the sacrificial circumcision that differentiates the human from the animal or the unhuman as a politically generative scarification predicated on the misrecognition we call speciation—speciation institutes a politics. I ask: if the political emplacement of the animal has yet to historically take place outside of acts of misrecognition, then might the missed encounter with the animal real, as the sacrificial cut that makes the human, originate the political? I am neither placid nor fatalistic about this archive of accumulated misrecognition. However, this historical conundrum is not resolved by proposing that the scar of misrecognition be historically rectified by a medicinal politics of commensurating and conciliating recognition; rather, it suggests that being political is contingent on acts of generative misrecognition. The political both institutes and is historically formed by constitutive and mutually inadmissible antagonisms as formative zones of unrecognizability that are materialized in and circulated through the figures of humanity, animality, the creaturely and monstrosity.  In war and policing this can become the targeting of the human through the animal signifier in a doubling of violence that fuses nomination with the act. Animality is not passivity here; rather, this targeting entails the weaponization of animality. This is a tripled violence, since as Derrida write “in this logic, one is never cruel toward what is called an animal, or a non-human living creature. One is already exculpated of any crime toward any non-human living being.”8 We have to ask what is the relation of the political to this scarified history, and it traumatropology? Generative misrecognition is the key to what Geoffrey Bennington calls a politics of politics. As Derrida asserts, the encounter with unrecognizability, to the degree that it can threaten violence, reciprocally begins ethics.

Regarding the second part of your query    I am not sure you mean by “uneven” what is your concept of unevenness that you’re deploying? Is it related to the scar for the principle of the scar is opposed to evenness?

SK: What I meant was that, given the variety of geographic spaces and the questions you are engaging with there’s a certain kind of unevenness, at the same time those faculties and questions you posit is actually built into the way in which these chapters are structured and related. Thus, they are uneven by themselves but at the same time they relate to each other by repeatedly asking questions about factuality and actuality.

AF: Unevenness, asymmetry, the heterogenous and heteronomy come with the polemological terrain which can never be a smoothly navigated analytic surface that is prepared in advance as the topography of truth claiming and theorization. In his historical analysis of Schmitt’s friend/foe binary, Reinhart Koselleck proposed that all political concepts have their counter concept, the most extreme being asymmetrical or incongruent concepts that exclude mutual recognition between the interfacing alterities. Working with asymmetrical counter-concepts generates historical deterritorialization and dislocation.9 I envision asymmetric war as an assault on political, cultural and economic asymmetry that interdicts any counter-conceptualization of securitization and threat; it is the programmatic attempt to impose, epistemic evenness and smoothness onto the cultural-economic-political surfaces of the earth by turning them into disciplining tactical kill-boxes as the drone lexicon puts it.  It is as if globalization can only be envisioned through the filter of symmetry which then has to be imposed through geometricizing force. The asymmetrical war that is currently being waged, transforms the polarity between symmetrical order, associated with lawfulness, and the asymmetrical, associated with the unlawful, into an unstable oscillation between law and nonlaw, between nominative violence and infinitive violence, both of which inform state practice.

The archeology of political symmetry is embedded in the Latin term Norma or leveling, standard and pattern. 10 The leveling epistemology of war is complicit with the epistemic trajectory of the human sciences toward leveling norms, evenness, and cognitive navigability. The metaphysics of the social or human sciences are entangled with the dream of the smooth surface that supports the continuity of a certain historical, panoptical and categorizing subject. I begin Archives of the Insensible by quoting Jean-luc Nancy and Lacoue Labarthe “War is philosophical and whatever its destructive power, it always maintains itself within the limits of the philosophical, and it even maintains those very limits.” 11  The concepts of maintenance and limit here infer evenness, normativity and leveling– the unimpeded bi-directional commerce between war and philosophy- a philo-polemology– what Derrida describes as the clandestine alliance between power and light (optics) that enables techno-political possession. The search for evenness both crosses and crosses out war and philosophy by blurring any distinction between them.

Yet, war also carves grooves and striations resulting in uneven regional ontologies that resist philosophical reduction and gentrification. Recently, Trump in reference to Afghanistan declared he was abandoning nation building for killing terrorists. There is too much contingent, uneven and unmasterable difference in nation building, regime change and compulsory democratization, whereas killing terrorists, as with drone crowd killings, is a leveling and arresting of difference particularly when it does not differentiate between combatants and noncombatants. The imposition of a clarifying norm of smoothness and evenness through drones is Trump’s geopolitical imaginary whose utopia is the militarily imposed and barricaded golf course. I am sure he dreams of planting North Korea, Iran and the Mexican border barrier with golfing greens– what better way of exporting the America-first way of life.  This is Trump’s Versailles imperium – the ultimate political expression of symmetry and levelling in which military arsenals are deployed as the media of political landscaping. (The geometry of Versailles was designed to promote a visual immersion that instructed the aristocracy on the geometry of cannon siting and fortification design that posed the battlefield as a mathematical construct.)

The desire for totalization, evenness and symmetry are complicit here and express a certain type of imperial arrogance of social science. What totalization or descriptive evenness is possible when war has fractured a social formation, and the survivors are living as and in fragments? That is why the concepts of disframing or deframing are central to my discussion of anti-terrorist sovereignty. The political witness of today’s asymmetric war is confronted with the vertigo of deframing or disframing. To quote Pascal Bonitzer deframing is “the radical off-centredness of a point of view that mutilates the body and expels it beyond the frame to focus instead on dead, empty zones…the use of the frame as a cutting-edge, the living pushed out to the periphery beyond the frame… the focusing on the bleak or dead sections of the scene.”12   That is the perfect description of collateral damage as the core ideologeme of the war on terror and it certainly promotes an optics of the fractured margin and limit zone where symmetry is unavailable to the witness.


SK: I definitely think of unevenness as an advantage.


 AF:  Well you voiced it as a deficit that came after a “but”.


SK: Maybe it the British air, I am in London so…They made me a bit cantankerous

AF: So, okay [laughs] having lived in and written about Northern Ireland I can empathize. I never had a good reception of my work in the UK because of my book on Northern Ireland pointed to a certain ethical and juridical unevenness in British democracy concerning the governance of that territory as their first and last colony. 

AA. I was wondering if you could speak about the style of prose that you particularly deploy in this book, your strategy of concept-building and coining terms which strikes me as particularly Derridean way of taking antinomies and combining them.

AF: As much as I might appear to be doing so, this was not a narrative strategy nor a prose style meant to give migraines to the reader. It does address the style of the state. I was conveying my own travails in rethinking contemporary state formation through the praxis of war. I have been witnessing state power engage in the systematic self- retraction of its violence in order to indemnify it from the law and other courts of conscience and accountability with the advent of the doctrines of collateral damage, enhanced interrogation and extraordinary renditions to black sites. Imperial models of neo-colonial war seemed to be inadequate though many of their tactical elements reappear in the war on terror. I wrote of collateral damage which is axial to the war on terror and its myths of precision targeting “What is deemed collateral damage is the trace of the enemy that is erased as that trace. The victims and ruins of collateral damage constitute the nonarrival of the enemy; they materialize a missive that has missed its mark, an illegibility gone astray, scratched out, and misaddressed. The victim of collateral damage is the envoy of the enemy in withdrawal, a postal artefact of war, and a dead letter that has been dispatched and cancelled in place of the terminal enemy whom the collaterally damaged simulate and evoke. Collateral damage as the nonarrival of the enemy is atopic, without place, and anachronic, a nontime within wartime.” We might then speak of a “deconstructionist state at war” to the degree that the autopositioning of the securocratic state in its law, violence, and terror appears within the oscillations, tempo, and velocity of the play of presence and ab-sense, “an architecture made up of sequences that are structured as if time could become malleable, reversible and controllable material.”13

Archives of the Insensible presents the sensorium of power, as the political organization of affective intensities that circulate between being and nonbeing, willing and unwilling, doing and undoing, affect and numbing, perception and apperception, aisthesis and anesthesia as an architecture of effectivity. I wrote of the sovereign will to unwill violence, which is not to choose nonviolence, but to make of one’s violence a nonviolence—which can be to desist from its effects, costs, and consequences in tandem with its chronic infliction. I track the circulation of power between political form and formlessness as a meta-formation, that can be called apophatic sovereignty, an executive power that repels any exhaustive witnessing and description of its force– a self-relating negativity that enacts mastery over the (with)holding of forms and consequences of force to interdict historical witness. Violence is raised to a higher degree of potency to the extent that it remains in a state of remotion, as formless, impotential, and indeterminate. I explore this nameless and blameless war on names in relation to genocide. The Israeli rationing of life support in Gaza from caloric in-take and medicine to building materials can be identified as a “sociocide,” which registers the limited possibilities of sustaining core forms of social life under a regime of enforced human minimality. The appellation raises the comprehension of sociocide as not yet genocide—as the Israeli will not to will genocide, which in Gaza has no relation to the annulment of privation, terror, or violence. The, sociocide of Gaza is a logic that marks the latency and plasticity of a genocidal promise and potential that is virtualized and rationed in the sociocidal ratio of rationing humanity in Gaza. Sociocide in Gaza is the regulation of Palestinian human minimality by an Israeli human maximality that is morally underwritten by the legacy of Jewish genocide. This is what Edward Said meant by the Palestinians as victim of the victim.

This antinomic schema between rarefied force and shapeless violence is the figuration that Derrida termed the beast and the sovereign—the predatory figures who are situated beyond all social order. Rodney King’s body was put to productive use as the sovereign’s beast; he was beaten less for what he was actually doing— cringing, evading, and flinching in the face of taser shocks, baton blows and kicks— than for what he might do, or meant to do as a rogue beast. And this action replayed within law’s purview the primal scene of a law-founding expropriation of the violence of the beast which is why anomic nature and biologized disorder (raced animality and drug mania) populated the police discourse that advanced the beating of King as a civilizing fate. King’s bestiality was required to establish him as the bodily interruption of the functioning of law—as a site of nonlaw where this interruption and its redress could be made known, displayed, and adjudicated in a dramaturgy of law’s foundation. The exploitation of his formlessness in court erased any distinction between process and judgment; video reversioning was made to coincide with the procedural reason and materiality of law—and no one, neither judge nor prosecutor nor jury member, challenged this artificed chain of evidence. The reversioned video, supplemented by the voice-overs of experts, not only told the story of King’s pacification and arrest, but spun a fable of the becoming-law of law.

This is a violence that immunizes itself against definitive description and judgment by law, political ideology, technocracy and teleocracy. As Reiner Schürmann, wrote of this apophatic logic: “These negations have but one goal— to keep us from conceiving the one as position, as thesis.” I ask can this absence of position, this lack of a stable Archimedian site, of centration, be a new formation of sovereignty? The counter terrorist state is apophatic to the degree that the state presents itself as a fractured frame, as dismedia, and as the broken middle that frames only in the breaking of frames— legal, political, and communicative. I evoked this dynamic in our discussion of containerization, and fronts and frontiers.

Derrida writes, “Nothing can happen to absolute power, to the sovereign. If something happens to God, it implies vulnerability in God. Absolute power is also total impassability with regards to an event.”14 This is an apophatic description of sovereignty because this insensitivity of the sovereign power speaks to the inability to describe a sovereign violence in positive terms to the degree that it has been preemptively immunized from witnessing and dejustification. However, this formulation also implies a dialectic wherein sovereignty shows, performs, and materializes its impassibility and insensitivity by bringing destruction to vulnerable others.   Sovereign right appears as trans-ascendant only in that which is figured, diminished and reduced as destructible. The sovereign can give the event or the time of its revealability through fear, violence, terror, and capital penalty, which takes time as the destructibility of those to whom such events encompass. This selfsame gesture conversely permits no affective and conditioning event or time of witnessing to touch, sensitize, or pass through sovereignty in its remotion from its own violence and surfaces of attack.

However, this is not an exclusive American tendency. Benjamin Netanyahu advanced a strategy of disavowed and outsourced killing when speaking mournfully to CNN of the Gazan civilians killed by Israeli missile strikes in 2014: “All civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use, I mean it’s gruesome, they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the dead, the more the better.”15 In Netanyahu’s phantasmagoria, each “carefully” launched Israeli missile is subject to a mishap in its refunctioning by a Hamas imputedly committed to the mechanical mass production of televisual Palestinian dead. The Israeli first-person shooter, morally inoculated by the Holocaust with an a priori moral incapacity for atrocity, practices a ballistics of innocence. The Israeli missile assault was described by government spokesperson as restricted by “hesitancy and care,” and as ultimately in search of a “sustainable quiet.” Under this polemological regime of “care and quietude”, civilian causalities in Gaza are imputedly emplotted by Hamas. Israel’s launched ordnance becomes the accidentalized prosthetic of the Palestinian will to telegenic death. The “true violence” of Gaza is cast in lead by Netanyahu as the self-enclosure of the agent and patient of force exclusively within the Palestinian body politic.

Francois Hollande cut off the random killing of Parisians on November 13, 2015 from the collateral damage of his already under way bombing campaign in Syria.  Under the ceremonial facade of retribution and redressive securitization, Hollande effectively ethically neutralized France’s prior anti-ISIS bombing while further bracketing residual socio-economic racism against resident North African and African immigrants and citizens at home. He and his advisors had always calculated the cost of bombing Syria as causalities of terror at home. The killing, mutilation, and displacement of, not only ISIS, but of disposable Syrian noncombatants, drove the future anterior of the 2015 Paris attacks as the catastrophe that will have been. Hollande and his advisors robotically murdered their own citizens at a temporal distance as corollary to robotic drone killing-at a cartographic distance. This bombing of Syria was the temporal pre-possibility of the Bataclan and other massacres and thus was the calculated disavowal of the ‘random’ Parisian victims who were cordoned off by Hollande as absolutely external to his current war making. The catastrophe at Paris, echoing the late and lamented Werner Hamacher, “already happened, in essence, before it happens,” as an encrypted node of the kill-chain in part assembled by the French assault on Syria.

SK: Some of the chapters in the book are dedicated to your friends and colleagues. However, I think it is Reiner Schürmann, the late Heideggarian philosopher at the New School, that this book speaks to the most. Your take on his unfinished magnum opus, Broken Hegemonies, […]. that has been almost excluded from the academy, and you trust in the richness of his thought at the point where others fell silent.

AF: These homages include Ernesto Laclau whose discussion of political grounding/ungrounding (abgrund) intersects with Schürmann’s an-archic political act through the thought of Heidegger. Reiner was influential on so many levels. Everyday I mourn his untimely death as I do the death of Jacques Derrida who I never met. I imagine them in unending conversation particularly because in Broken Hegemonies Reiner stages an eloquent and often unnoticed reconciliation between Derrida and Foucault around the idea of break, rupture, the nonoriginary origin of the origin, the foundational phantasm as a shibboleth and the historical a priori. However, I can only be very modest in how I actualized a small fragment of his enormous contribution to contemporary political thought, through my idiosyncratic lens. Idiosyncratic, because Reiner would have shied away from working with specific historical and empirical sites as I have done with his political thought and equally with that of Derrida– with both philosophers I seek to excavate and mobilize their postmaterialist approach to materiality through the thinking of violence. Reiner’s theorization of the political as an-archic action determined my model of counterinsurgent governmentality as an ungrounded politics of truth. As he wrote, this politics of truth (I paraphrase) “is an historical entity grounded on other historical entities, which is to ground nothing at all.” I recall another passage of Reiner’s that is profoundly Janus faced in its historical perspicacity, synchronizing the past and future with a moving eloquence that unintentionally evokes Benjamin’s text on the Angelus Novus:

Tragedy traces out something like a path of sight. The hero sees the laws in conflict. Then—this is the moment of tragic denial—he blinds himself towards one of them, keeping his gaze fixed on the other. Armies and cities have lived, and continue to live, within the shadow of this blindness. Then follows a catastrophe that opens his eyes: this is the moment of tragic truth. The vision of irreconcilable differing takes his sight away (even gouges his eyes out, as was the case for Oedipus and in another way for Tiresias) and it singularizes the hero to the point that the city has no room for him any longer. From denial to recognition, blindness is transmuted. His orbits empty, Oedipus sees a normative double bind, i.e., tragic differing.”16

From this figuration Reiner would have theorized the war on terror as a globalizing cultural isomorphism, as the imperial imposition of the good that holds us to a single bind in which one region of liberal normativity has been maximalized and enforced as a globalizing illiberality culminating in the perversity of humanitarian war. The last chapter of Archives of the Insensible extends his discussion on tragedy in Broken Hegemonies to postwar transitional justice as a philosophical anthropology.  I anatomize the political theology of the humanitarian concept of the inhuman in terms of Reiner’s politics of the tragic double bind. Derrida implicitly points to this philosophical anthropology when he wrote with some caustic irony: “Here is a humanity shaken by a movement, which would like itself to be unanimous; here is a human race which would claim to accuse itself all at once, publicly and spectacularly, of all the crimes committed in effect by itself against itself, ‘against humanity.”17 Reiner’s thinking of tragic forensics inspired my response to this passage in Archives: “Humanity’s self-incrimination is autodidactic as humanity teaches itself to know itself through the lessons of criminal suffering (pathemata mathemata). This transmundane criminality covertly confesses humanity as complicit with an inhumanity that, in profaning the human, reciprocally defines its scarifying genesis and consequential sacredness, which lie dormant and archived in the crime scene. When humanity witnesses itself as a crime scene, the questioner becomes the questioned, the accuser the accused, the investigator the investigated, and the entire status of the accusation and of humanity’s jurisdictional authority falls, wittingly or not, unto crisis. No silence, amnesia, or amnesty can sustain the border between the crime and its juridical redress—the imputed scar and its imputing rescarring by memory and the law. The self-institution of humanity through self-imputation institutes a strict, unforgiving, and protean circularity. Humanity creates itself as criminal and the criminal as its creator.”

Reiner’s thinking practices a tragic sensibility he calls amphinoein, thinking from two sides at once without arriving at the finality or the reconciliation of the One—be that theological, ontological, anthropological, victimological, or nomological. He is increasingly more pertinent and necessary– when thinking through the presidency of Donald Duck I can give him the last word on what he termed the play of hegemonic fantasms that ground the truth of truth in our contemporary era of, what Avital Ronell calls, “loser sons” such as Trump, Putin, Berlusconi, Kim Jong Un, and Asad: “Under the influence of a fantasm, one associates representations according to the hysterics mobilizing the psychical or public apparatuses.”



1 Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, François Matheron trans. (London: Verso, 2006), 21.

2 Jacques Derrida, 2009, “Unconditionality or Sovereignty: The University at the Frontiers of Europe, Oxford Literary Review, Volume 31 Issue 2, Page 115-131”13-14.

3 Reiner Schürmann, Broken Hegemonies, trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 557.

4 Ernst Jünger, E.(1992) ‘Total Mobilization’in Richard Wolin (ed.) The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical ReaderCambridge, MAMIT Press. , pp. 119139.

5 Alan Sekula, “Freeway to China,” Public Culture 12, no. 2 (2000): 411.

6 Allen Feldman, Philoctetes Revisited: White Public Space, HIV, Homelessness and the Political Geography of Public Safety”. Social Text 68,Vol. 19, no, 3, Fall 2001: pp. 58-89. See also Helán Enoch Page, No Black Public Sphere in White Public Space: Racialized Information and Hi-Tech Diffusion in the Global African Diaspora, Transforming Anthropology, Volume 8, Issue 1-2 January 1999: pp:111–128.

7 Jacques Derrida, 2004, Questioning Judaism: Interviews by Jacques Derrida, ed. Elizabeth Weber (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 40..

8 Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 1, Seminar of 2002–2003, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 107.

9 Reinhart Koselleck, ‘The Historical-Political Semantics of Asymmetric Counterconcepts.” In Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, translated by Keith Tribe ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) 155-191.

10 Reiner Schürmann, Broken Hegemonies, trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 206.

11Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, trans.,François Raffoul and David Pettigrew, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 92.

12 Pascal Bonitzer, “Deframings,” Cahiers du Cinéma vol. 4: 1973–1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle, ed. David Wilson (New York: Routledge, 2000), 198–99, 200.

13 Pierre Legendre, “The Dogmatic Value of Aesthetics,” Parallax 14, no. 4 (2008):Feldman, Allen. Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photopolitics, and Dead Memory, 13.

14 Jacques Derrida, “Epoché and Faith: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” in Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments, ed. Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart (London: Routledge, 2005), 44..

15 “Netanyahu: Israel Seeks ‘Sustainable Quiet’ with Gaza,” CNN staff, updated 1: 04 PM EDT, July 21, 2014.

16 Reiner Schürmann, 1991 “Ultimate Double Binds,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 14, no. 2/ 1: 217.

17 Jacques Derrida, 2001 On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (New York: Routledge, 29. 

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Naked Punch © 2024. All Rights Reserved.