Feldman’s Critique of Violence

I want to begin by thanking Allen Feldman for asking me to participate in this event to discuss his important new book. Feldman offers us one of the most powerful critiques of violence through what he calls “micrological description.” From the trial of Ashraf Salim Abd al Salam Sultan, to the scene of Guantánamo more generally, the proliferation of drones, the deaths of the Baader Meinhof, and the brutal murder of Rodney King, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Feldman both confronts us with scenes of violence and attempts to confront them. To read Feldman is to undertake a frightening, sometimes nightmarish journey. Before turning back to Feldman’s argument I want to frame my remarks by reference to Jacques Derrida’s infamous statement that deconstruction is justice and to Ernst Bloch’s notion of non-synchronicity. It may seem strange, at first glance, to put Derrida and Bloch together—but Feldman himself does exactly that. Indeed, this framework grows out of one interpretation of Feldman himself, although it may not be one he would necessarily embrace. Or perhaps he would. That is my challenge to him. To quote Feldman, and including a reference to Samuel Weber:

Indeed, my focus is on formations of formless sovereignty as a limit experience of political perception that refuses definitive outline. This is the writing of the present as perforated by political protention, “which can be said to escape the logic of presence because paradoxically it does not come after that which is identifiable—the ‘mark’ or element that is said to ‘split.’ It at the same time comes before it. For it is precisely this vestige or remnant—which is to say precisely a certain after-math—that makes possible identification and hence everything identifiable… a certain coming after emerges here as also the condition under which anything can come to be in the first place.” I rifle through this incompletely occupied and remaindered space through phenomenological infiltration, specularity, and speculation. The dystopian literacies of the war on terror point to a u-topos in the present, the non-place of a future that has begun to arrive but resists prognosis in a present monopolized by finalistic prognostic fantasies and powers.1

Feldman rightfully allies himself with Avital Ronell in her practice of “shooting blanks,” a Derridean practice with which she—in the name of otherness—blasts holes in the so-called realism that claims to know all that is and forecloses any possibility of another world. Ronell’s “practice of shooting blanks” can be considered the practice of deconstruction as justice. And, therefore, I will argue that Feldman’s work of violence does have practical implications, although at times he seems wary of the claim that it does. Or is he so wary? That is my ultimate question to him.

Feldman powerfully argues that the idea of jus ad bellum is exhausted as transcendental truth or grounding apperception of the justification of the war on terror, whether it take the form of appeals to democracy, human rights, or homeland security. Instead, for Feldman, the matter-of-factness of truth as a justificatory and securing ground of violence is counterposed and reinforced through what Feldman calls a “prosecutorial media.” Hence his statement that violence is photo-graphy, which in turn produces truth effects that split off facticity from actuality. To quote Feldman, “The anomalies that arise in war between justified factuality and dejustifying and disavowed actuality register the difference between constituted power (such as an order of veridiction) and constitutive power as formative shapelessness behind and beyond political shape.”2

On one interpretation, we can understand this formative shapelessness as the actuality that cannot be extinguished even if it appears buried and also understand that this burial or disappearance cannot as a result kill off what Bloch calls the principle of hope because the not-yet of non-synchronicity breaks through the containment of an all-encompassing reality that purportedly forecloses any other way to be. Bloch’s speculative materialism insists that we think of matter as always being different, so that a static ontological conception of facticity is philosophically incorrect, as well as politically and ethically misguided. It may seem strange to speak of justice and hope and Feldman, but, thinking both with and against him, I think hope and justice haunt his argument, and for good purpose. We know Feldman’s answer to the criticism that he aestheticizes violence and is therefore part of the problem and not the solution. Feldman himself argues that writing on violence cannot be a solution and he does not pretend that it is. Instead, as I suggested, he refers to himself as shooting blanks. But on one reading of Ronell, she is practicing the “shooting of blanks” to crack open the purportedly coherent whole and exposes the unseen that visibility imposes. What better way to describe the “effect” of her own practice of deconstruction as justice. Again to quote Feldman, himself in reference to his chapter on the trial of Salem, what is uncovered is a “legible calligraphy of a recognizable life before an unrecognizable law.”3

I want to return now to Feldman’s engagement with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, but with a focus on the women witnesses he describes and the role of the demonic in their discourse of what comes out of torture. To do so I will connect this discourse with uBuntu, both as a philosophy and an ethical practice. But first I want to recount the controversial amnesty clause of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee for those unfamiliar with it:

1. The full disclosure of the human rights violation for which indemnity was requested.
2. Demonstrated political motivation for the act that included following the orders of a command structure.
3. Proportionality, that is the moral and pragmatic relation between utilitarian and ideologically motivated goals and the violent means that were used.

With this background in mind, let us return to Feldman’s critique. In a certain sense Feldman’s critique, broadly construed, is that of the repudiation/conversionist model of transitional justice. As is often the case with Feldman, he has created a new concept, traumatropism, which he uses against someone like Dominick LaCapra to show how trauma can actually be productive in the repudiation/conversionist model by turning witnesses into victims of perpetrators. By allowing them to speak of their trauma, the Commission invites bystanders to join in the repudiation by the Commission itself. Therefore, trauma does not break up the status quo, but rather, in a certain sense, reinforces the idea that a true conversion has taken place—and yet leaves the beneficiaries completely off the hook. I completely agree with Feldman’s critique of the repudiation/conversionist model. I now want to turn to why torture is demonic, and to do so we need to turn to African philosophy.

The demonic is not some kind of ontological conception of evil. It is a moral sickness to which any of us can fall prey, and healing is always possible. The story of the women witnesses, and particularly of the healer that Feldman interviewed in South Africa, is that torture literally becomes part of the atmosphere. The atmosphere has been poisoned and as we breath in we are literally living in a material environment in which torture has become acceptable. Worse yet, by treating people like prey or food, in the sense that some of the security forces barbequed people they killed, the torturers have not only turned themselves to the side of the demonic, they have also unleashed a social world in which torture not only becomes normalized, it becomes perpetuated as a kind of social bond amongst those who have participated in it.

To understand the demonic in the South African sense, we need to look at the concept of uBuntu. UBuntu, in short summation, elaborates both an ontology and an ethic in which human beings are caught up in an affective chain, and therefore what one person does affects the entire environment. We often colloquially use the phrase “bad atmosphere.” But uBuntu makes philosophical sense of that phrase. We materialize our environment, including our physical environment in our relationships with one another. The demonic then is understood as a poisoned social relationship in which people tie themselves together through the worst kind of behavior towards others, such as torture. Thus, the witnesses that Feldman interviews have a very different understanding of the notion of the demonic, one which would free it from its capture of what is often called evil.

Could the torturers be healed? The answer is yes, because we can all be healed. But we cannot be healed unless we fully acknowledge that we have been captured by the demonic and therefore reenter the affective chains of transindividuality based on a full realization of the inhumanity that the torture has produced. We may seem to have strayed far from Derrida and Bloch, but I do not believe we have. Deconstruction as an endless restlessness also constantly evokes the name of a radical, if weak, emancipatory force, the force of the specter that insists that revolutionary memory is also a demand for an enactment against the horrors of the world that Derrida often wrote about. This brings Derrida close to Bloch’s speculative materialism. Bloch writes:

“Hence the password, by virtue of utopian conscience and knowledge which stands on guard, to adopt again and again the unmistakable path of what is aimed at, the dialectical path to the human house which indispensably communicates with the path itself, so that it is one. But this cannot be thought of highly enough, not just morally but in the same breath metaphysically, precisely with regard to faith without lies, to the What For which likewise reaches into the exact imagination. With that old enlightenment which omitted man least of all, and that new, finally due one which, when it comes to light, is precisely also at home with what is latent, without omitting its darker depths. There is enormous duping of ignorance, deception through false imagination, incense via transparent feelings. But there are also red mysteries in the world, indeed only red ones.” 4

The principle of hope survives today with Derrida’s specter, the specter that breaks up the so-called presence of facticity, and this breakage in Bloch also serves a constructive historical function. But has not Feldman told us that the critique of violence does not serve a constructive historical function? I leave Feldman with a challenge from Derrida: that deconstruction as justice calls us to negotiate, and that we should therefore grapple with what Derrida calls “the horrors of the world” and dirty our hands and build institutions. I leave Derrida with the last word:

Let us begin by distinguishing affirmation and position. I am very invested in this distinction. For me it is of the utmost importance. One must not be content with affirmation. One needs position. That is, one must create institutions. Therefore, one needs position. One needs a stance. Thus, negotiation, at this particular moment, does not simply take place between affirmation and negation, position and negations: it takes place between affirmation and position, because the position threatens the affirmation. That is to say that in itself institutionalization in its very success threatens the movement of unconditional affirmation. And yet this needs to happen, for if the affirmation were content to—how shall I say it—to wash its hands of the institution in order to remain at a distance, in order to say, ‘I affirm, and then the rest is of no interest to me, the institution does not interest me… let the others take care of that,’ then this affirmation would deny itself, it would not be an affirmation. Any affirmation, any promise in its very structure requires its fulfillment. There is no promise that does not require its fulfillment. Affirmation requires a position. It requires that one move to action and that one do something, even if it is imperfect.5


Bloch, Ernest. 2009. The Heritage of Our Times. London: Wiley.
Derrida, Jacques. 2002. Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Feldman, Allen. 2015. Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photopolitics, and Dead Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  1. Feldman, Archives of the Insensible, 25-6.
  2. Ibid., 1.
  3. Ibid., 63.
  4. Bloch, The Heritage of Our Times, 371-372.
  5. Derrida, Negotiations, 25-26.

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Drucilla Cornell

Drucilla Cornell is professor of political science, women’s studies, and comparative literature at Rutgers University. She is a playwright and also launched The uBuntu Project in South Africa in 2003. From her early work in critical legal studies and feminist theory to her more recent work on South Africa, transitional justice, and the jurisprudence of Ronald Dworkin, Professor Cornell continues to think through new and evolving issues in philosophy and politics of global significance. Her latest title, coauthored with Stephen Seely, is The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man.