Remarks on Allen Feldman’s Archives of the Insensible

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. My observations arising from reading this impressive book will be brief.

(1) The very first sentence of Allen’s book reads: “Archives of the Insensible explores war as a regime of truth, and truth claiming as forms of war.” [1]Feldman, Archives of the Insensible, 1. The constituents of war and peace are, in other words, interchangeable–even as justice and violence are fused. The language of the law, as Robert Cover reminded us, is profoundly dependent on violence, making that kind of violence in turn legitimate and legitimating. But beyond that, the language of the sovereign state and that of the consumer market together divert our senses and our feelings in the way the powers want them to be diverted. What puzzles me, however, is not so much how truth inhabits political and economic warfare or how truth claiming mimics it, but how we arrive at our sense of what war truly is. The truth, it is said, is the denial of a lie–or an assertion that something previously asserted is impossible. This latter kind of negation is, when continued as discourse, part of what is known in the Christian tradition as negative theology, and the dynamic language of negation it uses is known by the Greek term apophasis, a language central to mystical discourse in a variety of traditions. Allen has made creative (secular) use of this notion in his book to demonstrate how violence is made to appear the rejection of violence.

I’ll come back to the question of what war in our time is, but first I want to cite a striking paragraph from Hannah Arendt: “During the war, the lie most effective with the whole of the German people was the slogan of ‘the battle of destiny for the German people’ [der Schicksalskampf des deutschen Volkes], coined either by Hitler or by Goebbels, which made self-deception easier on three counts: it suggested, first, that the war was no war; second, that it was started by destiny and not by Germany; and, third, that it was a matter of life and death for Germans, who must annihilate their enemies or be annihilated.” [2]Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 52. So one might ask: Is the Global War on Terror not a war? Was it started by destiny? Is the choice before America: annihilate or be annihilated? What emerges strikingly—and Allen pursues this point ably in his book–is that the untruths of war are more interesting–and more consequential–than the truth of war. They certainly problematize the violence/anti-violence couple and push us into the middle of the deceptions of language. Thus after the Second World War every “Ministry of War” was renamed “Ministry of Defense,” at once a compliment to international law and a threadbare ruse—in that every war is claimed to be reactive and to be aiming at the restoration of the peace broken by destiny.

(2) Who doesn’t know the Clausewitzian formula, “War is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with a mixture of other means,” and its Foucauldian inversion, “politics is war by other means”? Both Clausewitz and Foucault blur the distinction; both imply, paradoxically, that politics indicates peace and that politics is not essentially different from war. Yet for the formulas to work against one another war must be identified as such, and not only by the legal criteria that define its beginning.

I have two questions that puzzle me. First: What is the difference between war and war games carried out in peacetime? And second: What is the difference between, on the one hand, military maneuvers and, on the other, virtual war games (i.e., videos used for training military operatives as well as for entertainment at home)? To the extent that videos are essential for drone attacks, video games become part of a continuous series of assassinations; these killings are not punishment, not a response to an imminent threat; they are part of a game “to detect, deter, disrupt, detain or destroy (civilian) networks before they can harm.” The American Global War on Terror is a failure (because terrorists continue to multiply as a consequence of the terrorizing of innocent villagers in the Middle East, and the growing fear of Euro-American populations, all of which enables the morphing of the liberal state into a security state, in which video games can be played safely at home, and police can use IT programs to predict where potential criminals might be lurking. The police program called “Stingray” is used to identify cell phones; originally invented for identifying militants in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is modeled on the children’s game called “Marco Polo.”

So how should one categorize the endless Global War on Terror? Not as police work, certainly, because no due process is involved. Nor is it politics-by-violent-means because it has no equal antagonist who plays the same game. Allen’s book makes one think that the Global War on Terror is perhaps best described as the relentless diffusion of cruelty because cruelty is at home both in war and in peace, and because, like war, it is defined and justified by law.

The stated objective of the Global War on Terror is not, as in conventional war, to get the enemy to concede defeat but to identify, locate, and annihilate him. In his book about drones, Gregoire Chamayou shows how the art of tracking is based on an intensive use of new technologies—including aerial video surveillance, the interception of signals, and cartographic tracking—have nonviolent as well as violent uses. The military profession of manhunters has developed its own technical language for that war: Social Network Analysis, High Value Individuals, Nexus Topography, and so forth. Chamayou writes:

In this model, the enemy individual is no longer seen as a link in a hierarchical chain of command: he is a knot or ‘node’ inserted into a number of social networks. Based on the concepts of ‘network-centric warfare’ and ‘effects-based operations,’ the idea is that by successfully targeting its key nodes, an enemy network can be disorganized to the point of being practically wiped out. The masterminds of this methodology declare that ‘targeting a single key node in a battlefield system has second, third, n-order effects, and that these effects can be accurately calculated to ensure maximum success. [3]Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone, 34.

The profession of man hunters cannot be limited by “civilian/warrior” and “immune space/battlefield” binaries.

(3) It is often said that this kind of warfare is entirely new, quite unlike anything in the past. And yet, there are genealogical precedents—minus the highly sophisticated technology that is essential to the Global War on Terror. As a total pattern the Global War on Terror may be new, but some of its elements are not.

A book entitled Small Wars, published in 1896 by Colonel C.E. Callwell, an officer in the British imperial army, opens as follows:

Small war is a term which has come largely into use of late years, and which is admittedly somewhat difficult to define. Practically it may be said to include all campaigns other than those where both the opposing sides consist of regular troops. It comprises the expeditions against savages and semi-civilized races by disciplined soldiers, it comprises campaigns undertaken to suppress rebellions and guerilla warfare in all parts of the world where organized armies are struggling against opponents who will not meet them in the open field, and it thus obviously covers operations very varying in scope and in their conditions. [4]Callwell, Small Wars, 21.

In the chapter that follows these remarks, Callwell proceeds to classify small wars in terms of their intention:

Small wars may broadly be divided into three classes—campaigns of conquest or annexation, campaigns for the suppression of insurrections or lawlessness or for the settlement of conquered or annexed territory, and campaigns undertaken to wipe out an insult, to avenge a wrong, or to overthrow a dangerous enemy. Each class of campaign will generally be found to have certain characteristics affecting the whole course of the military operations which it involves. [5]Ibid., 25

The word “justice” doesn’t appear directly, but what Bush-Obama regards as the necessity of violence to justice is evident here too. Yet unlike Bush-Obama, the language used by Callwell doesn’t claim victimhood for empire. Small wars integrate several elements. Especially in the history of North America, Australasia, Africa (and today Israel), the legal intentions of annexation, suppression of revolt, and settlement of new land are infused with a sense of insult and an awareness of a dangerous enemy as legal causes.

Barely 50 years later, there appeared the encyclopedic Small Wars Manual assigned to the United States Marine Corps and written by a number of American officers who drew on the considerable experience of U.S. campaigns in East Asia and Latin America. They distinguish small wars from conventional warfare by drawing on the Clausewitzian idea of war as an extension of politics by other means: as they note, in the latter, violent combat begins when diplomacy fails, but in the former the two continue together. So in small wars, political leaders deal with the details of military violence whereas in conventional war, tactics and strategy are left principally if not entirely to generals. Small wars also require a different psychology among the soldiers engaged in hostilities. I quote from the introduction to the Manual:

In a conventional conflict one arouses courage in troops by instilling hatred of the enemy. In a small war, it is necessary to be ruthless and firm at times; yet the Marines will be dealing with the native population as well as the enemy (though the distinction between the two is not always clear) and their relations with the people has to be tolerant, sympathetic, and kind.” [6]United States Marine Corp, Small Wars Manual, ix.

Since the events in Afghanistan whose representations Allen analyses so provocatively in his book must count as “ruthless and firm” (not to mention the assaults on Gaza by the IDF), and since the distinction between the native population and the enemy is not always clear, it is not surprising that the ruthlessness and firmness “clones” (in W.J.T. Mitchell’s useful verb), rather than eliminates, the enemy. The language for narrating war is now burdened by a liberal vocabulary that is conspicuously absent in the imperial British manual from the late nineteenth century. Callwell never uses words like “tolerant, sympathetic, and kind,” as the American Marine manual from the mid-twentieth century does – something that makes the small wars aesthetically, and not merely temporally, closer to the Global War on Terror. The unending state violence in pursuit of security does not exclude moments of tolerance, sympathy, and kindness.

But there remains a crucial difference between the imperial small wars and the Global War on Terror: the former were not driven by a terrified population.

(4) Before I conclude my comments I want to turn to Hannah Arendt on violence and cruelty. Arendt points out (in On Revolution) that the moral authority invoked in making a revolution is based on the claim that violence is essential for the promotion of a great and noble aim. That violence, as we know, has been a source of great suffering toward human as well as nonhuman life in modern times. Of course, violence and cruelty as such didn’t begin with modernity. Their novelty, as Arendt has memorably shown, derives from the fact that they are now seen as necessary to a transcendent project—not only in war but also in what is called peace. The Nazi genocide of Jews and Gypsies and the Russian Revolution’s devouring of its own children are horrific examples involving the imprisonment of populations, as well as their mass murder or expulsion; less widely known is the mass expulsion of Palestinians from conquered areas absorbed into the Jewish state in 1947-48. In each case the ultimate aim is the glorious achievement of justice and security, but through very different kinds of revolutionary movement.

But such justified cruelty occurs not only in political revolutions; it also underlies much of ordinary life in the modern world. Here is one example: progressives celebrate the fact that the large urban populations of the modern world now have access to plentiful supplies of cheap and nourishing food—thanks to industrial agriculture that treats animals grown for meat, milk and eggs in accordance with the methods of mass production—and yet little attention is paid to the fact that this achievement involves unprecedented cruelty. We do not commonly refer to these conditions as a horror because we think that only cruelty toward human life deserves that epithet. But horror is the emotion roused by direct acquaintance with these conditions or with vivid description of them. Kindness, sympathy, and tolerance are old attitudes, but forms of cruelty toward living beings promoted by industrial capitalism and modern sovereignty are new, less visible, not intended by consumers—and therefore more entrenched than ever.

As so often in liberal society, cruelty can be justified as unintended, or as the lesser of two evils. Liberal ethics assumes that for something to be judged immoral it must be identifiable as an individual act, carried out with a clear intention, and related negatively to specific virtues. Even in modern criminal law the subjective factor is paramount: the intent to kill innocents or make them suffer is essential in determining whether a serious violation of the law has occurred, and how the criminal is to be punished—and punishment, of course, is intended to inflict further cruelty, but this time “justly” by the law.

(5) I end with a general question: Why is it that the kind of critique Allen has presented so powerfully in Archives of the Insensible doesn’t persuade more widely? What makes the cruelties of the Global War on Terror, abroad and at home, incapable of being critically thought by most liberals? Fear, it seems, justifies everything. Because if the cruelties were seen as Allen reveals them to be, the sense of horror might be unbearable.


Arendt, Hannah. 1994. Eichmann in Jerusalem (Revise and Expanded Edition). New York: Penguin Books.
Callwell, Colonel C.E. (1906) 1996. Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, third edition. London and Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Chamayou, Grégoire. 2015. A Theory of the Drone. New York: The New Press.
Feldman, Allen. 2015. Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photopolitics, and Dead Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
United State Marine Corps. 1940. Small Wars Manual. Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press.



1 Feldman, Archives of the Insensible, 1.
2 Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 52.
3 Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone, 34.
4 Callwell, Small Wars, 21.
5 Ibid., 25
6 United States Marine Corp, Small Wars Manual, ix.

Talal Asad

Talal Asad was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up as a boy in India and Pakistan. He was educated in Britain and has taught in universities in the Middle East, Europe, and the US. His last appointment before his retirement this year was in the anthropology department at the CUNY Graduate Center.