State of the Art of the State of the…Questions from the Real for Feldman’s Archives of the Insensible

Archives of the Insensible is a book I will turn to again and again, for insight, inspiration, aspiration, a model of indefatiguable critique, and well, just to finish the damn thing.

I’ve been reading Allen’s work for a long time now—and I’ve always thought it was brilliant—but only with the completion and publication of this book do I understand it as a full-blown theory of geo-politics and our geo-political conjuncture.

With a powerful new vocabulary and penetrating analytic toolkit that is actually a critical arsenal, Feldman’s figurations of contemporary sovereign power and victimage are also dis-figurations and re-configurations of the language we use to think with. The sentences serve not only to critique black sites, extrajudicial rendition, signature strikes, and state practices of violence and clandestinity, they also serve as a challenge to our routine understandings of the operations of power. One compelling drama of this book is thus the very struggle for language, conducted, I must say, with breathtaking elegance and inexhaustible rigor. Archives, as the readings of Gerhard Richter and Jean-Luc Godard might show, is itself an exercise in a kind of quasi-ethnographic verisimilitude or darstellung, one that tracks as it answers, or at least accounts for and decodes, the blurring effects/affects of postmodern and perhaps post-human power. Which is to say that this book is an exercise not only in critique and in political theory, but in poetics.

This critico-poetic practice as analytical and research methodology is in part necessary because Archives of the Insensible re-marks what has been an almost complete overturning of the paradigm of visibility in Rousseau’s social contract as well as of indexicality in the photographic image—to say nothing of the overturning of the denotative, descriptive, or degree-zero representational operations of “natural language.” With contemporary sovereign de-mediation, no longer is each comrade an overseer relying on a serial ethics in a world convened by consensus around a representable reality. Indeed there are very few comrades left as each and all are simultaneously located in a politics of the indeterminate and subsumed in the automated process of media-formations that command virtuosic performance as the price of survival.

Allen’s world of tribunals, courts, commissions, torturers, and captive bodies, whether in Guantanamo, South Africa, Afghanistan, or the US, is populated with operatives inhabited by contorted—if internally consistent (so long as consistency is of service)—systemic logics that make and unmake both their captives and the operatives themselves. With Feldman’s work we see at least one thing clearly: the mediations (discursive, legal, military, visual) are inseparable from each other and from the political once and for all. And even if some of us on the periphery knew that these platforms and modalities were always already inseparable, Feldman’s book is still news.

News because the dynamics are new, and also newly terrifying. In the chapter entitled “The Apophatic Blur of War,” Feldman quotes and writes:

“Now, no object can truly appear as such if just any aim whatever is exercised on it. In order to appear as such it requires a particular aim, privileged and adapted” (Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess, 107). That the structure of the quotidian is not exhausted by the gaze of those confined to its habitus means that the immediate surround or screened image references a without that is invisible, inaccessible and withdrawn, a political-sensorial abyss. It is this abyss that is occupied by the state as its proper locus in order to securitize both the visible and the invisible, the inside and the outside, and most particularly their (in)difference. We are told that from this abyss peers the hooded face of the “terrorist,” but effectively it is the withdrawing visage of the state turned terror masked by the anomic figure of the enemy. (Archives, 87-88)

The power of the state is at once expressed and masked in the representation of the face of the enemy. Ours is a world of total, multi-dimensional, diversely-scaled war, inexorable execution, and invisible—indeed insensible—archival power, where deconstruction is not the unavoidable symptom of rigorous (en)/closure only when in the hands of marginal poststructuralist philosophers, but rather the explicit and, indeed, conscious mode and also the active practice of contemporary sovereign exercise. Dismediation—the strategic blurring of the referent that makes sovereignty’s black sites into black boxes, that legitimates extrajudicial contexts and actions, that makes the state of exception un-exceptional. The disappearing and quarantining of evidence, procedures, texts, and prisoners (as in the harrowing case of Ashraf Salim, described at length in Archives), whose being is discursively constituted (and deconstituted) in the practices that legislate their simultaneous appearance and disappearance is a modus operandi—a standard operating procedure. The case of Ashraf Salim at Guantánamo, brilliantly researched, parsed, and thus witnessed and transmitted, provides an example of what Feldman refers to as the phantasmatic mode of production that also forces us to recognize that metaphysics is a medium of war. His research on this case is a profoundly empathetic and poetic reclamation of the brilliance and bravery embodied in a solitary inmate’s voice that somehow persists through torture and the sublime indifference of state power, that is buried within the archive of war, and, when properly heard, is capable of indicting its whole structure and systematicity. Guantánamo, we may grasp, is not only a machine of terror, it is a machine that produces that apparition referred to as a terrorist.

One could ask, was it always thus, was metaphysics always a medium of war (as the godless Nietzsche more or less suggested in the Genealogy of Morals where truth is the longest lasting lie, or as earlier still Machiavelli intimated in The Prince)? And if not, who or what ordained things thus? Surely these earlier moments of combat over metaphysical and ontological stakes, the thingness of things, truth, the objectivity of objects, the instantiation of beings (along with their qualities and lack thereof) through either the laws of exchange or sovereign law, pale in comparison to the present in terms of sheer scope and complexity—the overcoding of spaces and bodies by juridical, military, and financial vectors caught up in both securocratic war and accumulation.

***

I will endeavor to set out a problem that I recognize not everyone will agree is worth solving or perhaps even considering, but since these remarks are offered on the occasion of the publication of Archives, I am obliged to make things as exciting as possible; I would be remiss to not offer a kind of challenge. To that end, I will offer a question or a hypothesis of sorts and also endeavor to add to the anti-fascist arsenal—I mean the critical vocabulary.

If metaphysics (the constitution of things, beings, and ontologies) is today recognizable as a medium of war, than Deleuze’s cinema books were a phenomenology of cinematic capital and the cinematic mode of production—I argued this twenty-five years ago—and Feldman’s Archives of the Insensible might constitute a phenomenology of what I call computational capital. So a question for Allen would be whether or not Archives of the Insensible might be considered a work of phenomenology and whether or not this question matters.

Two quick notes before proceeding:

1) The books (Cinema 1: The Movement Image, Cinema 2: The Time Image, and Archives) are comparable in a variety of ways. All are extraordinary works of media theory: rigorous, relentless, fecund, offering a new set of terms for new times, that is, new structures and new forms of time, in which philosophy must be adequate to images and mediation (and now de-images and dis-mediation and archivization).

2) I mean nothing reductive (at least in Feldman’s case) by calling these works phenomenology. Because more than languaging the media of sovereignty, Feldman also analyzes the logistics of contemporary forms of appearance and disappearance and identifies these as the modality of sovereign power in our era.

The question I am posing by remarking on the attention on appearance and related phenomena is really one of political economy and more properly one of the critique of political economy. Though in my title I posed this concern as coming from the Real, I am well aware that it may come from “the Real.” Rhetorically understood, my question is about the saliency and utility of an analytic that is only weakly present in Archives: call it Marxism.

To abstract and generalize, we see in Feldman’s work the elaboration of overlapping and competing logics at work on the substrate of the body—every body but also and always a particular body: “apophatic sovereignty reconstitutes itself in what is meant to be absent from it—risk bearing and thus profaning, fallen, and presumably failed bodies.”1 Each and all bodies are at once readable and writable, that is subject to decryption and encryption by writing machines and institutions, by imaging machines and institutions “of war, photopolitics, and dead memory.”

Up until recently (the last 150-200 years) we have, generally speaking, understood capital as having to do with the economic and production, while politics and jurisprudence had to do with the sociopolitical and the state. Capital was principally an economic process, or more precisely an economic calculus, that is, an extractive mode of codification, encryption, and calculation, that everywhere and universally assigned quantities to qualities and rendered objects, practices, and, consequently, persons calculable—or today we could say computable. Law was a calculus of the social, a regulatory bureaucratization of social practice that managed social relations for the benefit of the state however conceived. With the rise of private property, colonialism, slavery, the bourgeois state, and imperialism, law was increasingly beholden to capital, though it also strove to regulate it, upholding and upheld by the vested interests of traditional and emergent classes that extended beyond the reach of then-current capitalism. Retrospectively, however, the racisms—both the mutability but also the constancy of racism—of the law, along with its other formations of violence, can be grasped as a tragically “necessary,” dynamic components of racial capitalism and its strategies of accumulation.

Together these semi-autonomous encryption machines of capital and the law rewrote in a variety of registers the metaphysics of planet Earth. As colonial, gendered, and racialized experience will amply testify, the paring of people down to flesh and the rendering of persons as objects required multiple executors, who were, almost without exception, also beholden to (if not themselves) executioners. This executive domain, with its militaries, police, prisons, agents, tax collectors, bureaucrats, chief executives, and ordinary citizens were there to execute the increasingly complex programs of capital, the state—and one way or another, the capitalist state.

Historically, of course, capital, the law, and the military have been mutually imbricated to the point of inseparability.

What I am getting at is that these various calculi that combine encoding, encryption, inscription, and execution—increasingly complex and increasingly automated—can indeed be thought of as computational. We have modular components organized as programs interfacing with other modules in a media ecology in which each component is subject to a cost-benefit analysis. In media history, this consolidation is what is meant by “convergence,” but I have an even broader digital convergence in mind. I want to raise this question about the operations of what in my current work I have been calling computational capital and its corollary, computational colonialism. These formations, I hasten to add, are not mere metaphors, but rather are concretizations of a historical hypothesis regarding the logistical organization— ordination and co-ordination of geo-political space and practice in accord with algorithms of profitable production and reproduction that are increasingly sedimented not just into bank ledgers, business plans, state bureaucracies, and securocratic regimes, but into the very machines that have taken over and automated so much of the business of capitalist governance. These machines, of course, do not function without their operators and functionaries, but they have, nonetheless, automated programmatic practices of inscription that are also among—with increasing exclusiveness—the methods of sovereignty.

This hypothesis regarding computational capital is compressed here to read: planetary life is relentlessly configured and reconfigured by systems organized by protocols of numeric calculus—in short programs. These are operative in and as apparatuses: photographic, discursive, institutional, educational, journalistic, etc. My proposal is that such an intensive invasion of a fully digitized juridico-economic matrix of protocols would have the effect that its operations produce a world of apparitional formations on the myriad screens of account. This informationalization and imposition of computability upon planetary “existence” amounts to an intensive de-realization and a kind of practical deconstruction of the socius. Its apparitional forms, in my view—so powerfully rendered in Feldman’s work and increasingly becoming the stuff of everyday experience and non-experience—represent a transformation of the ontological character of appearance, in which, in a world of ambient computing, nearly all appearing is underwritten by code. To put it another way, what we used to think of as life and the object world is overwritten by code. The world has become a writing surface. So too have its bodies. Entities are instrumentally constituted via algorithmic swarms. To use an older language, the life-world is posited as a standing reserve for capitalist machines of inscription.

Alex Galloway has already argued that the medium of computing is metaphysics (object-oriented computing instantiates its entities), and Wendy Chun and Tara McPherson have powerfully suggested that models of computational sovereignty are built on the raced and gendered social formations from which they are practically abstracted. Benjamin Bratton has given us a notion of platform sovereignty, and Matteo Pasquinelli has recently proposed that contemporary hegemony takes the form of “the society of metadata” increasingly organized by “algorithmic governance.” The argument I am sketching, in which sovereignty, war, and value extraction are increasingly computer mediated, is, in the shortest possible form, that the emergence of computational functions—the functionalization of daily life by programs processed by discreet state machines—is an intensification of the logistical operations already broadly disseminated in space and time that are active in capitalist extraction, racial formation, and colonial governance. In short, computational capital is racial capitalism that ultimately requires discreet state machines for the management, perpetuation, and expansion of its operations. The absorption of qualities by quantities over the past 500 years or so provides an index of the scale of computational capital’s operations, while computational processing speeds and storage capacities advancing in accord with Moore’s Law index its intensification and increasing resolution. All that is solid melts into data visualization.

Admittedly, this is a rather massive thesis, one with too many implications to draw out here. But to a certain extent it is called for on this occasion by the monumental work that Feldman has offered us. We have questions regarding the relations of the archives of the insensible to global capitalist accumulation, to racial capitalism, and to computational capitalism. If the practical deconstruction of everyday lived realities by the executive rationale of profit-driven state- and para-formations is the order of the day, what can be done to reprogram that order, that ordering? What is the role of the critique of political economy, and of possible interventions in the extractive paradigm of capital?

This question is particularly urgent given that those nodes of apophatic blurring, in which the old-style rules and resolution of logic and representation seem not to apply because their referents are dismediated by off-screen reasons of state and corporate rationales, are increasingly recognizable as having a rationale: they are moments in a geopolitical flourishing of new fascisms. These particular data-visualizations and affect machines, from Trump in the US to Duterte in the Philippines, to ISIS everywhere, are among the thousand blurry flowers of capitalist power paying lip service to “democracy” or other forms of collective, if far from universal, empowerment. These forms, forms that might productively be understood as examples of a new aesthetic or phenomenology that is a necessary condition of postfordist fascisms that utilize quanta of expropriated life—otherwise known by analogue degrees of exploitation and murder—as means of sovereign self-expression, are at base radically anti-democratic and anti-collectivist despite the fact that they depend on collectivities (swarms?) to sustain their determinately irresolute images of their tenuously individuated enfranchisement.

So from me anyway, with sincere thanks to Allen Feldman: Archives of the Insensible, computational capital, postfordist fascism—discuss!

References

Feldman, Allen. 2015. Archives of the Insensible. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  1. Feldman, Archives of the Insensible, 109

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Jonathan Beller

Jonathan Beller is professor of humanities and media studies and director of the Graduate Program in Media Studies at Pratt Institute. His books include The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (2006) and Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World-Media System (2006).