The Becoming Non-State of the State


My ethnographic work in Northern Ireland and South Africa and on the current war on terror has been an engagement with forms of life, communities, subjects, and silenced sovereignties, navigating, drowning, surviving, and dying, within ecotones[1]A transitional zone of hybrid ecologies, between two ecozones.of informalized state violence. By informalized violence I refer to de-centered warfare prosecuted by paramilitarized and decriminalized para-state proxies and surrogates in procedural mufti and armed with built in warrants of indemnification and deniability. I term this development the “becoming-nonstate-of-the-state” — an apparatus of political virtualization and spectrality invested in the production of vicarious power rather than the practice of law conserving violence, classification, or discipline.

This is war by proxy in which the state manipulates and enacts its mastery over its own disappearance in the state of emergency. We are today embroiled in wars of naming and un-naming, including what can be named or not named as war and violence. Since my fieldwork in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and South Africa in the 1990s, the depth and gauge of state-derived anomic violence has only intensified and globally expanded as a mode of “ungovernable governmentality.” This is ruled by vicarious power as the state becomes partible through transplanted and ex-orbited organs of aggression that are retrofitted for tasking everyday life with violence, intimidation and terror.

Today the exemplary corporate body without organs is the state-become-nonstate, with its detachable prosthetic tendrils of force and violence. This counterfactual state is shaped by secrecy, programmatic indifference, and institutionally orchestrated inattention and misdirection, which can traverse anonymous disappearances, forgotten massacres, misplaced burial grounds of the executed, and the outsourced back-spaces and black sites of torture. The state-become-nonstate is a “deactualization” of the state that has nothing to do with a decrease in its pragmatic efficacy; quite the contrary. It coincides in part with what Michel Foucault anticipated as the capillary “de-institutionalization” of panoptical power, which he identified as aspiring to continuous command and control over everyday life. However, the contemporary “securocratic” state, (a term coined in South Africa) no longer requires a continuous biography or legal continuity as a correlate to continuous panoptical power over a body subjected to compulsory visibility. Compulsory and contingently constructed zones of invisibility, alternating with optical saturations of shock and awe cutting out zones of sheer human exposability, are the order of the day.

What unfolds between a war without measure and a war that refuses a measurement? The subjects of extraordinary rendition and torture cannot be indicted, accused or tried, as such steps would not only render them calculable, measuring their offenses and non-offenses, but also render their very detention and torture measurable and recallable by ethics and law, and thus calculate the limits and thresholds of the non-law that warehouses these figures. The American debate on the legality or illegality of torture occurs in the aftermath of torture’s routinization on concrete bodies in anomic spaces. The rogue body of the political Other becomes a surface of procedural discontinuity that traverses the negotiability and the non-negotiability of torture. At issue here is not the measure of torture’s lawfulness or criminality but rather the institutionalizing of its legal indeterminacy.

Militarized democracy practices self-mythification as that form of government which claims to come after violence and terror as all that which lacks limits, about which Drucilla Cornell has written. Democracy takes on the task of instituting a polis, a political community, a political self-limitation from a non-law that is beyond a given community and its thresholds. The war on terror demonstrates that democracy’s self-limitation of violence does not perform non-violence but rather instrumentalizes violence as a supposedly exemplary medium of techno-political control. A self-instituting sovereignty over limits by definition cannot be contained by any legislated limit codifying that power. Democracy can inflict a “limited” ‘humanitarian’ terror as the measure of its lack of limitation in allocating the good such as regime change or compulsory democratization as unlimited regimes of limits. And I’m reminded here of Derrida’s poignant question about democracy’s limits, when he asked: “Can we speak democratically about democracy?”[2]Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p.71.

Today democracy’s proclaimed self-limitation of its violence secures a global deployment underwritten by vast technocratic utilities from smart bombs to drone planes to full spectrum dominance. We have recently witnessed the fusion of humanitarian restoration and militarized regime change. Democratic technicity, as diffusion of ballistics and ethics, becomes a legitimating metaphysics, in which wars for democratization are the proportionate aggregation and distribution of the political good in the form of triggered ordnance, patterned bombing and acquired targets. Distributed good as ballistic target acquisition transmutes into the ethical excess of unlimited suffering that is excused in utilitarian and equalizing terms as collateral damage. The death and harm that is morally relativized and homogenized for the militarized good of all.

An interesting aspect of weaponization was referenced by Mary Louise Pratt who talked about the receipt of words as penetrating, as scarification, as wounds; this is not about the objectification of violence nor of the representation of some type of universalized, essentialized model of violence that we could all agree on. Rather Mary Louise Pratt speaks to a local scenography or a decoupage or frame of violence. A scenography is the becoming fragment of history. Everybody here spoke in defense of the fragment by presenting diverse scenographies and regional ontologies of violence and were thereby focused on violence as a singular and riveting site of subject making. So the appearance, event and visibility of violence, cannot be disconnected from the event of a particular type of subject no matter how abject or extimate.

This riveting site of the emergent subject speaks to the pro-position of violence, the arrival and event of violence has to transform our accepted, and lawful conditions of possibility and recognizablity; that the event of violence should bring with it unrecognizable conditions of the event, the subject and historicity that have been silenced by programs of calculability and hegemonic phantasms. For critical thinking there can be no serviceable thetic presencing of violence; for the universalizing essentialization of violence is the project of political domination.  Violence is the media of and for political essentialization; it is the primary means for literalizing the metaphors and allegories of power through the material expropriation of the bodies and places of others, a process that parallels the self-valorization of Capital through dead labor and dead memory. There is no typified generic violence that we can talk about, there are but manifold regional ontologies of the event and of violence. There may also be permeable thresholds or limens where the common nouns that lay down the law are imploded as failed literalizing formations of power and violence and where hopefully new subjects begin to appear from the political death of the literalized metaphor such as the “war on terror.” Here lies a significant occlusion in the work of Agamben, who talks about “bare life” as anomic life without qualities. For Agamben once one is bereft of biopolitical enfranchisement and propelled outside of its law, one is basically in a space of denudation and privation and has no qualities and no possibility of a subject position. I think that in contrast many of the speakers in this forum are struggling to narrate the subject positions that can unfold from situations of chronic violence, and how people are negotiating that riveted site as history, as embodiment, as sensory experience, and as public affect. The political natality of the “monstrous” or “animalized” neighbor can only emerge from a bared life that destroys itself as bare by exceeding, contesting and destabilizing any figurative closure such as Agamben’s disqualified life. This emancipatory destruction of bare life would therefore include the destruction of what bare life secures — biopolitical enfranchisement.

I conclude with a comment on the act of writing about violence, which is one of the subjects this symposium is designed to address. When it comes to modern political violence there is a canon of quasi-silence in anthropology and other disciplines, for by and large the academy seems to have little to say about the intersubjective structuration of contemporary violence, and, worse, many people had decided opinions on how not to say it. Through a series of telling incidents I have been given theatrical and ominous instruction on disciplinary etiquette — on how to speak on violence — on how discourses of violence become permissible. I invariably experienced these lessons as a form of cultural regulation, Cartesian rules for the production of text and silence. I learned much about the extent to which the positivity of anthropological discourse is based on rules of iconic interdiction. For instance, as I was instructed by self-appointed disciplinary representatives that I could not speak correctly on violence if my speech was not moral enough or prescriptive enough; condemnation and cure were invariably presented as two sides of the same ethical currency. One could not write violence if one was devoid of textual emotion or if one displayed too much emotion (these psycho-moral postures had to be flagged in the text with explicit pronouncements). Thus, I was instructed by many interlocutors that the ethnographer of violence must not give in to voyeurism and other practices of distantiation, but if he/she became too involved the analyst would be stigmatized as morbid and violent: the ethnographer of violence would be the type of person who was capable, as I was once accused, of writing “a sad book.” I was repeatedly told never to make violence pleasurable to read about — to never “aestheticize” it — though how literary pleasure was defined and what manner of depiction made things pleasurable or unpleasant were never explicitly delineated. In other words, to write about violence meant that the author had to be subjected to protocols of depictive normalization in direct tandem with the perceived “abnormality” of the subject at hand.  Further, from where did they speak, those who charged certain work as aestheticizing violence? Where was this non-aesthetic and apparently “realist” 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? I cannot reconcile the stricture against making pleasure-giving images of violence, the stricture against the so-called aestheticization of violence, and the requirement to subordinate ethnographic depiction to rules of taste. Did not the discreet image or narrative become discreet because it gave pleasure in not giving pain? If so, then would not the ethnographer be aestheticizing violence in the very act of depicting it in conforming with rules of taste and distaste, within certain regularities of discourse and scholarly consumption?


Allen Feldman, Associate Professor of Media Studies at New York University, is a cultural anthropologist who has conducted ethnographic research on the politicization of the gaze, the body and the senses in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the post-9/11 global war on terror. His research and teaching interests include visual culture and violence, the political anthropology of the human body, performance studies, state culture, and the archaeology of media and technology. Feldman is the author of the critically acclaimed Formations of Violence, as well as numerous essays on political violence, and visual and performance culture. His most recent book is Archives of the Insensible: War, Terror and Aisthesis as Dead Memory (Duke University Press, 2012).


1 A transitional zone of hybrid ecologies, between two ecozones.
2 Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p.71.

Allen Feldman

Allen Feldman, a pioneer in the ethnography of violence, the body, and the senses, is the author of Archives of the Insensible: Of War, Photopolitics and Dead Memory (University of Chicago, 2015) and Formations of Violence: the Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (1991).