On humanitarian violence and politics of lesser evil – Interview with Eyal Weizman
“We build a discipline here in Forensic Architecture, and we needed to build it case by case. This discipline is built from the fragments in Gaza, a cloud in West Bank, a road in somewhere else, a forest in Indonesia, and the forest clearing or a mine in Brazil; it is built out of all those cases in the world… It’s a diagram of relations in which space becomes open and porous. The edges of practice are always open, can always integrate new things, that can integrate testimony, image, data, plants, material analysis of concrete, material analysis of bullet, ballistics, pathology, the desire of the people on the site, their claims for self-determination or politics of resistance.”
Interview by Duygu Doğan & Sidar Bayram
Eyal Weizman is a scholar and an activist, well-known for his works in the area of forensic architecture. He is also the director of Forensic Architecture, a research agency based in Goldsmiths University, in which architects, lawyers, artists, scholars, and independent journalists come together to investigate human rights and international law violations, and produce new forms of evidence based on spatial analysis. Since its foundation in 2010, Forensic Architecture has dealt with numerous cases in ongoing and post-conflict environments including the ones in Palestine, Syria, Mexico, and Turkey. The agency’s material elaboration of these incidents and its use of architecture as an explanatory tool in the scenes of conflict has provided a new perspective for rethinking the law, media, space, and political violence. The practice of Forensic Architecture can also be conceived as an appropriation of the forensics from the hands of state agencies and making it available to the groups of scholars, independent researchers, or activists.
While military technologies that foster human rights violations are advancing with an accelerating pace, the research of Forensic Architecture shows us that with the use of novel techniques and technologies of evidence, these violations can be detected and challenged. In this sense, it provides strong cases for inquiring into the possibilities of using technology for justice in an age when science and technology are increasingly intertwined with corrupt and unjust practices of states, militaries, and corporations.
The interview you are about to read is based on Weizman’s book, The Least of All Possible Evils, which is translated into Turkish by Sidar Bayram and published by Açılım Kitap under the title of Arendt’den Gazze’ye Ehvenişer Siyaseti. The book focuses on the blurred boundaries between humanitarian and military rationales; in this sense, it also speaks to today’s refugee crises where refugees face closed borders as if it is a lesser evil to let them stay where they are. Building upon the arguments of the book, the interview shows us how complicated it is to take action in conflict zones and how the politics of lesser evil swing into this action. We thank Sidar Bayram and Duygu Doğan for sharing the full text of this thought-provoking interview they conducted with Weizman with IstanbuLab blog. We also thank Eyal Weizman for his studies that render the conflict from the position of underprivileged groups visible for a wider audience. The answers he provides for his readership displays his nuanced position concerning the intricate relationship between the spheres of politics and architecture.
Before starting to talk about your book The Least of All Possible Evils, can you tell us about the reasons that made you think and deal with architecture as the infrastructure of power relations? How did you begin to think about violence in terms of its material, spatial and architectural manifestations?
As an architect, I was very drowned into spatial theory and my problem with spatial theory was the city of Paris. Paris was a block on our imagination because there’s no city like Paris in its solid unchangeable, hard function, as an instrument of the state, as a diagram of capital. The activism and rebellions that were happening within the city, were always carried out by blocking the streets, by using the city in a different way. However, the city was solid, and the action was liquid. As I grew up, I understood that the imaginary of Paris does not allow us to understand the frontier of conflict as conflict makes space liquid or elastic. The politics does not happen in space; politics happens by space. The space is much more dynamic, moving and transformative; a building gets bombed, a checkpoint appears and disappears, walls sneak through it. Settlements are sometimes temporary sometimes permanent, but they always expand. So, the power of space is its inelastic malleability. And if that is the imagination of spatial configuring, action and space are not separate; space is not the container of action, but action is space and space is action.
I want to look at the event of architecture, the dynamic nature of architecture in conflict. And I needed to build an entire new imaginary of the relationship between politics and architecture. Architecture is politics slowing into form and politics is the movement of space, it operates through the movement of space. So, I needed to understand this relationship: how to read space in movement, how to read space as dynamic, elastic, violent, oppressive, not like the panopticon not like a prison which is always there to contain people; but as the space, which expands and contracts and almost snaps you as if it is the tail of the monster, which flips your face. I think that the wall in West Bank is very much like the monster’s tail, to use the term of Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir. It’s almost like a monster has gone through that space and it is just the tail that you see but if you stand next to this tail, which is the wall, it’s going to hit you in the face.
In Hollow Land we had to break the problem that Paris constitutes for spatial politics that is the hardness of space in which action is contained by space, and develop an entirely new kind of spatial imagination of the frontier in which action and space are the same that politics does not happen in space but is the space. Therefore, we need to see who the players are and what the interactions that shape space are.
How did you construct the general framework of your book, The Least of All Possible Evils? What are the theoretical, methodological, and sociopolitical questions that led you to write a book on humanitarianism and humanitarian violence which are the issues you already touched upon at the end of your previous book, Hollow Land?
In Hollow Land, I was very much interested in the politics of military and the resistance to the military in the civilian domains of infrastructure, architecture, and planning. The interaction between these players was a kind of force field within which space was contained and adjusted as if you put a matter in a field of electrical forces, and it continuously registers in its form those forces which are never one. There’s never one force that applies on it but it’s always a combination of forces.
I understood at some point that I have missed an incredibly important player within that field. I have understood that the player that shapes life, space, and the physical environment within which the occupation happened is the humanitarian one. It’s not a secondary actor, but indeed, in situations like Gaza and West Bank, it’s one of the most influential, one of the most powerful players within this force field. I remember a moment; in a press conference, there was a general who was asked that “you know, the military is so much complaining against the UN, you are so much complaining against B’Tselem, the human rights groups, and the Europeans that support them. Tell us what will happen if all humanitarian actors would just leave West Bank and Gaza?”. The general thought for a little while and then said, “there will be such chaos that we cannot govern anymore.” At that moment, I understood the act of governing population in the colonial, contemporary neo-colonial environment is being undertaken by these actors. There is a paradox to be felt between moderation and governance within that field. And I understood very much that the way in which they operate is also spatial, they are also spatial practitioners. I was interested in the way that humanitarian logic is transferred into spatial categories but in order to do that, I had to shift the focus.
Hollow Land is both about Gaza and West Bank. However, the thinking or the imaginary behind it is the imaginary of the frontier, of an entangled frontier of colonization, of movement, of deep control rather than the imaginary of Gaza. The period that Hollow Land was written was the time of big repression in West Bank. These were the years between 2002 and 2006 when the focus of resistance was very much in West Bank. Then West Bank was subdued to a certain extent, pacified and subdued from the Israeli perspective, crashed from the Palestinian one, and resistance shifted into Gaza. With Gaza, the role of humanitarian players became much more pronounced.
So, I entered into the logic of measurement, the logic of calculation in which the act of government is an act of balance. It’s always a balancing act between brute force and the ability to let society function, between the ability to let it live to a certain extent and the ability to take life, and between a kind of eruptive violence and the more environmental violence which is more contained. Of course, one is transferable to the other. The violence that is structural and measured which operates on life can be as pervasive and sometimes lethal as that which is eruptive such as the bombs.
In your book, you use the notion of ‘lesser evil’ in order to bring together seemingly disparate areas of inquiry such as political philosophy, humanitarian aid, state violence, architectural structures, military technologies, infrastructures, popular culture, etc. In this regard, can you reflect upon how you conceptualize the notion and the politics of lesser evil?
I needed to understand the system of calculation. How does it work? In West Bank, the question was how it works in terms of settlements, roads, bridges, infrastructure, and mountaintops. In this book, the question is how the system of calculation works also spatially to control populations. I understood that the mechanism of that calculation was existing for me in international law; in the principle of proportionality. Proportionality is a very late addition to the international law which says effectively if you need to kill civilians, first of all, you are not allowed to target civilians but if you know that civilians would be hurt by a certain aggression or a policy, you need to calculate the balance. All of a sudden calculus is entering into the scene. So, it’s no longer the question of a blind yes or no. Entering into a gray zone of calculation, you need to say that the advantage for you as military is just slightly more important than the damage to the civilians. Now you need to calculate the incompatible. How can you calculate the security advantage of bombing a headquarter while civilians are walking around; or targeting, assassinating somebody in his car while knowing that pedestrians are on the road; or designing the wall in a particular pathway knowing very well that you take somebody’s private land? How do you measure this against that? Here you enter into the logic of the lesser evil.
So, in a certain sense, the logic of the lesser evil is a theological problem. It has been a theological problem since St. Augustine, the African Augustine who preached, learned, and wrote at a time when Christianity became a problem of governance. It hadn’t had a problem of governance until the fourth century. You could be a pure saint, you just did not involve in and dirty your hands. But the minute there’s a Christian Emperor and Rome turns Christian; Rome has to act like Rome. Rome has to kill people. Rome has to go to war. Rome has to take stuff from people, and it has to do it under Christian auspices. Therefore, the measure of the lesser and greater evil came up.
This theological problem has existed throughout the history of humanity as a problem of moderation. But that theological problem is completely embodied by the contemporary principle of proportionality, the measure of degrees, and the calculation of greater and lesser evil. It is a calculus that could be algorithmically, computationally or spatially defined but it is always a calculus. The problem with this calculus is that it is always taken by the dominator, the colonizer, the occupier, the imperial power on the people they govern. It could be a parliament in which everybody could decide but it is not. People are bombed, buildings are destroyed, walls are built. They decide according to their logic about what is proportional and disproportional. So, when you enter into a field of calculation regarding any action in space, whatever it might be, you get into a very important category in this book, which is material proportionality. It is the engineering problem of getting a building to be destroyed partially so that it creates a proportional number of civilians to military bombs, a wall that snakes in a particular way that takes the least or the greater part of somebody’s property. In this regard, proportionality becomes a material category. Here is where reading of space is reading and reconstructing this proportionality logic.
So, in a sense, it’s just like Hollow Land. Only the category of action, the category of the force applied to spaces here is humanitarian rather than being directly military. But sometimes the humanitarian supports the military. Sometimes, moderation leads the well-intentioned international humanitarians, Israeli humanitarians, and Palestinian humanitarians to inadvertently help and support a regime of government and colonization.
People think about this book as an attack on humanitarianism and human rights but the opposite is right, it is a manual. I think it’s very important for all human rights activists, international lawyers or humanitarian actors to know how to operate, map out the field of forces and the dangerous and possible ways in order to operate with it.
The Least of All Possible Evils is the book in which the concept and practice of forensic architecture emerged. Can you tell us about the significance of this book in relation to your other works and books?
First of all, I would like to say that for me this is the most important book that I have written because it is kind of an autobiography. It is also judging my own actions because I was involved in human rights and humanitarian action, and I needed a compass in order to understand the dangers of my own practice. It’s also the most important book because in that book forensic architecture emerges. While writing the chapter on Garlasco, it is invented there just all of a sudden. To a certain extent, it’s built around different figures such as Rony Brauman, the French humanitarian; Marc Garlasco, American targeted assassin who has become a forensic analyst; and Muhammad Dahla, the Palestinian human rights lawyer. In a way, they really became the aspects of my own self, this is why I always think of this book as an autobiographical one. There is something of Garlasco in me; something of Rony Brauman and his history, his interest, and care for victims of the Holocaust in me; there is something of the Palestinian resistance in me. So, The Least of All Possible Evils has been written in order to create a kind of a manual to understand my own practice, to figure out how to practice and how to keep on.
People think about this book as an attack on humanitarianism and human rights but the opposite is right, it is a manual. I think it’s very important for all human rights activists, international lawyers or humanitarian actors to know how to operate, map out the field of forces and the dangerous and possible ways in order to operate with it. Because that is our agency. Now we can write very critically about the other people, about the military or politicians. Yet, we need to develop a kind of a Maoist autocritique. I speak about Maoist autocriticism with reference to Rony Brauman, that we cannot afford to wait for other people to criticize us, we need to keep the critical aspect from inside out and know how to operate it. Still today this book is a compass for me because whenever I’m involved in forensic architectural work I pause and ask myself: are we silencing the victims? This is the biggest question. Do we make the matter speak more than the human voice? How can we integrate both voices? How can we keep insisting that those two are the two parts of the same cacophony or parliament of speech, which includes both matter, code, media, image, human voice, and concrete? Do we support a certain status quo by our actions? Do we act like the policeman when there is no police? How can we make our claims radical and take them beyond the technicality and put into the long duration? How can we find in an incident or in a building that is destroyed an answer to geopolitical questions? How can we read the architectural detail into colonial history, which was already questioned in Hollow Land? Or as in this, how can we read an incident of bombing or of police shooting into the long history? How can we use national or international law, human rights, and humanitarian principles not to simply address a local question but to open up history using them since each one is a doorway into history?
Another important thing for me is that forensic architecture starts with a critique of forensic architecture. Nobody has written a more critical, damning analysis of forensic architecture yet. In The Least of All Possible Evils, I even claim that it emerges out of murder, that only the criminal can solve the crime. The person that invented forensic architecture in that conflict, Marc Garlasco, is an American targeted assassin who was trying to hunt the Baath’s heads in Iraq in the spring of 2003 in the lead up to the war. He could read the ruins because he made the ruins because he designed the ruins. He needed to bomb each one of those buildings not only in a way that would kill his target, the Baath leader but also in such a way that no more than twenty-nine civilians would die because the American army allowed him to kill twenty-nine people at most. The first twenty-nine is a sacrifice but thirtieth is an active murder. So, he had to design the ruins, had to know from which direction to bomb, so that the ruin would become this or that, so that no more than twenty-nine people would die. This is how he knew how to analyze the architecture when he looked at the ruins, why he was so good at it. So, I claim initially forensic architecture is established by an act of murder.
This connects us back to the period of decolonization in the 50s and 60s. Human rights were actually claimed for the sovereignty of the people rather than being claimed against sovereignty, which is what it is today. Today, human rights are the limit of sovereignty.
In the book, you argue that when the destructive powers of law are released, the effects will be experienced by the oppressed all over the world. Given the recent political and military developments as well as the proliferation of armed conflict and political violence, what would you say about the politics of lesser evil and humanitarianism today?
The Least of All Possible Evils was published in 2011. Then, the Arab spring began. Arab Spring had shown us another use, completely another meaning of the term human rights. The claims from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt and Syria have been articulated on the basis of human rights but human rights as a revolutionary radical claim, not as a claim of the victims themselves or as a claim coming from the outside. It gave us, the human rights people, enormous potential. When we listen to the people from Tahrir square, we gain enormous faith in this category. We understood that the history of human rights is not only the history of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that are kind of acting as a kind of arbiters of the world but also the history of communities that are demanding, asserting their own rights against a repressive state. And in a situation of state repression, human rights are a radical revolutionary claim.
This connects us back to the period of decolonization in the 50s and 60s. Human rights were actually claimed for the sovereignty of the people rather than being claimed against sovereignty, which is what it is today. Today, human rights are the limit of sovereignty. Now, I think, both aspects are important, but it showed us another way to it. I’ve written another book on Roundabout Revolutions that looks at the fate and spatial aspect of those revolutions and of the way in which they were crushed by repressive, regressive forces of the reconstitution of authoritarian regimes in that area, the so-called return of monarchic rule, if you like to make this comparison to the French revolutionary one. Standing on the ruin of that we are faced now with those two broken, imperfect conceptions of human rights. The first is the one that seeks to moderate with the problem of the 90s. The legacy of the 90s of human rights showed us it was even used as the justification of war. See Yugoslavia, the place where it was and Rwanda, the place where it wasn’t. But the claim of human rights was broken, tattered. Second, we are now standing on the wreckage, on the ruins of the Middle East that is the ruins of people’s will and the forces of repression have come back and reinstated power.
And from that, we need to reconsider the notion of human rights. I am a fundamental believer in human rights because I believe that it allows for solidarity amongst and across borders. It does not contain, it is a force against repression, it is not nationalist, it allows for collaboration amongst people from outside and inside with different expertise in different forms of practice across nation and gender, it allows for the acts of solidarity across borders. I am a firm believer in that, but I think we need to rebuild that ground from those two ruined projects of human rights, we need to bring those two projects together: the human rights of lobbying which says who is right and who is wrong, and the human rights which supports the power of the people against regressive regimes. In a very awkward, imperfect, and not yet fluent way, this is what we are trying to achieve even if we are always falling short of our desire. In Forensic Architecture, we use human rights as the assertion of communities against repression, for amplifying their voices rather than giving them voice. Activists on the ground, victims suffering from violence, expert lawyers, media from the outside, all together create a diagram in which the claim of a violation, showing the act of injury is also a claim for liberation. So, this is why I think that we need to map both the failure of the first and the second conception of human rights to build a completely other frameworks to work with.
Whatever I read becomes part of the way I see media, material, politics, I see paradoxes and possibility of action in the world… I’d like the story itself, the description of matter, and the way I tell it to you to play in your mind the theories that you have read; critical media theory, critical legal theory, actor network theory, assemblage theory, Deleuzian theory, object-oriented ontologies, new materialism and all those seas we are both swimming in.
In Hollow Land the architectural structures and practices, in The Least of All Possible Evils bones, models, infrastructures, ruins, etc. are employed as epistemological sources. In your later works, environment, climate and clouds are also added to the list. What is your methodological and theoretical approach that enables you to draw on such a vast range of non-conventional epistemological sources, and how does it inform your research in general? In which ways the objects of your research affect the way you deal with, process and present these sources?
As a student, as a scholar and now as a maker of things, as a researcher running an organization, my attitude has always been to say that theory is kind of a way of looking at the world. I don’t do an exegesis of theory. Whatever I read becomes part of the way I see media, material, politics, I see paradoxes and possibility of action in the world. It is very important for me to treat theory in that way so it would be not a stylistic thing to start quoting media materialism in Friedrich Kittler and this and that. I would find absolutely necessary that people do this, but it is less interesting for me. I’d like the story itself, the description of matter, and the way I tell it to you to play in your mind the theories that you have read; critical media theory, critical legal theory, actor-network theory, assemblage theory, Deleuzian theory, object-oriented ontologies, new materialism and all those seas we are both swimming in. I cannot tell you now something that you don’t know about Virilio, the accident or what speed is. I want you to read the description on the ground, I want to take you to the dust, to an incident. I want my books to do two things; I want to take you there into the ruins of a building in Gaza, I want you to see what I write in words, I want you to be there to smell it to feel that space. Also, I want you to feel that it is also embedded in a world of theory that allows you to see. So, I want you to think about all those books that you’ve read but I want those things that speak this theory to be the stones or the dust or the rubble or a bridge or smoke cloud in the air, etc. The world that we see, the one we live in, the world we react in, the world of the readings and references, we take it into ourselves and something else comes out.
Forensic Architecture has recently worked on various cases of “conflict” from Syria, Mexico, Palestine, Egypt, Germany, etc. How do you choose the cases you work on, and how do you assess the impact of your work in these cases, not only pragmatically but also sociopolitically?
I like not to choose the cases; I love it when the case chooses us. When somebody comes to the office, when the door is opening, everybody raises their heads from their computers. We don’t know what they come up with, if they come up with a problem, with a question, or with a request of help. And we don’t know if they’re Ukrainians dealing with Russian invasion if those people are from Turkey, Palestine, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. I want to work more like an architect and architects don’t choose their projects; the project chooses them. We need to take only those cases that we don’t know at the beginning of the investigation what will be the end, and only those projects which we don’t know how to do it. Since we don’t yet know how to do it, we need to invent things. Because our mandate in Forensic Architecture is to do two things. The first is to act in solidarity in a conception of human rights that is simultaneously that of arbitration, verification but also that of empowerment of self-claim of communities. On the other hand, our aim is to innovate in the use of evidence, to produce new tools that communities could use. This is why we don’t do the same investigation twice. We do it once, take it if you can, and we move on. We build a discipline here in Forensic Architecture, and we needed to build it case by case. This discipline is built from the fragments in Gaza, a cloud in West Bank, a road in somewhere else, a forest in Indonesia, and the forest clearing or a mine in Brazil; it is built out of all those cases in the world. They built our system of verification and it’s not a discipline in the sense that this is what we do and this is what we don’t do. It’s a diagram of relations in which space becomes open and porous. The edges of practice are always open, can always integrate new things, that can integrate testimony, image, data, plants, material analysis of concrete, material analysis of bullet, ballistics, pathology, the desire of the people on the site, their claims for self-determination or politics of resistance. This is very important that there is a hardcore, a very well-defined core and an open parameter that can always take new things. It is not a discipline that operates from the edge inward but from the center outward. This is very important for us.
Post-truth is not about lying but it is about breaking a common relation of verification. It is not an epistemological move, it’s not about how to build facts nor is it about which fact is right and which fact is wrong. It’s an anti-epistemology, it is a black epistemology, a negative epistemology. It tries to tear apart the diagram that holds various types of sensation and senses together such as human memory senses, material senses, image sensors and the math that perhaps holds them together.
Lastly, what would you say about the politics of truth or, to say in a popular way, post-truth in our present context in which any claim to reality or facticity is deemed suspicious since facts and truth can be easily twisted, manipulated, deformed, etc.?
I will say two things. Post-truth is not about lying in politics. Politics needs lies because that’s one of the building blocks of it. If you want a reference, as Hannah Arendt argues, in Lying in Politics, a politician is not a historian, a politician builds a world and they need to create some meaning to convince. Post-truth is not about lying but it is about breaking a common relation of verification. It is not an epistemological move, it’s not about how to build facts nor is it about which fact is right and which fact is wrong. It’s an anti-epistemology, it is a black epistemology, a negative epistemology. It tries to tear apart the diagram that holds various types of sensation and senses together such as human memory senses, material senses, image sensors, and the math that perhaps holds them together. This black epistemology tries to cut apart this relation. And the relation between disciplines and perspectives is also a social relation; it’s also about building a community of practice. This is not a community in the old sense of the word, referring to a village where the people are all together, but a relationship between the victims on the ground, the activists taking their side, the experts that are far, people looking at the media, people doing analysis of one sort or another, and the media that finally amplifies it. That relation is like a social contract, to use another term by Ariella Azoulay; it is establishing a relation between people that participate in the work of verification that confronts post-truth, and that is what repressive forces are trying to ruin. They are trying to break the common. It’s like every repressive force tries to break the communal relation among epistemological communities that are being built around the act of verification. But we have an advantage in post-truth because we have been experiencing post-truth under colonial regime for as long as there is colonialism. We know it, this is the air we breathe; the lies of the state, the attack on our authority, the attack on the community and the attack on verification. This is what states do in colonial situations. What happens right now is that what has been happening in the frontier of colonialism, in the fields of conflict like the stinking carcass of a whale washes ashore of mainstream politics and contaminates the air and the common in which we are living.
Editing by Aybike Alkan, Ph.D. Candidate at Koç University, Sociology Department
 The book is published in October 2017 by Verso Books.