Archive for Jacques Derrida

Why the IDF reads Deleuze

Posted in Notes with tags , , , , , , , on 19 January 2010 by Brendan

(h/t to Joe Carter at First Thoughts)

In 2006, Eyal Weizman, Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, authored “Lethal Theory,” an article discussing the self-conscious appropriation of poststructuralist theories of language and society by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in articulating a new array of tactics for urban warfare: in an assault on the Palestinian city of Nablus in 2002, the IDF “used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city,” but rather “moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors,” literally carving out a maze of interior tunnels pervading private residences so as to bypass the sniper-ridden and bomb-laden thoroughfares of the city. The soldiers swarmed through the city in small, independent units, improvising an overall strategy in response to new developments.

Though the tactic is innovative (probably not so innovative as Weizman suggests), still more remarkable is the army’s own interpretation of it. Weizman interviewed the commander of the attack on Nablus, Brigadier General Aviv Kokhavi, who described the strategy:

The space that you look at in this room is nothing but your interpretation of it […] The question is, how do you interpret the alley? […] A weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the door. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey his interpretation and fall into his traps […] From now on, we all walk through walls!

 Weizman writes that many IDF officers are university trained (Kokhavi has a degree in philosophy), and that “the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Deleuze, Guattari, and Debord).” The influence of postmodern thought on Israeli military strategy is largely due, Weizman suggests, to Shimon Naveh, who “directs the Operational Theory Research Institute,” and who explained the importance of Deleuze and Guattari to his work:

Several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaus became instrumental for us…Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of “smooth” and “striated” space…In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders…We want to confront the “striated” space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. 

Now, I’m certainly no military historian (and Weizman does acknowledge that “many of the procedures and processes described above have been part and parcel of urban operations throughout history”), but, the postmodern jargon aside, the tactics set out in this article—the reinterpretation of space, the decentralization of forces—is surely familiar to anyone moderately well versed in children’s science fiction: in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s wonderful novel about an orbiting school for military cadets engaged in an interstellar war, the action revolves around the students’ mock wars in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity playing field in which opposing armies seek to disable one another with laser guns and tactical formations. A crucial insight that allows Ender to become the most successful commander in Battle School is that the orientation one ascribes to the gravity-less Battle Room is simply arbitrary. Rather than approach the enemy across the room, leaving his body exposed, Ender chooses to fall towards the opponent: “The enemy’s gate is down.”

The most striking aspect of Weizman’s article is his suggestion that the IDF is misappropriating critical theory “as an instrument in the power struggle against the Palestinians,” turning it to ends that surely would have been repugnant to the authors themselves (the classic example here being Derrida’s insistence that “justice” is the “undeconstructible” element on whose behalf all deconstruction is undertaken). Naveh insists, “The disruptive capacity in theory [elsewhere Naveh uses the term nihilist] is the aspect of theory that we like and use … This theory is not married to its socialist ideals.” As Weizman relates, the concepts deployed by the IDF were originally conceived as “part of a general strategy to challenge the built hierarchy o the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public”: “The ‘micropolitics’ of the time represented in many ways an attempt to constitute a mental and affective guerrilla fighter at the intimate levels of the body, sexuality, and intersubjectivity” (68). For such practices to be appropriated by the very institutions they were meant to subvert is an irony of history at best. 

However, I think such a development more than ironic, but to some extent fated: John Milbank and David Hart have each persuasively argued that postmodern writers share an “ontology of violence,” which results in their conceiving social relations as inevitably productive of strife. In such conditions, the best that can be hoped for is that violence can be marshaled to the aid of the “marginalized” by transgression, subversion, disruption, or deconstruction: the protection of the helpless justifies violence of a new sort, and policing in new areas; “Intolerance will not be tolerated.”

It’s redundant at best, but if all modes of speech conceal the will to power, then by definition, every act of political or military or social discourse conceals the will power: Nietzsche at least was honest enough to realize that historical self-consciousness is not a Get Out of Jail Free card from the prison of nihilism.