Interview: Eyal Weizman
AGATA PYZIK: One of the most moving things about your new book, The Least of All Possible Evils, is how you show that the post-holocaust ideology – derived from, among others, Hannah Arendt – of the lesser evil actually came to justify conflicts from the 1980s onwards. Where did the idea that we can justify an evil by a greater good start?
EYAL WEIZMAN: I start the story with St Augustine, whose theological problem was Paul’s teachings that Christians should do no evil so that good comes. In north Africa in the fourth and fifth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, he was dealing with the problem of government of men, and to a certain extent the lesser evil functioned something like a clause of exception. Augustine converted from Manichaeism, believing that there is a struggle between equally powerful good and evil, light and darkness. Now as a Christian he accepted that only good is absolute and perfect, and evil is only degrees in its absence. So evil became something that you measure.
I go through the way in which this theological idea structured the basis of liberal thought, and on to the present. Here, my claim is that international law, human rights law and humanitarianism – whose collusion with states and militaries I call ‘the humanitarian present’ – become the contemporary mechanisms to calculate and reduce evil in the world, rather than searching for the Utopian good. In the book I’m mapping out different spatial practices and technologies that function for the calculation and reduction of evil, and of the effects of violence in the world. But, time and again, these paradoxically lead to the proliferation of violence. Because contemporary politics is no longer articulated around a Utopian aim, something that in itself is connected to the evils of modernity – it is forever entrapped in the logic of reduction. So we enter into an economy, where good and evil are transferable, traded and calculated and supposedly reduced in the humanitarian present.
AG: And that’s why you got interested in forensics, because it’s part of this materiality?
EW: Calculability leads the discussion on to materiality. The book identifies and lingers upon a certain methodological shift in the work of human right and humanitarian groups. Human rights and contemporary humanitarianism emerged around the problem of testimony. Organizations like the Red Cross are based upon a certain bargain with the Devil: they will not speak about what they see, and in exchange they will get access behind enemy lines. Around the end of the 1960s, historians of the Red Cross start claiming that the Red Cross were in Auschwitz in 1942–3, knew about the gas chambers but they chose not to speak about what they saw – keeping their part of the pact.
Contemporary humanitarianism – which comes out of the generation of ’68-ers, mostly in France, from Maoist and Trotskyite radicals – comes out again the backdrop of two events. One was the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, and the other was the 1969 Nigerian blockade in Biafra. Young physicians working for the Red Cross demanded a break from the ‘pact’ of silence and spoke out against what they wrongly perceived was a genocide in Biafra – humanitarianism adopted testimony as a way of politicizing emergency medicine and humanitarianism and MSF was thus born. Similarly, Human Rights Watch grew out of anti-totalitarian ideology of the mid-1970s. For them testimony was not only about the knowledge it reveals but about the very possibility or impossibility of speech. The possibility of speech is in itself political as it demonstrates the position of the individual versus the state, which is why it is a part of a more extensive liberal ideology.
AP: One of the major characters in your book is Rony Brauman, the former president of Médecins Sans Frontières, who worked in Ethiopia during the 1983–5 famine. After reading Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, he realizes that his doctors are to the local people what the Judenrat was to the ghetto. This is the paradox: that the more humanitarian help arrives, the more death there is.
EW: Yes, what is interesting is how a set of ethical and historiographical problems are mapped onto another.
Brauman told me that he read Eichmann in Jerusalem on the way to Ethiopia and while there to his colleagues. Then he describes the way he gets lost in a world of false comparisons. He realized that people come to the camps because they think that they will get shelter there, also from their own government who prosecute a brutal counter-insurgency, but while in the camps the Ethiopian government deports them to the south of the country where it has more control. Brauman then said that he felt like his place was between something like Eichmann and the Jewish Councils, which by some accounts collaborated with Eichmann and helped the final solution. Although this is a projection of another frame on the war in Ethiopia, it is useful for him to understand and articulate, clearly, for the first time, the complicity of humanitarians in the hardship and death of the very people they came to rescue. So, from then on testimony is no longer only about the action of brutal regimes but about humanitarians own complicity.
So in terms of testimony, critique turns to auto-critique which is also within the tradition of Maoists, and when this happens new tools emerge, a new kind of testimony emerges from within the bounds of the medical profession itself, and much of it is self-critical.
AP: Let’s talk about the aesthetics of forensics and ruins. In your short book Mengele’s Skull you talk about ‘speaking bones’, and use of the ancient figure of prosopropeia, something speaking in the place of something absent. How does this discussing of aesthetics help the scientific examination?
EW: Human rights began as a more-or-less naïve but well-intentioned way of looking at the horrors of the world. At a later period, in the 1990s, it became used as a casus belli. Now it has more or less become a juridical code. Within the new forums of international law, like the international criminal courts, the language is shifting from the testimonial to the material, to science, to experts. This is the prosopropeia – where experts give voice to things. In Mengele’s Skull, Tom Keenan and I are looking at what happened around the ’80s where this shift starts occurring, when objects start taking the place of subjects and the subject-object boundary start blurring. Human remains, and in this story, the very skull of Mengele, become the historic hinge. Mengele was searched for to allow for another Eichmann trial, but his death meant that the forum around him was scientific rather than juridical. No testimony but bones. The methodologies developed in the investigation of his bones later helped inaugurate a forensic focus within the field of human rights. A skull is never a neutral object, you know. It’s haunted, it’s between object and subject, and for this reason very roughly speaking, they are the transition between an era of testimony and an era of forensics.
This interview is an edited excerpt of a longer conversation, recorded in June 2012.