Lethal theory

by Suspended Reason

Eyal Weizman, Lethal Theory”:

During the battle, soldiers moved within the city across hundred-meter-long over-ground-tunnels” carved through a dense and contiguous urban fabric. Although several thousand soldiers and several hundred Palestinian guerilla fighters were maneuvering simultaneously in the city, they were so saturated” within its fabric that very few would have been visible from an aerial perspective at any given moment. Furthermore, soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells, and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as infestation,” sough tto redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares.

Why avoid roads and alleys? Why move through walls?

Rather than submit to the authority of conventional spatial boundaries and logic, movement became constitutive of space. The three-dimensional progression through walls, ceilings, and floors across the urban balk reinterpreted, short-circuited, and recomposed both architectural and urban syntax.

Why invert the standard pragmatic ontology and navigational schema?

Because defensive attention by Palestinians has been placed on streets and doorways—a form of tactical commitment which in turn subsidizes other means of navigating. That is, Palestinian guerillas anticipated a set of moves by Israelis, tethered to and defined by the usual ontology of space. This anticipation itself inverted the usual strategic-pragmatic character of streets and doorways, from being the easiest and quickest (i.e. “cheapest”) means of navigating a city, to being the most expensive (in terms of lives and effort expended to make tactical progress):

Palestinian resistance composed of about 1,000 guerrilla fighters from all Palestinian armed organizations had barricaded all entries to the Kasbah (old city) of Nablus and the adjacent Balata refugee camp by filling oil barrels with cement, digging trenches, and piling up trash and rubble. Streets and alleys were mined along their length with improvised explosives and tanks of gasoline. Entrances to buildings facing these routes were also booby-trapped, as were the interiors of some prominent or strategically important structures. Several independent bands lightly armed with AK47s, RPGs, and explosives were organized deep within the camp and based along major routes or at prominent intersections.

To operate with a different ontology than one’s enemy is one thing—sometimes boon, sometimes bane. But to operate with a different ontology than one’s enemy while understanding, at a deep and intuitive level, the enemy’s ontology—that is always advantageous. One’s actions do not make sense to, do not cohere, for, the enemy, who becomes unable to anticipate and thereby preemptively counter such actions.

Often, as with streets—“the authority of conventional spatial logic”—a strategic ontology, a layout of intended object-use—is naturalized as the only” or the correct” (in some context-independent, project-independent way) ontology. To naturalize an ontology this way, in an adversarial game, is incredibly dangerous. Those capable of breaking from, and re-provisionalizing, the game’s ontology become capable of hacking it, breaking it, finding unnoticed, unexploited, previously invisible” or inconceivable moves.

In other words, a self-conscious, pragmatic, reflexive approach to one’s perception and interpretation of the game state can—especially in non-routinized, highly disrupted (i.e. highly prone to context-drift)—lend a competitive advantage. Then-Brigadier General Aviv Kohkavi, recently promoted to Commander In Chief of all Israeli armed forces, tells Weizman:

This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place, like every architect and every town planner does to walk through, or do you interpret the alley as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do.

And we see here exactly the emphasis on surprisal and expectation—on not being surprised by one’s opponent, while trying to surprise one’s opponent—that we expect in adversarial games. As Schelling was (one of) the first to argue, cooperation is founded on a converge in mutual expectations of the kind recently theorized by Karl Friston in Duet For One.” We should expect, then, for players in adversarial games to instead seek an advantageous divergence in priors: to have one’s enemy believe that the poisoned goblet is in front of him, when I believe it is in front of me.

In this vein, it becomes advantageous to players to actively alter the environment of hosted play, such that the environment actively defies and fails to live out the regularities of an opponent’s ontology. To create exactly that contextual drift—and thereby, the fitness-decreasing problem-solution decoupling—which defangs a player’s tactical repertoire.