Destruction of the Glencairn Tower in Motherwell (near Glasgow) / Photograph by Sam Hardie
Explosions are so ubiquitous in Hollywood Cinema, and the emotion is so intense when one torn-down reality that we do not quite seem to realize what they really are. In 2007, Mike Davis was trying to historicize the car bomb and its urban consequences in his book Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007) but his analysis was legitimately anthropocentric, which I want to avoid in this specific article. “Leaving the human” can sometimes be risky as it potentially leads to the depoliticization of things – depolitics being a form of politics too and a rather totalitarian one – but it also allows to think of a better understanding of the material world in which we live, and from which we exist as a body.
What is an explosion at the pure physics level? A bomb is an apparatus that contains folded within itself the potential liberation of an important volume of energy in the form of an exothermic reaction. Such a volume of energy and the speed with which it gets released provoke a sudden disaggregation of the material bodies (animate or inanimate) that surrounds its center. Insisting on the suddenness or the violence of the explosion would be another anthropocentric way to consider it as it would necessarily associate the scale of time in which it occurs to the scale of time of human perception. In other words, the Big Bang could be considered as a sudden explosion at a certain scale of time even though, 14 billions years later, the universe is still affected by its original release of energy. In a materialist interpretation, the speed to which an explosion is effectuated is therefore irrelevant and such an “event” can be compared to any other modification of matter like erosion or entropy. If we define destruction by the operation in which physical bodies are being “broken down” into smaller material assemblages, we can however define an explosion as a destructive transformation of matter without being anthropocentric.
Now that we read explosion at a materialist level, we can go back to what our bodies make us, humans, and maybe for some of us even, designers. What does such a materialist knowledge (only very briefly sketched here) mean in terms of design. The bomb, as we know it, is an artifact and a very precisely designed one. In his Entretien sur la mécanologie (Interview about Mechanology, 1968) about which I will write much more some other day, Gilbert Simondon explains that a machine, in order to exist, needs to be stable i.e. that it does not have any self-destructive characteristics – he refers to the very first engines that often tended to explode. The design of a bomb, a grenade, or any other explosive apparatuses does not apply this definition as it needs to control the precise moment of its self-destruction. The latter is likely to trigger the destruction of the other material bodies around it and therefore accomplish the goal that its creator has imagined for it.
The design of such apparatuses therefore involves its precise assemblage in such a way that its moment of self-destruction can be controlled; that is the design of the object’s actuality, but there is a second dimension of design to observe; one that addresses the object’s virtuality. What I mean by virtuality is the volume of energy that will be release by it and that requires to be precisely designed as well. Of course, in the case of terror, this part of design is not as much considered as the impact wanted is simply maximum; but in the case of military or para-military operations such a design is fundamental. In his lecture, Forensic Architecture (2009), Eyal Weizman describes (see past article about the notion of urbicide) how the American and Israeli Army uses the services of people, who we could call “energy designers”, that carefully elaborate the assassination of targeted individuals or groups through the design of bombs in relationship to the built environment. What is interesting here is that the virtual volumes of energy that are designed are not so much targeting these same individuals’ bodies directly but rather, the physical structure that host them. The building and the failure of its structural integrity are literally used as a weapon against them. Just like “normal” architects design schemes to ultimately have them built, these military technicians are designing schemes to ultimately have them destroyed. In this case, the volume of energy is wanted to be controlled to limit the destruction to a level where only the targeted individuals’ bodies would be affected and destroyed by it. Of course this is only theoretical and E. Weizman reveals that each operation has a specific amount of tolerated civilian deaths that would occurs at the same time than the targeted individual’s one.
This article is, of course, not written to suggest that we might ever be designing such “volumes of energy”, but rather that each modification of matter that we design and orchestrate has (at least) two levels of reading that cannot be considered individually: a non-anthropocentric physical one and a political one. Practicing architecture should consist in the skillful and informed articulation of these two dimensions.