Forensic aesthetics and Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

Can we think of literature’s contribution to human rights beyond inciting empathy or storytelling? The recent tendency to position and discuss contemporary art and literature as an “investigative,” “analytical,” or an epistemic process closely related to human rights invites a renewed examination of the link between literature and human rights discourse. 

This article introduces one such discussion evolving around the term “forensic aesthetics” and briefly discusses how it relates to a contemporary example from literature that deals with investigative practices on the level of plot and form—Aleksandar Hemon’s novel The Lazarus Project (2008).


Forensic aesthetics

The term “forensic aesthetics” was coined by the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture. It can be broadly defined as “the use of the arts” and “the employ[ment] of aesthetic sensibilities as investigation resources” (E. Weizman). 

While there is a long history of aesthetic approaches to research, Forensic Architecture’s specific constellation is novel. The agency analyzes and educates the public about the contemporary design of war waging, in particular the sophisticated efforts to hide violence that cannot be perceived publicly or slips under the “threshold of detectability.”

Forensic Architecture not only conceptualizes arts and aesthetics as an investigative tool, but they also put these ideas into use by producing architectural reconstructions of crime scenes involving state violence all over the globe. They are thus regarded as an amplifier of human rights (for example, by Lisa Stuckey and Naomi Klein). Their reconstructions have served as evidence in court cases and appeared in NGO campaigns; they also appear on the group’s website as part of their scientific publications and installations in art spaces and cultural venues

When artists are likened to “ethnographers” or “detectives,” it is often implied that they enhance our sense of a reality, which is felt and thought to be increasingly evasive. “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any,” wrote David Shields in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). The renewed interest in documentary or autobiographical writing, often praised for its “sociological” quality, and the increased thematic and formal reflection of investigative practices in contemporary literature contexts seem to be part of the same dynamic.


The Lazarus Project

Hemon’s formally sophisticated intermedial novel The Lazarus Project (2008) is an intriguing example of this thematic and formal turn toward investigative practices, as well as the investigative potential of literary writing. It links together and renarrates real historical events involving state violence, including the pogroms against Jewish people in Czarist Russia, the killing of the Jewish refugee Lazarus Averbuch by Chicago police in 1908, the post-Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, and the Abu Ghraib scandal. 

Investigation plays a role in several levels of the novel: first, as a theme or motif; and, second, as a poetological sign (a reflection upon literary writing) given both by the text itself, which is titled a “project,” and by the author. However, it is also “investigative” on the level of the writer’s technique (as conceptualized by literary theorist Victor Shklovsky). Some of the novel’s most interesting dynamics revolve around its strategies of evidence production.

This technique is at work in several ways, the most interesting of which is perhaps the author’s inclusion of black-and-white photographs—a medium associated with and used as evidence since its invention in the nineteenth century—at the beginning of each chapter.

While some images seem to verify the narrated events—some are even taken from the actual police investigation of the Averbuch case and the archives of the Chicago Historical Society—photography is also used for other less realistic means. Images framed as the documentation of history and a criminal case are here montaged with much more personal photographs taken by Velibor Božović that obstruct the reader’s view, interrupt their immersion, and invite a slower, more contemplative way of seeing. These images are often out of focus and literally “reflective” in their ability to capture mirror reflections, gazes, or bright lights. 

This arrangement of photographs, as well as the juxtaposition of photography with a text that oscillates between fact and fiction, disrupts the convention of photographic evidence. It heightens the readers’, or more aptly the viewers’ sensibility toward the complexity of visual evidence—a complexity that is often strategically undermined, particularly in representations of war. 

This defamiliarizing use of evidence is also apparent in the novel’s narrative strategies.

Chief Shippy’s driver, Foley, who has just arrived to drive him to City Hall, runs up the front stairs, alarmed by the sounds of scuffle, pulling out his revolver, while Henry, Chief Shippy’s son (on leave from the Culver Military Academy), surges downstairs from his bedroom in pyjamas, clutching a shiny, blunt saber. … Without thinking, Chief Shippy shoots at the young man (Averbuch); … the burst of redness blinds Foley …. (p. 8)

In this and several other passages, Hemon employs a rhetorical device called evidentia, or the narration of events as if they occurred before the reader’s eyes, here and now, in narrating the death of Averbuch. Evidentia is here realized in the combination of the present tense, use of numerous commas, and focus on material details.

In contrast to the journalistic article on the Averbuch case published in the Chicago Tribune in 1908, which is often quoted in the novel  and employs evidentia to create the effect of reality, Hemon’s novel makes aspects of the story and details evident that often produce a more grotesque or confusing account of the events rather than a coherent one. In its poetic use of evidentia, the novel's narrative focus on details here does not produce a realistic account of the events. Rather, it becomes more difficult for readers to distinguish fact and fiction and they cannot know what exactly occurred. Similar to the photographs, the immersive force of the language in these instances is interrupted and reading is obstructed. Instead, the language itself is foregrounded, transforming into a potential object for the reader’s contemplation. The novel may, at times, seduce readers into believing that they are “seeing” the events unfold, but it continuously breaks this illusion by demonstrating itself as another producer of evidence. 

Compared to the practice of forensic activist aesthetics, The Lazarus Project gives a much less decisive answer to an evasive reality; it does not offer a coherent account of what has truly happened or how to master daily and globally distributed mediatized accounts of violence. Instead, through photomontage and the narrative mimicry of investigative practices, it foregrounds the often strategically undermined complexity of such accounts, particularly the competitive framing of violence that becomes a public matter. 

Rather than overcoming the complexity of mediatized representations of violence and human rights violations, which can turn a violent reality into “the fastest American commodity” (as the novel says), and beyond an explicit rhetoric of rights or social justice, the novel seems to imply a more situated response to mediatized violence—one not secured by knowledge, continually lacking the necessary time while simultaneously being under the increasing pressure of digital time, necessarily erroneous and speculative but nonetheless open to revision and further response.