Subjectivity Under Surveillance : Rhetoric Redux
Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric,
Centre for Rhetoric Studies,University of Cape Town
My understanding of surveillance is that of a philosopher of rhetoric (Surveillance/Rhetoric, 2012) (Salazar, 2014c). My gesture emulates Aristotle’s gesture when he took measure of the lack of reflective practice in public discourse, in the declining years of Athens’s imperial democracy, and then directed his strictures both at public affairs practitioners who used « limited technical manuals » to train politicians who, in turn, managed to do well « by chance or by trial and error » (Rhetoric, 1354 a11 and a9). This is the opening of the Rhetoric, and the beginning of rhetoric, and simply the foundation of a critique of political subjectivity. There was none before. Rhetoric and political subjectivity are indivisible.
The recent history of state, financial and corporate leaks, from Julian Assange to Edward Snowden, is evidence of the same « trial and error, haphazard » practice criticized by Aristotle. Agencies were caught unprepared to respond, publicly, to the challenge posed by leaks. Their knee-jerk response is echoed in the unpreparedness of global institutions, such as the European Union, to respond publicly and intelligently to surveillance challenges. Their response is usually dogmatic, and it consists mainly in a roll call of regulatory documents (see European Parliament, 2014). No attempt is made to theorize why it happens, how to make it not happen again, and whether it should be opportune to let it happen in a controlled way. Intelligence agencies, together with their upstream (state level) and downstream (medias, social networks), act at random, or by trial and error. They do not provide for a theoretical understanding of their predicament. They remain descriptive or prescriptive (Erwin & Liu, 2013) instead of asking themselves: what is subjectivity under surveillance? The very question Aristotle asked in performing the founding gesture of rhetoric: what is subjectivity under democracy?
There exists, of course, a tedious literature concerning the ethics of statal or corporate surveillance, or data collection and analysis vis à vis privacy (Goldman, 2006; Leonard, 2014, on « de-identification »), in addition to a debate regarding the sovereign right and duty of a democratic state to protect its citizens against risks and threats (ACLU & HRW, 2014; Kuner et al, 2014). The case is also being made by human rights monitors to develop a « comprehensive reporting » which is tantamount, in fact, to counter-surveillance (Alston and Gillespie, 2012).
Either way, the traditional, Kantian, and democratic concept of the public nature of information, or Öffentlichkeit is not only under attack but it is ill-equipped to theorize subjectivity under surveillance. The reason is that these contrarian sets of positions, pro and against surveillance, are basically managerial: they aim at managing the field, but they detract from theory building. They are un-thinking.
In this essay, I will step back from all this, and I will recast the surveillance as an object for rhetoric and for a theory of subjectivity.
I. About Secrecy
Surveillance is an integral part of life in a highly technological society, as the European Parliament naïvely admitted in a recent report (European Parliament, 2013). Surveillance is both omnipresent (from CCTV cameras to « cookies ») and « unpresent, » that is to say, its presence is covert: first, via processes and technologies, such as « upstreaming, » of which citizens are usually not aware (see their nomenclature in the above-mentioned European Parliament report); second, via the retention of communications data or content (Intelligence and Security Committee, 2013).
Clearly, the irksome part of surveillance’s « unpresence, » which propels a host of irrational reactions and strong affects into public debate, is its secrecy. Most people will admit that surveillance is somewhat necessary to « protect » them, but they are upset by its secrecy. The first question is therefore that of secrecy.
At face value, if « secrecy » as « dissimulation » is a standard in the history of European culture, especially of the Renaissance, current studies of secrecy as a component of intelligence studies remain mostly descriptive (Moran, 2013; Cormac, 2014). Whereas, think of Torquato Acceto (Della Dissimulazione onesta, 1641), or Descartes’s belief in the virtue of « withdrawal » or labor intus, European Continental philosophy since the Renaissance elaborated an ethos of intellectual subjectivity validating secrecy as a method of autonomy, modern managerial concepts of secrecy are feeble, idiotic even, by comparison.
We can turn to Benveniste as a point of departure. According to him secrecy is the result of a process that sets into motion a number of legal-political-religious-economic instruments (1969). Anthropologically speaking, secrecy did not appear because one wanted to hide something (« dissimulation », a key notion of Renaissance studies on the matter). Secrecy appeared within a set of social actions.
Benveniste points out that secretum refers to the result of an agricultural action (cernere), using a sieve to separate the wheat from the chaff. This practical gesture provides, in Benveniste’s terminology, a « representation, » that is to say, an action translated into a mental structure which shapes further social actions, detached from their agricultural origin: what is kept for public usage is declared so, via a decretum (the anthropological source of the Law); what is rejected as useless is named excretum (the source of modes of exclusion, and discrimination); and what is kept, but withdrawn and concealed from public usage (and set aside for a use different from the obvious, public one) becomes secretum (the source of government).
Secrecy is the result of a triage, and can only be understood within this rhetorical structure: what is declared legitimate, what is excluded, what is reserved.
This triage reveals how governmentality functions: agencies sort out information and, from what has been set aside they decide what is to be made public; what is to be made secret; what is to be held as redundant, or excluded. This triage also accounts for the general functioning of intelligence (Salazar, 2014b): to collect, to sort, to release, to archive (archiving is a form of excretion as destruction is rare, unless accidental), in sum to « classify » (Moran, 2013).
Surveillance today is a hyper-technological form of such triage. When public debate concerning surveillance is centered around « The state/the corporations/the networks are prying into our privacy, » that is our own secrecy, the public refuses to confront the actual nature of surveillance – a triage of information upon which political life is naturally constructed, and is delimited by what is supposedly « inherently governmental » (Chesterman, 2008). Indeed, a rhetorical drive of surveillance strategies is to propagate the political belief that societies, which are both democratic and technological, are more « open, » hence naturally more « at risk » than traditional ones, hence inherently more subject to surveillance. Of course this is hardly ever articulated so explicitly because a rhetorical effect of triage is to secret away such an explicit argument. It would defeat the triage itself by exposing its rhetoric, and uncovering a paradox concerning biopolitics in a postmodern, surveillance society.
The triage process is a rhetorical construction, and any case study should begin by examining it, and how each set of decretum/excretum/secretum is developed into public arguments. It is counterproductive to tackle a particular surveillance phenomenon head-on. Disassembling the triage and its rhetorical construct should be the first analytical manoeuvre.
II. A Return of the Archaic
However, the public perceives that the defence of democratic surveillance is paradoxical: the more advanced we are in terms of freedoms, the more protected we must be; or: the more adult politically, the more infantile too.
The public reacts to the perception of this paradox with anger or indignation, assuaged by a sullen acceptance of a de facto triage that has some every day practicality. For instance, the dupe’s quid pro quo of personal access to easy and limitless storing, or searches in exchange, tacit or otherwise, for commercial data collecting by providers. Yet to move from perceiving the paradox to conceiving it requires more than an affective or utilitarian response. This is where Foucault’s concept of biopolitics comes into play (Foucault, 1978), where the archaic returns.
Postmodern, democratic societies are supposed to have moved away from archaism. The shift is supposed to have occurred with the rise of the idea and practice of the state as « governmentality » marked by the following features (Foucault 1978, Lesson 9): the state as endowed with rationality; the invention of a secular society; the invention of economics to measure, and to manage its resources; the invention of public security (an enabler for secular links, once religious bonding has been removed, and an enabler for stable trade and financial flows); finally the invention of freedoms that ensure identification with the state, identification with communal values, identification with free fluxes of labour (under the disguise of free fluxes of people, Marxists would argue plausibly). A new political nature was born that replaced « pastoral power. »
In Foucault’s archaeology of governmentality the phase preceding the State, and its security apparatus, was a indeed « pastoral » in the Catholic, episcopal sense of the word, and endowed with three main features or « economies: » rulers are pastors to their subjects, not to assert power in our common sense of « power politics, » but with a view to help the latter secure their salvation after death. Living together in this world is of lapsarian necessity. Living politically has no meaning per se. Living together under a pastor is to respond to an « economy of salvation. » Secondly, rulers and ruled are expected to decipher signs of the divine, and to respond to them through cultural rituals. Natural events out of the ordinary (earthquakes, plagues) are signs to be interpreted, with lessons deduced to obey. Again, living together has no « political » meaning beyond a communal observance of rites whose signified is life after death, outside this world. Thirdly, entailed by this duty of interpretation, the world is regarded like a book at once wide open and closed – open to interpretation but closed unless one masters techniques of interpretation. Foucault calls it an « economy of truth, » whose functionaries ensured the coherence of the whole system through technologies of interpretation. This is not a political world, but a world « under Satan’s Sun, » a world in a state of refusal of politics. In sum, subjectivity is bound by its own denial, by life after death.
Such was, before the advent of the state, the natural state of living together, which could not be defined as « politics » as we know it. This was archaism.
What is then the postmodern paradox of surveillance? Clearly, with surveillance we witness, above the State biopolitics phase, a return to archaic « pastoral power. »
Indeed the three aspects of pastoral biopolitics are active in surveillance society; but each one is given a particular « declension, » as I call it, due to the massive presence of State biopolitics.
For instance, the economy of salvation has undergone a declension: saving citizens of Western democracies from being « radicalized, » as if free citizens, sovereign citizens, could not exert a power of choice, and were simply inert and plastic subjects. This idiom, « radicalized, » has been propagated by security agencies, and slavishly relayed by the medias since the Boston massacre in 2013 (Salazar, 2013d). It implies that surveillance will save normal citizens from falling prey to « radicalization, » in a perverse scenario whereby the potential agent is also a victim who must be « saved. » In sum, surveillance is a pastoral agency: the world outside the borders of democracy is evil, and one has to be saved from it, against one’s own will. The fact radicalization is a form of idealism or, as I have suggested, « heroism » (2013d) is never mentioned, as it would challenge both the salvatory function of the process, and statal powers of interpretation and decipherment of bewildering, violent events that rupture the natural order of things.
Indeed, in keeping with the second feature of pastoral biopolitics, postmodern world politics has assumed a sheen of constant extraordinariness, near-magical events which are presented as « critical » events or crises, and therefore require the intervention of experts, specialists, professionals whose function is interpretative. Future institutes, rating agencies (Salazar, 2014a), global reports consultancies (Salazar, 2013a) are all endowed with that function, while being in effect and in purpose surveillance agencies. The second and third economies of pastoral biopolitics find their declension in public security alerts and controls of labour, people and capital fluxes, all in the name of restoring normality in the world – a sophism often phrased as « making the world safer for our children. »
Surveillance society is therefore pastoral and statal, archaic and modern. Such is the paradox, and it goes a long way to explain the rhetoric used by governments, and internalized by citizens, about restricting liberties in order to live « normally. »
The public perceives this collapsing together of archaic and modern biopolitics, when surveillance interrupts the assumed autonomy of one’s privacy, when it enters the subject’s inner sanctum. The usual response is two-fold: either a dialectical response (usually in the name of human rights or « freedom »), or an affective response (indignation or outrage).
Regarding the dialectical response: to question surveillance on moral grounds without questioning its « unpresence, » that is to say, without having a concept that goes beyond either its technology or its legality, is limited. What is this limitation?
This limitation is best defined by what Lyotard described as « differend » (1983). In short, those who criticize surveillance, or revolt against its perceived immorality in the name of democracy or privacy, speak and appui themselves the language of surveillance as codified by surveillance agencies. Protesters name the « tort » (that their privacy is treated like a merchandise, for instance), and may engage in « litigation » against prying agencies (statal or corporate), or simply express indignation on online fora. But they remain caught within the rhetoric of surveillance itself, and the protection it says it affords. The differend is not declared. It is striking that many in the public are willing to accept restrictions of liberties, but find it insufferable that agencies are monitoring communications data. They do not step outside the language set by surveillance. They do not declare a differend. At best, they litigate.
This non-recognition of the differend, and of its archaic substratum, is an enduring aspect of the rhetoric of protest against surveillance in democratic societies.
III. Popular idiocy
However this disconnect leads, or explains, a further, remarkable disconnect between the reality of postmodern surveillance and its popular representations.
Surveillance technologies are naturally expert, focused technologies. They target. They home in. They use algorithms. They cross-reference. They classify. They memorize. They retro-survey through data activism (Tealium, 2013). To use two Aristotelian logical categories: they turn quantity into quality. And, quite often, intelligence operators are some of the best minds (in American parlance « leverage people/talent, » National Commission, 2013)). The popular idea of surveillance is that of a panopticon, the Benthamian model (Foucault, 1975), whereby everyone and every action are observable, and observed from one single point of observation in the system. This model has been replaced by a multiplicity of points of observation, multiple in space, and multiple in time. The panopticon observer is nowadays polyvalent and depersonalized, unlike the unique watchman in his Benthamian tower.
Popular films continue to propagate the archaic scenario of « big brother. » In doing so they are cultivating an archaic fallacy, the Benthamian model: someone behind a screen, a camera, a system, a matrix – whatever the device chosen by the filmmaker – is observing the victim, soon turned hero.
In surveillance-themed movies the enunciation of agency makes it necessary to meet the horizon of expectations of a given audience: the audience wants to be re-assured that someone they can see, identify, blame and engage with, is there watching and controlling, and be defeated ultimately.
Media narratives concerning anti-surveillance individuals such as Assange, Manning or Snowden reinforce this subliminal reasoning: if one person can uncover such massive surveillance, the next step is to assign responsibility to a single agency. Or: It only takes one courageous person to do the work for all of us. This hyper-individualization is a rhetorical fallacy.
Postmodern surveillance is essential depersonalized, but popular culture cannot think in terms of de-individualization. It demands individualization of events, identification, and individuation. Surveillance agencies are well served by the archaic, popular representation of surveillance as a Benthamian panopticon, and its sophistic propagation by the media. This tension is a fulcrum of postmodern « rhetoric culture, » so far overlooked, and it requires careful attention from scholars engaged in the field (Strecker & Tyler, 2009). An entire field for anthropological and rhetorical research remains largely unexplored – in the same manner as science production remained stuck in popular representations of « the great discoverer, » a personalized view of science, until the work done by Latour (Latour & Woolgar, 1986) – with one notable exception (see Furtado & Ercolani, 2013).
Postmodern surveillance is multifocal, disseminated, and depersonalized, which makes it all the more autonomous and, literally, « unconceivable » by a public who remains stuck in romantic notions of heroic individualism, whereby the subject is the measure of all things within a polity made itself of measures and rules, emblematized by « the Rule of Law ») which is the aporia of bourgeois democracy. The public is, literally, « idiotic, » stuck in « idioms » or narratives of heroic individuals and of heroic deeds that can change history and « life, » while surveillance has created a depersonalized and multifocal subjectivity. Popular culture reinforces the idiocy and further alienation.
Nonetheless, the dialectical tension between the multi-focality of depersonalized surveillance, and fallacious popular representations regarding surveillance underscores the massive presence of the public, just as massive as surveillance’s « unpresence. » Which leads us to consider now the affective response to surveillance. Affects are an un-mediated form of moral response. They are not a praxis. However, affects form a powerful, and irrepressible background « noise. »
« Noise » is a key notion put forward by Michel Serres in his radical philosophy of communication, Hermès (1969-1980), and it can help conceptualize the public’s presence. According to Serres, communication is a game/play between two interlocutors who band up together against a interference and noise, or against third parties who want to interfere. The key notion is « noise », the public as noise.
For instance, at an everyday level, comments posted by readers on a forum, typically below a story run by an online media, when they step out of the single post, and engage in a conversation, often adopt the shape of (habitual) commentators’ vying with one another. Dialogists often select preferred interlocutors – in a search for what online media cannot provide, a face to face conversation. In other words online exchanges wish to eliminate the public as noise, on the one hand by pretending comments are not public in relation to moderators (to the point of ignoring rules, and being suddenly reminded of their invisible, censorial presence); on the other, in relation to interlocutors, by selecting target interlocutors. This practice is the basic structure of online fora, a « pathetic » simulacrum of dialogue against a massive, self-perpetuating background noise generated by the public.
Another example, at a institutional level, is the unending debate regarding the « dumping » of information by WikiLeaks in relation to journalism, and free flow of information. The most perceptive, and yet self-defeating view, is one expressed by Slavoj Žižek: » The aim of the WikiLeaks revelations was not just to embarrass those in power but to lead us to mobilise ourselves to bring about a different functioning of power that might reach beyond the limits of representative democracy » (2011). Perceptive, insofar as it gives readers the possibility to have access to classified documents. Self-defeating, because to reading US diplomatic dispatches, for instance, is premised on a precise knowledge of the State Department coding protocols. Individuals’ driven leaks, and « crowdsourcing » (Schilis-Gallego, 2014) have not altered our relation to power: they have added to the noise against which we wish to have dialogic exchanges, while they create a simulacrum of communication that is now potentially limitless. Leaks have intensified our desire to eliminate what Serres names « the third man. »
Serres borrows the expression from the famous noir movie by the same name (1949), in which a third man is seen removing a dead man, who is in fact not dead because both are probably the same man whose possible death at the end of the movie is left to the public’s imagination. The « third man » symbolizes our subjective relationship to surveillance, at once pervasive, invasive, and utterly desirable because it allows us to partake in a limitless game of relationships. In this process we want the noise (the third man) to die and to exist at the same time, and of a death that remains hypothetical, because the process guarantees our communicational existence.
Popular culture will call state or corporate surveillance « evil, » that is, demonic. Indeed, for Serres communicators engaged in a dialogue struggle together against a « demon ». In addition surveillance experts often present this popular perception as « pathology » (Dedefensa, 2013). Both attempts, popular perception and expert concept, are valid, but they limit our apprehension of evil and pathology.
Regarding « evil, » popular culture perceives what it fails indeed to conceive: the philosophical sense of daímōn. A daímōn is an intermediary between human agents, who impels them to interact – such the famous Socrates’ one. Indeed what most online interlocutors forget, caught as they become in the simulacrum of a personal dialogue, and caught in the limitless pleasure of playing the game, is the fact they use always an intermediary – and this intermediary is the game itself, the network, and linked to it, the web. « Noise, » whether covert or overt, is the system. The public replicates surveillance in entering the great game of the internet and is being played by the third man, surveillance proper, who is never dead – to use the movie’s analogy. A Facebook page is a form of surveillance, however amicable or gentle or casual it may look. Put differently, surveillance is the other name for cyber communication.
Regarding « pathology, » one way to explain the spell cast by Internet on the public is to refer to Heidegger’s Stimmung (2005): » Understanding is always attuned » (Verstehen ist immer gestimmtes) (paragraph 31). Stimmung matters for the subject under surveillance. Postmodern subjects who play the game of Internet and are always in search of someone else with whom to measure oneself, thus creating noise in order to dispel it while agreeing to the silent presence of surveillance, « understands » its situation in the ecology of the Internet: it is « attuned » to it. Subjects « stand under » the tune of surveillance.
This Verstehen immer gestimmtes that characterises how the public « under-stands » surveillance is therefore at once i) the communicators’ understanding of their « standing under » cyber-processes that allow them to exchange information, ii) the implicit accord (or mutual understanding) between communicators that they are « standing under » surveillance, and iii) their further understanding that they are vying with the noise.
However, attunement to surveillance allows the subject to project what Heidegger defines as « the thrownness of this being into its there, » an apt definition of how we behave in Internet communication. Whereby the subject enacts « the facticity » of this projection (« facticity », paragraph 29). In Internet communication subjects project themselves as facts, they throw themselves forth as facts. They project Being not to face what is the core of the gesture: the dread, the ansgt of their nothingness. This is where Stimmung comes into play.
Indeed Heidegger stresses that Stimmung is a dis-position, a positioning, ruled by « pathos, » enabling an « affective situation » (in the French translation, authorized by Heidegger, for German Befindlichkeit, 1951, p. 31). Now, if « attunement » of the subject to Being has its source in the « dread » (Angst) of no-thingness », what is pathological in cyber communication is not merely the public’s addiction to facticity of projection, and intelligence agencies’ reliance on it, but the affective, irrational relation that binds public to cyber-communication. This « affective situation » draws its energy from enabling each communicator to replicate surveillance, and to behave like a small-time surveillance agency. The public is indeed « attuned » to surveillance practices; while at the same time everyone it faces the dread of it. At once « attunement » positions the subject in the world; it makes it exists in facticity; and it makes it enjoy doxa, the limitless exchange of information.
In such a perspective, being a subject of surveillance is staring joyfully into nothingness – possibly the best ontic definition of social networks.
This raises a further and last issue: what sort of community of subjects is surveillance dealing with? What sort of community of readers and authors are these subjects?
V. Popular power
The first step is to reflect on a simple observation : surveillance technologies are seen, or unveiled, as massively scientific, while individuals’ cyber-communications both stand in the midst of the noise of empirical actions (photos, clips, sms, posts, emails), and take a dialectical or affective stand against it either by trying to shut it out or to create dialogic relationships.
Again, Serres proposes a way forward. Dealing with the invention of dialogic communication, in Ancient Greece, at the time rhetoric was born, and with it debate, Serres establishes a correlation between the invention of dialogue and the invention of geometry. He describes an isomorphic relationship between shutting out noise by creating dialogue, and mathematicians’ shutting out the empirical noise (a line in the sand, a circle in the sand), and inventing abstract figures. Thus, dialogue is not on the side of the empirical, but it is isomorphic to geometry. Dialogic procedures are an attempt to create abstractions, and to format a given, empirical exchange into a reproducible, abstract pattern – namely the invention of systematic, enthymematic and topical reasoning in/by the Rhetoric.
If we now transpose Serres’s argument to the public in the age of cyber-surveillance and « generalized monitoring » of personal data (Kuner et al., 2014), Serres’s concept implies the following: in spite of its scientific apparatuses, material and immaterial, technologies and processes, surveillance is confronted, again and again, with the human instinctive, natural drive toward abstraction. It is an interesting phenomenon that individuals imitate surveillance by using tools analogous to surveillance agencies’. Individuals and agencies are a noise to each other – agencies have to develop complex triage systems to isolate key indicators of threats or buying behaviours patterns, as the case may be, that is, to sort out noise created by individual communications. Conversely, individuals have the ability, being humans and not machines or animals, to invent bypasses, to find ways out, to play with surveillance, in short to abstract themselves from the empirical mess where agencies trawl, and sift information, and for which they have developed mathematical models for extraction of relevant information.
In this regard, surveillance leaks by Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden are moral abstractions: they represent a conscious effort to correlate sets of values with sets of actions. In short, they are abstract processes that aim at creating between citizens, and between citizens and representative governments a dialogue, away from interference and noise, that is: abstracted from empirical noise, and abstracted from what surveillance agencies are willing to excrete.
Governments’ agencies response to this form of people’s abstraction is two-fold: either they try and reduce agents to « people with personal problems, with an axe to grind, a history of work grievances, » whatever the case may be; or they feed the media, directly or indirectly, with stock-phrases (« radicalization, escalation ») (Salazar, 2014d). In this respect media discourse remains formulaic and indigent (Reinke de Buitrago, 2013), even when journalists are not bought or complicit (Ulfkotte, 2014), an expected positioning since biopolitics apparatuses struggle to conceive politics by individuals other than inordinate forms of the empirical. They cannot conceive that individuals hold a power of abstraction. This failing of surveillance practitioners, and of their media observers, goes back to my initial point, the lack of a theory of their practice. Manuals and guidelines are not a theory. They are empirical beliefs turned into processes. In a manner of speaking, surveillance is the empirical.
For that reason and because of this disregard for the abstracting drive of individuals, the community of « surveilled subjects » as readers and authors is a peculiar one – this is the second aspect of the question I have raised concerning community.
When the PRISM operation was revealed in June 2013, public opinion in Western democracies expressed a perceived injury: » ‘How dare ‘they’ read my emails?’ « . This affective and anecdotal reaction, raises a larger issue – how do we behave as subjects of a community of cyber-readers, and cyber-authors? And how do surveillance agencies take it into account?
Surveillance agencies, whether governmental or corporate (Amicelle, 2011), hold an archaic view of readership and authorship. It seems that the Internet epistemic revolution has impacted surveillance agencies solely in terms of technologies and, lately, of the legal or constitutional components of surveillance. Wider implications for the status of their audience engagement seem to be lost on them.
The framework is provided by Foucault in his epochal lecture, « What is an author? » (1969). Pre-dating the Internet age, Foucault’s four-points brief (usually absent from foreign translations) remains the best approach to the nature of readership and authorship in what Lyotard would term the postmodern condition, ten years later (1979).
– One: it is impossible to name the author of a given text.
– Two: an author does not own and is not responsible for texts produced.
– Three: the social attribution of texts to an author involves complex processes.
– Four: an author is more than the sum of the texts produced.
In other words, Foucault (1969) describes a situation which is typical of the age of mass cyber surveillance – a few months before the 1968 upheaval which ushered in a new epoch in Western democracies (in reality propelling capitalism into its next, triumphant phase in exchange for societal « advances » among which « communication for all »), he was projecting an analysis into the future, with that sort of intellectual prudence some philosophers possess of things to come when they trend practice toward theory. He did not know the Internet but had understood how, and in which direction mass communication practices were developing.
Indeed writing and reading online form a complex of private manipulations that include, from minor to major, publicizing or capturing identities, posting lies or anonymous comments, creating multiple blogs, using a variety of aliases, playing with IP addresses, setting up privacy filters, resorting to random or encrypted pathways to prevent traffic analysis (as in the Tor project). The range for what I have called « abstraction, » beyond a straightforward use of the Internet (if there is such a thing), is limitless – in a democratic environment, of course. By just comparing this gamut of untrammelled operations with the four points of Foucault’s brief, it becomes clear that he provides an apt description of post-modern and electronic age readership and authorship. Readership and authorship have become, to quote Foucault, « functions. » They no longer are personalized – the rampant narcissism of Facebook is a smokescreen for depersonalization.
Still, surveillance agencies believe firmly in traceability, while they enact their archaic « best possible world, » as Leibniz put it, that is: a world of communication where authors and readers are fixed, enunciated, stable, and identifiable beings with enunciated attributes. This is no longer the case. The functions described by Foucault have resulted in the dilution of authorial and « readerly » sources.
As defined by historian of the book Chartier (1994), a « community of readers, » as opposed to private readers in the pre-modern era, expects specific authorial behaviours from authors, and enforces them through the marketplace. The Internet has simply exponentially exacerbated what was true for the book in the consumer age. Internet audiences have developed moods and behaviours that have begun altering the way in which we used to assess an author, a text, and a corpus. By contrast, surveillance agencies, those avid readers and trackers of authorships and readerships, remain subservient to a bourgeois, and book era, belief both in authorship.
However, the new condition of reading and authoring has not gone unnoticed by online providers such as Google, who have capitalized on Foucault’s four-fold analysis in their assault against copyright and, ultimately, personal authorship, in the name of a postmodern « community of readers. »
In conclusion, surveillance agencies labour under an haphazard or archaic conception of what is, today, a community of communicating subjects: they have not fully realized that audiences and producers of texts are no longer individuals, but points of application of a system, or functions that alter sources themselves. Surveillance agencies live in a disconnect between massive technological and information advances, and archaic and instinctual (non)understanding of human communication in the postmodern age. They apprehend the world of postmodern cyber-communication from a technological or legal, simply made more complex at every turn, at every « leak, » by the addition of mores procedures and mores processes. Surveillance agencies, and their critics, do not take cognizance of their own archaism, and of the complexity of what I have attempted to describe, « surveilled subjects » playing with noise, affects, subterfuge, evasion, legalities, and having the sudden ability to claim a differend from the dated idiom of surveillance. And resist.
In my view, it is rhetoric’s duty to take up this challenge, and to perform in our times what Aristotle did in his time: to question how subjectivity operates rhetorically, then in a declining democracy subverted by imperialism, now in a democracy perverted by surveillance.
This work is based upon research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (grant 81695). Any opinion, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and therefore the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard.
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