Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: David Rosen & Aaron Santesso, "The Watchman in Pieces"

Ray Taras, Fulbright Distinguished Chair in European Studies at the University of Warsaw, reviews David Rosen and Aaron Santesso, The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood (Yale University Press, 2013):
With all due respect to spooks working in the fields of intelligence, espionage, and surveillance, this book will sail over your heads. Moreover it will expose your inadequate training if you haven’t got a degree in the humanities.

To make the point, let me begin with the power of allegory and its creation of personhood in Renaissance culture, a topic introduced by the authors, both literature professors, at the outset: “an allegorical state of mind, as an act of imagination, implied certain ways of understanding the interiority of other people – and by extension provoked certain ways of watching them and of behaving towards them in general” (p. 21). An inner self had not emerged distinct from a social persona until 1604 when Iago brought up the subject in Othello by speaking these memorable words: “I am not what I am.” A surveillance practitioner would nervously decrypt the meaning as “I am not what I seem.”

In an ideal-type allegorical society where interior personhood and social behavior are opposite sides of the same coin, surveillance is unnecessary: “the citizenry would be perfectly legible, and one could gather the inward disposition of a person simply by giving him or her the quickest glance” (p.28).

Today profiling people is a sophisticated extension on interpreting the meaning of the glance or “social gaze” that people crave. The power of surveillance is enhanced where it singles out inner personhood for greater attention than outward role-playing. To illustrate this, the book reproduces the surveillance image of Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Al-Omari cruising through security at Portland International Airport on September 11, 2001 (p.256). The image represents a catastrophic failure of allegorical surveillance. For the authors, it exemplifies the resurgence of the allegorical paradigm that prizes aggressive forms of observation of the exteriority of people. “Resurgent allegory has been an important mode within the literary, political, and social structures of the modern era” (p.161) and suffers from partial vision.

After allegorical culture collapsed around Iago’s time the competing requisites of surveillance and privacy became locked in a dialectical dyad. One chapter of the book examines “post-allegorical refinements in determining character and intention from the outside (in ways both empathetic and coercive),” while the next is concerned “with the inner narrative and with changing ideas about solitude and the self” (p.161).

An emerging liberal-contractual culture was based on a Hobbesian exchange of some liberties enjoyed by citizens in exchange for their security. John Locke’s 1667 Essay on Toleration asserted that toleration is not a good in itself nor does it simply preempt revolutionary violence; “it can also expose existing unrest” (p.73). What is more, toleration for Locke conjured up an intriguing Protestant value: if repression “caused people to band together, a regimen of toleration might have the opposite effect: infinite fragmentation, turning each person, in a manner of speaking, into a party of one” (p.75).

Another British philosopher who steals the show in surveillance studies is Jeremy Bentham who introduced the panopticon, a circular prison which made inmates internalize the idea of being under constant observation. The psychology of incarceration is his perhaps unwitting contribution to the surveillance state.

Where does literature fit into this history of surveillance - “the monitoring of human activities for the purposes of anticipating or influencing future events?” The authors answer that “Each asks what it means to be a person; more than that, each examines how abstract models of personhood – the fictions generated by literature and politics – might relate to the inner lives of real people” (p.10). Put differently, each sets out to discover the truth about other people.

The literary dimension of the book begins in earnest with critical analysis of utopian allegories drawn from the imagined islands of Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe. In these cases surveillance could be empathetic more than coercive. Selected works of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman are given innovative interpretations, and even Arthur Conan Doyle earns a place in the pantheon of surveillance writers. The standard bearers of the genre, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, J.R.R. Tolkien, John le Carré, Yevgeny Zamyatin – a rare non Anglo-American in the book – all receive creative examination as well.

The discerning and/or erudite reader may dispute the authors’ periodizations (from allegory to contractual liberalism then back to allegory in 500 years) and conceptualizations (“Chicken Littleism”) found in the book. The Anglo-American bias in selecting works of literature and philosophy makes few concessions and only fashionable contemporary French philosophers (Foucault fitting in best) together with de rigeur Slavoj Žižek represent the exceptions.

The normative hammer blow for the reader comes at the end of the last chapter (“Towards a Theory of Liberal Reading”) when the authors assert that “the habits of mind vital for both the survival of these liberal values and the effective practice of surveillance are best nurtured in the liberal arts classroom” (p.271). English majors do have career prospects, after all: “to the extent that both the initiators and the targets of surveillance remain human, the human arts will remain relevant to understanding the stakes in any surveillance situation” (p.277).
To be sure, the authors are critical of the “assessment culture” that is the rage in higher education today. It “is identifiable readily as systemic surveillance at its most authoritarian, allegorical, and involuntary,” to ignore its anti-liberalism (p.281). What this book does not do is address the outrage of citizens who do not wish to be implicated in the web of surveillance either as the watchmen or the watched. The liberal ideological bent characterizing this study is constricting. Viewing contestation over the surveillance state as one inherently between liberals and illiberals may be at the heart of our political problems today.

As for spooks, they are likely to find this book written in plain, though very stylish, English near impossible to decrypt. As meaningful as this itself may be, let me add that this book is also an extraordinarily intelligent study, and a gem of philosophic reflection on individuals and society.--Ray Taras
Visit Ray Taras's website. His 2012 books are Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe (Edinburgh University Press); (editor) Challenging multiculturalism: European models of diversity Edinburgh University Press); and (editor) Russia's identity in international relations: images, perceptions, misperceptions (Routledge).

--Marshal Zeringue