The Pleasures of Surveillance

What revelations about NSA surveillance, the Edward Snowden case, and our media saturated lives can tell us about privacy and the public sphere. A hint: it's not what you might expect...

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by Faisal Devji

Interesting about the recent revelations of government surveillance in America and Britain has been the absence of public outrage in these countries. While commentators tend to attribute this to the real or imagined fears of terrorism that both states are said to promote among their citizens, I suspect something more is at work here. For just as it is difficult to imagine much trust subsisting between these citizens and their governments, so, too, is there little sign that they are afraid of terrorism. Indeed the contrary is probably true. Might it be the case, instead, that people don’t mind surveillance for entirely non-political reasons, because they have become accustomed to a media-dominated world in which it is difficult to draw the line between webcams, reality television and telephone hacking by newspapers?

If we consider the acceptability of surveillance in a wider cultural context, it is possible to say that it relies at least in part upon the exhibitionist desire for publicity, itself non-political, that is so characteristic of our media-saturated societies. Of course this is a trite enough point, curious about it being only how surveillance may actually recover a privacy lost not simply to entertainment media, but the whole enterprise of polling and surveying opinion. After all it is only by such sampling that both commercial and political decisions are made in advanced democracies like the US and UK. By secretly acquiring and holding all manner of information about its citizens, then, including of the most mundane and banal kind, the state is in effect reconstituting a private sphere for them within its own domain, one that has been lost to the overwhelming reality of publicity as much as to the desire for it.

Perverse as it is, this process is a fundamentally old-fashioned one, because it seeks to re-inscribe the classical distinction of public and private in a situation where it seems to have become vestigial. This might be why those who criticize it can only condemn surveillance by invoking the equally traditional fears of tyranny and totalitarianism. Yet the emptying out of the old private sphere, initially for commercial and then political uses, and both well before the current debate on surveillance, suggests that it is not a totalitarian logic that is at work. Indeed the opposite may well be the case, with the state trying to re-draw a now atavistic division between public and private, if only by occupying the latter category in a strange reversal. For the “liberal” state cannot exercise power in a situation where private and public have lost autonomy, and must create a division between them to operate.  

In a short book called In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the notion of a “silent” or merely statistical majority represented the paradoxical attempt to create a “real” community of interests out of an average produced by surveys and polls. But the more such a population was sampled, the less was it capable of constituting itself into a community. This meant that its very visibility and lack of internal consistency made this group “resistant” to politics—a resistance made up not of reticence or concealment but by the very promiscuity of publicity and revelation. Precisely because nothing about this population was hidden, in other words, it was impossible either to know or to mobilise. For the survey and sample represent forms of grasping mass opinion that end up abstracting and making it completely opaque, while in the process destroying all “real” communities in the very effort to know them.

If the statistical forms of measuring opinion that Baudrillard wrote about fragmented the individual and made collectives abstract, surveillance reintegrates the individual and his singular intentionality. Yet this enterprise is, again, a very old-fashioned one, seeking to resuscitate the classical legal subject, responsible for his words and actions in conventional ways that bear little relation to the ambiguities of militant practice. Their suicidal character, after all, allows Al-Qaeda-style terrorism to break with the first principle of legal subjectivity—self-interest. But of course there is nothing traditional about this reconstituted legal subject, which is why in America the right-wing National Rifle Association’s argument – that the right to bear arms serves to check the tyranny of the state – is curiously similar to the one advocated by the left-wing American Civil Liberties Union. For this latter would have the state voluntarily or rather legally circumscribe its powers of surveillance to maintain a division between public and private realms.

In either case the privacy for which protection is sought turns out to be a mere shadow, since the arms-bearing citizen is unable to resist the state, while a privacy guaranteed by this state’s self-restraint clearly has no autonomy. Both the armed citizen and his unarmed cousin, therefore, deploy their entirely legalistic “private” status in new ways and to novel ends, however classical their constitutional language remains. The problem is that spatiality is no longer a viable marker of the distinction between spheres, not least because it represents the landed property that is basis of this distinction historically, making “privacy” a fundamentally bourgeois category. The attack on privacy, then, is also one on private property in its earlier incarnation as land or space, which has been displaced not only by intellectual or intangible property, but also by the erasure of the line between public and private. The condition is illustrated by the corporatization of governance, to say nothing about the role of publicly traded private companies in mining personal data for state use.

Perhaps we should look outside the tradition of Western liberalism for a historical analysis of this situation. The Indian philosopher Mohammad Iqbal, for example, argued early in the last century that the modern distinction between public and private, which also served as the ground for that between the secular and the religious, or the civil and the political, was nothing but a version of the Christian division between the material and the spiritual. It was, in other words, a metaphysical and not a functional separation. Echoing in some respect the argument of Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” Iqbal contended that this metaphysical distinction gave the categories of public and private their qualitative and apparently incommensurable character –based though they were on the defining role that private as opposed to public property was coming to play in a capitalist order. But such a distinction was, he thought, being made unsustainable by the very dominance of property in social life.

Spatiality, argued Iqbal, drawing on the French philosopher Henri Bergson, was not only a crude and slowed-down version of temporality. It was, we might say, also becoming volatilised as time. He claimed, for instance, that unlike the spatial division of the spiritual and material as church and state in Christian Europe, in Shia Iran a belief in the coming of the messiah made for a temporal separation between a profane world and an end-times religious utopia. Today, with the dematerialization of property, we can see more clearly how space is being folded into time. But now the messiah’s arrival is speeded up, so that privacy exists only as a fleeting interval before the publicity of celebrity culture, or the exhibitionism of webcams and reality shows. It is this visibility that lends privacy a meaning, if only retroactively as something waiting to be seen. Even terrorist acts can be described in this temporal way, as spectacles whose prehistory of indoctrination or recruitment and planning can only be known after the fact.  

Like Iqbal, his compatriot and contemporary Gandhi was critical of the distinction between public and private, seeing it as an instrument of violence. The Mahatma was clear that it was the state and its secretive operations that constituted the truly “private” sector of society. Against this he advocated a politics and an ethics of pure transparency, much to the annoyance of some of his followers, like India’s future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who asked sarcastically if the Indian National Congress must announce all its plans to the colonial government and invite the arrest of its members. Yet for Gandhi any resort to secrecy or privacy could only replicate and so eventually empower the state, itself the least “public” of entities. A life and politics made absolutely transparent, then, was meant not to demonstrate “accountability,” as with liberalism. Rather it was meant to make possible the enemy’s conversion by the spectacle of one’s absolute and sacrificial visibility—just as the suicidal practices of terrorists are meant to do, by destroying the very possibility of privacy and self-interest with the spectacle of violence.

If I have spent so much time in describing the attitudes of men like Gandhi and Iqbal, it is to point out that there have historically been other ways of considering and criticizing the distinction of public and private. This includes those that refuse to defend the latter category, and without at all acquiescing in the state’s power, even exulting in its practical elimination as form of law and property. If these illustrations tell us anything, it is that both the surveillance state and its Western critics are wedded to the same old and now probably false notion of a spatial separation between spheres. I would like to suggest that given the absence of any existential threat that terrorism poses countries like Britain and America, the “irrational” expansion of surveillance there, as much as the opposition to it, possesses another kind of meaning. It is neither to protect the lives nor the civil liberties of citizens that the debate over surveillance is occurring, with however little popular interest. Rather, it is an attempt to reconstitute a spatial distinction between public and private that has become redundant in the meantime—as the practices of media, government and even terrorism demonstrate.

[Editor's note: This essay is featured in the Summer 2013 issue of Current Intelligence.]

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About the Author: Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.

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