On Surveillance: A Conversation

The actual mission patch for a rocket carrying spy satellites launched by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in December of last year. Explained an NRO spokeswoman: “NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature."
The actual mission patch for a rocket carrying spy satellites launched by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in December of last year. Explained an NRO spokeswoman: “NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature."

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Snowden leaks, the PEN Center has invited a number of journals to participate in a collaborative project on the theme of living in a surveillance society. For the American Reader’s contribution, AR editors Alyssa Loh, Uzoamaka Maduka, Jac F. Mullen, and Jonathon Kyle Sturgeon conducted a wide-ranging discussion on surveillance and its impact on narrative, free expression, and the creative arts. The edited transcript of this conversation, found below, also appears on the PEN Center website, along with the full suite of articles produced by the multi-journal collaboration.

This conversation appears in Vol. 2 No. 2 of the American Reader, available here.

JONATHON

I’m trying to think of someone approaching this topic for the first time, who is interested in this question of surveillance, but who maybe wonders: “Is this a real thing?” There might be confusion about its prevalence. It’s easy to believe, you know—“we live in a liberal democracy, all of our ideas are heard, we are not censored.” We know we are surveilled to some extent. But someone might think: “Is this a real thing?” and “Why would it affect what I do?”

 

UZOAMAKA

When we talk about surveillance, it constantly vacillates between seeming real, and then so real it’s urgent, and then you wake up and you think, “No, that was a fever dream—it’s not that serious.” And you just keep on going on this loop, this eternal loop, of: “It’s real, it’s serious; it’s not real, I’m a freak.” You keep going round, and round, and round in this space.

I think it’s partially because we tend to place the reality of surveillance, or the idea of surveillance, firmly in the old days of American history—it’s not necessarily supposed to exist now. So sometimes, when you’re talking about surveillance existing in the present, you feel like you’re making an impossible claim—a claim that we’re existing in another time. I don’t know. There are so many different levels of impossibility to navigate, and so many levels of self-doubt. How would this actually work? Why would someone actually be watching you, and listening to you, and why would they care about you? And yet, if you look at FBI files from the mid-century, you are faced with this hard evidence that government organizations—American government organizations—did “care” about important or potentially influential people, and they cared deeply about the minutiae, the irrelevant things in their lives… So, with surveillance, you constantly have to mediate between the hard fact of its existence and the soft fact of your disbelief.

 

JAC

I almost feel like the reason there’s this doubt around it is that we lack the ability to imagine surveillance as a hard fact—we can’t imagine its possible consequences for us, on our individual lives. I’ve yet to hear anyone say: “Now that I know I’m being surveilled, I am going to change my habits, how I communicate, et cetera—not because I care about my privacy, but because I know that how I’m acting could jeopardize me, because it is political in a way that is not okay.” So I think one of the reasons there’s this doubt you’re talking about—“Is it or isn’t it actually affecting me? Does it exist or not?”—is because we don’t really know what actions are seen (or will eventually be seen) as politically suspect.

 

UZOAMAKA

Well, I think that the point of surveillance is that you never know. It’s like your mother saying, “I’ve got eyes in the back of my head,” or “I’m watching you.” The fact is, you don’t know when the hand’s going to come; you just know that the eyes are always there. That’s what makes it so tense.

Where Jonathon started, I think, is pretty fruitful for talking about the way that surveillance affects narrative and expression. When you have a sense of this kind of thing going on, but there is no outside support for your perception of it; when you are made to think you’re a crazy person for thinking that, and the reality of the situation, the reality of the fact, is constantly put in doubt: How might this doubt start to subtly infect one’s writing, and infect, or chip away at the confidence and boldness that’s required of a writer when they embark on a certain project? And their own sense of reality? That can reverberate across many different planes for them. Not just in terms of what’s going on politically, but also: “Am I really seeing things clearly in other parts of my life, am I just a paranoiac?” Once you start to feel like you’re a paranoiac, I think that that feeling about yourself will not just exist in your relation to politics or the state at all; it will stay with you when you embark on your observations about humans and life in general.

 

JAC

The really strange thing about the way this conversation has played out since the first Snowden documents were released is that the entire conversation has had to do with privacy, right?

So you were presented with a set of governmental institutions that were indiscriminately collecting data on its citizens, which is a far cry from the equally pernicious but very different sort of domestic spy work revealed in the 1970s—operations like the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which was insane and illegal and would surveil, harass, blackmail and infiltrate dissident or activist groups, often totally law-abiding. But these were specific groups and individual people, targeted for legible, if still totally bogus, reasons, while what you have with the Snowden leaks is this sense of indiscriminate data collection towards not-necessarily obvious ends. And the main issue that was brought up—at least in the media—was one of privacy. It was a conversation about privacy. The contention over surveillance has been rhetorically positioned as: “This is a violation, this is a TSA scanner on my entire life.” And now we’re supposed to have “a conversation,” collectively, about privacy, about trading privacy for security. What did Obama say? “We welcome this conversation.” And I think it’s very interesting that the only way in which this was all spoken about was as a violation of privacy, and not a tool of control. Why do you think the conversation never shifted over to questions of control, of censorship and oppression?

 

UZOAMAKA

Well, I think the government has an interest in doing this—in bringing about this “conversation,” maintaining a conversation that can then mediate us. To shift us from, you know, the libertarian cry of “Get off my lawn!” to the liberal conversation of, “Well, let’s say I let you on my lawn, are you then allowed to sit on a tree limb and look at me while I go through my house?” The notion of the devil being in conversation really finds its keenest expression in the government and the state. This is what [Slavoj] Žižek has talked about, how increasingly politics is about creating this space where we can have unimaginable conversations, conversations that degrade us and degrade our values and our ways of life. So we had that conversation about torture when we never should have had that conversation, and now we’re having a conversation about surveillance and being watched, when we shouldn’t have this conversation either. 

That said, it’s also very difficult to say “no” to a conversation now because the government actually responds to that “no,” and this response to our refusal is surreal and terrifying. We, as a people, don’t expect a refusal of our refusal—it’s surprising—so the conversation almost happens accidentally, because we don’t know how to react. So as a society, we’re often tricked into a conversation. You can imagine an analogous, very sick scenario wherein a woman says “No” to a man who’s trying to force himself on her and the rapist responds, “But why not?” And she says, flustered, “I really don’t want to have sex with you,” and the rapist says, “But let’s talk about why you don’t want to have sex with me…” I mean, this is what is happening right now in our political life.

 

JONATHON

You both mention this line between “old-world” surveillance and “new-world” surveillance. Before, you had government agents who might locate a certain…let’s say an editor of a certain magazine, or they might pinpoint an idea-maker of a certain political persuasion and then gauge what they’re writing, how they’re influencing the public. And we can even talk about the history of the CIA’s entanglement with the publishing industry, from its funding of journals like the Partisan Review to the placement of agents within publishing both in New York and abroad. Peter Matthiessen is probably the most famous example of the latter.

But today you have this newfangled form of surveillance, which is sort of bulk, as the term is often used, bulk surveillance, where you gather information indiscriminately in a data net. And I think that’s interesting, because people might wonder: If today everything is surveilled—if everything is trawled, as it were—then why would a writer be worried, in particular? If they’re not being targeted, they’re not being influenced in a certain way—or paid off—why would a writer, in this respect, be worried about surveillance right now?

 

UZOAMAKA

We certainly don’t have the full picture of it, and I don’t know that these old methods have gone away. Nothing has been said that suggests that any of these programs were stopped. Sometimes I wonder if there continue to be agents of influence inside the literary world…

 

JAC

Why wouldn’t there be? People look at voluminous records kept on “problematic” writers during the Cold War, they look at the total infiltration of the literary community by intelligence agents in that era, and they think, “Yeah, well, it was a different time.” But I don’t remember a time in, you know, the late 1970s when the government was thrown out, a new constitution was written up, everything was replaced, and things went swimmingly thereafter. That never happened. It’s really an entrenched part of our narrative, nationally, that these things changed, and I don’t see how that’s possible without actual change, which never occurred. The same people stayed in power.

What is really useful about these Snowden documents, and the renewed conversation about surveillance, is precisely that it demonstrates that not only did certain practices, anti-democratic practices persist, but they actually became much more severe and widespread—kind of 2.0, right? What you’re saying about the literary world—it makes a lot of sense that comparable attention would be paid to it today as was paid back in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s. Because nothing really changed and, as we see with the NSA stuff, it just kind of got worse.

 

UZOAMAKA

How did it get worse? How did it continue to get more and more sophisticated without any kind of halting and investigation into what was going on? I wonder about this period in American life—the period extending from the end of the 60’s on through now, and especially in the past twenty-five years—where we have seen the systematic destruction of the education system in America. We have seen the absolute gutting of all of our media operations so that we no longer have any possibility of doing true investigative journalism. And when you talk about having this kind of rise of the freelance writer. I mean, there’s no better way to make sure you employ a CIA agent to do your investigative journalism abroad.

 

JONATHON

Another way of stating the difference between what people might assume is just that the ability to ask questions of the powers that be has been totally diminished. Now we don’t ask these questions about agents of ideology, and who might be there, who might be involved in surveilling what people write.

 

UZOAMAKA

And I think it’s important that it’s not just “for whatever reason” that we don’t ask these questions, but rather that it’s due to something that is systematic. We are no longer educated, we do not have a news media, we have absolutely no recourse to any resources to be able to ask these questions. So while we can ask them privately in our own home to one another, we can’t do it anywhere else.

And I think, that actually, maybe almost subconsciously, that’s the reason why people freak out about privacy when they talk about surveillance. Because there’s less and less space for questions, so the only places we have left are random forums online, and personal conversations, and phone conversations. And now they’re collecting all of our phone conversations and invading Reddit. So what is left for us, really besides, like, Morse code?

 

JONATHON

Okay, so, given this renewed presence, this renewed awareness of surveillance after the Snowden leaks, what is the responsibility of a public conversation, let’s say in a magazine, in the face of such a thing?

 

UZOAMAKA

Sometimes I wonder about that responsibility in terms of the public and in terms of the private. What is the extent of your responsibility in a private conversation to call bullshit on something? When do you just let something slide, let it just be a conversation you had over wine at some weird cocktail party?

 

JONATHON

Very interesting.

 

UZOAMAKA

Is there actually a responsibility to be impolite now? To what end and how often?

 

JAC

In terms of our responsibilities right now—I think this is an important moment, because it’s possible to act publicly such that you can meaningfully affect the way in which certain things are understood. This isn’t always the case: there are certain periods in history when it’s not possible, and that’s typically when there’s a period of mass hysteria—for example, right after 9/11, when it would’ve been extremely hard to have a sober conversation about anything that was happening. It was a period where vocal dissent—critical inquiry as such—about the event or our response to it was essentially impossible.

Remember that great line from 1984? “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face—forever.”  The way I look at these recent revelations about our surveillance capacities—I think that what’s been revealed to us, essentially, is the boot of the future. This massive surveillance/intelligence system, documented by Snowden and others—this is the boot of the future. And the question is going to be, eventually, who wears the boot? I think a bunch of different groups of people could come to power in this country and do different things with it, and wear that boot in different ways, and right now is a very unique moment because no one has yet put the boot on in a very aggressive way and started stomping.

 

UZOAMAKA

I kind of like the idea of it as a Cinderella story—as if there will be that one guy, that one group of people that goes, “Oh my God, the boot fits!” and they’re just going to stomp on your face forever. I feel that this has often been the discussion in politics. You know: the CIA hates the NSA hates the FBI and all of them are entangled with the financial sector, with competing multinational corporations, and the big cliff-hanger question is: “Oh, who gets to wear the boot?”

It’s interesting that there are all of these DC noirs on television right now—House of Cards, Scandal—because the drama they’re staging is that of “Who wears the boot?” These shows are saying: “Let’s really be honest about this: this is not West Wing; this has nothing to do with trying to get that guy you met at the bar healthcare for his kid. No, no, no. This has nothing to do with the Iowa primary—you know, fuck Iowa. What this is really about is who is going to wear the boot. Is it going to be the oil guys? Is it going to be that one crazy ambitious guy? Is it going to be B613? Who’s going to get to wear the boot?”

 

JAC

It’s super fascinating that in all of these shows—Scandal, House of Cards, even VEEP come to think of it—well, since they take place in a sort of fictional, alternate contemporary America, they need to imagine an alternative to Barack Obama… but in every one of these shows, the sitting president, the Obama-alternative, either abdicates or is challenged by the vice president in a serious way.

I suspect this is related to something we’ve talked about before: how the really wonderful thing we got from Barack Obama was realizing that change needs to be systemic, not elective, right? Because we elected him as a progressive reformer and he just kept on with the exact same policies as his predecessor. 

So I think all of these lame-duck DC-noir presidential figures are responses to that sense of: “Obama, you said you would do so much, you didn’t do anything, now we see the system working around and you’re powerless in that system.” It’s so interesting and so nice to watch, actually—this generation regrouping and saying, “Ok, so we just need to be even more serious about affecting change, and do this all in a much bigger way.”

 

UZOAMAKA

When you look at the way DC has been portrayed on television over the last ten or fifteen years, it’s kind of like watching the history of our generation’s relationship with the government. First you have West Wing, this totally idealized notion of government; then you have 24, where things are getting weird. And it’s kind of funny that it’s called 24, since it’s like your mid-twenties relationships: it’s totally destructive, it’s just so horrible. And now we’ve gotten to the point of House of Cards and Scandal, which I think are both very interesting, because the relationship is now at the point where we really are kind of seeing the state a little bit more plainly for what it is, and as a result we’re getting closer to reacting to the actual thing.

 

JONATHON

So what do we do now? What is our role now? Publicly first, then we’ll go back to that question of private responsibilities to one another. What are we supposed to do given that we now know—we have a clear and distinct perception, you might say—that this is the world we live in? What is our responsibility as editors, as publishers, as writers?

 

UZOAMAKA

I feel like there needs to be a lightness of feet. It can’t be this kind of programmatic, “Now what we do is…” I think that’s where all the false responses I’ve seen come from. This kind of faux-Leftist response of, “Now I’m going to make you my Occupy pamphlet; now I’m going to tell you tales of your male privilege.” If you’re not careful, and if you’re not light of feet, you will fit completely into the scheme of those in power. The moment that you set yourself down, you become something that can be used, and maneuvered, and pushed around, and manipulated.

You know, advertisers especially will ask with every young generation, “How do you pin down this generation? We want to sell something to them.” But there is something about our generation where we seem to refuse to be pinned down. We’re still refusing to let a name stick, and I think that’s the way it should be: the less we can be named, the less that we can in truth be surveilled. Exactly what are our aims and what is it that we want:  I don’t think it should be known.

I don’t think this is really a time for manifestos. I just don’t think this a time to say, “This is my exhaustive theory on state structures and oppression.”

 

ALYSSA

Now is not the time for manifestos, right. Not the time to reveal everything about yourself, and your intentions.

It’s interesting that you compare it to being hard to advertise to. It’s difficult to pin down exactly why dragnet surveillance is dangerous, but this seems like one reason. If you know who I am, my opinions, tendencies, preferences, you know how to converse with me. How to approach me, persuade me. The way targeted advertisements work online, using your search history, browsing data, to present you with a certain ad, most likely to appeal.

I think this goes back to what Jac was saying in the beginning, about how the NSA conversation never shifted from privacy to control. I wonder if this is where the question of privacy might meet that of control. Do I become too easy to persuade, if you know so much about me? Too easy to engage in conversation, to bring over to your opinion? 

“Thought control” is much too intense of phrase, if taken literally, but of course, it is true that your thoughts are engaged, changed, persuaded, in any conversation you have.

The country has been invited to participate in this conversation about surveillance, but do you cede too much if you sit down to the table, reveal yourself and your intentions, start speaking, before understanding who brought you there?

 

UZOAMAKA 

It reminds me of what you were saying last week, about the “Master’s House.”

 

ALYSSA

Oh, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Audre Lorde’s essay. I was saying that if in the master’s house, you have a seat at the table, you aren’t always appropriately skeptical of whether the house should continue to stand.

Before giving up your seat, you try rationalizing: “There’s no house”; and then, “It’s not his house”; and then, “If it is his house, he’s not such a bad guy.” You become invested in not noticing that the structures allowing you to be heard are themselves troubling, need to be undone.

 

JAC 

What often happens too is that as soon as you do attempt to engage in a conversation like this, whenever you sit down at the master’s house and attempt to make a systematic critique of things as they are, you will immediately be asked, “Okay then what’s your alternative? If you have a problem with the current system, tell me your alternative! What would you have us do instead?!” There’s such an urgency about it, it becomes such a hysterical questioning, and I do think it’s important to avoid entering that house, that conversation.

With advertising, it’s really interesting too, because look where this whole thing with Snowden ended up. “Ok, American people, you’re right, the government shouldn’t store all of your data—and that’s why we’re going to let a number of corporations store it instead.” I mean—what? That’s insane! And that’s the beautiful thing about this boot—it’s incredibly lucrative, because it accrues interest, basically, as it sits waiting for its wearer. Because now all these corporations have access to all of our data that has been collected for them by the most advanced surveillance technologies possible, and as it waits for its wearer, it just brings in loads of money for all of these corporations.

 

UZOAMAKA

I wouldn’t be surprised if the practices of advertisers and marketers, of corporations, in a sense, first gave the government the ideas that it has now. I mean, how long have corporations been collecting our information for advertising purposes? They were pioneers of this type of data collection…

 

ALYSSA

It’s funny, both free market capitalism and democracy are premised upon my freedom to make choices, so logically, corporations and the government would be interested in similar questions about me—how am I best persuaded, what information about me determines that, and how can one obtain that information?

 

UZOAMAKA

I mean, part of the wager with Facebook and Twitter is the notion that we will freely give them our information—that I will gladly tell you where I am right now, where I like to go on weekends, who my friends are, what I like, what my opinions are.

But it goes both ways with social media platforms, right? Tumblr and Instagram for example can be useful and very compelling to look. Less so now, Facebook. Lately, I’ve gotten a sickening feeling whenever I’m on Facebook: the word there is not “compelling” as much as it is “compelled,” where the platform keeps you going and going and going and going. And you feel like you are in this obsessive, horrible space. Like a kind of OCD. It’s awful.

To that end, I do think these social media platforms are completely rewriting what it means to be social. I think people forget that something special happens in actual conversation. I think people now think that what happens in conversation is what happens on Instagram. So they think it’s not as important anymore to have a conversation with someone. When you sit down with that person across the table from you, you start to think that less is possible at that space then what you used to think was possible in that space. People think that’s what is going to come from a human interaction…the amount you can get from a tweet. Which, no matter how good your tweet is…

These platforms really just diminish the space of possibility. And I think diminishing this space of possibility, especially for human interaction, for conversation, person to person, is prime conditioning for a state that could be toppled by actual conversation.

The only thing that can put a stop to what is going is private conversation. The powers that be are aware of this. But now, we don’t merely believe that a conversation is incapable of changing someone’s mind; rather, we don’t even know what conversation is anymore. We now believe ourselves to be individual brands. We now believe ourselves to have as much depth as a Toyota commercial.

 These platforms are conditioning the way that we understand ourselves, in the space of language, images, everything. Even just in terms of interface. Take a Facebook post: what are your options? You either like it or you are silent. There’s no dislike button.

 

JAC

 There’s no “down hand”?

 

UZOAMAKA

 No. The “down hand” you’re thinking of is the gif…

 

JAC

 Oh no, YouTube.

 

UZOAMAKA

Oh, right. I mean, of course, a down hand would be too hostile for a photo-sharing app, like Instagram. But it has been replicated across other platforms. You can like something but you can’t dislike something. And we see that mindset in the literary world right now: if you like something, you don’t need to have a reason; if you dislike something, you need to have an articulate reason. You can comment, but you can’t just not like something. Whereas you can just like something. Which is equally weird and nefarious. I mean if you like something, you’d better tell me why you like it. People liked the Nazis: a like can be nefarious, can require justification. The notion that a “like” doesn’t require justification, but a “dislike” does is ludicrous. It’s also oppressive. The message is: “If you’re with us, great; and if you’re not with us then please tell us why.”

 

JAC

I think one of the reasons you’re not asked to defend what you like is because it’s way too easy to discern ideological nonsense when it’s used in favor of something, whereas it’s much harder to hear it when it’s used to denounce something. So if I go, “Why do you like the candidate?” “Well, he loves freedom. He believes in families. And he has all his eggs in one basket.” And you think—Hm, you’re an idiot. But if I go, “Why do you hate him?” “He hates freedom. He’s anti-family. All of his eggs are on the floor.” Okay yeah, and I go, “I guess that sounds plausible to me.”

 

ALYSSA

 I think that’s why what Uzoamaka was saying, about how social media has actually changed what we think happens in a conversation, is so important. It sounds like such a radical position, but we’re already seeing how this diminished view of conversation has infected the form of the online essay.

One of our staff writers, David Auerbach, recently pointed out something connected to this, especially as it relates to online leftism. If you look at these essays, essays that are theoretically presenting an argument, the lack of effort to persuade is striking. I think his intuition is spot on: these writers mean for their essays to be read primarily by people who already agree with them. And that does feel related to the rise of personal brand.

 

UZOAMAKA

 Their essays are selfies; they’re indistinguishable.

 

ALYSSA

Even more than selfies, the essays are “likes”—primarily functioning to align the author and reader with a certain ideology or position. Not even to persuade someone to that position. Just to say, to assure: “I’m the sort of person who holds this belief, who correctly identifies misogyny, homophobia, racism… aren’t you?”

 

UZOAMAKA

Yeah. And I think it’s important that we are using the word “align.” Why do we have a massive social space that is mainly there for alignment? How much does that word reverberate with the notions of state control, you know? “Get in line. Stay in line.”

 

JAC

And “followers”: I never thought about this word before either. That’s so horrifying. “Followers”! I never thought about what it meant to be a follower, or to have followers.

 

JONATHON

I am thinking of what a friend of mine said. She asserted, contra the false friendships cultivated in the form of followers online, that legitimate conversation and friendship seem to baffle surveillance. On the other hand, if you’re just following someone, like on Twitter, Instagram or something, it’s obviously more trackable, more accessible. Contemporary friendship is sort of geared for data accumulation, in other words.

 

UZOAMAKA

This makes me think about this relationship between obsession and alienation—because the social media space makes you feel both alienated and obsessive.  And it also sanctions obsessive behavior, behavior that would absolutely qualify you as a social pariah in former times. Following a hundred people, for instance, many of them strangers. Or concerning oneself with the life developments of a person you haven’t spoken to or reached out to since middle school.

What I’m interested in is how this space of obsession colludes with this feeling of alienation. It’s of course a natural pairing, since it’s hard to be obsessed with someone you’re very close with. That’s a different form of insanity altogether. Do you know the Norwegian film Reprise? One of the plot lines involves this young man, a writer of promise, who meets a woman. They start dating and within no time have embarked on this lovely, deep relationship. And then there is this break, and the man loses it, and he becomes obsessed with his own girlfriend to the point of utter madness.

 

JONATHON

You just hit on one way of explaining the NSA phenomenon. It never occurred to me. This whole NSA collection system operated at a distance from the public in a way that cultivates obsession. It’s like you were saying. If you know someone, are in conversation with someone, then you’re not obsessed with that person. You’re more attuned to their flaws and virtues. It’s a less obsessive interaction. The NSA data net kind of has the same relation to the public as an individual person has to a celebrity. The NSA has this false appreciation of the public as something it is obsessed with it. It’s gawking at you. It wants to know everything about you. That’s because it’s completely divorced from you as a public. It’s not in conversation with you. It’s not really paying attention to you. It doesn’t know you in any meaningful way. I find that truly disturbing.

 

UZOAMAKA

That is so chilling. Subconsciously, that may be why people are generally disturbed by the NSA. It’s a marker of how government has become alienated from its own people. So actually, it’s exactly like that Norwegian film: someone who is in a relationship with you is obsessed with you. But how come you are obsessed with me when I am across the table from you? Why do you have to collect all my information when I’m going to be with you every night and I’m in your house? It’s true, Jonathon. There’s something about the NSA that’s characteristic of a person who is losing someone and needs to get them back. The husband is jealous. What would happen if a jealous husband, someone who is mad, somehow discovers in the course of his “watching” that he knows nothing about the woman he is following? Now, he actually starts to obsess over his own wife. He’s starting to go: “She likes Starbucks. She likes to go to the gym. This is where she goes for margaritas.” When you’re talking about indiscriminate collection of information, how much scarier would it be if, realizing that your jealous spouse was following you and keeping records of when he learned, you opened up his files and discovered it was indiscriminate?

 

JAC

That would be terrifying.

 

ALYSSA 

It’s odd too, because just like in a relationship, where you have opportunities to share that kind of information, we have places for this feedback with our government: elections, a free press. “I said I’d be home for dinner at six, so why did you follow me to the grocery store?” I mean, how did you think I was going to vote? What did you think I was going to get on CNN and say?

 

UZOAMAKA 

Exactly—and then you start wondering, “That thing you thought I was going to say—should I be saying it?”

 

ALYSSA

What I find interesting is the way analog and digital map onto privacy and surveillability. We have this cultural narrative of how the internet, social media, et cetera, has distributed power among many individuals, empowered masses, enabled large scale coordination, with the Arab Spring and so on, but these digital platforms cut both ways.

They consolidate power into the hands of a few corporations, a few service providers, search engines, social media platforms—a few people, executives, financiers, board members, in way that we seem not to want to think about. 

For example, YouTube, Google: these enable us to access a ton of information, but if someone wanted me not to see a certain video, an article—couldn’t it just be removed? Isn’t that up to a few businessmen, a few officials in some far-off room? And we already know these corporations, like Google, are willing to do this in other countries, at the behest of foreign governments. I don’t think that happens here, but would I realistically know if it did? And with what’s happening with net neutrality, how much longer can we pretend that by continuing to use these services, we aren’t consolidating power, for someone, somewhere? By comparison, I think it would be legitimately difficult to remove a certain book from every library in America. And if I read the book, no one would know I had.

And then, how this connects to this weird insistence that young people hate print, hate analog, only use digital, want everything digitized. Which is a baffling narrative, if you’re actually a young person—I always know a friend loves reading if they order tons of used books on Amazon. I don’t know—am I also being told, in a way, that young people aren’t interested in privacy? That they don’t value it?

 

UZOAMAKA

Right. Where is this insistence that ‘young people only like digital’ coming from? I think it’s extremely weird. Not the assertion that young people love digital, but the insistence that they love digital to the exclusion of all else

 

ALYSSA

Right! Instead of saying, “They are enthusiastic about digital,” it’s—“They are only willing to use digital.” We do love digital—it’s exciting, useful; there are great reasons for it. But it doesn’t sit in opposition to print.

 

UZOAMAKA

It definitely seems to be a top-down claim, our only liking digital platforms… It hasn’t come genuinely or authentically from people in our generation. We’ve been told that this is “our” preference. And when you set these two realities next to one another—on the one hand, the top-down initiative to promote digital exclusivity; and, on the other hand, the relative privacy and the unsurveillability of print, of analog mediums—you begin to realize that there are people, institutions, and agencies that stand to gain a lot if we believe the lie they are saying about us.

And the idea that there is a figure—or really, figures—behind the curtain engineering and manipulating political and social reality is the subject of these DC noirs right now. The genre takes as a given that there are multiple figures behind the curtain, that these figures are engaged in a power struggle, and that it is within this semi-hidden power struggle that the real drama of Washington and of American political life is staged, and that the rest is just performance, a dumb-show for the masses.

 

JAC

Just look at how we, collectively, understand our nation’s foreign relations. One of the greatest conspiracies today is the whitewashing of politics and interests and empire. To think that people don’t intentionally go to war to shore up foreign interests. To think that people are not thinking of power and politics how diplomats and princes have been thinking about power and politics for centuries.

When it comes to foreign policy and intervention—war—abroad, we either hear (a) “we need a military intervention in foreign country X because they’re a threat to us” (if it’s a Republican administration), or (b) “we need a military intervention in foreign country Y because human rights” (if it’s a Democratic administration). Of course, both claims are really just the barest pretexts, and all either is actually saying is, “We need a military intervention in foreign country Z because it’s in our strategic interest.”

 

UZOAMAKA

And that’s precisely what gets me. I don’t understand. I think this, again, has to do a lot with the deterioration of the education system. If people learned history, people would not think it’s odd that people make these claims. We know why people go to war. We know what is happening.

 

ALYSSA

Right, it’s unimaginable that in a textbook in a hundred years it will say, “They went to war because Liberty.” You can’t possibly think that that’s what people are going to circle on their history quizzes: “A) Freedom; B) Liberty…”

 

UZOAMAKA

“C) All of the above.” [Laughter] If we don’t have actual education, this is partially how these things keep happening. If I extracted these terms, if I told you this story of the last fifty and sixty years of America the way that people have talked about it, you’d say I was insane.

 

ALYSSA 

I wonder if, going forward, the thing to protect is conversation. The tools for people to skillfully enter it—education—and the space for it: publicly, in a free press, and privately, without surveillance.

 

UZOAMAKA 

I think that’s true.

Because surveillance makes us feel paranoid, it also effects a wholesale attack on our sense of reality, and as writers and thinkers, our sense of reality and our belief that we are seeing things clearly, the way that they are, is what enables us to create fictions that are true. By engendering this doubt, surveillance attacks the core of our ability to truly create art. Your capacity to write a story is based on your capacity to live truly in the world. If that capacity to live truly is being attacked, is not being supported, the task of writing becomes that much harder.

We see how dull so much of the fiction coming out of major publishing houses is now… and it’s dull… not all of it, but most of it.  When you speak to these people who have written these insipid works you find out that most of them have accepted, wholesale, the lie. That acceptance has diminished their capacity to imagine and their capacity to see humanity for what it is.

If you can’t see the world you’re living in for what it is, if you can’t see the government or the state for what it is, you’re not going to be able to see the human sitting before you for who he or she is. You’re going to be confused about the basic motivations and aims of the person right in front of you. Everything will become confused. What is love? What is hate? What is obsession? And desire? What is that? You won’t know what these things are anymore. When the sense of reality is corrupted, it is corrupted totally.

 

JAC

It reminds me of a Solzhenitsyn line: “A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.” 

The most important thing to keep in mind right now in regard to literature is also I think a Solzhenitsyn quote: “the writer’s job is not to believe the lie.” What’s so terrifying about fiction today is it gives us back the world not as it is, but as it is elsewhere represented to us. It evidently takes place in the space of television, of television-reality. Television informs its understanding of certain relationships, certain professions, certain groups of people and economic classes. This fiction also takes place in the space of the official narrative. And while our novelists or writers might be able to “not believe the lie” of a Russia, or a Syria, or a Venezuela, they’re totally hopeless when it comes to our own country. And the pernicious thing is that these hopeless writers occupy the space in public awareness, occupy the platform of the person, the actual writer, who would otherwise give us back the world in a meaningful way. These writers are standing in their way.

 

JONATHON

Well the one thing about the surveillance question, especially now after Snowden, is that the very fact of surveillance, now on a widespread scale, calls into question the fact of an official narrative. In Obama’s NSA speech, one thing was made totally clear: we, the American people, are not supposed to know what is going on. For our own protection, apparently, we just aren’t. And so the official narrative is always, on some level, a false narrative, or what people sometimes like to call a fiction. Although those things aren’t really the same. And the CIA and NSA like to play with this narrative. For example, the Guardian recently ran a piece about how Hollywood consults the CIA in order to make its films as real and authentic as possible. Standard journalism, I think, at its best, tries to assess this official narrative and counteract it if necessary.

 

UZOAMAKA

But what is this official narrative from the government? And does it really exist as such? I don’t think we’re so far from that Clausewitz idea of politics as “war by other means.” I think that the one thing that I understand about politics, the only thing that is stable about it is it’s always a strategy. In the same way as war, the only thing that you have is strategy. It’s a creature of response. It’s a creature of being able to move and have flexibility. 

I think that’s actually what a writer has to be aware of, and journalists. You’re looking at an entity that will not be pinned down. And so one should not be falsely pinned down when dealing with something like this. The more rigid you are, the more tool-like you are. The government certainly understands that, the parties understand that, the politicians understand that—which is why they are never rigid. Look at a political campaign: as a campaign manager, you will drive one narrative about your candidate—but if something comes out that seriously challenges that narrative, you better be able to tweak it in such a way that the narrative can still work, can still seem consistent…in such a way that your candidate can still win the day. I think that what goes for the politicians, goes for the government in general, in this case. I don’t think the government has an official narrative. I don’t even know what you would say it is.

 

JAC

It’s like that Kissinger quote: “The US does not have permanent allies. It just has permanent interests.”

 

UZOAMAKA

I think what’s most important is this: the goal of politics, and of politicians as its agent, is to get the average citizen into a controlled conversation, to move the average citizen onto the politicians’ ground and make that citizen talk about the politicians’ version of the truth. But there is no such thing as a “version of the truth”. That’s bullshit. The truth is one thing. You can look at it from many different angles, but it’s still one point on the line. It sounds silly, but I think the work of [Frank] Capra, [Aaron] Sorkin, as insipid as some of it can be, really has rescued certain words—courage, honesty, fair, et cetera—just by insisting on the truth of these terms. And, particularly in Capra, by insisting on the truth of the word even in the face of overwhelming power. When you watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington you’ll notice that Mr. Smith’s profession of the truth—his clear understanding of the truth, and his insistence, his filibuster, actually did nothing. Nothing would have happened if an evil man had not caved. Mr. Smith would have been kicked out and disgraced. But the evil man caved, and Smith was triumphant. It doesn’t end up that way often.

A powerful man will acknowledge you privately once you fall. Villains like to come over and say, “I did this to you”. Villains like to gloat and, ironically, they like to moralize, especially in their victim’s presence. But it is extremely rare that a powerful, corrupt man will cave publicly in some way…and on his victim’s behalf…

If you really look at where that Capra film was going—before that miraculous, eleventh hour intrusion of a soul—it was one of the most disillusioning films about America ever made. Which is an interesting thing about Capra, and I think this is where Sorkin and Capra differ—in a Capra film, everything is going towards total and final disillusion…and then there is this sudden, miraculous intervention. And that sudden, miraculous intervention is literature and art—honest words that bring about effects.

I believe you can have a conversation that makes things change. But the only way you have that conversation is by insisting on the truth. Not “my” truth and “his” truth—the truth. There’s one truth. That’s it. That’s all. You have to keep the conversation on the plane that we’re really existing on. Not fighting over meaningless details and whodunnits, but focusing on the big picture. “What are the facts of the evening in ‘95?” Who cares? “What are the facts of us being here? What do we owe to one another? What do you owe to me in this conversation? What do you owe to the people you serve?” Those are real questions. If you keep the conversation on that level constantly, on the level where the truth is always at the center of the discussion, then, at the very least, evil will have to acknowledge you, even if you fall. When Jonathon asks what people should do right now, in the face of all this manipulation—I think it is about doing exactly that. Insisting on the location and the point of the conversation and never veering off into nonsense details that have nothing to do with the real truth. It’s about being willing to lose in such a way that you will be acknowledged. Because if you lose in service of the truth you will be acknowledged. They have to acknowledge you.

 

 

FURTHER READING

For an introduction to the CIA’s and FBI’s Cold-War-era involvement in the literary world, please consult: William J. Maxwell’s “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-read African American Writing” (The American Reader, 2012); Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New Press, 2001); and Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Harvard University Press, 2009).

For more on instances of government subversion of the domestic media, please consult: Carl Bernstein’s “CIA and the Media” (Rolling Stone, 1977); Deborah Davis’ Katherine the Great: Katherine Graham and the Washington Post  (Institute for Media Analysis, 1991); “Final Report of the Select Committee Report to Study Government Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities” (1976); “Launching the Private Network” (1987), from the original draft of the Iran-Contra congressional report (for more context, go here).

Finally, for a good primer on the government’s subversion of domestic dissidents and dissident groups, please consult: Angus MacKenzie’s Secrets: The CIA’s War at Home (University of California Press, 1999).