No Place To Hide

Surrealists are under surveillance. So is everyone else who uses email and other online channels that pass through the United States, from Yahoo groups to Blogspot sites, from Facebook to Hotmail. All of our communications through those channels are being intercepted, collected and stored by the US National Security Agency (NSA) as part of a mass surveillance programme with a totalitarian reach and ambition that is truly mindblowing. It’s been going on for years, but we knew nothing about it until Edward Snowden revealed it just over a year ago. His courageous actions resulted in a media storm, and are crisply outlined in the new book No Place To Hide by Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists most instrumental in disseminating Snowden’s NSA material and explaining its implications. No Place To Hide is an important book, and a riveting read.

The international Surrealist movement relies on electronic communications. Almost every Surrealist group in the world has at least one website or blog; some groups use tools such as Google Groups or Yahoo Groups for internal conversations, and some have public or “private” Facebook groups or pages; very many individual Surrealists have our own blogs and Facebook accounts; almost all of us are on email, often using free email addresses supplied by US companies such as Microsoft (Hotmail, Outlook) or Google (Gmail) that dutifully hand over our data to the NSA.

Video of a lecture given by Greenwald at the University of East London in May 2014.

The revelation that all of these communications are being hoovered up by state data centres and are available to NSA operatives at the click of a button should have rocked the Surrealist movement to its core. We should be fucking furious and yelling our heads off. But no, not a peep.* The movement that in recent years has circulated angry tracts on everything from the Olympics to Stuckism to the bombing of the Moon, that has issued poetic outpourings on every topic from the Mayan calendar to “exteriority”, that has even, for chrissakes, circulated an international enquiry on the very topic of liberty within the last six months, has – aside from a few “likes” and “shares” on, you guessed it, Facebook – said more or less bugger-all about its own surveillance. Why are we so silent?

It’s a silence we share with the general population. The post-Snowden media storm that Greenwald charts so well in his book has not been matched by a mass movement. There’s been no rioting in the streets in support of Edward Snowden, and although some professional politicians have expressed outrage (especially about the tapping of their own personal phones), the net result of the reaction in the US has actually been to entrench the NSA’s powers under the pretence of reform. Journalists, politicos and cryptography nerds may have been going mental, but the vast majority of the rest of us have just been carrying on as usual.

Image in the public domain.

Perhaps the mutedness of the public reaction to the NSA revelations is the result of a more general resignation to, and hence apathy about, the general fuckery of the ruling class. They’ve shafted us in every other way imaginable, so why bother about one more shafting? On top of this there is a thick coating of powerlessness, and while I don’t believe that the Surrealist movement as a whole is prey to the resignation, I do think that we share the feeling of impotence. Most ordinary people – that is, people who know little about electronic media beyond how to use the most consumer-friendly varieties – don’t have a clue how to fight electronic surveillance, and in this respect Surrealists are distinctly ordinary. Installing even the most elementary email encryption software is far beyond the technical abilities of a movement whose members would struggle to upload a jpeg to Dropbox (and that’s just those who have heard of Dropbox in the first place).

So on the face of it, the idea that a numerically infinitesimal and technological illiterate Surrealist movement might take up arms against the NSA seems risible. What’s the point in speaking out about a ubiquitous foe against which you’re completely incapable of defending yourself?

Of course, individual Surrealists are also other things: anarchists, Trotskyists, union organisers, eco-activists, dissidents of all kinds. In those capacities, as the subjects of specifically targeted state surveillance over and above the NSA dragnet, some of us have learnt how to encrypt emails and online chats, for example, and it would be a small but significant step forwards if some of us could share that knowledge with other Surrealists.

A much bigger, even potentially massive step has been taken by the Reset The Net campaign, which on 5 June released a “privacy pack” of free, easy-to-use encryption tools for the general public – not strong enough to ward off targeted surveillance, but an excellent start to Reset The Net’s ambitious and in principle wholly winnable long-term effort to reclaim the Internet from the NSA. Surrealists everywhere can easily use at least some of those tools right now.

Jeremy Bentham’s plan of the Panopticon. Image in the public domain.

But there are other reasons why Surrealists should be furious about the NSA besides simple self-protection. One of the chapters of Greenwald’s book is devoted to enumerating the effects of NSA surveillance. He links these to the Panopticon, the prison design famously invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and even more famously theorised by Michel Foucault in the 20th. In the Panopticon, all of the inmates can be seen by a guard in the central tower, but none of them knows for sure whether they are being watched at any given moment. The result is that they police themselves constantly, just in case the guard happens to be looking their way. Foucault’s insight was to understand that the self-policing becomes internalised to the point that the inmates no longer know they are doing it. Greenwald’s argument is that NSA surveillance enforces this internalisation of obedience. He argues too that those who manage to resist internalised disobedience are at risk of its flipside: a rampant paranoia that is no less of a roadblock to radical possibilities than conformity. Every undercover cop knows that infecting dissident groups with paranoia, suspicion and distrust is a devastatingly effective way of getting them to repress themselves.

This chapter of the book is cogently argued, but it also reveals the limitations of Greenwald’s position, and by extension of the ideological underpinnings of Reset The Net’s rallying cry: “Don’t ask for your privacy, take it back!” Greenwald hangs his argument on a notion of privacy that is explicitly conceived within the liberal tradition of the the US Constitution and the First Amendment. One of the claims that he makes about the private sphere is that it is the place where creativity and dissent are born:

Most people have experienced how privacy enables liberation from constraint. […] Only when we believe that no one else is watching do we fee free – safe – to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves. […] For that reason, it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate. A society in which everyone knows they can be watched by the state [is one] where the private realm is effectively eliminated […]. Mass surveillance by the state is therefore inherently repressive.
(p. 174)

Quite a lot of us, especially women, have also experienced how privacy enables domestic oppression and sexual violence, but even if we were to put that aside for a moment, it should be clear that privacy in this liberal sense is something that Surrealists embrace only in order to transcend it. It’s not that Greenwald is wrong about the importance of privacy; but his kind of privacy is not enough. That’s the meaning of our famous watchword: change life (the private sphere), transform the world (the public sphere) – both at once, because they are one and the same thing. Greenwald wants merely to defend and restore privacy; we Surrealists want to transmute it.

The directly repressive political ramifications of his position can be seen when he suggests in his epilogue – bizarrely, given his argument in previous chapters that mass surveillance enables even the mildest forms of dissent to be cast as terrorism or treason – that “some spying is always necessary,” and that the alternative to NSA-style mass surveillance is not to eradicate state surveillance altogether, but to restrict it to targeted surveillance (p.251). Exactly the same argument is advanced on the Reset The Net campaign website in a quote by cryptographer Bruce Schneier. “Nobody disagrees with that,” Greenwald blithely says in the book. To which I, subjected as I and many of my friends have certainly been to target surveillance over recent years, no less blithely reply: Fuck you too, Glenn.

It’s precisely our Surrealist ambivalence about the liberal conception of privacy that must shape our strategy for fostering and communicating dissent under NSA surveillance. Support for initiatives such as Reset The Net is essential, but so is a strategy of dissent against the repressive liberalism of the campaign itself. We cannot conform to American liberalism any more than we can to American totalitarianism.

Image in the public domain.

On the one hand, we must fight for the privacy of the Surrealist movement as a place where “creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate.” This may involve new ways of thinking about occultation, not by softening our refusal of public approval (certainly not), but by operationalising it in more complex ways. This means that offline Surrealist groups are perhaps more vital than ever as bodies of living Surrealism. With the electronic public sphere under state occupation, occultation-by-privacy is no less essential for Surrealists today than it was under other forms of totalitarianism during the 20th century. But one of the crucial differences between then and now is that, thanks to this very same electronic public sphere, Surrealist groups can communicate with each other internationally with unprecedented ease: and so we can take advantage of this public sphere to extend the private sphere geographically, offline. We can organise more face-to-face international meetings between groups, so that the solidarity and creativity can be strengthened and shared, not just at festive public events such as book launches and private views, but as intensely private meetings of co-conspirators.

On the other hand, we can twin this intensified private sphere with an intensified public practice of visible defiance. We need to fight the complacency, the conformity, the habits of obedience, the paralysis by paranoia, the whole apparatus of fear and intimidation on which the NSA rests. We must advertise our existence as social and cultural dissidents, not just openly but loudly, aggressively, fearlessly, obnoxiously, intransigently, and always on our own terms. We stand for total revolution, the overturning of present reality, the abolition of work, the eroticisation of dally life, the derangement of the senses, the incarnation of poetry, the obliteration of oppression, the resurrection of Sade, full communism, we want it all and we want it now, we’re ablaze with our desires in the dark dark prison of the world as it is, we reject that world with all the power of our love and hope and bloodymindedness. And it’s important that as many people as possible know that that’s who we are and what we stand for, even as we also shield the movement’s internal life from prying eyes; we need to let the Panopticon’s inmates know that our kind of disobedience is still possible. We must guard our private treasure fiercely, but we must make a lot of uncompromising noise in the process.

The situation that Snowden has revealed and that Greenwald has described is not just serious; it’s terrifying. I refuse to believe that the Surrealist movement, after 90 years of repression and defiance, has nothing to offer in the face of it. I’m not calling for platitudinous tracts about liberty, or for yet another round of blandly defensive declarations that “Surrealism’s not dead.” I’m calling for a renewed emphasis on the importance of offline groups that have real meetings and real inner lives; a revitalisation of inter-group collaboration, with a focus on ongoing offline encounters rather than email chats and occasional knees-ups; aggressive Surrealist interventions in public campaigns and forums to articulate the full force of our thoroughly unreasonable demands.

We have to rip that NSA surveillance blanket to shreds, not just lie quietly playing with ourselves beneath it.

*Or at least, none that I’ve heard. Insatiable blog reader and incorrigible megalomaniac though I am, I have to admit that I haven’t read every Surrealist publication in every language that’s come out in the last 12 months. If anyone reading this post is aware of any Surrealist commentary on Snowden or the NSA, please point me (and all other readers) to it by leaving a comment on this blog post.

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