C Magazine


Issue 120

by Deborah Root

A friend of mine in high school, who saw himself as a fellow–traveller of the ‘70s bombers Weather Underground, nailed flattened tin cans to the walls of his parents’ basement room. This was supposed to jam radio waves so the FBI couldn’t listen in on his political discussions with radical schoolmates. At the time the tin cans seemed a little excessive—why would the FBI be particularly interested in teenagers’ views of the Vietnam War?—but perhaps not as paranoid as one might think. We saw the police photographing marchers at anti-war rallies; we knew that the FBI had embedded agents in radical organizations, and sometimes recorded conversations. This was a few years before mad people living on the street began to wrap their heads in tinfoil to prevent the government from listening in on their thoughts. Clearly they were ill, but if we accept Foucault’s line that what happens on the margins of empire reveals the true nature of the empire—and given that crazy street people occupy a kind of margin in society—then the content of their delusion might reveal something true about the society in which they live. The paranoia that makes them fear government surveillance might well reflect a generalized anxiety that percolates through our culture. A real metaphor, perhaps, that speaks to how citizens imagine their own governments. The tin cans and the crazy people are extreme examples, but paranoia seems to be a generalized cultural phenomenon, an established feature of mainstream, popular culture.

Despite their dubious ideological agendas, I’m a great fan of spy novels, in which the hero or heroine must take elaborate precautions to avoid surveillance. Such books abound with descriptions of dead drops, “Moscow Rules,” and other techniques of tradecraft that are recounted by the authors in loving detail. The stakes are high: if you’re found out, you and others may die, or you might be tortured by evil communists in Lubyanka Prison. The reader is instructed how to tell if the enemy has watchers on you. The woman reading a newspaper on a park bench, for instance: maybe you saw her in a café the day before. The man fumbling for change at the subway kiosk: he too, perhaps, is clocking your moves. The point is, you never know. The mole, who lives a double life in the heart of enemy territory, must become especially skilled at shaking off the watchers. Years ago, such novels were generally about eluding the KGB. Today, although some involve al-Qaeda sleeper cells (thus generating another kind of paranoia), they increasingly combine traditional descriptions of spy paranoia with a new disillusionment with the espionage project in general. Now, the enemy is closer to home, and the hero has to figure out how to evade the agents of his or her own government. Olen Steinhauer’s Tourist trilogy turns on the tension between orders (here from the CIA) and family: the hero wants to leave the service but cannot. He is alienated and, perhaps because his CIA masters sense this, they require him to perform a terrible act as a test. Here, empire’s agenda is reduced to controlling one man, and by extension his family, and in these books, the agent learns that the Americans are little better than the enemies they’ve demonized.

Other thriller sub–genres involve lessons in eluding surveillance by the Mob or other sinister forces, and offer instructions on how to do so. In these books, surveillance circulates around one’s personal life: the bad people (Mafia, government, pharmaceutical companies) watch one’s family and friends, looking for weaknesses, or moments when one is likely to slip up and show oneself, and give in to the lure of one’s old, normal life. The memoirs of the underground lives of ‘60s radicals also describe this severing from family, which is sometimes replaced by the new family of like-minded politicos who grasp the dangers of loose lips.

The lessons are clear: if you want to avoid surveillance, get rid of the cell phone, which has built-in GPS. No credit or bank cards, which can be traced. Change your hair and clothes and, if you’re really smart, change the way you walk. Assume your landline is bugged, and those of your friends. It’s best to have had the foresight to arrange for a fake ID and have a stash of cash on hand, just in case. As I read, I find myself taking mental notes.

For me, these books offer a vicarious experience of paranoia: a useful, practical paranoia that keeps one alive under extreme circumstances. Few of us here have life-or-death reasons for eluding the agents of the state, and indeed continue to use plastic, Facebook and Gmail, and talk about our business on open lines. I’m unhappy with the level of surveillance in everyday life, but I continue to stay wired. It’s easier, which seems like no excuse at all. And so we become complicit with our own surveillance. Why? Nothing appears to be at stake, and for most of us perhaps, nothing is. Does the government really care what kind of shoes we buy? Corporations do, and they also track Internet usage. This feels distasteful, but without real consequence, it seems. But with the increasingly blurred boundaries between corporate and political entities, it might be time to think again.

Nietzsche called the state “the coldest of all cold monsters” and it is the coldness of surveillance networks that is telling here. The detached, observing state doesn’t care about your individual subjectivity, about how you feel about your family and friends, or about your personal desires. It never has. Surveillance is an entity tasked with evaluating your actions with a jaded eye, and increasingly assessing your personal behaviours with reference to “national security,” or the state’s notion of the greater good, which may not be good for you. As for corporate tracking of your habits, well, economic health has come to be subsumed under the category of national security. Weren’t we told that shopping is patriotic?

As with the crazy people and their tinfoil, the popularity of narratives that focus on paranoia would seem to indicate a displaced recognition of something real, an externalized anxiety about the extent to which surveillance and policing of difference is what governments do, and increasingly what corporations do as well. The Cold War binary allowed this anxiety to be displaced onto the Other, but we can no longer fool ourselves. We’re under constant scrutiny, from surveillance cameras in public places to the monitoring of private correspondence and our entirely personal likes and dislikes.

It’s telling that the term “treason” was bandied about in the accusations against Manning and Snowden. This reveals the statist agenda both with respect to whistleblowers, and regarding the individual actions that are the object of NSA (and other) surveillance. Yes, governments spy on their allies; always have, always will. Now—thanks to Snowden—we’ve learned that the NSA is able to break Internet encryption and access our most personal information, which begs the question of just how many people are able to read this information. And so it seems that both my high school friend and the crazy people were right about the government spying on us. But the real question is where our complicity with these systems of surveillance comes from, and how easily most of us accept the collapsing of boundaries between our private lives and the societies in which we live. But behind the state lies the market, and if we allow ourselves to be transformed into creatures of corporate agendas, we’ll inevitably become more complacent about the methods used to track, and create, our most personal desires. And that may be a more serious issue than bureaucrats reading our e–mails.