Subjunctive and interpassive

Subjunctive and interpassive knowing in the surveillance society


1. We knew already. 

At least, that was what some people said after Edward Snowden’s leaks on NSA surveillance. Did he tell us anything we didn’t know? Asked journalists. [1] “They didn’t feel much like revelations”, said a director. [2] But what was meant by this curious phrase, ‘We knew already’? By ‘knew’, they meant that some of this information really was ‘public knowledge’. But they also meant that even the entirely new aspects of it were not very surprising – and that they ‘should’ be obvious. After all, the discourse goes, we already ‘knew’ of older NSA programs like Trailblazer and ECHELON – so we surely expected something like PRISM. But who is this ‘we’? Such discourse designates a kind of depersonalised, societal hivemind: the knowledge of NSA surveillance was stored somewhere in our collective archive, though the proof of that is in nonhuman documents rather than what individuals can ‘remember’. Sometimes, the ‘we’ instead designated the journalist, the director, the activist: the ‘we’ in the know who pens these commentaries, the ‘we’ that is less gullible, more conscientious, than the average Joe, the ‘we’ of the ‘we told you so’. And what of ‘already’? To say ‘we knew already’ is less of a statement about past concerns than it is about the present moment. It is a way to interpellate a historicity, whether to dampen the outrage or stoke it. So: this ‘we’ sure isn’t everyone, and sometimes excludes me at least; and whoever this ‘we’ is, the ‘knowing’ it did certainly wasn’t a very comprehensive one. Satire, as it so often does, brings these ambiguities into the open: “We already knew the NSA spies on us. We already know everything. Everything is boring.” [3] What has knowing ever done for us, anyway?

The questions this little phrase has raised organises the essay. It argues that what happened with Snowden was not a simple flip of the switch from collective ignorance to enlightenment. Rather, it is a question of how we form certain attitudes towards ‘knowing’. How do we develop belief about a surveillance system so vast it cannot be experienced by any single individual – and moreover, a surveillance system which consistently seeks to recede from lived experience? How is a ‘we’-that-knows interpellated, and how is this ‘knowledge’ leveraged to authorise certain kinds of actions and opinions? It is often said that surveillance is inherently a violation of fundamental rights, and the public need only be informed in order to rise up against it. Others explain contemporary surveillance in terms of disempowerment, paranoia and anxiety [4-7]. Yet for all the merits of such critical viewpoints, they sit uneasily with the fact that most people have learned to live with their awareness of Orwellian surveillance. Whether one seeks to defend U.S. state surveillance or denounce it, the basic operation that underlies both is a ‘world-building’; the facts and arguments need to be cobbled together to present a new intuition, a new common sense, about how this enormous technological apparatus runs our world. Hence, this essay asks: how do we develop a sense of contemporary surveillance as a world ‘out there’?

In what follows, I first describe the recession of surveillance practices from the subject’s lived experience. The ‘gap’ created by this recession is what accentuates the work of speculation and belief. I then provide an interdisciplinary set of tools for thinking this world-building vis-à-vis surveillance, drawing especially from phenomenology, affect theory and ritual theory. Finally, I discuss two common patterns in the Snowden affair discourse that seem to indicate particular techniques of world-building. They are (1) subjunctivity, the conceit of I cannot ‘know’ but I must act ‘as if’; (2) interpassivity, which says I don’t believe it / I am not affected, but someone else is (in my stead). Those latter sections are based on ongoing research into the public discourse on the Snowden affair for a larger project. This essay draws on U.S. media coverage from June 6, 2013, the date of the first leak, to March 14, 2014, focusing on prominent publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Washington Post [8]. It also draws on high-profile public statements, such as Edward Snowden’s public appearances and statements by President Obama or NSA personnel. The essay’s empirical arguments arise from identification of the recession of surveillance, and techniques for coping with that recession, in this body of discourse.


2. Recession

People should be able to pick up the phone and call their family, should be able to send a text message to their loved ones, buy a book online, without worrying how this could look to a government possibly years in the future.

-Edward Snowden [9]

The irony, of course, is that many do call our family, buy books online, and sleep very well at night – even many of those who are shocked by NSA surveillance and call for its removal. A few months after Snowden’s appearance, a Pew survey argued the majority of Americans believe their privacy is not well protected by current laws. Yet in most cases, their response amounted to deleting cookies; a hopelessly inadequate, but at least convenient, gesture [10]. One central aspect of this apparent contradiction is the recession of surveillance. Although we have been inundated with reports about state surveillance and its Orwellian potentials, surveillance technologies and practices systematically withdraw from our lived experience and ‘personal’ knowability. The mantra for this situation might be: ‘I know they might be watching, Edward Snowden told me so – but I don’t ‘experience’ it.’

We can first of all characterise this recession as technological. In one sense, all technology involves a withdrawal from sensory experience, insofar as even Heidegger’s hammer is a way to externalise human action and intention and embed it in a crafted object [11]. David Berry further argues that computation technology often amplifies this recessive character. The smooth surface of the smartphone, even compared to the gears and chains on a bicycle, encourages us to forget the connections, dependencies and processes that maintain our environment – and should we remember, denies us easy access to that knowledge ([12], Chapter 5). This is precisely the case with contemporary online surveillance, which is designed to operate behind the front-end user interface of devices and programs, sweeping up personal data out of public awareness. The physical databanks are literally isolated in a giant data centre in the Utah countryside. This is in distinct contrast to, say, American police surveillance, which from the 1970’s onwards have used techniques like house raids, court summons, patrols, pat-downs and urine tests to impose state power viscerally upon the (especially poor black) population [13]. If in police raids or airport screenings [14-16] surveillance intrudes rudely upon one’s space, habit, affect, body, programs like PRISM do the opposite, evacuating every sign of their existence from lived experience. A paradigmatic example of this recession might be the web beacon, commonly used in corporate / commercial surveillance. Also called tracking pixels, it is a tiny (1×1 single pixel), transparent object embedded into web pages to track user access. It is literally invisible to the naked eye, and the end user may only discover it by bringing up the source code. Of course, even if I am informed of the existence of beacons and how they work, I quickly realise that it is impractical to comb through the source code of every page I visit. Momentarily armed with the power of knowledge, I surrender it again in favour of a deferred and simulated kind of feeling-knowing: ‘I would be able to tell if a beacon is tracking me if I took the time to look.’

What the beacon illustrates is that such recession has epistemological as well as technological qualities. The subject is distanced from knowledge of surveillance at multiple levels. There is what we might call, in Rumsfeldian terms [17], a ‘known unknown’: I know that I will never know if an NSA agent has gone through my metadata. There is the ‘unknown unknown’: Snowden has revealed programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, but given the apparently enormous (the NSA claim being 1.7 million [18]) quantities of documents in Snowden’s hands, and given that Snowden himself may not know everything about American state surveillance, I now know that I am unlikely to ever know what I don’t know about my subjection to surveillance. In Kafka’s The Trial, what strikes Josef K. with life-destroying horror is not the fact that he is charged with serious crimes; it is that, despite every desperate attempt, the inscrutable bureaucracy yields no knowledge of what he is charged with and why. Certainly, Snowden’s revelations have provided new information about state surveillance; ‘we’ can say we ‘know’ more than we had before. But we can see that this knowing can actually contribute to the recession of surveillance.

One ironic aspect of this recession is that most of us experience discourse about surveillance more than surveillance itself – a situation we also find with respect to globalisation [19], and of course, historically with the nation-state [20]. We are thus able to talk and think about surveillance, despite the estrangement of our personal lives and knowledge from this vast and covert system. The public, mediated discourse surrounding the Snowden affair is a key site where we make this surveillance into something knowable and sensible – even if the kinds of beliefs produced here are not strictly reducible to objective fact. This is what I mean by the world-building activity, the interpellation of the surveillance society as a world ‘out there’. Recession and world-building are intertwined: the former emphasises what we do not and cannot ‘know’ for ourselves, while the latter is how, despite this gap, we try to make some sense of the world we find ourselves in. Surveillance hides from us, but we cannot help but talk about it endlessly.


References and Notes


  1. Milner, M. (2013, June 25). Did Edward Snowden tell us anything we didn’t already know? Chicago Reader. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from
  2. Laskow, S. (2013, July 15). A new film shows how much we knew, pre-Snowden, about Internet surveillance. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from
  3. We Already Knew The NSA Spies On Us. We Already Know Everything. Everything Is Boring. (2015, February 9). Clickhole. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from
  4. Andrejevic, M. (2013). InfoGlut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. New York: Routledge.
  5. Bauman, Z., & Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation. Cambridge: Polity.
  6. Browne, S. (2010). Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity and Biometrics. Critical Sociology, 36(1), 131–150.
  7. Pisters, P. (2013). Art as Circuit Breaker: Surveillance Screens and Powers of Affect. In B. Pepenburg & M. Zarzycka (Eds.), Carnal Aesthetics: Transgressive Imagery and Feminist Politics (pp. 198–213). London: I.B. Tauris.
  8. All relevant coverage from the following publications were examined: New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Intercept, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired (all online). The Guardian was also included as a specially relevant publication that was also read directly by many U.S. readers (the latter not necessarily being true of Der Spiegel, another key player in the affair). Some snowballing was also conducted on the data for this essay.
  9. Rowan, D. (2014, March 18). Snowden: Big revelations to come, reporting them is not a crime. Wired. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from
  10. Rainie, L., Kiesler, S., Kang, R., & Madden, M. (2013, September 5). Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online. Pew Research Internet Project. Retrieved from
  11. Scarry, E. (1985). The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  12. Berry, D. M. (2011). The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  13. Goffman, A. (2014). On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  14. Adey, P. (2009). Facing airport security: affect, biopolitics, and the preemptive securitisation of the mobile body. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27(2), 274–295. doi:10.1068/d0208
  15. Parks, L. (2007). Points of Departure: The Culture of US Airport Screening. Journal of Visual Culture, 6(2), 183–200.
  16. Schouten, P. (2014). Security as controversy: Reassembling security at Amsterdam Airport. Security Dialogue, 45(1), 23–42.
  17. Hannah, M. G. (2010). (Mis)adventures in Rumsfeld Space. GeoJournal, 75(4), 397–406.
  18. Kelley, M. B. (2013, December 13). NSA: Snowden Stole 1.7 MILLION Classified Documents And Still Has Access To Most Of Them. Business Insider. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from
  19. Cheah, P. (2008). Cheah Pheng literature What is a world? On world as world-making activity. Daedalus, 137(3), 26–38.
  20. Anderson, B. R. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised an.). London: Verso.

One thought on “Subjunctive and interpassive

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s