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.



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