Overweening Generalist

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Surveillance State: Some Books and Other Media, Precursors, Re-Taking Stock

There's a textbook titled Surveillance and Democracy, edited by Haggerty and Samatas. It came out in 2010 and I got it via Berkeley's wonderfully extensive "Link Plus" system. Even though it was only about 220 pages, much of it was too theoretical for what I was looking for, but I did "enjoy" - if that's the word - a chapter by Ben Hayes: "'Full Spectrum Dominance' As European Union Security Policy: On the Trail of the NeoConOpticon.'" I think at the time I was interested in stories about how the NeoCons (or the NeoCon Mind At Large, mostly in media and banking and the Pentagon; Obama played Occupy for his own ends) wanted to isolate and contain or crush Occupy, but this all seems so long ago now. I had no idea that Constitutional Law professor Obama would continue in the Cheney mode. Humility is endless, someone once said...Suffice to say that the next edition of this text - read in Political Science classes? - could easily jump the record by going from 270 pages to 2700 pages.

                                     Marshall McLuhan seems to have foreseen our 
                                     Patriot Act/Snowden Era

In light of what's been revealed and will continue to pour out in this, the Snowden Era, as some of us now call this Epoch (9/11 is so...like...yesterday, man), I'd like to point out that it's still not too late to get filled-in by what Dana Priest and William Arkin of the Washington Post accomplished in their stellar research and collating and just overall journalist mega-due diligence in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. Dig how Bush/Cheney privatized surveillance on such a massive scale that Priest and Arkin found nondescript snoop centers in industrial parks all over Unistat. And I mean all over. And they're not government agencies! It's privatized now. It pays better than the low-mid-level gummint spook gig, so why not defect to the private sector, get paid more, and have absolutely zero ideas about democratic principles? No more of that nagging, cognitive-dissonance-y pangs that you may not be serving the people of Unistat, but only the servicing the needs of the 1%.

Of course, we still have  ye olde fashioned spooks, like the alphabet soup of NSA/CIA/FBI, et.al...that we're paying with out tax dollars to listen in on...well, just about everything, really.

Here's Richard Rhodes's review of Priest and Arkin. A passage:

“A culture of fear,” write journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin, “had created a culture of spending to control it, which, in turn, had led to a belief that the government had to be able to stop every single plot before it took place, regardless of whether it involved one network of twenty terrorists or one single deranged person.” The resulting “security spending spree,” they report, “exceeded $2 trillion.”

But let's not worry too much. The number of people who have Top Secret Security Clearance is only at least 854,000. 

A few years ago a film about life in East Germany under the Stasi came out: The Lives of Others. The Hollywood elite voters gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie of 2006. Way back in 2006! I remember seeing the film and wondering how close we in Unistat were to this situation, and thinking: probably closer than most Unistatians would want to know. At the same time, another part of my brain told me, Stop being such a paranoiac...
Here's the trailer.

James Bamford's Puzzle Palace came out in 1982. Around 1995 I bought a battered paperback copy at a used bookstore and read it all, riveted. The few people I knew who were fascinated by this stuff agreed: how come the CIA are the rock star spooks, while you mention "the NSA" and the common response is, "Who?" Bamford deserves credit for doing the first extended book-job on Snowden's former employer.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the last book I read about the NSA - how evil they could be - before the Snowden stuff hit. It was Dan Brown's Digital Fortress. Yes, I admit it. I had gone through a point where I felt like I had to read DaVinci Code, if only to see what all the fuss was about. When that book sold 10 million (or however many), his previous potboilers got popular again. So I read those too. Here's someone from Democratic Underground, writing this past Bloomsday, on how oddly prescient the novel now seems. I admit I hadn't thought much about the NSA (except they were probably doing something nefarious with regards to the 4th Amendment in addition to maybe getting a line or three on possible terrorists) when I read Brown's book. 

A question after all these books and films and now the Snowden Era: what are we supposed to do this all this information that They have about us? And what do They plan to do with their information about us? And a third question, if I may: must we replay something like East Germany, or is there some saner way out of this madness? What part of the 4th Amendment don't They get? (I know, I know: they get it all, but they're just obeying orders; it's nothing personal, yadda blah yadda blah meh meh meh.) 

It's far too easy for paranoids like me to see a President Palin and local cops having ultra-fast digital info, based on my license plate whizzing by, that I'm an "America-Hater" and it's best for True Americans to get rid of people like me...who read Chomsky, have been involved with Occupy, support the ACLU, and are clearly guilty via documentation of hundreds of thousands of Thought Crimes...

Going Back
In 1967, when Allen Ginsberg visited Ezra Pound in Rapallo, they talked about the craziness of Vietnam and how the Unistat government seemed to see the "peaceniks" as troublemakers. And they agreed: Make everything open. End the State secrets game. The artist Bobby Campbell has remarked on Timothy Leary's very similar vision, which emanates from that era. (For Ginsberg/Pound: see What Thou Lovest Well Remains, pp.36-37)

Poets as Distant Early Warning signalers...

In Only Apparently Real, a collection of interviews with Philip K. Dick with Paul Williams, the ever-present topic of PKD paranoia comes up, and PKD has ideas about the end of privacy...in 1974! (see pp.154-164)

In Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice, in 1970 the ARPANET is suspected as a future Panopticon. (see pp.364-366)

In his book of poetry, Coming To Jakarta: A Poem About Terror, Canadian-raised and later Berkeley English Professor and chronicler and theorist of "Deep Politics," Peter Dale Scott, recalls that, in the 1930s, when his father was away on conferences about economic democracy or world peace, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tapped their phone. (see p.30)

In Laurel Canyon, a history of late 1960s/early 1970s rock and folk musicians who lived in that area of LA, information about the LA County Sheriffs harassing hippies, wiretapping, surveillance. Sure, the Manson stuff could bring that on, but...

Marshall McLuhan, dying sometime in the early hours of the last day of 1980, had been wondering where the new tribalized electronic human was going, with the evident omnipresence of electronic and digital technologies, which were extensions of our own nervous systems and which changed us in ways we could not know about unless we constantly investigated and "probed" how they were working in feedback loops with our own nervous systems. Add synergetically to that: the-non-wired environment, and our conscious sensibilities. In his Catholic, quasi-anachist mind, he worried about the elimination of  what he thought of as "natural law," mostly in the Catholic Church, Aquinas-on sense. The trouble with all this new tech: it seemed to render ourselves evermore "discarnate." He thought this discarnate-ness would lead to a new religious age, which could be an occult-like thing. It might be a diabolical or destructive age that was upon us. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand takes it from here:

"There was yet another twist to the phenomenon of discarnate man, as McLuhan saw it. In an age when people were translated into images and information, the chief human activity became surveillance and espionage (recall: McLuhan died in 1980!- OG). Everything from spy satellites to Nielsen ratings to marketing surveys to credit bureau investigations was part of this intelligence-gathering, man-hunting syndrome. So pervasive was the syndrome that discarnate man worried whether he existed as nothing more than an entry in a databank somewhere." (see Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, p.250)

Do the (very) few OG readers suspect the OG could go on and on with these classic "counterculture" figures and their musings on the "Surv State" (as poet Ed Sanders often writes it)? Aye. I could. I will. But to end this blahg, let me go WAY back:

Do not revile the king even in your 
  or curse the rich in your bedroom,
because a bird of the air may carry
          your words,
  and a bird on the wing may report
         what you say.
-Ecclesiastes 10:20

PS: Bertold Brecht:

Some party hack decreed that the people
had lost the government's confidence
and could only regain it with redoubled effort.

If that is the case, would it not be be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?

  • "The Solution" ["Die Lösung"] (c. 1953), as translated in Brecht on Brecht : An Improvisation (1967) by George Tabori, p. 17


PQ said...

Love the McLuhan prescience.

Great stuff, Michael.

Eric Wagner said...

Great piece. I've contemplated starting a Number of the Week series of posts at alt.fan.rawilson, starting with 67. For 68 I imagine writing a scene of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Bob Wilson at the Playboy Club in Chicago during the Democratic Convention, discussing Ginsberg's visit with Uncle Ezra. I love the fact that Ginsberg played Sgt. Pepper and Dylan, etc., for Ezra. Allen asked Olga Rudge if Pound liked it, and she replied, "If he didn't, he'd leave." (Pound only spoke one line during the visit, cursing his "stupid, suburban antisemitism." This also reminds me of Pound's forward to his Selected Prose, where he said something like "Re Usury: I was out of focus.

Eric Wagner said...

The problem is avarice.")

My comment ran too long.

michael said...

Thanks, PQ.

As far as I can tell from Marchand's notes, the ideas from MM about surv were from a "table talk" interview with Maclean's magazine, probably between 1972-1977, possibly as early as 1969 though I doubt it.

Marchand's other dated notes for this chapter, from just before MM suffered the stroke that rendered him virtually speechless, were from 1972-77. These ideas about espionage and surv were left out of the subsequent print article of Maclean's.

The footnote for that paragraph from Marchand:

"'Table Talk,' Maclean's. Unpublished text of an interview with Marshall McLuhan by Professor Gary Kern, NA."

Regarding the acceleration of media and ideas of privacy and identity, McLuhan wrote an editorial against abortion, published in the Toronto Star, July 24, 1974. While I disagree with him overall, it's one of the most interesting anti-abortion essays I've ever read. I'll see if I can find a link. (I found it in my copy of _Letters of Marshall McLuhan_, pp.502-503.)

But get this part, germane to my topic: "Without rehearsing the arguments for the abortion matter, I would like to draw attention to some of the hidden _ground_ of this matter. As people become more deeply involved in each other by the sheer speed of information which covers them, there is a very great loss of private identity, with the consequent insecurity and rage and violence. When instant information exists around the entire planet, there is, as it were, inflation of human quantity which threatens all human values whatever and eliminates the experience of private identity. When identity is weak, all constraint and social restriction becomes intolerable."

Here's a Catholic arguing against abortion, but throughout he rails against "inflation of human quantity" and never uses the term "overpopulation." He acknowledges this is paradoxical, but argues that a general sort of technological determinism sees pregnancy as something like "inflation" and a burden upon the personal economy of the mother, which is seen as easily fixable by technological means: abortion. He doesn't like this, and I think it stems from the deepest recesses of MM's thinking about "media": anything that denigrated the private, Gutenbergian "self" was a threat. Overpopulation is a threat, and so are non-book media, which threaten "all human values" and eliminate "the experience of private identity."

What far too many readers of MM don't get is that, while he wrote with great insight about TV, movies, radio, etc, though he never comes out and says he sees these media as threatening to human existence, I think he did think that. Deep down he was a confirmed Gutenberg Man, far more than the OG is...or just about anyone else I know. (I don't know Sven Birkerts.)

michael said...

@ Eric: Thanks as always for the encouragement.

As you were writing your comment I was answering PQ and as you see, I went on...

This is interesting: you really got cut off? If so, it took me a long time to realize that apparently, the blogger gets far more space to comment than the commentor-to-the-blog. Which seems unfair and wrong.

Anyway: Why not start a blog with the Number of the Week idea?

Eric Wagner said...

I think I got cut off. Perhaps the NSA wanted to warn me to stop talking about avarice.

Thanks for your suggestion; I may give it a whirl in September.

PQ said...

Michael, in reply to your final paragraph, I recall hearing (and/or reading) McLuhan say a few times, in defense against people accusing him of being some kind electronics-evangelist, that he wasn't endorsing any of the new media. After all, when he rose to fame he was a classically-trained literary scholar, a grayed 50-something professor, but (and this is probably my favorite quote of his) one must learn about, study the new technologies and their effects in order to find the "off" button.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

The NSA book I bought recently was "The Secret Sentry" by Matthew Aid. It seemed to be well reviewed; I haven't had time to read it yet.

It seems to me that one important reason why private companies are being used for spying is that they don't have the same legal constraints that apply to the government. The constraints on the NSA seem to be rather flexible, and in any case the program is too shrouded in secrecy to permit real oversight, but why not just offload it to someplace all those annoying civil libertarians can't supervise?

You write, "It's far too easy for paranoids like me to see a President Palin and local cops having ultra-fast digital info ... " I wish it was easier for other people to see that sooner or later,a Republican president is likely to have access to all of the spying tools that Obama is deploying now. Many of the arguments on Twitter between civil libertarians and defenders of the NSA pit the anti-surveillance folks against Obama loyalists, who won't take the point at all.

michael said...

@PQ: Harold Rosenberg gave Understanding Media a glowing review in the NYT, but misread MM by a few miles. MM liked the review anyway.

The classical scholar who loved Joyce and Pound and then turned to Ong, Gideon, and the new media? As far away as I am from MM's personal temperament, he's one of the GREAT generalists of the 20th c, and I always get something interesting from any page, any book by him.

BTW: he SEEMS to have read RAW in his study of linguistics: in Theodore Gordon's bio, chapter 15 is titled, "Is McLuhan A Linguist?"

"McLuhan made reading notes and kept files on many topics related to linguistics, such as meaning, dictionary-making, and semiotics (the study of any system that carries meaning). He also collected references to the works of many well-known linguists of the twentieth century, including Charles Hockett, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, R.A. Wilson, and Noam Chomsky. There are references to Alfred Korzybski's study known as General Semantics (a language-based system for the training of the central nervous system) as early as 1943 in McLuhan's doctoral thesis." - p.324

Gordon does a good job of defending MM against Umberto Eco, who rejected MM as a semiotician; the argument goes on for about five pages.

michael said...

@ Tom Jackson-

I think I've said this before, but one "good" thing that's come out of this Snowden thing: how much more easily it is to see who in the media and politics is a civil libertarian and who is an authoritarian/part of the commissar class. The fallout from Snowden forced the issue.

From where I stand I have ZERO use for Obama apologists, and it's not just for the NSA stuff. Not by a long shot.

And where is Gary Johnson in the MSM? I confess I haven't been "monitoring" nearly as much as I used to, but he's largely getting iced-out, right?

michael said...

CORRECTION on the author of the MM bio quoted about linguistics:

It's W. Terrence Gordon, not Theodore Gordon, who is a well-known futurist. I had the book on hand and typed out the relevant passage, only to get the author wrong!

You can't trust bloggers! They're their own worst editors. (Sometimes?)

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Michael, the most visible politician on the NSA stuff seems to be Justin Amash, the libertarian (but nominally Republican) congressman from Michigan. He's kind of like Ron Paul without the racial baggage.

Eric Wagner said...

Today's heresy: I find David Thomson's insights into media overwhelmingly more interesting than McLuhan's.

Eric Wagner said...

I had forgotten Vico worked as a professor Latin rhetoric at the University of Naples. Rereading McLuhan's Laws of Media I noticed the importance McLuhan placed on rhetoric.

michael said...

@Tom: Amash is fine, but I guess what I was vaguely hinting at: what choice might we possibly have in 2016 aside from Hillary and some pre-enlightenment Republican?

@ Eric: Heresy lives here! Seriously: if we live movies (and we do) McLoon's probes do seem to fall short.

MM and son Eric used Vico and Bacon pretty heavily for The Laws of Media. (This makes Eric McLuhan literarily one degree from Francis Bacon. Could ham and eggs be far behind?)

I see the study/probe/use of rhetoric/metaphor as possibly the most dangerous, potent, and occult "powers" to be studied academically, apart from that area of the campus that houses Physics, Chem/Biology/the new physical sciences. I reject - and I think McLuhan and RAW did too - the idea that Rhetoric can be isolated and seen as apart from any-thing that "is" Right Where You Are Sitting Now.

EX: "Today's heresy..." was a good one. Seriously.

Another way of putting it: one can - and perhaps should- think that all the OG consists of _is_ metaphors and rhetoric.

Eric Wagner said...

I have negative feelings about rhetoric. I got my Bachelor's in English in 1985, and I don't recall hearing the word rhetoric during my undergraduate education. I started working on my Master's in English Composition in 1999. The first quarter I took "The Western Rhetorical Tradition" and the second quarter I took "The Rhetoric of Life Writing." Along with this shift towards rhetoric in English education came a shift away from literature. I've encountered this in grad school and in teaching high school and community college. At both community colleges where I've taught the school forbids the use of novels, plays, poetry or short stories in most English classes.

michael said...


RAW told me how he was taken by Kenneth Burke's "perspective by incongruity." This was one move Burke described in Rhetoric as he blasted the field wide open, not like Chomsky and Linguistics, by effectively saying, "Everything that went before me was too soft," but by allowing the ancient tradition to flourish along his new formulation of what he (Burke) thought Rhetoric was: any attempt to persuade. So when we're using symbols and language we're probably trying to get someone to notice something. And that, to Burke, was Rhetoric. It included unconscious processes, which make him ahead of his time, if we think of the new cognitive and neurosciences and imaging systems.

His influence dovetails with much of what Korzybski was about and prevented a unified theory of criticism and all discourse, including classical theory, linguistics, literary criticism, and philosophy.

I am troubled by what you say about what is verboten at community colleges, as this just seems wrong in so many ways. I'm reminded of someone asking Aldous Huxley why he didn't want to study Literature at University, and he said he thought literature was to be "enjoyed." I agree, and there's also scads of new research that shows it helps us to think better and develops our emotional lives...it just seems absurd to forbid poetry and novels and short stories in college! I would think a cursory study of Rhetoric could go hand in hand with the reading and discussion of interesting texts.

But I'm NOT officially educated, so what do I know?