Bernard Harcourt's Study on Our Surveillance State, 'Exposed', Is a Call for Action

Surveillance, contrary to 19th century theories, is not an activity perpetrated solely by actors of the state, but rather by “state like” actors -- and we are the actors.

Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Author: Bernard E. Harcourt
Publication date: 2015-10

Many have been the attempts to categorize and explain our times since the inception and, more importantly, the publicization of the Internet in the early '90s. Academia has taken over the incessant need to form conjunctures (some being better than other in regards to its ability to explain and reveal patterns) out of thin air. The '90s were indeed a strange epoch; Baudrillard and other theorists would battle themselves in pursuit of common theoretical grounds, forcing us to commit to the idea -- better put: the dichotomy -- of real vs. artificial time (that is, the time of the Internet).

The '90s are long gone -- in Internet time, that is -- and for most people, those predictions, those concerns involving the dichotomies of the cyberspace, natural time versus the time of the virtual space, well, they seem so passé as of this century. The theoretical fever that seemed to have contaminated the minds of many of the post-structuralist folks who were still alive in the '90s now seems long gone, too, and for good reason. Those preoccupied minds, as everything indicated at the time, acted that way to no avail. That was nothing to worry about. Back then, futurism was a pejorative term, perhaps an ideal to be pursued or an allegory.

Yet, the '90s had no conceivable way of forecasting the digital era in the form it is presented today to us. While theorists and enthusiastic critics of technology in general still rationalized the Internet using an “analog era” theoretical framework, the digital aspect of the 21st century demands a new way of understanding, a new form of comprehension. Just as this century has swiftly seen the arrival of new technologies, an entirely new brand of literature has sprouted in order to explain how the Internet -- its social media capabilities, its inherent inflation of the ego, its militaristic overtones, its questionable usage in general aspects of our everyday lives -- has taken form and is shaping ourselves. The theoretical backdrop must change its focus. No more simply struggling to understand the nature of our current digital age. We need to start acting on it.

In this context, Bernard E. Harcourt's new book, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, appears as a new tool attempting to define, categorize and, primarily, understand, even showcase the ongoing transformations taking place in what he calls the digital era. In order to do so, he deconstructs myths, analyzes metaphors that help exemplify our current times, even enlists options for activism in the era of total, inescapable surveillance.

In the book, Harcourt demonstrates why we need a new theoretical apparatus to understand -- and more importantly, fight back -- the staggering condition in which we, as a society, find ourselves now. New paradigms require new words, as he seems to understand. He calls ours the Expository Society, a world in which we are watched by both the government and corporate institutions, and our information, more often than not, unwittingly, is sold to data brokers, with our ego being lost alongside the stream of data.

Much like other books, think pieces, magazine articles and blog posts resulting from the revelations brought to the world by the Edward Snowden leaks -- and the ultimate shock and panic they caused -- Exposed tries to rationalize and contextualize those events and present to the reader a semi-cohesive take on such happenings.

As it turns out, Exposed’s main idea revolves around the fact -- that is, something indisputable and hard to argue against for the book’s thematics -- that we live in a society where every action, every piece of social media content, every call and every purchase can essentially be tracked, traced, transformed into data and sold. This data, ultimately, helps solidify a new identity for people, a virtual one. Even our offline activities leave a mark in the digital sphere -- a world in which our everyday actions can be used and reconfigured in order to gain new context. We become data.

This is Harcourt’s mission: he wants to present us an idea that, itself, has become quite obvious since the wake of the Snowden revelations. Yet, an almost insignificant number of people have truly paid attention to what has been said and done (and tracked and traced). This is his necessary wake-up call.

The Metaphors We Use Are Important

As previously said, many were the attempts to contextualize our current times. In the wake of the Snowden leaks, many were the metaphors employed in order to get a good grasp of the reality under comment. The one people mostly held to was also the simplest: as testified by Harcourt’s book, George Orwell’s 1984, the classic dystopian novel, had seen its sales reach stratospheric numbers overnight after The Guardian initially ran its article on the NSA scandal, due to the apparent resemblance the book showcases with our current era. In it, we’re introduced to the all-encompassing nature of the state, personified in the eyes of the Big Brother.

In 1984, surveillance is an entity that exists through the lens of an almighty state. Its logic is punitive. For Orwell, ultimate control over the mind and the body, that is, total obedience to a third party, could only -- and only -- be acquired via the annihilation of desire. As Orwell puts it early in the novel, “Desire was thoughtcrime.” As much as 1984 was prescient with regards to the punitive society -- namely, the nature of a crime consisting on the surveillance of behavior and thinking, not merely acting -- Orwell got something astoundingly wrong. Total obedience, surveillance (maybe alienation even) is not obtained when the state curbs desire, but rather when desire is something to be promoted, enhanced, held as treasury, worked and developed upon.

That is the main thesis of Harcourt’s extensive study. “How radically different our situation is today,” he says. We don’t hate, we actually spend a ridiculous amount of time on social media websites praising, seeing and being seen, watching and being constantly watched. That adds a dialectical lens to the problem of surveillance nowadays.

Another way of analyzing our current “surveillance state” is by means of recurring to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a model -- better put: a metaphor -- later perfected by Foucault in his Punitive Society and Discipline and Punish books, both works on the subjects of incarceration and oppression.

The Panopticon figure might shed some light on our current situation. Said institute is a place of ubiquitous surveillance, forcing individuals to internalize their watches. When something like that happens, there’s no more need for repression. There is, after all, only obedience. As you can imagine, in a place -- in a total institution -- like the Panopticon, those who are being watched will do whatever someone else wants them to do without them even realizing they are even being manipulated. It’s almost an art form. In Foucault’s work, sécurite sociale acts when, for instance, we consider the constant, obsessive watching something rather necessary, even mandatory. It’s all there to keep us safe.

Still, as the book argues, these metaphors -- the foundations, the buildings themselves -- consider surveillance, in our contemporary age, to be a one-way road, disregarding the very fluid nature of the way we watch and are watched on social media websites, not considering the narcissism that is inherent to our times. As said, in a reinterpretation of Deleuze, Harcourt defends the idea according to which our epoch stimulates desire rather than curbs it. There is, as he argues, a need for a new monument.

In this context, our new best metaphor for our times comes in the form of Dan Graham’s art installation, Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout, which Harcourt affectionately calls “our mirrored glass pavilion”. It is located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, according to the author, “is a glass-mirrored space that reflects the surrounding buildings and the people walking around the garden terrace”, being a “pleasure space for play or leisure”. The quasi-sculptural nature of the installation lets the stroller see the other side of the pavilion while simultaneously reflecting its inner side. It is a place where museum visitors go so as to see and be seen.

The installation is a beautiful dialectical exercise all in itself. It’s the zeitgeist in the sense that, as Harcourt says many times throughout the book, it captures our current times so well: unlike 1984’s ideas, we are now, in the Internet age, ceding so much of our information for free and so passionately, not being afraid of the consequences such actions might bring ultimately.

We Are a Bunch of Signifiers: The Data Broker System

Exposed testifies against the birth of a new logic -- the doppelgänger logic, in the sense that, today, there's no more room left for theories that only consider surveillance as solely a state-owned apparatus. A field dominated by data brokers, companies, large corporations and individualized hackers, trying to maximize the targeting of given audiences in order to extract as much data as possible and then, sell it to advertisers.

Harcourt seems both fascinated and terrified by the arousal of this new logic. Services like Netflix, for example, feed upon this new form of targeting in order to improve upon its recommendation feature -- its ideal is to find the perfect match for a single user. That way, we are always influencing and being influenced by others.

Exposed’s main idea also relies on a controversial topic: the dissolution of the state. Surveillance, contrary to those 19th century theories, is not an activity perpetrated solely by actors of the state, but rather by “state like” actors. Institutions -- the state itself, society as a whole, the government, even corporations -- are melding into one and, as a result, it’s becoming increasingly harder to escape them.

Privacy Has Been Privatized: the Personal Is Political, the Political Is Juridical, and Vice-versa

Harcourt argues that privacy, right now, is increasingly becoming, with each and every passing day, a luxury few people can afford. That is, privacy as a value we used to cherish, has been mitigated.

In order to comment on these issues -- the constant erosion of privacy as a moral value -- the author brings to the table the Supreme Court’s views on such a theme in the '50s and '60s. Harcourt quotes Justice Douglas’ defense of the timeless figure of the stroller. Privacy, as everything seemed to indicate, was holy and, above all, not a property,

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, -- who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

In staggering contrast, this is Judge Richard Posner addressing the United States v. Adel Daoud case: “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is an attempt to strike a balance between the interest in full openness of legal proceedings and the interest in national security, which requires a degree of secrecy concerning the government’s efforts to protect the nation. Terrorism is not a chimera… Conventional adversary procedure thus has to be compromised in recognition of valid social interests that compete with the social interest in openness. And ‘compromise’ is the word in this case.” Interestingly enough, such economist view on the Law seems to borrow from Robert Alexy’s theory on ponderation. Amazingly (or rather frighteningly, depending on which side you are), that is not what Alexy wrote at all.

On a Final Note

What Exposed is ultimately selling is the idea that the “surveillance state” is bringing to us, in Harcourt’s own words, “the mortification of the self”. The enhanced methods of targeting and hacking -- the endless possibilities the NSA has in its hands to destroy reputations, track potential enemies, possessing power in itself as an ideal to be pursued -- are frightening.

The most valuable part of this book, then, are Harcourt’s call for actions. One could argue that Harcourt acts surprisingly naïve when he considers our best response to NSA and corporations’ growing influence in the field of surveillance to be political disobedience. He cites Snowden himself as an example to be followed, with WikiLeaks being some sort of forum with the ability, in the long run, to invert the “Panopticon inside out”. However, he’s a firm believer in the ethical consequences political disobedience can have on people.

Those are, of course, strong, suggestive ideas. We should be able to watch the watchers, he says. The problem is that, well, such an attitude has the potential to bring entire nations to ashes. We live in a “virtual democracy”, he states, a political framework in which we are conditioned to be quiet, relishing inside our comfort zones. Exposed, as it is presented, does not give away a solution, nor should it. That seems to be a task for us all to think and reflect upon. Its greatest merit relies on the idea that we have brought this to ourselves. We, I should add, hedonistically, have brought this to ourselves.





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