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  • “The Secular Prophet.”A review of Ken Babstock, On Malice
  • Alex Porco (bio)
Ken Babstock, On Malice, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014.

Over the last few years, a great evil has been descending over our world …

–Stephen Harper (qtd. in Chase and Leblanc)

The Canadian Prime Minister made his observation on January 30, 2015 during a speech introducing the country’s new anti-terrorism legislation, officially known as Bill C-51. Under the pretense of increased security for all Canadians, Bill C-51 grants Orwellian powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) qua Secret Police. For example, it establishes a lower threshold for warrants and arrests. The purview of the proposed law includes those individuals connected to terrorist acts that “may be carried out” (Payton). In addition, it gives the government power to request secret investigative hearings related to terrorism, thus creating information blackouts. Like last year’s Bill C-13 (the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act), Bill C-51 subjects online and phone communications to increased scrutiny. It grants CSIS the authority not only to monitor, but also to “disrupt” and “counter-message” online terrorist activities (Payton).

Moreover, just as Bill C-13 tapped into cultural sentimentalism about protecting the innocence of children, Bill C-51 taps into moral panic and paranoia in the wake of recent violence in Paris and, closer to home, Ottawa. In each case, legislation opens up potential rootkits and backdoors (e.g., environmental activists risk being dubbed “terrorists”). Not surprisingly, the legislation has been opposed by Daniel Therrien, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner; Thomas Mulcair and Elizabeth May, respective leaders of the New Democratic Party and Green Party; and even Edward Snowden: “I would say we should always be extraordinarily cautious when we see governments trying to set up a new secret police within their own countries” (qtd. in Miller, “Edward Snowden speaks”).

Canadian poet Ken Babstock’s On Malice is a timely entry into this emotionally-charged public discourse on the limits and conditions of privacy in Canada and, more generally, post-9/11 North America. The book arrives with a sense of occasion. On Malice also looks into the prehistory of contemporary “surveillance and capture” models, which originate in the years immediately after WWII (Agre 743-44). Babstock is one of many twenty-first century poets, artists, and thinkers presently committed to investigating surveillance and capture—as aesthetic, ethical, and political practices—in relation to technological imperatives, governmental policy, and historical exigencies, including the “War on Terror” and Jihadism. For example, in August 2014, Andrew Ridker edited Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics, which includes work by Rae Armantrout, Joshua Clover, CAConrad, Nikki Giovanni, Jorie Graham, Cathy Park Hong, Paul Muldoon, Eileen Myles, and Matthew Zapruder. Similarly, in December 2014, Deep Lab—a cyber-feminist, interdisciplinary think-tank organized by Addie Wagenknecht—congregated for a week at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to explore the central role women must play in shaping the cultural conversation about big data in a post-Snowden world:

Maybe for women, we’re more aware of protecting ourselves online because it’s always been a social problem. … Think of contacting friends before you leave a party late at night so people can make sure you got home safe—men maybe don’t think about that and women always do. And it’s those same roles on the web. How do you protect yourself from a hack or doxing? The power shifts to the person with more knowledge.

(Wagenknecht qtd. in Pearson)

Excellent studies such as Stephen Miller’s The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance and, more recently, Timothy Melley’s The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State and William J. Maxwell’s F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, demonstrate how writers, artists, and thinkers have long negotiated the disciplinary force of surveillance. With my tongue firmly in cheek, I might even propose that John Stuart Mill, in his “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,” is the earliest advocate of poetry as (self)surveillance. “Eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard,” Mill writes, situating poetry within an economy of secrets (95). The Muse is less...

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