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  • James Fenimore Cooper and the NSA: Security, Property, Liberalism
  • Russ Castronovo (bio)

What would social life look like without security? Can we imagine culture without security? The tendency to bemoan the ubiquity of CCTV cameras, electronic surveillance, and other forms of securitization emerges from our dwindling capacity to imagine private spaces immune to the combination of corporate and government overreach. For every revelation that telecommunications giants have been sharing information with data-collection agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA), there exists the small but still palpable hope that these disclosures can energize a vigorous defense of privacy in the face of technologies of surveillance and security that have become ever more invasive and omnipresent. Defenders of civil liberties have kept a close eye on court cases such as ACLU v. Clapper (2015), which found that the bulk collection of telephone metadata constituted “an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans” (818). Privacy thus names the zone that might remain impervious to snooping, although the sheer scope of Stellar Wind and other NSA surveillance programs that mine financial records, e-mail, and phone logs raises significant concerns that the space of privacy has been contracted to a pinpoint. Nevertheless, in the context of much-publicized exposures of top-secret government surveillance programs, the modest victories of some recent legal challenges have revitalized efforts to imagine culture without security. For an assortment of unlikely bedfellows—Internet freedom fighters, liberal protectors of free speech, libertarians worried about the specter [End Page 677] of unchecked government power, conservatives dedicated to preserving traditional notions of individual autonomy, and left-leaning academics wary of biopolitical metrics—privacy remains an evocative political resource.

In the end, however, the reliance on privacy cannot be distinguished from the logics of security, both of which hinge upon the concept of property. Across the political theory of liberalism, surveys of territory, and fictions of the frontier, imagining land as empty space allows security to appear as a natural feature of civil society. From John Locke to James Fenimore Cooper, the theorizing of the wilderness as vacant combines with images of waste and wasteland to generate a narrative that makes tracking animals, clearing forests, laying down survey lines, and collecting all matter of mass data foundational to the project of civilizing America. The range of these pursuits suggests that the difficulty of envisioning culture without security stems from the unavoidable fact that security is indistinguishable from the culture of liberalism and the notion of property that it upholds.

In this light, surveillance encompasses more than a government apparatus, just as security represents more than a global network of cellular towers; a web of CCTV cameras maintained across office lobbies, parking garages, and storefronts; or a fleet of drones whose cameras can “zoom in and read a milk carton from 60,000 feet” (“Surveillance Drones”).1 While these devices and gadgets are daunting enough, they pale in comparison to the ancient technologies of liberalism that first made it possible to conceive culture as a state of security. Fictions about the state of nature, like those appearing in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) or Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823), mobilize ideas about wilderness and wasteland in order to conceptualize private property as a zone of individual liberty. Although Cooper’s state of nature is much more local and geographic than what Locke had in mind, the securitization of property and persons remains a particular point of anxiety for each. The worry that property is always capable of being seized, alienated, or left to rot, that it is essentially never secure, provides justification enough for surveillance and other security measures to operate continuously.

1. Private Pursuits

Before excavating liberalism’s foundational investments in security, we may first observe how thoroughly security has wrapped itself around social life as a cache of data that can be mined, aggregated, even monetized. According to a report from the Technology and [End Page 678] Liberty Program of the ACLU, in urban spaces such as Manhattan, “it is impossible to walk around the city without being recorded nearly every step of the way” (Stanley and Steinhardt 2). By 2004, a date now light-years...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 677-701
Launched on MUSE
2016-12-12
Open Access
No
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