- On the NSA (New Security Aesthetics)
Simon Willmetts recently diagnosed a cultural turn in intelligence studies.1 We can occasionally detect in such formulations the idea that disciplines turn to culture, like milk curdles. Luckily, Willmetts is positive and welcoming in this instance (and, I should declare in the interests of transparency, kindly references my own work as an example). While Matthew Potolsky’s The National Security Sublime would be an excellent candidate for inclusion in this positive cultural turn, I would rather claim the book as an exemplary contribution to a growing body of interdisciplinary work on secrecy in which culture is always already central.
Space precludes me from giving a fuller picture, but this body of work includes Timothy Melley’s study of the visible cultural eruptions of the intelligence infrastructure he calls the ‘covert sphere’; Eva Horn’s work on the political logic of secrecy; Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum’s account of obfuscation as political tactic; Russ Castronovo’s literary historical eye on secrets and leaks; Jodi Dean’s examination of how the condition of possibility for publicity is, counterintuitively, secrecy; Joseph Masco’s writings on national security affect; Simone Browne’s study of racial surveillance; and the work of Simon Willmetts himself, on cinematic representations of intelligence services.2 (Which means I am counter-recruiting Willmetts as though he were an intelligence asset, making him a double agent of sorts.) To this work, The National Security Sublime adds a reading of contemporary state secrecy that cuts across discussions in intelligence studies, cultural studies, history, literature, film studies, and digital culture.
Potolsky’s curiosity was piqued by the lack of representation, in comparison with other agencies at least, of the NSA. Anyone who has ever watched a data analyst work will know why: data and signals surveillance obviously lacks the drama of more tangible (and human) forms of spying and investigation. However, since 2005, after The New York Times began to report on NSA surveilance programmes, artists, writers, filmmakers and television showrunners grappled with representing the agency at the centre of the revelations. Potolsky shows how they turned to the sublime with new tropes, affects, and political import. If the Gothic relied on conspiracies that could be unveiled and an aesthetic reliant upon darkness, claustrophobic interiors, or icy plains; and the Romantic sublime offered an elevated glimpse of the elusive nature of divine truth; the most recent incarnation of the national security [End Page 171] sublime under the War on Terror, which was used to justify the expansion of government secrecy in terms of size, scope, and remit, thwarts any promise of revelation or enlightenment.
The sublime became deeply unfashionable as a concept because of its perceived ideological accommodation. As Potolsky outlines, Jean-François Lyotard may have championed the sublime for its ability to ‘wage a war on totality’, but Terry Eagleton’s damning evaluation that it is an aesthetic mode that forces us to cower before authority is the one that stuck for many cultural theorists (p.160). Potolsky reframes the issue by claiming, ‘Aesthetic forms need not have direct political effects to be politically effective in the long view’ (p161), and that they offer ‘a starting point rather than a comprehensive solution’ (p162). Potolsky’s ‘national security sublime’ makes no claims as a form of direct action, then; but as an intervention into the deep time of aesthetic challenge, it has potential.
In the process, the national security sublime certainly marks a shift, Potolsky argues, in the relationship between the citizen and state (p161). In the way that the most recent incarnation of the sublime depicts the ungraspable scale and scope of government surveillance data, it ‘provides an aesthetic appropriate to a world in which secrets as we have long understood them are becoming a thing of the past’ (p161). Far from prompting revelation of a subversive plot that might renew democracy, the public secret of contemporary surveillance is banal in its embedded role in everyday life. We are offered ‘a recognition not of deep mysteries but of public...