Saturday, March 21, 2015

Seminar 2 Position Statement: Jess Meacham (Journalism)

Surveillance and Secrecy - Fictional Representations

My research focuses on fictional representations of surveillance and secrecy. Where this work intersects with applied theory and technical expertise lies, I think, in the contested question of popular and/or public understanding of surveillance in society. The cross-pollination between narratives of espionage and the history of British intelligence has a long and well-documented history. John le Carré, in particular, is widely credited with creating a new type of espionage fiction, qualitatively different than that of Ian Fleming and his other predecessors - one that has been built around his own experience within and alongside the British intelligence establishment. The popularity of his fiction attests to the strength of the public appetite for narratives of surveillance in a realist mode (contra Bond). He has been positioned as an author of the ‘negative thriller’, and there is currently, post-Snowden, renewed critical interest in his fiction. His work continues to reach a wide audience through big-budget cinematic adaptation. Here, I use le Carré as an example of just one aspect of how literary analysis might suggest potential research questions arising from the juxtaposition of literary enquiry with other disciplinary fields in surveillance and information studies.

Fictional representations of secrecy and privacy are always contingent on the readers’ awareness of the narrator and the author-figure. Narratologists distinguish between ‘story’ (or plot, that is the events that happen in order for a narrative to be a narrative) and ‘discourse’ (how the story is told). In le Carré, the gap between the two is often wide: think of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, which opens with Jim Prideaux arriving to take up work as a supply teacher in a minor public school. There are many pages to go before we can shape this into a chronological sequence (the plot) to discover that he was injured as a result of a disastrous operation in Czechoslovakia, ordered by Control in the last days of his reign at the Circus, before he was ousted by Alleline and Smiley was fired-retired … This is an example not of secrecy within the narrative as theme, but as device: for sustaining interest or tension, i.e., implicitly, for keeping us invested in the plot. Secrecy, personified in the form of Karla’s mole, is arguably also the dominant theme of Tinker, Tailor – harnessed to varying ends and in various ways. In this formulation, then, secrecy, lifted out of any real-world ethical framework, becomes instead a tool or technology to drive narrative.

The relevance of literary narratives to the public understanding of Snowden was demonstrated conclusively by the rapid rise in sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the wake of the story breaking. To what extent does secrecy operate in media surveillance narratives? How does the discourse of Snowden, as shaped by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian, use the story of secrecy? How might public conceptions of privacy, secrecy and surveillance be shaped by the ways in which the media and literary narratives that inform them operate self-reflexively within these parameters? How might a concrete or policy-driven ethics of surveillance take into account these factors? 

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