Black spots and blank spots

Over at Guernica, Trevor Paglen has a short essay on the rise of what he calls ‘the terror state’ that connects the dots between several recent posts:

For more than a decade, we’ve seen the rise of what we might call a “Terror State,” of which the NSA’s surveillance capabilities represent just one part. Its rise occurs at a historical moment when state agencies and programs designed to enable social mobility, provide economic security and enhance civic life have been targeted for significant cuts. The last three decades, in fact, have seen serious and consistent attacks on social security, food assistance programs, unemployment benefits and education and health programs. As the social safety net has shrunk, the prison system has grown. The United States now imprisons its own citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

While civic parts of the state have been in retreat, institutions of the Terror State have grown dramatically. In the name of an amorphous and never-ending “war on terror,” the Department of Homeland Security was created, while institutions such as the CIA, FBI and NSA, and darker parts of the military like the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have expanded considerably in size and political influence. The world has become a battlefield—a stage for extralegal renditions, indefinite detentions without trial, drone assassination programs and cyberwarfare. We have entered an era of secret laws, classified interpretations of laws and the retroactive “legalization” of classified programs that were clearly illegal when they began. Funding for the secret parts of the state comes from a “black budget” hidden from Congress—not to mention the people—that now tops $100 billion annually. Finally, to ensure that only government-approved “leaks” appear in the media, the Terror State has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, leakers and journalists. All of these state programs and capacities would have been considered aberrant only a short time ago. Now, they are the norm.

This ought to be depressingly familiar stuff, though it is important to connect those dots.  I highlight Trevor’s argument here (which radiates far beyond the paragraphs I’ve extracted above) for two reasons.

PAGLEN BLank Spots on the MapFirst, the practices that Trevor disentangles work through distinctively different geographies, at once material and virtual. Trevor’s own work addresses different dimensions of what he’s also called the Blank Spots on the Map – here definitely be dragons! though there’s a delicious irony in the US finding Edward Snowden’s whereabouts (at least this morning) to be one of them. There’s some small comfort to be had in the raging impotence of the state apparatus, which is evidently neither all-seeing nor all-knowing.  As part of his project, Trevor has done much to bring into (sometimes long-distance) focus the prying eyes of the ‘terror state’ – see for example here – but I’m particularly interested in the differential modalities of ‘watching’ and ‘acting’.  The US Air Force has become preoccupied with the predicament of ‘swimming in sensors, drowning in data‘, for example, which makes it exceptionally difficult to convert its enhanced capacity for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance into focused strikes and, as I noted earlier, this is only one version of a wider divergence outlined by Peter Scheer:

The logic of warfare and intelligence have flipped, each becoming the mirror image of the other. Warfare has shifted from the scaling of military operations to the selective targeting of individual enemies. Intelligence gathering has shifted from the selective targeting of known threats to wholesale data mining for the purpose of finding hidden threats.

The resulting paradigms, in turn, go a long way to account for our collective discomfort with the government’s activities in these areas. Americans are understandably distressed over the targeted killing of suspected terrorists because the very individualized nature of the drone attacks converts acts of war into de facto executions — and that in turn gives rise to demands for high standards of proof and adjudicative due process.

Similarly, intelligence activities that gather data widely, without fact-based suspicions about specific individuals to whom the data pertain, are seen as intrusive and subject to abuse.

TREVOR PAGLEN Keyhole 12-3 Optical reconnaissance satelliteThis is an interesting suggestion, a simple schematic to think with, and at present I’m working through its implications (and complications) for other dimensions of later modern war – specifically the geographies of cyberwarfare that I briefly outlined in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  So for the book I’m splicing  cyberwarfare into the now explosive debate over surveillance in cyberspace, and the transformation of James Gibson‘s Fordist version of ‘Technowar’ into its post-Fordist incarnation.  In a report for Vanity Fair Michael Joseph Gross calls cyberwarfare ‘silent war’ and ‘war you cannot see’, and yet it too (as Trevor’s work implies) is material as well as virtual, not only in its consequences but also in its very architecture: see, for example, here and here (and the wonderful graphic that accompanies the report).  So, with patience, skill and effort, it can indeed be seen.  And, contrary to Thomas Rid‘s Cyber war will not take place (2013), there is a crucial sense – one which my dear friend Allan Pred constantly emphasised – in which these capacities and activities do indeed take place… More soon.

There’s a second reason for noting Trevor’s essay (he was, not incidentally, a student of Allan’s): it originates from Creative Time Reports edited by Marisa Mazria Katz:

Creative Time Reports strives to be a global leader in publishing the unflinching and provocative perspectives of artists on the most challenging issues of our times. We distribute this content to the public and media free of charge.

Asserting that culture and the free exchange of ideas are at the core of a vibrant democracy, Creative Time Reports aims to publish dispatches that speak truth to power and upend traditional takes on current issues. We believe that artists play a crucial role as thought leaders in society, and are uniquely capable of inspiring and encouraging a more engaged and informed public, whether they are addressing elections or climate change, censorship or immigration, protest movements or politically motivated violence.

In an era of unprecedented interconnectedness, Creative Time Reports provides artists with a space to voice analysis and commentary on issues too often overlooked by mainstream media. We believe in the importance of highlighting cultural producers’ distinctive viewpoints on world events and urgent issues of social justice to ensure a livelier, more nuanced and more imaginative public debate.

Given everything I’ve said about the importance of the arts to creative critical research the relevance of this will, I hope, be obvious: art not simply as a means to represent the results of research but rather as a medium through which to conduct research.  Good to think with, as Lévi-Strauss might have said, but also good to act with.  (More on Creative Time here; they are holding a ‘summit’ on Art, Place and Dislocation in the 21st Century City in New York, 25-26 October 2013).

3 thoughts on “Black spots and blank spots

  1. Pingback: On Trevor Paglen, Surveillance and Derek Gregory | Observing US Security, Politics, Geography, and Pop Culture

  2. Pingback: Dead streaming | geographical imaginations

  3. Pingback: Seeing the secret state with Paglen | War, Law & Space

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