Conceived in response to Yevgeniy Fiks's call for "A Monument to Cold War Victory," the Clandestine Reading Room is a pop-up library designed to engage the public imagination with the persistence of state secrecy and the spread of state-sponsored surveillance. Together, these trends represent a deeply troubling failure of democracy, especially insofar as they tend to suppress free speech and dissent.
The Reading Room itself will showcase documentation of the security state and its surveillance apparatus. Our interactive exhibit will highlight the important and contested archives created by the work of scholars, activists, and organizations like the National Security Archive and Wikileaks, as well as the tools - such as the FOIA process - available to contest the state's hegemonic grip on information. Users of the Reading Room will be exposed to the recalcitrant material life of objects that actively resist reading (declassified, redacted documents), as well as of those the reading of which is an illicit, even a transgressive, act (leaked documents). In addition, a variety of public programming will address the larger social and political-economic context in which practices of secrecy and surveillance -- as well as their contestation and disruption -- occur.
The enduring legacy -- the “victory” -- of the Cold War lies in the submission of populations to their surveillance by nation-states and other entities. Not only a tactic of the eastern bloc, this trend crept into the nooks and crannies of the cultural imagination on both sides of the Atlantic. Certainly for North Americans and Western Europeans, this trend has only intensified in the decade since 9/11, with the burgeoning of a surveillance industry targeting “threats” to national security. This industry, and the political acquiescence that permits it to flourish, affect political and cultural life both in those regions (like the Middle East) where U.S. hegemony struggles to retain its hold, and “here at home,” where a variety of activists, artists, scholars, and other people find themselves caught in a web of suspicion whose primary purpose seems to be, if not actually to stifle dissent, then to contain and control it. Thanks to new technologies, the surveillance industry -- an increasingly large portion of which comprises non-state actors, i.e., corporations -- is busy amassing data on a scale without historical precedent, creating a vast “live” archive of the daily activities and expressions of citizens and non-citizens alike.
In the terms of our project, "secrecy" describes the way in which a state reads its citizens and its others (surveillance), as well as an ideology that erases the social-contractual border between public and private, speech and act, creating a society increasingly hostile to the open expression of dissent. The neoliberal security state, like the Communist state over which it purports to have triumphed, depends on the production of secrets in at least two ways. First, large segments of the bureaucratic apparatus are devoted to activities that remain "classified" or otherwise inaccessible to the public, thus immune to public contestation or reproof. Second, many of the same segments are involved in surveillance of the state's own citizens and others who, by virtue of their words, deeds, affiliations, or identities stand marked as potential threats to the state. People involved in the struggles for human or animal rights; people opposed to the destruction of the environment, or the proliferation of nuclear weapons; people supporting the civil liberties or cultural expression of marginalized groups, as well as members of those groups themselves: these are some of the targets state surveillance. Not only movement leaders and public intellectuals, but also lawyers, journalists, students, volunteers, and even government appointees have felt the scrutinizing gaze of the state; scores of people involved in what they took to be perfectly legitimate activities have discovered that they have "a file."
How does this happen? The state designates an arbitrary part of speech and action -- even when such speech and action would normally be protected -- as falling into a zone of secrecy. "You have nothing to fear from government surveillance if you have nothing to hide": thus do the agents of the security state console us. But the zone of the secret remains arbitrary because it is carved out by the state's own practices of surveillance and documentation. Where the shadow of the security state falls, there we find the "secret" and the "clandestine." Ultimately, the state -- i.e., those acting in its name -- seeks to be the final arbiter of secrets, meaning that the state and its agents would maintain a monopoly on the power to draw the boundary between the public and the private, the licit and the illicit, the meaningful and the insignificant, the visible and the invisible, the heard and the unheard. Against this monopoly stand the people, and the people include those who, by contesting legitimate or customary boundaries, challenge the state's bid for exclusive control over the warp of truth and the woof of justice.
And yet power, even in the hands of the state, is not monolithic, nor is secrecy. Studying the state's production of secrets, we pluck at a web of practices, granular, contingent, and sometimes conflicting. We confront also the zeal, the clumsiness, the diffidence, or the finesse of those who perform these practices -- for whom secrecy is a daily occupation, and perhaps an obsession -- for whom it represents an ensemble of the sensible, less a theory than an art. And on the other side, we encounter the artistry of those who, by choice or force of circumstance, bend their energies to resist the state's production of secrets: those who contest official narratives by exposing the state's secrets; those who speak and act under the threat of surveillance; and those who, in order to nourish civil society, to assert their freedom of conscience, or just to "fuck with" the bureaucrats in charge, defend speech, activism, and civil disobedience against their repression by the state. By exposing these arts of the secret in their rich materiality and formal complexity, our project contributes to this resistance. To the state's closure of truth in surveillance and classification, we bring the openness that pertains to the aesthetic.
"Bureaucracy" is an ambivalent term. What Max Weber claimed -- that it represents the dominant and inescapable form of organization in the modern world -- remains true. Bureaucracy is a form of collective action, as well as a mode of rationality. And the rationality of bureaucracy, as Weber also pointed out, maintains an essential and intimate relation to practices of documentation. But while critiques from both the left and right sides of the ideological spectrum target the calcified and self-justifying bureaucracies of the modern state, state bureaucracies are not all alike. What we have described above, under the rubric of the neoliberal state's security apparatus, represents bureaucracy at its most opaque, where the "secret" becomes the key to bureaucratic rationality and an end in itself. But there are other models for bureaucracy -- i.e., for social action organized around the collection and curation of documents. One of the most venerable is the library itself. We choose to think of the library -- in admittedly ideal terms -- as an "open" form of bureaucracy, one which exists not only to protect documents but to make them available to a public. Without undue editorializing or purposeful redaction, libraries make documentary evidence available in context, foregrounding the combinatorial possibilities of reading and interpretation, rather than disseminating a single, authorized truth. Libraries are places for research but equally for conversation. It is on this idea of the library that we have modeled our Reading Room. As a "pop-up" library, it serves as a device for setting off conversations, for triggering thought.
The "hermeneutics of suspicion" (Ricouer) or the "paranoid imperative" (Sedgwick) aptly describes the ethos of the official agents of the security state. But the prevalence of these forms of sensibility attests to the state's success at recruiting the rest of us to a near-constant state of self-surveillance. Internalized surveillance is necessary to the security regime. The state needs our voluntary participation to flesh out its bogeymen, whether by informing on our friends and neighbors, or voting for the right candidates, or placidly complying with the strictures on everyday life that keep us "safe" -- strictures on action as well as thought, strictures that become the contours of our rage no less than of our excitement and compassion. "Keep the borders safe...keep the streets safe...if you see something, say something": the ubiquity of such dicta deter inquiry into the structural (political, cultural, and economic) reasons why the streets might be unsafe in the first place, or the borders porous and contested. But a vigilant reading that uncovers the violence behind these slogans can only do so much, if it is ultimately the vigilant subject herself whose perpetuation state power requires.
We propose a counter-concept. By "clandestine reading," we refer to experiences and positions that do not merely re-enact vigilance, even if they never fully escape its aura. It is one thing to read texts that, by virtue of their ideological content or political utility, are suspect. It is another matter to read when the very act of reading has become suspect. The perusal of leaked documents invites a frisson of dallying with the forbidden. Something akin to that feeling can attach even to those documents that have officially been "declassified," where the redactions, being visible and performative, tempt us to fill in the gaps. And what must be the sensations that accompany reading your own "file": where a perverse narrative, rife with distortions and misunderstandings, shows you as you appear to the narrowed eyes of the state? It is undeniable that government secrecy, and surveillance in particular, has a chilling effect. But in these invitations to a knowledge riskier than ignorance, is there not also scope for a poetic logic -- an occasion for outrage, yes, but also for laughter and mockery, and a coming together of readers willing to share the risk? As "clandestine," reading itself -- and not the contents of a critical judgment -- becomes a political act. To perform this act both wisely and intrepidly is an art that the present urgently requires.