3 Suggested Readings on the Politics of Surveillance

Obama scandals seem not to end. The disclosure that the Obama administration has continued the tradition inaugurated by president George W. Bush to routinely collect metadata of phone calls has sparked a lively debate on social media and in political circles. The disclosure came first from The Guardian newspaper, which described the process by which the National Security Agency and the F.B.I. have obtained a secret warrant to compel Verizon to turn over phone data. The first report was followed by a The Guardian and The Washington Post article revealing that the Obama administration was mining also data from nine U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Skype and Apple. The Prism Program , as it is known, was until now, a top secret program.

Secrecy, and its relationship to power, and to presidential power in particular, is emerging as a theme of public debate because of the secrecy masking both the details of the use of U.S. predator drones in the Middle East and the covert surveillance of phone calls and Internet data. For a president, who campaigned on a promise of transparency and accountability, secrecy is turning into a defining trait of his administration.

President Barack Obama provided a strong defense of the surveillance program.“You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” the president said.

In light of the ensuing debate, I suggest below three readings by anthropologists that can help to think anthropologically about the surveillance program, the relationship of power to secrecy, and more in general about the hegemony of today’s security paradigm. As Elias Cannetti wrote, “Secrecy lies at the very core of power.

1) Carole J. Greenhouse. 2005. Hegemony and Hidden Transcripts: The Discursive Arts of Neoliberal Legitimation. American Anthropologist 107(3)356-368.
In this article, Greenhouse offers a reading of James Scott’s “Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts” (1990) from an inverted standpoint: Whereas Scott’s focus is on resistance from below, Greenhouse’s is on resistance from above. In particular, she examines some of the more prominent legal and political responses to the attacks of September 11, 2001–notably the President’s Military Order of November 13, 2001, establishing military tribunals for noncitizen detainees charged with terrorism. Greenhouse argues that their establishment represents an extension of executive power rehearsed prior to the attacks, and that the politicization of security in the United States involves institutions and issues that have long antecedents in partisan political terms.

2) Daniel M. Goldstein. 2010. Towards a Critical Anthropology of Security. Current Anthropology 51(4)487-517.
The author highlights that anthropology has not developed a critical comparative ethnography of security and its contemporary problematics. Goldstein invites anthropologists to recognize the significance of security discourses and practices to the global and local contexts in which cultural anthropology operates. A focus on security is particularly important to an understanding of human rights in contemporary neoliberal society. The author tracks the decline of neoliberalism and the rise of the security paradigm as a framework for organizing contemporary social life.

3) Begoña Aretxaga. 2001. Terror as Thrill: First Thoughts on the ‘War on Terrorism.’ Anthropological Quarterly 75(1)138-150.
In this article, Aretxaga reflects on 9/11, the reaction of the Bush administration, and the consequent War against Terrorism. She traces an interesting comparison between the U.S. war on terrorism and the Spanish Civil War. “For all its proclaimed novelty, the layout of the war has been quite conventional and follows a well known routine of American military intervention: display of military might, surgical airstrikes, and covert operations,” wrote Aretxaga.

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