Re-righting Privacy: Dispossession and Exposure in the time of PRISM

Probably the last thing anyone needs (or wants) at this point is more NSA-Snowden-PRISM punditry. At the very least, a shambolic and embittered Washington Post seems to have had its fill. How lucky, then, that in a recent interview with filmmaker and cultural savant Miranda July, Sarah Nicole Prickett (as she basically always does) cuts through the cable news fat chewing to the core of the scandal. She writes:

“Choosing how to appear is action, and it’s this action that is denied where privacy isn’t a right. In the wake of Snowdengate, publications as high up as The New Yorker published unthinking pieces on the “irony” of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s martyriffic commitment to said privacy vis-à-vis the PG-rated ‘online exhibitionism’ of his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Pundits confused privacy with the right to privacy, a distinction my generation – Mills’s generation, Lin’s generation – just gets. It’s like how I wear see-through T-shirts in public, yet thoroughly dread the invention of a body-scanning app for Google Glass. Part of living morally in a society with nowhere to hide is deciding, when someone doesn’t want to be seen, not to look.”

Intentionally or not, Prickett is here all but quoting Hannah Arendt in The Life of the Mind–the German Jewish philosopher’s famously unfinished final tome, which approaches the labour of philosophy through a tripartite scheme of thinking, willing and  (it’s always been presumed) judging. There, Arendt attempts to buck the stubborn Western philosophical habit of treating the immaterial cognitive sphere as separate from, prior to, and closer to Truth than the  “merely” physical, that which appears before us, the surfaces against which we invariably find ourselves up-against and along-side in the course of living and laboring.

For Arendt, being and appearing coincide: “nothing and nobody exists in a world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator.” To be human and alive is to appear before another, to be sensed and seen in ways that you can neither predict nor finally control. Of course, as decades of feminist, critical race, postcolonial, and disability theory have demonstrated, simply being seen is no guarantee of being seen as you want to be seen, and it’s no guarantee that you’ll be seen in a way that’s safe or even accurate. But the thrust of Arendt’s claim is that for a life to stand any chance of enduring or taking place at all, it must be apprehended. Or, at the very least, the possibility of apprehending it must exist. If we’ve no hope of being seen, we’ve no hope of making or staking claim, of taking place or taking space.

It’s little surprise, then, that in the 1990s, as critics, pundits, and academics attempted to make sense of–or even before that, to make up–a new politics of globalization, Arendt (who had long since fallen into disrepute on both sides of the Atlantic) surged in popularity. Her conception of politics as the ensemble of deliberative practices that can unfold only with/in the so-called space of appearances–where bodies can see and be seen, where they bring one another into existence through a kind of collective, but radically uncertain, sociality–seemed curiously urgent in a world stretched thin across the gulf between visibility and disappearance. After the Internet, after the explosion of hand-held digital imaging technologies, after so many triumphant claims that the Global Village had finally arrived, how could it be that so many continued to go unseen? How could discourses of connectivity and globality reckon with persistent and intensifying conditions of inequality, subjugation, and misery? How could we be so bound to one another, yet so unable to respond to injustice? If she didn’t exactly provide answers to these questions, Arendt at least provided ways of thinking about them anew, beyond the technocratic triumphalism of the nineties.

What’s more, she seemed to offer a way out of the postmodern conundrum of agency. Again anticipating Prickett writing against the backdrop of PRISM, Arendt connected appearance directly to action and freedom. If we could be seen by others, she argued, then we could act, we could begin something new. We could make things appear otherwise. And for Arendt, this was freedom. Hers was the freedom to begin, to “force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries,” to bring something forward that had not been so before, and to do so as a socially situated and apprehended being, as something other than the discrete, fully self-governing subject of Western liberalism. Appearance was the social condition of possibility for acting, and acting was the acting-out of freedom.

Those who’ve inherited and adapted Arendt’s line of thinking in the wake of this resurgence, then, have tended to probe the general problems and conditions of visibility in the interest of addressing contemporary political struggles. They ask how we might redistribute the resources of seeing so as to more meaningfully apprehend and become bound to those most under duress, most exposed to the threats of violence, extermination, displacement. Judith Butler has probably been the most important figure in this regard, devoting substantial page counts to the political work of framing and reframing, to the force of responsiveness, responsibility, and response-ability. Though it does a disservice to her thought, we might summarize Butler’s work on such issues in the form of a (long–sorry, philosophy) question: under what conditions do lives become visible and recognizable as lives worthy of and able to make claims upon rights to safety, dignity, and equality; and what political forms and commitments are required to oppose conditions wherein the unequal distribution of visibility would produce some lives as non-lives or not-quite-lives in advance–as lives unworthy of protection, unworthy even of admission into the domain of humanness.

So where for Arendt, appearance was a kind of given universal condition–something prior to all legislation or deliberation–for Butler, it is something over and for which we must struggle. Appearance, in Butler’s thought, isn’t simply the condition of politics, as Arendt claimed. Rather, it is itself an object of political contestation. This disjunction aside, though, both seem to more or less accept visibility as a normative value that grounds the struggle for a livable, viable life. Whether it is given or produced through contestation, the limit of (in)visibility, in both the Arendtian and Butlerian accounts, must be crossed if bodies are to make claims and become intelligible and audible in a world they never chose (this is less true of Butler’s most recent work, but more on that momentarily). Again, Arendt: “a life without speech and without action…is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life.”

But systems like PRISM introduce a critical wrinkle into this scheme. And it’s precisely this wrinkle that Prickett puts at issue in her parsing of Miranda July’s We Think Alone. What happens when visibility becomes the lever and the axis of coercion? What happens when visibility is compulsory? What happens when our inescapable exposure to others–what Butler calls the unchosen “up-againstness” of being human–is literally used against us? For Arendt and for Butler, visibility is a vital organ in the body that acts, that resists, that approximates freedom. But in the age of PRISM, “in a society with nowhere to hide” (Prickett), total visibility is precisely what preempts and chills resistance. It’s what arbitrarily redefines action as unlawful dissent. It’s what forecloses any version of freedom that doesn’t wave a flag and sing an anthem.

In their riveting (if unwieldy) new collection, Disposession, Athena Athanasiou and Judith Butler repeatedly turn to this problem, suggesting that it is indeed much more than just a wrinkle. Together, they carry on the Arendtian tradition (and reiterate much of Butler’s earlier thought) by thinking “dispossession” as a kind of founding condition of human life. In their account, we are always, ahead of any deliberation or question, dispossessed to some degree. We are born into a world we didn’t choose, we speak languages that are not of our own making, and in various ways at various times, we acknowledge our dependence both on one another and on the planet. Basically: we don’t go it alone. We are always already outside of, dispossessed of ourselves. And it is this dispossession to which Butler, Athanasiou, and Arendt have turned in their search for ethical ways of being together with others. I’d also suggest that it’s where Prickett finds the moral compass to which she alludes–that set of commitments that legislates how we impinge upon, and are impinged upon by, the lives of others.

But dispossession isn’t an unqualified good. As Butler and Athanasiou argue, disposession can also mean forced displacement, land theft, eviction and forcible removal, the rejection of claims on resources. We can and routinely are dispossessed of that which provides us safety, security, and now more than ever, privacy. Disposession can be wretched. It can be the unwilled and coercive total exposure of our lives to the whims of forces larger than us.

So are we stuck? How do we, or can we,preserve those forms of dispossession that move us to act ethically without falling prey to dispossession in all its most coercive and wretched forms? Can we evade dispossession as a kind of total exposure that truncates action, turning it into just another data point, another vector for control? Can we choose to be seen, following Prickett, without giving ourselves fully to those doing the seeing? And can we choose not to be seen without becoming hermetic and reactionary?

It’s unclear. Especially in the time of PRISM (an irritatingly accurate name: any light trained on its circuitry is splintered, refracted, and dispersed. Colours change, shards disappear into invisible spectra. What was uniform enters all manner of registers–the visible, invisible, the infra, the meta). All the same, I’m tempted to follow Athanasiou and Butler in suggesting that what is needed is a politics that opposes wretched and violent dispossessions, but does so without seeking reactionary recourse to possession. A politics that aspires to possession might give us grounds for rejecting things like expulsion, eviction, displacement, and privacy-invasive surveillance programs, but it would also seal us up altogether. It would leave no room for attending to the ways in which dispossession relates and binds us to others, how it compels us toward sociality and responsiveness.

Prickett adapts the claim specifically for a generation now under the watchful eye of PRISM. We don’t need or want privacy. We seem to want and desperately need a meaningful right to privacy. Privacy, conceived of as an object we can possess, posits a world that simply doesn’t exist; one where that which is proximate is private, and what is further afield is functionally public. Our generation, as Prickett points out, seems to understand almost innately that this simply isn’t the case. I’m more comfortable with my Twitter followers knowing my political beliefs than my job title, even though the latter ostensibly belongs to the public realm, and the former to the private.

But talking about privacy as a right recasts the scene. A right exists outside of and before the individual body, and it can never be fully closed or defined. There’s a reason that courts (however ceremonially or ineffectively) still rule on what a right does and does not cover. It’s because a right, despite its universal pretensions, is always up for contestation. It must be claimed, recited, spoken, and heard. A right implicates not only the claimant, but also the person or institution to which it is addressed, the relationship between them, and the cultural, political, and social conditions that impinge upon and give dimension to it. Privacy is a thing. A right to privacy is a relationship. That’s why Prickett can wear sheer tops in public but (fucking rightly) bristle at a body-scanning app for Google Glass. That’s why it’s unacceptable to look simply because an exposure has occurred.

For all the failings of liberal “rights-winning” discourses then, rights–including the right to privacy–remain potentials upon which we call when we are in need of protection. But to be effective, those calls must be supported, given audience, and when necessary, amplified through collective political action. The gap between privacy-as-object and privacy-as-right maps out the difference between possession and relational dispossession.

So while Prickett is probably correct when she says that much of my generation simply gets this distinction, and more importantly, grasps the value of its latter term, PRISM and similar exercises in coercive, totalizing exposure make it clear that we need to spell it out. Urgently, and with conviction.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Making-Count: On Citizenship as Right and Privilege « Man Descending

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