Proposal for the Surveilled
July 10, 2013
Jul 10, 2013
4 Min read time
There have been grim indications these last weeks about the breadth and opacity of the U.S. Government’s ability and willingness to track phone conversations, read e-mails, and generally listen in to regular American life: as a person with a non-zero amount of (emotional/psychological rather than legal/punishable, I swear) secrets, I tend to empathize more quickly with the listen-ees than the listen-ers. At the same time, though, as a reader of poetry I’m always hoping to be the kind of person who reads uncompromisingly: I want to dig out the strange and taut relationship between mother and son in Jay Hopler’s poems, for example, and one of my favorite poems will always be William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe,” for its music, of course, but also because I get to picture the poet flopping around nude in front of a mirror. Lots of poets want people to feel like I do when I read: why aren’t there more readers? And why aren’t they more resolute voyeurs?
I’d never really put these two experiences together, though, until I read “File Zero” 《0档案》 by Yu Jian 于坚. “File Zero” is a 1992 poem that runs about ten pages in the original Chinese — its form is a fancifully elaborate, bureaucratic-style record of an individual’s birth, upbringing, education and adulthood. Here is a bit of Maghiel Van Crevel's translation from subsection five (“Thought Report”) of Chapter Four (“Daily Life”):
he wants to yell reactionary slogans he wants to break the law and violate discipline he wants to go into a frenzy he wants to degenerate
he wants to rape he wants to go naked he wants to kill a bunch of people he wants to rob banks....
he wants to capitulate he wants to be a traitor he wants to surrender to the enemy he wants to recant he wants to turn against his own side
The poem is far more wide-ranging than this — it covers, as well, the physical location of the file and its use, and does some truly convincing ventriloquizing of government annotations on the contents of the file — but the center of the experience I’m interested in today is this mixture between embarrassing secrets (“he wants to go naked”) that don’t really help or harm anyone in the telling, self-serving secrets (“he wants to kill a bunch of people”) that would cause trouble for the teller if shared, and tactical secrets (“he wants to surrender to the enemy”), the telling of which might well prevent you from doing something you want to do. These different types of drama subside, over the course of the poem, into an atomized, workaday list of things that are in the subject’s apartment: leather shoes, a 1.80 meter-long couch, a copy of the Teach-Yourself Handbook of Chinese.
One effect of reading this poem is a discovery of the arbitrariness of what we withhold: it is as if the surveilling agent wields a powerful telescope. As he zooms in, a picture of interest, to the authorities, at least, comes into focus. As he zooms further, that picture is lost, and the subject’s body fills the frame, then their shoulder, then the pores of the skin. There is a magnification beyond which stories as we know them cease, and what is under inspection is something human, something incontrovertible. Because these parts are so similar to the innumerable other couches and shoulders in the world, they are ultimately unpunishable, unjudgeable: they’re too common (here is my couch: more of a loveseat, really). What’s better, now we have the power to share and keep this data in a file of our own, to make the information we want accessible in the way we want it — I’m reminded of the way in which the last breakfast of the Marathon victim Lü Lingzi represented her on the internet in China
So I propose a moratorium on the word “oversharing,” not because excessive communication doesn’t exist, but because the term as it’s used today insinuates that there is a type of self-expression that is apolitical, and it associates the communication of detail with people who aren’t thinking through what they say or do. I propose that we make intentional, intellectual, and consensual operations on the scope of the information that we make public, and that we act with Yu Jian-style boldness and intentionality in producing our own files. (This would take place concurrently, of course, with the struggle to enforce clear, protective boundaries beyond which governments and business interests cannot go.) If we treat being 3D on the internet as if it were an embarrassment, we risk missing what can be accomplished by the dirtily intimate: if I hide my 1995 Usenet posts about Magic: The Gathering, then I’m risking that Suren Manvelyan won’t post his unsettling, hobbyist close-ups of the human eye. When the time for action comes, or when one needs to get away with something — and we all do — then we will keep it like a secret. As for the rest, the unmonetizable, the impractical, the human? Let them choke on it. Let them recognize it.
Photo by Jared Rodriguez, Adapted by Jason Smith / Flickr (cc)
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
July 10, 2013
4 Min read time