Totemism and Panopticon [original]

This blog has been quiet for almost a month, first because I was happily secluded in the Alps for the better part of two weeks, and then because it’s examination season here in Leuven. Not only exams, but also PhD applications, grant applications (for neweurasia), and budget paperwork are all due this month. I’m somewhat frayed at the edges at the moment, as there’s not enough me (and what there is, isn’t especially great at time management).

Nevertheless, I would like to share something I have worked hard on these last few weeks for my “Media Ethics” course. Admittedly, it’s an academic Frankenstein’s monster: a paper entitled, “Totemism and Panopticon” (click on the link to read a pdf version), that fuses Foucault, Durkheim, and an immanent critique of Assange’s now well-known essay, “Conspiracy as Governance”, to explore the conflict between WikiLeaks and the United States under the Obama Administration. My use of Durkheim is key, as fundamentally I am proposing a spiritual and identity dimension to the debacle. Here’s my conclusion:

WikiLeaks as a reverse, grassroots panopticon with a peculiar ratio of liberal and democratic beliefs, a murky conception of the publics at stake in its Bolshevik-like endeavor to mobilize and transform the world, and an ambivalance between a Kantian and utilitarian understanding of the proverbial leak has collided headlong with the full totemistic power of the American national self as embodied in national security and the soldier, prompting in turn an equally Kantian response in terms of secrecy. This response is perhaps evidenced by the dogged manner in which the Obama Administration is pursuing legal action against Manning and Assange, the latter under the Espionage Act of 1917, a federal law which, as I understand it, has in mind the concept of leaking toward a specific enemy in officially declared wartime, not a general mass during what is still formally peace time (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never receiving formal Congressional declarations), even if that leaking occurred for journalistic-activistic-historical (much less contre panoptic) purposes. Even more remarkable — and all the more telling of the totemistic crisis at stake — was when United States Senator Joseph Lieberman expressed his confusion/disappointment on Fox News that Assange [had not yet been] tried for treason a sentiment echoed by several other pundits on the station, even though he is not a United States citizen.

My interests in monopsychism and panpsychism also extend to the notions of “mass consciousness” and “public opinion”, hence why I thought using Durkheim would be at least interesting, hopefully a bit funky and creative. The goal in the paper is to get a fix on the public ethos that Assange et al have engendered, specifically in my homeland. By the Greek term “ethos” I mean something akin to the English notions of character, disposition, and fundamental values. With respect to WikiLeaks — specifically WikiLeaks as its own variety of mass media (by dint of it being a digital entity) and as a response to and element of the broader mediascape of today — I also mean ethos along the lines of how the Greeks used the term to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer’s emotions, behaviors, and even morals.

Besides trying to find an interesting new angle to the issue, I also felt duty-bound as a Baha’i journalist to get a fix on what WikiLeaks means for me. Assange et al are a moral confrontation right at the intersection between my religiosity and my professional work. The philosopher, in an essay such as this, tries to sort out the resultant mess – although the philosopher is also torn, between Hegelian and Gandhian instincts.

Update 7 August 2013:

I spent the last week in the Alkmaar area attending the OHM2013 technologist convention. It was my first time ever attending a “white hat” or “maker” event (although I suspect these are distinctions lost upon both the general public and the average intelligence officer). It was a really incredible place to be, with lots of interesting and idealistic people trying to do good things in the world through technology. My kind of scene, in many ways.

Although I mostly kept under the radar, my n00bness was practically ontological in its extent, embarrassingly evident for all too see (that, and strutting about in a Kyrgyz kalpak isn’t exactly the definition of incognito). However, I also realized that being a neophyte is also my strength, since I can ask questions that don’t normally occur to the minds of hacktivists, such as, “Where’s the ‘on’ button?”, or “How can we actually use this new toy?” and “Do you really understand what it means to declare a ‘war of resistance’ against the NSA?”

Assange spoke via Skype during OHM’s first evening. He described national security as the new and rather gnostic religion of the world. Levels of access indicate one’s position (or lack thereof) in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the NSA, with its all-seeing eye, becomes the dark god, the Cartesian evil genius, that undermines democracy and makes all the “real” decisions. It was an uncanny experience for me, as I couldn’t help shake the feeling Assange had read my paper — although with typical Asperbergers-like character, he overlooked the important social cues, namely, that leaking and whistleblowing constitute profanations in the system of the new religion. If one is going to commit a taboo, one must do it with great care, and yes, respect — a care and respect Assange and many others at OHM seem to utterly lack. That lack of sensitivity is dangerous.

Assange et al see themselves as modern-day Prometheans, bringing the secret of the gods to mortals, and probably that’s indeed what they’re doing — but fire not only enlightens, it burns as well. The sense of those closest to Western intelligence structures is that Snowden’s revelations is being perceived as a serious and multifaceted crisis, not just a prickly embarrassment…

Update 30 August 2018:

This paper ended up inspiring an enormous presentation/paper entitled, “Totemism & Panopticon: A Tentative Comparative Philosophical Ethnography of Journalism and Intelligence Using Wikileaks as a Case Study“, which I have made public via and blogged about herein.


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