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Agents Without Agency

This essay appears in The New Inquiry Magazine, No. 5: Spies.When my paranoia threatens to surge out of control, I’ll sometimes fantasize about being a spy. It gives my suspicions a purpose. It seems to dignify my furtiveness, even reverse it. Rather than try to avoid people, I can pretend I am keeping them under observation, and what is at stake is not whether they like me, but some larger question of whether they can be trusted, in the abstract. It seems like a way to defeat self-consciousness to disappear into a mission. Rather than feel powerless, a cog in an grueling and indifferent social machine, I can turn my observations into discoveries of other people’s secrets and wonder whether I know too much. I can start to pretend that maybe there are good reasons I often feel I’m being kept in the dark. It’s for my own safety. Listen to Imp Kerr’s remix preview of the Spies Spotify playlist here:

The fantasy must be common. One of the stock characters of espionage thrillers is the ordinary person caught in obscure but epochal struggles, recruited by circumstances to become a citizen spy. The scenario allows readers to vicariously experience the terror of being hunted and dehumanized within an incomprehensible mesh of state-surveillance operations as a fantasy of ordinary people’s world-historical importance. Like the protagonist, the reader has the chance to be at the heart of a critical struggle without the trouble of having to serve in state bureaucracies or master extensive protocols and diplomatic details. As with all conspiracy tales, it’s escapism premised paradoxically on the fantasy of knowing the real truth, the inside story, which, of course, is nothing more than an author’s elaborately contrived fiction.

British author Eric Ambler was a master of the naïve-spy-in-over-his-head trope. He wrote an influential string of novels in the years leading up to World War II — Uncommon Danger (1937), Epitaph for a Spy (1938), Cause for Alarm (1938), The Mask of Dimitrios (1939),  Journey into Fear (1940) — that helped established the tenor of the murky, modern espionage thriller. All of them feature ordinary, slightly disreputable men who more or less inadvertently end up in the middle of international security conspiracies, accused of crimes they hadn’t known they committed, fleeing corrupt and/or incompetent police, or working in coordination with other foreign agents whose trustworthiness remains undecidable.

Like George Orwell, Ambler wrote from the presumption that rising fascism meant that no one was so humble or insignificant that they could remain indifferent. Fascism aimed to mobilize every facet of society for total war, which demanded an equal response to resist it. Everyone was implicated, thus anyone could be thrust into action. The 1930s brought the kind of war in which every member of society was indiscriminately targeted for death from above. This would provoke a climate of militant prudence and ambient mistrust in which, say, British citizens were expected to destroy any household maps and falsify local signage to confuse expected invaders.

Ambler’s novels reflect this growing anxiety over protecting information, brought on both by technological developments that made it easier to disseminate information and by the entangled complexity that dispersed relevant data across a broader populace. In Epitaph for a Spy, the protagonist’s mere possession of a camera embroils him in an intelligence investigation and he is forced to scheme how to out a foreign agent. Cause for Alarm centers on a machine-company sales rep who finds himself with access to sensitive armament data. Graham, the hero of Journey into Fear, is targeted for assassination because his engineering work makes him know too much when war breaks out. Ambler’s protagonists rarely know that they know something important; the news is generally broken to them through a violent attack or an arrest. They then learn they have become intelligence agents against their will — they have become the unwitting conduit of vital knowledge that can be transmitted through them without their being capable of understanding its broader importance.

But ignorance isn’t an excuse for indolence. Ambler makes a point of contrasting his protagonists with the professional spies who come to their aid. The seasoned agents insist on both the blundering, useless ignorance of the protagonists and the urgency of their unshirkable mission nonetheless. You have no idea what you are doing, but no one but you can do this. The protagonists are left scrambling to act in the absence of the knowledge that would give their actions meaning. In this they resemble economic agents in the vision of a market economy in Friedrich Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Only local arbitrageurs have pertinent “knowledge,” but this knowledge is always partial until it is fed into the larger processing system of the market, which spits out the truly rational analysis: the price system, the basis by which we should all coordinate our activities. So while Hayek is eager to celebrate the arbitrageur — “every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made” — he concedes that “the most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action.”

Ambler’s characters are caught in this apparent contradiction, that what they know is both meager and all-important. They are positioned in the midst of an epistemological shift that would seem to accompany the growing logistical complexity of the economy and the globalized interconnection of states and firms. Their actions constitute information (knowing what) without knowledge (knowing how or why). For individuals, what it means to know something has more to do with who receives the message than with our mastery of the facts. It may be pleasant to know things, but circulating the knowledge makes it real and effective. Embracing this attitude, becoming an amateur spy, helps smooth over inconsistencies in the ideology of individual agency, which is both insisted upon and nullified in capitalist society. Individualist ideology demands that our choices constitute outcomes, but the complexity and interconnectedness of society makes clear causality impossible to establish.

Amateur spies can enjoy action without knowing the stakes. They distract themselves through the imagined mastery of various elementary pieces of tradecraft, a psychological feint that foreshadows how the gee-whiz technology of the social Web now helps excuse its intrusiveness. Ooh, neat. I’m tailing somebody. I’m making a “dead drop.” My phone tells me where my friends are. Social media has, after all, acclimated us to the milieu of everyday espionage that has no apparent goal. We are not identifying and tagging people in photographs to fight the Nazis. We are not spreading gossip in Tweets to keep the next domino from falling in Asia. Instead, like Ambler’s amateur spies, we are caught up in a frenzy of disclosures while having little power to synthesize them or implement the synthesis to effect social change. Instead of the righteous paranoia that leads to criticality, we forget about the implications of being under surveillance oneself by constantly assuming an active role in surveilling, feeding information into the cloud so that unfathomable commercial processing may ensue.


We have come to take for granted comprehensive lateral surveillance. We have grown used to regarding friends as also spies, whose allegiance is uncertain; they are agents who are liable to identify us in photographs, keep tabs on our whereabouts, spread misinformation or disinformation in permanent, public forums on our behalf — or to our detriment, who can be sure? Even intimates can become inadvertent double or triple agents in the infinite regress of strategies and counterstrategies in our intricate social-media self-presentations, which we can never really be sure aren’t false-flag operations. Why do people share what they share? And since they know I will be asking that question, how has that affected their choice to express that enthusiasm over that Stanley Cup playoff game, or Obama’s gay-marriage position, or the kale they had for dinner? How do I respond? Everything is a move in a complicated game that social-media surveillance makes sure we are always playing. Control over even our own identity slips away from us, as we lose sense of what is spontaneous and what is mere tactical performance in the midst of such recursive reflexivity. We sense our own fragile fakeness, which can only confirm our suspicions of others.

During the Cold War, lateral surveillance was figured in the Western imagination as a matter of Stasi files and sullen paranoia, with repressive governments forcing terrorized citizens to point fingers at one another. In the Facebook era, though, no one has to march us into a interrogation room on trumped-up charges to start us spying.

Surveillance has been sugarcoated as considerate sharing, as inclusive fun. When you talk about your medical conditions, for instance, you aren’t tipping off possible insurers but building community and offering hope to the similarly afflicted. If nothing else, social media have made us acutely aware of just how much information we can supply, how there’s room for the most mundane minutia regardless of whether we can perceive its significance. Given the way communication is productivity in the network society, we feel the pressure to document all of what we know and are sensitive to the rewards of such diligent reporting — the measurable attention, the approving reactions of our “followers,” the fleeting sense of having done something productive. We record data about ourselves and acquaintances with almost unthinking candor in exchange for a sense of social inclusion, rationalizing the idea that “being included” simply means being watched.

We are continually faced with the tension between paying due social attention and making our friends incidental spying targets — what security experts call collateral intrusion. Since we all have a channel to program and our social participation (and, increasingly, our economic worth) is measured in terms of how well we fill it, we begin to see the people around us as “persons of interest,” if not outright suspicious characters. We can be spies observing other spies — which is perhaps less ego bruising than being paparazzi trailing microcelebrities, though regarding the dossiers collected on us as celebrity gossip rather than the intrusion of repressive institutional apparatuses is its own ideological balm.

The documentary possibilities we all now possess through social media have started to reshape what we see — a phenomenon Nathan Jurgenson has dubbed “the Facebook eye.” We see things more in terms of how they may be retransmitted rather than as they are. This mode of seeing makes us knowing collaborators in the creeping normalization of blanket surveillance under the guise of our collecting local information inflected with our unique constellation of interests. Just as Hayek dreamed, social media make us all traffickers of information, with the social-media companies jockeying to become proxies for the market in aggregating all the data and supplying economic agents with rational conclusions.

The spylike pursuit of information rather than knowledge makes us function less as thinkers than processors, personal computers — and inefficient, low-powered ones at that. We are not the subjects who know things or intentionally produce knowledge; we are instead means of circulation — objects through which information passes with more or less noise in the signal. We become not only part of a network but part of a circuit. We are pawns in a larger game, “a fly caught in the cog-wheels” as Vandassy, the narrator of Epitaph for a Spy, puts it.

Ambler’s protagonists are not the rational agents in the plots his novels unfold; they are subsumed into a larger system. They believe that they are serving a higher cause, but the same logic that drove them into espionage assures that they can never be certain. The actual rational subject, the entity that knows, is a corporate or national one beyond the comprehension of any individual caught in the chaos of unfolding events. In our case, the entity that knows is a social media company or an algorithm that can parse all the data we’ve supplied. A passage from Epitaph for a Spy illustrates Ambler’s grasp of espionage not as a matter of ingenious field agents but of a systemic process involving a legion of undetectable, unremarkable men scattered through everyday life.

But then you couldn’t expect a spy to look like a spy — however a spy was supposed to look. He didn’t advertise his trade. All over Europe, all over the world, men were spying, while in government offices other men were tabulating the results of the spies’ labors: thicknesses of armor plating, elevation angles of guns, muzzle velocities, details of fire-control mechanisms and rangefinders, fuze efficiencies, details of fortifications, positions of ammunition stores, disposition of key factories, landmarks for bombers. The world was getting ready to go to war. For the spies, business was good.

Support The New Inquiry. Subscribe to TNI Magazine for $2And for Facebook, business is good too. Though we are all enmeshed in the spy business, the scary thing is that the efficiency it discovers has nothing to do with individual thriving, social justice, or any other of the silly limited human aspirations. In Ambler’s world, the equilibrium the intelligence-sorting machine seeks under the guise of preserving itself may serve only to accommodate war and expedite killing. In our world, we serve the flourishing of markets for their sake and their incomprehensible ends.

If we accept the consolations of the spy game, and embrace the sort of self-conception it structures, then we also concede that we are without agency. We are content to serve as a subroutine in a much larger program that we have no ability to direct. The incentives we experience stem not from some inner yearning, they don’t reflect the urge to exercise our will. Instead they are the means by which we are programmed to continue in our information-transmission functions. Any sense of personal mission shrinks to local tactics for keeping our intelligence pipeline flowing. Since we can’t understand the purpose of all the information we can gather, the only meaningful metric is more. As spies we come to learn that we are safest of all when we have nothing to hide and no one to protect. And in a brutally competitive, atomizing economy in which we must perform ourselves to survive and collecting as much information as we can for a market mechanism that works against everyone, we’re spies in a war of all against all, without a side to choose.

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