“Surveillant anxiety” and exceptional conformity

From the Squeaky Dolphin deck, treated.

“What does the lived reality of Big Data feel like?” Kate Crawford asks in “The Anxieties of Big Data.” Part of her answer is “surveillant anxiety,”  a double-sided concept meant to capture the mounting fears of both the watchers and the watched, and the way in which they fuel each other. The agencies conducting surveillance collect so much data that “the sheer volume can overwhelm the critical signals in a fog of possible correlations.” The more they know, the more they fear they can’t understand what it indicates. As a consequence they try to collect more data and refine the correlations their algorithms churn up, attenuate the information with theory and expertise from an increasing range of social science disciplines, and make big data smaller, more granular, even as the volume increases. But this only defines more unknown pieces, undertheorized relations between seemingly correlated data points. So the fear intensifies.

At the same time, those surveilled recognize that they are being watched more intently, increasing their fear of what such scrutiny can turn up about them, what sort of synthetic “facts” about them the raw data can be dressed up to suggest. Crawford argues that this leads to a “populace that wishes nothing more than to shed its own subjectivity.” People want to be able to disappear, to blend in, to avoid having subjectivity if all that means is having one ascribed to you.  As the need for social camouflage becomes more urgent, it also becomes — in the classic recuperative manner of capitalism — more aestheticized, stylized. It becomes, as Crawford points out, “normcore.” The anxiety about surveillance, as it is recognized and commercialized, turns into an anxiety about status, about fashionability — about maintaining one’s cool:

the rapid rise of the term normcore is an indication of how the cultural idea of disappearing has become cool at the very historical moment when it has become almost impossible because of big data and widespread surveillance.

The twist that normcore has taken, from being an art term capturing the yearning for desubjectivation over capitalist subjectivity to being a term about a new distinctive fashion trend — suggests how quickly the desire to escape unwarranted institutional notice becomes a desire to be seen in the right way, to control how one is noticed. Left behind is the ability to imagine that social surveillance is not a give; instead it feels even more total, more thoroughly ubiquitous than it probably is in practice. Concepts like normcore help convey the plausibility of a panoptic society, even as the institutions ostensibly operating it are getting overwhelmed by data they can’t process. The concept does the disciplinary work that the hermeneutically challenged agencies can’t.

In other words, normcore is an “apparatus” that controls individual subjects just as much as the state spying agencies. In “What Is an Apparatus?” Giorgio Agamben argues that “what defines the apparatuses that we have to deal with in the current phase of capitalism is that they no longer act as much through the production of a sub­ject, as through the processes of what can be called desubjectification.” In exchange for permitting oneself to be defined by the structuring apparatuses of society, one comes away with a subject that is a nonsubject, one that experiences a distinction in being undistinguished, that revels in exceptional conformity.

Agamben also points out how generic subjectivity leads to a more extensive and pervasive need for surveillance and discipline:

It is only an apparent paradox that the harmless citizen of postindustrial democracies … who readily does everything that he is asked to do, inasmuch as he leaves his everyday gestures and his health, his amusements and his occu­pations, his diet and his desires, to be commanded and controlled in the smallest detail by apparatuses, is also considered by power — perhaps precisely because of this — as a potential terrorist.

The paradox is that the more docile and compliant one is, the more one seems like a suspect in the eyes of authority. This is the governing logic of the big data era, as it has been of every aspiring totalitarian regime. To continue to justify its increasing intrusiveness and expansiveness, our society’s data-collecting capacity requires the view that everyone will ultimately be found guilty.

When everyone is presumed guilty, does that encourage them to be guilty in fact? Since the state already suspects them, will they begin to act suspiciously? Will the additional information the state continually needs to know about us begin to seem inherently subversive to ourselves? Agamben is skeptical about the subversive potential of this “elusive element”

The more apparatuses pervade and disseminate their power in every field of life, the more government will find itself faced with an elusive element, which seems to escape its grasp the more it docilely submits to it. This is neither t0 say that this element constitutes a revolutionary subject in its own right, nor that it can halt or even threaten the governmental machine.

To threaten the “governmental machine” — or to reframe the question in Crawford’s terms, to “find a radical potential in the surveillant anxieties of the big-data era” — Agamben argues that we need to “profane the apparatuses.” If I knew what he meant by that exactly, I would tell you, but it seems to have something to do with reversing the processes of separation, of making “sacred” and therefore unusable, the resources we might otherwise share in common. I am trying to think this through with respect to symbolic resources — signs, signifiers, the things that are temporarily consecrated by fashion (in the service of capitalism’s need for enchanted goods) and then voided (in the service of capitalism’s need for accelerating circulation of goods). With individuated social media, our appropriation of signifiers becomes a process of value creation, and thus a process of re-consecration, of separation, of denying what is common in a common resource, language. Phenomena like normcore seem to yearn to arrest this process and describe a way to be in the world without having to create value. But that is just nostalgia in a time when value is extracted from virtually every move we make. To profane apparatuses, we have to cease to be one ourselves.