Spying and smugness

After the recent revelations about the extent of NSA spying, many responded by saying that only a naive idiot wouldn’t assume that such things were already going on. And in a lot of ways, that’s true — the executive branch in general, and Obama in specific, have never been characterized by restraint in their use of surveillance or their shows of force. Yet something in that response bothered me.

It seems to me that the poor sap who had no idea the government was spying on us is purely virtual, an after-effect of the smug knowingness of those who want to deride the “subject supposed not to know.” One doesn’t need to keep up with the news to get the sense that you’re being watched. There are cameras everywhere, and popular culture is filled with material, both serious (24) and joking, that suggests that mentioning Allah in a text message (or illegally downloading an album, as in a great South Park episode) could lead to a visit from the FBI.

In that context, the “wake up sheeple!” remarks seem less like subversive cynicism and more like a seamless part of a broader cultural trend of naturalizing constant surveillance. The common folk get to feel like they’re trading privacy for safety — for the more culturally sophisticated, the payoff comes in the form of feeling smarter and more informed than the unwashed masses.

There’s more to this virtual sap than a simple ignorance of a particular government program, though. The benighted fool must also presuppose that democratic principles and constitutional norms are ever actually observed. And again, there’s a moment of truth in the cynicism that sees it all as ideological window-dressing — but again, it’s not as though it’s news to the majority of the people that their vote basically doesn’t matter and that the government is not looking out for their interests.

We should look at these declarations from the perspective of the cynical subject’s own self-formation: don’t they amount in a kind of self-administered conditioning, a training in hopelessness? Run-of-the-mill resignation, everyday going-through-the-motions, might be good enough for Joe Six-Pack, but we, the educated, need to carefully cultivate a historically-informed, theoretically-grounded, beautiful despair. You may think there’s no hope or possibility of change — but if you read some of Foucault’s later lectures, you’d really know there’s no hope or possibility of change!

19 thoughts on “Spying and smugness

  1. And the thin over-educated upper crust gets to find the hypocritical cracks in this beautiful despair. And the blogosphere keeps on spinning.

  2. This is a good post (ambzone’s sarcasm notwithstanding), though I expected it to go in a somewhat different direction. I know I personally am susceptible to the “is anyone really surprised by ____” response to the news. But if I look closer, I might notice that people are expressing outrage, and that outrage is not the same thing as surprise. (Or maybe people are surprised less by the fact of it, than by it being aired in the open.) I’d probably have to admit that I resort to that kind of response because it keeps it at a distance.

  3. Scandals (political or otherwise) appears to me to be more or less performative inside the media machine. How does rampant criminality in the White House goes from impeachment worthy outrage to business-as-usual affectation in a few decades? Are people really that different? Or are behaviors that were beyond the pale just a few years ago being actively normalized in the political culture?

    Middlebrow hacks are middlebrow hacks the world over, but this “Are you surprised?” routine is now formatted punditry for any and all power abuse. All the while Bradley Manning is depicted as having “SHOCKINGLY” disregarded security protocols on his way to a sex change operation.

  4. Hello. I’m a newcomer and I’m really enjoying your blog. Thanks for creating another great resource for all us autodidacts out here.

    But as someone who is, I suppose, a Joe Six-Pack who has been seeking to break out of the aforementioned run-of-the-mill resignation in order to cultivate a more historically-informed, theoretically-grounded understanding of contemporary capitalism (without the seemingly attendant beautiful despair, career, and education-as-resource), I am having trouble understanding the point of this post.

    Not that it has to have a point. This is a blog. But perhaps, as a newcomer to this type of dialog, there are levels of irony in this post that are going well over my head. And at the risk of changing topics or sacrificing brevity for the sake of my own understanding, I have a few questions.

    Is the whole thing an ironically smug satire of the smug intellectuals’ response to both the NSA leaks and Joe Six-Pack’s outrage or resignation? Is there sincere despair being communicated here beneath the veneer of irony?

    Why was Joe LIberal Six-Pack’s outrage not mentioned in the body of the post? How else does such (no doubt temporary) outrage figure into the conditioning and naturalizing of constant surveillance except through the “after-effect of the smug knowingness of those who want to deride the “subject supposed to not know”? Why is it that “if” Richard looks closer, he “might notice that people are expressing outrage”? Why the qualifiers? Why didn’t be mention explicitly that people are outraged and then go on the differentiate it from mere surprise? Does the naturalization of surveillance abuses get as much force and power from smug dismissal as it does from the self-righteous pro or con proselytizing of middlebrow hacks and Joe Six-Pack water-cooler-theorizing?

    Is Jason Hills trolling? Is he really a union organizer working to educate the unwashed masses or is he making fun of the sincerity of those types? Is he troubled by the self-effacing irony of the post or is he taking the baton and running with it?

    Why is ambzone’s first comment deemed sarcastic? It seemed to me to be an astute reminder. And Adam, how is ambzone’s observation ironic? How is this an irony that the over-educated get to seek out the hypocritical cracks in the beautiful despair of the merely “educated”? Isn’t that how it’s always worked? Does this go against the expected? Where’s the irony here?

    It seems that evidence has emerged (through one person’s seemingly huge sacrifice) that abuses that were long suspected as taking place are actually taking place. Just typing that sentence within this context makes it seem like the utterance of a hopelessly over-sincere teenage anarchist, or the self-righteous indignation of the privileged, intellectually apathetic liberal. These are two cliches that I’m glad to say don’t include myself and the growing class of undereducated, middle class, anti-capitalist, intellectually curious types that I do belong to, and yet the fact that I still wish to address this whole thing sincerely (the leak, the media coverage, and this post as far as it represents the forms of analysis carried out by current leftist intellectuals) directly puts me into one of those camps, one of the groups of “subjects supposed not to know”.

    Is it possible to address this situation sincerely? Is that only within the purview of middlebrow hacks and Joe Six-Packs? Should we all simply chuckle to ourselves and our friends and analyze the meta-effects of such a “scandal”? Is that the best we can do?

  5. Lol, as I wrote that last a middle aged liberal was reading a long poem about the NSA leaks to a small crowd of old hippies gathered in a corner of the shitty coffee shop where I’m sitting. He cast Snowden as an epic hero fighting valiantly against the omnipotent foes of neoliberalism. His vehement sincerity and pleonasms seemed to be almost a mirror image of the irony and succinctness of this blog post. Very telling that our current ideological circumstances can offer up such fearful symmetry.

  6. Six,

    Taking your question honestly, I was serious, and yes I’ve been doing union work for about 7 years for the NEA/IEA and later the AFT in addition to my academic duties. Mostly, helping victims of unlawful termination and harassment, and with contract bargaining. I get asked if I’m “serious” or “trolling” too much, though thank you for not presuming. I wonder why people think I am, in all honesty, and I meant to suggest a way out of irony.

    So, good job for the triple irony of calling the authentic moment the trolling one. (Again, I’m serious and not being sarcastic, since the move is theoretically brilliant without interfering in the actual alleviation from suffering.)

    Ambzone tried to one-up the author’s ironic “knowing wink” in a manner that was rude at best since he made a veiled personal allusion to the author. And now, I’ll shut up and stop ruining the subtlety and irony for a bit….

  7. Ha, thanks, Jason. I’m glad that my gesture was recognized.

    It’s often difficult for someone like me, when faced with such learned irony, to decide whether or not it’s simply a personal defense mechanism against (boring) sincerity or a willed obfuscation of an alarming lack of position. Or both. There doesn’t seem to be enough theoretical literature that I can find that takes on this subject. Got any suggestions?

    I do some volunteer work translating for Congreso de Jornaleros and have been thinking more and more lately about labor unions. Would I be able to contact you about your experience as an academic union organizer?


  8. Six,

    Some advice, don’t accuse someone of trolling even if you think they are, because it hijacks the conversation–like what we’re doing now. And Adam doubly hates that.

    Somewhat back on topic, I’ve done administrative, political, and contract negotiation work, not the press-the-flesh organizing, and I doubt that I would be helpful since my skills are based on my field.Instead, contact you local union office or randomly comment on my blog (off-topic, I don’t mind).

  9. My first comment wasn’t meant to be rude. The “From whence do you write?” tack is quite common on this blog without seeming insulting to anyone. I don’t get the offense but I apologize if there was any. There.

    Now my real point is that rather than seeing the lack of outrage as endogenous to certain intellectual types, why not see it as a rational allocation of media energy toward certain ends? I mean, stuff like :


    shows that a lot of people are feeling a lot of outrage and shock, just not at what you’d expect. It’s hard not to feel a little bit conspirationist in the face of this.

  10. Amb,

    I, at least, get you, as sometimes it can be very difficult to grasp all the ways in which one might be interpretted. And if we’re going to talk about hot-button issues, unintended meanings are going to happen. That’s why I try to be straight-forward even if it’s a bit ponderous.

    Can you explicate exactly what you’re trying to say about the “rational allocation of media energy?” The field of intepretation is too wide, and I can take you to mean too many different things to say anything constructive.

  11. I’ll make it simple then :

    You can’t understand the political discourse in the media through the kinds of general human typology (intellectual or otherwise) that the OP is toying with here, for two reasons.

    One, this isn’t a democracy, and the people actually having the opportunity to opine on and shape the political discourse are few and mostly disconnected from the general population in terms of interests and sociocultural milieu.

    Two, most of the general population phrases its own political understanding and attendant perspectives wholly through this mass-mediated top-down political discourse. Any spontaneous deviance is systematically countered by any number of means, from marginalization to assimilation to censorship.

    Thus the question : where’s the outrage in response to power abuses? calls for institutional analyses of the “Western-style democracy” puppet show, and strategies against it. Not self-serving intellectual categorization à la Idiocracy.

  12. Amb,

    To answer your question, come join the Students for Democratic Socialism meetings down here. I’ll leave a seat open right next to the roaring fire of rage, just to keep you warm. And right after, we’ll go to the union meeting and discuss how we’re successfully suing “the pants off” of The Man for unlawful termination of employment. But we don’t make the media, and we’re few, but we certainly don’t *just* engage in theory craft.

    So, you want concrete examples and courses of action? Where are you looking? Because most of us won’t ever do it in public precisely because we’ll lose our jobs; we are not in the position of power, or even a tenured one, and we still like to eat. ALthough, if you can’t make it to Texas, just try reading some of the comments in The Chronicle of Higher Education, especially those associated with The Adjunct Project.

    Hopefully, you won’t read this as yet another case of sarcasm, because I am serious. So, get concrete, or never get out of the cage.

  13. Jason,

    Get concrete how? Sign that petition? Click “Like” on a Facebook page?


    Or are you speaking only of academics and professionals (lawyers, union bosses, etc) and how they can get concrete within the parameters of their spheres of influence?

    As for working class, intellectually curious non-professionals, what are the options to express outrage and condemnation? We are well aware that this is not a democracy, and analysis of the puppet show of Western Democracy is what we expect, not from intellectuals, but from their products and their public utterances. No doubt in college classrooms all over the nation, there are cooly modulated, understated intonations of denunciation issuing forth from the mouths of the masters of knowledge. The problem seems to be that they are only echoing around within the confines of the classroom. What the rest of us get is the noise from middlebrow hacks.

    Those who have moved on from being “subjects supposed to believe” in the fact that we live in a democracy with a functioning regulatory apparatus, etc, don’t necessarily need , but rather would like, to rely on a “subject supposed to know”. If not for tactics and programmes, then for simple acknowledgement that outrage (in this instance) is something worthy of feeling and acting upon. Analysis is great, but where are the fruits of such analysis? We’ve been given some tools but we’re not exactly sure how to use them yet.

    I think intellectuals underestimate their current influence on key components of subcultures and society as a whole. If I remember correctly we’re supposed to be in an era that is nestled rather uncomfortably under the Discourse of the University. But we can’t all afford to go to university, if you get my meaning.

  14. Six,

    I refer you to my post, and recommend in addition organizations that perform real good, or advocacy if the former is not possible. Of course I would not, and did not suggest what you name, and I would prefer that you not ignore the details of my post if you’re going to respond. Finally, the intellectuals have power only within their narrow cultural circle, for the U.S. is an anti-intellectual culture on the whole, and has been for decades. Honestly, I think you know the answer to your own questions, and I don’t think I have anything beyond those answers … except to insist that one actually do those things as opposed to talk about it, which is worthless.

  15. Oh, Jason! I meant no offense, I just used bad rhetoric in that last comment.

    I appreciate your recommendations (although have yet to see the relevance of the Chronicle of Higher Education comments section, so far) and very much appreciate the fact that you are the only one to (condescend to?) respond to my comments here. Thanks again.

    I was just trying to keep with the initial line of irony, or rather smug irony about smugness, that Adam’s post was referring to. When i mentioned Facebook pages and petitions, I was sort of aping the widely felt frustration that the channels we are offered to express dissent or confusion are hopelessly lacking and ineffectual, if not leading directly to more capital. How to “get concrete” demands whole new forms of theory that seem to be mostly absent except in tiny parts of academia and current forms of activism. We are all dissatisfied with those institutions and channels, and yes, a lot of people look to intellectuals to help show them ways toward coming up with new ways of getting concrete. Hence the popularity (unprecedented in my lifetime) of someone like Zizek.

    And so this is why I’m here. It seems a post about intellectual smugness was the place where I should try and bring up the eternal issue of the gap between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals.

    I quote from a great recent N+1 article (link below):

    “Cultural revolution or the struggle for a new left hegemony — call it what you like, but the proletarianization of bohemia may lead to a ProBo challenge to the Bobo consensus on the irresistible embourgeoisement of all culture. To use old Marxist language (perhaps somewhat refreshed from a long historical nap), the conflict would be between “organic” intellectuals, allied with the working class, and “traditional” ones convinced of their independence despite relying on and reinforcing the ruling class.”

    I quote this because a component of “a ProBo challenge to the Bobo consensus on the irresistible embourgeoisement of all culture” would take the form of someone like me calling out intellectual smugness on a blog’s comments section. Intellectual smugness and condescension perfectly exemplify why there is such a gap between organic and traditional intellectuals, and this gap is still a very bad thing for emancipatory political projects.

    I must draw attention to your pointing out that american culture has for decades been an anti-intellectual one, and that academics have a very small circle of influence. But there are many young people who wish this to change, and are not giving into the sorts of defeatism and resignation (which you expressed perfectly) that have, arguably, kept the culture of anti-intellectualism firmly a part of hegemony. How much are traditional intellectuals, with their smug knowingness and well-paid resignation, responsible for this? If we organic intellectuals can blame the media, we can also place some blame on you guys. We all can’t afford university, or the luxury of smug resignation. I would hope that this latter would make traditional leftists happy! A way out of smugness!

    I do believe that my comments here are very on topic, perhaps with the exception of the labor union chat. I apologize for their length. I must say that I am disappointed that the conversation never seemed to go anywhere, and my attempts, however inept, to introduce a slight ripple of the Real of class antagonism were ignored. I was hoping that intellectual smugness would be addressed, but it was only pointed out and then abandoned. Should we all just resign ourselves to the fact that intellectual smugness, like American anti-intellectualism (really only decades old), is just here to stay?


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