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!