Monday, October 12, 2009

a threat to democracy

Paglen, Galison, Foucault -- each formulates specific relationships among power, knowledge, and secrecy. Although the readings seemed on a terminological level to be commensurable, it is somewhat difficult to bridge Paglen and Gallison, on the one hand, with Foucault on the other. There's a form of idealism about knowledge and democracy in Blank Spots on the Map and "Removing Knowledge" that doesn't seem to jive with Foucault's method for analyzing sexuality and power relations.

"If pressed too hard and too deeply, secrecy, measured in the staggering units of Libraries of Congress, is a threat to democracy" (Galison, 243)

"It's easy to imagine that the antidote to state secrecy is more openness, more transparency in state affairs. . . . But transparency, it seems to me, is a democratic society's precondition; transparency alone is insufficient to guarantee democracy" (Paglen, 281)

Both Galison and Paglen couch their discussions of state secrecy in the language used to justify state secrets in the first place: a threat to democracy. I don't mean to imply that this tack isn't rhetorically effective, but I think it betrays a form of democratic idealism that simultaneously privileges and ignores "facts on the ground." Galison takes on the "anti-epistemology" of classification, noting that because knowledge is not divisible into distinct statements, classifiers must remove more and more information from the public sphere: "to truly cover an arena of knowledge one is drawn ever outwards" (243). 
Paglen's wide-ranging exploration of the geographies of the "black world" gives him cause for much concern: secret military operations, poisoned workers whose workplaces "don't exist", enhanced interrogation techniques, classified spy satellites, a global network of secret prisons & a largely classified budget to fund it all. 
Yet, if classified knowledge may indeed comprise more pages than unclassified, and if black sites are an integral part of the U.S. economy, in what sense is state secrecy the life-blood of democracy and not a threat to it at all? Can we afford to resist state secrecy merely with an ideal of "our democratic society" when forms of power disregard the law? Many of Paglen's models of resistance are people who lost court cases to the government because the government cried state secrets; while Paglen is operating on a constitution- and rights-based juridical notion of power, the military, CIA, & defense contractors seem to care little for those laws that might stand in the way of their projects. Paglen illustrates well that a  series of disclosures of torture and black sites prompted legislative changes to retroactively legalize them (270); this seems to me to reinforce Foucault's theory that juridico-discursive models of power are increasingly only a mask or a justification of how power actually works.

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