The Art of Revolt
Snowden, Assange, Manning
Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

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Introduction

Something is Happening

Only rarely does something new emerge in the political sphere. Of course, this is not to say that radical questions or movements arise infrequently. By good fortune, new matters of contestation, new sources of outrage, and therefore new battles unfold without end in the social world. As they do, they enlarge the sphere of liberty, equality, and social justice for each one of us.

All the same, the proliferation—the sheer number—of fields of engagement cannot hide the fact that most of the time such mobilization takes place within standing traditions. Battles proceed according to established forms. In the main, the vocabularies, values, and objectives at stake are predetermined; they are not a matter of choice even for the actors themselves. Institutions structure the time and space of protest.

Paradoxically, perhaps, politics represents one of the most codified domains of social life. We live and come into our subjective own in a given environment. Political activity entails taking up preexisting forms, situating ourselves in an inherited framework, and negotiating with and within these structures in order to achieve a specific objective at a given moment. Strikes, demonstrations, petitions, lobbying, riots, and so on represent institutionalized modes of protest (what the social sciences, following Charles Tilly, now call “repertoires of collective action”1). Even the most radical claims cannot escape these conditions, which mark out and define the terrain of democracy. It is by virtue of being inscribed in preexisting frames of contention that political action is evident as such; in accepting these frames, the subject stands as a citizen taking part in communal deliberation. Conversely, as soon as a struggle fails to bow to prescribed forms of expression, it proves controversial: debate arises about whether a given movement is “criminal,” “terrorist,” or “political” in nature.

By the same token, the framework that prevails in the political sphere permeates our minds and determines our ways of seeing. The difficulty of assigning a place to something new in the political realm may also be explained by the fact that, when a singular movement emerges, the odds are that it will not be recognized for what it is. Its specificity and unprecedented character derail categories of perception and therefore escape notice. Movements of this kind often wind up being explained, even by those actively pursuing them, by way of preexisting terminologies rather than being grasped as original.

Theoretical interpretations of political movements tend to take up a fixed vocabulary. Struggles are reinscribed in a history, a tradition; in consequence, the stakes are recoded to correspond to an existing paradigm. The stance adopted by intellectuals, philosophers, and even historians frequently leads to the colonization of struggles, in which an outdated structure is imposed on them. Against this propensity toward totalization, generalization, and universalization, critical analysis needs to operate in terms of singularity, specificity, and therefore rupture.

Novelty

The thesis I would like to advance is that we are now witnessing something emerging around the figures of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning. A new way of thinking and conducting politics—of conceiving forms and practices of resistance—is in the process of crystallizing. The battles currently taking shape around state secrets, mass surveillance, the protection of privacy, and civil liberties in the Internet age pose new problems. In the book at hand, they serve as the point of departure for critical reflection on the possibility of thinking and acting otherwise.

Snowden, Assange, and Manning should not be seen simply as whistle-blowers, whose activities involved the diffusion of information. They are much more than that. Here, they will be treated as activists, exemplary figures bringing a new political art into existence: a different way of understanding what it means to resist. Their actions, their very lives, express something that must be heard and heeded: the advent of a new political subject.

In other words, the cases of Snowden, Assange, and Manning do not just bring new political objectives to light. It is not simply a matter of new points of dissent arising and coming to occupy the public spotlight. Rather, what we are seeing are new modes of subjectification. These three figures are not just interrogating events within the political landscape and how those events unfold: they are throwing the political landscape itself into crisis.

Reaction

Indeed, how else can one even explain the violence of governmental responses to their actions other than in terms of the radical destabilization they have effected? Their activities (but also, it is important to note, the activities of other whistle-blowers and hackers who remain less well-known) have unleashed repressive measures of a rare intensity. Especially in the United States, the call for punishment has assumed unprecedented, extraordinary, and, all in all, fundamentally incomprehensible dimensions. The American justice system went after Manning simply for having published confidential documents, some of which revealed illegal government and military activities. The prosecutor sought a sentence of sixty years, for treason;2 ultimately, Manning was sentenced to thirty-five. In pre-trial custody, she was locked in a cell for twenty-three hours a day, without a pillow or sheets, and forbidden any exercise (a guard stood watch the whole time3). In the United States, WikiLeaks—which merely hosts a space for publishing reports—has been put into the legal category of “enemies of the state” (like al-Qaeda or the Taliban, according to The Sydney Morning Herald). Julian Assange, and anyone else who contributes to the organization, potentially faces the charge of “collaboration with the enemy”—in other words, the prospect of being brought before a military tribunal and sentenced to death.4 For having alerted the public to the National Security Agency (NSA)’s (often illegal) surveillance programs involving mass monitoring of citizens the world over and of certain heads of state and diplomats, Edward Snowden was charged with espionage; he still faces the risk of a military trial and a lifelong prison sentence. The United States government has made every diplomatic effort to ensuring that he will not escape its justice by obtaining asylum in another country.

Whether in terms of rhetoric (“cowards,” “enemies,” “spies,” “traitors,” etc.), charges brought (“treason,” “aiding and abetting the enemy”), sentences sought and/or imposed, or conditions of detention, we are witnessing a veritable spectacle of the state’s repressive apparatus in all its uncompromising brutality. This penal violence and this disproportionate reaction are significant in their own right and should prompt us to ask about how the contemporary political and legal order operates. These repressive measures are not severe because the “crimes” are serious: they are severe because so-called whistle-blowers profoundly unsettle the legal and political regime, the framework of the state. (The situation may be understood in terms of how states are now reacting to the progressive erosion of national order and territorial sovereignty by ostentatiously building impressive walls at their borders.5) The task, then, is to study this destabilization, its reasons and form, in order to grasp its true significance and dimensions.

Homage

This book is meant to pay homage to the gestures and lives of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning. Its point of departure does not lie on any theoretical or political plane but stems instead from a kind of admiration for the course they have steered—as well as a feeling of indignation, and even anger, at the measures taken (and still being taken) against them.

When one starts writing for such reasons, it is important to know what role to give to one’s anger and admiration—that is, how to use them. What does it mean to write a book fueled by indignation? Above all, how can one avoid remaining stuck in an emotional register? How is it possible to ensure that the text does not merely express spontaneous emotions to buttress existing perceptions?

For me, paying homage to the actions of Snowden, Assange, and Manning means not attempting to be an advocate for their ideas. Reformulating how they have accounted for themselves, their motivations, would mean assuming a subordinate role; it would entail giving up on what gives theoretical reflection its significance: the capacity to transform set ways of seeing and thinking. Instead, I have sought to draw inspiration from their energy, their resolve. In a sense, they have served as models; the task is to prove as radical, in terms of theory, as they have been in terms of politics. To display intellectual loyalty to Snowden, Assange, and Manning, one must offer a theory commensurate with the heights their concrete engagements have attained.

For the same reason, what follows will not necessarily agree with what they themselves say, or have said. My project may be considered structural or objectivist in inspiration. The aim is to start with Snowden, Assange, and Manning and the struggles taking shape around their persons and activities in order to extract from these spheres of action an internal and immanent realm of positivity: a realm that exists unbeknownst even to those implicated in it. To be sure, Snowden, Assange, and Manning are different people who understand the significance of their activities in divergent terms (and needless to say, the same holds for hackers, the Anonymous collective, and so on). But notwithstanding the readily apparent differences between these individuals and their motivations, there is an overall coherence that can be discerned in the actions they have performed. I hope to reconstitute this coherence in a way that is similar to the method used by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things. Foucault demonstrates how a single, objective movement, namely dissolving the category of “man,” is at work in three separate realms within the regime of knowledge—the three counter-sciences of ethnology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis—and that this movement signals the advent of a new episteme, whose nature eludes each of these sciences (and their practitioners) in isolation.6

Snowden, Assange, and Manning are the protagonists of a movement that is questioning the very ground we stand on, the mechanisms that define our present. As such, they enable us both to think in a new way and to interrogate received ways of thinking. Their very lives invite us to imagine other modes of relation to the law, the nation, citizenship, and so forth.

Along those lines, this book proposes a critical exchange with the most important analyses of power and sovereignty in contemporary discourse—to formulate a set of questions about obedience and citizenship in relation to the state, the nation, the law, democracy, and so on. My aim is to investigate our political unconscious, to examine existing modes of political subjectification and their limits, in order to envision practical action—modes and forms of engagement, resistance, and sedition—in a new and different way.

Sites

Needless to say, I am well aware that other theorists have identified other movements and mobilizations as the sites of political renewal. Authors such as Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Wendy Brown, Gayatri Spivak, and David Graeber privilege large-scale protests and popular assemblies: Occupy Wall Street; Los indignados in Spain; the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia and Egypt; massive protests taking place in Turkey. . . .

Zuccotti Park in New York, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Gezi Park in Istanbul have emerged as the symbolic spaces for mobilization that, it seems, should command our attention when trying to reconstitute an analysis of questions of democracy, capitalism, inequality, globalization, social justice, and so on.

I do not of course deny the importance of these movements and gatherings. That would prove pointless as it is uninteresting. To be sure, all serious intellectual efforts should take into account what these events have embodied. All the same, I submit that the scattered and solitary actions of Snowden, Assange, and Manning—to say nothing of those of certain hackers and whistle-blowers—have proven just as reinvigorating, innovative, and political. (What is more, we should ask what implicit conception of politics and resistance is being enlisted when we spontaneously accord greater “value” to large mobilizations on a public square than to the lone efforts of a hacker.) These individuals were and are scattered. They act not in concert, but rather in isolation. Still, the virtual collective they incarnate represents one of the essential sites for reformulating contemporary politics and renewing the demand for democracy.

This book might stand as the square where these actors are welcomed, that gathers them together. In assembling them in this way, it hopes to contribute to the questioning of our theoretical language, in order to arrive at a greater understanding of what democratic politics can mean.

Notes

1. Charles Tilly, The Contentious French: Four Centuries of Popular Struggle (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1986).

2. “He betrayed the United States and for that betrayal, he deserves to spend the majority of his remaining life in confinement,” Army prosecutor Captain Joe Morrow said. cbcnews online (The Associated Press), 19 August 2013, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/bradley-manning-s-prosecutors-seek-60-year-term-1.1378986.

3. “The Inhumane Conditions of Manning’s Detention,” a stupefying article by Glenn Greenwald, offers an account that almost beggars belief. Salon, 15 December 2010, http://www.salon.com/2010/12/15/manning_3/.

4. “US Calls Assange ‘Enemy of State’The Sydney Morning Herald online, 27 September 2012, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/us-calls-assange-enemy-of-state-20120926-26m7s.

5. Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone, 2010).

6. Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault, trans. Betsy Wing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 158–60.