The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy

The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy
by Matthew Potolsky

Routledge Press, NY, NY, 2019
184 pp., illus., 20 b/w. Trade, £115.00; eBook, £21.00
ISBN: 9780367208912; ISBN: 9780429263958.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
December 2019

Seamlessly mixing visual studies, narrative analysis, cultural history, critical theory and philosophy, this remarkable book that positions itself within the field of “secrecy studies” opens with a very simple, but wide-ranging question: Why do we all have a sharp and clear-cut representation of agencies such as the CIA or the FBI, while we only have very vague ideas, if any at all, on how to imagine the NSA, in spite of the widely mediatized Wikileaks affair? Potolsky’s answer to this question is twofold. First of all, he argues that our current representations of today’s government secrecy may be vague, but that their very vagueness is actually the heart of the matter: We think of this secrecy as something whose size and scope are so big that it is no longer possible to master it, or in other words, our ideas and representations of secrecy reflect a form of feeling and experiencing we traditionally associate with the sublime. Second, and more importantly, Potolsky also insists on the historical and ideological complexity of the notion of secrecy, which is at the crossroads of several mutually interacting dimensions: an ontological one (having to do with the nature of the secret under scrutiny), an epistemological one (referring to the conceptual framework we use to make sense of a secret), and an aesthetic one (offered by the stories and images at our disposal), each of them also intertwined with strong moral, if not theological underpinnings and deeply rooted in historical changes.

Matthew Potolsky analyzes the “aesthetics”, that is the artistic representation of political secrecy, from feudal and forms of government to today’s NSA, through a double lens. On the one hand, one finds here a strong theoretical discussion with a broad and very international interdisciplinary input of the history of notion of secrecy, from premodern to postmodern times. On the other hand, there is a permanent feedback loop with the close-reading of representative samples of cultural artefacts (fiction, movies, TV serials, logically mainly American), which suggestively illustrate the author’s narrative and argumentation. The comparison of the final revelation scene of the first and last film of the Indiana Jones franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), is a brilliant example of the way in which the book shows how the depiction of state secrets shifts from the end of the Cold War era our current post-9/11 Big Data environment).

The all-encompassing framework of Potolsky’s analysis combines two major approaches. To start with, the author makes a clear distinction between three types of logics of political secrecy: the mysterium, which associates the secret with the divine (Edmund Burke’s sublime keeps many traces of this logic, where a secret is both put on display and withdrawn); the arcanum, a decidedly political technique which emphasizes the right of the ruler to use secrets as a way of governing (the notion of “the reason of state” is a modern form of it); and the secretum, which involves a more critical stance toward the secret, considering it a social relation of inclusion and inclusion (from this point of view, secrets are no longer secrets in themselves, but political instruments that organize social interaction). The historical move from mysterium to arcanum and from arcanum to secretum is accelerated by the shift from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic societies, inspired by ideas of Enlightenment and totally in favor of a politics of openness (a key figure in this regard is Jeremy Bentham). This demand for openness generates two new attitudes to secrecy that Potolsky links with the Romantic sublime, on the one hand, and the Gothic novel, on the other hand, the former being a type of feeling overwhelmed that expresses the desire of a total understanding, the latter based on the denunciation of secrets hidden by dishonest and autocratic powers. Cold War representations of state secrets tend to follow the line of the Gothic, more precisely via the format of the conspiracy story: In the name of openness, all secrets are supposed to be disclosed. Post 9/11 representations turn to the imaginary of the Sublime, given the ungraspable nature of today’s secrets, too big and too diffuse for the human imagination.

Potolsky’s analyses are not only extremely well researched and contextualized, with inspiring references to both practical examples and theoretical literature, they are also very subtle, open to the ambivalences and paradoxes of the nature as well as the interpretation of secrecy. If the historical frame is usefully present throughout the whole, Potolsky pays great attention to both the continuities and the breaks in that story. He smartly examines recurring traits of the Romantic sublime and the Gothic story, each of them directly related with the paranoia that became the center of Revolutionary (“open”) and anti-Revolutionary (violently opposed to openness) politics after 1789, in later periods, including very recent ones. At the same time, however, he also stresses the tragic paradox of openness, an increasing source of paranoia (if everything is supposed to made as transparent as possible, the public thinks that even after final disclosure there are things that remain hidden, so that everybody in the end becomes endlessly suspicious of everything and everybody else, perhaps including oneself). In addition, radical claims for openness are always in danger of giving birth to totalitarian regimes (how can one be free if there is no longer the right or the possibility to have secrets?). Potolsky equally underlines the limits of historical continuities: The typical sublime of the post-9/11 era is very different from the Romantic sublime, for it is no longer a way of thinking that contains the hope of any revelation whatsoever. Today’s state secrecy is that of the society of control, of total surveillance, of Big Data, which is different from previous forms of secrecy in terms of quantity but also of quality (so to speak). From a quantitative point of view, there is no longer any hope that it will ever be possible to understand these secrets. From a qualitative point of view, it is the very nature of the secret that has changed: Secrets are no longer hidden; they have become public; everybody knows that all possible data are permanently being gathered (after all, Snowden did not “reveal” any secret, he just made us more aware of the manifold surveillance mechanisms we already knew, and which the State actually does not really hide). Moreover, these secrets are no longer considered the flipside of some covert truth since even those who gather and study these improbable amounts of data do not really know what to do with them. Except of course selling them for commercial reasons, which makes some critics think that in the era of total openness we are actually going back to very authoritarian ways of secrecy management (arcanum).

The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy is also a great read because it demonstrates such a wonderful sense of close-reading cultural artefacts, always cleverly linked to debates on genre (a somewhat overlooked dimension of cultural production in our era of genre hybridization). What Potolsky has to say on the spy novel and more generally the conspiracy scenarios, the way in which he highlights narrative patterns, character casts, and thematic clusters, as well as the profound reflections on maintaining conspiracy theories in a post-9/11 culture of generalized suspicion (hence for instance the fact modern spy stories are by definition nostalgic: they show our longing for a period in which there will still good guys and bad guys), may prove dramatically helpful to Bakhtin-inspired scholars in literary and film history, for instance, for even if the notion of the “chronotype” is not mentioned in this book, Potolsky’s studies are a wonderful complement to current studies of the Gothic novel (the textbook example of Bakhtin’s work on the chronotope).