So, here’s a rough, first pass at theorizing one aspect of what’s significant about PRISM. It’s very preliminary, and I would love your thoughts and feedback, as it’s part of some larger projects I’m currently working on.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” President Obama is actually correct, here. Nobody is “listening,” at least not in the traditional sense. To understand what’s going on in the NSA/PRISM program, we need a new theory of listening–how it works, how we do it, what we can do with it.
Traditional theories of listening are tied to Enlightenment notions of subjectivity and Modernist aesthetics. The audiological correlate to “The Look” in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, trad listening is something done by subjects (listeners) and to subjects (we only really listen to speech, music, the intentional sonic products of a communicating subject). Listening and being listened to is what makes you a subject, a full person, a member of society, a human being.
What kind of listening makes the classically liberal Enlightenment subject, the listener of absolute/bourgeois music of the Western “classical” canon? This subject is structured by interior/exterior and mind/body binaries: subjects are distinguished from objects because the former have interior, intellectual depth, whereas the latter don’t (they’re mere corporeal superficiality). This subject is both produced by, and must demonstrably perform, interpretative listening, listening that reveals some sort of true inner meaning. This is the sort of listening involved, for example, in Foucaultian-style confession: subjects create their ‘true inner selves’ by uttering statements that others must interpret. Subjects exist because they are interpretatively listened to. It is also the sort of listening that corresponds to what Ranciere calls the “aesthetic regime of art”–the idea that something like a humble image of peasant’s shoes can reveal some sort of higher, deeper meaning, or that slips of the tongue can reveal unconscious truths. Or, it’s the kind of listening that Adorno advocates, the “structural” listening that finds the meaning of details by locating them in relationship to the whole work, a kind of listening that is tied to a very specific concept of “individuality”. To be somewhat reductive, interpretative listening is about content, finding the message in the medium (even and especially if that medium is the message).
But the kind of listening involved in PRISM surveillance–and in neoliberal modes of audition and subjectivity more generally–isn’t about content, and it isn’t about interpretation. It’s not about form or structure either. The point is that form/content or medium/message distinctions are no longer relevant. This sort of listening isn’t about form or content; rather, it’s the economy, stupid– “economy” in the sense of a practice of moderation, of minding the oikos, keeping everything in the black. As Glenn Greenwald put it in his Guardian article, this sort of listening focuses on “transactional information rather than communications” (emphasis mine). The economy is not an objective property (like form or content)–it’s a process, a practice, in which the form and the content are emergent properties. We don’t interpret these processes, we (at)tune them. Listening is attunement.
Just think about the PRISM metaphor. What do prisms do? They separate out frequencies–not audio frequencies, but light frequencies. They re-tune light so that the spectrum is more distinctly visible to us. Similarly, PRISM-style surveillance is about the “harmonics” or “attunement” of your data stream. PRISM’s partner program, BLARNEY, doesn’t monitoring the content of your calls, but the metadata generated by your devices. The infamous court order to Verizon doesn’t demand recordings of the audio content of the calls, just the metadata. This metadata is comparable to the overtones/harmonics/partials that accompany every sound. In Western music theory/acoustics, something sounds dissonant and/or out of tune when the harmonics don’t vibrate synchronously or proportionally. The NSA is listening for anomalous harmonics–metadata that doesn’t fit expected, routinized patterns. They’re not listening for content, but for dissonant metadata, for activities that are out of tune and that upset the overall balance of the ‘mix’ (i.e., normalized society). Attunement to dissonance is how the Obama administration proposes to, as they are quoted in the Washington Post, “ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.” Data that comes from the “US,” because it comes from there, will generally be perceived as more “consonant” than data that doesn’t come from the US or “US persons.” Or, being a non-US person means that you’re out of tune, abnormal, dissonant. This same Washington Post article also suggests that PRISM listens like a tuner listens, using algorithms to determine the dissonance–here figured as ‘foreignness’–of data. In the same way that musical/audiological dissonance is the effect of irregular patterning (that is, the irregular/out-of-synch patterning of harmonics), PRISM frames “dissonant” information as the effect of irregular patterning. As a different Washington Post article explains:
the NSA is probably using a software technique called data mining to look for patterns that could be a sign of terrorist activity. The idea is that NSA researchers can build a profile of “typical” terrorist activity and then use calling records —and other data such as financial transactions and travel records — to look for individuals or groups of people who fit the pattern.
“Typical” terrorist activity would be atypical of “normal” people, out of synch with their regular activities. The point of PRISM-style listening is to identify these out-of-tune patterns before they feed back into society and upset the overall balance (of powers, routines, etc).
Pushing this metaphor of a “tuner” even further, I would argue that neoliberal govenrmentality works like an audio equalizer (which, in the Midwestern dialect I learned growing up in Ohio, is called a “tuner.”) Audio equalizers listen, and they listen carefully–not to the content of the signal, but to its overall mix and attunement. They’re not interpreting the content, but regulating the balance of the signals, making sure there is no undesirable noise that would upset the overall texture/balance of the output. Equalizers keep everything balanced. No matter how finely-mixed a recording is, broadcast always introduces noise into audio signals, degrading their quality. Equalizers adjust for the new noise, re-balancing the signal so that it sounds correctly mixed when it pours out the speakers and into your ears. Equalizers, in other words, re-tune the mix, normalizing abnormalities to produce a consistent texture or affect.
So, when politicians argue that the best way to protect everyone is to find the right “balance” between freedom and security, privacy and security, or try to frame the problem here as one of balance, they’re not critiquing this logic of attunement, but feeding it. All they’re doing is saying that the equalizer got out of adjustment and that we need to re-temper it so that it works correctly.
So, when we talk about what’s wrong about PRISM, why it’s unjust, immoral, and, well, probably not very effective even in its own stated aims, we need to be sure we understand how it really works. We need to be sure we’re critiquing the sort of “listening” that’s actually happening. Our critiques can’t rely on Modernist theories of listening as interpretation, panopticism as the surveillance of content, etc. Rather, we have to treat this as superpanoptic surveillance, to use Jasbir Puar’s term, surveillance that tunes, attunes, de-tunes, and re-tunes.
For example, “privacy” just seems irrelevant here, mainly because the concept generally indicates protection from interpretation. Traditional concepts of privacy rely on the same inner/outer dichotomies that ground the interpretative model of listening. For example, the cops can’t search the inside of your house without a warrant, but they can observe you from across the street, or search the trash you leave out on the curb. Or, as Obama says in the above-referenced NYT article, “If the intelligence community actually wants to listen to a telephone call, they have to go back to a federal judge.” So, the fourth amendment seems to protect us from interpretation, but not from equalization or attunemnent. Is “privacy” something only relevant to “interpretation”? In other words, is the concept of privacy part of a broader “interpretative” discourse? (There has to be a hidden, private truth to either interpret or not interpret.) Privacy, then, might be a privilege vis-a-vis interpretive power. But then it probably doesn’t matter at all to equalizing and (at)tuning power. Would there even be a correlative concept? If “privacy” isn’t the concept we appeal to in critiquing equalizing/attuning power, what concept do we appeal to?
That’s a question for other people to answer. I’m mainly interested in developing an account of how “listening” works in neoliberalism/biopolitics/big data. This is important because big data actually listens more than it gazes (that’s why, um, Nate Silver’s book is called “The Signal and The Noise”). In other words, if panoptic power “gazes”, or works according to a metaphorics of sight and vision, then neoliberal power listens, works according to a metaphorics of acoustics, audition, and sonic perception. So this project isn’t just about understanding listening, sound culture, and perception, but about understanding how hegemony works.
This is a really excellent piece, and I think you’re right about the call to better understand “listening” so that we are attuned to dissonant metadata, seemingly silent notes that, in reality, can construct a totality all their own. I wonder, however, if this argument doesn’t privilege the government’s discourse that this data collection and analysis is about finding outliers, terrorists, when, I think, there may be much broader implications in attempts to understand “pattern” similar to how the tech companies have a vested interest in understanding the actions of the masses. Just a quick reaction, but curious to hear your thoughts.
Hi Josh, thanks for your comment — it’s right on, I think. I was narrowly focusing just on PRISM, which is about finding outliers, but there are also ways of using this sort of listening to keep what’s already consonant in tune. That’s the main function of an equalizer, right, to keep what’s in tune, in tune? But to keep the normal “normal” you have to constantly monitor it so that you can be sure to send it the right sorts of signals, signals that produce positive feedback rather than vicious cycles/circles? That’s what Facebook is doing when it’s displaying ads for fertility treatments, diapers, and shoes on my wall — it knows i’m a middle-aged white lady, so I must either have or desperately want babies and shoes (shoes, yes; babies, no). Having and wanting those things keeps me performing normative middle-aged white lady femininity. What do you think?
Ah, yes, you’re right. I think I misread (or read too quickly, probably) the tuner metaphor, which is a really great way of understanding and thinking through this. I’m going to think a little deeper on this now, and look forward to seeing more on this from you!