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Jack Bratich on "Debord, Secrecy & Politics"


"Debord, Secrecy & Politics"
Jack Bratich

When: 7.00 pm, Tuesday 03.15.11
Who: Free and open to all
Where: 16 Beaver Street 4th floor
What: Discussion/Presentation

This Tuesday night, on the Ides of March, we will be welcoming thinker,
writer, and frequent contributor to the space, Jack Bratich, to introduce
and lead a discussion on Guy Debord's seminal yet relatively overlooked
'Comments on the Society of the Spectacle.'

Written prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc,
Guy Debord’s short, cryptic book 'Comments …' (originally titled Treatise
on Secrets, and not to be confused with the original Society of the
Spectacle) presciently speaks of terrorism, pre-emption, organized
insecurity, unspecified enemies, infiltration of opposition, and ever
pervasive covert operations.

The untimely seer Debord develops the concept of “generalized secrecy.” As
a Treatise on Secrets, the work argues that "generalized secrecy stands
behind the Spectacle, as the decisive complement to all it displays and,
in the last analysis, as its most vital operation" (p. 12). The spectacle
has brought secrecy to victory, in great measure by creating "specialists
in secrecy." Debord goes on to document a variety of instances of secrecy
in action, including the historic predominance of the role of secret
services, of popular conspirators, of professional accusers, of fake
revealers, in sum a whole host of agents trained in promoting spectacular
secrecy. He calls these the "networks of influence" and
"promotion/control", which include State secret services, the PR industry,
as well as public spectators (p. 69, 74).

Where to locate secrecy in considerations given to Truth and Politics
today? What does it mean to reveal, expose or leak a 'secret'? What is the
status of a 'state secret,' that once revealed, definitively proves that
the state has lied to or misled 'its people'?
And what is our understanding of secrets in a world drowned in
overinformation, misinformation, spin, deception and lies?

Is our obsession with secrecy as a box to be opened itself part of the
spectacle, a distraction from the myriad ways generalized secrecy
permeates the political body?

Debord compels us to think secrecy outside of its commonsensical status as
opposite of a public.

The Ides of March reminds us of the recurring and inescapable politics of
secrecy. Traditionally a Roman festival dedicated to the god of war, we
now know this event as a type of warning. A highly public assassination
of a sovereign, enacted through a collective secrecy, returns to us as an
occasion for awareness.

What would be an understanding of Truth and Politics be without the
central yet proliferating operation of secrecy?

This Tuesday, on the Ides of March, let’s revisit the entanglement of
secrecy, warfare and politics by discussing this strategic manual and
guide to becoming aware of the hidden.

We hope the discussion will also touch on our recent conversations in the
Truth & Politics Series and recent events - under the light of this
occulted text.

2. Two Notes for Event 6 (Truth & Politics Series)

by Jack Bratich


From Public Secrecy and Immanent Security: A Strategic Analysis
Cultural Studies (20:4-5, 2006)

The Spring 2004 issue of the Mass School of Law Journal was a special
issue titled, “Secrecy is Everywhere.” This enigmatic phrase, which itself
seems to be everywhere, poses a riddle for us to decipher. For it is not
the case that secrets are everywhere, but that secrecy itself has become
omnipresent, even public, in ways that do not destroy secrecy. Secrecy
proliferates everywhere, but is not negated in revelation.

How can we communicate this secrecy proliferating? How does one render
the secret into an object of discussion and strategy?

In addition to Debord’s Treatise, the beginnings of cryptoanalysis can be
found in these resources:

In A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987) discuss
secrecy in a section titled "Memories of the Secret" (pp.286-290). They
break secrecy down into three components: 1) as the contents in a box or
envelope (the common sense of secrecy); 2) as an action, both in terms of
secret influence (e.g. the way secret societies affect social changes) and
the propagation of the secret (its spread and leakage, or secretion); 3)
as the secret perception of the secret.

As Michael Taussig (2002) argues, when the State seeks to put an end to
secrecy via revelation, it only increases the power of secrecy: it is "the
skilled revelation of skilled concealment" (p. 305). Following Walter
Benjamin, Taussig suggests we bring secrecy out in the open by telling a
"truth that is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a
revelation which does justice to it" (in Taussig, 2002).

What emerges from these resources is an understanding that the State's
proliferation of secrecy (both as its own spectacularization and its
popularization) is only one way of becoming-immanent. Rather than
surrender to a totalitarian state of secrecy, we can begin thinking of
secrecy as a strategy.

In political activism, for instance, the typical assumption is that
secrecy is a tool for power, in the service of domination, and kept by
elites or the State as a means of maintaining hierarchical exclusions.
From the CIA to the KKK, secrecy is sign of hidden agendas. But this
notion of a cryptocracy depends on an assumption of publicity’s secrecy:
secrecy in the form of an envelope or box, and disclosure as its opposite
and vanquisher. What if we began to think of cryptocracy in other ways,
i.e. from the perspective of secrecy itself? In an age where secrecy is
virtually everywhere as a strategy of domination, can we begin to
experiment with a becoming-secret that could be defined as an insurgent
secrecy, a minor secrecy, or a popular secrecy?

Making this argument entails unsettling a fundamental assumption among
oppositional forces, namely the belief that the revelation of secrets is
inherently a progressive force. Returning to Jodi Dean's argument that
publicity and secrecy have been intertwined in the US political imaginary,
we can shift perspective by no longer relying on publicity to be an
effective political force against a cryptocracy. In other words, when
dissent primarily operates by seeking to expose the State’s secrets, it
may be playing into a larger logic of concealment and revelation that is
ultimately disempowering. Instead, we can explore the very ability to
produce both secrets and their exposure as a political force.


Short note on Egypt, Warfare, and Secret Sovereign Networks

The public focus on social media and the Egyptian insurrection has, like
the spectacular display of branded protest graffiti, occluded the forces
and processes that produced it.

Each day new leaks emerge—e.g. Facebook admins gave certain Egyptian
social mediators “virtual shelter” for their identities. Unlike 2009 Iran,
the social mediators in Egypt have unmasked themselves, publicizing their
strategic use of secrecy and revelation. Google exec Wael Ghonim, hailed
by CNN as Egypt’s spiritual leader, an apparently convincing parrhesiastes
in the events leading to Mubarak's exit, is represented by the New York
Times, just days later as a publicist, strategist, if not outright

A purported decentralized resistance effort, what Google exec Jared Cohen
called “a basically leaderless movement”, is within weeks touted to have
had hidden conditions of emergence. The public discussion replicates the
meme “Facebook Revolution” while ignoring the play of faces and masks.
What might these kinds of 'revelations' do or attempt to do to our notions
of enthusiasm, identification, and solidarity?

As Guy Debord advises, how do we make effective use of that which is hidden?

3. Useful links

Comments on the Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord, 1988

Bratich texts:

“Becoming-Seattle: the State of Activism and the (Re)activity of the State”
Fifth Estate (#374, Winter 2007, pp. 17-20)

“Popular Secrecy and Occultural Studies”
Cultural Studies (21:1, 2007, pp. 42-58)

“Public Secrecy and Immanent Security: A Strategic Analysis”
Cultural Studies (20:4-5, 2006, pp. 493-511)

“Fingerprints of Power”

“The Fog Machine: Iran, Social Media and the Rise of Genetically Modified
Grassroots Organizations”
Counterpunch newsletter (7/22/09)