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The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood

The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood

by David Rosen

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Spanning nearly 500 years of cultural and social history, this book examines the ways that literature and surveillance have developed together, as kindred modern practices. As ideas about personhood—what constitutes a self—have changed over time, so too have ideas about how to represent, shape, or invade the self. The authors show that, since the


Spanning nearly 500 years of cultural and social history, this book examines the ways that literature and surveillance have developed together, as kindred modern practices. As ideas about personhood—what constitutes a self—have changed over time, so too have ideas about how to represent, shape, or invade the self. The authors show that, since the Renaissance, changes in observation strategies have driven innovations in literature; literature, in turn, has provided a laboratory and forum for the way we think about surveillance and privacy. Ultimately, they contend that the habits of mind cultivated by literature make rational and self-aware participation in contemporary surveillance environments possible. In a society increasingly dominated by interlocking surveillance systems, these habits of mind are consequently necessary for fully realized liberal citizenship.

Editorial Reviews

Edward Mendelson

An ambitious, illuminating, and convincing book. I have rarely been so excited and enlightened by the argument of a literary study as I was by this.”—Edward Mendelson, Columbia University

Patrick Brantlinger

"The Watchman in Pieces is an erudite, major addition to surveillance studies.  Like Weber, Habermas, and Foucault, though with many differences, the authors are 'rethinking the history of modernity.'"—Patrick Brantlinger, Indiana University

Modern Language Association - James Russell Lowell Prize

Winner of the 45th annual James Russell Lowell Prize sponsored by the Modern Language Association.

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Yale University Press
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THE Watchman in Pieces




Copyright © 2013 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-15664-5



The Retreat of Allegory


      Others there are
    Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty,
    Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
    And throwing but shows of service on their lords,
    Do well thrive by them; and when they have lin'd their coats,
    Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul,
    And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
    Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
    In following him, I follow but myself.
    Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
    But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
    For when my outward action doth demonstrate
    The native act and figure of my heart
    In complement extern, 'tis not long after
    But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
    For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Few passages, even in the vast output of a writer so centrally concerned with questions of role-playing, of performance, and masquerade, suggest a looming crisis in the nature of personality as strongly as this one. Barely fifty lines into Othello, Iago is assuring his patsy Roderigo that he means the title character no good: though he appears to serve Othello as a faithful ensign, he follows but himself, for his own "peculiar end." As often in Shakespeare, when a character tries to articulate the split between his own desires and the social role he must play, Iago toys with tropes of interiority and exteriority: in contrast to the "forms and visages of duty," "outward action," and "complement extern," he posits a soul, heart, and self, which only heaven can see and judge. Iago's usual rhetorical strategy, however, is to begin with clear distinctions and then muddy the waters—which is precisely what happens here. In hindsight, his "peculiar end," which he never bothers to explain to Roderigo, turns out to be far more peculiar than his flat understatement would let on. And his comment "were I the Moor, I would not be Iago" sounds logical (not to say obvious) but is sufficiently vague as to support all manner of interpretation: would he rather be Othello than himself? Is he saying he wouldn't need to be duplicitous if he were as well-off (or naïve?) as Othello? Is he making a more banal point about personal identity? Part of Iago's purpose, surely, is to confuse Roderigo (even the Dramatis Personae dismisses him as "a gull'd gentleman"), but we would suggest that something additional is happening: a discomfort with the implications of the inner/outer distinction itself, which finally finds expression in pure contradiction: "I am not what I am."

Commentators have always recognized this line as an important moment in the play, an early glimpse into Iago's depravity. Most editions dutifully note that he is blaspheming, revealing himself as a kind of devil figure; in Exodus 3, God defines himself to Moses as follows: "I AM THAT I AM.... Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." Beyond that, however, most readers silently translate the line to mean "I am not what I seem"—this despite the fact that the word "seem" was fully available to Shakespeare (it appears five lines earlier). By so translating it, we would argue, readers miss the truly uncanny thrill that must have seized Shakespeare's first audiences. That is to say: the two halves of Iago's inner/outer equation—the two iterations of "I am"—are equally true and valid and yet somehow in contradiction to each other. Neither can claim ontological precedence, which would be precisely the effect of substituting "seem" for the second "am." The writer with the largest vocabulary in English has run into a conceptual problem for which his language is inadequate. Critics of early modernism who take interiority and selfhood as their special focus have long understood this moment as a crux, but while we concur with Stephen Greenblatt's comment that " 'I am not what I am' goes beyond social feigning," we cannot endorse his conclusion that Iago in fact possesses no essential self.

"I am not what I am" suggests that this elusiveness [i.e., at the center] is permanent, that even self-interest, whose transcendental guarantee is the divine "I am what I am," is a mask. Iago's constant recourse to narrative then is both the affirmation of absolute self-interest, and the affirmation of absolute vacancy.

This conclusion fuels a powerful, Lacan-inflected reading of the play as a whole: Iago's inner vacancy makes him particularly adept at entering into the discourses of others. A monster of empathy, he destroys his victims from within. And yet to read Iago as a cipher, we would argue, means underestimating, anachronistically, Shakespeare's deep investment in both halves of Iago's line: if anything, Iago suffers from too much selfhood, not the reverse. Behind Iago's seeming self-contradiction lurks neither nihilism nor a Lacanian specter, but rather a confusion over how one should recognize the truth about oneself and other people: a problem in the nature of allegory.

Allegory and Personhood

Proposition: Renaissance culture was allegorical, and (to skip several steps ahead in the argument) this insured that modern surveillance practices would not develop until a new dispensation could take hold. By calling the Renaissance "allegorical" we are not making the obvious point that allegory was the dominant literary option from (confining ourselves to Britain) Langland to Spenser; if that were the case, one could as easily describe Augustan England as "satirical" and the Victorian period as a baggy triple-decker. Nor, for that matter, are we claiming that the Renaissance was particularly conducive (though it most certainly was) to the production of literary allegory. We are not, finally, interested in questions about allegory as a genre per se, but instead are arguing that allegory, as a mode, involves certain habits of thought, observation, and ways of organizing reality that are as operative in everyday life—socially, politically, ideologically—as in the aesthetic structure of a poem or painting. In the pages that follow, we will examine the ways that an allegorical state of mind, as an act of imagination, implied certain ways of understanding the interiority of other people—and by extension provoked certain ways of watching them and of behaving towards them in general. The Renaissance State read and understood its subjects allegorically, as did the subjects themselves—and it is largely in revolt against these modes of understanding that modern strategies of observation (and the politics that came with them) took shape.

Our assertion would be tendentious enough were the nature of allegory a matter of general consent—which is hardly the case. On the face of things, this might seem an esoteric concern—but in fact the brief history we are about to offer establishes the premises, and reveals the stakes, for most of the claims (about surveillance, about society, about selfhood) that we will be making in the book. Few definitions are as profoundly adequate and deeply misleading as Angus Fletcher's well-known attempt: "In the simplest terms, allegory says one thing and means another. It destroys the normal expectation we have about language, that our words 'mean what they say.'" In a note, Fletcher explains that he is simply breaking the word down to its Greek roots, "from allos + agoreuein (other + speak openly, speak in the assembly or market)." The "otherness" of allegory is infinitely complicated, however, by its "didactic function," its basic need for a "common culture of meaning." To take a very simple and famous example from the twentieth century: Orwell's Animal Farm is a transparent allegory depicting the course of the Russian Revolution from its idealistic beginnings to its authoritarian conclusion. To be effective, the novel's narrative of rebellious livestock and human owners must be recognized as allegory, and the significance of each character made perfectly clear to the reader (e.g., Napoleon the pig is Joseph Stalin); otherwise it just comes across as the confusing and depressing tale of an extremely dysfunctional barnyard. Without a common culture of meaning, an audience that understands Orwell's point and which is open to his didactic purpose (in this case condemnation), the whole project collapses. At the same time one might ask: if Orwell wishes to write about Soviet Russia, why is he bothering with goats and donkeys? He is saying one thing and meaning something quite different, and it's only natural to wonder what worries or hesitations have prevented him from writing more directly. Even allegories that, unlike Animal Farm, succeed aesthetically on the surface level and do not require an awareness of ulterior meaning to give pleasure carry this residue of concealment and anxiety. In short, allegory, as a way of taking in the world, is naturally riven by competing centripetal and centrifugal forces; the basic allegorical unit is a sign/signified dyad, which, at any moment, can either be ripped apart by otherness or collapsed into a monad by the sheer demand for coherence.

Within a broad consensus about the structure of allegory, however, there is little agreement about its purpose or how it functions. Since the allegorical image is always being forced in two directions—pulled towards dissolution and pushed towards collapse, incomprehensibility or reductive simplicity—it is not surprising that critics disagree over which direction is the more important. One side of the debate: allegory appeared in eleventh-century Europe as a naïve, primitive form of psychological writing. Lacking a language of interiority but wishing to depict strong emotions, writers like Chrétien de Troyes were forced to use personified abstractions (e.g., "Reason," "Love"), a process that survives today, in somewhat debased form, as the angel and devil who appear on opposite shoulders every time you find yourself alone with a cookie jar. The angel and devil are comic only because a vocabulary of inwardness exists now to describe what you are feeling ("I am hungry and can get away with it"; "It is wrong to steal cookies from crying four-year-olds")—a language that ostensibly did not exist at the moment allegory appeared in the Christian West. Ultimately, for critics who see allegory as primarily didactic, the allos, the otherness inherent in allegory, is almost incidental compared to the genre's requirement to speak openly, vividly, forcefully. For allegory, on this model, to succeed, the relation between sign and signified must be transparent, or better yet, invisible; today the angel and devil fail (or succeed only ironically) precisely because they strike us as representations—and grotesquely inadequate ones at that. Allegory may say one thing and mean another, but the experience of allegory, as with all powerful metaphor, should be unitary: the sign and signified are one thing. With consciousness of difference, allegory dies.

Not unexpectedly, a second (and much more numerous) group of theorists is content to let the metaphor die and admire the exquisite corpse. For this group, allegory is the trope of otherness par excellence, in which meaning is generated precisely out of the disconnect between tenor and vehicle (Joseph Stalin, Napoleon the pig). In Walter Benjamin's classic account of German baroque allegory, the sheer outlandishness and complexity of allegorical imagery is purposely confusing: by steadfastly resisting transparency, it foregrounds its own inadequacy as metaphor, its own brokenness, and points to a transcendent, ineffable reality, a "singularity," as one later critic has put it, beyond human expression. From this viewpoint, however, it is easy enough to plot an even more radical course and dismiss the transcendent altogether. For rhetorical theorists like Paul de Man, allegory is simply the principle underlying a failure in all language at every moment: the tenor/vehicle disconnect is a spectacular and overt instance of the way all words fail to signify adequately objects in the world. As one might expect, most accounts of allegory finally stake out a position somewhere between the two extremes—or else attempt to explain how both extremes might simultaneously be true. That is, in its didactic project, allegory (1) generates meaning by masking the gap between sign and signified, i.e., through profound coherence, and (2) generates meaning by foregrounding the very same gap, i.e., through incoherence. To recognize that centripetal and centrifugal forces are always at work in allegory is to acknowledge the mode's complex flexibility and helps explain its persistent appeal, in some quarters, as a way of thinking.

To this conversation, we would add a modest suggestion: while the opposing forces within allegory must, certainly, be understood synchronically (i.e., they are always tugging against each other), they should also be understood diachronically—in short, historically. Chrétien worked in the eleventh century, Benjamin focuses on the seventeenth; it is almost banal to conclude that the intervening years saw a gradual process, whereby the centripetal tendencies of allegory gradually weakened (without ever quite disappearing) and the centrifugal forces grew stronger. To give a sense of how this process took place and why it is germane to the history of surveillance in the West, we can offer a just-so story, which probably has the virtue of being true. C. S. Lewis is persuasive in his claim that allegorical personages first emerged as the projections of inner emotions—Envy, Faith, and so on—that could not otherwise be articulated, whose interactions could not otherwise be depicted. As psychological entities, they could hardly be called "ideological" in the usual sense of the word, and the gap between tenor and vehicle would be nearly (or entirely) imperceptible. The act of projecting these emotions, however, also had an inevitable abstracting, reifying effect: to give these entities a shape and form outside the mind meant also eventually recognizing them as alien or other—and, most important, as susceptible to creative reuse. Reason, Love, Envy, and Faith may first have carried no overt dogmatic charge—but it would only have been a matter of time (very little time) before their didactic potential was recognized and allegory put to the service of a belief system: the Catholic Church, medieval statecraft, etc. A more convenient and powerful propaganda mechanism could hardly be imagined.

In no time at all, allegory, which had begun as the projection of something internal, would be returned to the self as something external: the representation of an ideology, as well as a practical way of putting people in their place. But although this process of alienation and imposition must have begun almost immediately, its full effects would have taken centuries to ramify. Indeed, since the process was at least partly unconscious, it would be perfectly logical to expect long periods during which the nature of the allegorical image (mental figment or didactic emblem? self or other?) was a matter of sincere confusion. One need only recall numerous passages in Piers Plowman where the characters Will encounters seem at some moments projections of his persona but at others take on an unnerving and completely autonomous life of their own. It's an ambiguity that persists as late as Spenser, though by Spenser's time things have largely shifted towards the alien. Most important, this period of ambiguity—during which allegory could be strongly didactic and yet still seem unitary, during which, that is, the residue of allegory's origins effectively masked its increasing tendentiousness and concealed its dual nature—was also the high point of its true influence as a mode.

It was a situation that could not possibly last, and by the early Renaissance, dissolution was well underway. The effect can be likened to a loss of innocence, which is particularly visible in allegorical writing: as the audience became aware of the genre's didactic intentions, as the audience's credulity about the allegorical image turned to skepticism, certain predictable effects followed. As a performance, allegory became at once more coercive and spectacular. Faced with increasing resistance, allegory needed to grow more insistent, thus producing still stronger resistance and driving a dialectic that could only end in catastrophe. At the same time, in its hopeless attempt to sustain belief, allegory could not insist overtly: it had to conceal its purposes behind ever more extravagant, and therefore potentially opaque, imagery. To borrow an analogy from psychoanalysis: the more unspeakable the latent desires, the more fantastic and bizarre the manifest display. Thus the intensification of late Renaissance allegory, culminating in The Faerie Queene, its conscious perversions of transparent signification, its inclusion of characters who can assume multiple forms and meanings—but with that intensification a plummeting ability to command belief. Meanwhile, an analogous and dialectically related process was occurring beyond the immediate reach of literature, in the realm of individual personality. If allegory first appeared, and was accepted, as a projection of inner states, it was inevitable that the increasingly alien and ideological forms allegory later took, especially when directed by the State towards its citizens, would be experienced as inadequate to the self; indeed, the more strenuously allegory attempted to impose a model of selfhood from without, the greater impetus people would naturally feel to understand their inmost beings as entirely separate from external forces. Allegory would thus have contributed to two social developments in ironic contrast to its principal goals as a political ideology. First, the development of a new kind of interiority, which critics at least since Burckhardt have seen as a defining characteristic of the Renaissance, and which others have seen as equally pivotal to the Protestant Reformation: a new tendency to see inner identity as something fundamentally different from social persona. Second, a new ability to view Church and State, the key ideological agents in society, critically and with detachment; to view Church and State as the (often hostile) determinants of one's social role, but not one's very selfhood; to view society as something objectively separate from the self.

Excerpted from THE Watchman in Pieces by DAVID ROSEN. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

Edward Mendelson
An ambitious, illuminating, and convincing book. I have rarely been so excited and enlightened by the argument of a literary study as I was by this.—Edward Mendelson, Columbia University

Meet the Author

David Rosen is associate professor of English at Trinity College, andAaron Santesso is associate professor of Literature at Georgia Tech.

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