Example poetry

Poetry as a survival guide for surveillance

During the twentieth century, the FBI closely watched poets, read their work, and speculated on their political and artistic intentions. U.S. surveillance agencies have even hired people with a poetry background to be spies and code breakers because of their skills in careful reading, language analysis and critical thinking.

From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, at least forty-two young Bachelor of Arts students entered intelligence work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the wartime CIA.

Espionage and poetry writing are closely linked through shared skills – attentive reading, language analysis, and critical thinking. Image: Getty Images

As historian Robin W. Winks observes in his 1987 book Cape and Dress: Scholars of the Secret War, 1939-1961, many of them were English graduates who could apply literary techniques to intelligence analysis and cryptic expressions.

While it is difficult to think of poets as spies, poetry and surveillance actually use very similar styles of information gathering such as close observation, abstraction, subversion, fragmentation, and symbolism. .

Today we live in an era of unprecedented surveillance. Our personal information is regularly tracked and collected, while sophisticated analytical and algorithmic systems are designed to predict, influence and ultimately control our choices and behavior.

And it changes the nature of the way we see ourselves. The ubiquity of surveillance and social media is challenging the very idea of ​​the private individual as people increasingly adopt public personas. Academic Julie Cohen described digital culture as the creation of a “surveillance-innovation complex” in which surveillance is now privatized, commercialized and increasingly participatory.

To help us understand, and perhaps ultimately better shape, the complex social and technological change we are embroiled in, we could do much worse than turn to that close cousin of surveillance – poetry. .

In fact, a new and growing audience is already seeking poetry against the backdrop of an increase in privacy violations, a growing online faith-based culture, and a problematic loss of boundaries in virtual and online worlds. that are created for us.

Poetry helps to understand the complexities of technological changes that have allowed unprecedented levels of surveillance. Image: Getty Images

When it comes to literature that helps us understand the machinations of surveillance, many people immediately think of George Orwell’s dystopian science fiction novel. One thousand nine hundred and eighty four or at Aldous Huxley Brave New World, in which citizens are manipulated into a social hierarchy based on intelligence.

After all, in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the ‘alternative facts’ rhetoric of the Trump presidency, sales of dystopian fiction have exploded. The 1949 Orwell classic even hit # 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

But as The Guardian at recently reported, sales of poetry skyrocketed, and “political millennials” read poetry to seek “clarity” in a turbulent world.

As Dina Gusejnova, assistant professor in international history, observed in a 2019 interview with the London School of Economics, readers have always “been drawn to poetry in the context of political crises which fragment and challenge society”.

Poetry helps us think about fundamental questions of surveillance because poets themselves have always been professional observers. From Shakespeare to Robert Frost to Nikki Giovanni, the history of poetry is linked to key concepts of surveillance such as seeing, hearing, listening, looking, analyzing and deciphering.

The art of poetry itself is also about the careful assessment of complex human issues such as privacy, identity, and truth. Each of these is central to surveillance and the effects of surveillance technology on our lives.

Poetry can explore and elucidate issues such as privacy, identity, and truth. Image: Getty Images

Take, for example, the well-known poem by American poet Emily Dickinson “I’m Nobody!” Who are you ? », First published in 1891:

‘I am no one! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
So there are a pair of us – don’t say it!
They would ban us, you know.

How sad to be someone!
How public, like a frog
To say your name all day
In an admiring bog!

This deceptively simple short word is one of Dickinson’s most popular poems, not only because of the universality of its theme of identity, but also because with every new turn in our frenetic-driven world on the media, the poem’s commentary on private and interior life takes on a new meaning.

The poem’s key suggestion that anonymity is better than fame is particularly relevant to neoliberal or free market conditions in which individuals are now willing to give up ever more personal data in order to build a personal brand.

Poetry also helps us reflect on questions of authenticity, interpretation, and perception, all of which are crucial in understanding the complex configurations of surveillance.

Wallace steven “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Blackbird” (1917), for example, presents a range of different perspectives of a single blackbird, each fragment evoking certain feelings in the reader about a seemingly unpretentious animal.

Emily Dickinson’s idea that anonymity is better than fame is made more radical by the contemporary ubiquity of social media. Image: Getty Images

Likewise, the oft-cited sonnet by John Keats “At first sight of Chapman’s Homer” (Chapman being the translator), examines the ways in which great poetry can cause us to consider different and unexpected ways of seeing the world. Keats writes: “Until I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold / Then I felt like a sky watcher.”

The multi-layered, coded, and highly subjective complexities of poetry allow us to think about knowledge, information, and even data, in a new light. It gives us tools of discernment and nuance to more creatively approach the unprecedented volumes of visualizations, statistics and digital data that we face every day.

Like the arts as a whole, poetry positions us to question and contextualize technology, as well as to capture irony, abstraction, paradox and change.

In the opening stanza of his 1934 poem “Chorus from The Rock”, the English-American poet TS Eliot asked:

“Where is the wisdom that we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge that we have lost in information? ‘

These lines shed light on many societal issues today, just like in Eliot’s time, a period characterized by a rapid transition from traditional industries to an economy organized mainly around information technologies.

As Eliot’s verses suggest, poetry helps us see the world in an imaginative and non-reductive way: to find, so to speak, knowledge in information.

Dr. Sumner’s next bookLyric Eye: the poetics of surveillance in the twentieth century ‘ is published by Routledge and will be available from August.

A version of this story also appears on Mandarin.

Banner: Getty Images


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