Tag: foucault

Identity games

May 14th, 2012 — 10:53pm

I’ve recently seen the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on John le Carré’s novel with the same name. In the 1970’s a TV series based on the same novel, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, was very popular in Britain. This film, with Gary Oldman as the protagonist, is supposed to be something like an update for the new generation.

It is a very good film indeed. (I cannot remember the last time I was so gripped by a film shortly after its release.) I was also inspired to read several of le Carré’s novels, including but not limited to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. What they have in common is a subtle, rich portrayal of the spy trade from the viewpoint of Britain during the cold war; a world that seems to be, increasingly, a thing of the past. Voice recognition, social profiling and data mining seems to be taking the place of a good chunk of what le Carré calls tradecraft – the concrete skills that spies with 1970’s technology need in order to perform their work on the ground in enemy territory – and computer scientists like myself are to blame.

While being hailed as the anti-Ian Fleming due to his relatively gritty realism, Le Carré is not without his own spy romanticism. But the bleakness inherent in the work comes through on every page.

In his commentary on the film, le Carré states that

[The world of spies is] not so far from corporate life, from the ordinary world. At the time of writing the novel, I thought that there was a universality that I could exploit. The book definitely resonated with the public; people wanted to reference their lives in terms of conspiracy, and that remains central to the relationship between man and the institutions he creates.

There is something profound in this. Spies are merely concentrated versions of something that we all are ourselves, something that we must be every day. Spies project false personalities in order to gain access and information, either about enemy assets or about other spies. They hide to survive, and they hide so that they may uncover a kind of truth. With a view to the spy as the most concentrated form of a certain kind of existence, let us take a look at some other forms that this existence may take.

The modern professional. To be professional means to effectively project a professional identity in the workplace. To be unprofessional almost always means that too much of another, possibly more genuine personality shines through – one has become too unrestrained. The professional needs to always be projecting, to a degree, in order to remain compatible with the workplace and retain his income and career prospects. Young people are socialised into this condition very early – at career workshops, students learn how to polish their CVs, how to embellish their record, and to hide their flaws. This is essentially a partial course in spycraft. But all this is only at the entry level. When any kind of sophisticated politics enters the organisation – as it does – the professional may be pushed ever closer to the spy. A recruiter: “Too bad that we couldn’t hire him, he seemed genuine.”

The academic. The academic can be thought of as a special version of the professional with some essential differences. First, professionals do not yet have universal records that follow them around for their entire lifetime – much of the “record” that they create, which is associated with the persona they are supposed to project, exists only in the memory of people and of one organisation. Academics build their records with units such as publications and conference attendance. Publications in particular form an atomic record that does not go away. On the other hand, the everyday life of the academic may – possibly – be less artificial than that of the professional, since focus is on the production of publishable units, not on pleasing people in one’s surroundings as much as possible.

The philosopher.  Philosophers seek to uncover some hidden truth about the world. In this sense, they are spies without enemies. The philosopher lives among people with a view to analysing them and understanding their behaviour, so that he can explain it to them. But most of the time the philosopher is likely to be a flaneur or a quiet observer, like the spy often is: someone who seeks to learn something hidden from situations that other participants may regard as being routine and their everyday existence. In this sense spies may have something in common with philosophers.

Here I have highlighted a phenomenon but not made any recommendations. Maybe it’s for the better that we are all a little bit like spies. Masks of some kind are worn in most social interactions, not just the ones above, and they are not a recent phenomenon. Exposing something like a true inner self requires that the inner self remains static long enough for it to be possible to expose. But the difference between most social relationships and the relationships we have with institutions today is that the former can change or dissolve naturally to fit spontaneous changes in people’s characters or needs. Relationships between people and modern institutions do not seem to be capable of this dynamic as of yet.

1 comment » | Life, Philosophy

The absurdity of flying

July 17th, 2010 — 4:35pm

The first time I found myself onboard an airplane was when I was 9-10 years old or so. At the time, travelling by myself to visit my aunt who lived on a remote island was a big experience. In particular, I think, the sensation that the environment was managed in the extreme made a big impression on me. The temperatures and winds outside my seat window were a hostile element, but human technological achievement successfully shielded me from these dangers. I could take part in the collective human pride in this affirmation of technological ability.

Much later, when I was a student in London, I was subject to budget constraints and went for the cheapest flight whenever possible. Accordingly I found myself flying with an Irish airline, Ryanair, quite a lot. This enterprise is marked by its grisly yellow and dark blue colour scheme and continuous experimentation in lowered flight standards, comfort and safety, all for the sake of lower prices. For a 1-2 hour flight between England and Sweden it was fully acceptable.

Recently I have been flying between Japan and Sweden quite a bit. The intercontinental flight can last more than ten hours, and takes on quite a different character from short flights. Some of the essential absurdities of any flight journey become increasingly difficult to ignore during this time period.

Firstly, there is the fact that the airplane that more than a hundred passengers ride in is a sealed off, highly fragile, mobile cross-section of society and a habitat for human beings. Airplanes need continuous replacement, draining and replenishment of food, waste, excrement, water, fuel and electricity. The air pressure and temperature inside the cabin are artificially maintained. The similarities with an imagined future biodome on the moon are not a few. What happens if an airplane has to land on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean and doesn’t have enough fuel to fly back, or there is some kind of technical problem? All of these buffered flows which the airplane must always replenish would be interrupted, and our very lives are hooked up to those flows.

In addition, hundreds of people are placed very close to each other for an extended period of time with minimal lateral separation (although there is some longitudinal separation in the form of seat rows). A certain neuroticism is provoked. We become hyper-aware of our neighbours and what they do, what they talk about, how they dress and what habits they have. We try our best not to notice. And this lattice, this packing of people, is surveyed from above by the panoptic eyes of the flight stewards and hostesses. Observation not only from above but also from peers becomes essential in maintaining order in a closed-off society where governmental violence cannot reach and the usual norms might easily be violated. Security breaches are to the greatest possible extent preempted by the pre-flight security theatre, and what remains of risk is contained by observation and observability effects.

This pressurised air and pressurised micro-society is spiced up, or muddled, slightly by the increasingly confused roles of the stewards and hostesses. In the jet set era, the air hostess was an object of attraction, an apple of the eyes of businessmen, an icon of liberty who had authority but no doubt also a certain intoxicating effect which helped to pacify. Today she is more clearly authoritarian, but the old role has not quite been erased from people’s minds. Something oedipal threatens to take place. Is this person who serves me food a nurse, a security guard, a mother as well as a possible lover? The neuroticism of the family extended into international airspace. All authority figures merged into one. Male stewards only slightly less confusing.

Fortunately airlines are very happy to serve up small doses of wine and beer to take the edge off the situation. Flying is absurd, but for the moment we have no other way of getting around.

2 comments » | Life, Philosophy

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