“I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying,” sang John Travolta, dancing-off with Olivia Newton John at the end of 1978’s musical spectacular, Grease. Travolta – or rather his screen persona, Danny Zuko – could almost be an early advocate of the “Quantified Self” movement, the name adopted by those who use biometrics to capture as much information as possible about physical aspects of their daily life. As well as temperature (chills, flushes), pulse rate skin conductivity, blood-sugar levels, and most recently mood, can all be tracked, and analysed for trends. For some self-quantifiers – or “body-hackers” – the aim is to live happier, healthier, more productive lives. Others are simply fascinated by the data-streams generated by their own bodies. At any rate, these days if you want to know how many chills you’ve got, and precisely how quickly they’re multiplying, you only need glance at your smart watch or health-and-fitness phone app.
The greaser, Danny, was by no means the first person to notice physical changes taking place in his body in response to a strong stimulus (in his case, a black-clad ONJ). We can trace a fascination with the body’s reaction to visual and imaginative stimuli at least as far back as the Romantic period in Britain, to the 1780s–1820s. In this period, a popular new modality had emerged in art and literature: the Gothic. It aimed to produce emotionally vertiginous shocks and thrills; sensations of any kind, in fact, so long as they put the viewing subject – the Self – at the centre of the experience. “O for a Life of Sensations!”, declared the poet John Keats, articulating an important aspect of the spirit of the age.
Romantic writers and painters were convinced that “sublime” art and nature – anything that conveyed massiveness, volume, the all-encompassing – provoked a distinctive physical and emotional signature (terror), which others could “read” in the form of a fevered brow, breathlessness, or flushed cheeks. A craze developed among members of the public eager to experience these changes for themselves, moreover in a self-aware manner. Enthusiasts would slog for miles to stand in exactly the right spot to get the full effect of a dizzying precipice, or gaze up at a thunderous waterfall, or contemplate the dark ruins of a medieval abbey. At home, candlelit connoisseurs would turn the pages of the latest gothic shocker to gasp at the nefarious schemes of a priapic monk or uncanny doppelgänger, or fall headlong and senseless into an engraving of towering waves, and black, depthless, watery vortexes. The goal was to overwhelm the senses, to annihilate Self. In Dany Zuko’s terms, it was all about “losing control” – while loving every minute of it!
Perhaps Romanticism can lay claim to the first (fictional) Quantified Selfer. In 1816, Mary Shelley drafted her famous gothic novel, Frankenstein, while holed up on the shores of Lake Geneva with the self-exiled Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Byron’s physician, Dr Polidori – author of the The Vampyre (1819), the book that spawned a thousand TV series from Buffy to The Strain. Mary’s classic not only generated chills in its readers, but foregrounded the very issue of how nerves and sinews – the body’s sensorium, or sensing apparatus – came together in the first place. Frankenstein’s creature, obsessed with how he was put together, with the relation between body, mind and emotions, is both proto-embodiment and practitioner of bio-hacking.
The consumer face of self-tracking today – think biometric wristbands like Apple Watch, Android Gear, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone and Fitbit – was first developed in the decade in which Grease topped the billboard charts. Hardly portable, the technology was used mainly by researchers who recognized the potential of analysing personal data to correlate useful information about lifestyle. Only in recent years, with the miniaturization of components, has the Quantified Self movement entered the mainstream. Most people who use smart watches to “drill down” into their jogging stats, sleep patterns and heart rate probably don’t think of themselves as bio-hackers anymore, which suggests that self-analysis, or self-surveillance, is fast becoming routinized. Indeed, few of us even stop to think about the possible dangers of allowing so much information about our fitness or daily routines to be mined by third parties. Quite aside from issues of personal privacy, there may be companies out there looking for trends in our health data we’d rather they didn’t know about.
Were the Romantics right about the link between emotional or imaginative stimuli and physical response? Aberystwyth University friend and colleague Professor Reyer Zwiggelaar (Computer Science) and I will be staging an event around art and biometric analysis as part of this year’s “Being Human” national festival of the humanities. Our Gothic-flavoured extravaganza is entitled “The Quantified Romantics”, and will take place in Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, between 11am and 3pm on Saturday 14 November. Members of the public will be invited to enter – if they dare – The Vortex, a dark enclosure in which they’ll be shown Gothic images. While they experience (we hope) an annihilation of Self, Reyer and I will be using a package of specially built biometric instruments to measure any changes in pulse rate, and counting chills (multiplying, or otherwise). We’ll also be discussing the wider social and political implications of biometric wearables and other self-tracking technologies. The event is free, and everyone is welcome.
“The Quantified Romantics”: Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, 11am–3pm, Saturday, 14 November 2015. Free entrance. No booking required.
A version of this blog appears in the October edition of AberEgo.
A full-length interview on such topics as surveillance, the Romantics, the imagination, sustainability, public engagement, university teaching, The Cunning House and the state of political discourse in the UK today has just been posted on Sustainable Wales (@SusWales). Head on over for the full, candid experience.
Last week, an old friend and fellow Romanticist posted an indignant "name and shame" tweet in defence of her gay friend, who'd been thrown out of a well-known chain of Irish pubs for kissing his boyfriend. It brought home how little, in some respects, has changed in terms of public attitudes to same-sex relations since the Romantic period, when homosexuality was a capital offence, and when hangings for "bestial" acts were regular occurances in London, enjoyed by large, hate-filled crowds.
My historical crime novel, The Cunning House, appeared this week. The book is set in Regency London's most notorious "molly house" (or gay bar, in today's parlance). I first had the idea for The Cunning House during a module I teach at Aberystwyth University entitled "Romantic Eroticism", which focuses on popular print and visual culture in the early nineteenth century. I'd been discussing the raid on The White Swan with my undergraduate class in the context of Cantos 5-6 of Byron's Don Juan. To explain: the Swan mollies, Dr Sweet-Lips, Blackeyed Leonora, Mistress Fox, et al, cross-dressed, as does Juan/Juana in Byron's satirical romp. The White Swan raid was so notorious at the time that it's inconceivable Byron wouldn't have known about it. I think we can consider the public outcry at, and press attention to, the events around the White Swan as "co-texts" to Don Juan.
The White Swan was situated in seedy Vere Street, near the theatre district. (It was torn down, along with Vere Street, in 1905 as part of the Kingsway-Aldwych improvement scheme.) For six months in 1810, mollies assembled there to indulge passions for which the age tried to hang them. And tried hard. Following a raid by Bow Street police on 8 July 1810, five of the "Vere Street gang" were pilloried, and two were launched into eternity from Newgate gallows.
The statutes permitting judges to reach for the noose dated from King Henry VIII’s time, and were finally removed from English law in the 1860s. However, discrimination and intolerance against non-heteronormative sexual behaviour remains deeply enshrined, socially and ideologically. The Catholic church, for example, still considers same-sex relations to be “contrary to natural law”, a formulation that would not look out of place on old Henry’s 1530s statute book.
Regency molly culture was rich, irreverent and often outrageous. Among the men captured in “nankeen trowsers” or wearing women’s clothing on 28 July were Richard Francis, Thomas White and James Amos, aka Miss Sweet-Lips, Blackeyed Leonora and Mistress Fox. The newspapers had a field day, reporting on how the “odious reptiles” had been held at the St Clement Danes watchhouse ahead of their hearing, relating the vehemence of the enormous crowds that lined the street to pelt the culprits whenever they were moved, and printing coy allusions to the men’s “detestable sins” and “bestial” conduct. 50,000 Londoners turned out to pillory five of the “Vere Street Coterie”, hurling everything from offal and rotten fruit, to dead cats and stones. The air was thick with it.
The Cunning House is narrated around two historical events from the Summer of 1810, each the key to the other. The first is the raid on The White Swan, the second the discovery of a dead body in St James’s Palace, a short carriage ride away. The corpse was that of Joseph Sellis, the Corsican valet to the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George III. The official account – still reeled out by official biographers today – is that Sellis killed himself after attacking the sleeping Duke with his own military sabre. But the Palace servants whispered: that the Duke had indulged illegal passions of his own; that he’d been in the habit of visiting The White Swan to see his particular favourite, Thomas White (Blackeyed Leonora); and that Sellis had tried his hand at blackmail.
Government cover-ups of sex crimes and conspiracies of silence by cosy, entrenched power is another thing our own period has in common with the Romantic era. A hastily convened inquest conducted under the aegis of St James’s Palace’s Court of Royal Verge exonerated the Duke from any involvement in Sellis’s death. Shortly afterwards, the raid on The White Swan took place, and even though the 17-year-old drummer boy Thomas White wasn’t in the pub that night, he was arrested and hanged at Newgate prison. Conveniently for the Duke, perhaps, who was watching in the press yard. Royal biographers see valet, drummer boy and The White Swan as footnotes to the life of the Duke of Cumberland, who shrugged off rumours of a murderous conspiracy, and duly went on to be King of Hannover. I saw a Regency cold case waiting to be reopened.
My fictional inestigator, Junior Prosecutor Wyre, is a man dipped in the prejudices of his age. His Courthouse day job is to deliver mollies to the hangman. Following a visit, however, from the secretive Miss Crawford – who may be both more and less than she seems – Wyre finds himself reluctantly drawn into a dark nexus of conspiracy, fanatical religious cults and agents in the war with France. As I write in a guest blog for Crime Time, by the end of the case, Wyre is thrown hard against his prejudices, and must choose between his innermost desires and those of his all-powerful masters.
The novel is graphic, and unblinking, and it won’t be for everyone. It’s not without its humorous moments, though, and for Romanticists, there are cameos from a certain South Molton Street printer called William, and a soon-to-be famous resident of the Swan and Hoop coaching inn.
And The White Swan today? The London School of Economics occupies its original site. But the tavern’s gleefully indecorous spirit lives on in BJ’s White Swan of the east end, almost closed down by Tower Hamlets council last year for hosting amateur stripper nights. More of those continuities …
I’d like to return to Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) to think through some of the ways in which Romanticism seems presciently attuned to issues that might seem entirely contemporary – mass surveillance, mutual informing (sometimes called "lateral surveillance") on Facebook, Snapchat and other social media platforms, as well as military practices such as “enhanced interrogation”. I'm particularly interested in Wordsworth’s rather odd poem, “The Thorn”, which focuses on the plight of an outcast woman in the Quantock Hills, Somerset. It's often read as an example of Romanticism's gothic mood, and a comment on intolerance in communities. However, it also offers a very specific, historically grounded set of insights into the psychology of interrogation that resonate afresh in post-9/11 contexts, especially in the light of the US Senate's recently declassified “CIA Torture Report”.
In the years before the publication of Lyrical Ballads, amid fears that the "Terror" of the French Revolution would soon be exported to Britain, an atmosphere of suspicion descended. The prime minister William Pitt established extensive surveillance webs, and closely policed debates, both in print and in the taverns and debating clubs where ultra radicals met and conspired. The chilling effects were felt in both civic society and the private realm. In The Spirit of Despotism (1795), Vicesimus Knox complained that the government's web of “spies and informers” had corrupted the “sequestered walks of private life” and destroyed life’s “confidential comforts and most valuable virtues”.
Such laments resonated among Romantic writers, who lived through this first age of public surveillance. In lectures delivered in February 1795, the twenty-two-year-old Coleridge used similar rhetoric, accusing Pitt’s “system of spies and informers” of destroying social confidence. He also observed that, worryingly, the population had internalized Pitt's logic of suspicion:
We have breathed so long the atmosphere of Imposture and Panic, that many honest minds have caught an aguish disorder; in their cold fits they shiver at Freedom, in their hot fits they turn savage against its advocates.
Three years later, in Lyrical Ballads (1798), Coleridge’s poetic and one-time radical confrère Wordsworth used “The Thorn” to meditate precisely on the atmosphere of “Imposture and Panic” in a rural community. In a poem “about” snitching and its psychological effects, Wordsworth offers a powerfully claustrophobic study of guilt, isolation and social disconsolidation. The poem's narrator is an ex-mariner, an agent of inspection who arrives in the rural community equipped with a telescope. He gleans local gossip about an outcast woman, Martha Ray, and conducts his own optical surveillance of her on the mountain head. As the poem begins, the ex-mariner finds himself in the role of the cross-questioned, as he passes on information to a shadowy, unnamed interlocuter, whose prompts become increasingly insistent. Indeed, the rhetorical scaffolding of the poem reads like an interrogation transcript:
“Now wherefore thus …
does this poor woman go.
O wherefore? wherefore? tell me why”
“I cannot tell; I wish I could;
For the true reason no one knows ...”
“But that she goes to this old Thorn …
which I described to you,
I will be sworn is true ...”
“But what’s the Thorn? and what the pond?
And what the hill of moss to her?”
“More know I not, I wish I did,
And it should all be told to you …”
Martha emerges as the focus of escalating suspicion: first as unmarried mother, then mad woman and finally as child murderer. The narrator, far from retailing “facts” about the outcast, which are scant, begins to offer ever more improbable and lurid explanations for her presence on the mountain top in a bid to mollify or impress his interrogator. What Wordsworth describes is a psychologically credible paradigm, and it resonates presciently in our own era of “enhanced interrogation”. In December 2014, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) published its declassified 6,000-page Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention Interrogation Program, widely known as the “CIA Torture Report”. The first of twenty key findings concluded that the “CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”, since under duress, detainees tended to say whatever they thought their captors wanted to hear, “provid[ing] fabricated information on critical intelligence issues”.
Toby Benis has argued suggestively that in framing Martha Ray’s experience, Wordsworth is remembering his own feelings at Alfoxden House, Somerset, when he and Coleridge were betrayed during their residency there by a servant who deciphered the poets’ interest in the sea and inland waterways as French spiery. The affair triggered the infamous “Spy Nozy” episode in which spycatcher James Walsh was dispatched from Whitehall to surveil the two men. Benis is right to see “The Thorn” as possessing personal significance for Wordsworth in the context of the surveillance the poet himself experienced. But it seems to me Wordsworth’s concern lies less with Martha Ray’s victimhood than with the effects that turning informer have on the narrator himself. Shortly after Walsh’s visit, Wordsworth and Coleridge, alarmed by the rapidity in which they found themselves at the centre of proliferating suspicion, “betrayed” a would-be member of their circle, the radical John Thelwall, refusing his overtures to establish a close-bosom community in Somerset. Thelwall was hot company, to be sure, having survived a trial for high treason in 1794. Indeed, the question-and-answer form of "The Thorn" possibly conjures the “enhanced” state inspection Thelwall had experienced at first-hand five years earlier in The Tower, and which Wordsworth and Coleridge were anxious to avoid in the future.
“The Thorn”, then, demonstrates Wordsworth’s sophisticated awareness of the profoundly disorienting and psychologically corrosive effects of constant surveillance and informing. It develops metaphors that attempt to identify and calibrate the violence of state intrusion into private and communal life. And, I suggest, it is precisely in such attempts where Romanticism communicates most resonantly with our own age of information – an age in which informing on our own and each other's movements, likes, orientations and dreams has become routine and habitualized. Indeed, social media check-ins have become normative, and those of us who don't regularly reveal our whereabouts or provide blow-by-blow accounts of our activities are often viewed with suspicion. What have we got to hide? Poems like "The Thorn" make visible, and dare us to dismantle, our own contract with the eavesdroppers.
Just back from the congress. It's the third time I've attended the Chaos Computer Club's annual gathering, the 31C3, in Hamburg, and it was bigger than ever. Some 12,000 hackers/ hactivists, security consultants (yeah, right!), black-, white- and grey-hats, academics, sysadmins, network advisors and computer science students from all over the world came together to put their heads in the same space around tech, ethics, culture, society, art and the future. I'm still processing much of what I encountered, and will write a fuller account once I've managed to make something coherent of it. The conference motto was "A new dawn", and I can't decide whether it was hopeful, acerbic, or throwaway. Probably all three, since that seems to capture the mood of many attendees, a year on from the Snowden revelations, and – in @tante's resonant phrase – well into the establishment of the "new normal".
Over the years, the Chaos Computer Club has woven (often ludic) counter narratives to the would-be normative, whether this involves breaking Apple's biometric ID security – all biometry, in fact – as Starbug did (again) during this congress, or puncturing the veneer of "respectable" politics by publishing details of active CIA assassination lists, as @ioerror and Laura Poitras did in front of a 3,000 capacity Hall 1 crowd, and simultaneously on Der Spiegel online. So perhaps we expected a more co-ordinated, and co-ordinating, response to the general mood of resigned acceptance that has marked public reaction to Snowden (not to mention Manning, Hammond, Assange, et al). That didn't come. Instead, the keynote chosen to follow ferocious talks in the last two years by Jacob Appelbaum and Glen Greenwald was that given by Alec Empire of Teenage Atari Riot. While smart and suggestive, and delivered with often beguiling off-the-cuffness, it seemed to lose its sense of purpose at times – and in that respect, perhaps, perfectly chimed with the congress as a whole. For me, at least.
Far older hands will probably point out the congress isn't supposed to have a "purpose", at any rate, not in the sense I'm perhaps suggesting. Nevertheless, the 29C3 and 30C3 were rousing precisely because – and from early on in the respective programmes – a consensus emerged, a sense of shared rendezvous. I came away from 31C3 wiser, but like Coleridge's wedding guest leaving his own gathering, a sadder man.
There were some incredible moments on stage – the Invisible Committee's talk got under the skin, as did the appearance of the Pay Pal 14 (who redefine the concept of being laid back on stage). These talks were unmissable.
More thoughts to follow ...
Why, when there’s more than enough food in the UK, were a million families forced to rely on food banks in 2014? Why, as agri-tech brings astonishing new capabilities online, from synthetic food and cisgenics, to agri-robots, could an all-party report conclude that “hunger now stalks the UK”? And why, in an age of technological convergence, are we as far from an equitable distribution of bio-resources than ever before? In a talk I’ll be giving on 29 December at the 31C3 congress in Hamburg, I’ll be exploring how art and literature can help us gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying this ethical and material dissonance.
My talk draws on the new book Jayne Archer, Howard “Sid” Thomas and I published earlier this month, Food and the Literary Imagination.
The book collects together much of the research into Keats and Shakespeare that garnered media attention in 2012 and 2013, along with new chapters on Chaucer and George Eliot. We also take a long look at the Field in Time, and end with some observations on future trends.
You can watch the talk live, and in hi-def, at the Chaos Computer Club’s live stream, 29 December - I’m on at 20.30 (19.30 UK time). For those at the 31C3, where some of the world’s best-known figures in tech and hactivism will be giving talks, I’ll be in Saal 6. Hope to see you there. If you’re interested in some of the astonishing new tech-led capabilities, from agri-robots and cisgenics, to content plant phenotyping - and the role of art and literature in deep processing the social and ethical dimensions of technological convergence, Saal 6 is definitely the place to be.
I’ll be structuring my talk around a reading of Daniel Suarez’s Freedom TM (2011) and – with my Romanticist hat on – Britain’s best-loved painting, John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821).
A full conference report will follow in the new year.
John Keats’s phrase “balmy zephyrs” comes to mind to describe Cyprus’s humid breezes this late-Autumn. More balm than zephyrs: October, according to the taxi driver, has been unseasonably warm. Climatologists seem unable to decide whether the island’s weather should be classified as subtropical or hot-Mediterranean, though either category appeals to this native of verdant but often sodden Wales. The trick of heat is the thing. It doesn’t come from one direction, but is a 360-degree phenomenon. The air rises from the stones, wraps you in its arms. Squeezes you, in the summer months. “Too much hot in Cyprus,” the driver grumbles as the road to Paphos from the airport takes us along the razor wire of the Cyprus Airforce base.
I'm visiting the Mediterranean following an invitation from the University of Cyprus to talk about Keats and surveillance at its “Romanticism and the Future” conference. My talk brings State eavesdropping in Keats’s age into creative apposition with the mass surveillance of civilian populations in our own epoch of “security”. Romanticism insists – I insist – on its pertinence to current debates around surveillant society. Keats’s letters and poems, embedded in the era that first imagined total surveillance, help us to identify and calibrate the violence of State intrusion into 21st-century private lives, as well as alerting us to our own, internalized acts of self-inspection. They dare us to decide what it means to inform on ourselves and our acquaintances casually on websites and apps such as Foursquare and Facebook … what it means to divulge our whereabouts, plans, “likes” and radiating affiliations ... what it means to have so quickly, so thoroughly, socialized the act of informing ... and what it means to label those who use anonymity services like Tor to resist inspection of their private data as “extremists”, or worst.
As we skirt the Airforce’s perimeter fence, I think of Keats in April 1817 on the Isle of Wight, an altogether colder pastoral. While exploring the isle’s environs, Keats spotted an “extensive barracks”, which he felt disrupted “so beautiful a place”. What he’d spied was the Albany Barracks, built in 1798 as part of a line of heavy fortifications against the French along the southern coast. Back in his rented lodgings, Keats found an inscription on his window: “O Isle, spoiled by the military”. Perhaps we hear a slant rhyme in Keats’s “La Belle Dame” (1819), whose first line, “O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms”, delivered in the voice of the doctor Keats trained as, also seems attuned to symptoms of military trauma, exteriorized in the knight’s moist brow and listlessness. If what ails Keats’s isle is the garrison that disfigures it, Keats’s knight-at-arms is haunted by a more individual experience of war, by the ghastly, deathly “pale warriors” who rise again in his imagination, the trouble of his dreams.
Cyprus hosts another military base: a few miles east of Larnaca lies Ayios Nikolaos Station, the GCHQ’s biggest listening post outside the UK. This Sigint (signals intelligence) facility is able, as Snowden revealed last June, to monitor and intercept electronic communications from the Middle East by tapping into undersea fibre optic cables. That role’s performed in the UK by the donut-shaped installation in Cheltenham. The irony isn’t lost on me that my paper on Keats and surveillance has already been scooped up by dragnet data gathering and analysing systems such as TEMPORA, PRISM and XKEYSCORE long before the conference delegates will hear it. Indeed, my paper was being collected, analysed and stored as I was writing it, along with the history of all the websites I visited during its composition, all the search terms I entered, and all the false starts and changes of heart along the way. All the delegates’ papers were. Yet such is the cognitive dissonance around surveillance, that even though people know mass data gathering is happening, they still think you're paranoid for pointing it out.
Responding to Snowden’s leaks about the endemic surveillance of the UK citizenry, then-Foreign Minister William Hague reassured people with the familiar mantra: if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear. Even if that were true – and the documented misuse of metadata, and alarming effects of networked, algorithmic databases tells us that it wasn’t – what about the future? Can we be certain that the data portraits being constructed for each of us now will not be incriminating in days to come? That future Lords of Information will not use them to sift populations into “inner” and “outer”, “desirable” and “undesirable”?
Back to the future, to “Romanticism and the Future,” which wrapped up earlier this evening. The hosts, Evy Varsamopoulou and Maria Varsam, co-ordinated it with remarkable energy and a vivid sense of purpose. The event felt timely and significant throughout. Topics ranged from Continental philosophy and contingency to prophecy and myth, with all the papers finding intriguing purchase on the ways in which Romanticism attempted to imagine the shape of future possible societies. It was convivial from start to finish. Such social and intellectual exchange, it’s worth remembering, lay at the centre of the Romantic project, with the two modes of exchange coming together in “conversation”. Then, as now, the surveilling of conversations, of networks of conversers, threatened – threatens – to place a chill on the free exchange of ideas and the flow of social agency alike.
Over sardines at Theo’s fish restaurant in Paphos Harbour, Keats’s biographer, Nicholas Roe and I are drafting the “call for papers” for the second Keats Foundation bicentenary conference, which we’re organizing together with fellow Romanticist, Sarah Wootton. Scheduled for 1-3 May 2015, it follows the “John Keats and his Circle” conference at Keats House, Hampstead, last May, which was tremendous fun. Next year’s gathering, entitled "John Keats: Poet-Physician, Physician-Poet, 1815-1821", will be held on the 29th floor of Guy’s Hospital tower, with vertiginous views over the city of London. In addition to a full programme of papers reflecting on Keats and medical culture in the Romantic era, the conference will include a talk over wine in the Old Operating Theatre, and a reception in the wooden-panelled private rooms of London's last surviving mail coach inn with courtyard, the sixteenth-century George Inn. We’ve kept prices low, and academics, postgraduates and members of the public are equally welcome to attend.
As suggested conference themes appear on the back of one of Theo’s serviettes – infection, medical advances, dissection, hypochondria, pharmacopeia, surgery, madness – a tremendous electrical storm sends flashes of red and white light across the island’s skies, accompanied by low, but insistent rumblings.
It’s a city of windows. From my vantage point on the eighth floor, I can count hundreds. With the right equipment, I could see into dozens of curtainless rooms. Reach into them. Last night, I attended the Liverpool premiere at FACT of Laura Poitras’s moving new film Citizenfour. For almost the entire film, the whistleblower Edward Snowden sits, tightly framed in his tiny Hong Kong hotel room, as he reveals details of global surveillance programmes to Guardian journalists, the whole drama unfolding in real time. One thing became clear from Poitras's film – all our lives are now curtainless rooms. What also emerged with sobering clarity as I sat with twenty or so other people dotted around the auditorium is that most people are unconcerned by this state of affairs, or at any rate unwilling to voice concern.
Yes, the Snowden leaks last June confirmed what many people already suspected – that the NSA and GCHQ, along with their “five eyes” partners, had constructed an enormous, globe-spanning surveillance mechanism that routinely captured the bulk of our electronic communications (email, SMS, videochats), our photographs and buying habits, and through networked algorithmic CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras (ANPR) tracked our movements through public space; that it worked with large Internet Providers to harvest our online search histories, the length of time we spend on sites, our browsing habits, our “likes”, our circles of friends. But most of us, if we thought about it at all, were content with the official line, ventriloquized by William Hague shortly after the Snowden revelations broke: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.
Stopping for fuel on the drive up to Liverpool, I happened to glance at the front page of the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer, which reported a “ceremony” held at the local police station to celebrate the switching on of a new £64,000 CCTV system. Local communities – whatever they are, these days – actively petition for surveillance systems to “keep them safe”. The narrative of security has trumped all others.
It turns out that “surveillance” is a Romantic word – its first use in English contexts was in the Monthly Review in 1799. The newness of the term “surveillance” to signify an ontological condition – that of being “under the eye of the police” – was still being registered in Charles James’s Military Dictionary of 1816. In May that year, Hansard recorded a House of Lords debate on the Alien Bill that should sound very familiar. Lord Milton and the Solicitor-General tussled over the extensiveness of the “system of surveillance it was necessary to establish for the security of the realm”. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first recorded instance of the now ubiquitous slant rhyme of surveillance and security.
In 1795, English essayist Vicesimus Knox complained that his own age’s mass surveillance project – letter opening, neighbours informing on neighbours, a rapidly expanding system of spies – was corrupting the “sequestered walks of private life” and destroying its "confidential comforts and most valuable virtues”. His lament resonated with Romantic poets. Writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats struggled to find ways – often fugitive, displacing political discourse onto nature imagery in a form of literary steganography – of processing imaginatively the individual and wider social impacts of what Jeremy Bentham, designer of the Panopticon, called “inspective force”. It’s tempting, given the seeming apathy of today’s citizenry, to conclude they needn’t have bothered. But let’s remind ourselves why Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth and other of our best historical writers thought it so essential to contest, and develop resilience to, mass surveillance. Why, if they’d been alive today, they would have encrypted their emails and used privacy browsing software such as Tor.
Jacob Appelbaum puts it well in an interview in CitizenFour: “If you lose privacy, you lose agency, because you lose the ability to say what you think.” He’s right. Democratic political organization becomes all but impossible when all communications are intercepted and stored (think that through …), and perilous to our life chances when mere presence at a legal protest can result – as we know it now often does – in long-term tracking and tagging, which may impact on our social “privileges”, such as the ability to find employment, secure loans and rent housing. Even discussing “politics” becomes hazardous, now that big data, with its scarcely conceivable predictive power, can detect “thought crime” before we are ourselves aware of it.
This week, I’ll be talking about Keats and surveillance at the University of Cyprus's Romanticism and the Future conference. My focus will be on ways in which Romanticism continues to insist on its pertinence to current debates about the chilling experience of surveillance and the wider social impacts of the erosion of privacy.
I’m just back from teaching a week-long residential writing course with friend and collaborator Damian Walford Davies at Ty Newydd. Entitled “Writing Beyond the Self”, the course focused on throwing voices, on moving out of the post-Romantic comfort zone that is the confessional poem, and asked participants to adopt various masks of persona. The work produced was extraordinary – innovative, challenging and moving – suggesting there's plenty of life in the old form yet.
The thrown voice is closely associated with Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” are masterpieces of the genre. However, its modern roots can already be discerned in a long verse drama by Keats’s more popular rival, Barry Cornwall. Cornwall's Marcian Colonna (1820) shocked and enthralled Romantic audiences left cold by Keats's own attempts at enthusing the reading public.
Cornwall's poem had been inspired by a grisly short story written in the voice of a murderer, Gosschen's Diary (1818), penned by Keats's reviewing bete noir, J. G. Lockhart. Both Cornwall's verse drama and Lockhart's gothic story in turn became major influences on Browning’s "Porphyria's Lover" – an intriguing “escape route” for an experimental aspect of Romantic aesthetic into the Victorian age.
The week, spent with such a wonderful group of inspiring and talented writers at Ty Newydd – given additional spice by superb readings from the poet Kathryn Simmonds and writer and activist Kevin Powell – sent me back to the Romantics in other ways. Damian and I wished to address the dramatic monologue as a form that takes us “beyond self” to get back to self, an approach that offered a different “take” on the post-Romantic “I” in contemporary poetry, where Romanticism’s self-representation as the only veridical, authentic mode of composition, predicated on the heroic articulation of first-hand experience, still has currency. We wanted our thrown voices to resist the post-Romantic confessional/veridical mode – itself a conceit, as we discussed – in order to arrive at a way of thinking about voice and style as constructed, yet in a sense no less – perhaps more – “personal” than the confessional poem in its full Plathian expression.
Since the “drama” of a dramatic monologue – those tiny tremors of anxiety, and deeper, convective stirrings – usually occur in moments of slippage and elision, where the speaker gives him or herself away, so to speak, we spent a lot of time discussing the timing of the technique. “My Last Duchess” is one of the great examples of self-betrayal: the Duke lets a great deal slip, and not merely his sinister role in stopping his wife’s smiles altogether (here he plays with the extent to which his social power allows him to hint at criminality). Also at stake in the poem is the speaker's sense of his increasingly precarious position in a world where new money was fast eroding the power of a nine-hundred-year-old name (a prospective dowry is one reason why he’s negotiating a new marriage).
It might seem foolish to go mano-a-mano with the Duke, but here’s a link to one of my own dramatic monologues, "Elisions", from my collection Wan-Hu’s Flying Chair (Salt, 2009). In it, a Romantic-period steam engineer, a man not unlike James Boulton, a member of the Lunar Society and as such an abolitionist, tries to elide his complicity in the slave trade while letting his sense of culpability slip precisely at the same time.
I was also returned to the Romantics by the sense of community and coterie that the Ty Newydd setting encourages and fosters. It didn’t take long before, isolated from the world and its things (relatively speaking: there's wifi available), we began reading each other’s work during the composition phase, suggesting changes, phrases or even lines, very much as Keats and Co. did in their own circles. Far from existing as isolated geniuses, wafting above the world, Romantic authors relied on friends to read and revise their poetry, see it into print and puff it when it appeared. Much like the Ty Newydd group, they also researched poems, even if they liked to give the impression they were flashing the contents of their “teeming brains” (see Keats's sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be") onto the page in one, tremendous spontaneous event.
Keats was no different to other writers in his circle in that regard, plundering Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary for Greek mythology, and turning to whatever books were at hand during “research” for even his most personal, ostensibly self-contained works. Take the great odes, written in May 1819. Do we think any less of Keats once we see his (possible) debt to the French philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac? Compare the following lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode on Melancholy” (respectively) to what I think are their immediate sources in Nugent’s English translation of Condillac’s Essay on the Origin of Human Understanding (1756):
Even if Keats's most famous line of poetry, "beauty is truth, truth beauty", is closely inspired by his reading of someone else's work, it doesn't diminish the achievement of the famous ode. We bring ourselves to our poetry – how could we not? – and the “traffic” into a piece of creative writing is organized by that matrix of personality, ambition and foible we think of as the “self”. All the same, the Romantic myth of the autonomous genius is just that. Poetry might be 10% inspiration, but mostly it's hard, if enjoyable, craft.
In Deep State (2012-2014), Karen Mirza's and Brad Butler's mesmerizing video installation meditating on surveillance and mass protest, the voiceover calmly intones that the law is currently being upheld by hired muscle and corporate bully boys, and has nothing to do with justice. Real power, the film suggests, resides in a "shadowy network of special interests", where fundamental decisions are made. Under such conditions, structural political change – which would include a meaningful response to environmental crisis and substantial dismantling of the global surveillance apparatus – is impossible.
Deep State forms part of Science Fiction: New Death, an exhibition in Liverpool's FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). The exhibition as a whole is "based on new writing" by novelist China Miéville, author of The City & the City (2010), a book I admire enormously. Science Fiction: New Death offers a compelling and heartening example of how literary fiction finds new ways to insist on its relevance to wider contemporary engagements.
At last month's Keats Foundation conference at Keats House, Hampstead ("John Keats and his Circle", 2-4 May 2014), I gave a paper on Keats and surveillance, "Keats in Three Crowds". In it, I explored how anxieties about face recognition – about being a face in a (protesting) crowd – worried writers in 1819. I suggested that Keats's ode "To Autumn" has a deep interest in Romantic surveillance ("who hath not seen thee ..."), and responds to a day of mass protest in London on 13 September 1819, six days before the poem's composition, when radical politician Henry "Orator" Hunt paraded through the city, watched by throngs of 300,000 people.
Hunt was on his way to stand trial for high treason for speaking at Peterloo the previous month. His demands then included lower bread prices and more just distribution of the country's wealth and resources – a more sustainable set of social relations, in fact. On Thursday, 29 May, I’ll be speaking on sustainability at the Telegraph Hay Festival with Jayne Archer, Jane Davidson, Adeline Putra-Johns and Richard Kerridge. My interest in sustainability derives from a collaborative project on literature and food with literary scholar Jayne Archer and plant scientist Howard “Sid” Thomas. I'm pleased to report our project has just reached a new milestone with the delivery to the publishers of our co-authored book, Food and the Literary Imagination.
The aim of the book is to show how literature of the past connected bodily with the materiality of agricultural process, with food supply, security and contamination. What might look to us now like sentimental portrayals of worked land and water – in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s King Lear, John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” and Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss – actually encode a nexus of economic and social conditions with much to tell us about our own relation to resources and sustainable practice. In other words, a deep, collaborative engagement between the arts and sciences focused on historical literature can help us to (re-)imagine and cultivate precisely those “other forms of living” explored in Science Fiction: A New Death.
In Liverpool yesterday, as I moved through the strange chambers and futuristic corridors constructed for Science Fiction: New Death, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the synergies between current work on sustainability and surveillance. The connections were perhaps most apparent in Jae Rhim Lee’s astonishing installation Infinity Burial Suit, which imagines future burial suits laced with a new strain of mushroom that decomposes and mediates the toxins found in human tissue. In the context of the presiding role of China Miéville's fiction at the FACT exhibition, Lee's work was further confirmation of how art in conjunction with technology retains its unique capacity to “cultivate other forms of living” through oblique, imaginative interventions. Contemporary literature of all ages has always claimed for itself a shaping, consolidating role in responding to the most pressing, seemingly intractable, challenges of the day. More of this in Hay on Thursday …