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.