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.