The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy

[Matt Potolsky's new book, The National Security Sublime, is a tour through the look-and-feel of mass surveillance, as practiced by the most unlikely of aesthetes: big data authoritarian snoops and the grifter military contractors who wax fat on them. This is a subject dear to my heart. -Cory]

The US National Security Agency is big, really big. But it's unlikely that most people outside the government can (or would even try to) quantify its size or powers with any specificity. The agency is just massive, a quality that can produce in those who try to contemplate it the overwhelming sense of awe and wonder called the sublime. Triggered by an encounter with something grand (towering mountain peaks) or verging on the infinite (the number of stars in the universe), it describes a generally pleasurable feeling of cognitive breakdown, the sensation that you just can't wrap your head around an object or idea so vast and boundless.

The sublime was an important touchstone for Romantic painting and poetry of the early nineteenth century (think windswept peaks, crumbling castles, and misty vales), but it made a striking comeback in the years after the 9/11 attacks, when the surveillance activities of the NSA and other agencies first became common knowledge to the American public. As I argue in my new book, : On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy, the sublime offered a valuable resource for artists, writers, filmmakers, and television showrunners during the War on Terror. Images of vast size and unimaginable scope gave aesthetic form to the feeling of living under seemingly limitless surveillance.

The national security sublime actually originated during the Cold War, notably in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959). Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a secret agent, and unwittingly learns of a plot to steal government secrets. Pressed into the role of a spy, he makes his way westward from New York City in search of the conspirators. The further west he goes, the more sublime the landscapes become. Hitchcock films Thornhill sanding alone in a vast Midwestern cornfield; the film ends with a dramatic pursuit down the face of Mount Rushmore.

We find similar examples of the sublime at the end of paranoid conspiracy films like The Parallax View (1974) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and in 1990s techno-thrillers like Enemy of the State (1998), one of the few films actually to feature NSA agents. Or consider the indelible closing shot of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): a gigantic warehouse, packed to the rafters with wooden crates, where Army Intelligence stores dangerous artifacts.

Shortly after New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed the massive (and illegal) post-9/11 expansion of NSA surveillance in 2005, the national security sublime began to appear frequently in both high art and popular culture. It came to define the aesthetic of the War on Terror. One of the first places we find it is a brief scene in The Simpsons Movie (2007), which began animation work a month after the Times story came out. The fugitive Simpson family is overheard while traveling in Alaska by a robotic train conductor, whose microphone links directly to the NSA. The film cuts to a gigantic situation room filled with what seem to be thousands of agents in business wear, each one listening in on the boring conversations of everyday American citizens.

Sublime images of surveillance also came to define the work of visual artists interested in covert government. Trevor Paglen photographed secret government installations set in vast desert landscapes or perched on mountain tops. Hasan Elahi, having been mistakenly subject to a terrorism investigation by the FBI, began taking photographs of nearly everything he did and everywhere he went. He then assembled these images, sorted by color, into a massive mosaic entitled Thousand Little Brothers: a sublime collection of banal activities.

In the wake of Edward Snowden's 2013 leak of documents demonstrating the real scope of NSA activities, the national security sublime became a cultural touchstone, open for parody as well as more for more traditional uses. In her academy award-winning film Citizenfour (2014), for example, Laura Poitras uses video footage of NSA listening stations contributed by Paglen, backed by a soundtrack of ominous minor-chord drones, to underscore the global menace of unrestrained surveillance. In an episode of South Park from 2013, "Let Go, Let Gov," Eric Cartman infiltrates the NSA to find a vast situation room akin to the one in the Simpsons Movie, as well as the true secret behind the agency's omniscience: Santa Claus wired up to a massive bank of servers.

I have described the national security sublime as a resource for artists, but it was also the symptom of a major transformation in the relationship between citizen and state that took place during the War on Terror. Prompted by the Bush Administration, the NSA inaugurated a new model of intelligence work, one that has come to inform Silicon Valley's current business practices: rather than tracking the activities of known threats, the agency began to scoop up as much data as possible from as many sources as it could tap, and then hunted down secret needles in the resulting haystacks of information.

We tend to think of a secret as information we deliberately conceal, but the secrets the NSA sought went well beyond this traditional definition. Your mobile phone sends a stream of metadata to the closest cell tower, recording your location, movements, and contacts in granular detail. Under the right gaze, this data can reveals secrets you may not even realize you have been keeping: patterns of movement, say, that mirror those of potential terrorist suspects. Under this new model of the intelligence, too, the familiar revealers of secrets, the daring agents of Cold War popular culture, increasingly gave way to algorithms working silently in anonymous server farms. There was simply too much data for human analysts to process.

The national security sublime captured a unique moment in modern history, one in which secrets became unmoored from the conscious control of their keepers and even of those who once made it their profession to uncover them. Secrets were everywhere, swamping even the most inquisitive citizen in an overwhelming torrent of data. Boundless and terrifying, secrecy became (and indeed remains) sublime.