Goodbye Whistleblowers: the New Truth-Tellers in the Age of Resistance
The Art of Revolt
by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie
Stanford University Press (2017), 128 pages
In the Trump age, to revolt against the idea of the state is to challenge both neoconservatives and their nostalgia for militant nationalism, and neoliberals with their sudden desperate cradling of the intelligence communities, the CIA and the FBI. Geoffroy de Lagasnerie’s new book is not interested in nursing the deep state or looking back into the Cold War for a renewed sense of purpose. What de Lagasnerie argues—through the context of the global war on terror and the stories of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning—is that we are in the midst of something new, and that it is time to look forward.
Therefore, the most dangerous thing we can do in this transitional moment is seek refuge in old, broken forms and calcified jargon. Virginia Woolf argued after World War I that “we can best help you to prevent war by not repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods.” De Lagasnerie, likewise, maintains that the entire “political scene is being displaced and a new form of political engagement is emerging,” and that it is the job of the scholar not to use old names like “whistle-blower,” “civil disobedience,” and “coward” to describe the revolution of our time.
Instead of classifying Snowden, Assange, and Manning as “whistle-blowers,” and thereby locating them in an extremely circumscribed discourse, de Lagasnerie chooses to highlight the declassifying nature of these individuals and to refer to them more broadly as “truth-tellers.” “The task,” he writes, “is to prove as radical in terms of theory as they have been in terms of politics. To display intellectual loyalty to Snowden, Assange, and Manning, one must offer a theory commensurate with the heights their concrete engagements have attained.” Unlike Donald Trump, Barack Obama, John Kerry, and others who have sought to minimize and caricature these figures due to their flight from the state, de Lagasnerie says it is precisely in this mode of flight, refusal, and anonymity that we see the code for a new kind of revolution organized not around public collectives (think marching in the street) but around private individuals.
The code of this “truth-teller,” much like Batman and his counterpart, the Joker, is anonymity, a mask. De Lagasnerie’s truth-teller is in many ways the negative or the double of the unclassified “terrorist” or “detainee” from the global war on terror, the bare and precarious individual who never receives trial at a place like Guantanamo Bay. The truth-teller reveals the state’s claim to democracy as a farce by revealing the state’s built-in exceptions, its secret unaccountable and therefore undemocratic programs and people. Whereas the civil disobedient from the 20th Century asks the state to return to order, the truth-teller calls for democracy now, as if for the first time. “Subjects who engage in civil disobedience,” de Lagasnerie asserts, “do not seek to escape sanction. They recognize its legitimacy and allow themselves to be punished. Engaging in civil disobedience means considering oneself subject to punishment” by the very state that invaded Iraq, bailed out the banks, and constructed and maintained Guantanamo Bay.
Asking the Difficult Questions
De Lagasnerie is a professor at the Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Arts in Paris. He is French. The Art of Revolt, published by Stanford University Press, represents a kind of international collaboration that is not at all unique to the world of scholarship. Where would our best scientific theories be without scholars collaborating across national borders? Where would our evolutions in computing be without the open-source sharing of information that defies proprietary identity markers like Russian, American, Chinese, or Indian? Such questions are remedial in the realms of scholarship but become transgressive when applied to the old national models of politics. And so, as we all wrestle with the implications of our current moment in which politics and computing find themselves bound together like a non-binary qubit in the quantum computer of the future, we must ask ourselves a far less remedial question: what kind of world do we wish to build for the next generation?
The Art of Revolt is not interested in dodging the difficult questions by talking about Assange’s sexual behavior, Manning’s sexual identity, or Edward Snowden’s narcissism. What de Lagasnerie confronts us with, if we are still capable of deep reading in this post-truth age, is a fundamental choice: Do you choose to identify with the state? Drawing on diverse thinkers such as Chomsky, Rawls, Nozick, Butler, Agamben, and Thoreau, de Lagasnerie emerges with a number of clear questions that are now more urgent than ever. “Because the state represents an instance of constraint,” he writes, “it cannot have legitimacy unless individuals have chosen to belong to it. A genuinely liberal society cannot view the question of belonging as a matter of fact. It must be a matter of choice.” In the age of Trump and the hashtags and bumper stickers urging “resistance,” the question becomes what exactly does it mean to resist? In the age of the Internet and its transnational model of information exchange, what does it mean to belong?
In an increasingly binary conversation about identity politics, de Lagasnerie urges us to consider the actions of three individuals who have disidentified with the state structures of the 20th Century. For anyone interested in the stories of Snowden, Assange, and Manning, or other more recent “truth-tellers” like Reality Winner, de Lagasnerie’s work is invaluable. It begs us to consider the new kinds of identities the Internet fosters and the “relationship between the Internet and the predisposition to flight, or ‘treason.’” Although de Lagasnerie draws more heavily from theory than from the public rhetoric of his three subjects, his writing is lucid and accessible. But, more importantly than that, The Art of Revolt is original. It offers a new methodology and a new vocabulary. It will redefine the way you think about the morality and classification of whistle-blowers. It will reorient your understanding of democracy and politics in the 21st Century. It is indeed as bold in its theory as Snowden, Assange, and Manning have been in their actions against the state.