Anne Marggraf-Turley: Croeso i chi gyd. This was Welsh. And a wel­come to you in the Welsh lan­guage. We’re from Wales, where we both live and work at Aberystwyth University. First of all thanks to you all for com­ing, here in the hall and of course at the stream as well.

We’ll start, and I promise this will be the only bit of audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion, just to wake you up a bit. Can any­one who’s actu­al­ly seen a drone in the flesh, so to say, raise their hands, please? I’m talk­ing about the mil­i­tary kind of thing and not the ones with paint­balls and stuff. Actually Reaper, Watchkeeper… Okay, there’s just very few, not even a hand­ful. Thank you.

Wales is quite a long way away from Hamburg, but make no mis­take, we’re at the cen­ter of some of the most impor­tant things that are hap­pen­ing to all of us right now. Our uni­ver­si­ty is sit­u­at­ed just a few kilo­me­ters north of ParcAberporth, the UK’s only test­ing cen­ter for civil­ian and mil­i­tary drones. So if you live in the com­mu­ni­ty of Aberporth, you see them fly­ing there all the time. If you haven’t actu­al­ly seen one your­self, you might be sur­prised at the sheer phys­i­cal­i­ty of these things. They’re real­ly big, and very loud. So you can’t miss them, and that’s the point.

Of course the ones that fly around West Wales are not armed, as far as we know, but they still man­age to dis­rupt local com­mu­ni­ties, whether you object to the noise or to the research into remote com­bat and sur­veil­lance. It’s hard not to have an opin­ion on them. But the fact is drones spread social dis­cord in what­ev­er set­ting they’re placed. They make peo­ple act dif­fer­ent­ly, which is bad news because British defense roadmaps are explic­it about nor­mal­iz­ing their use in domes­tic air­space. (Taken from an MOD doc­u­ment; a UK one.)

So we’re talk­ing here about rou­tine social man­age­ment in the hands of the mil­i­tary. Arguably, the only time the mil­i­tary had this kind of role in the past was 200 years ago in the Romantic peri­od, when Britain was engaged with what was known at the time as total war with rev­o­lu­tion­ary fronts. In fact, these total­iz­ing per­spec­tives which feed into mass-surveillance were framed ide­o­log­i­cal­ly in the Romantic peri­od. Not only that, but strate­gies for resist­ing these total­iz­ing nar­ra­tives also emerged in the Romantic peri­od in forms that exhib­it sug­ges­tive cor­re­spon­dences with con­tem­po­rary hack­ing.

Richard Marggraf-Turley: We’re par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed, and we hope to get you inter­est­ed in some of these Romantic insights into the social impact of the widen­ing state inspec­tion on the imag­i­na­tive lives of com­mu­ni­ties. This is the drone above the vil­lage effect, pro­ject­ed back 200 years ago.

We’re talk­ing about com­mu­ni­ties that were trau­mat­i­cal­ly divid­ed, haunt­ed by sur­veil­lance and by the phan­tom of con­spir­a­cy, and con­spir­a­cy here rep­re­sents the ulti­mate expres­sion of patho­log­i­cal, mor­bid self-referentiality. In fact, as we’ll be dis­cussing, it was the Romantic poets that gave an emo­tion­al vocab­u­lary to these issues. Also, this emo­tion­al vocab­u­lary retains its rel­e­vance as we attempt to cal­i­brate our own respons­es to widen­ing state sur­veil­lance today, arguably at a time when the con­tract between the state and soci­ety is under assault in ways it hasn’t been since the 1790s.

Social the­o­ry, in a sense is the intel­lec­tu­al child of the Romantic peri­od, and what’s more as Jeffrey C. Robinson point­ed out in a paper ear­li­er this year provoca­tive­ly enti­tled Occupying Romanticism” [PDF], Romantic lit­er­a­ture con­tin­ues to iden­ti­fy ways in which we as 21st cen­tu­ry cit­i­zens can inter­vene poet­i­cal­ly in social cri­sis.

So we’ll be look­ing at three Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and John Keats, with a cou­ple of pass­ing ref­er­ences to Lord Byron. You may have heard of him. As one of his many lovers put it, he was mad, bad, and dan­ger­ous to know.” And as far as being dan­ger­ous to know goes, he would have felt, I think, quite at home with some of the speak­ers at this con­fer­ence.

If it isn’t already obvi­ous, we’re going to be look­ing at Romantic hack­ers that aren’t actu­al­ly com­put­er hack­ers. The Romantic period’s a bit ear­ly for that. Having said that, the first com­put­er pro­gram­mer, who worked with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, was of course Lord Byron’s daugh­ter, the Empress of Numbers her­self, Ada Lovelace. So not com­put­er cod­ing then, but we are going to look at how Romantic poets use tex­tu­al cod­ing to resist the world’s first mass-surveillance state, and we’re going to sug­gest that their tex­tu­al strate­gies exhib­it res­o­nant cor­re­spon­dences with con­tem­po­rary hack­ing. So in the spir­it of the Congress, you might say, we’re going to be cross­ing depart­ments in order to trace a Romantic epis­te­mol­o­gy for prac­tices that we file today under hack­ing.”

Anne: A quick sprint through polit­i­cal Romanticism, crash-course Romanticism. The Romantic poets were the first to have to think about com­mu­ni­ties under pres­sure from widen­ing sur­veil­lance. But fear of French inva­sion and repres­sive state mea­sures for com­bat­ing spies means that Romantic poets weren’t able to com­mu­ni­cate polit­i­cal sen­ti­ments direct­ly in their poet­ry. We’ll talk about their hack­ing solu­tions to this prob­lem a bit lat­er, but first a word about those repres­sive mea­sures, some of which may seem quite famil­iar to you from Jake’s talk.

We’re talk­ing here about the first glimpses of the mech­a­nisms of mod­ern sur­veil­lance state. These two car­toons from the peri­od frame the cli­mate of para­noia. On the right, this is how they imag­ined French troops march­ing through London, and on the left rad­i­cal reform­ers as walk­ing guil­lotines. So open dis­sent in these con­di­tions was all but impos­si­ble.

The Home Secretary’s Aliens Office intro­duced industrial-scale net­works of spies and paid infor­mants, with mas­sive infil­tra­tion of polit­i­cal groups and rou­tine let­ter inter­cep­tion. So the orig­i­nal man-in-the-middle attack, if you want. The Aliens Office even referred to itself as a sys­tem of pre­ven­ta­tive police.”

Here we are, The Bank of England in ruins, as imag­ined by the painter Joseph Gandy. Let’s have a look how long it takes until our bands real­ly lie in ruins. Max Keiser thinks it might be soon­er rather than lat­er. So to sum­ma­rize, in the Romantic era we have: a peri­od of total war with rev­o­lu­tion­ary France; widen­ing sur­veil­lance; then the Gagging Acts,” which crim­i­nal­ized unli­censed polit­i­cal gath­er­ings; habeas cor­pus was sus­pend­ed twice, allow­ing unde­sir­ables to be detained with­out tri­al; count­less show tri­als were held for sedi­tion and trea­son­able prac­tices; then expand­ing nation­al debt; and an unsta­ble fiat paper mon­ey sys­tem. And I don’t think we need to point out the mod­ern par­al­lels.

There weren’t enough police to watch every­one, but that didn’t mat­ter. Jeremy Bentham’s great insight in his Panopticon framed a new par­a­digm of total­iz­ing inspec­tive force. While one inspec­tor couldn’t watch all pris­on­ers at once, the fact that the pris­on­er knew they might be watched was enough to nor­mal­ize” their behav­ior. So, we act dif­fer­ent­ly if we think some­one might be watch­ing us. It’s what Foucault called the inter­nal­iza­tion of dis­ci­pline.

Of course, with archived CCTV streams, ISP taps, some­one is watch­ing us. And with retroac­tive data min­ing, the mod­ern inspec­tor can time trav­el to any pre­vi­ous data point. So it’s vast­ly expand­ing the thir­ty meter cir­cum­fer­ence of Bentham’s orig­i­nal struc­ture including—and this is most terrifying—its chrono­tope or time­space in a Bakhtinian sense, since all time becomes now.

Richard: We’ll move on to some of those Romantic engage­ments with the social impact of sur­veil­lance, so we’re call­ing this sec­tion The Fabric of Love, and it’ll become appar­ent in a moment why we’re doing that.

Homi Bhabha argues that any increase in the vis­i­bil­i­ty of the sub­ject as an object of sur­veil­lance results and pro­vokes a cor­re­spond­ing increase in social para­noia and fan­ta­sy.” Well, that wasn’t news to the Romantics. In 1795, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge remind­ed his read­ers that all our hap­pi­ness depends on social con­fi­dence.” Community, con­fi­dence in each oth­er, or as he puts it so strik­ing­ly this beau­ti­ful fab­ric of love” was being shak­en to its very foun­da­tions by the state sys­tem of spies and inform­ers.

Those are Coleridge’s words in 1795, and they haven’t lost any of their res­o­nance. Where mod­ern util­i­tar­i­an fan­tasies of social man­age­ment treat peo­ple as what Schelling calls a mechan­i­cal sys­tem of gears, the Romantic poets placed the empha­sis, and insist­ed on, the impor­tance of human pas­sions and social con­fi­dence. You might say that if the log­ic of the total­iz­ing state is either/or,” then Romanticism struc­tures itself around and/and,” around the web-like beau­ti­ful struc­ture, the web-like fab­ric of love. That’s the kind of social net­work­ing plat­form I’d be hap­py to sign up to. Forget Facebook, if any­one fan­cies set­ting up the beau­ti­ful fab­ric of love, I’ll be your first cus­tomer.

Anne: Let’s talk about Romantic hack­ing, shall we?

Richard: I hope you’re not here for the oth­er kind of roman­tic hack­ing, by the way. Romanticism with a big R, not a small r.

Anne: Richard Stallman’s def­i­n­i­tion of hack­ing as play­ful clev­er­ness” informs our usage and pro­vides a bridge between mod­ern hack­ing broad­ly defined, and the Romantic vari­ety as a sub­ver­sion of expect­ed norms. We’ll start with a noto­ri­ous Romantic polit­i­cal pris­on­er, Leigh Hunt, poet and jour­nal­ist, a friend of poet John Keats.

Richard: We’re going to whis­tle through some of these exam­ples. That’s Leigh Hunt and that’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Hunt had been snip­ing at the gov­ern­ment for years. He’d been expos­ing nation­al debt, crim­i­nal­i­ty and mil­i­tary mis­man­age­ment, the kind of things gov­ern­ments then and now like to keep hid­den. He final­ly went too far, though, when he called the Prince Regent, the future George IV of England, a fat Adonis of 50” in print. And in December 1812, almost exact­ly 200 years ago to the day, he was sen­tenced to two years in prison and was giv­en a £5,000 fine aimed at shut­ting down his news­pa­pers. So we’ll put Hunt in prison for his foul and malig­nant libel” on the Prince Regent.

And his sto­ry should’ve end­ed there. He should’ve done the decent thing and caught jail fever and died. But in fact, he con­tin­ued edit­ing his news­pa­pers and set about hack­ing his prison cell, an out­ra­geous act of trolling. The first thing he did was to cov­er the walls in a nice wall­pa­per, he had a pianoforte brought in, [a] chaise longue. He had the ceil­ing paint­ed a sky col­or, and he used to hold soirées there. People used to bring claret and they’d get drunk, and they’d agree to be locked in overnight and they’d be let out the next morn­ing. He had Venetian blinds put over the win­dows, as well.

One of his vis­i­tors was Lord Byron, who dubbed him The Wit in the Dungeon. But anoth­er vis­i­tor was the man who dreamed the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham. And Jeremy Bentham also iden­ti­fied him as a man of wit.”

Anne: Leigh Hunt’s wit points up a humor­ous, trolling side of Romantic resilience to unre­lent­ing sur­veil­lance, which you [can] see sur­vives in Anonymous and LulzSec. In a sense, you could also see Assange’s incar­cer­a­tion in the Ecuadorian embassy along a con­tin­u­um of hacked prison cells, with Romantic roots.

Hunt’s crazy Romantic prison cell revers­es the dynam­ic of the inspec­tive force, and so revers­ing the log­ic of the orig­i­nal Panopticon. Hunt’s con­fine­ment rep­re­sents an anti-Panopticon. Rather than one per­son chang­ing the behav­ior of a large num­ber of sur­veilled sub­jects, the trolling pris­on­er is observed by large num­bers of out­side vis­i­tors, vis­i­tors who can­not fail either to notice or become active­ly involved in a direct chal­lenge to inspec­tive force.

Our sec­ond exam­ple is what you might think of as an ana­log tro­jan. Romantic rad­i­cals went under­ground, but we shouldn’t think they sim­ply aban­doned polit­i­cal activism just to write poems about flow­ers and birds. Rather, they hid polit­i­cal poems with­in nature poems. This is much like steganog­ra­phy works. Andy Tannenbaum’s well-known exam­ple shows two JPEGS of three zebras and a tree. However, one image con­ceals five plays by Shakespeare. Here a lay­er of col­or infor­ma­tion has been removed and replaced with covert infor­ma­tion.

Richard: You could apply this idea of trans­port and covert lay­ers to poet­ic analy­sis. So have a look at the sec­ond stan­za from John Keats’ ode To Autumn,” one of the best-loved poems in the English lan­guage, and often thought to rep­re­sent the quin­tes­sen­tial pic­turesque English rur­al land­scape at har­vest time. We’ll just read out a cou­ple of lines.

Who hath not seen thee (thee being autumn) oft amid thy store?” And then a lit­tle fur­ther down and we’re look­ing now at some of the work­ers in the field, who are tak­ing a nap. Or on a half-reap’d fur­row sound asleep, drowsed with the fume of pop­pies, while thy hook (the reaper’s hook) Spares the next swath (of corn) and all its twined flow­ers.”

It’s a scene of bucol­ic bliss and rur­al idyll, right? And those are hard-working labor­ers tak­ing a well-deserved rest, aren’t they?

Well, actu­al­ly hid­den beneath this reas­sur­ing image, just like Andy Tannenbaum’s zebras, is a much more sub­ver­sive mes­sage about sur­veil­lance and unrest among agri­cul­tur­al work­ers. As recent work with two friends and col­leagues from Aberystwyth University, Jayne Archer and Howard Thomas has shown (you can look it up), that oddly-phrased first line Who hath not seen thee” sounds the alarm, sur­veil­lance. Are those work­ers sound asleep on a half-reaped fur­row because they’re tak­ing a well-earned break, or are they rather putting their tools down because they’re poor­ly paid, dis­grun­tled, dis­en­fran­chised labor­ers who should be work­ing, and are sleep­ing in the fur­rows to avoid detec­tion from the fore­man? Might we actu­al­ly be observ­ing them in the act of with­draw­ing their labor, strik­ing in oth­er words, and join­ing wider agri­cul­tur­al unrest that swept across south­east England at the very time Keats was writ­ing this poem in the town of Winchester?

Institutional accounts rep­re­sent this poem, this great ode, as a vision of con­tent­ed England. But giv­en Keats’ friend­ship with Leigh Hunt we just saw in prison, that read­ing seems too sim­plis­tic. It’s much more like­ly that these lines cap­ture a moment where work­ers are avoid­ing detec­tion, putting their tools down, and it also alludes to oth­er polit­i­cal poets, and Keats is advis­ing sim­i­lar­ly to keep a low pro­file in dif­fi­cult times.

Less astute read­ers just see zebras. They don’t see the sub­ver­sive mes­sage. It’s per­fect encryp­tion, and it still is. It’s per­fect because real­ly it’s a code. It’s an alle­go­ry, a polit­i­cal para­ble, and yes­ter­day Bill Binney was talk­ing about how he pre­ferred codes to encryp­tion. You can see why.

Anne: We’ll end with visu­al analy­sis tech­niques. Crowd sur­veil­lance, like we heard yes­ter­day in Ben’s talk, and mul­ti­ple object track­ing. Again, by objects humans are meant, of course. Observe the dis­tanc­ing lan­guage here.

Crowd sur­veil­lance and mul­ti­ple object track­ing divide infor­ma­tion into fore­ground and back­ground, or space-time inter­est points. The algo­rithm dis­tin­guish­es between mov­ing and non-moving ele­ments, and then decides” whether the motion is pre­dictable and explic­a­ble, nor­ma­tive or non-normative. This tech­nol­o­gy can already tell whether some­one is drink­ing cof­fee or smok­ing a cig­a­rette. As our col­league Hanna Dee from Aberystwyth’s com­put­er sci­ence depart­ments puts it, soon it will be impos­si­ble to leave your bag on a train.

Richard: But Romantic poet­ry is all about leav­ing bags on trains. So in a sense, which bit of the image moves and which bit remains still is as impor­tant in poet­ic analy­sis and poet­ic inter­pre­ta­tion as it is in visu­al analy­sis. The trick clear­ly is to reverse the dynam­ic, and make the bit you want to keep hid­den (the impor­tant bit) as still as you can.

The Romantics were already exploit­ing this vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in dis­course, in hermeneu­tics and inter­pre­ta­tion. Wordsworth’s poem The Thorn” was writ­ten in 1797 in the midst of the French inva­sion anx­i­ety. Wordsworth had vis­it­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary France in 1792. No one quite knows what he was doing, but he nar­row­ly escaped the September Massacres, and he lost a friend, the French jour­nal­ist Gorsas to the guil­lo­tine. More than enough to make him an object of inter­est to the state.

We’re just talk­ing there about mov­ing and non-moving parts of a poem. Wordsworth was all over this in 1797. In fact this is exact­ly as he puts it in his note to The Thorn.”

It was nec­es­sary that the Poem, to be nat­ur­al, should in real­i­ty move slow­ly; yet I hoped, that, by the aid of the metre, to those who should at all enter into the spir­it of the Poem, it would appear to move quick­ly.
Note to The Thorn’”, William Wordsworth

Pretty neat. And what’s more, those read­ers of Wordsworth who were will­ing to enter into the spir­it of the poem found a rad­i­cal spir­it wait­ing for them. We’ll show you what we mean, and it’s actu­al­ly quite a fun­ny sto­ry. As in fun­ny scary, in what sur­veil­lance does to com­mu­ni­ties. This is the back­ground to the note pub­lished with The Thorn.”

In 1797 Wordsworth left London, which was polit­i­cal­ly too hot, and he moved to a lit­tle coastal vil­lage called Nether Stowey in Somerset. He set­tled down there with Coleridge, who was also a polit­i­cal refugee. They were joined there by the most noto­ri­ous polit­i­cal fig­ure of the day, a man called John Thelwall. In 1795, he had been inter­ro­gat­ed in the Tower of London, and he nar­row­ly sur­vived a tri­al for high trea­son.

Thelwall’s arrival in the vil­lage of Nether Stowey caused a storm of rumor and sus­pi­cion. And when Coleridge rather stu­pid­ly asked one of the locals whether any of the small rivers in the area could car­ry boats down to the sea, one of the locals assumed he was a French spy look­ing for ways to lead a French inva­sion fleet inland and wrote to London to Whitehall, to the Aliens Office, and a spy was imme­di­ate­ly dis­patched. The man was called James Walsh, and he arrived in Nether Stowey. Fortunately, he was able to con­firm to his mas­ters that the three out­siders weren’t in fact French spies, they were some­thing much worse. They were vio­lent democ­rats” and one of them, Coleridge, was even sus­pect­ed of writ­ing a book.” Pretty dan­ger­ous stuff.

Walsh also report­ed that he over­heard Wordsworth and Coleridge talk­ing about a spy called Nozy.” Walsh assumed they were talk­ing about him because he had a big nose but in fact, as Coleridge con­firmed lat­er, they were talk­ing about the German philoso­pher Spinoza.

Long sto­ry short, in the midst of all this, Wordsworth writes The Thorn.” And The Thorn” is a poem osten­si­bly about a mad moth­er who’s exiled from her com­mu­ni­ty for—well she’s under sus­pi­cion of hav­ing killed her child. Wordsworth’s tale is nar­rat­ed by a sea mariner, a retired sea cap­tain who comes to this coastal vil­lage with a tele­scope. He’s accost­ed by a sec­ond nar­ra­tor, a shad­owy unnamed fig­ure who starts ask­ing him ques­tions, wants to know every­thing about the mad moth­er. Who is she, what did she do?

We’ve cut the poem up into its com­po­nent parts, and you can see its a dia­logue. Traditional Romanticism has com­ment­ed on the fact that the poem seems to be struc­tured around ques­tions; it’s an inquis­i­tive poem. We think it’s more than that. Have a look.

But what’s the Thorn? and what’s the Pond? […] I can­not tell; I wish I could.” And the next one: And what’s the creep­ing breeze?” The answer, I can­not tell; but some will say [she did this].” And why sits she beside the thorn?” I’ll give you the best help I can.” And then down under­neath, I’ll tell you all I know.”

What we’re sug­gest­ing here is that Wordsworth is reen­act­ing an inter­ro­ga­tion scene of the kind that Thelwall under­went in the Tower of London, and he’s doing it because he feels guilty. After the furore cre­at­ed by the arrival of Thelwall and the arrival of the spy-catcher Walsh, Wordsworth and Coleridge let their friend­ship with Thelwall cool and Thelwall, feel­ing betrayed, went to live on a farm in Wales. This is Wordsworth doing penance by com­ing imag­i­na­tive­ly inward with inter­ro­ga­tion.

Anne: So The Thorn” is Wordsworth’s pro­found­ly per­son­al med­i­ta­tion on the breakup of the Nether Stowey polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty under the pres­sure of sur­veil­lance. The out­cast moth­er presents the plight of the exiled and per­se­cut­ed John Thelwall, and you could see her dead child as the corpse of democ­ra­cy in Britain. Wordsworth makes the Gothic ele­ment of the tale the bit that moves, but the bit that he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in, polit­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, is the area he keeps as sta­t­ic as he can. So, which ago­nizes over guilt, betray­al, gos­sip, and sus­pi­cion with­in the British reform move­ment.

Richard: So to con­clude, the poem is per­fect­ly illus­trat­ing Coleridge’s insight that sur­veil­lance destroys the beau­ti­ful fab­ric of love, phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and com­mu­ni­ties of the mind. And Romantic poet­ry invites us—it chal­lenges us, actually—to reject assur­ances that widen­ing inspec­tive force has no con­se­quences for the inno­cent, how­ev­er defined. Or that it is inevitable, or that it is irre­sistible, or that it is irre­versible.

Thank you all for lis­ten­ing.

Further Reference

Complete slides for this presentation are available at SlideShare.

Richard has published several posts at his site related to and expanding on the topics in this presentation:

There's also a short video in which he goes into more detail on Keats' "To Autumn"


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