Review Essay | Under Surveillance in the Space Between
University of Leicester
Matt Houlbrook. Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2016. 448 pp. + 19 halftones. $40.00 cloth.
William J. Maxwell F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015. 384 pp. + 10 halftones. $29.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.
James Purdon. Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. 240 pp. + 14 illus. $65.00 cloth.
James Smith. British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-1960. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. 228 pp. $103.00 cloth.
The start of the academic year coincides with a new season in the television listings; the week in September 2016 when I received an email from my home institution about the latest refinements of lecture capture technology was the same week the second series of Hunted launched on the UK’s Channel 4. In case you have yet to encounter lecture capture, this is software that can record what you say during your lecture and intercut it with your PowerPoint slides, including the option to make a video recording of your lecture performance. The resulting material can be loaded up onto a password-protected Virtual Learning Environment for students to access, and a tally can be kept of how many students use this resource. Prior to this development, students who had difficulty taking notes in lectures or were unable to attend for some reason might have had access to an audio recording of the lecture and to the slides but would have had to synchronize these two resources themselves. So far, so helpful. But setting aside the issues this technology might raise about student attendance (or lack of) at lectures, or ownership of the material delivered, or indeed the evolution (some would say degeneration) of the lecture as a genre since the advent of the PowerPoint slide, the potential for lecture capture to serve other, less welcome, purposes is evidently a common concern among the increasing numbers obliged to use it in their work (the latest version of the system starts recording automatically at the time when the class is scheduled to begin). Many lecturers, on hearing about lecture capture for the first time, expressed the fear that it would be used for monitoring purposes, as a means of performance management rather than an aid for student learning. That is, the possibility that this system could be used for surveillance was immediately identified.
The potential for certain kinds of technology to flip from benign facilitation to invasive control also underpins Hunted. The format involves a group of about twenty contestants, usually but not always working in pairs, sent off “on the run” with the goal of reaching a pre-arranged rendez-vous while evading a team of expert “trackers” for twenty-eight days. For the second season, added incentive came in the form of a share of a £100 000 prize for successful fugitives, while members of the public who assisted the trackers in their work could earn rewards via social media. These financial incentives could be seen as a portent that Hunted may go the way of Big Brother, a show that quickly discarded its pretentions to anthropology and became a mill for producing contestants for other reality shows. In the British version of Hunted (the format has also been sold to Russian and Spanish production companies), the “trackers” include former policemen, ex-members of the armed forces, and data analysts who operate from a control room kitted out with technology that makes lecture capture look like Betamax video. Knowing that their trackers have access to public CCTV cameras, drones, automated number-plate recognition (which enables cars caught on CCTV to be matched to their registered owners), and bank-card usage, as well as personal data contained on social media sites and in phone records, the contestants have their work cut out to keep a low profile. Being a “loner” able to live off the land would seem to be the best indicator of success. In the most recent series, one of the two contestants who managed to stay on the run was described by the trackers as a “gray man”: a house husband in his early fifties with virtually no social media presence, he relied on middle-class eloquence and good manners to persuade strangers to let him pitch his tent in their garden or borrow their phone. Hunted is shocking in its exposure of the extent of CCTV and other kinds of legitimated surveillance in public places in Britain, and also of the resilience of individuals’ digital footprints: no wonder there’s a prize for managing to evade it all. This is also, though, the technology that facilitates the identification and capture of criminals, and the price to be paid by the law-abiding is that they, too, have to come under its purview.
It might be presumed, then, that the early twentieth century, prior to the development of these various technologies of surveillance, was a time when it was easier for both the innocent and the guilty to escape notice. As I discuss below, however, a number of recent publications have shown that the urge to observe and record has a long history and attempts to avoid surveillance have had mixed results. The 2016 Space Between Conference at McGill University, organized by Ariel Buckley and Robin Feenstra, took “Under Surveillance” as its theme. It was during one of the pedagogy sessions, a widely welcomed new feature at the conference, that the extent of the reach and the concerns about lecture capture became apparent to me. Aside from worries about the potential impact of the availability of recordings on student attendance, and fears about the possibility of recordings being circulated beyond their intended audience, another characteristic of surveillance also inflected our discussion. Being under surveillance can provoke extreme self-consciousness even in relation to relatively mundane situations, such as the delivery of a lecture. A comment made by Ann Rea in her paper on Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943) is pertinent here: “Guilt is surveillance turned inwards.” Surveillance, or even the threat of surveillance, is a powerful ideological weapon because of our willingness to internalise its workings even as we attempt to resist it.
The diary is probably the prototypical document of self-surveillance, but as the conference session on diary-writing revealed, to think of the diary as purely a means of private self-reflection is misleading. As journal editor Janine Utell pointed out in her discussion of one of the diaries written for Mass-Observation, wanting privacy in a time of national emergency can be taken to mean that you have something to hide. Like a number of those who contributed diaries about their war experience to Mass-Observation, Utell’s subject, Olivia Cockett, also kept a private diary, but the divide between these two documents was evidently not a clear-cut one: Utell pointed out that Cockett objected, in her M-O diary, to the apparent policing of her appearance by her married lover. This moment also indicates how the observer can become the observed. Not surprisingly, Mass-Observation also had a dedicated panel at the conference, with papers from Michael McCluskey, Lesley A. Hall, and Peter Faziani, and was a frequent point of reference during discussions, indicating the extent to which the materials it generated have been mined not only in relation to their ostensible original purpose as historical resources, but as complex literary texts in their own right.
If Cockett’s two diaries demarcated what was and was not for public (or at least, M-O) consumption, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, examined by Ella Ophir, fold this demarcation into themselves: Ophir noted that on one occasion, having made some unkind comments about T. S. Eliot, who had been to visit, Woolf added: “(I am not writing for publication.)” This perhaps disingenuous self-reassurance, made all the more ironic by its inclusion in the published version of the diary, is Woolf’s way of allowing herself to say what she wants to say while simultaneously indicating a degree of self-surveillance that serves as a sign to the projected yet simultaneously disavowed reader of her awareness of the boundaries of propriety.
For the historian or literary scholar, diaries are evidently a valuable resource; indeed the paper that completed the diaries panel, by Caroline Krzakowski, considered the diplomat Harold Nicholson’s use of his own diaries as a record that fed into his later account of the peace negotiations of 1919. A diary such as Nicholson’s, kept for the specific purpose of serving as an historical source is likely to provide only indirect glimpses of the author themself; similarly, it is intriguing to come across an attempt to track the historical course of a person who seems to have been determined to leave misleading traces, or, indeed, no traces at all. Matt Houlbrook’s Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (2016) is much more than the biography of an elusive individual: it is also a glimpse of a particular kind of interwar British masculinity, as well as a reflection on the process of writing history from partial or misleading records. Lucas initially hove into public view through his appearances as defendant in a variety of court cases. He then managed to monetise his knowledge of the workings of the justice and indeed prison system by setting himself up as a criminologist, a term applied at this period to authors of non-fictional works on crime with vaguely sociological pretentions, rather than to those with any formal qualifications in the field. Later, Lucas wrote a series of popular lives of members of the British royal family, only to end up on trial at the Old Bailey for fraud after failing to deliver a promised biography of Queen Alexandra. Ultimately Lucas was subject to the most intrusive form of surveillance, an examination by the coroner: he died in a house fire, his body revealing the signs of chronic alcoholism. He was thirty-six.
As well as managing, somehow, to construct a narrative (with, understandably some gaps) of Lucas’s life, Houlbrook also shows what Lucas’s story can tell us about post-First World War masculinity and its intertwining, in Britain in particular, with class: claiming an elevated class status is facilitated by, for example, the availability of good quality ready-made suits. Lucas seems to have been an extraordinary individual but as this example of the significatory power of clothing shows, Houlbrook demonstrates how tracing Lucas’s life can bring into renewed focus the preoccupations of the interwar period: anxieties about class mobility centered on returning war veterans; anxieties about sexuality (Lucas was married but may have had sexual relationships with men); an obsession with crime and criminality; an obsession with the lives of the upper classes and especially royalty; the central role of the popular press in promulgating all these things. Most strikingly, over the course of the book, Houlbrook reflects on the difficulties of the task he has set himself and even directly addresses his recalcitrant subject in what at times amounts almost to a love letter. Grounded in hours in the archives, this book slips the boundaries of generic classification in ways that seem completely fitting, given the elusive nature of its subject.
Just before the reader gets to the endnotes that track Houlbrook’s path through his sources, they find this comment: "This book is […] weighed down by the conventional apparatus of historical scholarship […]. Each numbered note stands in for the research I want you to know I have done, for my professional training and accumulated knowledge. Together this hall of mirrors creates the basis upon which I seek your trust. Of course, if you look carefully, you will see the forgeries that fill my references, and realize how the numbers only really guarantee that I know how to the play the game: Netley Lucas has taught me well" (346). Quite a gauntlet to throw down to a reviewer, given that there are more than seventy pages of notes: you would have to be singularly assiduous to call up all those back issues of the World’s Pictorial News and the Toronto Evening Telegram (Lucas had a spell in Canada) from the stacks and to check every reference. Houlbrook reminds us that those notes are the accepted way for academics to offer themselves, or rather their research, for surveillance; suggesting that there might be false citations in there is a further reminder that this offer is part of a compact that is its own guarantee. The fear that someone could go and check all— or indeed any—of our endnotes is at least part of what leads us to take care when writing them. Similarly, while it seems unlikely that university managers will actually trawl through hours of recorded lectures in order to find that subversive, off-the-cuff comment that could be deemed damaging to the reputation of the institution, it says a lot that many academics nevertheless believe that this is what could happen.
Where Houlbrook is able to catch glimpses of Netley Lucas in the public record created by newspapers and court reports, two other recent studies explore archive materials that were for many years deemed secret, even if their existence could be guessed at. James Smith’s British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-1960 (2013) and William J. Maxwell’s F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (2015) both make use of the previously classified products of governmental surveillance. Both authors carefully describe their materials, foregrounding not only the extent of the archives with which they are respectively working but also the gaps, omissions, and continuing restrictions on material. Maxwell located files by directing to the FBI Freedom of Information Act requests about individuals whom he suspected would be likely to have file, thus supplementing files that had already been released. As pages he reproduces in the book and on its accompanying website show, materials were sometimes redacted prior to being released; some files could not be located, having vanished into what I want to resist calling the “Orwellian memory-hole” of the security services’ archival system. The MI5 files that form Smith’s source material have been released more systematically into the Public Records Office since the late-1990s, when a policy of greater openness was adopted, but many files had been destroyed prior to this, and some, including for instance the file on the Marxist writer Christopher Caudwell, remain classified.
Maxwell’s contention is that “The FBI is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature” (18, emphasis in original). Although influenced, like the CIA, by the New Critical approach to which many of its recruits were exposed in the English departments of elite American universities, it nevertheless served the FBI’s purposes to see literary works as professions of (political) faith, albeit in coded form. The Bureau approached texts by African American authors with “seriousness as well as malicious intent” (Maxwell 150) at a period when this literature was not often subject to critical scrutiny within the academy: a backhanded compliment, to be sure. The title of Maxwell’s book contains a reference to Richard Wright’s 1949 poem “The FB Eye Blues,” in which the speaker imagines the “FB Eye” monitoring not his writing but his love-making, an image that Maxwell reads as implying that living under the Bureau’s scrutiny “comes awkwardly close to sleeping and cowriting with the brother-enemy” (217). Being under surveillance, or, more specifically, knowing you are under surveillance, cannot but affect how you behave, write, even think and dream, and because surveillance is often only legible after the event, even the belief that one is under surveillance can have an influence. This belief, whether grounded or not, may not always show itself so explicitly as in “The FB Eye Blues”; towards the end of his study, Maxwell shows how the plotting of detective novels by Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith and Richard Wright serves as a means of “represent[ing] and recod[ing] known forms of state surveillance” (258). Maxwell coins the term “antifile” to describe such texts, seeing them a challenge from authors to their secret readers.
One characteristic shared by both American and British secret services in the interwar years was an overestimation of the threat posed by communism. Smith suggests that where MI5 was concerned, this could have had strategic reasons: it was to the security services’ own benefit to identify a potential threat so that they could then keep themselves busy monitoring it. Membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain was never high, but “cultural networks” were also targeted, with the contents pages of left-leaning literary journals scanned for contributors who might be considered “suspect” (16). Smith’s work suggests, indeed, that the British “secret readers” were less likely to actually read their targets’ work than were their American counterparts: Smith wryly comments towards the end of his study that “MI5 officers investigating Auden’s possible communist sympathies would have no doubt been better served by a trip to the public library, where they would have found ample detail on Auden’s political standing, rather than combing over MI5’s records for documents that gave a misleading and outdated portrait” (156). It was not so much the work itself as the authors’ wider political activities and allegiances that were of concern. Thus, in the late 1930s, when Ewan MacColl, Communist Party member and theatre practitioner, began to work for the BBC in Manchester, the concerns of the local police about this apparent infiltration of an establishment organization were dismissed by MI5. The production and broadcasting of material that could promote left-wing ideas was deemed less of a threat than face-to-face contacts would have been.
As well as MacColl and Littlewood and the “Auden circle,” Smith also considers the case of George Orwell, who first came to MI5’s notice during his researches for The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), having been identified by police in the north west of England as being involved in “communist activities” (115) in the region; Orwell’s supposedly benign surveillance of the northern working classes makes him, in turn a surveillance target. Smith also reconsiders Orwell’s most notorious engagement with the security services, his offering to the government’s “Information Research Department” of the names of individuals with communist sympathies whom he recommended should not be offered work by the IRD. Smith deems this a “gross miscalculation” (145) on Orwell’s part, whilst noting that the IRD was not part of the security services and that the information Orwell provided did not find its way to MI5. Viewed in the context of the vast archive upon which Smith draws, Orwell’s “speculative list […] seems touchingly naïve” (147).
Orwell was not the only writer whose pre-war surveillance by MI5 did not place a bar on wartime employment by the BBC or the Ministry of Information. Smith notes that although the BBC hesitated to allow Cecil Day-Lewis to speak on air, he did write scripts for broadcast and later in the war worked for the MoI and possibly also the Political Warfare Executive, which concerned itself with making and distributing clandestine or “black” propaganda, that is, material that concealed its origin and had the aim of eroding enemy morale. The shifting stakes of surveillance in wartime were also discussed at the Space Between conference, with the work of writers and artists with either overt or covert involvement in the war effort coming under scrutiny. Allan Hepburn examined the work of the Canadian artist Robert Pilot, who was based in Britain as a camouflage officer during the Second World War. Camouflage attempts to foil surveillance; Hepburn quoted Roland Penrose, the surrealist artist, who was also involved in these activities: “Concealment shall be so completed that even the fact that we have something to hide will not be apparent.” Not seeming to have anything to hide is a good strategy for defeating surveillance before it even starts. This principle seems to have been employed by Noël Coward, the subject of Nathan Hurwitz’s paper. Coward’s flamboyant persona and high public profile would appear to make him the anti-type of the secret agent; in fact, Hurwitz argued, it provided him with an ideal cover. This example also illustrates the scope of information-gathering operations during the war. Coward was reporting back to the Secret Intelligence Service not on surreptitious exchanges or secretly glimpsed documents but on public gatherings and casual conversations.
This type of “cocktail party” espionage is what seems to have been undertaken by Elizabeth Bowen during the war years when she reported back to the British government on what she had learned during her visits to her family home in neutral Ireland. James Purdon’s book Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State (2016) culminates in a chapter on Bowen’s wartime writing. Its earlier sections trace the commodification of information over the course of the early twentieth century, a process facilitated by the development of new kinds of information technology, and one which has a profound impact on subjectivity and its literary representation: “Is the leaking of official documents a political pathology or a public service? Are identification technologies necessary for the safety of law-abiding citizens or illiberal impositions of control?” (8). As Purdon notes, these questions, which underpin his study of works by authors including Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and Graham Greene, as well as Bowen, are still pressing.
Purdon also gives extended consideration to Mass-Observation and the knot of artists associated with it, including the writer John Sommerfield. Noting that its founders “put a great deal of rhetorical work into dispelling anxieties about surveillance,” Purdon argues that M-O’s initial “structure of continuously circulating information” shifted once the organization was co-opted into a “semi-official government body” after the outbreak of war, putting paid to its initial ambition to negotiate between “the aesthetic of bourgeois modernism on the one hand and proletarian socialist realism on the other” (91). Particularly striking in this section of his study is Purdon’s analysis of data collected by T. C. Lethbridge, a Cambridge don. Purdon reads Lethbridge’s sometimes feverish interpretations of patterns of litter, graffiti, and images scratched on walls and gateposts as an example of “how profoundly the habits of paranoid interpretation came to affect susceptible citizens of wartime Britain” (120). In the context of the war effort, a private grumble about some dropped litter is transformed into evidence of enemy agents attempting to communicate with each other; perhaps that Fougasse poster might come to life, and Hitler and Himmler might indeed be sitting behind you on the bus. In fact, as Purdon later shows, British wartime propaganda posters warning about the possibility of surveillance often constructed the threat as a domestic or at least intimate one: the beautiful girlfriend may be the enemy. Purdon situates these concerns in the context of a tradition of women as agents for the transmission of information—secretaries, typists, telegraphists—going back as far at least as Henry James’s “In the Cage,” and interprets Connie’s “suspicious” reading of the newspapers in Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) in this light.
Issues of gender, sexuality, and surveillance also came to the fore in a number of papers at the conference. Benedetta Carnaghi gave a fascinating glimpse into the parlous situtation of gay men blackmailed into spying for the authorities in fascist Italy, obliged to adopt the regime’s linguistic register for the individuals—other gay men—they were charged with observing. On the same panel, Megan Faragher, focusing on the work of W. H. Auden, noted an alignment between introspection and spying which in wartime could amount to the commodification of interiority. These examples point to the complexity of the boundaries between observed and observer, and between conscious and involuntary acts of surveillance, as well as to the particularly marked effect of negotiating these categories on subjects who are used to having to perform acts of self-surveillance in their daily life because of the social taboos attaching to their sexual identity. The plenary discussion raised the issue of so-called “Bathroom Laws” that were introduced in a number of states in the south of the U.S. in the spring of 2016: these laws seem to license the open surveillance and indeed challenging of individuals for whom questions of identity may be especially fraught (or, indeed, hitherto entirely unproblematic).
Knowing that you are under surveillance, or indeed contributing to the process, as the Mass-Observers did, can serve as a reminder that surveillance ostensibly has a protective function: we tolerate having our movements tracked because we believe that this limitation on our freedom is tolerable given the social benefits that might accrue to us from the same technology. The same might be said for social media; at the plenary panel, part of the discussion centered on whether younger people are less protective of their privacy than their elders, and more inclined to post personal information on social media. This would seem a plausible generalization, although it could equally be argued that older people may turn to Twitter and Facebook in particular as ways of countering social isolation. For scholars exploring the pre-digital age, the assiduity of historical forms of surveillance can provide an archive that acts both to illuminate the past, and potentially, warn about the future. And for anyone keen to escape the all-seeing eye of lecture capture, the U.S. version of Hunted has been commissioned, and is currently recruiting contestants. Take some advice, though, from Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939): as Ariel Buckley reminded us in her paper, it is when the novel’s nameless narrator breaks cover and goes into town to buy tinned food that his pursuers get on his tail.