The Eye of Sauron

By Charles Kreloff

Eye_of_Sauron_by_ulstudor

 

Why should we care about whether we’re being watched or not? Most people would think that they’re not doing anything wrong but there are so many statutes and laws on the books they probably are. The National Security Agency (NSA) has run roughshod over our basic liberties, especially after 9/11 and the passing of the USA Patriot Act. According to the American Civil Liberties Union “The result is unchecked government power to rifle through individuals’ financial records, medical histories, Internet usage, bookstore purchases, library usage, travel patterns, or any other activity that leaves a record.”

Surveillance orders can be based in part on a person’s First Amendment activities, such as the books they read, the Web sites they visit, or a letter to the editor they have written. This has serious implications for libraries. Under the USA Patriot Act, if a library receives a formal request they are under a legal obligation to disclose the relevant information available. Additionally, under the act’s provisions, librarians who receive an order are prohibited from discussing the issue with anyone other than a library’s attorney and any staff who assist in fulfilling the request. Anyone who violates this could face severe penalties.

The U.S. Depart of Justice has put up a handy page that offers highlights of the law here.

Welcome to Panopticonia

“. . . supervision, control, correction—seems to be a fundamental and characteristic dimension of the power relations that exist in our society.” —Michel Foucault

The 18th century English philosopher Jeremey Bentham came up with a design for a circular prison, (the Panopticon), that in the 1970s the French philosopher Michel Foucault used to illustrate that constant surveillance can be used by the state as an means of control and disciplinary power. There are some theorists who reject Foucault’s premise and think we’re in a post-Panoptic world. One such argument is from the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who posits that we’ve moved beyond Panopticism to seduction. I see that as just another tool in the surveillance arsenal, (albeit a subtle one). Ubiquitous video cameras, smart phones and tablets that double as tracking devices, incredibly sophisticated tracking software—surveillance has become so pervasive that we’re not living in a post-Panoptic world but pan-Panoptic one. Besides for all this surreptitious surveillance most of us are willing participants in the amassing of all this information. Through Internet outlets such as social media and  consumer sites we’re happy to share information globally that previously would have been private or shared with just family or friends.

The enormous blanket of surveillance extracts a huge toll on us. Manipulation and distortion of news, self-policing and censorship of news organizations, threats to freedom of expression—these are all things that have been enforced since the law went into effect. This reinforces a Panopticonic ideal that whether you’re being watched or not you assume you are giving the watcher, (i.e. government), total control. A recent example of this: the writers’ organization, PEN American Center conducted a survey, Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor, which found a large majority of its members deeply concerned about the extent of government surveillance. Like the canary in the coalmine, if artists, writers, and journalists are feeling uneasy what are the implications for the rest of us?

The clip below is an apt visualization of our sense of fear and frustration in the face of this incessant surveillance. In this, is the final scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert who finds out he himself may be under surveillance. He sets out to find the bug, destroying his apartment in the process. Not finding anything he ends up sitting in the wreckage playing his sax . . .

Seen and Heard—a mini film festival.

By Charles Kreloff

Citizen-Kane-Microphone

Screenshot of the microphone representing narrator Orson Welles from the trailer from Citizen Kane.

“The primacy of the written word went into abeyance. And that uniform layer, in which the seen and the read, the visible and the expressible, were endlessly interwoven, vanished too. Things and words were to be separated from one another. The eye was thenceforth destined to see and only to see, the ear to hear and only to hear.”
Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)

Foucault was writing about the “being of language” and the reorganization of culture in the classical world but he could have been describing the transition from silent to talking pictures, (or further, the ongoing change from analog to digital and the impact on accessing and assimilating information). There’s no doubt the written word is alive and well—just look at the amount of writing online—though it’s dwarfed by the amount and availability of still and moving images.

With a Foucauldian transitional moment in mind, (utilizing both eyes and ears), I’ve picked a few commercially produced movies from the 1950s to today which touch on political and social issues such as the gathering and disseminating of information, the need and relevance for books, libraries, and archives, free access of information, the power of the state, (and individuals who challenge it), the needs of society versus the individual, totalitarianism and the toll on those in it, and the nature of privacy and surveillance and the costs to society.

Storm Center (1956), a bit of a pot-boiler, is nonetheless an interesting look into McCarthy era America. As one of the first movies, (albeit post-McCarthy), to examine it overtly, it’s the story of a small town librarian standing up against the banning of books in her library. Though somewhat simplistic it puts forth a powerful argument against censorship and state control of information. In the scene below the librarian argues before the city council that there are a number of books on the shelves that she doesn’t agree with, (she uses Mein Kampf as her example), and the council is almost swayed until one of them uses information, (one assumes from illegal government surveillance), that she once belonged to organizations that were found to be Communist fronts to destroy her. Though not subtle, the issues of individual rights in a democratic society, the role of libraries, the needs of access of information are all touched upon.

The Time Machine (1960), based on the novel by H. G. Wells, tells the story of a man from Victorian England who travels to the future in the device of the title. Filled with cold war allusions of what the future would bring—in one fantastic sequence showing him travelling through time as he sees his street changing culminating in a nuclear holocaust—he ends up in the distant future where mankind has developed into two races, one who live above ground and the other below. Leading up to the scene below he asks the people who live above about their books. He’s taken to an ancient library where he finds that they have been left to decay and turn to dust. He’s shown “talking rings” that these people spin for pleasure but have no understanding of what they are saying. Here we are confronted with a conundrum: What’s the point of an archive if no one is left to understand it?

Fahrenheit 451 (1966) takes a look at a dystopian society that has outlawed books in an oppressive future. Based on a novel by Ray Bradbury, the government uses an armed force known as “firemen” to set rather than put out fires in the pursuit of destroying all books. They can search anyone, anywhere, at any time in the name of eradicating books and the anti-social behavior they are thought to cause. One of these firemen begins to question his task after he starts saving and reading the books he’s supposed to burn. Used here as a metaphor for individuality, books become powerful symbols for personal liberty and the need to question accepted norms. The issues of privacy, surveillance, and perverse manipulation through the use of mass media is evident in the clip below when the fireman’s wife has a date with her television.

Which brings me to the new film The Fifth Estate (2013). Covering the conflicting needs of established and new media, this is the story of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange through the eyes of a former associate. From the opening credits (a two-minute montage covering the history of information gathering), the film brings up some fascinating points about the evolving nature of journalism. Is publishing and posting online with no editing or oversight justified? And is there’s any responsibility that goes along with that? It also touches on the issues of privacy, surveillance, the need, (if any), for authoritative sources, and the nature of information organization on the Internet. Below is a clip showing the sniping between traditional journalists from The Guardian and the new media equation embodied by Wikileaks. As a commercial movie with an eye toward reaching a wide audience it poses these questions with no definitive answers. At this transitional moment even the awareness of these issues takes on enormous importance.

From the Elite to the Accessible

By Charles Kreloff

NYT2010052712314909C

A visit to the Frick Art Reference Library

Turning off Fifth Avenue onto East 71st Street you walk along a windowless grey stone building until you reach the main entrance. Up the stone steps through shadowed doors you enter a space of dark wood and marble. To the immediate right there’s a small curved reception desk. You give your name to the guard, sign in, and are directed to the discreet elevator. The doors open on the third floor where you’re face to face with a marble bust in a niche. To the left, a dim room with stacks and wooden file cabinets. Right, the main reading room—high ceilinged with painted wooden beams, elegant chandeliers, long communal tables, large, tall windows. In front of an Italian renaissance altarpiece, (which I found out later to be a copy) sits the reference desk with three workstations. You walk up to one of the people seated behind it . . .

Hollywood could not have done it better. If one were to imagine what a private library should look like, it would be this.

Reading_Room_2010_B

The Frick Art Reference Library—imposing, impressive—but looks would be deceiving. Over the last few years the library has taken strides to be more accessible to the general public. For starters anyone can walk in with no appointment, register, get a library card and go on up to start looking through their collections.

Research librarian Suz Massen, (whose official title is Chief of Public Services), went over the history of the library, some of the services, and how it’s evolved. Founded as an art photo archive in 1920 by Helen Clay Frick, (after the death of her father, industrialist Henry), it was first housed in the unused bowling alley in the basement of the Frick Mansion. The library grew to encompass collections relating to paintings, drawings, sculpture, and prints from the fourth to the mid-twentieth centuries by European and American artists as well as archival materials and special collections pertaining to the history of collecting art.

58650_POST

The library in the bowling alley, circa 1923

As a separate research facility, (it was not combined with the Frick Collection until 1984), its mission “to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts, and to advance the general knowledge of kindred subjects” served a rarified elite, (including having a dress code until 1989—jackets and ties for men, modest skirts and low heeled shoes for women). Though the library is privately funded, (and thus not under the same financial pressures of a public institution), it now provides services with the general public in mind. There are over 6000 visits a year with 1700 specific research visits. One of the constant struggles is balancing access and usage with conservation. Meeting the needs and expectations of their clients has become more involved and complex including knowledge of new technologies, digitization, online access, social media, etc. With more interest and recognition comes a tradeoff—just a few years ago research queries that had a 24-48 hour turnaround now can take up to 15 days.

Though one could argue that this wealthy, private institution is the height of “bourgeois librarianship” disseminating “high culture” (Cossette 1976), with no need for a broader audience, they realized to have relevancy they have a responsibility to the larger community. As André Cossette in his book Humanism and Libraries points out: “An institution cannot function if it runs contrary to the objectives of the society of which it is an element.” The changes and challenges facing this institution are issues that many libraries face as more and more information is available digitally.

Nothing can quite take the place of being in the physical building, interacting with the staff, and going through the actual collection. The Frick has tried to make that experience as accessible and fulfilling as possible, (though granted they have a pretty great premises to work with), while at the same time making more material available online. Even an institution like this can feel the pressure of the marketplace. The increasing needs of their clients, the demands of more online access, availability of staff, etc. all add to the challenges for any modern library. The Frick’s management and staff have been able to adapt with foresight and flexibility, though with the power and freedom that come with a healthy endowment.

The Frick Art Reference Library

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License
.

WordPress theme based on Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.