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Essay on Russ Castronovo, "State Secrets: Ben Franklin and WikiLeaks"

Intellectual Affairs

Network Down

April 10, 2013

“Before the Freedom of Information Act,” Henry Kissinger told a gathering of diplomats in Turkey in March 1975, “I used to say at meetings, ‘The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.’ But since the Freedom of Information Act, I'm afraid to say things like that.”

Not that afraid, obviously. The Machiavellian quip got a laugh at the time, according to the official transcript -- and clearly it merits a spot in any future collection of familiar quotations, alongside Kissinger’s remark about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac. For now, it serves as the epigraph to a press release from WikiLeaks announcing the opening of the Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy, with its first collection consisting of more than 1.7 million diplomatic cables from 1973 to ’76.

All of the material was routinely (if belatedly) declassified after 25 years, per U.S. law, and has been available from the National Archives and Records Administration. WikiLeaks made the collection searchable and is “housing” it on servers presumably beyond the reach of Big Brother. Now they can’t be reclassified.

As announcements from WikiLeaks go, it’s all fairly underwhelming. But it does make an important revelation -- however unintentional -- by reminding the public that three years have passed since the group last made a world-shaking release of information. The leaks, it seems, have been plugged. Secret documents are staying secret. Even the most ardent admirer of Bradley Manning will be understandably reluctant to share his fate. While it is too soon to pronounce WikiLeaks dead, it does appear to be in a coma.

But it’s stillgood to think with”: the WikiLeaks phenomenon poses or inspires questions about communications, concealment, and the public sphere that go beyond recent political developments. An example is Russ Castronovo’s “State Secrets: Ben Franklin and WikiLeaks,” in the new issue of Critical Inquiry.

Castronovo, a professor of English and American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, links the “Cablegate” of 2010 to a Revolutionary War-era incident through the concept of “a new kind of network actor” distinct from “the traditional person of liberal democracy.” The case in question was the Thomas Hutchinson affair of 1773, when letters by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony somehow found their way into the hands of the Sons of Liberty, who then circulated them via newspaper and pamphlet.

Hutchinson had borne the brunt of serving His Majesty during the Stamp Act riots a few years earlier, and was in office during the Boston Massacre. In his correspondence he referred to the need for “abridgement of what are called English liberties" among the unruly colonial subjects, which was just so much gasoline on the fire.

The source of the leak was one Benjamin Franklin, colonial postmaster. Franklin later insisted that this ethical lapse was committed in an attempt (alas! unsuccessful) to reduce American hostility towards Parliament and the Crown by documenting that the real source of trouble was someone much lower in the chain of command. Castronovo treats this claim with greater suspicion than have some historians -- and not just because Franklin was such a master of irony, pseudonymous commentary, and the fake-out.

Franklin was also a node in multiple correspondence networks, and understood perfectly well how porous they could be. Alongside the official channels of communication between Court and colony, there were informal but durable long-distance connections among merchants, officials, publishers, and so on. A letter by someone within such a network tended to have, so to speak, an implicit “cc” or “bcc” field. 

“More significant than the sending and receipt of private letters between individuals,” writes Castronovo, the activity of these epistolary networks “encompassed a range of public activities, including the recitation of letters aloud, the printing of handwritten letters in newspapers, the transmission of pamphlets, and the sending of circular letters by local governments....” Such communications might be “opened by third parties and forwarded without permission, shared in social circles and reprinted in newspapers.”

By transmitting Hutchinson’s letters to figures within his own circles who were in contact with the more hot-headed American revolutionary circles, Franklin was creating a political weapon against the authorities. He was, in effect, both a whistleblower and Julian Assange at the same time.

Having put it that way, however, I must immediately backtrack to say that the analogy is not Castronovo’s point at all. “At issue,” he writes, “is how communication spreads and metastasizes, how ideas proliferate and take root, how views and opinions propagate themselves.”

The network in each case – epistolary or digital – is not just a medium or tool that individuals use to communicate or act. In it, rather, “individual agency becomes unmoored from stable locations and is set adrift along an interconnected web of tendril-like links and nodes.” This is a perspective derived from the work of Bruno Latour, among others. It rejects the familiar way of thinking of society as consisting of distinct individuals who interact and so create networks. Instead -- to put things one way – it’s networks all the way down. Society emerges from a teeming array of networks that overlap and intersect, that get knotted together or fray with use.

Franklin’s catalytic intervention in the American crisis of 1773 was as effective as it was by virtue of his ability to channel communication from one network to another. And it was effective because it was done quietly; he advanced the revolutionary process involving “a public interlinked and excited by expressions of dissent” without making himself known. “In a perhaps uncharacteristic move,” Castronovo says, “Franklin refuses to occupy the center [of public discussion], instead preferring to sit back in the shadows where, after all, the shadowy work of espionage gets done.”

But the state – however much it may use networks of its own – insists on ascribing public action to individuals possessing stable and legible identities. By 1774, the Privy Council knew about Franklin’s role in the matter and summoned him to a hearing in London, where he was denounced, in humiliating terms, for more than an hour.

Bradley Manning, of course, faces worse – while the coiner of that witticism about operating illegally and unconstitutionally has never endured the consequences of his actions. What does that imply for a Latourian theory of social ontology? I don’t know, but it surely demonstrates that not all networks are equal before the law.

 

 

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