National Security: The Sublime and the Bureaucratic


Review of The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy, by Matthew Potolsky and Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama, by Joseph Oldham

New York: Routledge, 2017

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017


Appearing roughly in the middle of Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s remarkable recreation of the Trinity Test begins in silence, with captions providing the contextual information:  

JULY 16, 1945 

A countdown ensues over relative darkness prior to this first explosion of an atomic bomb, the desert rehearsal for the bomb’s use on a human population. When the countdown ends, we watch in long shot, on black and white film, as the screen ignites with the explosion. The camera slowly but relentlessly moves inside the blast as a ghostly score, Krzysztof Penderecki’s "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” plays. We observe smaller explosions inside the blast, sometimes in a pale yellow color, and then we are shown the smashing of atomic particles that is producing the detonation. Both the extent of the disruption and its beauty are disconcerting—simultaneously terrible and stunning.  

Twin Peaks: The Return offers an aesthetics of mass destruction, daring us to combine wonder and horror at the steps humans take to make themselves secure. The sequence’s relationship to the miniseries that it disrupts is never explained or entirely clear. The various installments of Twin Peaks that Lynch and his co-creators have produced over several decades developed an often childlike good-versus-evil narrative: is this the explanation of evil? are we being shown its cause? or its ultimate representation? (Also, how does it fit into the canonical narrative of the original series—but perhaps that’s too banal a question.) At minimum, the White Sands sequence suggests that the dream of national security and human superiority is a spectacular, beautiful nightmare that produces a destruction we can neither avoid nor stop looking at, even if we cannot fully understand it.

Matthew Potolsky help us understand this kind of representation and the feeling it invokes in The National Security Sublime (Routledge, 2017). He begins by questioning why the National Security Agency, as the archetype of our current, seemingly post-human and total-surveillance national security state, resists traditional visualization and imagining. At midcentury, war movies offered us a glimpse of the heroic (and non- and anti-heroic) individual fighting for democracy and the nation; as the century aged and American popular culture became more explicitly troubled by the nation’s great power status, films and television presented shadowy conspiracies composed of duplicitous, powerful figures often affiliated with the CIA and FBI who claimed to preserve order while destroying it. Potolsky argues that in the current state of our paranoia about enemies both outside and within, national security can no longer be represented in this manner. And the NSA’s scope and capabilities do not lend themselves to the realist narratives which featured modern human subjects who made the state more and less secure. 

Instead, he argues, we live within and must understand the reign of the national security sublime. By this he means something akin to but also apart from the Romantic sublime, the subject’s effort to study and contemplate an immensity—most frequently a wonder of nature—and to search within her mind for reason that can comprehend it. The sublime, Potolsky argues, was an aesthetic rather than an interpretive project; we do not try to make sense of it, which is impossible anyway, but rather we experience it as an object. His concept of the national security sublime acknowledges that our present features an overload of information flows that render us helpless, less subjects than objects of an increasingly machine-made and -operated universe.

The state is simultaneously hidden behind its walls and ever-present in its capabilities, secret from us and yet visible in ways we cannot understand. “Evoking size, distance, and number as the most resonant figures for government secrecy,” Potolsky writes, “the national security sublime brings out both the immense scope of the national security state and the difficulty of understanding it by traditional means, proffering an aesthetic solution to a nearly intractable problem of interpretation” (p. 5). We are bewildered and exhausted by all that we cannot comprehend, yet dazzled and entranced by what it can do when someone shows it to us. 

In addition to developing a theoretical apparatus from cultural and literary theory to contextualize and understand this historical shift, Potolsky analyzes a wide variety of examples of the contemporary sublime. He uses the Indiana Jones film trilogy and the Will Smith vehicle Enemies of the State at the book’s beginning to establish his thesis. The X-Files and the visual artists Richard Misrach (who photographed atomic bomb test sites) and Mark Lombardi (who carefully and relentlessly charted conspiracies in connected circles and webs drawn on enormous sheets of paper) reveal what Potolsky calls the “Echelon Moment” of the post-Cold War sublime.  

The present War on Terror, he suggests, almost exceeds narrative. Visual artists (Trevor Paglen and Jill Magid), on the one hand, offer a more incisive view, while moments of revelation from animation and superhero films like The Simpsons MovieSouth Park, and Captain America: Winter Soldier give a glimpse of our present state. These texts offer no great reveal, like the precogs in Minority Report whose thoughts drive the computers that predict criminal behavior before it occurs or like the moment in The Matrix when the audience views the awful truth behind the characters’ simulated reality. Instead, the sublime can only try to hint at the nearly un-representable: vast data crunched by algorithms, a self-generating machine of secret weaponry and surveillance technology, akin to an atomic explosion set off, then let loose. We are left to wonder in multiple senses of the word: at the immensity of it all, and about what to do. 


*    *    *

Consider, in contrast, a quite different scene: After an establishing shot of a busy London roundabout, the television miniseries adaption of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begins its first episode inside an empty office. A man neatly dressed in suit and tie opens a closed door while holding a portfolio filled with documents. Finding himself alone, he closes the door behind him and walks towards a long table with eight seats. He sits, arranges his papers, checks his pocket watch, and waits. Then another man, less neatly dressed and smoking a cigarette, opens the door, walks in, coughs, and stumbles towards the table where he takes his place opposite the first man. All the while he reads a file from the messy folder he carries. Although the two men do not speak or even acknowledge the other’s presence, the viewer may now assume that they have arrived at a scheduled meeting that they were both expected to attend.  

A third man enters, more nattily attired than the previous two. He walks with purpose and confidence to the head of the table, where he takes his seat and begins systematically unpacking his own portfolio and the accoutrements for his tobacco pipe. Again, the characters remain silent and do not acknowledge each other’s presence. Then the door opens again and a fourth man slowly enters with both hands holding a saucer perched gingerly on top of his teacup. He kicks the door behind him in an attempt to close it and takes an empty chair between two of the other seated men. Smiling at one of the seated men, the new entrant lacks either a folder or portfolio and is the only character to carry a beverage. The first man to arrive notices with some frustration that the last entrant’s effort to kick the door closed was not successful, and so he walks back to shut it. Aha: this is a confidential meeting for four quite different men who seem to be at the layered top of an organization. The first man returns to his place at the table. Once he sits, the man at the head of the table strikes a match to light his pipe and declares, “Right. We shall start.” Cue music and title sequence. 

Thus begins the preeminent television series on British intelligence, first broadcast on the BBC in 1979. Nothing has occurred and few words have been spoken, but the sequence establishes character, scene, and the importance of hierarchy among what the series will slowly reveal are the four suspects in the hunt for a Russian mole within the UK’s SIS (Secret Intelligence Service). This is national (in)security, British and John le Carré style. It offers nothing sublime. It is a complex, often workaday narrative in which the passing of paper reports from one office to the next for consideration and possible action takes on dramatic significance. Bureaucratic machinations, not algorithms, dictate outcomes.  

It was also the product of a grounded, rational, and bureaucratic institution at a particular moment in the history of British broadcasting, as Joseph Oldham’s Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama (Cambridge University Press, 2017) explains. Oldham provides a survey history of the genre which Tinker Tailor was a high-water mark, both in terms of popularity and critical acclaim. Paranoid Visions combines thorough cultural and institutional history with a critical account of the genre’s development over time. The focus is on television, not intelligence, but Oldham acknowledges the parallel development of the British national security state and British television during this era, as each reckons with internal changes of government oversight, political intrusions into their work, and their external relationships with the broader geopolitical and political economic worlds they inhabit. 

Oldham leads us from the obsession with bureaucratic fights of Tinker Tailor and the much lower-budget, largely studio-bound Sandbaggers, to the conspiratorial narrative of A Very British Coup that depicted a deep-state plot to overthrow a democratically elected socialist Prime Minister, and up to the cosmopolitan, fast-paced, state-of-the-art Spooks (distributed in the US as MI-5) of the new century. The shows’ visual style and storytelling evolve, as what began with the adaptation of the British spy novel morphed into a more internationally (read: American) cognizable “precinct”/ workplace drama in Spooks. But the genre has remained attached to the real in some fundamental way. It presents characters with discernible agency and motivation to suggest that the national security these characters provide (or fail to provide) is one subject to human control and bureaucratic error. 

Oldham demonstrates how the imaginary British spies broadcast to sets in the UK and abroad work within the conditions of their institutional and cultural possibilities. These possibilities began with a national media landscape, and especially with the internal politics of the BBC (its executives and the talent upon which it relied) and its relationship to the British government. In the 1980s and '90s, with changes in the British broadcasting industry and an increasingly privatized broadcasting system, as well as better chains of international distribution and sources of international funding, the shows began to change in style and scope. And Oldham’s history is not merely institutional; he also describes storytelling and visual styles, genre, and the relationship between television and film (recruiting Sir Alec Guinness’s role as George Smiley proved to be a coup, as it were, for British television). And he also considers the popular understandings and conceptions of the UK’s intelligence services and national security state, and the UK’s diminishing stature in the world, as part of the rich context to which these texts respond. For those (like me) both interested in the subject matter and with exposure to at least some of the texts, Paranoid Visions is a great read—erudite and critical enough to stimulate, but open to non-specialist readers. 


*    *    * 

Quite different from each other, these books each give partial insight into the moment in which we find ourselves as subjects, citizens, and readers. The sublime of the surveillance state surrounds us, as Edward Snowden revealed, and it is a strength of Potolsky’s book (though perhaps also a weakness, or at least a caution to readers) that he sees it everywhere and that after reading it you will, too. The sublime resists representation because it constitutes a feeling rather than a tangible object. It resists our understanding because it operates in a realm we can neither see nor understand, and yet we know it exists. It pervades our existence without being part of our lives. 

Bureaucracy, however, is very much part of our lives—in the workplace, certainly, but as the discourse of professionalism and efficiency have come to occupy every piece of our lives, we find everything compartmentalized and capable of organization in chart form. The academy was bureaucratized even before it was corporatized, and if I long for a George Smiley to bring his unassuming brilliance to smoke out the mole in my department, it is precisely because of his remarkable presence first in book and then in televisual form (and I saw the series before reading the book, so Guinness will always be Smiley to me). Oldham’s layers of historical context, his account both of the cultural production of texts about intelligence services and the parallels between the institutions that produce those texts and produce intelligence, make both television and intelligence services seem familiar and their respective products understandable. 

But these texts, as different as they are—theory versus history and criticism; a variety of texts and media versus a systematic consideration of genre—play so well together. The problems that face us—reckoning with the aftermath of Trump and Brexit above all—are simultaneously existential and quotidian, technological and bureaucratic, sublime and ridiculous. We need more than one discipline or methodology or medium or genre. We need them all. 


Posted on 19 February 2020

MARK FENSTER is Stephen C. O’Connell Chair at the Levin College of Law, University of Florida.