Dr. Richard Margraff Turley is due to give a talk on Literature and Mass Surveillance at the BCS Mid Wales event this week (Aberystwyth University is a four-hour drive for me, unfortunately). Titled ‘Who hath not seen thee … ?‘, this is an interesting discussion about the idea that state surveillance had some influence on the later works of John Keats.
The relevance of Keats’ writings to mass surveillance aren’t obvious. I think it’ll become clear to some readers that Keats, if he was indeed commenting on surveillance, was trying to describe a situation that was very different to that of today, and Dr. Turley hasn’t differentiated between mass surveillance of today and targeted surveillance of the past. The two are very different:
‘We might assume mass surveillance is a modern phenomenon, but “surveillance” is a Romantic word, first introduced to English readers in 1799. It acquired a chilling sub-entry in 1816 in Charles James’s Military Dictionary: the condition of “existing under the eye of the police”.‘
This definition, though very concise, is remarkably broad. What precisely does it mean to be ‘under the eye of the police’? It could refer to a state in which reasonable suspicions are investigated by detectives (targeted surveillance). It could refer to a state in which those ‘with nothing to hide’ are watched by a myriad of deputised officials and machinery (mass surveillance). Mass surveillance is something that violates our reasonable expectations of privacy in the most insidious ways.
It’s also important to remember that Keats penned his works in a politically volatile period, just a few decades after the revolutions in France, America and Haiti. Masses of people were awakening to the fact they could revolt and potentially overthrow governments in their struggle for universal rights, suffrage, a better quality of life, and even their very survival. Today the opposite is true: Most of us have everything to lose and little to gain by overthrowing The Establishment. Also, today mass surveillance wouldn’t be viable in a Western society without Silicon Valley corporations and and social media to provide the framework.
So, it wasn’t without reason that The Establishment would have employed spies to watch public events for indications of an imminent uprising, and resorted to heavy-handed tactics to prevent that happening. The Establishment felt it necessary to mobilise the police and the Army to protect the Bank of England, among other buildings, and charge radicals like Henry Hunt with treason. Could we really claim that as an example of mass surveillance, though? No, I think the issue here was that the use of state surveillance to monitor the political activities of citizens, instead of, say, people who already had political influence, was a new concept at the time.
What’s more telling than the content of the literature is the way Keats was guarded in his commentary of events, as if he suspected The Establishment knew about his more politically active acquaintances and were intercepting his letters. Today we refer to this as the ‘chilling effect’ – the reluctance to openly express dissenting opinions for fear of retribution. This is not an irrational fear when political discourse is divisive and uncivil.
Of Keats’ poem, ‘Lamia, Dr. Turley writes: ‘That poem opens with a queasy scene in which Hermes transforms Lamia from serpent to woman. The price is information: Lamia agrees to give up the location of a nymph’s “secret bed” to the priapic god.‘
Again, it’s conjecture to say that Keats was making a veiled reference to The Establishment’s surveillance apparatus, but we could nevertheless read that section of the poem as an allegory for it. Keats seemed to recognise and allude to the fact that people are willing to betray secrets in return for something, for some kind of benefit, rather like we’re collectively prepared to trade personal information for our 15 minutes of fame on social media. The nymph’s ‘secret bed’ could be a metaphor for a place where dissidents conspire, but it could also be a warning that even intimate details about ourselves and others could be traded. And why does Hermes want the information? For his personal gain, obviously, not for selfless reasons.
And once that level of sharing becomes accepted behaviour, it can quickly become a habit of inadvertent disclosure, as Keats and Turley also noticed:
‘Keats is describing actual workers, real people whose slacking off he reports as unthinkingly as we might share our own peers’ political views or locations on social media. As casually as a Google car might capture a moonlighting worker up a ladder outside someone’s house.‘