7. Working with Opacity

IT IS NOT a case of deciding whether to accept open data as a compensation for opaque data collection practices and closed data but of understanding the different ways in which all are part of the shareveillant logic of digital governmentality, recognizing the new epistemological and ontological calls made on shareveillant subjects and attempting to imagine and create new spaces of sharing beyond this logic.

To think about what a non-shareveillant version of sharing might look like, I will close by considering an ethicopolitical engagement with sharing in a particular context: that of academic publishing. In doing so, I will address the implications of a reassessment of sharing, openness, and opacity for academics. Such implications would include, for a start, thinking more critically about what kinds of publishing, networks, and communication we want to develop if we are guided by a right to opacity or an appropriated idea of sharing rather than the forms of openness supported by shareveillance. If, for a moment, we consider the idea of appropriating openness and sharing, where might open access, so quickly becoming a required component of the academic’s publishing plans, fit into this?

Gary Hall (2008) has tirelessly challenged standard ways of conceptualizing open access while applying the tenets of open access in more radical ways. For example, he remarks on the way in which open access is mostly envisaged and discussed in terms of how it augments scholarly publishing in traditional codex books (and, consequently, the way in which scholarly disciplines are imagined and organized):

[Open access] is understood largely in terms of providing an increase in the amount of material that can be stored, the number of people who have access to it, the potential impact of that material, the range of distribution, the ease of information retrieval, reductions in staffing, production and reproduction costs and so forth. The argument then usually focuses on whether different aspects of this transformation can be considered to be a “good” or a “bad” thing. (10)

To move the debate about digital open access on, Hall calls for a rigorous consideration of how the unfixed and ephemeral nature of digital texts, and “their undermining of the boundaries separating authors, editors, producers, users, consumers, humans and machines,” and their ability to include and fuse sound, still, and moving images “contain the potential, not merely to remediate older media forms, and thus deliver a preexisting and more-or-less unchanged content, albeit in a new way, but to transform fundamentally that content, and with it our relationship to knowledge” (10). Therefore there might not be anything particularly or inherently radical about sharing knowledge through open access (even if this is more desirable than knowledge silos). What is radical about digital open access texts is that they have the potential to intervene in politico-institutional pressures placed on cultural production and alter ideological assumptions about what a text and an author can and should do and mean.

To experiment with such possibilities, Hall and I collaborated on two series of online “books.” The first was named Liquid Books and the second Living Books about Life.[1] The books were made available on both a gratis (free) and a libre (reuse) basis. Whereas the first is a more common incarnation of academic sharing, the second is more contentious “despite the fact that the ability to re-use material is actually an essential feature of what has become known as the Budapest-Bathesda-Berlin (BBB) definition of open access, which is one of the major agreements underlying the movements” (Adema and Hall 2013, 152). In addition to being available to read and reuse, users of the Liquid and Living books have the opportunity to reedit, rewrite, annotate, translate, and add to them in a shared, distributed, or networked model of authorship/curatorship. As the books link to and organize other open access materials across the Internet, users can offer new links or reorganize the existing links into new themes. Such plasticity is enabled by the wiki platform we employed. As an intervention into monetized forms of academic sharing qua publishing, on one hand, and accepted forms of sharing in the guise of standard open access, on the other, it was crucial that these books be open on a read/write basis. In this instance, a reevaluation of sharing, by pushing open access to its limits, prompts self-examination on the part of scholars as to our role and investment in knowledge production, intellectual property, notions of authorship, and the political economy of circulation and distribution.

But the implications for scholars might also lead to different kinds of experiments. We might think it more productive to explore the productive possibilities of obfuscation and opacity, in addition to openness and sharing. As well as looking to the thought of Derrida and Glissant for conceptual inspiration on opacity, we can also draw on the tactical politico-aesthetic imagination of two collectives from different ends of the twentieth century: Acéphale (1936–39) and Tiqqun (1999–2001). Disgusted with politics, even revolutionary politics, which he considered to be too swayed by the promise and spoils of power, Georges Bataille wanted a community invested, rather, in freedom, and he thought the best way to do this was through a secret society (as well as its public counterparts, the publication that shared Acéphale’s name [Bataille 1997] and the Collège de Sociologie). Bataille wanted to “use secrecy as a weapon rather than a retreat” (Lütticken 2006, 32) while he imagined how his secret society Acéphale (which translates as “Headless”) could regenerate or revolutionize society at large by privileging expenditure, risk, and loss. He sought out the shadows, that is, not as an act of disengagement but to enable him to enact a metaphorical and literal decapitation to suppress reason and release the energy of living things (Bataille 1991). Opacity here is envisaged as a generative state that can produce possibilities, affects, and effects.

In its “Cybernetic Hypothesis,” the collective Tiqqun ([2001] 2009), which was highly influenced by Bataille, among others, calls for “interference,” “haze,” or “fog” as the “prime vector of revolt.” Tiqqun prophetically saw opacity as a means to challenge the political project of cybernetics and “the tyranny of transparency which control imposes.” Tiqqun itself, which published between 1999 and 2001, opted for collective anonymity and distributed authorial agency over individual publicity. After its dissolution, some members went on to write and work under the equally anonymous Invisible Committee. (In fact, though the Invisible Committee chose to operate under the auspices of opacity, the arrest of some of its members in 2008 under the charge of domestic terrorism quickly placed them under an unwelcome spotlight.[2])

While we may or may not align with the animating philosophies behind these experimental secret societies and anonymous collectives, and we have to take into account the very different historical conditions within which each existed, it is important to recognize the way in which opacity provides cover in order to share scholarship, theories, and revolutionary politics, in ways that avoid certain traps of incorporation, traditional understandings of authorship (and ownership), and/or the surveillant capacities of the state.

While these projects could be accused of eccentric whimsy, their (serious) play with opacity, with making ethical decisions about what and when to share, what and when to hold back, has resonance for anyone working in the neoliberal, audit culture of the contemporary university (I am particularly thinking of the U.K. context, but the experiences will be familiar to academics elsewhere, to a greater or lesser extent).

The institutional experience of the modern British academic includes logging and tracking time through the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) Time Allocation Survey (TAS); having annual performance reviews in which one’s output is accounted for and goals set; having lectures recorded by Lecture Capture; having student feedback aggregated and collated; being assessed in the National Student Survey; having one’s institution ranked in various league tables; and, most notoriously, being subject to the auditing practices of the Research Excellence Framework and, now, the Teaching Excellence Framework. Obviously, the rise of audit culture in British universities is not a neutral process but has accompanied “the transformation of the traditional liberal and Enlightenment idea of the university as a place of higher learning into the modern idea of the university as corporate enterprise whose primary concern is with market share, servicing the needs of commerce, maximizing economic return and investment, and gaining competitive advantage in the ‘Global Knowledge Economy’” (Shore 2008, 282). In constantly reminding ourselves of this manifestation of neoliberalism, it becomes clear that our acquiescence to these processes of audit is a political matter.

Sara Ahmed (2010) writes about her experience of this culture and the resulting necessity of knowing when to keep silent and when to keep certain things out of sight. In circumstances when speaking and revealing can be co-opted by empty rhetoric rather than ethics, silence and obfuscation are strategies of resistance and displays of resilience. To illustrate, she recalls her involvement with producing a race equality action plan for her university at the behest of the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2001. Though she took great care to avoid writing a “happy diversity document” (xviii) and, rather, foregrounded whiteness as institutional, because the document was deemed “excellent,” the vice-chancellor interpreted this as meaning the university was succeeding in terms of racial equality. She reminds us that “documents that aim to reveal can be used to conceal what they reveal” (xviii). Consequently, Ahmed invokes the figure of the secretary to symbolize the need for discretion and secretion:

[A] secretary is one who is entrusted with secrets. Sometimes we need to keep the secrets and be worth this trust. Sometimes we need not to keep the secrets with which we are entrusted even if this means we become untrustworthy. What we do with what we are entrusted—whether we speak or keep silent—remains an important question. (xx)

The secretary, therefore, is a model for anyone who sees himself or herself as having to make a decision about when sharing in institutional settings reinforces a politics that does not offer an equitable distribution of the sensible. Sharing, that is, suggests equitability and democratization, but shares are not equally distributed in shareveillance, and access to data is compromised by certain conditions of access and the necessity for mediation or translation. At times, we will need to demand meaningful, contextualized transparency about auditing measures carried out under the guise of progressive transparency. At others, we may need to employ collective withdrawal from a dispositif that binds us. A right to opacity means, here, the right to refrain from sharing in, and being understood according to, a distribution we may not support.

Alongside adopting a radical approach to open access, experimenting with opacity as a means to share ideas, and employing politicized discretion in the institutional setting of the university, what else can academics do to “cut well”: deciding when, where, and how to share; when to be guided by an ethic of openness; and when to affirm a right to opacity even in the act of research and analysis? At various points, this could include any of the following: not placing too much faith in revelation or exposé alone; contextualizing and problematizing invocations of openness and transparency; intervening in, rather than accepting, dominant conditions of visibility; or pushing beyond ideology critique, or what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003) famously called “paranoid reading,” while still being attuned to the opaque operations and erasures of discursive power.

In this reattunement of our scholarship and practice, and the echoes it can have beyond the university, closure can be reimagined as a productive opacity, and sharing can be repoliticized through understanding it as a series of decisions and cuts. In a conjuncture that places a premium on the knowability and surveillability of subjects, in which everyone must share his or her data, come forth and be understood as data, these experiments and imaginative cuts become ethical, political acts.