The following is the introduction to an essay I am working on tracing subversive mediation technologies from 17th and 18th Century millenarian prophets to present day mediation technologies available on the internet.
On November 28, 2010 the online whistleblower Wikileaks began releasing over 250,000 secret U.S. State Department diplomatic cables. This followed on the heels of high profile releases of massive troves of top secret documents relating to the War in Afghanistan in, July of 2010, and the War in Iraq in October, 2010. The reaction to the diplomatic cable leaks was swift and uncompromising. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the leak as an “attack on the international community,” while Congressman Peter King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee called for classifying Wikileaks as a terrorist organization. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was investigating Wikileaks and its founder, Australian internet activist Julian Assange, in advance of a possible criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917. Meanwhile, Interpol issued a warrant for Assange’s arrest based on allegations of sexual assault in Sweden and Assange himself went into hiding. On December 7, 2010 he surrendered to British police and was denied bail while awaiting an extradition hearing.
Meanwhile the Wikileaks main site, wikileaks.org was subject to a massive distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack and the primary domain name was eventually taken down. Nevertheless thousands of mirror sites almost instantly appeared, thus providing continued access to the information. At the same time major U.S. corporations were carefully backing away from any association with Wikileaks. Online retailer Amazon.com denied the site space on its servers, while Paypal froze Wikileak’s account and Visa and Mastercard suspended all payments to the organization, thus making it virtually impossible for any contributions to be made from the United States. Online activists fought back, however, with the online community Anonymous launching its own DDOS attacks against Paypal, Visa, and Mastercard, actually succeeding in taking down both the Visa and Mastercard sites on December 8, 2010. Despite this intense international pressure and scrutiny, Wikileaks continued to release documents even after Assange’s arrest, even hinting at a massive trove of documents relating to a major U.S. bank to be released in early 2011.
Thus, in the space of a week a major international drama unfolded like a scene from a Hollywood political thriller. And yet, though on the surface the questions presented by this case are very new – what defines a journalist in the internet age? What is the role of secrets in a liberal democracy? How does the internet change the way information flows and is distributed? – nevertheless the core questions at stake are ultimately very old. For at the heart of the Wikileaks debate is really the question of the role of information mediation, and specifically the mediation of information that is potentially subversive to an ostensibly democratic state. This question is, of course, as old as the printing press and it is this question that vexed not only the America of the twenty-first century, but also the Britain of the seventeenth and eighteenth. Like America, the British government was unsure of how to deal with subversive political voices who distributed their ideas through the new medium of print and like America it often chose to persecute the offenders because ultimately it could not control the distribution of information once it was mediated through the technologies of print.
Furthermore, I would argue that the actual content of these “subversive” mediations has actually changed very little over the course of three centuries. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the most dangerous subversive voices were often religious millenarians who translated their political critiques into religious terms. Seventeenth century ranter Abiezer Coppe, for example was persecuted and imprisoned for his apocalyptic pamphlet the Fiery Flying Role, while eighteenth century millenarian prophet Richard Brothers was imprisoned for publishing his Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times. In both of these cases these men were imprisoned only after their ideas were put into print and released into the uncontrolled and uncontrollable public sphere. In fact, despite the government’s best attempts to suppress this information, pamphlets like Coppe’s Fiery Flying Role continued to surface long after their authors were dead, thus indicating that state authority could ultimately not control information once released.
Likewise Julian Assange, though clearly not a religious prophet, nevertheless espouses a very developed political philosophy that picks up many of the strands of seventeenth and eighteenth century millenarian philosophy. Like Coppe and Brothers, Assange’s philosophy is grounded in a deeply rooted suspicion that the liberal democratic state as we know it, founded on a sense of individual subjectivity and freedoms, will always end up serving the interests of those in power to the detriment of society at large. As he writes in his December 2006 essay “Conspiracy as Governance,” “We must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling and effective action to replace the structures that lead to bad governance with something better” (1). He thus uses the language of collectivity to express the belief that, through the revealing (a very apocalyptic term) of the information guarded by the powerful we can thus hold government accountable and force change in the interests of the weak. Thus, what Wikileaks really illustrates is that by using the new online technologies of mediation in place of print technologies, information can be distributed far more widely and uncontrollably than it ever was before. Even with Assange behind bars and their primary domain taken down, Wikileaks continues to release documents via a vast network of mirror sites.
In thus tracing what I will term the “mediation of millennium” from the seventeenth century to the present day, I hope to illustrate that it is in and through these processes of mediation that a millennial space created that works to reveal the true nature of reality and break down boundaries between the individual self and community. Thus what I will argue is that both prophets like Coppe and Brothers and internet activists like Assange locate freedom not in the democratic individual subject but in a millennial community space that is created through mediation technologies that exist outside the control of the state and possess the potential to subversively surface at crucial cultural moments.
To Be Continued…