Against an Aesthetics of Disappearance (review of Timothy Melley's The Covert Sphere)

Against an Aesthetics of Disappearance (review of Timothy Melley's The Covert Sphere)


According to Fabienne Collignon, Timothy Melley’s refusal to submit “clear vectors of resistance” to “so-called democratic states” in The Covert Sphere is far from a shortcoming of the work, and instead marks its distinct quality. The absence of clear political solution, Collignon contends, informs The Covert Sphere’s achievement as a call for a change of mind in a population who, wittingly or not, have “participated in, and continue to collaborate with, a system of pretended innocence and victimization.”

The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Melley’s book on the covert sphere begins with a subsection titled “Cold War Redux,” indicative of one of the general premises that his study rests on, though “rests” is the wrong word: Melley’s investigation is about the remains of the Cold War, most notably in relation to the “paradoxical epistemology” (2) of the secret state. This means that Melley is, first of all, attentive to how the “war on terror” continues the politics and disposition of the Cold War, the lines of thought that spin fictions of “a distant and mysterious enemy” in circumstances of “pure” or permanent war, characterized through an “open-ended “peacetime” mobilization, extreme domestic hypervigilance, and a massive program for covert action” (3). Melley’s thesis, at heart, follows on from Paul Virilio’s description of “pure war”—the infinite preparation for war—even though Virilio’s presence is only spectral in The Covert Sphere: the explicit concerns that unsettle the book relate more to Giorgio Agamben’s treatise on the state of exception, situated in a precarious, uncertain position between democracy and absolutism, while it also engages with Jürgen Habermas’ conception of the public sphere. It is an investigation that, like Agamben’s extraordinary State of Exception, is motivated by the urgent necessity to refuse and criticize the prevailing terms of the “war on terror,” an effort that encompasses, on the one hand, the prerequisite to dispense with discourses of Cold War endings and, by extension, “victories”and, on the other, attempts to formulate an argument seeking to locate political resistance to this state of exception or covert sphere. These terms have now roughly merged; the one nestles inside the other: Melley notes that “the covert sector has increasingly become a version of the state itself,” with its “own bureaucracies” and territories: “the remote airstrips, Guantánamo Bay, rendition sites,” that together form the “instrumental sedimentation” (5) of the National Security State.

The book’s objective, however, is not a process of “uncovering” such “sedimentations” with a view—naive at best or else, catastrophically, offering a false exit—to “‘[heal]’ the wounded public sphere,” nor to posit the latter as “a transparent, democratic ideal” that exists in opposition to that other domain, suspended, as Agamben observes, in a void instigated by the deactivation and standstill of the force of law. Melley’s project, rather, starts—like Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow—with a “progressive knotting into” (2000: 3): the “rational democracy” whose preservation depends on “psychological operations” (7) that gradually transform government and the structure of the Habermasian public sphere as locus of reason. This merger, between the rational and covert spheres, calls into question the very foundations, processes, and terminology of so-called democratic states; to follow Agamben—because Melley’s book functions as a continuation of an absolutely fundamental interrogation of current political structures—democracy itself, as a system of government, becomes unclassifiable. This is essentially what Melley means when he talks about the “strange epistemology” of the covert sphere, defined as “an array of discursive forms and cultural institutions through which the public can “discuss” or, more exactly, fantasize the clandestine dimensions of the state” (5). Marked as irrational—the covert sphere as dreamworld—this zone is also paradoxically open: “[t]he secret is that there is no secret—or […] that the most important secrets are public secrets” (22). Such statements further emphasize the impossibility to set up simple partitions between open and closed, or public and covert, systems while they further gesture towards the larger, disturbing matters that arise in states whose ostensible survival depends on black ops and juridically exceptional orders. To cite Agamben: “the clean opposition of democracy and dictatorship is misleading for any analysis of the governmental paradigms dominant today” (2005: 48).

That is, then, the network of thought that The Covert Sphere belongs to, situating itself in an intellectual practice informed by Agamben, whose study on the state of exception prompts an inquiry into the possibilities of political engagement:

Only if the veil covering this ambiguous zone [e.g. the state of exception] is lifted will we be able to approach an understanding of the stakes involved in the difference—or the supposed difference—between the political and the juridical, and between law and the living being. And perhaps only then will it be possible to answer the question that never ceases to reverberate in this history of Western politics: what does it mean to act politically? (2005: 2)

The Covert Sphere does something similar, if less explicitly so; the impulse to analyse the cultural imaginary of the National Security State in itself attests to the political, as well as ethical, endeavour that informs, silently or otherwise, Melley’s book. Even though apparently bleak, the study—which refrains from declarations or imperatives of strategies to adopt in order to counter the devastating forces at work, globally, today—it is at heart committed to a spirit of radical critique that “reverberate[s]” throughout this study. There is, perhaps, no need to state such a purpose or philosophy, which is, after all, already glimpsed in the introduction by raising Agamben’s work, whose influence extends way beyond brief references. It is with this aspect in mind that Melley’s book needs to be approached; the critical tradition that it operates within obviously exists in conjunction to an argument that, on the face of it, submits no clear vectors of resistance. Yet to interpret it in a light of an unhappy but exitless narrative of resignation is to miss the point, which lies less in the articulation than in an application of a process of thought that insists on a critical, uncompromising response to the state of emergency. “[W]e have institutionalized undemocratic means of preserving our democracy” (222): the book’s last sentence, though clearly not a concrete proposal, nonetheless locates responsibility with us—collectively, individually—who have participated in, and continue to collaborate with, a system of pretended innocence and victimization.

If this understanding echoes Žižek, then that is deliberate; Žižek figures in The Covert Sphere in ways that relate to the analysis of fantasy formations as soothing systems: insulations that sheathe empire in victimhood and that invite a curious subject-position of “active not-knowing” (8). In his response to the World Trace Centre attacks of 11 September 2001, Žižek notes that the “only possible solution” to becoming a participant in state rhetoric, unthinkingly accepting fallacious oppositions, is to “adopt both positions”—in this case condemnation and, conversely, an emphasis on the causes of the attacks—”simultaneously”:

from a moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime, this very innocence, however, is not innocent—to adopt such an “innocent” position in today’s capitalist universe is in itself a false abstraction. (2002: 50)

Melley’s study acts in accordance to this task, that is, by renouncing the possibility of “an ‘innocent’ position” and by considering the curious “regime of half-knowledge” (8) that defines the covert sphere. Melley, like Žižek, acknowledges the seductions of such systems, which Melley interprets, with reference to Donald Pease’s work, as American exceptionalism, an “ideological and discursive framework” whose “vitality” (13) can only be understood and resisted through an approach that conceptualises ideology “as a matter of action rather than knowledge” (14). This type of reading indicates Žižek”s influence: collaboration in ideological structures occurs on the level of a “belief through actions” (14) or a frantic activity that, to quote from Welcome to the Desert of the Real, “conceals a more fundamental immobility” (2002: 7). At the same time, this mobilization prevents a sustained engagement with the existing order, which might be cynically or ironically dismissed without halting the process by which we persist in acting according to its regulations/dreamworlds:

Within a powerful enough fantasy, simply knowing that something is wrong is not enough to change behaviour. Indeed, the cynicism that was once the hallmark of enlightened ideology critique is for Žižek the very essence of contemporary ideology, for cynicism (“I know very well what is wrong, but there is nothing I can do”) results in the same inaction as classical ideological delusion (“nothing is wrong, all is well”). (14)

Even such disavowal of belief ensures ideological persistence, whose fictions create the afore-mentioned “regime of half-knowledge”—”I know very well, but”—which also “makes government secrecy tolerable because it offers the public the opportunity to proclaim its official ignorance” (75). As such, the position that warrants most attention in this book is declarations of innocence, standing against the politics of responsibility that Melley argues for throughout his study. Yet, bearing in mind an earlier point, this reading practice is not nostalgic, in that it wishes to return to the notion of a rational public sphere that stands opposed to the “heart of darkness” (75) that is the state of emergency. Here, the Habermasian notion of the public domain becomes important, though Melley takes issue with the lines of separation that Habermas draws between his “primary concern”, namely “the rise of pathological forms of publicity” that leads to “the “refeudalization” of society” (32) and the growth of state secrecy, both of which prompt, to varying degrees, the emergence of an idealised public “reason”. This argument, as Melley notes, raises Adorno and Horkheimer’s perspective on the mass media entertainment industry and its efforts to automatize and homogenize consumer-subjects; the bourgeois public sphere, also traditionally masculine and relatively wealthy, according to Habermas forms largely in response to spectacle rather than the rule of secrecy—a disjointing that Melley challenges. At the risk of repetition, The Covert Sphere’s line of reasoning, time and again, relates to areas of intersection—some of which this review has neglected to mention, such as the crises of legitimacy shared by democracies and postmodernity, another central tenet of this book—to the point that each supposedly separate territory and terminology are thrown into doubt. There is, then, no desire to regain a Habermasian or idealized sphere of reason but instead Melley’s study offers a severe critique of such a concept in that this “enlightened” ambit is essentially exclusive, and that any lament of its vanishing or compromise mourns a lost phallic agency: a “crisis of masculinity” is “connected to the transformation of Cold War democracy” (10).

Across its chapters, The Covert Sphere addresses this crisis, which Melley describes as “agency panic” elsewhere: brainwashing as “nightmare of masculinity undone” (47), whose assault destabilizes the premise of American exceptionalist fictions of autonomy; fantastic retreats into hermetically sealed spaces as sites of male agency (122); the “terror of an omnipotent but feminizing security apparatus” that, in reference to Freud’s case subject Daniel Paul Schreber, desires to turn men into “bride[s]” (205). The hard singularity of the American man-subject falls apart, so that recent “geopolitical melodramas,” though often ostensibly interrogating the National Security State, end up replicating “narcissistic [fantasies] of domestic danger and heroic self-defence” (203). It is this last chapter that most obviously attends to the legacies of the Cold War in the current “war on terror,” though the other sections—because of the refusal to declare endings, moments of rupture—similarly comment, if less palpably, on these remains and incorporations. The focus, in these last pages, is the obliteration of “foreign perspectives” (202) in favour of a vantage point that is wholly American, concerned with inside damage rather than the devastations caused abroad, somewhere else. The narratives of these “geopolitical melodramas”—examples evidently comprise the television series 24, but also Patriot Games, both of which articulate “a defence of pragmatic illegal action” (210)—tend to function as ultimate support for, and justification of, the state of exception, whose “feminizing” influence requires figures of steel and iron will as bulwarks against the threat of masculine dissolution. In this vein, the security apparatus itself, though at risk of going haywire, only poses a danger to US citizens—which can, further, be curtailed through “heroic male agency” (209)—but whose functioning as “tool of empire” (214) is obfuscated. The result is that such fictions, in evidence also in official policy, provide yet further evidence of an “infrastructure that […] “disappear[s]” the dirty work of empire and preserve[s] the fantasy of exceptionalism” (201) that the covert sphere transfers from the Cold War to the “war on terror.” To cite Melley at greater length in an attempt to conclude a project that is really just beginning:

The fantasy of solipsistic enclosure is not only a representation of US privilege but also of US half-knowledge. It represents the ideological system that keeps US citizens from confronting the facts of US empire and its attended privileges. The recognition and disavowal of this system is what inspires the fantasy of self-destruction. The catastrophe fantasy is a return of the repressed knowledge that US citizens are sheltered—physically and epistemologically—from the horrors that occur in so many other places in the world. (217)

The functioning of these policies of empire—very real in their effects on the dispossessed failed by their own state—vanishes in a masturbatory, gadget-loving system whose revelations of abuse yield “something like “infantile amnesia”—an ahistorical numbness to certain facts of US empire” (81). This, too, leads back to a position of false innocence, which operates purely because of a strategic forgetting, that condition of “half-knowledge”, a kind of stupor that cannot engage with, or reflect on, the measures employed by the state of exception—procedures that though by definition provisional, have become indefinite. This is the reason Melley’s book is indispensable; it belongs to a project and politics of total recall, trying to act against a regime of memory erasure/manipulation in order to keep alert to special kinds of exceptional law and policies perpetuating fantasises of empire.

Works Cited

Agamben, Girogio. State of Exception. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. 1973. London and New York: Vintage, 2000.

Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London and New York: Verso, 2002