Displacements, an IMRC podcast series

Conversation with the author: William Walters, "State Secrecy: Refiguring the Covert Imaginary"

Episode Notes

Alison Mountz, IMRC's Director, chats with William Walters, Professor of Politics in the Departments of Political Science and Sociology & Anthropology and, Faculty of Public Affairs Research Excellence Chair at Carleton University,  about his new book  State Secrecy and Security: Refiguring the Covert Imaginary, published by Routledge in Spring 2021.


Episode Transcription

Shiva Mohan [00:00:10] Welcome, listeners, to the fifth installment of the International Migration Research Centre's podcast, Displacements. In this new episode, Alison Mountz, Director of the MRC, chats with William Walters, Professor of Politics in the Department of Political Science and Sociology and Anthropology, and Faculty of Public Affairs Research Excellence chair at Carleton University, about his new book, "State Secrecy and Security: Refiguring the Covert Imaginary", published by Routledge in spring 2021. Let's begin with William reading an excerpt from his book, after which we'll join Alison and William in conversation. 

William Walters [00:00:55] Say the words "state secrecy", and listeners will most likely think of the secret services, national security, espionage, military intelligence and the covert surveillance programs and agencies. These topics form a kind of secrecy and security heartland. And, up to this point in the book that I've been writing, I've largely conformed to that topography. But why should we associate state secrecy only with these domains of intelligence and military power, and not with other policy areas like public health or immigration enforcement? The governance of migration and borders is shot through with official as well as unofficial forms of secrecy. For example, consider what the EU and its member states call "readmission agreements" the legal and diplomatic frameworks that govern the deportation of unwanted people from the EU area to poorer countries outside the EU and especially in the global south. Arguably, these arrangements can be as opaque as the human smuggling networks that are said to mediate unauthorized mobility in a bordered world. Yet much more is written about the clandestine nature of smuggling than the secrecy of the international governance of migration. It's as though the former is somehow naturally an intrinsically secret, whereas the secrecy of the deportation state is considered very incidental, if mentioned at all. 

Alison Mountz [00:02:39] Congratulations on this book, it's brilliant. 

William Walters [00:02:42] Well, thank you, that's very kind of you to say that. 

Alison Mountz [00:02:46] So, William, I know that listeners who are familiar with your work, and I'm sure there will be lots of your readers out there, they already associate your name with the kind of vivid writing and deep conceptual thinking that this book offers about secrecy. But I'm here to tell them that it also offers some scintillating case studies and a lot of original thinking and really some scholarly agenda laying around secrecy. You have a plan here that you lay out for us across these really disparate interventions, these four cases that you develop. So I want to just kind of step back for people who haven't yet had a chance to read the book, which is almost everyone since it's just about to be printed, how did you come to write this book? Why should we be paying closer attention to secrecy? 

William Walters [00:03:38] I think, I mean, in a kind of personal biographical way, I came to the topic through an interest in publicity in the public sphere and, you know, thinking about what is public and what, you know, how have ideas and practices of publicity changed historically. And I spent several years in quite a few courses looking into that. And I don't know, maybe I wasn't making enough progress. And then it seemed to me that secrecy sort of  gives you a different take on publicity, and just seemed sort of interesting, fascinating and important in its own right. And also, it seemed to me that secrecy is just way less examined or theorized or engaged within, especially Political Science and Sociology and state theories than you would think it would be. So I felt it was a little bit of a, sort of ironically, a kind of blank, well not a blank page, but just something that didn't get as much attention as you would have thought, especially in people doing what is often called Critical Security Studies. Since it seems to me secrecy is so much a part of security and security, politics, security, policy, securitization. So you would think it would be a lot more prominent in those debates than it is. So that was kind of my challenge. 

Alison Mountz [00:05:11] You're right, it's almost normalized, that secrecy is hidden in plain sight and drifts a field and we miss it as critical scholars. I think one of the really important contributions of the book and which is developed throughout and is, of course, part of your subtitle, is the notion of the covert imaginary. And I wonder if you would explain to listeners just what the cover to imaginary is? 

William Walters [00:05:38] Yeah, I think I hit upon the idea in putting together a PowerPoint and I came across a cartoon. And the cartoon kind of shows a figure that sort of represents the government and he's sort of tall and rather demonic, looking a little bit like Nosferatu in one of those sort of Gothic movies. And it says government secrecy on the cloak, you know, this large black cloak and you can see some legs and bits and pieces falling out from under the cloak. And then this sort of dumb looking citizen is saying what's going on? And the sort of large figure wearing the cloak of secrecy saying something like nothing to see here. I move along and it kind of made me think, oh, yeah, well, there are these ways in which we imagine secrecy and state secrecy and, you know, there's a history to its representation and its mediation. And we rarely sort of think about how it's represented in mediated, because I think we tend to think of state secrecy and secrecy more generally as being rather self-evident, you know, as though well, obviously it's about concealing. It's about hiding things. Well, clearly, it isn't always, you know, some of the most interesting literature talks about things like the phenomenon of open secrecy or public secrecy or hiding in plain sight. You know, that often the secret isn't actually secret or isn't concealed. So the covert imaginary was about, you know, giving a name to this face and this history of ways in which we as public or citizens or scholars have imagined, defined, represented secrecy and in this case, state secrecy. And I mean, here I'm building on fairly recent work by people like Eva Horn or a nice book by Matt Potolsky, where, you know, they're beginning to sort of dig into film and literature and sort of explore the way in which secrecy is figured and imagined in a different sort of textual practices at different times. 

Alison Mountz [00:07:55] One of the things that I'm especially drawn to in your writing about the cover imaginary, is the notion that there are these affective dimensions to secrecy that our feelings about secrecy matter. And it might seem at first blush like an oxymoron, like how can we have feelings about something that we don't, in fact, know about? But this silence. So maybe you could talk more about how secrecy is affective and how does a researcher go about studying these affective dimensions or our feelings about secrecy? 

William Walters [00:08:32] I mean, I think the affectivity of secrecy is really important, and it's one of the main reasons that we need to take it seriously. And, you know, it's a point I've taken from authors like Jody Dean, who sort of in a really important article, beginning with an important article, called Publicity Secret is sort of making this point that, you know, the the classical liberal conception of publicity has people kind of engaging in dialog and deliberation out of some kind of quest or drive to be rational and to sort of think things through. Whereas she says, well, you know, publicity secret, if you like, perhaps almost it's sort of a dirty secret, is that what a lot of times draws the public in or engages it or captures its attention, is something that, you know, is mystery or secrecy or that which is missing or that which is only glimpsed or that which is felt or sensed or suspected. So that, you know, and we see this every day, if we're sort of following the news the way that celebrities are followed or the way in which politics is covered. So often it involves suspicion and rumor and this kind of desire to know more. And those are all examples of a kind of affectivity of secrecy. They also sort of take us into the, onto the terrain where we can speak of a kind of secrecy capital, you know, because after all, if you're a journalist or an editor, you kind of capitalize that kind of desire to know more, that kind of those feelings of suspicion, those feelings of intrigue, those sort of stories of conspiracy. You capitalize on those to generate eyes on the page, to generate sales. So, you know, it's a form of secrecy capital as well. And I think, you know, we have to take very seriously the different ways in which secrecy is capitalized. And that's just one of the ways that this happens. 

[00:10:46] How how does one study it? That's a great question. I think we can study it, again going back to what I said about the esthetics of secrecy and the sort of beginning of work that kind of looks at the different cultural representations of secrecy. That's one of the ways we could study it. You know, we can we can look at movies and books and do our own kind of critical reading of these texts to see how secrecy works and what kind of energies, what kinds of desires or kinds of feelings are sort of captured in those works. We can look at, say, the work of artists and geographers like Trevor Paglen, who is, when he takes, you know, his famous series of pictures of secret military installations. And he's using tele photo lenses and producing just very blurry pictures. You know, he's kind of materializing, if you like, precisely that kind of zone where we kind of want to know. And yet the thing that we want to know remains elusive. It remains a blur, you know. So rather than showing us a crisp, clean image, what we have are just sort of smudgy, insubstantial kind of images. So I think he's sort of capturing that affectivity of secrecy in a particular way through photography. 

Alison Mountz [00:12:17] I'm glad you brought up Trevor Paglen work, actually, because I'm a big fan of his work and you cite his writing a lot in the book. And I think there's actually a lot that you offer in your work to geographers and particularly in thinking about how to ground and, as you say, materialize histories of secrecy. And in fact, you're arguing in the book, not in favor of any universal conception of secrecy, but that there's a context, right? That there's a time, place, here and now to understanding how secrecy operates in any given field or location. So youe four interventions or cases become really important and are really the heart of the writing. So I wonder if you could tell our listeners more about how you landed on these particular four cases in the book. 

William Walters [00:13:09] Yeah, so the cases, you know, there were all sorts of other cases that I think could have picked. I mean, to summarize the four cases that I do look at, one of them is the case of Venona, which was an American sort of top secret code breaking project that broke into Soviet diplomatic cables during World War Two, and kind of broke what was considered in some ways the most unassailable of all forms of cryptography, and produced sort of insight and knowledge about the extent of Soviet espionage within, for example, the Manhattan Project. So one chapter looks at a particular project of cryptanalysis and signals intelligence and code breaking. The second chapter looks at, what is today a kind of ruined place that was at one time a key kind of site for Britain, where it did a lot of its, what was called "stress testing" of atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. You know, vibrating bombs to see how much kind of stress or how much pressure or how much acceleration they could withstand. And so that chapter looks at the ruins of this place, which are now run by the National Trust and opened for a limited period to visitors. The third chapter looks at the 9/11 Commission and the sort of role of secrecy within that. And then the final chapter looks at the esthetics of secrecy in relation to anti deportation. So those are the four cases. And sort of a case based research was very important to the project because, as you said, I'm not offering anything like a general theory of secrecy, a general theory of state secrecy. The project is really much more material and works through these cases to sort of learn about the specificities and the historicity, and you might say the governmentalities of secrecy by, you know, immersing oneself in case material. 

[00:15:20] The Venona case, for example, it got me thinking about time and space and the mobility or the mobilization of secrecy. And, you know, it's quite striking how even though cryptanalysis and cryptography are sort of hugely significant parts of what states do, you know, of secret intelligence and security works. There's a you know, not not a huge scholarly and certainly not a huge critical literature on code making and code breaking. And, you know, that chapter was important because going back to the sort of covert imagery, the covert imagination, we sort of think of secrets a lot of times is as sort of locked away, you know, as kept in a room, in a building or in a filing cabinet, in a place or maybe contained within the social boundaries of a particular community, a particular network of people. But we don't really think much about how secrets are moved. And this is what was one of the provocations I took from Paglen's work that, you know, how to how is secrecy done when the things being kept secret are themselves, sort of dynamic and mobile. And that's the case with cryptography. You know it's, by 1940 one's talking about messages that are being sent through the airwaves or messages that are being sent through cables. So they're kind of they're in our midst in a way. You know, they're passing through the the airwaves. They're not locked away in a castle. And so, you know, I found that a really sort of fascinating moment, if you like. And so the book really has, sort of engages with particular moments, with particular events, with particular phenomena. And sort of theorizing secrecy through those encounters. It doesn't sort of start with a general theory of the sort which sort of says, well, there's privacy and there's publicity, and secrecy, you know, is the sort of balance between the two. You know, I'm not interested in working with sort of general categories, general concepts. I sort of want to think it from the ground upwards, which kind of reflects, you know, a lot of the sort of insights or lessons I think have taken from thinkers like Michel Foucault or Timothy Mitchell. 

Alison Mountz [00:17:50] I want to shift our conversation to the relationship between migration and secrecy, maybe turning our attention to that fourth chapter on antideportation. You know, for me, as a scholar who studies border enforcement, remote forms of detention, all these state enforcement activities that hide people and from view, it seems obvious that migration studies should be attending to what you call secrecy in action, that these might go hand in hand. And yet, I think you observe or would agree that migration studies also suffers from that same inattention to secrecy as critical of security studies. Is that right? 

William Walters [00:18:34] Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I think, you know, listening to you give papers and or read your work about visibility and invisibility and the hiding of detention, that was a sort of part of the inspiration for the book and certainly this chapter about migration and the esthetics of secrecy. And so I could see that in the Migration and Borders literature, there's often, you know, a thematization of themes of visibility and invisibility, and which is all really important and valuable. And I think that what I've been trying to add in this chapter is to sort of say, well, there's a richness to secrecy to borrow the term of Christopher Gray, who's written a wonderful book about Bletchley Park, among other things. And, you know, when he says the richness of secrecy, he's saying, well, you know, that there is a sort of history of thinking and writing about secrecy, you know, and we could sort of say he was going back to someone like Simmel 100 years ago, you know, in what we might regard as the first kind of extensive sociological treatment of secrecy. And so there is a kind of a body of literature on secrecy and you know that would include people like Simmel or we could put Goffman in there. We would certainly perhaps include Kafka and Orwell. And it's a literature that, well, it's not really recognized as a literature as such. It's certainly not regarded as a canon. But, you know, we have a sort of tradition and a set of ways of thinking about secrecy and bringing those to bear on migration gives us a kind of value added. Right? Because secrecy isn't just about concealment. It might be about feelings. Right? This is the you know, we find this in Simmel, where Simmel says, you know, secrecy is all about aura. It's that kind of, the temptation to tell what the kind of energy that's unleashed when something is told or, Simmel is talking about secrecy as involving trust. Right? You know,  this is one of the things that comes out when you study secret societies. That they involve bonds and they involve oaths and they involve bonds of silence. So all of this is to say that, you know, there's all sorts of other social and political dynamics and mechanisms and experiences that attach to secrecy. And, you know, if we only talk about visibility and invisibility, perhaps we miss some of those other dimensions. And that by theorizing and framing this in terms of questions of secrecy, then I think we can profit from the richness of secrecy as a sociological and historical question. 

Alison Mountz [00:21:40] In your chapter on migration and the esthetics of secrecy, you look especially at the realm of deportation, examining how artists and activists and journalists have revealed state secrets in the realm of deportation and also the work of anti deportation campaigns in particular. So, again, you're looking at some of these state activities like deportation that are hidden in plain sight and you locate these in an esthetic realm. So can you talk more about what the focus on the esthetics of secrets reveals here, you know, when we think about deportation or anti deportation campaigns? 

William Walters [00:22:20] I think one aspect of it is the covert imaginary, you might say, the sort of stereotypical or everyday ways in which we understand secrecies, that we juxtapose the secret and the public, you know, the closed and the open. And sometimes we think there's a kind of zero sum relationship, so that the more secrets it, the more something is secret, the less public or publicity it has. But Dean is saying, no, this is not necessarily the case. You know that we have what Taussig will call public secrecy, that secrets generate publicity. It might not be, you know, a very factual publicity because there might be a lot that we don't know about something. But when something is secret, it gathers and it attracts attention. So in this chapter, I was interested partly in the way in which activists and artists construct deportation as secret. It's a tactical move, by using kind of images that suggests secrecy or intrigue in imposters or in artistic interventions. They kind of, again, capitalize on intrigue, capitalize on rumor, mobilize and if you like, turn, those kinds of energies, those sort of energy forces of intrigue and speculation and sort of use them as as tools, if you like, or as weapons to sort of try to generate greater public attention and concern around deportation. Now, this is not to say for a moment that deportation does not have its own technical and practical and policy secrecies, because it does, you know. So, the chapter looks specifically at the deportation of people on charter flights. Right? Which are kind of like group deportations. And there's a lot of procedural secrecy here. So, for example, in the UK case, if you want to know which airlines are doing this, how much money they make from it, what their procedures are and use freedom of information requests, you don't get very far, because in part, this has been delegated. It's been outsourced to, obviously to private airlines, but also to private travel agents, agencies and security companies. And they're also able to invoke, or the government on their behalf is able to invoke, commercial confidentiality. So it's limited, the amount of data you can gather precisely on this sector of themigration state. So there are all sorts of real secrecies that structure and contour the governance of migration. But the point of the chapter is that this is not self-evident or just obvious, and that what artists and activists often do is foreground particular aspects of this secrecy and kind of can use it, if you like, scandalize and to draw public attention towards the deportation state. So that's particularly evident in the short video that I explore in that chapter by a guy called James Bridle. And so all of that is to say then, that there's a kind of construction of secrecy from below as well as from above. You know, we need to move beyond this idea that it's governments and powerful actors that kind of keep secrets from the public, that they are the sort of agents or they're always the active ones who make secrecy. Because in this case, you know, there's a construction of secrecy from below, if you like. So that secrecy is coproduced, you might say. 

Alison Mountz [00:26:36] That brings me to my last question, you read about the secretization of migration, and I mean, I think at first we think about detention and deportation, as you know, fields that harbor secrecy or where secrecy is coproduced. But I wonder what other areas of research on secrecy, migration and border scholars should be pursuing when we look for secrecy in action, as you call it. 

William Walters [00:27:05] Think about what we as scholars do. Right? You know, for us to explore domains that are sensitive and often violent, often involve trauma, often involve people in sort of delicate situations. We become secret keepers ourselves. Right? And we don't always sort of acknowledge that or recognize it. We have this thing that we call research ethics. You know, and research ethics enjoins us to sort of think about how will you sort of anonymize sources? How will you make sure that your documents, your data is secure? How will you make sure that, you know, certain things aren't exposed in a way that puts somebody at risk? And a lot of that sort of work is very important and necessary. But, you know, if we called it secret keeping, which it is, then, you know, it would make it clear, I think, that we are ourselves implicated in the production of secrecy. So it's not again, to sort of reiterate that earlier point, it's not just that there is a state where there are powerful corporations, you know, who impose or draw some sort of veil of secrecy around what they're doing. And then there are us outsiders, you know, trying to pull back the veil and expose these secrets in the name of social justice and accountability. I mean, that image works on a certain level, but it's a kind of case of what, again, I call the covert imaginary, you know, sort of every day or very commonplace understanding or assumption of what secrecy is and how it works. Whereas if we sort of think of, well, research ethics and doing research, especially doing ethnography, turns us into secret keepers too, that you know, keeping secrets is a necessary precondition, or sine qua non for being able to publish about these phenomenon. You know, there's no, you know, I quote Oscar Wilde in the book who says something like "give a person a mask and he or she will really tell you the truth," you know? So the mask is not just something which hides or obscures. It's actually a kind of device of speech and truth telling as well. So, yeah, the secretization of migration, you know, one way you could spin that is to ask us to think about what kind of secrets we create and manage and work with in the process of being migration researchers or migration activists. 

Alison Mountz [00:29:53] I love that. That's a perfectly provocative place for us to end in a conversation about migration and secrecy. Thanks so much for joining me, William. I really enjoyed our chat and I appreciate you sharing your insights and your new book. Congratulations. 

William Walters [00:30:06] Well, thank you so much, Alison. Those were wonderful questions. I've enjoyed talking immensely. 

Alison Mountz [00:30:14] You've been listening to my conversation with William Walters about his brand new book, "State Secrecy and Security", please join us for our next conversation with Martina Tazzioli about her recent book, "The Making of Migration: The Biopolitics of Mobility at Europe's Borders". This has been an episode of the earmarks podcast, Displacements. Thanks for listening.