Watergate, Again
         

by Reinhold Martin

What if nobody’s watching?

In Volume No. 4 (on ‘leaks’) I published a small piece on the architectural history and theory of the Watergate hotel and apartment complex in Washington, DC. It appeared, along with several other more compelling articles, in an unbound pamphlet printed on newsprint which was inserted into the back of the magazine’s plastic box. 1

The article was about paranoia. It speculated on an unverifiable correspondence between the political paranoia underlying the historical event we call Watergate and the aesthetic paranoia of the everything-connected-to-everything, proto-digital, ‘parametric architecture’ exemplified by the Watergate buildings themselves. Such a correspondence is unverifiable in two senses. First, it is unverifiable in the obvious sense that there is no causal relation between the architecture of the complex and the political events that occurred in and around it. And second, it is unverifiable in the more subtle sense that the political and the aesthetic represent two different levels of human experience to begin with.

One way of recognizing the non-causal, though sometimes uncanny, connections between aesthetics and politics is to think of technology as a mediator. After all, have not the very same video surveillance cameras and their associated technical apparatus become, since the early 70s, instruments of socio-political control as well as raw material for restaging that control as an aesthetic experience (from Dan Graham to Bruce Nauman to Julia Scher to Diller + Scofidio), often with critical overtones? And is not television another name for that technical apparatus as it is generalized into a mass phenomenon? And was not television also a primary site in which both the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis unfolded in the American public sphere?

In revisiting this context, I suggest we consider narcissism a complement to paranoia. I don’t just mean the sense of ‘them’ watching ‘me’ associated with scenes of surveillance (or the ‘famous for fifteen minutes’ aspect of television), however distressful or pleasurable that might be. Nor am I referring, exactly, to the sense of ‘seeing myself seeing myself,’ whether in the mirror or elsewhere. I am referring, instead, to the straightforward possibility that there may not be anybody watching in the first place, which is another way of saying that there could very well be nothing in the mirror. This is the beauty of Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon, which has by now achieved a status well beyond cliché in architecture and elsewhere. For the Panopticon (or, we can add, for the Super-Ego, or God, or Father-Mother, or Big Brother) to work, there does not have to be anybody actually sitting in the guard’s tower peering out the window. All you need is a guard’s tower with sufficiently small windows and human bodies arranged in the right way. Narcissistic projection defines one possible reaction to this state of affairs.

Recently, an article appeared in Harper’s Magazine by Daniel Ellsberg, the former Rand Corporation analyst who, in early 1971, leaked the Johnson administration’s secret plans for escalating the Vietnam War (later known as the Pentagon Papers) to The New York Times. In the Harper’s piece, entitled ‘The Next War’, Ellsberg argues for someone else to do the same, but sooner, with respect to what he describes as the Bush administration’s secret contingency?) plans for invading Iran. He also acknowledges the risks such an act would entail. He should know. After the Times published the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was threatened with prison. He was also targeted by the group operating from within the Nixon White House known as the Plumbers when, in September of 1971, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy broke into the Los Angeles office of his psychiatrist in search of damaging information.

Nine months later, five hapless operatives working for Hunt and Liddy (who were now associated with the Committee to Re-Elect the President) broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate hotel. Their job was to repair malfunctioning electronic surveillance devices. They entered from the parking garage, leaving a piece of tape on the lock, and were caught. Ellsberg’s piece in Harper’s conjures similar images, of late night visits to the copy machine and documents stuffed under trench coats, if not bungled break-ins and shadowy parking garages. Referring to the example of Richard Clarke, the former chief of counterterrorism for George W. Bush who only disclosed what he knew about the public deceptions leading up to the 2002 invasion of Iraq in a memoir published in 2004, Ellsberg suggests that ‘…Clarke could have made his knowledge of the war to come, and its danger to our security, public before the war. He could have supported his testimony with hundreds of files from his office safe and computer, to which he still had access.2 In doing so, Ellsberg further suggests, Clarke could have helped prevent the invasion by demonstrating the true intentions if its leaders, as well as their folly.

Maybe he is right. Or maybe not, since, underlying this suggestion is an equation between transparency (i.e., revealing hidden facts) and the ultimate triumph of reason in a public sphere characterized by what one Bush administration official famously – and derisively – called ‘reality-based’ rational debate. Does this equation still apply, if it ever did? I would like to think so, but I cannot be sure. Although it’s true that the ‘American public’ and Congress did not have all the facts about the Bush administration’s plans, they certainly had enough information to make a reasonable, informed decision that this war was entirely unjust. They didn’t. Why not?

One possibility is that, contrary to there being not enough information about the motives and likely consequences of the Iraq invasion, there was too much information. This information, however, did not always take the form of the facts and figures that Ellsberg imagines lay hidden in Richard Clarke’s safe. Rather, it often appeared, in public, in an affective mode – in the swagger of administration officials, in the triumphalist tone of so much post-9/11 discourse on both sides of the political aisle, and in the passionate disdain for all-too-quaint truths all around.

To put it another way, it remains possible that the full disclosure Ellsberg demands at the level of political discourse actually did occur at the level of what amounts to an aesthetics of public performance. Of course, many intellectual traditions would regard such performances as mere smoke screens, rhetorical cover for behind-the-scenes conversations and actions that are far more real. But surely these apparently small, ornamental gestures – Bush’s smirk, Rumsfeld’s scorn, but also the mise-en-scène of a presidential address – were and are something more than this. Not exactly ‘spin’, which suggests a relativism in which all informational content can be manipulated by reframing it, and not exactly ‘symptom’, in the sense of the compulsive, unconscious expression of inner contradictions. More like an imperative uttered at the level of emotional, empathetic – and even aesthetic – experience. What do these details say? ‘Watch me.’

Or really, they say: ‘Watch me like you would watch a reality show.’ Reality shows stage an apotheosis of surveillance by proposing that somebody may be watching, all the time. The pleasure derived from them is voyeuristic, in the sense that ‘I can see them but they can’t see me.’ But it is also narcissistic, in the sense that ‘if what they experience as real includes the possibility that I am watching them, then what I experience as real includes the possibility that you are watching me.’ Call this a nested, or Russian doll, theory of surveillance, in which everyday life becomes televisual. It supplements the oscillating dyad of subject/object (you watch me as I watch you) with a much more unstable, potentially infinite series (you watch me as I watch them as they watch…). And it suggests not one Panopticon (inhabited by one Big Brother) but many, one Panopticon within the other within the other – an expanded ‘diagram’, one might say, of social control. This diagram is built on the principle of opaque transparency: ‘Watch me as I dissemble, as I lie, without hiding the fact that I am lying.’

Consider the uncanny revelation (in a recent book by former Watergate reporter Bob Woodward) that Henry Kissinger has been acting as a behind-thescenes adviser to the Bush administration. Is this a surprise? The current war, as well as what Ellsberg suggests could be the next war, appears time and again as a rerun of the ‘last war’ (as in the expression, ‘fighting the last war’). Kissinger’s reappearance on the scene, or his appearance from behind the scenes, reminds us that in a certain corner of the American political imaginary, all wars since the 1960s are gathered together under the name ‘Vietnam’. And all the lies leading up to, organizing, and emanating from them are gathered together under the name ‘Watergate’. Surely, we have seen it all before. And surely we are being asked to watch it yet again, as if for the first time, ‘live’ on (reality) tv. Can we refuse this command to ‘watch’, along with the deadly narcissism that it serves? Yes, though not by turning off the television (and succumbing to an illusory sense of control over the medium of control), but by learning to watch the screen – that is, the apparatus – itself.

Footnotes:
1. Reinhold Martin, ‘Watergate: Architectural Afterthoughts’, C-Lab File 3: Leaks, Volume No. 4 (November 2005) pp. 6–10.
2. Daniel Ellsberg, ‘The Next War’, Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 313, No. 1877 (October 2006) pp. 8–9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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