All hermeneutics is the art of reading texts by an unintended audience; it is a mode of eavesdropping.
— John Durham Peters
Yesterday, I was reading Frantz Fanon’s writings on surveillance. He writes of the embodied effects of surveillance on workers: factory workers, telephone switchboard operators, sales clerks, and so on. He talks of time clocks, punch cards, eavesdropping, and closed-circuit television — technological innovations that attempt to reduce the worker to an automaton. For the boss, Fanon tells us, the time clock is an “antitheft device.” The worker is cast as a deviant whose latent criminality justifies the pre-emptive curtailing of their freedoms. Fanon goes on to describe the impact of these forms of surveillance: nervous tensions, explosive angers, insomnia, accidents, and lightheadedness. Nightmares also figure prominently: “a train that departs and leaves me, a gate that shuts, a door that does not open, a game that I am not allowed to play, the boss has vanished, leaving the time clock in his place…”
Afterwards, I prepare dinner for my partner and a friend who is staying with us through an intense period of crisis. The two of them sit on a fold-out bed in our living room while I cook in the kitchen. Over the pounding of a mortar and pestle, I overhear snippets of their conversation. I am trying not listen, but it seeps through the wall. Or maybe I am actually trying to listen, straining hard to hear the details so as to keep abreast of the situation. When they come into the kitchen, there is a momentary pause before our friend casually acknowledges my status as an eavesdropper. It is an acknowledgement that privacy is difficult to come by in our small flat, but also perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of her trust in me. Here the act of overhearing establishes a relation of care.
So we find ourselves somewhere between criminality and care. An eavesdropping wielded against the worker by the boss versus an eavesdropping that binds one to another in an act of solidarity or love. The spread of computation has radically enhanced the ability of those in power to eavesdrop on every moment of life, and this situation has, in turn, expanded the presumption of criminality beyond the confines of the factory. But perhaps criminality and care are not antithetical concepts after all. What does it mean to be rendered a criminal in the illegitimate eyes of the settler state? For Fanon, if one is to be always already rendered guilty — and this is at the heart of his theory of blackness — then one might cultivate criminality as a mode of care and resistance. He suggests expressing boredom on the job, arriving late to work, or not arriving at all.
But what do we do when the strategies Fanon puts forward are no longer viable? I work in a university as a sessional academic and this week I found myself coming up against the ruthless sadism of that particular institution. An arsenal of anti-unionist measures were deployed by management against precarious workers: withheld contracts; slashed pay rates; thinly veiled threats from management to stop asking questions or be replaced; the (false) promise of future job security dangled as a carrot to entice ‘troublemakers’ to fall back into line. Needless to say, this hostile and punitive management style has produced a fog of paranoia and fear that permeates every inch of this workplace. I imagine variations on Fanon’s list of recurring nightmares are common amongst workers here too. And while I long ago disabused myself of the notion of the university as an accessible public institution, the events of the past week affirm an image of the academy as an institution of imperialism. I do not mean this as a dramatic flourish but rather that the particular institution I work at is directly connected to the Australian Defence Force and so bears a concrete relationship to militarism and occupation in the context of a settler colonial nation. The type of imperialism at play is remarkably resonant with a type of US imperialism that Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maria argue can be found in contemporary American universities. This imperialism, they write in their introduction to The Imperial University, “is characterized by deterritorialized, flexible, and covert practices of subjugation and violence and as such does not resemble historical forms of colonialism that depended on territorial colonialism.” This imperialist mentality also underpins the economic imperative of the university, which seeks growth and global expansion at all costs. And so we return to the hardcore anti-workerism of my current workplace which steadily erodes the conditions of workers as it expands its imperialist agenda. In response to the slow erosion of liveability, the paranoia of surveillance, and the fear of retribution, I find myself increasingly talking in hushed tones and close huddles when at work. We organise by cultivating a gossip network, we practise eavesdropping as a modality of both care and resistance, we listen to find each other in the cracks that evade the university’s grasp.
I read that the concept of eavesdropping arises from those who used to listen under the eaves of a house. An ambivalent concept for sure but I have been thinking about this in relation to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney refer to as “the undercommons.” Overhearing must be a crucial modality of listening in the undercommons, a listening from below that attends to the traces and resonances of voices who have been there before and who are yet to arrive. The criminalisation of the eavesdropper suggests that they have always been a threat to established orders. Under the eaves we might find a space where criminality and care are contiguous, a space of refuge where one might study, plan and chatter in ways that refuse the call to order.