Essay: Ed Manet and the NSA by Lucas Wrench

We like to think of surveillance as an invention of the twenty-first century, a means of distinguishing our cultural idea of a pre-9/11, analog world from the techno-dystopic vision we apply to the present. Our mass media tends to address the idea of surveillance through hypotheticals and vague warnings, the all-seeing eye—the XKeyscore algorithm of algorithms—concealed as some god-like entity. It could be watching: you are vulnerable, protect the data! The insistence on this sci-fi framework, however, obscures us from some harsh realities. Namely, that our sophisticated present-day mechanisms of surveillance operate in predictable ways along established lines of bias and prejudice, and, critically, that they represent nothing new. Incarceration, slavery, and colonialism, have all relied on surveillance processes. In fact, the only new feature of our contemporary surveillance apparatus may be the degree to which their processes are now faceless and automated, allowing a white mainstream to imagine that they too could now fall under the watchful gaze of the National Security Agency (NSA), no longer so reliably focused on the marginalized.

This is not to dismiss the significant impact of state surveillance, or the importance of resistance. Surveillance is oppressive, and if we aspire to dismantle the legacies of capitalism, white supremacy, nationalism, etc., we must also do away with our “rubrics of categorization and measurement.” Zach Blas writes, “Political precarity is a result of informatic opacity, but utopian desires persist nonetheless in escaping the control of visibility and recognition.” The challenge becomes how to balance this political necessity of identity—to be seen, recognized, and valued—with our utopian aspirations for a future free from oppressive quantification. 

In the interest of this goal, I want to step back to examine a historical moment decidedly removed from the web of databases, capture-technologies, and biometric analysis we associate with contemporary surveillance, and think about how the history of surveillance is inextricably linked to our conceptions of a modern world. Specifically, I think about Walter Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (1937–39), a critique of these torchbearers of modernity, in which he addresses the early Impressionists’ transformation of, “the moral fabric of public and private space.” Within this well-trodden history, I hope to highlight some of the assumptions, anxieties, norms, and fantasies that lie at the root of our contemporary surveillance state, with particular attention to how changes to the notion of observation helped normalize a broader culture of surveillance.

First, a brief distinction between the surveillance practices of the historical moment, and the French avant-garde’s perception and awareness of said practices at the time. While Baudelaire’s attempts to escape his Parisian creditors reveal a fairly sophisticated understanding of, and resistance to the mechanisms of “administrative control” in play at the time, said mechanisms encompass only a fraction of the mid-century surveillance state. As my colleague Dan Bustillo explores further, arguably the most significant developments of the surveillance state at the time were happening overseas. The U.S. was about to go to war for the preservation of chattel slavery, and Western Europe was in the midst of drastic colonial expansion—two endeavors impossible without sophisticated systems of categorization and control. In Paris, the avant-garde operated with relative autonomy from surrounding surveillance practices, but would nonetheless come to significantly influence the broader culture’s relationship to the surveillance state moving forward.

That said, a useful entry point into the surveillance-scape of mid-nineteenth century Western Europe, comes by way of fin-de-siècle sociologist Georg Simmel, who wrote, “Someone who sees without hearing is much more uneasy than one who hears without seeing....Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.” This is the catchall anxiety, the purview of if you see something, say something, stop-and-frisk, or any other number of policies mapping threat to prejudice and vague suspicion, which have come to define both support and opposition to our present surveillance state. This sustained observation, a new source of anxiety in the mid-nineteenth century, offers a different way to gauge the contributions of France’s avant-garde, led by Baudelaire, Édouard Manet, and the early Impressionists.

Let’s start with a popular motif, Baudelaire’s much-maligned flâneur, wanderer amongst the crowds, “a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.” The original subject of Baudelaire’s profile, the writer and painter Constantine Guys, declares, “Anyone who is capable of being bored in a crowd is a blockhead. I repeat: a blockhead, and a contemptible one.” In contrast to the uneasy train passenger to whom the world appears an unintelligible mass, the painter of modern life sees an irresistibly compelling field of information on which to project his desires. Guys’ incognito status derived presumably from the fellow crowd-dweller’s inability to return such an insightful gaze, or more simply, from his whiteness, maleness, and Frenchness, which aroused no particular interest or suspicion (in contrast, see visions of black flânerie by Aria Dean and Doreen St. Felix). In either case, intellectual curiosity, or a kind of bohemian attraction to confronting the perceived fears of the mainstream, are deployed in the service of this surveillant gaze, ultimately romanticizing the observation of society—this heightened state of visibility—as an inherent pleasure of city life.

Baudelaire’s Impressionist contemporaries, the likes of Manet, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet, pushed similar provocations within the culture of observation. Perhaps best known for their signature brush strokes, or the scandalous Salon des Refusés (1863), one of the Impressionists’ most enduring contributions was their depiction of “modern” subjects. Two of Manet’s rejected submissions to the Académie des Beaux-Arts official salon, Luncheon on the Grass (1862–63) and Olympia (1863), drew ire for their departure from the idealized classical female nudes that were convention at the time. While these images were not meant as portraits of their sitters, or actual women in a factual sense, they were nonetheless read as “real Parisian women,” occupying the role of classical female subjects. To compare a sex worker to a goddess was sacrilege in 1860s Paris, but the more significant precedent with respect to our present culture of observation, was Manet’s decision to deploy his observable surroundings at the service of an art historicized social point of view. This may seem second nature in our present-day meme culture, so accustomed to borrowing someone’s image for the purpose of a joke or visual polemic, but this artistic strategy was the preserve of the avant-garde in the nineteenth century. Like Baudelaire’s painter of modern life, for whom a stroll through the arcade offers all the inspiration he needs, Manet and his cohorts pulled freely from their surroundings—transmuting people and places into vessels of their own ideology. As a collective behavior of the Impressionists, close observation is valorized as prized intellectual work, reinforcing this surveillant gaze as a function of not only urban existence but of critical thinking and insightful artistic production.

The watchful gaze of Simmel’s uneasy train passenger meets the idea of objective truth through the development of the detective novel, a genre characterized by Walter Benjamin as concerned with “the obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big-city crowd.” The first of the genre was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) (Baudelaire’s French translation was published in 1865), in which the protagonist, detective Auguste Dupin, solves the crime exclusively through clues gleaned by reading the subtext of newspaper reports, never having left his study. By flâneur standards, Dupin is an antisocial recluse, yet embodied the remote vantage point for garnering knowledge and fully observing the vast complexity of the city. Some decades later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would bring this idea to the inevitable conclusion through Sherlock Holmes, whose incredible powers of deductive reasoning are capable of rendering any passerby effectively transparent, revealing who they are, where they’re going, and exposing their hidden compulsions and greatest fears. The detective pushes flânerie a step further, moving past the loop of observation to anticipate tangible conclusions.

At this moment in the mid-1800s, some of the most significant developments with respect to state surveillance were happening outside of Western Europe—in the U.S. Civil War, in France’s overseas colonies, and in the laying of the transatlantic cable, as outlined by Bustillo. In France, in the cultural domain of Baudelaire and the Impressionists, the very notion of observation was in flux. When society seemed to have reached an unprecedented level of complexity, artists helped establish a culture where anxiety and distrust were mediated through close observation, and proposed that one could find pleasure in deciphering this puzzle, or at least of being a piece within it. Returning to Blas and this similarly prescient moment in the culture of surveillance, “Utopian desires escaping the control of visibility and recognition,” and these desires demand “a different approach to looking, recognizing, and identifying that confounds a standardized visibility structured by quantification, measurement, and reduction.” I’m not advocating for a return to the Romantic sublime or arguing for the utter unknowability of our others, rather that these ideas of recognition, observation, and truth from a scrutinizing distance, are rooted in a shared social fantasy that is as perpetually oppressive as it is reassuring. A less despotic future requires conjuring new fantasies, grounded in different perspectives and ways of understanding, which is something, for better or for worse, artists have always been good at.


Lucas Wrench is an artist and curator in Los Angeles, California. Under the unofficial performance incubator Mystery Theater Productions Presents!, Wrench curates events and performances at Machine Project, a non-profit experimental art space. Wrench, alias TAZE, also hosts workshops, performances, and lectures throughout Los Angeles and beyond, with Professor X and NoName of the LA Crypto Crew. Wrench has worked with the International Center of Photography, the Craft and Folk Art Museum, High Desert Test Sites, Human Resources, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, amongst others, and holds a BA from Pomona College.