The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy

Originally published at:


Aesthetics of Government Secrecy

That’s the best joke on the internet, hands down. Keep up the good work, I love you!

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That’s a sublimely expensive academickall book.

Dang, I thought that the NSA’s massive network had become sentient, and promptly sublimed a-la Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Oh well…

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Eeeeeewwww. Romanticizing the rise of the security state is a bit gross. It is like saying metastatic cancer is sublime. It is a grotesque superposition of the state over the people, and it should be fought with furious anger.


woosh. …

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Nice to see the word “sublime” used in its proper context. Also nice to see a reference to “The Parallax View” which stirred me deeply at the time. As for the rest - eeewwww, creepy.


I really appreciate this kind of frame when I try to wrap my head around the current awfulness.

When I see people arguing at each other, spouting numbers that make no impact, its a sign that different aesthetics are clashing. Outside the aesthetic, it appears monsterous. Inside, its just common sense.

Theres a much less expensive book Ive been wanting to get a hold of again, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. Bigness for the sake of its own size has become such a common sense notion any more, I struggle to step outside that frame.

Mapping out the aesthetics of these frames, feels like an important way to stay afloat in this flood. Larry Niven made a similar case, comparing an enormous government apparatus to a water monopoly empire: no matter how fragile and corrupt the system got, it would not topple from its own contradictions. Not until an alternative made itself known, competition from the outside. When the empire spans an entire planet, there is no outside except for a science fictional space traveller.

It’s trivially easy for me to imagine these castles crumbling under their own weight. What’s much more difficult, is to imagine myself being part of what replaces them.


It reminds me of the David Foster Wallace speech about life being like water, and how we’re all fish. You can’t picture being somewhere else until you can actually imagine it, and for that we need metaphors and genuine vision. And, as has been shown with how people view the differences between 1 million, 1 billion, and a 1 trillion, numbers and statistics don’t do that. We’re not mathematical creatures (not really), we’re story-telling creatures.


Indeed, our intuitions break down even in the simplest problems.

Imagine an algorithm that recognizes a terrorist as such with 99% probability, and recognizes someone who isn’t a terrorist as not being suspicious also with 99% probability. If we apply that algorithm to 300 million people (the US population approximately), how many actual terrorists do we expect to catch, and how many innocent people do we expect to mistake for terrorists? How do these numbers change when the first probability is 99.99% instead, or the second is 99.999%?

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“woosh”? Are you implying that you think the article went over my head? Or are you saying my reply went over your head? On the off chance it is the latter, I will offer a clarification.

Sublimity is an experential truth. If I do not experience it, is only true for the author. Dick Cheney may experience the rise of the surveillance state as sublime, but I do not. If you want to argue that a landfill is more inspiring than a rose, I’ll leave you to it. I experience disgust - The rise of the surveillance state was an Op. A flooding of an epistemology that government is inherently good - It was calculated, cunning, and recursive. Post 9-11, we experienced the next version. An inflection point no doubt, but a fairly taught line cane be drawn between MK Ultra and where we are today.

Celebrating it as sublime, is like celebrating Holocaust because of all the swell movies that were made about it. My initial reaction remains unchanged - Eeeeeewwwww

We all experience woosh in the face of the sublime. I don’t think the authors are attributing “good” here to the emergent system they are discussing - rather I think discussions of aesthetic appreciation are akin to the enjoyment of reading lovecraftian horror - contemplating entities of uncontemplatable scope is pleasurable not due to their goodness or badness, but because our ability to brush up against the infinite fills us with the recognition of our nearly divine powers of comprehension - the transcendental nature of grasping the ungraspable if only for a moment.

Maybe i misread, but I didn’t think they were celebrating it in the sense you’re implying. Your commments about the holocaust did make me consider if it is in bad taste, but I think any tact toward greater understanding of the apparatus is ultimately beneficial - I don’t think this is pro-security state.

also was thinking about what you said about cancer - I am terrified of it and experience the same disgust you are talking about. It is too repulsive to me for me to be fascinated, but ultimately I think the scientists that could find a cure must experience a fascination - I don’t think disgust and furious anger allow for the kind of holistic critical thinking necessary to overcome these extremely complex problems.

all that said, sorry for saying “woosh” I hate that I fall into the trap of letting the culture and anonymity (irony noted) of the internet cause me to be less civil and make quicker assumptions than I would in other circumstances. Although I am not entirely against the slightly lower threshold for engaging in debate on the internet, I think it is freeing and hopefully helpful for quickly refining ones ideas… guess it’s a balance.


~smiles~ The blessed in me bows to the blessed in you. Thank you for considering my thoughts.

I think we are aminable in our ideas. Perhaps we just got all up in our interwebs.


I used to work in the pictured complex.

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