Snowden and Goethe

28/06/2013 13:23 | Updated 28 August 2013

Edward Snowden and I have a couple of things in common. While he's a fugitive in an airport's transit zone, I'm hiding out in a university library: two spaces populated by either travellers or academics, both of whom look tired and antsy. I'm writing a chapter on Goethe's prefaces. And back in 2003, Snowden recommended Goethe's first preface to Theory of Colours ("Zur Farbenlehre") to a fellow poster in the Ars Technica chat forum.

As the Snowden saga quietens down - for now, at least - old posts under the alias TheTrueHOOHA offer us snapshots of the whistleblower's character. In one chat during 2009, he called for certain anonymous leakers to be "shot in the balls". Other comments are more considered. On September 9th 2003, he skirmished with DrPizza, who strove to say what was accurate, setting store by what's correct. Snowden replies:

"Debate is the vehicle with which we arrive at correctness. You don't start there.

You would most likely deeply enjoy reading the preface to the first edition of Goethe's Theory of Colours. It is written with your kind of mind in mind, as it were."

His sense of subjectivity in the rest of the post is admittedly naïve, but he also has a point. In the preface Snowden's referring to, Goethe writes:

"Every act of seeing leads to consideration, consideration to reflection, reflection to combination, and thus it may be said that in every attentive look on nature we already theorize."

The work is one against Newton; accordingly, facts do not speak for themselves, but are always presented to us from some theoretical standpoint - either an implicit one, or, ideally, a self-reflexive one, ironically aware of its own constructedness. TheTrueHOOHA is right that the preface is aimed against the DrPizzas of this world, and he's maybe being ironic that his chat partner would deeply enjoy Goethe's theory - though he'd clearly benefit from it (whatever its empirical accuracy).

Call me a pedantic philologist who's procrastinating, but: this glimpse of Goethe via Snowden gives us another insight into why the whistleblower might have revealed his identity, rather than choosing to remain anonymous. To be sure, there are pragmatic reasons he gave a name and face to his disclosures: in our online age, he would soon have been found out, anyway. Although Snowden told Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian that he "didn't modify the story" and he feared the media would focus too much on his personality, he stressed his ordinariness and background as well as the positions he's held. This was not just a strategy to make himself appear credible and authoritative; it also emphasised his subjective perception of the surveillance state. His perspective is not that of a policy maker, or institutionalized, supposedly indoctrinated security career hack. He's instead a representative of Joe Public who's seen behind the scenes. To this end, Snowden hopes to trigger not a specific legislative or political outcome, but more general "debate".

I don't think this debate, first and foremost, was meant to be about the facts of surveillance by government agencies per se. This is how many of us are responding to it. Of course, if we're going to discuss something sensibly, we need material to argue with (and Snowden has given us plenty of that). But, for once, the devil is not in the detail: specific checking and refuting distracts from the bigger questions about openness, transparency, privacy and secrecy, what they are, how they're different, and who has a right to them. Soon, public attention will move on to the next scandal. Snowden may or may not have got some things wrong (Goethe certainly did), but the important argument is about principles. Let's prioritize these while Snowden's still in transit and the story has not yet completed its journey through the world's media.

We should all go back to Goethe. Well I should, at least.