The Covert Sphere

The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State

Timothy Melley
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Covert Sphere
    Book Description:

    In December 2010 the U.S. Embassy in Kabul acknowledged that it was providing major funding for thirteen episodes of Eagle Four-a new Afghani television melodrama based loosely on the blockbuster U.S. series 24. According to an embassy spokesperson, Eagle Four was part of a strategy aimed at transforming public suspicion of security forces into something like awed respect. Why would a wartime government spend valuable resources on a melodrama of covert operations? The answer, according to Timothy Melley, is not simply that fiction has real political effects but that, since the Cold War, fiction has become integral to the growth of national security as a concept and a transformation of democracy.

    In The Covert Sphere, Melley links this cultural shift to the birth of the national security state in 1947. As the United States developed a vast infrastructure of clandestine organizations, it shielded policy from the public sphere and gave rise to a new cultural imaginary, "the covert sphere." One of the surprising consequences of state secrecy is that citizens must rely substantially on fiction to "know," or imagine, their nation's foreign policy. The potent combination of institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state was instrumental in fostering the culture of suspicion and uncertainty that has plagued American society ever since-and, Melley argues, that would eventually find its fullest expression in postmodernism.

    The Covert Sphere traces these consequences from the Korean War through the War on Terror, examining how a regime of psychological operations and covert action has made the conflation of reality and fiction a central feature of both U.S. foreign policy and American culture. Melley interweaves Cold War history with political theory and original readings of films, television dramas, and popular entertainments-from The Manchurian Candidate through 24-as well as influential writing by Margaret Atwood, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E. L. Doctorow, Michael Herr, Denis Johnson, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, and many others.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6591-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Postmodern Public Sphere
    (pp. 1-43)

    On September 17, 2001—six days after terrorists slammed jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon—President George W. Bush signed a Memorandum of Notifications authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to launch what the correspondent Jane Mayer called “the most aggressive, ambitious covert-action plan seen since the Cold War, maybe ever.” The document, Mayer argued, was “nothing less than a global plan for a secret war, fought not by the military with its well-known legal codes of conduct and a publicly accountable chain of command, but instead in the dark by faceless and nameless CIA agents following commands...

  5. 1 Brainwashed!
    (pp. 44-75)

    On October 2, 2005, three months after the coordinated bombing of the London transportation system and three days before the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved John McCain’s Detainee Treatment Act, the British home secretary, Charles Clarke, attempted to explain terrorism by invoking a specter of the Cold War. Islamic terrorists, Clarke argued, should not be seen in the “ ‘classic’ mould of revolutionaries fighting for a political cause.” Rather, they are like educated youths “brainwashed” into joining cults. Perhaps, Clarke added, “anti-brainwashing techniques” could be used to “deprogramme” terrorists—converting them back to productive citizens essentially by running brainwashing protocols in...

  6. 2 Spectacles of Secrecy
    (pp. 76-109)

    Why has the Rosenberg affair been so important to postmodern U.S. historical fiction? While American slavery is the dominant subject of the genre, few events have drawn so much high-powered attention as the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage. The subject of three of the most important literary achievements of the past fifty years—E. L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel (1971), Robert Coover’s Public Burning (1977), and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991–92)—the Rosenberg affair has been rivaled in its fictionalization by only a few other postwar events: the assassination of John...

  7. 3 False Documents
    (pp. 110-142)

    In a 2006 panel discussion of the Rosenberg affair, E. L. Doctorow defended the inventions of historical novelists this way: “Our justification and our salvation is that people know we’re liars. . . . The kind of genre-blurring done by the President of the United States is quite different. He is a storyteller, a fabulist, and presents as truth and fact stuff that is totally fictive.”¹ This is a curious way to defend fiction, for it not only embraces “lying” as a moral act, but it explicitly relates the fabulation of the artist to the deceptions of the state. Both...

  8. 4 The Work of Art in the Age of Plausible Deniability
    (pp. 143-170)

    The defense of imaginative writing against the claims of history and other “serious” discourses dates back at least to Philip Sidney’s late sixteenth-century Defence of Poesy. But when did the defense of poetry begin to invoke the deceptions of the state? When, that is, did novelists begin to trumpet the value of fiction over history and nonfictional discourse as a corrective to state secrecy?

    The answer seems to be during the 1960s.¹ Consider, for instance, Norman Mailer’s groundbreaking narrative of the 1967 anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon, Armies of the Night. Trying to narrate the event first as fiction and...

  9. 5 Postmodern Amnesia
    (pp. 171-198)

    Poor David Webb. Webb—aka Jason Bourne, the CIA assassin created by Robert Ludlum and catapulted to Hollywood fame by the directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass—cannot remember who he is or what he has done. What he does know is that his work has not been nice. He possesses astonishing physical and mental skills. He is a preternaturally keen observer, a master of strategy, and a lethal human weapon. He is also deeply unhappy and dangerous to everyone he likes.¹

    Like many late twentieth-century literary amnesiacs, Bourne turns out to be a casualty of U.S. intelligence. His memories...

  10. 6 The Geopolitical Melodrama
    (pp. 199-222)

    Two responses dominated early American attempts to comprehend the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The first was a widespread sense of disbelief and confusion about the possible motives for such an attack. Americans repeatedly asked why anyone would perpetrate such acts. What had the United States or its citizens done to warrant such a vicious assault?

    The second response came from government officials struggling to provide answers to this question. Only hours after the attacks, President Bush declared that “freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward and freedom will...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 223-256)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 257-278)
  13. Index
    (pp. 279-290)