WikiLeaks: Censorship, the Digital Archive and Public Spirit

by Daycaf Magazine

To radically shift regime behavior, we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be change. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden is with the ways to act in which our forebears could not.-  (Julian Assange)

WikiLeaks owes its success to its status as a censored organization. Philosopher Judith Butler, in Excitable Speech, understands that censorship restricts us from producing speech. Making a key distinction between explicit and implicit censorship, she argues that the former is an attempt to repress a certain word by officially casting it as pejorative. Yet, as Butler notices, “The regulation redoubles the term it is trying to constrain.”

Stating what the State does not want brings this speech back into circulation. Implicit censorship, on the other hand, is a coercive power that creates the unspeakable by not recognizing it. However, implicit censorship is complicated by Butler’s understanding of illegibility as a form of resistance. Butler’s two notions of censorship operate in the case of WikiLeaks. After the release of the US Embassy Cables in 2010, many governments attempted to formally censor WikiLeaks, which only drew attention to the leaked information and legitimized WikiLeaks’ cause. Before Cablegate, the US had not officially recognized WikiLeaks, which kept attention away from their activity, but left the US unable to respond to the secret military information that was made public on the internet. This clandestine use of the internet became a political mode of resistance; it forced the US government to redefine both what it considers a threat and how to deal with a threat of this nature. Yet, the leaks go farther than making-transparent. In-fact, WikiLeaks unites a community of hackers and activists around a Jean-Luc Nancian sense of public spirit, around a desire freedom of information and technology. And, through  a digital archive, makes public the means to interpret these documents: to produce history and to create truth.

Butler’s work examines the performativity of words. “What does it mean for a word to not only name,” she asks, “but also in some sense to perform and, in particular, to perform what it names?”

Speech here both signifies and has a productive effect: it does; it creates rules and law. Butler calls upon Robert Cover, who’s understanding of the correlation of violence to law “Underscores the power of the judiciary to enact violence through speech.”

The simple speech-act of sentencing creates a causal chain that ends in violence. The power to do suddenly becomes the power to produce violence. Butler says, “The one who speaks the performative effectively is understood to operate according to uncontested power.”

The power to produce discourse is the power to create perceived truths. Butler suggests that speech constructs subjects trough a violent interpellation– through a discursive, performative naming effect.

A victim of this interpellation can either choose to be a subject, or risk being unintelligible to State power. By creating the terms that define subjects, the State violently creates those who cannot be subjects– who are denied the power to make speech.

Turning to censorship, we can see how Butler extends her notions of power, discourse, and violence. The conventional understanding of censorship is “That which is directed against persons or against the content of their speech”

Explicit censorship governs acceptable speech. Self-censoring may occur at the level of content, and also at the level of the limited linguistic possibilities of speech. Butler examines the slippage of explicit censoring, noting, “The regulation that states what it does not want stated thwarts its own desires.”

This kind of performative contradicts its censoring capabilities by reproducing the undesirable speech, but still grants authority to censors to define the word/speech in a pejorative way. Butler argues that this paradox shows the failure to completely create a subjectivity through discourse, implying there is a certain form of resistance operating.

It also transforms the act of explicitly censoring into a spectacle, giving unwanted attention to the subject of censor and the censoring itself.

Butler then begins to describe a more coercive form of implicit censorship, which:

Refers to implicit operations of power that rule out in unspoken ways what will remain unspeakable. In such cases, no explicit regulation is needed in which to articulate this constraint. Such implicit forms of censorship may be, in fact, more efficacious than explicit forms in enforcing a limit on speakablity.

This type of power controls speech by defining what counts as speech and what doesn’t, what exists as an absence or an illegibility. This type of censoring is very dangerous; it doesn’t redouble speech or legitimize the target of censoring. To be explicitly in dialogue with power is to be far more powerful than being completely disregarded by it. As Butler reminds us, “To move outside of the domain of speakablity is to risk one’s status as a subject.”

To be a subject means to be defined by speech as such. Someone who is unspeakable, who does not have the power to produce speech that authority recognize as speech, isn’t a subject. The stakes of speech and censorship are suddenly raised to the level of creating and eliminating subjects.

Butler does argue for ways to resist this implicit censorship and subjectification, pointing out that survival as non-subject “Consolidates politics as a production of discourse, and establishes ‘silence’ as a site of potential resistance to such discursive regimes and normalizing effects.”

Politics is a discursive battle over representation and so silence is always in opposition to speech. The power to produce that which is illegible according State power is the power to resist State power– through using non-speech: by not being interpellated into a subjectivity. While it appears as complicity, silence actually offers the power to go unnoticed, to build resistance and unleash it on authority. This echoes Jacques Rancière’s notion of politics as the moment when an unrecognized mass of voices becomes recognized as speech; an event that requires a perspectival shift on the part of the authority. “By understanding the false or wrong invocations as reiterations, we see how the form of social institutions undergo change and alteration and how an invocation that has no prior legitimacy can have the effect of changing existing forms of legitimacy, breaking open the possibility of future forms.”

Here Butler is arguing that by recognizing the illegible, by signifying new speech, we radically challenge current forms of legitimation; we recognize and legitimize change. We are offered a future– future forms of speech– a future of politics.

These ideas of censorship and resistance play heavily into the story of WikiLeaks. Before forming WikiLeaks in 2004, Assange was a high-profile internet hacker, which explains his political values, why he is interested in using technology as a means for mass-destabilization.

Assange desires the mass-liberation of information from the sites of power.

This is why he led WikiLeaks, in 2010, to release the Afghan War Diary and The Iraq War Logs, which were seen as the largest leak of secret military information in the history of the U.S. This radical publicization of information was and still is available for free on the internet. The Iraq War Logs were made most famous by the graphic evidence of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison. One document reads:


Classification: SECRET

Date: 7/11/2006 10:00:00 AM


Category: Other

Coordinates (approx.): 33.30, 44.36





Analyzing this report is generative for a number of reasons: it documents the type of horrific violence that has actually occurred on a systematic level. The Iraq War Logs website called this “torture widespread in Iraqi detention facilities.”

After diligently analyzing thousands of such documents, they have concluded that “this is just one of 1,365 cases categorized in the military records as potential detainee abuse by Iraqi authorities. The US files, which continue late into 2009, detail torture and clear evidence of widespread mistreatment of detainees.”

This article suggests that the practice of dehumanizing prison torture always was prevalent, occurring as a mass-execution of a top-down order. Like Covert’s judge who indirectly creates violence in the act of judging, the military officer who issues the command has lower-ranked soldiers to execute his orders. This indirect violence is multiplied because the violence of a judge or an officer is not a singular event, but is repeated, establishes a precedent, and is reinvoked.

Also important to notice is how heavily coded these report are.

The blacked-out information represents identities and names WikiLeaks decided to make private to protect the privacy of the individuals in question. WikiLeaks self-censors, which may occur because their interest is in upending State power, not in targeting individuals. Censoring may have also taken place to protect WikiLeaks from more serious reprimand from government officials and the media, who could attack WikiLeaks for it’s blatant disregard for these individual’s lives.

What followed is perhaps the most significant part of the story– on November 8th, 2010, WikiLeaks published the US Embassy Cables. These documents are similar in style to the Iraq War Logs; however, the Embassy leaks, called “Cablegate,” were seen as far more controversial, in their scale and sensitivity of subject-matter. The US Embassy Cables were special because they didn’t document the events of war that had already passed, but instead had a very direct impact on diplomatic relations, calling into question the trust the US’s allies placed in the CIA and military intelligence. The federal government called for Amazon’s internet server to stop hosting WikiLeaks, which they did. WikiLeaks was briefly and explicitly censored.

However, this censoring didn’t last long. Pirate and satellite servers began to host WikiLeaks. Butler understood explicit censoring well; US censoring drew massive media attention to the subject, far beyond any attention WikiLeaks had before. By giving attention to this violent and restrictive act of censoring, the US empowered WikiLeaks and draws support to their cause. This process redoubled the name, idea and aims of WikiLeaks.

Implicit censoring operates on many levels with WikiLeaks. Before the release of the Afghan War Diary, WikiLeaks largely flew under the radar of the US government and major media, in part, because WikiLeaks’s targets were international, and any release of US military documents were minor. No official discourse appeared until at least 2009, suggesting that there was no need for censorship. WikiLeaks, at least in the US, was unseen as a subject– any status as a threat or a power was ignored. This implicit censorship employed by the US government and by the mainstream US media allowed WikiLeaks to operate under the radar: to resist the violence of interpellation and to collect the mass of military information that would make WikiLeaks infamous.

The White House press release a day after the leak of the US Embassy Cables was extremely evasive, and demonstrates how the government has had to scramble to address WikiLeaks. Trying not to divulge any specifics about how this information will affect our diplomatic relations, Press Sec. Gibbs said, “Well, I think for obvious legal reasons I don’t want to get into the specifics of these purported cables.”

Speaking around the leaks was an attempt to prevent any response from being too explicit. A well placed question from the press asked, “Is there some thought that the President doesn’t want to speak about WikiLeaks publicly perhaps because you don’t want to elevate the leaker, you don’t want to elevate WikiLeaks itself, or perhaps even inspire a potential future leaker by making this a bigger deal?”

This savvy inquiry gets to the question of censorship– accusing The White House of not wanting to redouble the leaks by legitimize them thru speech, or turning Assange into a speakable subject. While this may have been The White House’s goal, other government officials and the mainstream press made Cablegate very explicit. Attorney General Eric Holder spearheaded a criminal probing, but the government has been paralyzed, unable to act on any firm legal grounds. The US government made a double error in its censorship; by explicitly censoring WikiLeaks, it illuminated their project, and by implicitly censoring them by not addressing them, the government has no way to actually deal with this unprecedented release of information, this act of terror.

In 2011, a conversation took place on Democracy Now between journalist Amy Goodman, philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and Assange. In response to Assange being labeled a “high-tech terrorist” by Sen. Biden, Slavoj Žižek said to Assange, “You are a terrorist, but in the sense that Gandhi is a terrorist. What is robbing a bank, compared to founding a new bank? You are not only violating the rules, you are changing the very rules [about] how we were allowed to violate the rules.”

This idea is profound; Assange is a terrorist, not because he attacked the State, but because he violently changed the rules by which we understand terror. This shift in how terror and information correlate has to do, in part, with the internet, which is still a highly illegible space for law to act in. As long as technology and terrorism can outpace law, they will find new ways to redefine legibility– to change the rules. This Rancièrian move, a moment of recognizing the internet and information-technology as having a radical potentiality– as being a real threat. This act is violent, not in the Coverian sense of the violence of jurisprudence, but is a violent break with established meaning. Assange’s work is radical, violent, and ethical; insofar as ethical actions are taken in pursuit of the good found in (new) truths.

The government is forced to scramble to act, to recalibrate power’s definition of meaning in this incredible act of liberation. Here Assange offers us a future, an alternative that upsets current modes of representation and legitimation.

*                                               *                                               *

A question arises: without the government’s covert use of torture, would WikiLeaks be necessary? This question gets to the heart of the issue: what else is WikiLeaks doing besides making transparent certain government practices? We get a better sense of the depth and richness of WikiLeaks as a political phenomenon by turning to Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Truth of Democracy. Nancy understands that there is a public disappointment with democracy that is caused by people looking solely to politics (government) to find values and equal(ity) shares. Politics is not where we find love, knowledge, or art. In fact, these values are incalculable. Nancy argues that, “The share of what is without value– the share of sharing (out) of the incalculable, which is thus, strictly speaking, unsharable– exceeds politics.”

Nancy thinks we need to share a sense of ‘public spirit,’ a common goal, or a National Thing. Often it is that public spirit(s) that we fight over as a society. Assange activates this public spirit– where values go beyond the (conventional) political realm. Upholding the liberation of information is what draws a whole community of thinkers and hackers together. Instead of aiming all of our frustrations at the government, WikiLeaks allows for a public discourse to exist, to be recognized and focused on ethics, transparency, the internet and the use of technology.

WikiLeaks is also engaged in a serious archival process; by putting it’s information on the web, and by having that information preserved by a network of allies who are ready to protect this digital archive, who create mirrors to keep access going. The notion of the archive was first exploded by Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever, whose paranoid interpretation connects the archive to the power to preserve memory and to create history. His conception of the archive traces it’s etymological roots to the Greek arkhe, the document-house, which is protected by the archons who “Have the power to interpret the archives.”

Archons are judges; they control how we understand documents and archivable information. Derrida expands his idea by arguing that, “There is no political power without the control of the archive, if not memory.”

The political stakes of the archive are very high; it is a powerful force that is employed as a political strategy. This archive is not an abstract theory– it is a real practice, one employed in writing histories and in legitimizing information. The power to make history is the power to decide which memories are preserved and which are not. Furthermore, this power to archive is the power to produce and preserve knowledge: to define truth. This archiving power changes dramatically with technological advances: on the internet.

WikiLeaks is an excellent example of how the archive works, how much weight it has politically and how the nature of the archive changes when uploaded to the internet. The Iraq War Logs and Embassy Cable Leaks are two examples of information that were once classified, protected archival information. This information was a private record: a history of actions documented by the US military and embassies. A system of values is created to keep certain information more exclusive than others. Some of the military-diplomatic archive was more censored from the public than other parts. Both the US embassy and the military acted as archons– they protected these documents and had the sole power to interpret them. Presumably this archive was available digitally and was hacked into locally by a soldier named Bradly Manning.

This data was then given to members of WikiLeaks.

By uploading information and making it available for free, WikiLeaks was able to undermine the US government in multiple ways– through damaging its foreign relations, its sense of justice, and by taking away its power to maintain this military-diplomatic archive. No longer was there a hierarchy of information; now this archive was accessible by any person who wanted to read it. The government couldn’t keep its censoring power over the archive; its power to present certain knowledges, and keep other knowledges obscured. It no longer has the unary power to produce a singular US military-diplomatic history of fighting for justice and freedom; instead, this leak highlighted both the US’s many abuses regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lengths to which the US attempted to cover that information up. We can’t trust in the government to act or present its knowledge ethically; we need to assimilate our own meaning from these documents. However, archiving power is radically liberated. Not only does WikiLeaks get to archive in the sense of making sense, but so too does anyone who tries to understand and assimilate the leaked documents. People aren’t forced to believe a single history of the military’s engagement in Iraq or Afghanistan.

What changes at the level of the digital begins at this same point. The digital archive is far more democratizing; almost anyone can access these leaks, from most parts of the globe. It is possible to be both physically distant and anonymous on the internet, which isn’t the case when attempting to access a real archive. The digital archive is also less stable than a physical archive, more prone to attack. However, WikiLeaks has been very deft at keeping this archive accessible. The internet is ultimately more rhizomatically structured– disperse, made up of horizontal and often invisible connections that reflects the shape of the digital archive.

Derrida argues that the (real) archive is “topo-nomological,” meaning it is a structure where space and law come into contact; where the creation of rules and history has a spatial and structural element.

Like a library, this kind of archive requires one to move through space to find information. On the other hand, a digital archive, like the internet, removes this topological quality– there is no more space, only rules, law, and information. This dislocation of archiving power is very disconcerting; it implies that the knowledge-producing, truth-creating power of the archive is no longer grounded– its power operates in more nomadic and illegible ways. This non-topological force works in WikiLeaks favor, granting it secrecy, which makes it harder for a government to arrest any single member. It also allows for Assange to be a terrorist in the sense that a nomadic, shifting form of power has more symbolic weight than a fixed site. With terror, the strengths are in its performative power: in it’s potentiality. This is reminiscent of the figure of the wolf described in Derrida’s, The Beast and the Sovereign. Derrida says that “The wolf itself is named in absentia, as it were; the wolf is named where you don’t see it or hear it coming; it is absent, save for its name.”

This wolf is silent, virtual, and non-present. For this reason the wolf is exponentially more terrifying. The digital, like the wolf, is made more powerful by it’s existence through absence.

In the case of terror, power works performatively and absence is an amplifier. To return to Žižek, If Assange is a terrorist for not only attacking the State, but for redefining the ways in which we attack the State, then not only is absence a symbolics amplifier of an attack on the State, but absence changes the way this attack occurs. Often a product of implicit censorship, absence allows Assange to be clandestine and illegible until the final moment, until the moment of recognition: of politics. Such a performative attack was successful; the US government is still trying to process this shock: this trauma. Linking Žižek’s understanding of terror to the archiving power of WikiLeaks, we see it as a well-guarded digital archive of military documents, accessible to almost anyone who is interested. WikiLeaks “violated the rules” of archiving by taking information from the site of power (the government), and by creating (on the Iraq War Logs website, for example) an alternative history of the wars– an alternative truth. However, the practice of stealing information and creating alternative histories has long since been in existence. WikiLeaks has not simply created an alternative archive, but instead preserves a free digital archive, from which an infinite amount of interpretations and histories can be created. For an interested party, they have all of the information they need to create a sense of truth that is relevant to them. This disrupts the way we are “allowed to violate the rules,” making every user of the digital archive an archiver, a knowledge-producer and meaning-creator.

This returns to Nancy, who wants us to organize democracy around “sharing (out),” allowing for us to have the freedom to act on what we, as a society, may not be able assign value to– by only engaging in those things we find value in.

This allows for a radical and absolute individualization of ideas and institutional practices. Nancy might argue that every community should have its own right to define pedagogical relationships and implement those ideas. Everyone in Nancy’s democracy is a truth-producer, a meaning producer– a practice that keeps a society happy and allows us to build relationships that are not formed on exchange-value. WikiLeaks isn’t simply a site for the manifestation of public spirit; it activates a Nancian mode of democracy by allowing for the radical individualization of meaning-making. Everyone’s understanding of the military documents has the same exact weight because it is and can only be true for one person. WikiLeaks upsets a vertical notion of epistemology, which always affects the ways we understand and process information. Our attachment to history changes with the digital archive– it allows us more power; more freedom as individuals to construct truth, and helps us to organize ourselves around the idea of radical difference.  WikiLeaks’s attack is incredibly complex, and goes well beyond the issue of transparency. These true terrorists have taken advantage of this information to create a community of archons. With the power of the digital on his side, Assange will always remain one step ahead.