September 30, 2013KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsWriting

The Poetics of Campus Security Alerts

Someone needs to write the book on a new genre of literature gripping the land. It is a short form; its characters are stock; its storylines nearly never begin in medias res, its resolutions are forever deferred. I am writing, of course, about security literature, best exemplified by the campus alerts sent out by text and email to students, faculty, and staff every day, at many colleges and universities across the United States. The one I received this week: “Bank robbery 235 W 11th – Man w gun black male 6 ft mid 30’s, black Adidas jacket, khaki pants and hat. Fled toward High St. Call 911 if spotted.”

We might first classify this as crime fiction, but the lack of punctuation in the above example, combined with a total absence of exposition, is clearly an affront to the realist style that characterizes much of the bank-robbery sub-genre, with its slavish adherence to grammatical rules and commitment to revealing inner character through choices made within conflict. The inner character of “Man w gun black male” (we’ll call him MWGBM for short) cannot be expressed from within, however, for he has no interior life, as Frantz Fanon explained long ago in Black Skin, White Masks. Yet, MWGBM is no less powerful a character for being entirely superficial. His existence as pure surface is his power–it allows him to do what we have often hoped our favorite characters would one day, but never, do: come alive in the real world, appear to us on the street, walk, and speak.

MWGBM’s minimal description allows him to not only come alive, but to become a multitude. Any black man might have a gun; many from their mid-20s to mid-40s could fit the age description, and might have worn in the past few hours a “black Adidas jacket and khaki pants and hat.” Notice the highly effective consonance and assonance in this phrase. When I receive security alerts, I involuntarily conjure an image of the author in blue or black uniform and gleaming badge, whipping out his smartphone from its place on his strained tactical belt between flashlight and mace, his thumbs typing out a description, tapping the backspace often as he bites his lip in search of le mot juste. These alerts, powerful as their poetry may be, do not have their desired effect on me. I do not “heighten my safety awareness” as one of them encouraged me to do. But, I imagine that these miniature narratives of security literature, resonating with the grander narratives of the post-Patriot Act security state, do affect people, do shape the way many of us see each other and experience our everyday environment.

In his penetrating essay “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat,” Brian Massumi breaks down how security alerts from a powerful institution like Homeland Security or a university can create a sense of threat that then proliferates in a population. It begins as an alert about a briefcase left behind on a train that then had to be stopped, evacuated, sniffed by dogs, inspected inch-by-inch by a bomb squad and a HazMat team, and seems to penetrate everything in the wake of the alert. Even if the briefcase was found to contain only the spreadsheets and quarterly reports of an absent-minded accountant, the sense of threat lives on. The alert infects everything in our environment, so that we now are suspicious of all briefcases, then water bottles, then trashcans, then everywhere else a threat was thought to be, but in most cases was not. MWGBM thus is not one man somewhere within the environment, but a possibility in many men, surrounding us with threat.

Security literature is related to other forms of extremely short fiction and nonfiction now emerging, in that new media technologies and social networking sites make it possible, and in that it must communicate a maximum amount of information in a minimal number of characters, with the somewhat lofty hopes of deeply affecting its reader. The finest of this new work is undoubtedly novelist/photographer/art historian Teju Cole’s Twitter fiction project, “Small Fates,” celebrated by NPR, The New Yorker, and Matt Pearce’s ‘“Death by Twitter” piece on The New Inquiry. These magnificent shorts draw inspiration from the faits divers of French newspapers, and calmly deliver the facts on cases of corruption, murder, cuckoldry, accidents, and miracles, drawn from current events in Nigeria:

“In Ikotun, Mrs Oj, who was terrified of armed robbers, died in her barricaded home, of smoke inhalation.”

“‘Nobody shot anybody,’ the Abuja police spokesman confirmed, after the driver, Stephen, 35, shot by Abuja police, almost died.”

“Even if one does not believe in ghosts, 2,700 of them continue to draw salaries from the Imo State payroll.”

All of Cole’s excellent writing, along with every security alert sent out to cell phones and email accounts from every campus security guard or police officer or public relations director at every college in the country, has likely been “bulk collected” by the NSA, whose masses of data would serve as a wonderful archive for whomever researches and writes “the book” on security literature. But, a few Senators, bent on protecting a privacy whose forfeiture many Americans readily accept as the price of living in a time of such cool technology, might prevent the ambitious literary scholar from gaining access to the masterpieces on the NSA hard drives. In light of that fact, let’s help the would-be writer by posting to the comment section below samples of some alerts you’ve received by text or email. Perhaps we can begin to gather the best of this unsung literature before the servers fail, outdated files are deleted, or hard drives are confiscated and destroyed by the privacy crusaders, and some of the finest of our early security literature is lost.