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Trewn, Response to Maxwell

By on February 9th, 2018 in Blog Posts


When accounting for the politics of surveillance operations in the archive, broadly construed, it may be common practice to locate the gaze of the FBI, CIA, DHS, police, mainstream news coverage, etc. In other words, our optic for archivally locating surveillance centers dominant institutions that actively participate in repression, control, surveys, and other surveillant practices. In part, this is due to the long and intense history of anti-Black policing and control which takes on a new institutional look from 1919 to 1972, a period when the FBI tracked prominent black artists through intimidating networks of informants. Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s and William J. Maxwell’s F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature standout as crucial interventions into this underexplored literary and political history that actually precedes and intensifies throughout the Cold War.


In “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-read African American Writing,” Maxwell forwards a polemic that the FBI— grounded in a biographical-historical tradition against ambiguity and speculation— is a leading literary critic of midcentury African American modernism and postwar literature. His major contribution in the article is the phrase, “Total Literary Awareness,” which frames the Bureau’s heightened and intensified search for, study of, and control over counterliteratures. One passage is particularly instructive: “Half a century before the Pentagon’s controversial Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, an abandoned effort to aggregate and ‘data-mine’ all electronic predictions of terrorist activity, the Bureau’s ‘TLA’ program sought precocious knowledge of all published threats to the state— first among them threats to the state of the Bureau’s reputation.” The piece also draws our attention to the very reading and analytic practices developed by the Bureau over the period. Maxwell provides a generative example when examining Hoover’s order that an agent track Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun: “The file ingredients that follow Hoover’s edict approximate the contents of a drama fanatic’s scrapbook.[…] When the FBI’s long experience in deciphering Afromodernism met the rushed demands of Total Literary Awareness, only a Bureau-trained reader was thought up to the task.”


Clearly, what is at stake for Maxwell is not just an apparatus of surveillance. Rather, it is also the way the FBI is brought into, shapes, and is impressed upon by Black writers and literature. Though Maxwell does not venture too far in this direction, I am compelled to consider how desire mediates the FBI files— the collecting, the organizing, the annotating, the studying. Furthermore, I am left wondering how to understand the relation between the literary-centered TLA and later state-sponsored surveillance practices grounded in data accumulation/analysis.

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1 Comment

  1. I absolutely agree that “Clearly, what is at stake for Maxwell is not just an apparatus of surveillance. Rather, it is also the way the FBI is brought into, shapes, and is impressed upon by Black writers and literature.” He is not just interested in surveillance, but rather how surveillance culture impacted black writers and artist and what the impact was on literature and culture as a whole. How is what little we know of black writers of this time period today a result of the TLA campaign by the FBI?

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