Paranoid Reading, Writing, and Research: Secrecy in the Field

In my first Savage Minds guest post, I wanted to write about the encounter that most deeply influenced my time in the field.  In the remainder of my time here, I want to write in the same vein about research dynamics I sense to be widespread (and widely impactful), but that we have few opportunities to discuss.  I want to think together about some of the sticky issues – some of the nagging and not-well-articulated frictions that might be worthwhile to work through.  In this post I’d like to raise some questions about secrecy, and our ethnographic orientation toward the unknown.

Studying information technology and infrastructure in Iceland,  I repeatedly ran up against limitations to what I could know.  Data center operators had meetings about me – set talking points and erased whiteboards before I walked into rooms.  Officials and industry insiders would grin at me while they talked just around the things they weren’t going to say.  Some of these encounters started off with exchanging secrets: what do you know about the new development in town?  If my snooping was satisfactory, they would say more about it; if it wasn’t, they’d give me a stonewalling smile.  When I’ve talked about these moments with other researchers, the question is usually one of access: tactics talk.  How might we press harder, smarter, better; how might we pull more into the field of what’s known?  Issues of access are always questions of ethics: there are times when we might need to know and to say more.  There are other times it’s right to release or reject such claims.  But here I’m interested in another set of questions – something like a pragmatics of opacity.  What do we do with the things we don’t know?

Critical theorists have probed the secret: the way it excites and incites, suggests there’s something to know (Dean 2002); the way it makes and makes solid the social (Simmel 1906); the way it undergirds imaginaries (such as the state) (Nugent 2010).  Eve Sedgwick offers an interesting intervention in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Introduction is about You” (1997).  Building on Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion,” she traces a history through queer theory of “paranoia,” or a mode of reading and writing (especially about systemic oppression) that is, among other things anticipatory, expository, and broad in scope.  Paranoid reading turns on telling you things are worse than you think they are; or maybe, they’re just as bad as we (should) know.  There are reasons – some of which Sedgwick gets into – for theorizing in such a manner.  But paranoia as methodology posits ignorance as its alternative, and in doing so forecloses other ways to know.

Anthropology might appear on the other side of such a spectrum: perhaps a disavowal of our discipline’s colonial legacy, we tend to privilege a certain kind of innocence.  You can read it in the charming, disarming stories (practically required writing in the genre) of the early-stage fieldworker making a fool of herself.  We’re inherently resistant to totalization; we make much of the unexpected, of exceptions to the rules.  We’re trained, as ethnographers, to ask the stupid questions; told there’s something to be gained from experiencing surprise.  But at the same time, we show a fondness for collection and connection.  When we doubt the soundness of our research projects, we’re told to place our faith in gathering a preponderance of facts.  In their culling and curation we share pleasures with the paranoid: the expansive joy of an ever-widening epistemic net.  While our pursuit of knowledge is perhaps more flexible, the drive to uncover is palpably there.

So if we reject the paranoid (but are also pulled toward it), how do we relate to information and its absence in the field?

Around the time I was leaving Iceland, a journalist I know wrote an exposé on the industry I’d been considering for a year (paywalled and in Icelandic, but here it is, just in case).  He and I had met a handful of times, and commiserated over beers about the foreign media’s interest in Iceland: the steady stream of puff pieces that never got the story right.  We’d discussed the value of long-term local research; we’d jokingly called my career the slow-motion version of his.  The piece he wound up writing was excellent: full of hard-hitting questions about the industry’s impact (sometimes citing “secret industry sources” inside).  Entitled “Dubious Connections in the Nation’s Largest Data Center,” it questions the speed with which these centers are being erected; casts well-researched aspersions on developers’ intents (Magússon 2015).  My first reaction to reading it was excitement; my second was embarrassment: why hadn’t I written this myself?

But there are stylistic moves in Jón Bjarki’s writing that lead me to reflect on differences in our work.  Throughout the piece, where information is lacking, that absence is marked clearly and emphasized.  The lack of knowledge stands in for secrecy: it’s meant to suggest that there might be something there.  The device also indexes the author’s investigative labor: it locates him as a certain kind of knower, lets the reason and responsibility for non-knowledge be known.  This dogged and paranoid (in the best possible meaning) approach to information is the thing that lets him, as a journalist, do what he does well.  My own relation to knowledge led me somewhere else.

When my own research stalled out on opacity, I shifted my focus from the secrets to secrecy itself.  I asked Icelanders living around the data centers (no more officially informed than I was, though much more knowledgeable in many ways) what and how they thought about the lack of information in this place where so much data is stored.  I went in with the kind of projected outrage that comes from being funded to get to the truth: how dare they not tell you?  Don’t you want to know?  And I was quickly educated in the attunement of attention that comes from living in Reykjanes.  I learned, in this way, about the history of the region; how the data centers were preceded by an American naval base.  I was told that secrecy there, too, was standard – how you learn, living there, to make sense of the discrepancies between official announcements and what you see with your own eyes.  But I also came to see that the content wasn’t the question: while the base (like some data centers) made a show of security, most people living nearby just didn’t care.  Unlike me, they weren’t agitating for access to each foreign presence’s strategic plans.  Instead they were theorizing and trying to shift the relations between Reykjanes and the temporary, extractive outsiders who’ve been coming through the region for years.  Not-knowing allowed me to follow these threads to a broader story – of course, this kind of wandering is only possible for those of us with the luxury of allowing our object to change.  But I came to see non-knowledge as a powerful position, and secrecy as a practice that does more than conceal.

It’s not a matter of ignoring the evidence, or deliberately leaving stones unturned.  But I’d like to interrogate some of our anxieties and incentives as ethnographers collecting “data” in the field.  I want to know more about the ways we get to truth – despite, or by – not having all of it.  My audience is not inherently different from Jón Bjarki’s; I agree with him that the public has a right to know.  But I think the public might also benefit from reflecting on how some secrets are made pressing and other secrets are made plain.

Many of us now work inside complex organizations – corporate, scientific, activist, etc. that have reason to limit access in strategic ways.  But even where secrecy isn’t operational standard, silence, evasion, and dissimulation confront us all.  Under these conditions, I wonder: how do we relate to the limits to our knowledge?  How might we think them otherwise, not as limits at all (I’m thinking, for example, of Mahmud’s work on the “profane”)?  Where pursuing information is practically impossible, ethically dubious, or irrelevant, how do we launch critique that doesn’t turn on exposition?  How could we write our research in a way that critiques this position, itself?


Dean, J. 2002. Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Magnússon, J. 2015. “Vafasamar tengingar staersta gagnavers landsins.” Stundin. 6 September.

Mahmud, L. 2013. The profane ethnographer: fieldwork with a secretive organization. In Organizational Anthropology: Doing Ethnography in and among Complex Organizations. Ed. C. Carsten and A. Nyqvist.  London: Pluto. Pp 189-207.

Nugent, D. 2010. States, Secrecy, Subversives: APRA and Political Fantasy in Mid-20th-century Peru. American Ethnologist, 37(4): 681-702.

Sedgwick, E. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Simmel, G. 1906. The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies. The American Journal of Sociology, 11(4): 441-498.

Alix Johnson is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and graduate research assistant at the Center for Emerging Worlds.

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