Facework and Embedded Fears

The Confidence Game

(for the Transmediale panel on Embedding Fear)

There are some blogs that every dedicated Internet conspiracy theorist has to read – like Global Guerillas by defense consultant John Robb, an expert on so-called “4th generation warfare.” What kind of expertise is he selling? Here’s a statement from his book Brave New War: “The threshold necessary for small groups to conduct warfare has finally been reached, and we are only starting to feel its effects. Over time, perhaps in as little as twenty years, and as the leverage provided by technology increases, this threshold will finally reach its culmination – with the ability of one man to declare war on the world and win.”

John Robb is a merchant of fear. But his product sells for a reason. In the face of his absurd statement, I’d suggest that the illusions of individual omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence, offered to each of us by abstract, impersonal information systems, have now found their perfect mirror: the all powerful terrorist. This marriage of heaven and hell could last a long long time. Our hyperindividualized world is all too well reflected in the mediated mirror of terrorism.

Here are two other statements, one by a politician whose face we all know too well, the other by a strategist you’ve probably never seen before. These men are glad that John Robb’s mirror exists, because it, along with untold thousands of others, has magnified them enormously. Let’s start with Tony Blair, in the aftermath of 9/11:

— “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”


And now let’s hear from the US military strategist, Thomas Barnett:

— “We went into Panama, we wanted Noriega. We went into Somalia, we figured out it was Aidid and his clan. We went into the Balkans, we figured out, just get Milosevic and his people. We went into Iraq lookin’ for a deck of cards. When I got into this business, the standard was an eight or nine minute response to Soviet nuclear launching of attack. Within a couple years our standard is going to be a UAV, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, operating on the far side of the earth. It’s going to find, recognize and kill one person, in eight to nine minutes.”

Blair has been the archetypal European globalist, insisting that the best thing any single country can do is to adapt to the networked economy, to make populations more mobile, to groom them for the international markets. Yet already in 1999, as part of Britain’s “special relationship” with the US, he began calling for changes in the rules of global governance, with the doctrine of “liberal intervention” formulated during the Kosovo war. By the time he left power, he had invaded Iraq, vastly intensified domestic surveillance, and begun the imposition of biometric identity cards on all British citizens. Fo many in the UK, Blair’s whole project since March 2003 has been about “taking liberties.

As for Thomas Barnett, in the year 2000 he opened up a multi-year collaboration between the US Department of Defense and the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald. This New Rule-Sets Project was designed “to explore how the spread of globalization alters the basic ‘rules of the road’ in the international security environment, with special reference to how these changes redefine the U.S. Military’s historic role as ‘security enabler’ of America’s commercial network ties with the world.” The meetings were held in the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. After 9/11, he developed the concept of the Gap, that is, the roughly equatorial region where the majority of US military interventions have occurred over the past 20 years – a region which just happens to include a majority of the Earth’s oil reserves, and most of the world’s Muslim and indigenous populations. “Disconnectedness defines danger,” he says. His project aims to give them networks – if necessary, at the point of a gun.


What is the vision of society – and of the individual – that underlies this preoccupation with changing the rules of the game, or “reordering the world,” as Blair put it? The best exponent of that vision has been Blair’s counselor, Anthony Giddens, who has become leading sociologist of global individualism. Curiously for us, one of Giddens’ most influential books, The Consequences of Modernity (1990), is all about disembedding and reembedding. Giddens is concerned with what he calls “time-space distantiation.” He’s talking about modern technological networks: transportation, communication, exchange. What these do is to lift you out of local contexts of interaction, to disembed the individual from any stable social environment. So Giddens sees “disconnectedness” at the heart of modern society. The process of disembedding takes you from security to danger, from situations of trust to assessments of risk. And what becomes central for Blair as well as Giddens is the creation of institutions that will be able to restore security and trust within the new conditions of a worldwide risk society.

I quote Giddens: “Disembedded institutions greatly extend the scope of time-space distantiation and, to have this effect, depend on coordination across time and space. This phenomenon serves to open up manifold possibilities of change by breaking free from the restraints of local habits and practices.” The classic disembedding institution for Giddens is the “symbolic token” of money. Money, he says, “is a mode of deferral, providing the means of connecting credit and liability in circumstances where immediate exchange of products is impossible. Money … is a means of bracketing time and so lifting transactions out of particular milieux of exchange.” So money is a disembedded institution, a secure and reliable way of coordinating the actions of our lives under conditions of space-time distantiation. But wait a minute, you might say: Isn’t money also the riskiest thing in the world? Who can insure the security of money?

Now this is exactly why Giddens was able to sell his services so sucessfully to Tony Blair. Because he posed the basic questions that tug at the guts of any contemporary politician: How do I ensure that the citizens feel personally and economically safe in such a tumultuous world? How can I provide them with the means to navigate through this daunting and dangerous environment? Giddens focused on the exact functions in contemporary society that could resolve the feelings of fear: what he calls “expert systems.” These are “systems of technical accomplishment that organise large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today.” The paradox of these systems is that even when we do not know the details, our general familiarity with the competency of experts allows us to trust them, indeed to have faith in them. I quote Giddens again:

“Simply by sitting in my house, I am involved in an expert system, or a series of such systems, in which I place my reliance. I have no particular fear in going upstairs in the dwelling, even though I know in principle the structure might collapse. I know very little about the codes of knowledge used by the architect and the builder in the design and construction of the home, but I nonetheless have ‘faith’ in what they have done. My ‘faith’ is not so much in them … as in the authenticity of the expert knowledge which they apply – something which I cannot usually check exhaustively myself.”

The job of the modern politician, therefore, will be to install and to maintain the systems that will allow citizens to move around the edifice of a globalized economy, without continually fearing that it will collapse down upon them. This is why, for Giddens, Blair and for all the architects of the contemporary surveillance state, the installation of advanced identification technology is perfectly legitimate and necessary: because it is an expert system that can generate trust. Surveillance re-embeds us in the modern world. But at this point in the argument, he throws in something brilliant and troubling, that really does illuminate the complexities of governance in our time. Because he says that trust in abstract systems can only be maintained by periodic face-to-face meetings between the experts. What we ultimately trust in the distancing, disembedding power of the abstract systems is actually the continuity of that close up, face-to-face exchange. Expert systems therefore stand in a continually ambiguous relationship to personal presence, or what Giddens calls “facework.”

Now I want to cut to some of the classic facework that sustains – or destroys – the world economy. This is from the film Rogue Trader, which is about Nick Leeson: the guy who broke Baring’s bank in 1995. This is where the face-to-face connections are made, in the so-called “functioning core.” And this is what Barnett and Blair want to export to the entire world:

As you know, in January 2008 there is nothing more timely. Because a guy from Brittany, Jérôme Kerviel, just lost 4.9 billion euros trading futures contracts for the French bank Société Générale. As you read in the newspapers: “In Brittany, Mr Kerviel’s family and friends were stunned to hear Daniel Bouton, the SocGen chairman, denounce him as a ‘cheat, a fraudster, a terrorist.’” Whereas they all know that if the futures contracts had gone up, the bank would have considered him a star trader. It’s hard not to think that this face, which has been embedded everywhere in the media for the last week and a half, is serving as a screen, a cover, a mask, over the black hole that no one in power wants to talk about seriously. The systemic crisis of the Western financial system, which once again has seriously abused the trust that citizens are more or less forced to invest in it.

So now I want to give you my theory of facework, which is exactly opposite to the theory of Anthony Giddens. In the totally mediated society, the continual appearance of the gesticulating finger and the grimacing face – whether it’s a politician, a banker, a terrorist, or just another blogger like you and me – has become a universal stand-in for the bankruptcy of expertise. The hyperactivity of contemporary politicians is an almost desperate attempt to prop up the edifice of trust in our society.

The thing about a center-left sociologist like Giddens is that he will tell you fascinating things, about how in a modern society the public is constantly re-appropriating bits of expert knowledge, and in this way regaining a power of agency that can be used in the radical engagement of social movements. But the same sociologist will sharply defend the massive installation of surveillance technology as a “calculated risk,” even though it tends to eradicate democratic protest and to void public space of any collective political expression. So that increasingly, we are thrown back on the society of mediated individuals. And you wonder what’s the next country where we’re gonna go in “loookin’ for a deck of cards.”



I don’t know if people remember, but it seems to me that when the so-called information age began in the 1990s, the promise was not that of individual omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence, but instead of collective intelligence, and an increased capacity to act in the world. Well, we’re here at a festival of reappropriated expertise, and I think the point is to look at each other in the whites of the eyes, and to see whether in the course of the coming years, we can embed something other in the media sphere than the kind of panic gaze that has been dominating it. Because despite the vagaries or uncertainties of the image, the problems of distrust, extreme inequality, miliarism, terrorism and economic chaos are all real. And it does not seem that expert systems, without a critically active public sphere, can do much to solve them.

3 Responses to “Facework and Embedded Fears”

  1. John Robb Says:

    Hilarious Brian. Actually, I mainly sell software to commercial clients and not consulting to the government (although I occasionally give a speech to government audiences). Not sure I fit the model of a “merchant of fear.”

    –Well, glad you have a sense of humor, John. I’ll take out the phrase “the US government” if they are not your main clients… The ideas in your book are the pertinent thing here.

  2. John Collins Says:

    Brian, thanks for a fascinating post. I’m wondering if you could provide the original source for the long quote (“We went into Panama…”) from Thomas Barnett. It connects in interesting ways with some work I am doing.

    ==> Hello John, glad if those ideas are useful in some way. Barnett’s quote comes from the C-Spann broadcast of his “brief” in 2004 at the National Defense University in 2004. You can watch it here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4689061169761152025

    Barnett is a very 90s, network-happy guy, now he is retooling to get ready for the coming Democratic administration. His ideas are symptomatic of imperial ambitions in many many different ways. He is very prolific, also has a website of course, http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com. I haven’t been able to figure out what real influence he has, but check it out, at least you get an idea what these kind of people are thinking about.

  3. Cartoon Robot Says:

    Oh those faces are freaking me out something fierce, but they’re great. I love your perspective, and I’m slowly reading through all of your posts. This makes me wonder what it’d be like to look at the world without the filter of fear.

    This helps to explain why so many “fringe” groups have been attacked recently. Why kids with no money, and no property, that live in squats are being rounded up are being harassed by the government. It seems the powers that be have their own things to fear. Should that be a comforting thought?

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