CITIZENFOUR directed by Laura Poitras – winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary!
How do we participate actively in the world if our efforts are scorned? When our work goes unacknowledged, unpublished, and unpaid? When the usual platforms for speech are denied and the ones we create are little respected? When if we have neither courage, keenness, skill, judgment, nor cunning for oppositional discourse – as Brecht so convincingly argues – the radical contingent mocks our resolve, our strongest attribute? Are we condemned to the shadows? To paraphrase a character in Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow: Are we stupid simply because we are poor?
I do not believe that Ed Snowden is just an ordinary person as he insists. He is exceptional as are Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. All three have “the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons” (B. Brecht, Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties, 1935).
Yet it is equally difficult to translate that truth to the realm of the ordinary; that is, to foster the kind of support that builds the indefatigable Hydra that Snowden alludes to in describing his own role: just one participant of many. Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald present a dramatic challenge to civil society but effective resistance requires a multitude of voices. For we not only need to salute the exceptional, but also – as Poitras does in her own films – credit the ordinary, reducing the difference between the two.
Snowden had the judgment to select those in whose hands the truth would be effective. Some say he has become a folk hero and Laura Poitras is largely responsible by creating a portrait that makes use of the familiar to show, as Michel Foucault has suggested, “how and to what extent it might be possible to think in other ways” (The Use of Pleasure, 1986, 9). She does this by replacing silence with listening, uncertainty with scrutiny, and speech with action. Through Poitras’ films, journalism becomes an art of subtle complexity.
In a posted draft of my review of Poitras’ Artists Space exhibition, I wrote that I trusted Snowden as I would my own son – a statement that became the brunt of quite a few laughs. I had my real life comeuppance just a short while later: of course our children deceive us just as our friends, family, lovers, colleagues, and government do “for our own good,” which means generally for their own expediency. It would have been more accurate to say not that I trusted Snowden to speak the truth but that I trusted myself to recognize the truth of his altruism. Ultimately it is not only the motive but the outcome of the methods that matter.
Even as CitizenFour contacted Greenwald and Poitras as a social contract among select individuals, he realized that both of them, as journalist and artist, connect with the public through civil contracts as Ariella Azoulay proposes (The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008): that is, using media as conduit for social relations beyond the jurisdiction of sovereign power but within the multiple layers of engagement that make up the civic sphere. These are conversations that rely not on the exceptional few but on many, active citizens to gather force and gain momentum. While courage, keenness, skill, judgment, and cunning are necessary to speak the truth, it takes ordinary resolve to perpetuate the brilliance!