Cultural Techniques for an Aesthetic Intervention Involving Domestic Surveillance Technologies

Below are the remarks I made, slightly altered, during the “Aesthetics of Surveillance” conference hosted by the German Studies Department at Vanderbilt University.

I presented with my collaborator and friend, Justin Joque, on a panel with Kierstin Brehm from UC–Irvine. Justin and I have been collaborating on a project we call the “NSA Bodhisattva Project,” to which we invite your participation.

Justin spoke before I did, so what follows is only half of what we discussed (Justin spent a good amount of time discussing Marx’s thinking about “reification” and object relations).

0.0 Preamble
When we first became aware of this conference we thought about the opportunity to attend and develop our thinking about our humble NSA project with you, the participants. But our project isn’t concerned with Germany’s history of surveillance, and the title of our project includes the word “bodhisattva” in it, and the core of our project is a sincere application of Tibetan Buddhist ritual technology. And yet we knew that, despite these significant cultural differences, something about our project could likely stick with this conference. We’re excited to be here with you. Justin will provide an introduction to the project and we will share with you some of our reflections on the project.

0.1 Introducing
Justin just said, the prayers don’t have to be read on one register these objects are doing the work on their own. However it is important that some person do that work of setting these out. That they are crafted. The key term is craft. Buddhism often employs boat imagery, that the Bodhisattva be a raft that carries sentients across stormy seas. In English “craft” refers to both an activity of one’s hands and also a vehicle for traversing a medium, like an aircraft. This dual use is a central aim of deploying cultural techniques when analyzing media.

Through the lens of cultural techniques (Kulturtechniken) we understand that the servers that the NSA use for their surveillance are “material considerations,” they have the capacity to transform a subjective promise into an objective obligation. In addition we see that these spinning disks provide dual uses: they monitor electronic messages as well as provide a medium for machines to participate in the liberation of all sentient beings. Briefly here I will discuss three items: what are cultural techniques and why have we found it fruitful to think about our project from this perspective, what is a material consideration and how does this concept inform our project, and to ground my discussion I will rely on Thomas Kasulis’ intimacy and integrity model of cultural difference.

Manjuvajramandala with 43 deities, from Tibet. Tempera on cotton. Measures 71 by 85 centimetres (28 in × 33 in). Held at the Museo d’Arte Orientale.

1.1 How is translation possible?
At the heart of the matter is the question, how is translation possible? There are, at a minimum, two positions one can take when doing the work of translation: that there is common ground between all people of different cultures and those differences that do appear can be overcome by deploying abstract principles and analogies, this is a universalist position; on the other side of the spectrum there is the differentialist position which sees attempts to assert universalism as a degradation of the meaning-full particularities that present in specific cultures. The extreme differentialist can argue that “they” are not like “us” and because “they” are from outside of “our” lived experience “they” cannot speak to, and certainly not for, “us.” Of course this insistence that “they” cannot understand “us” relies on an assumption that “we” know “them” well enough to assert this claim, this essentialist position relies on a universalization. Obviously cultural differences exist, there are different languages and within these languages there are terms and phrases that have no one-to-one corresponding translation. And yet translation is possible.

Yes, cultural differences do exist, but what is culture? Most simply, culture is the result of how one learns to do things with the world around them. It is a recursive patterning of behavior. Because cultures have these reiterative patterns it is possible to anticipate how people within those cultural milieux will act. I land at an airport in a country where I don’t speak the language, I walk to the counter of a souvenir shop with a toy for my son, I present the souvenir to the person standing at the register, they push some buttons on a machine I cannot see, a number flashes on a screen before me, I give them my money, they return some different money to me; I now feel confident that when I walk out of the shop with this souvenir the police will not detain me. This is possible because commerce like this tends to operate in a fairly uniform way across human societies. There are definitely differences between cultures, as I have experienced in my years working in a variety of countries. For translation, understanding how and why cultures differ is the crucial task.

Thomas Kasulis, in his excellent Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, argues that cultures tend to favor one of two modes of relating. Relation is the fundamental unit of culture: self to others, self to the world, self to self, etc. In following one of these two modes of relating there are profound consequences for how members of those communities will identify themselves, how they explain the world, and how they value each other. As Kasulis states,

“The real disparity lies […] in what aspect of our humanness a cultural tradition tends to emphasize, enhance, and preserve as central. What is foreground in one culture may be background in another. Therefore, it is not so much that the Japanese think differently from Westerners. Rather, to put it simply, they tend to think about different things—to pick out different aspects of a phenomenon as the part most worthy of attention.”(1)

Kasulis argues that East Asian cultures, such as among the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, are exemplary of an intimacy relating system. Drawing from the Latin intimus (“what is innermost,” or “close friend”) as well as the verb intimare (“to make known”) the intimacy orientation is characterized by an emphasis on senses of inseparability, that we may speak in many contexts but only our intimates understand what it is we are trying to intimate. Against the intimacy orientation let us juxtapose the integrity orientation that Kasulis finds to be typically dominant in Western cultures. Our word integer comes from the Latin, integritas which refers to an indivisible whole, we designate whole numbers as integers because they are not fractionalized. The integrity orientation evokes the wholeness of a ship’s hull, if it has integrity then no water will pass through. The integer from which we derive integrity, Kasulis suggests, is “probably related to ‘in’ + ‘tegere’ or ‘in’ + ‘tangere,’ that is, ‘not’ + ‘touch.’ That which has integrity is untouched, uncorrupted, pure [….] the etymological meaning of integrity suggests ‘being whole, indivisible, and inviolable.’”(2) No culture or subculture is going to present a perfect demonstration of either of these orientations, but the utility of this technique for examining cultural difference lies in its ability to identify previously unconsidered connections and patterns of sense-making.

For the purpose of our project, which seeks a means of reducing the paranoia and egoistic disquiet that frequently manifests in our society, Kasulis’ intimacy and integrity modeling of cultural difference enables us to reimagine how we might relate to one another by drawing our attention to the habitual patterning of our thinking and behaving. A key disparity between the bodhisattva and the typical American can be visualized in how each of these actors visualize themselves and their relationships to others. To illustrate this point I will now briefly discuss the concept of a “material consideration.”

2.1 What is a material consideration?
A material consideration is an obscure social object that has played a pivotal role in the development of the Anglo-American legal system since its inception in the late sixteenth century. William Pietz defines a material consideration as, “a factual reality, usually a thing of some economic value, that enacts a crucial form of social power: the power to transform a subjective promise into an objective obligation. More specifically, a material consideration is the factual cause of contractual liability.”(3) In the Anglo-American legal tradition it is not enough that a verbal exchange between people transpire, for the issue to become a public matter the person receiving the promise must part with something of value under their control. The person who receives the promise gives something of material value to the person making the promise and it is the material value being sent that induces the promise of the promisor. In the early modern period the phrase “God’s penny” or denarius Dei came to be a common practice among merchants. This earnest money was paid not to cover the actual purchase of the goods in question, but to ensure that the merchant did not sell the goods to someone else. The money was sometimes used to purchase candles for the town’s patron saint and thereby securing divine protection for the contract.(4) The concept of the material consideration, this object that makes private promises a public concern developed in a period of cultural flux.

3.1 What are cultural techniques?
We are using the phrase “cultural techniques” to discuss in English the German term Kulturtechniken and follow Geoffrey Winthrop-Young in doing so and with his caveats. Although not an ideal translation, because “Kulturtechniken encompasses drills, routines, skills, habituations, and techniques as well as tools, gadgets, artifacts, and technologies, cultural techniques remains the most appropriate term.”(5) The term originates in nineteenth century agricultural science and lay fallow until the late twentieth century when the term was activated by the so-called German Media Theorists. We find the term useful as an extension of Marcel Mauss’ famous essay on techniques du corps in which he argues that “body is mankind’s first and most natural tool.”(6) These Körpertechniken are not a given but are mounted, like a disk image onto a hard drive, or installed (montées) through the pressures exerted by being enculturated. So foundational to the modern imagining of how homo sapiens came to be differentiated from all other hominids these techniques without tools are often overlooked. But, as André Leroi-Gourhan argues, “Technique is both gesture and tool, organized in chain form by a veritable syntax that gives to operational sequences both fixity and flexibility. Operational syntax is proposed by memory and is born between the brain and the material milieu.”(7) Following from these perspectives has developed a body of media theory that recognizes that technologies are both determining for humans and determined by humans.

Our project is the result of illiteracy. The Tibetan prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels, we are told, are techniques for enabling those who cannot read and speak aloud the printed sutras. It is strongly desirable, we are told, for these prayers to be read aloud because through these speech acts will materialize the beneficent force promised by these prayer technologies. Contemporary media studies frequently resists only deploying textual analyses of media culture and instead engage in a Foucauldian archaeological methodology. The media archaeologist must go “under the hood of software as well as hardware,” as Jussi Parikka states.(8) So we find ourselves in a certain state of awareness: we know that there are people at the NSA who want to clandestinely intercept and assess our communications, to do this they are running machines that operate within our communication relay systems, these machines have been trained to perform a kind of reading, this mode of reading generates a mode of writing for the purpose of communicating back to the eavesdropping humans.

Perhaps the eavesdropping itself could be pardoned as the unintentional result of living in public space. Indeed, this is often how the NSA discusses their data collection when “unintended targets” are received. It appears that the NSA is now in the position to argue that going forward all communications will be capable of being seen just as anyone interacting in public, potentially, will be seen and what needs to be developed are techniques of civic etiquette. Something akin to the kind of polite denial one would practice if they accidentally intruded on a room mate using the bathroom. Social conventions are notable because they function even though we, as a socius, do not convene to establish these conventions.(9) Social conventions are, of course, cultural techniques.


1) Thomas Kasulis, Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2002): 20.

2) Ibid. 25.

3) William Pietz, “Material Considerations: On the Historical Forensics of Contract,” Theory, Culture, & Society 19 (5/6), 2002: 36.

4) Ibid. 43.

5) Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Translator’s Note,” in Bernhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015): xv.

6) Marcel Mauss, “Les Techniques du Corps,” in Sociologie et Anthropologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950): 372. Translation from Haun Saussy, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016): 163.

7) André Leroi-Gourhan, Le Geste et la Parole, I: Technique et Langage, (Paris: Albin Michel, 1964): 164. Translation from Haun Saussy, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016): 164.

8) Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012), 89.

9) A point once made by Henry Rosemont, Jr. during his keynote address at the Midsouth Philosophy Conference at the University of Memphis circa 2005.