“That’s what they’re afraid of. You.” Assange as the tragic hero of our time

Daniel R. Smith

The up-coming film The Fifth Estate, about the news-leaking website WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, is not a thriller or a piece of Hollywood entertainment. It is a tragedy that would rival Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Having, of course, not seen the film, such a claim is meant not as a review on its merits as a work of art. Instead it is a claim to its function as a piece of fiction in today’s mediated culture where politics is a matter of spectacle and where narrative(s) competes for a unitary story. The story of WikiLeaks and Assange as its tragic hero is a story that encapsulates our age; the age of constant incredulity to any information and a life where politics is a theatre viewed through media-filters of competing sources and contested dialogue.

The aphorism ‘all the world’s a stage’ applies today more than ever and not in a nihilistic tone; rather in a call for constant questioning and debate. Simon Critchley and Jameison Webster recently pointed out that the word ‘theory’ in Greek derives from the same root as that of a spectator in a theatre: theory is always reflection on a spectacle, a drama – ‘our drama’ as a society (Critchely & Webster, 2013). All events and their accompanying information we receive are always from the standpoint of a spectator; a spectator who is implicated in the events as one reflecting upon it.

The reflective position that spectating puts one in is not a disinterested position but rather implicates us as we question and witness the inherent ambiguity of life lived in a political community. Tragedy is the story of our life as a society told in time and space that transcends itself both spatially and temporally (Seaford, 2013). As Jean-Pierre Vernant defines tragic consciousness, it is a consciousness of contradictory forces on human life and it educates an audience to a life that is ambiguous, full of grey areas, not open to simple resolution. A life that is subject to errors and mistakes that individuals remain accountable for, not as a result of fate, external constraint, individual vice or perversion: “Tragedy is created through the production of a scenario, that is to say the representation and dramatized development of an imaginary experience …the simulation of a coherent sequence of actions leading to disaster. Through this, human beings accede to an inspired yet lucid realisation of the irreplaceable value of their existence and also its extreme vanity.” (Vernant, 1988:247)

Tragedy’s function is not to be merely art but the social institution of the political community. It tells stories of a past, a specifically heroic past of gods and demi-gods of myth that preceded the here-and-now of the city-state, and confronts this past with the laws and edicts of the present. The function of this disparity reveals the central feature of tragedy’s genesis, democratic debate (Vidal-Naquet, 1988:257). A heroic figure – a king, a demi-god, a prince – is opposed to the chorus who question, debate and interrogate his or her actions against the edicts of the city in relation to their downfall, mistakes and journey thus far. The story of Assange and WikiLeaks is of especial importance in this case, for the story of Assange is the story of democratic values of freedom of information, speech and justice pitted against itself as the corporation seek to expose the threads, webs and nexus of secrecy that emerge in order to protect those very democratic values.

Assange’s mandate for WikiLeaks was published in 2006 in a paper entitled ‘Conspiracy as Governance’ (a claim made with references to the soothsayers warning in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar of ‘security gives way to conspiracy’ and Lord Halifax’s maxim of ‘the best party is but a kind of conspiracy against the rest of the nation’). The mandate of the essay is to unearth the root of bad governance in the name of stamping out injustice, where justice is defined as the ability to act against witnessed actions that one feels to go against just action (Assange, 2006:1, n.1) Morality is intuitive for Assange and his mission is to establish processes for which one’s ability to exercise such moral intuition rests upon their own person. As he puts it, he wishes to establish “a course of ennobling and effective action to replace the structures that lead to bad governance with something better.” (2006:1)

Bad governance is, for Assanage, conspiracy networks that are the foundation for the effective operation of a regime. Taking his definition of terrorist conspiracies from the Maryland Pronouncement Office, Assange sees conspiracies as manifest by restricted information through linked individuals. Connected graphs – where one pin is entwined to another pin to make a unified thread of persons – develop a series of persons exchanging information. Secrecy, in this case, is exposure (Rappert, 2012): counter-intuitively, secrets are not intentionally concealed information, (for that would be socially neutral and redundant), but rather information exposed to others. A secret arises from the fact that something is known to be hidden after its revelation to those outside its nexus of exposure. In Assange’s definition, the identification of the thread, and crucially the ‘weight’ of this thread, is tantamount to breaking the exchange of information that is, conspiratorially, annexed from the people (2006:2-3). The purpose of hacking, whistle blowing and leaking is an extension of exposure of a secret which acts as a breaking of the conspiratorial chain of connections that demonstrates the presence of an injustice kept secret.

Revelation becomes a democratic act in the exposure of what was once restricted in a network of conspirators being leaked to those outside this conspiratorial ‘few’.

Notice two crucial aspects of this democratic act. (1) It rests upon a spectatorial position and (2) the action of the democrat is opening up information through the act of exposure being an acting of (virtual)-speaking, that is, publishing material previously restricted. Spectating, in this case, is being outside the conspiratorial chain of secret keepers and the secret is only secret insofar as one is ‘looking in’ (spectating) upon its exposure to a select few. Having exposed the network further, the spectator is now an actor in the political life of the global order. (S)he is now an acting member of the life of the political order rather than a nominal member of its ‘inside/outside’ distinction of a political subject, friend or enemy to the state. “Do you look at what there is and accept that as God given or do you see society as something where you identify a problem and look for a creative solution to that problem? It’s a matter of: Are you a spectator or are you actively participating in society?” as former Wikileaks spokesperson and programmer Daniel Domscheit-Berg put it.

The problem, however, is that when persons act on this democratic mandate of expanding the exposure network of a secret and no long spectate upon the world but act in it, they become an enemy of their own political order – the names include Assange, himself; Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and so on. The political subject, Manning or whoever, requires anonymity to allow their democratic action to be acted out.

The problem of this is being an Anti-Oedipus. Oedipus acts but doesn’t know (as Critchely & Weber point out (2013)) – he kills his father, but doesn’t know it is his father, etc. In the case of an Anti-Oedipus, one knows but doesn’t act; something more akin to Hamlet as he knows his Uncle murdered his father but doesn’t act upon it (Critchely & Webster, 2013). Leaking information is knowing and acting. And this is difficult. One is risking a huge amount, often their life. For WikiLeaks to work, the anti-oedipal problem needs to be resolved. They need a mask. The way in which exposure is carried out is via anonymity. To leak freely and open the chain of exposure to information that will end injustice, ironically or paradoxically, requires a form of deception – a mask. As the trailer for The Fifth Estate has the Assange character state, “Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person. But give that man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

It is only appropriate for masking to exist in democracy, for masking doesn’t hide; it, like secrets, rests upon revelation. Masking, which WikiLeaks provides its sources, allows one to become what life in the nation-state does not allow; it allows one to be a hero, that is, an autonomous actor whose exploits are recorded and presented to the public (Vernant, 1988:24f). For WikiLeaks to provide their sources with masks – that of anonymity and immunity, or legal protection and pass information through legal jurisdiction, encryption and so forth – is contrary to most thinking about democratic societies. The many are a ‘multitude’ – a trendy term used these days to little critical avail, as William Mazzarealla (2010) so neatly exposes – and they are often seen as faceless, distracted and only potentially a threat. To assert one’s self against this multitude is to expose one’s self; to numerically assert one’s self as ‘one’ rather than the many. This is to stop belonging to ‘the people’ and stand against the many and the few, those ruled and those ruling. The solution to them problem is to recognise that ‘the people’ is a fiction: “One can see people, where exactly is the people to be found?” (Critchely, 2012:85)

As others have argued with greater clarity, politics is a fiction – a magic show, a confidence trick (Critchely, 2012). The fictional conceit of politics, argues Critchely (2012), is that all order is underpinned by a belief in a quasi-divine legislator and dogmatic conviction in civic rituals; sanctified documents (‘We the people’), pledges of allegiance, flags, etc. All law is sanctified by the invention of a popular mythology. The WikiLeaks leakers adopt masks to confront the fictional contradiction of democratic society; the people are sovereign, governed by a few. The people come into existence against the few who govern them; and the few stand as their purported representatives. To leak is to go against the nomos, the law, of the state. Who is to say that one is an exception to the rule of law? (cf. Agamben, 1995) The sovereign; the people. And these are a fiction.

Viewed this way, the masking of leakers is only too apparent. To mask is to become other to oneself; to speak through a fiction. And if the truths that define the political community and its consciousness of itself, its beliefs and convictions, rest upon the fiction of popular sovereignty, to speak exposures of dark secrets in the voice of a masked visage – a username, an anonymous source or tip, an untraced IP address – is the only appropriate solution. The mask of the leaker has its heritage in the mask of Dionysus; the mask of otherness. Politics requires theatre for it is one: “the invention of theatre, a literary genre that presented fiction on stage as it were real, could only make its impact within the framework of the cult of Dionysus, the god of illusions, confusion, and the constant muddling of reality and appearances, truth and fiction.” (Vernant & Frontisi-Ducroux, 1988:205)

In a ‘globe of spies’, the mask is the theatrical illusion that confronts the political theatre with its own effective force. If this is so, what is the impact or possible consequences of the WikiLeaks story in The Fifth Estate? Why the fictional conceit of cinema against the fictional conceit of politics? The Assange story is best placed for tragic consciousness. A tragedy hangs on an ambiguous dividing line between man as a source of his own action and intention, will and determination and also actions the “hinged together with the divine powers, where – unknown to the agent – they derive their true meaning by becoming an integral part of an order that is beyond man and that eludes him.” (Vernant, 1988:47) What cinema gives the Assange story is a character that is entangled in powers beyond the scope of his own rational, calculated action in the global polis. One will see a character of the present – unlike the Greeks who take characters from the recent past of myth or activity far away – and present him as a fiction. Through this fiction, character – in all its ambiguity and misrepresentation – is explored from the point of view of a story, the ‘story so far’ of this particular personage of the present, and all action is taken up into an imaginary unity and whole for comprehension. It puts us all in the spectating position and we take from it what we will. Comprehension, even in the fictional conceit of cinema, is ever more powerful when the fiction is a meta-fiction, a story about the present and its dramatization. For knowing the story is a fiction is the central function, and the most powerful asset, of tragedy: the events retold, which are based upon real events, grant us a glimpse at our times and its imaginary. Creating a film based upon a website built around facades and masking demonstrates the truth of democratic action today. Spectators have the power when they transform into fictions. This tragedy all hangs on being addressed in the second person, a sideliner to the action, an advertising slogan, a spectator that is aware of their own gaze: “That’s what they’re afraid of. You.”


Agamben, Giorgio (1995), Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life, (California: Stanford University Press)

Assange, Julian (2006) ‘Governance as conspiracy’: http://estaticos.elmundo.es/documentos/2010/12/01/conspiracies.pdf

Critchley, Simon & Webster, Jameison (2013), Stay Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine, (New York: Pantheon Books)

Critchley, Simon (2012), The Faith of the Faithless, (London: Verso)

Mazzarella, William (2010), ‘The myth of the multitude, or, who’s afraid of the crowd?’, Critical Inquiry, 36(4):697-727.

Rappert, Brain (2012), How to look good in a war, (London: Pluto Press)

Seaford, Richard (2013), Cosmology and the Polis, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Vernant, Jean-Pierre & Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1988), Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, (New York: Zone Books)


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