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The Strategy of Concealment

The Strategy of Concealment: Towards an Anarchist Critique of Communication Roger Farr

[An earlier version of this essay appeared in Fifth Estate #375 (Spring 2007)]

"Having, then, to take account of readers who are both attentive and diversely influential, one obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, one must take care not to give too much information to just anybody."

— Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

Often when I turn to anarchist press these days, it’s certain I’ll find one comrade or another commenting on a perceived lack of “clarity” in the discourse of the movement.

A recent editorial in Anarchy (#60), for example, observes that “there is an overflow of ambiguous (at best) terminology in much contemporary anarchist discourse.” Ambiguity is viewed as a problem because it “pulls the reader back into the realm of jargon; those in the in-crowd already understand the peculiar usage, further enforcing the sectarian nature of the project.”

This raises an interesting question: to what extent must the anarchist critique elaborate itself within the language of “clarity” and Standard English? Does our rejection of ideology and authority apply only to social organization, and not to linguistic systems, which, as Mikhail Bakhtin noted, are “saturated with ideology”? What does the language of our movement have in common with the language used (and enforced) by the masters of this society? Can we, to use Audre Lorde’s formulation, use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?

No tool is neutral. Technologies render other forms of activity and value obsolete, and this extends to language. A robust anarchist critique must question the “progressive” Enlightenment values of rational debate, precisely defined terms, and other forms of communicative transparency. For when we utilize the master’s tools, we may be overlooking a set of linguistic weapons provided to us by one the most generative and subversive discourses in the anarchist tradition—the language of dangerous classes. And given the rise of surveillance technologies, the proliferation of snitches, finks, and insidious “community policing,” closer attention to the workings and implications of this robust “language of conflict,” as Alice Becker-Ho has called it, a language which must always speak “truth with falsehood,” may be a tactical necessity.

1. The Language of Those in the Know

Taking to heart the Situationist adage that “poetry is the revolutionary act par excellence”, Alice Becker-Ho has generated over the last twenty years a fascinating body of writing, including several books of poetry and translation, as well as groundbreaking studies of criminal jargon and argot.1

Argot is commonly defined as “slang used by various groups, including but not limited to thieves and other criminals, to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations,” and further, “a specialized vocabulary and terminology used between people with special skill in a field.” Often described by conservative literary types as a kind of linguistic degradation, a mutation, or even a disease within a more sophisticated national language (or, less sensationally, as merely “idiomatic”), argot was famously defined by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables as “nothing more nor less...than the ugly, restless, sly, treacherous, venomous, cruel, crooked, vile, deep, deadly language of misery...we can hardly recognize it. It is really the French tongue? The great human tongue? We distinguish questions and answers, we perceive, without understanding, a hideous murmur, sounding almost like human tones, but nearer a howling than speech. This is argot.”

The unstated assumption these definitions share is that argot poses a threat, both as a language and, more importantly, as a form of contract, a social bond that establishes “insiders” and “outsiders.” This last element of argot informs Becker-Ho’s work: argot is theorized here not simply as “a language” (or what structuralists call “la langue” – the abstract rules and patterns that govern our speech), but rather as “an independent and unified practice” that unites “a brotherhood of rogues.” As Becker-Ho writes in “The Language of Those in the Know”: “[argot] is not simply discreet and defensive. It theorizes what is about to be done: it already is a project. It never talks for the sake of talking. For those who can understand this language, every aspect of it carries the permanent confirmation of their vision of the world. Slang is not a mere specialized jargon, nor is it a language grafted on to conventional speech. It is precisely the manifestation…of an outlook exclusive to the so-called dangerous classes.”

This “outlook”, or world-view, is developed by Becker-Ho in another work, The Essence of Jargon. “You are not born dangerous-class,” she writes, “you become so the moment you cease to acknowledge the values and constraints of a world from which you have broken free: we are basically referring here to the necessity of wage-labour. This line is one that very precisely separates the working classes from the dangerous classes. […] The essence of jargon is quite simply the very attitude of mind that informs these dangerous classes’ every word and deed.”

2. Of Overhearers, Informatives, and Other Mugs

Again, argot poses a number of threats, not least of which is to challenge the very core of what we think we know about communication. Take for example the traditional model of communication, in which a speaker (S) directs an utterance at an addressee (A) along an imaginary horizontal channel:

S ----> A

This model, which dominates how we think about communication, is in fact a metaphor we use to describe how we “exchange” ideas.2 The "conduit metaphor," as linguists call it, basically reduces the complexities of communication to objects moving along a conveyor belt between immobile and passive “interlocutors.” The metaphor suggests that ideas are objects that are "put into" words, and that language is a kind of container. Messages, then, are like packages sent over a "channel of communication" to another person who takes the ideas out of the packages, and voila, "understanding." All things being equal.

But all things are not equal. For one, the model assumes that our interlocutors are standing on the same foundation, when in fact the site of the production of the message may not share the same characteristics as the site of its reception. There must be some form of agreement and mutualism between participants in a speech-act before any real "understanding" can occur, and this is difficult in a society riddled with antagonisms and competing identities.

More importantly, even if we assume the two speakers share some kind of common ground, the imaginary "channel" along which this message “passes” may be not be as secure as the diagram presents it. The conversation might be subject to interference and distortion: someone may be listening in on the conversation, someone who is hostile to the shared communicative aims of our two comrades.

Linguists use the concept of "audience design" to examine the ways in which utterances are influenced by the presence of third-party "informatives" in a given conversation. Distinguishing this approach from the traditional theory where an isolated speaker directs an utterance only at an isolated addressee, Herbert Clark provides a more inclusive model that accounts for the roles of "side-participants" and "overhearers" in the production of the utterance. Where overhearers are present, the speech act is said to be "informative", as opposed to the traditional model of “speaker ---> addressee”, which assumes that communicative transparency is both possible and desirable. Basically, Clark adds a layer of mediation, or interference, between the speaker and the addressee. The "informative" utterance, he shows, is designed with the presence of intermediary entities, or "hostile informatives" (HI), in mind:

S --- (HI) ---> A

Now, when the speaker and the addressee must take into consideration the presence of this hostile third-party "overhearer" – or, what I would prefer to call, following Becker-Ho, a cop, or a mug3 – they may adopt one or more of the following “strategies”: disguisement, indifference, disclosure, and concealment.

Disguisement is the most complex strategy of the four. Disguisement is a kind of ploy; really, it is an act of negative disclosure, what Clark calls a "disclosure of a misrepresentation," a swindle. It communicates essential information to the right people, while leading the hostile informative in the wrong direction. The second strategy, the strategy of indifference, is self-explanatory: a speaker uses the same utterance she would under more intimate conditions, thus suggesting that the third-party is so unimportant that he doesn’t even warrant attention. Disclosure, on the other hand, involves welcoming the overhearer into the conversation, and providing them with all the information and cues they need to make sense of what is being said: “facilitation.”

Finally, the strategy of concealment. Concealment, like argot, can be defined as any utterance designed in such a way that overhearers cannot interpret it. For example, the transmission of military information, such as locations of troops, movements of weapons, and strike patterns are often concealed (or "encrypted"), as is the movement of sensitive commercial information, the electronic transferring of capital from one place to another along insecure channels like the Internet. Subcultures make use of concealment in order to protect themselves from infiltration by and assimilation into a dominant culture. Lovers too: Juliet could conceal her illicit letters to Romeo by making use of a cipher which only they could decode. In short, hostile audiences — those overhearers who attempt to grasp a message without sharing the communicative aims of its producers, those who are "hostile" to the aspirations of the participants — can and should be thwarted by a strategy of concealment.

3. In Defense of Concealment

The strategy of concealment is a profoundly anarchist mode of communication, and history confirms that the anarchist movement is rich with examples of this linguistic practice. Most of Emile Pouget’s anarchist journal Pére Peinard (1889-1902), for example, was written in the argot of the Parisian underworld. According to a police report from the period, this unintelligible publication reached as many as one hundred thousand readers, a statistic which confirms Patricia Leighten’s observation that Pére Peinard “communicat[ed] an identification with the lumpenproletariat, the marginal, the starving, and the unemployed--those who inhabited the peculiar province of the anarchists.”

Thus, aside from the obvious negative benefits of helping a speaker to deceive and confuse the authorities, concealment helps to strengthen the bonds of anarchist mutualism, especially among informal, “autonomous base nucleus” formations rooted in “affinity and reciprocal knowledge.” As Clark notes, concealment, argot’s modus operadi, makes special demands on the shared knowledge of both speaker and addressee. Much more than utterances that conform to the rhetoric of decorum and transparency, concealment requires that the speaker adopt a high degree of empathy with her interlocutors; she might draw on a shared memory, for instance, in an attempt to overcome the communicative barriers imposed by the hostile overhearer. And because concealment requires that an audience conjecture in order to arrive at understanding, it relies heavily on collaboration between participants. With concealed utterances, so-called "intelligibility" — which is only superficially and strategically denied — is the result of a communal, or dialogical, process. Despite its unfamiliar surface, the concealed utterance, Clark observes, draws heavily on "communal common ground" and often depends upon shared participation in an "intelligence community."

If all of this sounds like an argument for elitism, for an anarchist aristocracy of “those in the know,” perhaps it is – after all, don’t we believe, at some level, that we are better than our enemies? At any rate, it should be stressed that the parameters of “the community” – and what constitutes its particular “intelligence” – depend entirely on the practices and world-views of those who make it up. In this respect, there is much to learn from Becker-Ho’s account of the linguistic bonds that unite the dangerous and the dispossessed: “what comprises dangerous-class nous [“we”] is the continual ability to detect who is on one side of the line or the other, and the behaviour to be adopted in either case. In order to fulfill this aim, a jargon was created whose each and every term reflects … the permanent war that this world of outlaws persecutes against the ‘normal’ world of submissiveness.”


Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Holquist, Michael. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: Texas UP, 1981.

Becker-Ho, Alice. “from The Essence of Jargon.” Trans. John McHale. PARSER: New Poetry & Poetics. (1) Spring 2007. 4-13.

Becker-Ho, Alice. “The Language of Those in the Know.” Trans John McHale. 2001. January 12, 2007. .

Clark, Herbert H. Arenas of Language Use. Chicago: UP, 1992.

Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Malcom Imrie. London: Verso, 1996.

Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. Trans. Norman Denny. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Jarach, Lawrence. “Of Jargon, Cant, & Gobbledygook.” Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. (60). Fall-Winter 2005-06. 2.

Reddy, Michael J. "The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language." Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1979.

Wier, Jean, et al. “Insurrectionary Organization.” The Batko Group. 1988. March 7, 2007. .