Wikileaks as Specter of Burlesque and the Fourth Estate Blues

Today’s release of Wikileaks founder and Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange from Wandsworth prison conflates issues of gender, sexuality, media and the law. In other words, it is a huge cultural studies subject.

Wikileaks is  both an echo of past acts of populist radicalism, and a compelling striptease threatening to reveal much more than what the eye beholds and the mind can comprehend regarding diplomacy. This is why it is important that we see Wikileaks as a corpus, that is to say, a body of work. A question to ask, then, is who gets to decide how Cablegate, the latest data dump, will be placed in context? A second question to consider is how will Julian Assange’s sex charges impact how Wikileaks’ contributions to journalism will be viewed? In the past, Assange has argued that history will vindicate his organization. This could be true.

It is also my assertion that traditional news organizations lack sufficient standards to fairly evaluate Wikileaks as a corpus. Therefore, we in the humanities (especially those of us like me who also used to be full-time journalists) must contribute to this conversation regarding Wikileaks in order to provide the public with a model for how to critically evaluate the Wikileaks catalog. This academic, evaluative exercise must be carried out without fear of recrimination from our United States government.

Additionally, sexuality and gender studies scholars will need to re-engage  public discourse regarding issues of gender, power, sexual assault and the law in order to determine what the allegations made about Assange say about the nature of digital media today  as a field of opportunity. If it is OK to praise Assange and his team for their maverick approach to revealing key information that will potentially allow world citizens to better grasp the nuances of world politics, is it also OK to critique the seemingly male-dominated  fields of media, politics, and software and computer technology for not seeming to take rape allegations against a public figure (one who was in the running for Time’s person of the year) seriously?

It is my hope that the charges against Assange are false. If not, then appropriate and fair steps should be taken to secure justice for any victims, such as they might exist and the converse is also true. Should the charges be false, then Assange is owed a public apology. That the charges against him are of a sexual nature, not related to Wikileaks, only enhances the notion that Assange, and by extension, the business he leads, are somehow shadowy and therefore sinister.

Thus, secrets become the very focus of the Wikileaks/Assange story. He deals in secrets, he has become the subject of the secret that always surrounds sex. What is lost is truth, or rather, that the concept of truth will somehow illuminate the complex underworld of global politics and inter-personal relations. Should such world-class obfuscation continue, we will keep on being  dupes to the shadowy striptease of international politics, and the lure of sex as a means of producing knowledge (Foucault, 1990)  about the subject. Secrets, therefore, are not the end, but only the beginning of the reveal. Educators in institutions of higher learning must shine a light on Wikileaks/Assange and Wikileaks’ Assange in order to reduce the level of discomfort some in the graduate community have relative to talking about controversial topics.

What are secrets if only details? Wikileaks’ Cablegate fascinates and dominates international news in part because those who are intrigued by the inside of international politics and diplomacy are drawn to the art of the reveal. Thus, Wikileaks is both a temptation and a provocation. The existence of the organization as an alternative to traditional news media outlets is telling. Wikileaks will change the way international news is covered, and the way international diplomacy is practiced. Transparency is becoming a trend.

As the news media and the political establishment face criticism for having been co-opted by the industries of advertising and entertainment, in addition to the political establishment,it remains to be seen for how long Wikileaks will remain outside of this submission to authority and to the lure of the dollar. Thus, Wikileaks provokes the question: Who needs to embrace capitalism? This question depends upon an understanding of history and echoes Jacques Derrida’s (2006) question, “How can one be late to the end of history?” These are just some of the questions we emerging academics will discuss during several forums related to history, civil rights, and the gaze this spring at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Arts and Humanities. Check out our blog, The Drive: The blog of the CGU Cultural Studies Student Executive Committee, for more details.

Julian Assange’s incarceration in Great Britain was not a result of his Wikileaks activities, but rather accusations made by two women, of rape, sexual assault and molestation in Sweden. The Swedish court is asking that Assange be extradited to address these allegations. However, as everyone who has been following this case understands, the timing of these charges is suspect. The underlying message is that publishing documents that were deemed to be under the purview of a government will be met with not only an attack on one’s character, but also an attempt to affix a label to your name that will brand you as deviant.

It is important that we separate the man at the center of this blizzard from the chaos he has created while at the same time understanding that Julian and Assange and Wikileaks are organic products that are part of a historical context and therefore Assange and Wikileaks are complex systems. They are not easily reducible.

Easy is the tendency to objectify a person or a thing, all the better to manipulate it to the will of the one wielding power.

That is why it is imperative that academics become a model resource for encouraging the public to take a stand against the lazy, traditional media. Academics must reinvigorate the masses; they must become the temporary vanguards of the Fourth and Fifth estates, of which the mob (defined as those unaligned with the aristocracy), the press, and the blogosphere are thought to be members.

Lastly, it is also important that educators encourage students to critically engage with the world in an effort to produce substantive discourses of tolerance and understanding for all to decipher without fear.

Finally, for an article relative to the discussion about rape, Swedish law and the Assange case, read Jessica Valenti’s (Fri. Dec. 10, 2010) article in The Washington Post, “What the Assange case reveals about rape in America.”

[This article first appeared on the academic website Pretty Kitty Publishing.org. It subsequently appeared on the following blogs: Miami Valley Journal and Riot Grrrl Theory & Activism.]

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