Philip Morris Research Center, phones, Ulrich Franzen, Richmond, VA, 1972

An institution is the organization of people, practices, traditions, and information that produces knowledge. They are often hierarchical and are agents of erasure. Institutions are often understood to be sites most engaged in secrecy and surveillance, as well as rhetorical campaigns to place hiddenness and watching in terms that are palatable to a wider public.

  • "Institutions" may refer to the practice of public administration and bureaucracy. These structures informed forms of public governance and corporate organizational hierarchy that emerged during the 20th century. Secrecy and surveillance are instruments used to safeguard structure in the name of a generalized "security."
  • "Institutions" also commonly refer to sites of incarceration and enforcement of a socially-constructed "normal," for instance, the asylum and the prison.  There, the secret is a hidden aspect of a psychological/criminal condition, and surveillance is a means of policing, containment, and observation.
  • Finally, "institutions" can refer to the university, the college, and the academic discipline, all of which describe sites where knowledge and hierarchy are cultivated for the stated purpose of education and actual purposes of capital accumulation.  

This entry is about institutions in all of these senses. Institutions cultivate secrets and promote the structures that keep them. Institutions also employ strategies of surveillance to police compliance with their governing order while selling it to users/clients/employees as an ambiguous guarantee of greater security.

  • PowerPoint Slides (forthcoming)

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Jack Bratich, "Public Secrecy/Immanent Security"

  • Bratich returns us to some of the keywords we discussed last week, including "spectacle," and encourages readers "to revise our conceptions of publicity, secrecy, and activist strategy." What revisions does he propose? What understandings of institutional secrecy does he insist we depart from? What understandings of secrecy should we instead adopt or embrace?

Recordings for this Entry

Please note that the recording above is supplementary. It covers some of the same topics discussed below, but there is no exact parity between this entry and the recorded lecture.

Securitarian Institutions

Securitarian institutions are those which employ techniques of secrecy and surveillance in the name of greater generalized security; that is, in the name of an ambiguously defined sense of safety which itself may not be disclosable to a wider public. Often, institutional justifications for greater secrecy and surveillance promote notions of exceptionalism (i.e., the superiority of one mode of governance or economic system over all others) and pre-emptive violence (i.e., the rationalization of doing harm to 'others' in the name of preventing violence to 'ourselves'). Consider, for example, the many ways that security institutions are celebrated in films and television as necessary to a collective sense of safety even as they depict these same institutions engaging in acts of profound environmental, social, and infrastructural devastation. Security institutions' representations of themselves are simultaneously sublime (enormous, magnificent, and terrifying to behold) and remind the viewer of an imminent threat against which the institution is the only protection.

This clip, from the 2012 James Bond film "Skyfall," depicts an explosive cyberattack upon England's famous intelligence gathering institution, MI-6.

The increasing influence of securitarian institutions has also given rise to what historian Michel Foucault calls the "society of security," in which security displaces democratic governance as the primary reason for and function of government. Instead of a representative system of government, the ability to have a representative form of government is made contingent upon security institutions secretly observed interests. According to David Campbell in Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, the transformation of the United States into a "society of security" was highly visible during the transition from Harry Truman's World War II-era rhetoric into Dwight Eisenhower's messaging in the early years of the Cold War:

In this understanding, the state is neither a monolith that exercises power over an independent social domain, nor a settled identity that simply responds to external stimuli. Instead, the state and the social are made possible by "multiple regimes of governmentality," which employ a rationality of security that calculates the possible and the probable, and simultaneously individualizes and totalizes, asking for both the citizen and the state what it means to be governed. In this context, by replacing a concern for "the democratic processes which are the heart and sinew of the United States" (the rationale of the Truman program) with "the interests of the national security," the Eisenhower program constituted in a different way the object it purported to defend. By diminishing (though not eradicating) the classical [small-r] republican notion of the role of the citizen in a democratic polity, and substituting for it an abstracted and reified notion of "the interests of the national security," Eisenhower both extended the domain of the state's interest and increased the intensiveness of its concern. (p.152)

Security agencies are rhetorical in another way: they are notorious for proliferating a terminology of secrecy. They have come up with distinctions like the distinction between “confidential,” “secret” and “top-secret” information,  “covert” and “clandestine” operations, or between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ secrets.

The distinction between "objective" and "subjective" secrets is borrowed from Peter Galison's essay, "Removing Knowledge"
The distinction between "covert" and "clandestine" described here is borrowed from an essay by Kristen Hoerl and Erin Ortiz titled "Organizational Secrecy and the FBI's COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist Hate Group Program, 1967-1971." The distinction among confidential, secret, and top-secret is referenced in Peter Galison's "Removing Knowledge"

Governing security institutions also proliferate acronyms, sub-groups, and new organizations as a way to shift focus and conceal the organizational structures that are most pressingly dedicated to secrecy management. According to Jack Bratich in "Public Secrecy/Immanent Security," it was not just publicly-prominent groups like CIA or NSA who were operating in Iraq to collect secret information, but also lesser-known groups invented in an ad-hoc and piecemeal way, such as OSI (the Office of Strategic Influence), military groups protected by secrecy like DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and Cyber Command, an interinstitutional intelligence group.

Well before the ‘aughts (2010-2019), intelligence agencies that function as part of the military arm of government were perpetuating rhetoric about media organizations that argued journalistic transparency compromises secrecy (and therefore, national security). It also drives anti-whistleblowing laws as supposed violations of national security, especially when whistleblowers work within intelligence institutions. According to these security institutions, the right to know gets in the way of staying safe. As a result, transparency and the democratization of information were framed by security institutions as social evils opposed to the smooth operation of government. In some ways, Donald Trump’s use of anti-media rhetoric parrots this strategy, used by powerful security agencies to frame the intelligence/media in terms sympathetic to the national security state.

Journalists Discuss Relationship Between U.S. Intelligence Community and the Press
Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell moderated a discussion with journalists on the relationship between the U.S. intelligence community and the press. Speakers included [Washington Post] Columnist David Ignatius and NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell.
A CSPAN discussion from April 2019 on the relationship between journalistic and intelligence institutions. 

Administrative Bureaucracies

In the early 20th century, administration and bureaucracy as an academic subject were topics concerned with the optimal hierarchy of persons. The right structure for an organization meant better secrecy management and more efficient power-leveraging. The reason that administration is tied to secrecy is that it describes an organization of power as a distribution of protected information. By creating layers upon layers of administration, the seat of power could be a well-kept secret, even as these same institutions professed to be the most democratic and proletarian in their thinking and decision-making.

It’s also important to note that the study of public administration in the United States was promoted by influential people who supported deeply racist ideologies. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, is the author of the 1887 The Study of Public Administration. This work applauded “French and German professors” for developing a competent theory of rule in the pre-World War I era. Wilson emphasized that “we must Americanize [administrative bureaucracy], and that not formally, in language merely, but radically, in thought, principle, and aim as well.” In practice and especially under Wilson’s presidency, ‘Americanization’ meant that administrative bureaucracies could expeditiously enforce anti-Black racism. In practice, Wilson used administrative bureaucracies to enforce segregationist and discriminatory housing policies. Upon entering office in 1913, Wilson used his talent for administration to purge Taft’s Black government appointees and to collect complaints from formerly silent white government officials, who now reported they could not possibly work with Black colleagues or under their supervision. The Post Office, Navy, and Treasury all underwent a complete restructuring to enforce new segregationist policies, especially between white women and Black men.

In 1920, German sociologist Max Weber theorized the collecting and keeping of secrets as a function of organized administrative systems, widely re-popularizing the term “bureaucracy.” Bureaucracy, he contended, was “technically the most highly developed means of power” and left “the absolute monarch … powerless.” (27) Weber’s system explained the increasing division of labor as a practical consequence of the late industrial age. It also made secrecy management an explicit feature of efficient administrative governance and distributed information across a larger group. As an organizing form, bureaucratic secrets were supposed to be a functional arrangement of people and the distribution of expert information across that hierarchy. But after World War II the promise of a revolutionary administrative bureaucracy clashed with the reality that bureaucracy was dehumanizing, and acutely intensified human suffering. If “the period from roughly 1930 through the 1960s … can be seen as the age of the manager” who is “custodian of a bureaucratic system,” then in the latter half of the 20th century, this custodian was also a symbol of evil.

Academic Institutions

Sociology and Psychology are two important disciplines in the history of secrecy, understood as an academic area of inquiry. They continue to be a source for important theories and concepts, although significantly, the study of misinformation and disinformation has also migrated to analytical disciplines like Computer Science. By describing two of their ‘founding’ figures at the turn of the 20th century, I hope to explain these concepts while doing justice to their history. There is a lot to be appreciated about both sociology and psychology, just as there are shameful parts of communication’s own past. For example, you may have heard of Erving Goffman, a major communication theorist of the 20th century who is still a “James Bond” figure in terms of his popularity in the social science community. Goffman also provided government agencies with information about “the techniques people use to establish phony relationships” and had an enduring interest in the espionage applications of his own work.

Sociology and psychology presented two very distinct ways of understanding secrecy. At the turn of the 20th century, secrecy was as if not more important than it was today. It was also a shared point of focus. The sociological and psychoanalytic traditions, represented here by Georg Simmel and Sigmund Freud, described secrecy as an organized form of discourse, but in different ways. For Simmel, secrets were outside the subject, in culture or society, and they were fundamentally spatial because they happened in the marketplace, church, and secret society. For Freud, however, secrets were on the psychic inside of the subject, and could be experienced primarily because of the passage of time.


The sociological tradition of secrecy might start with Georg Simmel, who studied culture, or the “formed intentional subjectivity that emerges out of human life and its interactions. It is created by human beings as objectified contents or entities in language, religion, normative gender and sexuality, legal systems, traditions, [and] artistic artefacts.” His 1906 essay, The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies was, in a sense, the response to a century of semi-secret societies stretching to at least 1800, including the Freemasons and the Ku Klux Klan. Simmel sought to understand how “our … picture of others” depends upon the structure of “real relationships of practice and of sentiment between us.” Simmel found secrets in spaces like the marketplace and the church. He also described secrets in terms of the presumptions that people bring to every social engagement, including friendship, marriage, and treason. He also argued that “spatial relations not only are determining conditions of relationships among men [sic], but are also symbolic of those relationships.” One example is Simmel’s “Stranger,” which symbolizes the spatial aspects of secrecy in all relationships. As he writes, the stranger is always “near and far at the same time.”


The psychological tradition of secrecy is indebted to Sigmund Freud’s late 19th century psychoanalytic practice. Freud catered primarily to a wealthy and aristocratic clientele. His 1899 Interpretation of Dreams and the 1901 Psychopathology of Everyday Life described the life of the unconscious psyche in terms of secrets that the analysand (or patient) kept from themselves either in dreams or with spoken symptoms. Freud explained psychological distress primarily in terms of root causes of trauma and sexual maturation, which is a key reason why much of his work is described as discredited or backward. Unlike Simmel, Freud puts the secret on the inside of the subject’s psyche, as expressing internal psychic tension. He also claimed we can witness the tension between the conscious and unconscious mind, which happens all the time. For instance, “the Freudian slip” – what Freud calls the “parapraxis” – is a blip, accident, or interruption in the subject’s speech. The parapraxis is the sign that something else is breaking through our conscious life. What breaks through is the unconscious, a secret kept from even the person speaking it.[15] Another difference from Simmel’s concept of secrecy is that Freud describes the secret as an experience of time, as something that we can only sense retroactively (nachträglichkeit, also translated “afterwardsness”), belatedly, or ‘after-the-fact.’  

Imagine a sequence of events, first A, then B, and finally C, which represent a patient’s past, present, and future. “A” is a past event still affecting the patient, who is situated at point “B,” but they do not yet realize just how much it has affected them. Through the course of “talk therapy” or psychoanalysis, they may discover the significance of the past event “A”. This “belated” discovery or revelation is part of how the patient reconfigures their perceptions of themselves and their trauma. That is retroaction: the deferred effect of the past A upon the present B. Moreover, by addressing the delayed consequences of A at point B, the patient creates a future, C, in which the past, A, might no longer carry the same traumatic weight.

This is also colloquially known as “the return of the repressed,” or when some unconscious knowledge suddenly ‘occurs’ to us, well after it happened. When we experience or encounter this information, it may enable us to re-frame the past in light of new data.

The sociological and psychological theories of secrecy shared many features, and we cannot ignore the fact that the most consistent feature among these theorists is their proclivity for sexism, racism, and primitivism. Both Simmel and Freud attributed agency primarily to white and/or affluent subjects. Both elaborated superficial myths about indigenous or native peoples. Both claimed to bring a new approach to ‘errors’ or ‘fallacies’ of speech and socialization. Both claimed that they had exposed the subtending logic of these communication failures.

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Jack Bratich, "Public Secrecy/Immanent Security"

  • Bratich returns us to some of the keywords we discussed last week, including "spectacle," and encourages readers "to revise our conceptions of publicity, secrecy, and activist strategy." What revisions does he propose? What understandings of institutional secrecy does he insist we depart from? What understandings of secrecy should we instead adopt or embrace?

Additional Resources

Fictional Bureaucracies

Opinion and Editorials

On the Secrecy of Institutions

On the Role of Secrecy Institutions in Academic Scholarship

Rhetorical Scholarship on Secrecy-Based Institutions

Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

  • Guy Debord, Comments 1-8on the generalised spectacle.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 8-9on terrorism.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 11 the destruction of logic.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 13environmental destruction.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 16on (Russian) disinformation.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 18  – on the secrecy/surveillance specialists.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 26on the growth of secret societies.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 28on networks of promotion and control.
  • Guy Debord, Comments 30on surveillance and its dangers.


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