Why REREADME?

Image from Army Field Manual 34-3: Intelligence Analysis. 1990. [p2.4]

Above: Image from Army Field Manual 34-3: Intelligence Analysis. 1990. [p2.4]

Technical manuals, reports, operational flowcharts, memos, and other such administrative documents are rarely afforded much critical weight. This is unsurprising: their everydayness and utilitarian design provides little spectacle, their messages are often either banale and self-evident, or overly complex and jargonistic. We ordinarily find ourselves inundated with these materials in familiar administrative spaces such as the office, the academy, the hospital, the bank. Their affected neutral tone might inform us of the terms of our contract of employment, how to "manually handle" a cardboard box, who our line manager is, or remind us to fill the form out in block capitals. Such documents can be considered as a particular form of media in their own right—a form of media that has its own powerful and paradoxical capacity to mediate.

Such documents are what Fuller and Goffey (2012) call grey media. Grey media are the artifacts of institutional bureaucracy—the enframing and didactic materials that ostensibly formalise behaviour and communication in institutional spaces. Their grey, recessive banality facilitates their falling away into the background, to be read once and acknowledged (perhaps with a signature—a favoured implement of bureaucracy), and then filed away. Grey media's administrative weight thus varies from the imperative to the perfunctory: payroll spreadsheets and out-of-office replies; corporate profit reports and petty cash books; internal security reviews and kitchen hygiene reminders posted on the communal fridge; and so on. Even trivialities are awarded grandiose appendages—the administrative dissonances of such materials are encapsulated in the standardised email signature automatically added to any correspondence originating from within an institution:

If their purpose is to make a gesture towards standardising operating procedures, to benchmark and officiate possible behaviours and actions, then they are at their most institutionally potent in the time of crisis or error. When these procedures fail, the power of grey media is suddenly and formally acknowledged. Grey media are duly drawn out of their recessive states to become a template for rigorous analysis, the basis for the tactical establishment of what—or who—did not follow procedure, and what the disciplinary consequences might be. Alternatively (and not at all uncommonly), grey media become a basis for the obfuscation and delay of inquiry until the appetite for accountability has long since moved on.

Grey media thus provide a valuable subject of analysis for those who wish to understand the mechanisms of institutional governmentality—what can be understood as the technologies and mechanisms through which the institution conducts the behaviour and actions of its personnel—for it offers one way of peering into the internal logic of institutional control. Sometimes, these documents help us to see how an institution sees itself, and perhaps even demonstrating how it designs itself. What might standard operating procedures reveal about how a given institution idealises distributions of power and control? Who has it, and who does not, and how might this change with time or circumstance?

Of course, using grey media as a basis for institutional critique in this manner is not a new endeavour. Such artifacts form the basis of journalistic reporting, and have done so for a very long time indeed. This acknowledgement points to a second moment when grey media's power becomes a center of attention: that of the leak. The tactical contravention of the institution's confidentiality clause—the giving-over of private administrative documents for public scrutiny—has featured prominently in the mass media and, as history demonstrates, not without consequence. Grey media often lies at the core of the political leak. For example, the NSA documents released by Edward Snowden in 2013 put powerpoint slides detailing classified SIGINT technologies on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. It's perhaps hard to think of another example where a document created in Microsoft Powerpoint was subjected to such broad public analysis.

When the proposal is made to study "grey media", the question of accessibility inevitably arises. It goes without saying that the role of the whistleblower in facilitating timely access to otherwise inaccessible grey media is vital, as is the journalistic inquiry that should ideally follow. The purpose of REREADME is slightly different, however. It is to engage with (just a small fraction of) the enormous quantities of grey media that reside in the national archives and FOIA Reading Rooms of the various US defense and intelligence agencies, legally in the public domain and available to anybody with access to a computer and an internet connection. Many of these documents, formally declassified ordinarily after a period of at least 25 years, offer us an opportunity to both re-examine historical events and perhaps test out theories of how the institution conducts itself and its personnel in specific scenarios. With this in mind, the intention for this blog is twofold: to excavate extracts of "forgotten" grey media for rereading within their historical context; and subsequently, to subject them to a renewed critique that is explicitly of-the-present.

In a grander sense, in carrying out this task perhaps some insight might be gained into how the "work" of warfare in its various guises is institutionalised in the strategic doctrine of command and control. By adopting re-reading as a mode of analysis, these examples of grey media will perhaps be afforded another moment where their power is drawn into the foreground, an effort in illuminating the often recessive yet impactful role they play as mediators.