Monday, December 20, 2010

The History of Her Blood

I expect that most of you will know the story of HeLa. Thanks to some fairly meticulous note-taking, I can establish that I first came across it in 2004 and that for a while I considered writing about it in my dissertation. But then, fascinating and apposite as it was, it was simply too good for that particular purpose: it was a story with too much history, and it was a history that I didn’t feel I could do justice to. I turned to the past of my own family instead, to something to which I felt that I belonged and that I could control, in order to argue for the historical class divides in documenting and memorialising the individual. I compared the minute and near-obsessive recording of the childhood of Winston Churchill with the single surviving photograph of my maternal grandmother before the age of 50. Nowadays every one of us in the developed world is a Churchill, I concluded. And what did that mean?

There are but a handful of photographs of Henrietta Lacks as a young woman. She is a little girl. She marries. And then some time later she poses for the shot reproduced above, not knowing – of this we can be certain – that the image would end up in countless articles and essays and blog posts such as this one, as well as on the cover of a best-selling book, each one of those reproductions, an appropriation. But we are just compelled. That’s what the story of HeLa is, above, all – compelling.

Henrietta Lacks died after a brief and agonising battle with cervical cancer in 1951, when she was just thirty-one years old. After the initial examination, her attending physician at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore – one of the few hospitals that would treat African Americans without charge at the time, albeit in segregated wards – had given a sample of her tumour to Dr. George Gey, a researcher at the institution who had been trying unsuccessfully for years to grow human cells outside the body. Those particular cancer cells were to be the first that proved capable of surviving on a dish, where they thrived in fact beyond anyone’s imagination, growing at an even faster rate than they did inside of Henrietta. It was soon established that the cultures were capable of spawning an entire new generation with each passing day. When news reached him that Henrietta had died as a result of this astonishingly aggressive tumour, Gey sent his laboratory assistant to collect a second sample from the coroner in charge of the autopsy. On neither occasion was consent sought from either the patient or the family, as was customary at the time (and it remains something of a murky area to this day). But Henrietta’s cells weren’t like any other specimen collected to date: they could grow, and grow indefinitely. It was the first immortal cell line. Gey named it HeLa, after Henrietta Lacks, but spoke of their ‘donor’ no more. She no longer mattered.

HeLa’s first job was to help in the fight against polio. A cell production factory was set up for this purpose at the Tuskegee Institute (yes, that Tuskegee Institute) capable of producing twenty thousand tubes of HeLa, or about 6 trillion cells, every week. At this early stage it was all still done in the name of science and reputations, but soon the range of applications that HeLa cells made possible gave way to commercial exploitation. Companies like Microbiological Associates began producing HeLa cells on an even larger scale, and this time for gain. The biotech industry was born.

HeLa cells were sent into space by the Soviets and NASA to test the effect of weightlessness on human tissues, they were cloned, they were used to test and produce vaccines and drugs, study cancer, map the human genome and engineer in vitro fertilisation. And then in the 1960s scientists found that they were able to produce other cell lines that weren’t HeLa, and with growing frequency. It became possible to create libraries of different human tissues to experiment on, except some researchers became suspicious. Stanley Gartler was the first to opine that all those other cell lines might not be different at all – that they could all have been taken over by HeLa due to the inadequate containment protocols in medical labs, and that that’s why they grew so successfully. This catastrophic hypothesis took years to gain acceptance, but when it finally did, it motivated scientists to approach the Lacks family. It was the first time since Henrietta’s death, more than two decades earlier.

Henrietta was buried by the grove in this picture, outside of Lackstown, in un unmarked grave not far from her mother’s headstone. Her principal and most dedicated biographer, Rebecca Skloot, has described ‘three body shaped indentations’ in the ground (121), any one of which could be Henrietta. She had been buried without a coffin, and when her body decomposed, the ground beneath it sagged in the shape of a person. I find this image heartrending: the empty space left by the body, the lost knowledge of which of the plots was hers. It speaks to me not only of her family’s dire poverty but also of a severed bond of memory, of a personal story that is not carried forward. And I don’t mean the story writ large: the Lackses had no reason at the time to suspect that Henrietta would ever become an important and emblematic figure. They simply ceased to speak of her. It was their way to cope with her sudden and traumatic departure.

Thus a quarter of a century later, when the family learnt of HeLa, they had to contend not only with being reminded of what their wife and mother and sister had been through, but also of the extraordinary second life she had since been living, completely unbeknownst to them. Who was this HeLa, this otherworldly double that was being sent into space and bombarded with viruses and experimental drugs? Could she feel pain? Did clones of Henrietta walk the streets? Nobody bothered to explain the intricacies of human cell experimentation to the Lackses, at least not in terms that they could understand. They were urged instead to give blood samples, ostensibly so that the doctors could find out if they had what she had. What the scientific community needed was in fact a way to identify Henrietta’s genetic material so that they could tell which cell lines had been contaminated by HeLa.


Whenever the story of Henrietta Lacks is told, due mention is made of the fact that her descendants cannot afford to buy medical insurance and thus benefit from most of the advances that her biological material made possible. Skloot writes this of Henrietta’s middle child:
Sonny had a quintuple bypass in 2003, when he was fifty-six years old—the last thing he remembered before falling unconscious under the anesthesia was a doctor standing over him saying his mother's cells were one of the most important things that had ever happened to medicine. Sonny woke up more than $125,000 in debt because he didn't have health insurance to cover the surgery. (306)
Yet in most summations the focus goes back to the original sampling of the tissue, at a time when neither law nor common practice dictated that consent should be sought or information given. Your body, everyone’s body implicitly belonged to science. And neither George Gey nor Johns Hopkins made money out of creating or distributing HeLa. But what about in the 1970s, when the Lacks family was asked to give their blood? By this stage HeLa was the key raw material to a multi-million dollar industry, and it’s not as if the proceeds where being redistributed to all of humankind in the form of equal access to medical advances. It ought to have been well understood at this point by even the most naïve of researchers that the genetic information of the members of the Lacks family was worth a lot of money to a lot of people. And yet it was solicited again free of charge or obligation, under the guise of a concern for their health and providing them with a service.

And so the Lackses where defrauded twice: of their property, and of their agency. To this day, the family’s best shot at a belated economic redress remains the foundation set up by Rebecca Skloot though the proceeds from the book that tells their story, which is the third thing that they (we) came for. Something else that was theirs, and has become ours. Private pain, and how they dealt with it; medical records; personal histories of at least two generations of the Lacks family: they are all in the public domain now. There was simply no way to protect the story once the family name had been leaked to the press, and the Lackses did well to entrust its most extensive, definitive treatment to a sensitive and capable chronicler in Rebecca Skloot.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is close to restorative in how it gives a voice to the family and endeavours to correct the many discrepancies and errors that had accumulated in years of less painstaking accounts. Significantly its central character isn’t Henrietta, but her daughter Deborah, the one who was most desperate to understand and remember: it was knowledge, above all, that she felt deprived of; she, who had no memory of her mother – who had died when she was fifteen months old – and had had to contend with her family’s reluctance to speak of her. In the end one gets the sense that Deborah found genuine comfort in coming to terms with Henrietta’s far more intricate and bewildering afterlife than in the ordinary life she couldn’t get access to, although that was far from a painless process either. In one of the book’s most memorable passages, Skloot tells of the exorcism performed on Deborah by her cousin Garry, a preacher, who succeeded in relieving her of the burden of that far too imperfect memory, which had brought her close to a complete physical breakdown.

Which brings us back to that remarkable presence/absence: a woman who has been dead for half a century and whose body has left an empty space in the ground where it was laid to rest, but whose surviving and constantly reproducing cells have been estimated to weigh today an aggregate of over 50 million metric tons (‘an inconceivable number,’ remarks Skloots, ‘given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing’ 2). And then there’s the weight of the story itself: all of the articles and the scientific papers and the blog posts, circulating electronically or in print, but never weightlessly, and of course the book, each hardback copy weighing 626 grams, with tens of thousands of copies sold. That ubiquitous image. And then the advances, the procedures, the devices, and the stock in the companies that produce and exchange them. All those nodes that cannot be disentangled: human lives, hardware, symbolic abstractions. Consent forms, medical records, family photos. Invisible cells that hop on specks of dust and move from dish to dish inside of laboratories.

At its most emblematic, the story of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the Social, of its irreducible complexity, of its permanently unstable categories, of its capacity to endow inert matter with layer upon layer of meaning. It is a story of race and class that was played out at the same time as the project of immortality through science was being articulated for the consumption of the white elites, who got to enjoy longer, healthier lives thanks to the infinite dissection of that single black body. It is, finally, the story of the elisions that are necessary in order for such fantasies to exist. As in the digitisation of the human on which the idea of computer-mediated immortality rests, Henrietta Lacks had to become HeLa – a file name – and all redundant aspects of her being had to be compressed, reduced into an algorithm. Likewise her family, her background, the social texture of her life had to be made irrelevant and quite simply forgotten. Two decades later, when it became necessary to involve Henrietta’s relatives, kinship had to be defined solely in terms of genetic information that could be retrieved in a single sitting, ensuring that there would be no ongoing relationship with the owners and carriers of that information.

They, as Henrietta before them, had to become the others whole lives are of no concern, a recurring subject of this blog this past year. But there’s another aspect to this: using the first two letters from your name and your surname to designate a part of you, or your genome to describe your whole person, are but two ways of making the subject fit into a template. Think about the formal characteristics of a Facebook profile, or the space that you are given to form an utterance on Twitter, and how they constrain the kind of person you can be, the range of what is possible for you to say. What elisions does that lead to? And conversely, how do those constraints define the non-subjects, those who simply cannot get online and speak or be spoken at all? I’ll make this one of the topics for next year. Have a good break, and as always thank you for reading.

Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

Skloot has been writing about Henrietta Lacks for at least a decade, and earlier introductory articles are available here and here.

Dale Keigel. 'Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues.' John Hopskins Magazine, Winter 2010 issue.

This recent episode of the Radio Lab podcast series on 'famous tumours' (28 min mp3) is a very accessible introduction to the story of HeLa, with recorded material provided by Skloot including at around the 20 minute mark what I have referred to in the post with a little license as Deborah's exorcism.

With many thanks to Jake for his help with a small but naggingly elusive piece of information.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Immortalist

Alan Harrington died of leukaemia on May 23rd, 1997, at the age of 79, leaving a scant 200-word obituary in The New York Times whose contents were lazily plucked from bits of old reviews and Harrington’s obit in his hometown newspaper. Wikipedia didn’t exist back then, but if you were to search it for Alan Harrington today you’d only find the Welsh footballer, born 1933. Meanwhile, none of the Alan Harrington’s several books appears to still be in print.

Then again – to paraphrase Woody Allen – Harrington never wanted to achieve immortality through his works. He wanted to achieve it through not dying.

You’re looking at the cover of the 1979 Abacus edition – the second in Great Britain, where it had been first published by Panther Books in 1973 – of Alan Harrington’s The Immortalist. By this stage the book had lost its original subtitle (‘an Approach to the Engineering of Man's Divinity’) in favour of the more direct ‘How Science Could Give Humanity Eternal Life’. But note how the artwork on the cover undercuts the appeal to science: in the midst of a waste land, an adult foetus floats in an amniotic bubble; in front of him, also suspended, a mysterious green door, ever so slightly ajar; behind him, a dragon. Standard cheap fantasy or science-fiction Seventies fare, so cheap and so standard in fact that there’s no mention anywhere in the book of who the artist even is. But then, contrasting again with the picture you might have formed in your head at this point of a piece of sensationalistic and semi-lurid quasi-fiction, there’s Gore Vidal’s pronouncement at the top of the cover that what you’re holding in your hands is in fact ‘the most important book of our time’.

Such were the complicated beginnings of this idea – of immortality through scientific means – and such were the surprising difficulties in marketing it, in finding it an audience. The original proponent had been Robert CW Ettinger, who first wrote in a putative science-fiction story about the possibility that people could be cryogenically preserved upon death and wait in this suspended state for a futuristic cure. Ettinger reformulated this contention as an actual, feasible project in his 1962 treatise The Prospect of Immortality, which got significant attention from the media and is extensively covered in Harrington’s book. Yet at the time when The Immortalist was written only a handful of people had actually joined a cryonics organisation and undergone the procedure, including not Walt Disney. Three more decades later, the number worldwide is estimated at a paltry 200. Ettinger, who is still alive and does have his own Wikipedia page, predicted it would reach 40 billion before science became advanced enough to allow the thawing to begin, in three centuries’ time. I think it’s fair to say the project is running a little behind schedule, in spite of Ettinger himself having contributed not one but two dead wives to the cause.

Another cover from a Discus/Avon edition closer to the original publication date of The Immortalist (1969). Here the skin and clothing of a besuited and very elderly man are shed to reveal a naked young man inside, his hair neatly parted. The man is standing near the shore, evoking perhaps the idea of evolution from an earlier state of being, like when our primordial ancestors abandoned the ocean. The fleecy clouds in the background are a little reminiscent of Magritte. Ceci n’est pas un homme, perhaps? Except it is, that’s the whole point: to argue that man – the gender inflection on the two covers is not casual – can live forever and still be a man. Note however that both images portray a rebirth into adulthood, which is consistent with the cryonics project (in which most patients will need to be rejuvenated as well as brought back to life) but not with Harrington’s contention that medical science will simply stop us growing old in the first place.

So we haven’t even opened the book yet and the nature of its message and whether or not is to be taken seriously are already being cast into doubt. The New York Times review of June 20, 1969 echoes this frustration:
The sheer originality of "The Immortalist" provokes anxiety. One is never absolutely certain whether one is reading a bitter satire on inspirational self-help books, the obsessional mutterings of a compulsive, or a serious proposition.
The serious proposition, simply put, is that the time has come for humanity to kill death, ‘to put an end to mortality as a certain consequence of being born’ (3). After having launched into a lengthy and at times formidable elucidation of the history of the idea of immortality in religion and philosophy, and having rather sardonically dissected the vestigial need to keep a careful tally of one’s moral worth in the atheist West (‘Among the middle classes, God, supposedly dead, has reappeared in the form of a gigantic Computer of Excellence’, 106), Harrington gets to the point: can it be done, and should it be done? To which the answers are yes and yes. It can, because it stands to reason that it will: it might take some time, but we’ll figure out where the switch that triggers our senescence is hidden and how to turn it off; it should, because fear of death is in fact the cause of all major social ills, of violence and injustice and inequality; and furthermore, because not doing it would be tantamount to a betrayal of the species, just when we are so near to attaining the final victory against our cosmic enemy. In conclusion:
The immortalist argument holds this ground and will not step back from it: that death from deterioration of the body is an outrage and should be unceremoniously treated as such. "Do not go gentle into that good night" does not apply here. Rather aim not to go at all; mobilize the scientists, spend the money, and hunt death down like an outlaw. (208)

What Harrington proposes then is a sort of Manhattan Project for immortality, one of those endeavours for which Americans could claim at the time something of a track record, what with having just put a bunch of men on the moon and all. So long as you were prepared to mobilise the scientists and spend the money, it must have seemed that everything was achievable. But here’s the first rub: for like Ettinger before him, Harrington is quite aware of the imbalances in wealth and opportunity in American society, and that the prospect of immortality for the elites might seem abhorrent even to those who were prepared to scoff at the message of ‘Whitey on the Moon’. Ettinger is more sanguine in his response to this conundrum, but both men agree that it would be unthinkable to allow for social disparity in access to eternal life.
(Ettinger, 164): The stratification of society is resented by the people in the lower strata. Even such trifling distinctions as those between master and slave, or between commissar and worker, are only grudgingly endured, if at all. The chance of the masses holding still for the vastly greater split between mortal and immortal is nil. The elite have a fairly simple choice: share immortality, or be torn limb from limb.

(Harrington, 265): Consider a freezer program with affluent white people (their life insurance policies paid up) lying in neat rows waiting for the trumpet of science to return them to life, while the struggling black and brown masses continue to die as they always have. Do the cryonics partisans dare dream of the black and brown reaction to this final injustice? Not only are the exploiters oppressing us now, but they are planning to come back and sit on the world all over again—and on top of that they will not even die.

Hold on to these thoughts, for they’ll be central to next week’s discussion. For now I’ll observe that neither Ettinger nor Harrington – whilst maintaining that immortality will be achieved thanks to free enterprise and money – have actual suggestions regarding how society might be transformed into one in which health is a right guaranteed to all citizens, a problem far more complex and profound than even whether we’ll manage one day to defeat cancer or halt aging. Harrington appears in fact to take a chicken-and-egg approach to it, whereby without death we’ll live long enough to acquire the wisdom necessary to make the equal sharing of resources on a planetary scale and therefore immortality itself possible. For instance: rational solutions to the problem of over-population will be found by the year 2000, he argues, simply because nations ‘will have no choice’ (288), a contention that would strike most readers nowadays as risible, and bitterly so. In this respect the whole intellectual framework allowing for immortality to become syllogistically inevitable strikes one as wishful and naïve, beginning with the blind faith in the steady upwards trajectory of medical science: we know in fact that one of the great life-prolonging advances of the 20th Century, the organ transplant, is in danger of soon becoming impracticable; and we have learnt just today of a decrease in the average life-expectancy in the most wealthy and advanced country on the planet.

So what has happened to the most important book of our time? It briefly acquired a more sombre and authoritative cover, above, before going out of print. In the meantime, a new brand of far more creditable and persuasive transhumanists – the Moravecs and the Kurzweils and the Gordon Bells of this world – have supplanted those early prophets by doing away with the need for messy bodies, messier economies and wholesale political transformations: immortality will come to you by way of software, and your digital mind will occupy the world without dimensions of a computer network. Yet reading the early immortalists remains instructive if one wishes to trace the history of this extraordinary idea, and locate the contradictions that later, more shrewd proponents have been able to mask but not resolve.

The treatment of these ideas on this blog naturally will remain ongoing, but ahead of next week’s post I want to leave you to ponder the opening line of Ettinger’s Man into Superman (1972):
By working hard and saving my money, I intend to become an immortal superman.
It articulated two key propositions: that immortality is imminent and affordable, so long as you believe and are prepared to work hard for it; and that it is a belief in science and capitalism that defines those who are worthy of being saved, henceforth the supermen.

Alan Harrington. The Immortalist. London, Abacus, 1979.

Robert CW Ettinger. The Prospect of Immortality.
Robert CW Ettinger. Man into Superman.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. ‘Anybody Want to Live Forever?’ New York Times of June 20, 1969, p. 39. (With many thanks to Keir.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Order of Disappearance

It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.

(Julian Assange)

As the story goes, when private Bradley Manning copied the war logs that eventually found their way to WikiLeaks and into the world’s newspapers he did so on a series of discs labelled 'Lady Gaga', disguising the procedure by wearing headphones and lip-synching to non-existent Gaga music. It is a colourful, possibly apocryphal detail that must not be allowed to detract from how insanely brave Manning was, if he is, indeed, the source of the leak. But it also highlights again the constant and often grotesque meshing of the trivial and the deadly, of pop and carnage, in our daily, hypermediated lives. I delved into this state of affairs at the time of the earthquake in Haiti not because I thought it was anything other than obvious, but rather to ask how can we sensitise ourselves again to the enormity of the crimes of our societies. Manning himself has asked the question, reportedly, heart-breakingly, in an online chat with the very person who ended up betraying his confidence to the authorities. He wrote this:
god knows what happens now … hopefully, worldwide discussion, debates and reforms. if not … we're doomed.

Manning is currently in solitary confinement at Quantico and looking at a maximum prison term of 52 years, unless the always charming presidential hopeful Mick Huckabee has his way and they execute him first. For every day Manning spends behind bars, we should be asking ourselves how closer we are to bringing the architects of the war in Iraq and the atrocities in Afghanistan in front of a tribunal, and how that debate and those reforms are coming on. It is, as in the case of the ongoing response to natural disasters, at least partly a matter of attention: for how long can we give this thing enough thought that we can effectively organise and bring about change? The discs, after all, were labelled 'Lady Gaga'. Are we sure that the matter is in fact grave and urgent enough?

The face of private Manning in the media is a grainy enlargement from what may be a family picture. But there is another face that looms in print and on our screens these days, larger, more sharply defined, and it’s the face of Julian Assange. At what point exactly did he become a character in the story? We know it wasn’t part of the original plan for the organization to have a front man, but he sure is that man now, and it probably helps WikiLeaks – if not exactly the leaked documents themselves – to stay in the news. The fact that Assange is able to answer questions and articulate the goals of the organization also has to be regarded as a positive contribution. But then there are the charm, the hair, his troubles with the law in Sweden and not one but two women. He has become a movie spy, or perhaps there simply needed to be a movie spy for us to be able to follow these developments at all, to make the release of diplomatic cables sexy enough. He contributes to our pop understanding of a profoundly complex set of events, institutions and relationships. He’s the male lead.

Ever since his languid likeness started circulating I have associated in my head Julian Assange with Cosmo, Ben Kingsley’s character in Sneakers. The film itself is far from memorable, but Kingsley brought a most Assange-like intensity to it, an incongruous, cold charm that compensated for the lack of depth in his character. On paper he is in fact the classic idealist turned villain, a former computer hacker and student activist whose desire for justice turns into hunger for money and power. Or so it seems, for on this point the story is a little ambiguous, and as he tries to recruit again his former college pal – the truly insipid Martin Bishop, played by Robert Redford – Cosmo talks of the universal key to document decryption he has obtained as the means to master the information flow and 'destroy all records of ownership'. Bishop doesn’t buy into this instant digitised revolution, and what’s more, he retorts that the pair were never activists to begin with: they were pranksters; they were in it ‘as a way to meet girls’. Grown-up Bishop is now a security expert, commissioned to penetrate banks systems so that they can be tightened up. He's the person in charge of making sure that there will be no leaks, if you will. He’s not an idealist and furthermore he has concluded that he never was.

It is typically, brazenly, unavoidably American that Bishop should be the good guy in this scenario, whereas Cosmo, the one who wants to do away with secrecy and possibly with capitalism, simply must be the villain. The film’s peculiar resolution, played screwball-style – Bishop and his gang return the universal decryptor to the NSA, in exchange for holiday packages and a Winnebago or, in Bishop’s case, the quashing of old charges – is dispiritingly conformist, and even as Redford allows himself one last laugh by revealing that he has actually disabled the device before handing it in, it grates that he was one of the faces of progressive cinema in the Seventies and the lead in Three Days of the Condor, a film that dealt so much more subtly and critically with the idea of the invisible government and its operations.

Then again, perhaps Sneakers is simply a film of its time. It was made in 1991, after the Cold War had drawn to a close and in the era of military interventions that purported to be transparently mediated, a sort of instant spectacle, swift and surgical, where you wouldn’t need secrecy because the enemy was simply powerless to conspire; whereas Three Days of the Condor was released in 1975, after the oil crisis, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

In the famous, climactic confrontation at the end of the film between Redford's character and Higgins, the deputy CIA director, the hero’s stance against the agency’s crimes and the circumvention of the American people is challenged on the basis that in time there will be another crisis worse than the oil shock, and only then – when plans to destabilise or invade the Middle East might come to fruition – it will make sense to ask those same people, was the price paid in terms of the human casualties and the principles betrayed too high?

That happens to be today’s storyline, and if Assange is its male lead then it would seem that whether or not he’s the good guy and what he’s doing is of value would depend on whom you asked, and that the audience is divided along lines that aren’t altogether predictable. There is a lot of liberal angst about his abrasive persona, his behaviour to his associates (comparisons to The Social Network have been frequent in this respect) and perhaps more legitimately the suspicion of rape that hangs over his head; there has been in the United States a Democratic administration looking to bring charges under the Espionage Act in the person of Attorney General Eric Holder, and various Republicans suggesting that Assange is a terrorist and that nothing short of capital punishment would do; there have been David Brooks and investigative journalists Steve Coll and Marc Thiessen skewering Assange and his organization from the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. These last are the folks for whom, it seems, the appalling heights of cynicism of the last decade are a manifestation of civic pragmatism that it behoves the media to uphold, and the most abhorrent crimes against humanity in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza are not only an acceptable price to pay, but a price that should remain untallied for the sake of Western security and peace of mind.

Of Assange’s most enthusiastic supporters I have less to say, other than to observe even amongst the most carefully worded opinions some who would lapse into dismissing, discrediting, smearing his female accusers more or less out of hand, if not to concoct the wholly predictable conspiracy theories regarding their motives. But there have also been a number of substantive, acute and useful analyses. I want to single out above all Aaron Bady, who this time last week did the thing that wasn’t sexy and examined two of Assange’s own critical essays from 2006 in which the aims of the organization are laid out. It is a remarkably lucid and helpful piece of writing that I urge you to make the time to read. At a juncture when it is difficult to cultivate one’s optimism, it gives me a glimmer of hope that we might find ways to have the debate that Manning asked for, that we might give this thing the attention it deserves, because the topic is not trivial, but goes to heart of the functioning of contemporary democracies and international institutions; and in fact that looking, as Bady and Assange do, at the formal characteristics of the communication – who is allowed to talk to whom and in what voice, under what level of scrutiny – is fundamental to understanding how the debate can be framed in the first place, how we can make it about those topics that seem so often unspeakable except amongst the converted: the reforms, a critique of imperialism that connects with a broad enough public to make a difference, how to restrict the capacity of our nations to wage wars, be they economic or military.

But then of course that glimmer is extinguished as soon as you let your mind wander back to the source of the information and to private Manning, who at this moment is isolated and allowed to speak to exactly no-one except his interrogators. We’d do well to ask what kind of society allows for people who aspire to be elected to the highest office in the land to suggest that such a person is the villain and ought to be executed; how is that public conversation framed, and how did it get that way? To make matters worse, not even his supporters are allowed to speak openly of what they think of his (alleged) actions, for implying that he is guilty of the leak would hurt his cause. We find ourselves therefore in the not a little Orwellian situation whereby the act of exposing war crimes cannot be spoken about, is pushed outside of discourse itself, and supporting the individual suspected of this act of bravery requires first of all that the bravery be stripped off of him. We stand by private Manning for the thing that we cannot say that he has done. In this film he has become the extra, the guy in the non-speaking role, lip-synching to a song that isn’t there.