Surveillance—Dossier—Exposé: The Infrastructure and Technique of the Anticommunist Blacklist

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:30 AM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Michael McVicar, Florida State University
This paper explores the material history of the infrastructure of private blacklisting organizations that developed in the United States during the twentieth century. Its argument develops through the study of three intertwined practices—political surveillance, dossier compilation and indexing, and public exposé—to consider the relationship between practical techniques of blacklisting and the epistemological assumptions underlying the collection, sorting, and publication of information about alleged left-wing subversives. The argument of the paper is indebted to recent research in media theory and anthropology that attends to the significance of record-keeping, document archiving, and reproduction in bureaucratic organizations.

Part one explores the origin of the “Spider Web Chart” (1924), a graphic visualization purporting to map the putative connections between various Communist front organizations and voluntary associations. The chart, an infamous example of "guilt-by-association" anti-Communist activism, represented nearly a decade's worth of political surveillance conducted by the federal Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation and U.S. military intelligence. Next, the paper turns to the intricate interplay between dossier compilation and file indexing pioneered by state and federal legislative investigative committees and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by private detective firms. Through a comparison of the private/public file systems collected by J. B. Matthews and Karl Baarslag, this section illuminates the techniques of inscription and file structure necessary for assembling the dossiers used for political blacklisting. The paper culminates with a discussion of the commodification and democratization of blacklisting at the height of the Cold War. Through the public activities of a number of right-wing activists, the techniques of surveillance and dossier building developed into do-it-yourself hobbies popularized by manuals marketed by anti-communist religious organizations in the 1950s and 1960s.

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