Katherine Verdery


On her book My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File

Cover Interview of January 23, 2019

The wide angle

The book is highly relevant to contemporary life, in which forms of surveillance have become ubiquitous, although they differ from the ones I describe. It encourages readers to ask how these various forms differ—such as, does postmodern surveillance create identity “doubles” (doppelgangers), as communist surveillance did? What forms of knowledge do the two types rely on, and what are the implications for our social relations with others? Those interested in Foucauldian ideas about surveillance will find here some thought-provoking comparisons.

Anthropologists rarely find themselves with sources of this kind. How did I come to acquire mine? Following the overthrow of communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989, a number of the successor governments instituted a process generally known as “lustration” (purification), to prevent people who had profited from the communist regime from also doing so in the new system. Lustration involved opening the archives of the secret police, both making them visible to the public and enabling people who had been under surveillance to track their own relationship to the apparatus of repression. This process began in Romania in 1999. Having completed a book for which I had used the secret police archives, I let an archivist persuade me to apply for my own file, though I had no clear idea of how I would use it. Once I received it (all 2,781 pages) I thought I might write a memoir of my field experience. The memoir morphed into something more complex—part memoir, part social science exploration of surveillance itself.