Swartz, Anonymous, and the De-Institutionalization of the Supreme Court

Curator's Note

In January, 2011, computer whiz and Internet activist Aaron Swartz was arrested for breaking and entering into an M.I.T. building and later indicted for “Wire Fraud,” “Computer Fraud,” and “Unlawfully Obtaining Information from a Protected Computer,” among other felonies.  Two years later, in January, 2013, Swartz took his own life.  As a means of bringing attention to perceived overreach of the U.S. federal justice system in dealing with Swartz's charges, the Internet activist group Anonymous hacked the U.S. Sentencing Commission website and, among other statements, claimed to have released nine "information warheads" each designated the names of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices that would be triggered should they deem continuing reformation efforts of the justice system as inadequate.

Curiously, Swartz had not had any direct dealings with the Supreme Court.  So why would Anonymous, a well-informed group with supposedly many members across the globe, take it upon themselves to draw clear lines of connections between Swartz and the Supreme Court?  Ostensibly, their naming of digital warheads using Justices' names creates caricatures of these figures much like the way the Enola Gay’s atomic bomb is named “Little Boy” or the way some torpedoes are painted with comical shark faces.  Anonymous casts a spotlight on the facetious nature of the naming as hiding something much more insidious than that which they accuse of the Supreme Court, not unlike the aforementioned naming of “Little Boy” hides its eventual mission of decimating Hiroshima and its civilians.

And it works because the very idea of the U.S. Supreme Court has become more susceptible to scrutiny.  Whereas once we were content with having previous iterations work in some secluded metaphorical basement away from our attention, the spectacle of nominations and confirmations of women and people of color as Justices, as well as the increasing media hype of the legal system (“the O.J. effect”), have now doomed them with visibility, rendering their previously fixed and unquestionable existence to be more culturally porous to meanings and criticisms.  In effect, Anonymous has used this newfound permeability of the Supreme Court and the now apparent Saussurian arbitrariness of linguistic signs—that is, by slapping individual Justice names onto digital warheads—to dismantle an institution that was previously untouchable by cultural mis/use.


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