Oliver Leistert: From Protest to Surveillance – The Political Rationality of Mobile Media. Modalities of Neoliberalism, 2013 New York / Frankfurt/M, Peter Lang
von Marta Brzezinska, Warschau
Oliver Leistert in his highly ambitious From Protest to Surveillance – The Political Rationality of Mobile Media. Modalities of Neoliberalism reflects the position of mobile media (and the omnipresence of the mobile technology, particularly mobile phones) against a background and in the connection with social construction of using (and understanding) technology, communication issues, relations of power and – what is most important – governmentality as the key concept in the whole book. Regarding this From Protest to Surveillance treats governmentality as a tool to interpret the sphere of mobile technology at the point of contact between the society and the power, with the involvement of political rationality.
The author, being aware of the extent of the subject, narrows it down to key aspects and theirs layers, which he carefully exposes. Basically these are: surveillance and protest. The question of surveillance at the beginning is not in the foreground in the study, somehow not evident at the first sight, but it deeply penetrates the whole work. The so-called domestication of technology, and as the result – domestication of surveillance (and its normality, or even banality) –, the issue of its visibility known from works by David Lyon or Daniel Trottier can be traced here from a different angle, i.e. from the perspective of social sciences and politics. As a result the reader receives an interesting tension between surveillance, empowerment and various communities.
The book consists of three parts (“Play of Freedom”, “The Liberal Paradox”, “Bottom-Up Strategies”) and takes the reader through a variety of complex issues – collected and arranged in relatively short chapters. Each of them seems to be more a kind of separate and independent article, so From Protest to Surveillance… can also be read selectively.
The first part “Play of Freedom”, is an interesting study of the tension between the state and civil society in which the author situates the role of mobile media:
“Mobile media as a political technology of civil society, as a governmental technology, is a heterogeneous ensemble that adapts and is flexible, and has produced specific practices, by which it can be identified. (…) Invoking the image of a productive self, whose communication needs are structured by the paradigm of circulation, mobile media is a strong facilitator of subjectivity production and rationalized practices.” (p. 27).
Mobile media belong to the world of globalism and can be perceived as a medium of liberality, technology and politics. Reconstructed in the book the case study of the Lawyers Movement in Pakistan is a good example of using new media and mobile telephony (text messages) in mobilization of the protest, organizing the mass actions, or – simple – as an activator. As the author states: “Mobile media increases the self-perception as a righteous protester.”(p. 99).
Part two of the book “The Liberal Paradox” takes the reader closer to the subject of surveillance. The author distinguishes between various types of surveillance, traces the similarities and differences between them. A short, condensed and – what is important – critical introduction to the subject through the lens of surveillance studies includes references to (among others): Michel Foucault, David Lyon, David Murakami Wood and Sandra Braman. Leistert’s surveillance perspective in relation to governing is written with the emphasis on the inner character of invigilation. Surveillance is spreading inside the rules and system, is not an outside or practice, which works separately and independently. “The rather empty term «surveillance society» can be avoided by way of a recurrence to the liberal paradox – the provision of freedom and its excess in control – to understand that surveillance is not simply an effect of modernity, but can be seen as a historical development that is an immanent part of liberal rule.(…) Mobile media is therefore also a global carrier of securitization. Mobile media globalizes surveillance.” (p. 121).
Surveillance is described here in close connection with the systems of power and mobile media, in specific entanglement with the dynamics of a very different notion of freedom. Leistert here returns to the concept of the panopticon to emphasize the changes and processes in the very essence of modern surveillance. We are now far beyond the metaphor of the panopticon, in the world of various types of surveillance, dataveillance and panspectron. Today’s surveillance is a part of telecommunication. This apparently simple statement carries complex consequences.
An interesting term the author refers to is “flecks of identity” (after Matthew Fuller) – which are used to name the elements of any database – objects that can be associated with the individual (just a simple number, or a document). “Which flecks of identity are queried and how they are combined is perspectival and depends on the security query done in the database and the algorithmic operations triggered. In the end the subject is flagged or not flagged.” (p.141). The problem of data retention seen in the perspective of power reveals interesting contradictions: “Neo-sovereignty employs these technologies for the production of illiberality, to shutdown circulation for those identified beyond the threshold” – writes Leistert, and continues: “This at the same time is an immanence and an excess of liberal governing: the articulation of control, which supplements the apparatuses of security. Therefore the «neo» or new modality of sovereignty: it is molded into the liberal paradox itself.” (p. 147).
Part three of the book “Bottom-Up Strategies”, is set up as a summary and suggests further fascinating paths through spheres of technology and society, machines and its influences on concepts and practices. In this his interviews with people working in the field of communication and with all those who could be named leaders are strongly presented. The focus on practical aspects and individual (as well as community and movements) perspectives will return at the end of the book in the form of an interesting appendix. They expand the already extensive areas of the Leistert’s study into case studies and examples of practices of mobile media involved in protests. Interviews reflect the ambition of the book to be a global study (fragments of interviews come from different countries like Spain, India or South Korea).
Without any doubt Oliver Leistert’s book proves vital to the field of contemporary aspects of surveillance, the power and media and in the same time provokes to discuss theoretical perspectives on dimensions of modern society.
Marta Brzezinska, Warschau