Susan Flynn and Antonia Mackay (eds). Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
von Birgit Däwes, Flensburg
From Jeremy Bentham’s famous architectural model of the panopticon in 1791 to the twenty-first century digital grids of monitoring or policing urban landscapes or ‘smart’ cities, the phenomenon of surveillance has always had an intricate relationship with dimensions of space. In the twenty-first century especially, public space has become profoundly impacted by practices of surveillance. Not only have material spaces been permeated by an increasing presence of CCTV cameras, drones, and GPS tracking devices, but the invisible technologies of cyberspace—both governmental and commercial—have crucially altered the reality of human encounters. It is thus interesting to note that the title of this intriguingly diverse collection of twelve critical essays, Spaces of Surveillance, is used figuratively rather than literally: the volume is concerned not so much with the geographical, material, or topological aspects of contemporary surveillance culture, but with its metaphorical “spaces” as sites of imagery production in literature, film, the visual arts, in social, medical, and political contexts.
Edited by British literary and cultural studies scholars Susan Flynn (London) and Antonia Mackay (Oxford), this volume takes its cue from two 2016 art exhibitions—Laura Poitras’s “Astro Noise” and Charlotte Cotton’s “Public, Private, Secret”—in order to highlight the interrelations between space, identity, and surveillance, and more specifically the ways in which spaces affect identities when the institutional system of surveillance or “sousveillance” (Steven Mann) are added to the mix. The agents of these processes of monitoring have clearly shifted: “Orwell’s Big Brother,” Flynn and Mackay argue, “is no longer an individual watching our every move, rather it is a collective consciousness maintained and perpetuated by our need to feel constantly connected through technology, where our engagement with contemporary technologies alters the multiple sets of social relations in which we exist” (5). As most studies do, Flynn and Mackay also begin with George Orwell, but they also acknowledge that “paranoia is futile” since “the matrix is already internalized” (16), thus underlining the necessity to go beyond Orwell in a time when we have all become not only complicit in, but co-constructive of, the new modes of living in a surveillance society, furthering the advancement of facial and speech recognition technologies, and helping to maximize data influx by posting tagged pictures online or by talking and freely providing speech patterns to Siri or Alexa.
As twenty-first century modes of surveillance, especially the invisible generation and harvesting of big data in cyberspace, become increasingly difficult to spot and describe, this volume’s engagement with the cultural imaginary of surveillance is a most welcome move. Whereas the field of surveillance studies has been largely relying on disciplines such as sociology, law, and political science, literature, film, and works of art have much to contribute to an analysis of the cultural patterns in which we frame surveillance today. The incisive theoretical introduction and the essays collected here, written by scholars from the UK, the U.S., Canada, Qatar, Hong Kong, Italy, and Poland, thus fill a research gap and provide excellent groundwork for interdisciplinary discussions on the role of identity formation in such a rapidly changing technological environment. The volume is subdivided into three parts on “Art, Photography, and Film” (the most comprehensive section with five chapters), “Literature” (four chapters), and the less terminologically coherent final section on “States, Place, and Bodies” (three chapters), complemented by an Afterword written by Vian Bakir. The contributions’ merit is at least threefold: in their theoretical outlook, they (more or less) revisit and, at least partly, challenge established theoretical discourses (by Foucault, Lyon, Staples, and others) and take up commonly used concepts of voyeurism, “scopophilia” (Laura Mulvey), “liquid surveillance” (Zygmunt Bauman), or sousveillance to zoom in on the “cultural products which articulate contemporary experiences of surveillance” (10); in their analytical work, they highlight the importance of cultural and literary artifacts as signifiers in—and thus highly generative forces of—the development of new discourses on surveillance; and in their international and interdisciplinary combination of approaches, they allow for a broadening of surveillance studies to include dialogue across the boundaries of academic methodologies.
The range of topics and critical angles is richly diverse: in the first part, Amy Christmas opens the discussion on “Art, Photography, and Film” with a look at multimedia artist Jill Magid’s works Lobby 7 (1999) and Monitoring Desire (2000); Jaclyn Meloche analyzes Susan Collins’s “digital visualization” process in the series Glenlandia (2005-2007); William Thomas McBride offers an intriguing reading of Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013) in the context of artificial intelligence and privacy; Frances Pheasant-Kelly demonstrates patterns of state surveillance in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty; and Simon Bacon closes the section with a highly original approach to contemporary surveillance practices through the lens of what he calls “the vampiric gaze” (116). While this chapter is dismissed as “far-fetched” by Vian Bakir in the Afterword, Bacon’s essay actually exposes an intriguing continuity in the use of specific discourses—from the field of the gothic tradition—that cover a historical range from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) to contemporary films such as Derek Lee and Clif Prowse’s Afflicted (2013) and the Spierig brothers’ Departed (2009).
The book’s second section, on literature, addresses different literary genres, including novels and short stories, but also poetry. In an opening chapter that is probably closest to the volume’s title, Alison Lutton reads Bret Easton Ellis’s 1994 short story collection The Informers (1994) and his most recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010), as a rewriting of “the urban landscape of Los Angeles” as a unique space of surveillance, “a site of reciprocal seeing and watching, which allows its protagonists a kind of integrated relationship with their surroundings” (134). In the context of the new gaming technologies of the 1990s, Caleb Andrew Milligan uses Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1984)—written in the year that George Orwell projected—as a template of “surveillance through sousveillance” (127), in which avatars are used as extensions of subjects. This process and use of new technologies, according to Milligan, ostensibly enhances agency but in fact contributes to a “neo-panopticon” (150). Virginia Pignagnoli then describes the dystopian visions of three more recent novels, Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013), Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010), and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (2015) with regard to their ethical dimensions, their diagnostic benefits and also their aesthetic flaws. The next and final chapter of this section, Jeffrey Clapp’s “Citizen: Claudia Rankine, From the First to the Second Person,” is dedicated to Caribbean-American writer Claudia Rankine’s poetry collections Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) and Citizen (2014), which develop a critique of racialized surveillance and its impact on contemporary (American) democracy.
In a smooth transition, the next section begins with Sam Tecle’s, Tapo Chimbganda’s, Francesca D’Amico’s and Yafet Tewelde’s “Castrating Blackness,” another investigation into the intersections between surveillance and race. Tecle et al. argue that Canada’s multiculturalism policy has actually glossed over a politics of racial profiling and surveillance that has continuously marked Black people as “problems to integration, unity, and national identity” (189). Mary Ryan then focuses on sousveillance culture and its potential for civic engagement. Departing from the work of media artist / life logger Alberto Frigo, she includes writing such as David Brin’s novel Earth (1990), Robert Sawyer’s trilogy Neanderthal Parallax (2002-2003), John Crowley’s short story “Snow” (1985), Chris Stross’s novels Halting State (2007) and Rule 34 (2011), as well as Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days. Susan Flynn’s article on medical surveillance, the clinical gaze, and a “regime” of personal health monitoring (239) then closes the section before the Afterword, by Vian Bakir (whose affiliation at Bangor University is, unfortunately, not listed in the book), concludes by responding to the individual contributions and embedding them in a theoretical summary.
In spite of a number of avoidable errors in this Afterword (the layout, the missing list of Works Cited, the unclear use of italics, the missing quotation marks in some quotes, Dave Eggers’s name being misspelled, or typing errors), the chapter provides a useful conclusion by framing the analyses within the terminological and conceptual context of “veillance” (Steven Mann) and within the thematic perspectives of recent academic work and opinion polls. Vian Bakir also lists some of Edward Snowden’s more interesting revelations and aptly summarizes, after reviewing all contributions, that “popular culture responds to ubiquitous surveillance in a dystopian register” (258) but also “contributes both to public literacy and collective imaginaries on such issues” (259).
In all, while the coherence of some of the chapters’ focal points is not always overly clear, this overall well-written collection demonstrates the major role that literary and cultural artifacts play for the ways in which we code and understand surveillance and thus constitutes an important contribution to the field of surveillance studies. It includes intriguingly new perspectives, especially on such works of art and literature that have received less attention than, for instance, Orwell’s or Eggers’s novels. In its diversity of contributions, Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves is thus—like David Rosen and Aaron Santesso’s excellent The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood (Yale UP, 2013) and Peter Marks’s Imagining Surveillance: Eutopian and Dystopian Literature and Film (Edinburgh UP, 2015)—certainly an enrichment to any bookshelf dedicated to the study of surveillance from angles of literary and cultural criticism.
Birgit Däwes (Europa-Universität Flensburg)