Review: Surveillance, Society, Culture

Rezension: zusammen mit 

Florian Zappe and Andrew S. Gross (eds). 2020. Surveillance / Society / Culture. (Contributions to English and American Studies, Band 3). Berlin: Peter Lang.

von Nicole Falkenhayner, Freiburg

The increasing awareness of the saturation of contemporary culture and life-worlds by technological surveillance has spawned a heightening of interest in this context in various fields of literary and cultural studies in recent years. While the collection CTRL_SPACE: Rhetorics of Surveillance form Bentham to Big Brother (Levine et al.), published in 2002, for a long time constituted the go-to resource for both students and researchers interested in an overview of surveillance from a cultural historical perspective, the field has recently expanded internationally with the publication of a number of edited collections focusing on the role of surveillance in literature, art, film and other popular cultural phenomena, such as, for example, Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves (Flynn and McKay), from 2017, or Narrating Surveillance – Überwachen Erzählen (Wasihun), published in 2019.

The collection by Zappe and Gross under consideration here continues this trend, but also expands the discussion due to a timely inclusion of posthumanist perspectives and a focus on agency. What all of the mentioned volumes have in common is that they investigate cultural products and phenomena as venues towards a broadening of the understanding and the critical reflection of technological surveillance as a ubiquitous aspect of the contemporary situation at large. One problem that, explicitly or implicitly, continually resurfaces in this context is the question of agency in a fundamentally posthuman life-world, that means, an assemblage in which human identities, needs and desires, and surveillant information technology are positioned to one another in a field in which agency is increasingly distributed between humans and machines. This is a situation that has fundamental effects on human identity construction and in which cultural studies, as Zappe and Gross write in their introduction, have an important part to play in further developing a “common language” to analyse “the culture of surveillance” in which we live (Zappe and Gross 15-16). It is therefore highly commendable that Zappe and Gross’s volume tackles the important question of agency explicitly. Consequently, the first of the three topical sub-sections of the collection is titled “Agencies”, and includes three insightful contributions on culture’s complex relationship with surveillance (Taureck), a critical posthumanist exploration of forms in which human actors are entangled with and/or against surveillance technology due to practices such as sousveillance and lifelogging (Zappe), and the phenomena of self-monitoring and confessional culture (Harju).

The second sub-section, entitled “Stories and songs” is more similar in outline and research interest to the two other collections by Flynn and McKay and Wasihun mentioned above, and includes case studies on two contemporary American dystopian novels (Haase, Däwes), as well as an exploration of the complex play between the hiding and revealing of secrecy as a literary strategy in Jennifer Eger’s novella Black Box, which was first published as a series of tweets in 2012 (Gross). Gross’ contribution argues that by employing a strategy of “clandestinity” (119), which designates the hiding of the secret in the digital public sphere, Eger’s work creates a refuge from surveillance in the midst of it, innovating the spy novel genre. The last essay in this section focusses on rap as one of the genres of popular culture which has a most salient relationship with surveillance (Järvenpää). While the author states that this relationship has often been a focus of both popular and scholarly discussions of hip hop (137), it has not necessarily been regarded often within the context of surveillance studies or cultural studies of surveillance, so that Järvenpää draws attention to a popular cultural form that can indeed be seen as its own, very specific, “culture of surveillance”.

The last sub-section of the collection, “Visualities”, opens with an essay that investigates the relationship of the visual and surveillance by discussing the complex display of self and work with a case study on Andy Warhol and Ai WeiWei (Davies), followed by a lucid analysis of paranoia and surveillance in the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Especially intriguing in this section is Morrison’s essay on the “Mythologies of Violence in American Police Videos”, which reveals the entanglement of fictional and factual visual codes in the iconification of violence, showing how much cinematic codes pre-shape the (self)representation of American Police – an issue that is highly topical concerning current discussions of police violence, not only in the USA. Concerning the overall shape and organization of interdisciplinary edited volumes, it is conventional wisdom that the inclusion of the work of experts in various fields, considering various kinds of material selected for case studies from different theoretical perspectives, is often these collections’ greatest strength and weakness simultaneously. In this context, it has to be noted that this collection has achieved a high degree of both conciseness and comprehensiveness due to the following features: All of the contributions are of a high quality, displaying up-to-date research in their respective fields as well as up-to-date knowledge of the relevant discussions in surveillance studies generally, they are framed by a just as up-to-date and well-argued introduction, the case studies are all contemporary, and they are organized in an intelligent manner. That said, this collection will be of interest to both cultural studies researchers venturing into the field of surveillance for the first time, not only in English and American Studies, as well as seasoned surveillance studies scholars interested in developing a “common language” for the discussion of the contemporary “culture of surveillance” within an expanding field.

Works Cited

  • Flynn, Susan and Antonia McKay (eds). 2017. Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Levine, Thomas Y., Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel (eds). 2002. CTRL_SPACE: Rhetorics of Surveillance form Bentham to Big Brother. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Wasihun, Betiel (ed.). 2019. Narrating Surveillance – Überwachung Erzählen. Baden-Baden: Ergon.