Surveillance | Society | Culture

by Florian Zappe (Volume editor) Andrew S. Gross (Volume editor)
©2020 Conference proceedings 246 Pages
Open Access


What only a few decades ago would have been considered a totalitarian nightmare seems to have become reality: Surveillance practices and technologies have infiltrated all aspects of our lives, forcing us to reconsider established notions of privacy, subjectivity, and the status of the individual in society. The United States is central to contemporary concerns about surveillance. American companies are at the forefront of developing surveillance technologies; and government agencies, in the name of security and law and order, are monitoring our words and actions more than ever before. This book brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to explore the implications of what many consider to be a far-reaching social, political, and cultural transformation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. Agencies
  • Surveillance – A Complex Relationship
  • Gazing Back at the Monster – A Critical Posthumanist Intervention on Surveillance Culture, Sousveillance and the Lifelogged Self
  • Too Much Information: Self-Monitoring and Confessional Culture
  • II. Stories and songs
  • Death by Data: Identification and Dataveillance in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story
  • Flickers of Vision: Surveillance and the Uncertainty Paradigm in Dave Eggers’s The Circle
  • The Black Box of Humanism: Surveillance, the Spy Narrative, and Literary Form
  • Rap vs. Big Brother: The Conscious and the Comical
  • III. Visualities
  • The Art of Surveillance: Surveying the Lives and Works of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei
  • Paranoia and Surveillance in Andrew Dominik’s Film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  • Mythologies of Violence in American Police Videos
  • Afterword
  • About the Authors
  • Index

Florian Zappe and Andrew S. Gross


On October 11, 1986, the German daily die tageszeitung ran a short article entitled “No Such Agency,” written by the iconic media theorist Friedrich Kittler. Initially commissioned as a review of the German translation of James Bamford’s investigative bestseller Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization (1982), Kittler’s text provided a concise yet striking reflection about the impact of the digital revolution—still in its infancy at that time—on the everyday practices of the intelligence business. With unabashed fascination, Kittler describes the National Security Agency, then largely obscure to the general public, as a highly efficient cloak-and-dagger force operating in the shadow of smaller but more glamorous agencies:

The National Security Agency—the USA’s surveillance institution—is the only one among all government agencies and intelligence service bureaucracies enjoying the right to deny its own existence. A secret squared prevents information squared, as president Truman decreed in 1952. ‘No Such Agency’ or ‘Never Say Anything’ are just two of the decryptions of the acronym NSA (not lacking intra-agency humor).

An organisation with 70,000 people surveilling—cautiously estimated—approximately every thousandth telecommunication message on the planet with spy satellites or radio relay systems, and using Platform, a network of 52 globally linked computer systems, to automatically decipher, store and evaluate them, leaves public relations to the CIA and its 4000 agents. (Kittler)

Now, thirty years later, in the post-Snowden era, the thought of the NSA monitoring merely a tiny fraction of the entirety of global communication seems like a lost Eden of privacy. The dizzying development of surveillance technologies has turned Kittler’s prediction that “one day, those 99.9% of the data flow that still run past the NSA might become graspable and evaluable” into an uncanny reality (Kittler).

What Kittler could not foresee was that surveillance would go far beyond the comprehensive interception of global communication by a governmental agency. Given the accumulation and commercialization of personal data by private companies—aided by advances in digital data ←9 | 10→mining, biometrics, and social network exhibitionism—it is hard to dispute the claim that we have grown accustomed to living in what sociologist David Lyon calls a surveillance society. What the liberal-humanist consensus in Western democracies once considered a totalitarian nightmare has now become reality: surveillance practices and technologies have infiltrated all aspects of our lives and caused fundamental shifts in established notions of privacy and subjectivity, thus altering the status of the individual within the social realm.

Affecting issues of security, power, technology, economy, social control, and individuality, surveillance is a topic of extreme social, political, and ethical ambivalence. Shean P. Hier and Joshua Greenberg aptly note that today

[s];urveillance functions ambiguously in everyday life to enable efficiency, convenience and security while simultaneously constraining the opportunities and life chances of individuals and social groups with shared characteristics—be they economic, sexual, radical, geographic or cultural. The ambiguous nature of surveillance also facilitates the penetration of information and data gathering/storage systems into the deeper recesses of everyday life, and the pervasiveness of surveillance systems, although put in place to increase safety and provide security, tends to generate greater levels of insecurity, anxiety and fear. (5)

Defenders of surveillance justify it as a means of providing security. Detractors point out that it produces the opposite: insecurity and fear. For half a century, Orwell’s Big Brother has symbolized this fear. Personifying the power beyond the gaze, Big Brother represented a clearly locatable, hierarchical and oppressive surveillance apparatus looking down on ‘little brothers,’ or citizens, from above. However, the ubiquitous dispersion of contemporary surveillance seems to have rendered Big Brother obsolete. Nowadays, as Garrett Stewart remarks,

the onetime etymon of the verb survey (the sighting of sur-veiller) has itself become, half a millennium after its introduction into English, a nearly dead metaphor. Monitoring is no longer necessarily rooted in things over-seen, super-vised. The new idea of surveillance taps a generalized source of anxiety about what can instead be intercepted in its coded digital form, mined, tabulated, aggregated. Privacy has found new ways to be violated, both by military-industrial and by corporate prying, all eyes aside. (xi)

Visual technology, such as the two-way telescreen that Orwell foresaw as an immanent invention, can seem almost quaint in the age of digital ←10 | 11→data mining. In 1984, Orwell’s protagonist learns that Big Brother isn’t an actual person doing the watching, but merely an image concealing a group of governing elites. Now even images and watching seem outdated.

Surveillance, in other words, has gone beyond the limits of the visual—and for that matter beyond the audio and the graphic. Its impact and etiology also extend beyond the traditional realm of politics and the boundaries of the nation state. As a result, the critical discussion has had to move beyond the boundaries of established disciplines. Surveillance Studies—a broad interdisciplinary web of research perspectives and methodologies rather than a clear-cut academic discipline—tries to assess the complexities of surveillance from a variety of angles. However, the field is, as David Rosen and Aaron Santesso have argued,

at once burgeoning and strangely narrow in focus. […] This narrowness is partly methodological, a result of the way the field has constituted itself: it is dominated by a small number of disciplines, pretty much the disciplines one would expect. Political science, communication theory, and sociology are all well represented, but the dominant player, with the deepest institutional support, is legal studies. (2–3)

The usual disciplinary suspects try to respond to a rapidly changing situation, but they bring with them a set of fairly stable methodological perspectives and concerns. One emphasis has been on questions of legality, with scholars exploring the impact of surveillance on political freedom. Other scholars focus on grassroots resistance movements, such as recent attempts to turn the technology of surveillance against the police—a technique known as “sousveillance” or watching from below. Still others look at corporate data mining and the widespread public enthusiasm for social media, noting that “the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed” (Bauman and Lyon 23).

This volume, which consists of selected papers from the Surveillance|Society|Culture conference held at the University of Göttingen in 2016, attempts to widen the scope of surveillance studies by bringing philosophy and cultural studies into the discussion. This approach is not unprecedented. Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon’s Liquid Surveillance, for instance, draws on canonical works such as Hamlet to illustrate how the “watch” has moved from the walls of the city into the interior of society since early modern times (103). Culture, analyzed in this way, can ←11 | 12→serve as a benchmark for historical change. Looking at contemporary art, Dietmar Kammerer’s Bilder der Überwachung argues that effectiveness of surveillance depends on representations of surveillance: even images supposed to be critical, such as graffiti parodying CCTV cameras at work, add to the general impression of being watched (10). This type of approach measures the ideological significance of culture in terms of compliance and resistance. The essays that make up this volume build on these and other important predecessors, analyzing developments in surveillance society by reflecting on surveillance culture. They explore how cultural artifacts represent and help bring about historical change; how art shapes and reflects personal attitudes and political ideologies; how specific cultural practices are involved in forming group and individual identities. The essays also demonstrate how cultural forms interact with specific media, such as computers and cameras, in order to alter information flows, challenge dominant perspectives, and negotiate the space of the private within an increasingly monitored public sphere.

In analyzing the relation between culture and society, our contributors build on decades of work in surveillance studies. They also demonstrate how cultural and philosophical approaches can provide insight into the development of surveillance studies as a field. The staying power of specific narratives and metaphors, for instance, can reveal a lot about critical biases and ongoing concerns. If Big Brother has, in a sense, been exorcised from surveillance technology, his ghost continues to haunt the way surveillance is studied and imagined. With good reason. Government surveillance continues to have an enormous impact on, for instance, international mobility, especially since 9/11. The persistence of Big Brother in the literature registers this, but it also serves as a reminder that surveillance studies emerged from the Cold War critique of totalitarianism. There was a time when it seemed that the worst excesses of surveillance—spies and denunciation—were committed by the enemies of open society. Some midcentury commentators raised concerns, especially during the McCarthy trials, that liberal freedoms were being sacrificed in the fight to defend liberal democracy. However, there was nevertheless a broad Cold War consensus that open society had to be defended against its enemies, and that it was culture’s job to reaffirm the importance of individual freedom (Gross 11).

←12 |

Liberal concerns about individual freedoms are not outdated. Debates about ‘wiretapping,’ face recognition software, and the presence of CCTV cameras are still current in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere. However, the humanist-liberal paradigm tends to reduce surveillance to a political issue within the larger context of human rights, characterizing it as an undemocratic, oppressive technique used by totalitarian regimes to silence oppositional voices. After a few decades of the Cold War, some scholars began to question this ‘us vs. them’ characterization. Those aligning themselves with the New Left, often through their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and in protests against the Vietnam War, began to see liberalism as a version of totalitarianism, or at least as existing on a continuum with it. Even the most outspoken defenders of open society began to note that surveillance was engrained in the everyday life of liberal democracy. Sometimes it was deployed by officials trying to stymie protests, but it also operated through practices that did not seem coercive, at least not on the surface. Surveillance, in other words, could no longer be exclusively characterized as a ‘top-down’ system of oppression benefiting the holders of political power. Rather, it was an implicit feature of the structures of liberal society, which maintained their hegemony by encouraging citizens to monitor themselves.

This shift in critical perspective involved a move away from Big Brother to the Panopticon—a new metaphor that was actually an old name for a prison that was never built. Michel Foucault saw Jeremy Bentham’s plan for a ‘better’ institution that would force inmates to behave by making them feel like they were always being watched, as a blueprint for modern society. All modern institutions, from penitentiaries to schools, train inmates to monitor themselves. The implication was that open society was actually a more effective, because more hidden, system of total control. This argument resonated with scholars who were already suspicious of the lengths liberalism was willing to go to in defense of nominally liberal freedoms. However, it is Foucault who deserves credit for showing that the polymorphic practice of surveillance is not necessarily a totalitarian aberration of but a characteristic feature implicit in every variation of modernity. It is not Big Brother who is watching us but a multiplicity of, as Foucault famously phrased it in Discipline and Punish, “centres of observation disseminated throughout society” (208).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (December)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020.246 pp., 14 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Florian Zappe (Volume editor) Andrew S. Gross (Volume editor)

Florian Zappe is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Göttingen. His academic interests include 20th- and 21st-century literature, poststructuralism and Critical Theory, the theory and history of the Avant-Garde, and the history of European and American cinema. Andrew S. Gross is a professor of North American Studies at the University of Göttingen. His areas of interest include travel literature, representations of the Holocaust, modernist poetry, and the cultural history of the Cold War.


Title: Surveillance | Society | Culture
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