Surveillance | Society | Culture

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

Table Of Content

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).

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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).

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This is a description of disciplinary society. It is important to note, however, that discipline not only controls people but in some sense manufactures them. Gilles Deleuze begins his famous “Postscript on the Societies of Control” with a summary of Foucault’s account of subject formation, or the social production of individuals, as a series of passages through various institutions that offers no outside:

The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first, the family; then the school (‘you are no longer in your family’); then the barracks (‘you are no longer in school’); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment. (3)

Within these “closed environments,” surveillance practices are not merely oppressive but productive, molding the individual according to the dominant norms of hegemonic culture. Surveillance, by this account, is not only a matter of other people watching us; it shapes identity by training us to look at ourselves in certain ways.

Though the Panopticon still plays an important role in surveillance studies, it too is obsolete. As Deleuze points out in his postscript, the transition from modernity to postmodernity leads to a severe crisis of normative institutions. In the late 20th century, “everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It is only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking on the door. These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies” (3). The society of control is different from what Foucault called disciplinary society, and similar to Lyon’s surveillance society, in that modern “closed environments” are replaced by what Deleuze calls the “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control” (4). In this context, surveillance practices become detached from the institutions and even further dispersed within the socio-cultural realm, infiltrating more areas of private, public and professional interaction, where they perform more functions, serve an increasing number of masters, and utilize a broader variety of strategies and technologies to exert a more total (but not exactly totalitarian) influence on how we conduct our lives.

It is difficult to come up with a single metaphor to describe the complexity of surveillance in control society. The historical shift from discipline ←14 | 15→to control calls for new theoretical perspectives going beyond the analytical limits of Big Brother and the Panopticon, though both remain important points of reference for contemporary scholars. The most prominent of these post-Foucauldian analytical concepts are Thomas Mathiesen’s “synopticon,” Zygmunt Bauman’s “post-panopticon” (cf. Bauman 11) or, more recently, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “cryptopticon,” in which, as he argues in his book Googlization of Everything, “we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled—we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance. Instead, we don’t seem to care” (112). The post-panoptic theoretical shift tries to capture the moment when disciplinary institutions are supplemented—and sometimes supplanted by—over-sharing, consumerism, and indifference.

How to even talk about surveillance when people voluntarily share information about themselves? Sociologists have proposed various models for making sense of this complicity. Indeed, surveillance studies, as we understand it today, has strong roots in sociology, which early on grasped the post-Orwellian necessity to, as Gary T. Marx put it,

go beyond the association of surveillance only with spies, police, political abuses and the state. To do that required a comprehensive set of content-neutral concepts to rein in the rich variation and social and moral complexity, paradoxes and contradictions of the topic. Explanation and evaluation required a common language for the identification and measurement of surveillance’s fundamental properties and contexts. (xxii)

But sociology’s concentration on social structure, sometimes using quantitative and empirical methods, does not seem fully adequate to the task of providing the “common language” Marx calls for. David Lyon suggests that one way of rendering the polymorphous and elusive socio-cultural phenomenon of surveillance tangible is by analyzing its representation(s) in popular culture and the arts:

While surveillance offers popular culture some of its dominant themes, our experience of surveillance is itself shaped in part by popular culture. Thus, on the one hand, we have to examine what sorts of surveillance are portrayed in novels, films, song lyrics and other media, and how these may interact with extraordinary or everyday kinds of surveillance, with what consequences; and, on the other, it is necessary to look at how popular culture influences surveillance. (141–42)

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Cultural artifacts can serve as second order observations which, in the Luhmannian sense, observe “only how others observe” (Luhmann 62). Thus their analysis and interpretations can help us to understand the apparatuses, conditions, dynamics, ideologies, and above all the experiences characteristic of surveillance society.

But there is also a flip side. To the same extent that these works have the potential to serve as critical reflections on or even creative forms of resistance against surveillance systems, they can also trick us into complicity. According to Lyon,

[s];tudying popular culture may help us learn about surveillance in more than one sense. On the one hand, insights into the inner workings of surveillance may be gleaned from popular culture. […] On the other, it is worth investigating how popular culture may facilitate further surveillance. It is clearly a mistake to assume that the imaginative world of film or TV exists in an entirely separate realm from everyday reality. They feed of and inform each other increasingly in a media-saturated environment. In the end, the efficacy of surveillance measures themselves may depend in part on how they are understood by their subjects, which by any measure must relate in some ways to popular culture. (157–58)

With this in mind, any comprehensive discussion of surveillance will have to account for the culture of surveillance, i.e. the way novels, films, and others forms of art comment on, subvert but also interact with or legitimize watching, divulging, and being watched.

This volume therefore aims at building a bridge between cultural studies and surveillance studies. The contributors have various backgrounds: some in philosophy, others in literary and cultural studies, in law and in media theory, but all of them build on work in surveillance studies to explore the cultural significance of watching and data mining. The common denominator is their concern with questions of signification, or what the ‘view’ in surveillance—from above, below, and all sides—means. The common assumption is that it means more than data. Surveillance tells a story, or a number of stories with their own narrative structures, images, points of view, and characters. The essays are grouped to explore how writers, artists, activists, and even disciplines interpret these stories in different but, we hope, complimentary ways.

The first three contributions explore some of the ethical implications of surveillance, or what being watched means in terms of how individuals see others and themselves. Bernhard H. F. Taureck’s contribution, ←16 | 17→“Surveillance – A Complex Relationship,” defines surveillance as an asymmetrical relation between watcher and watched. Though privilege of perspective makes the watcher seem more powerful, there are always possibilities of resistance. This is because the power of watching is to some degree a myth. Taureck argues this point by turning to a pre-Socratic fragment that suggests the concept of an all-seeing deity was invented to make people behave. Actual watchers hide behind this god-like mask of mythic invulnerability, but there are always ways to use their methods against them and challenge their perspective. To illustrate this Taureck turns to the play-within-the-play in Hamlet, which in his reading demonstrates how art can be re-purposed to watch the watcher. The essay concludes with an analysis of Godard’s Alphaville, a film that demonstrates the vulnerability of a seemingly all-powerful supercomputer at the dawn of the digital age. Taureck sees Godard as the framer of a counter-myth to the all-seeing deity, one that helps direct our attention to the number of recent cases in which the information and tools monopolized by the surveillance apparatus have actually been leaked. Myth can counter myth, and computer technology can be used to subvert computer-based surveillance, but what are the ethical implications of, say, leaking private information or spreading dangerous software? After outlining criteria that might be used to address this question, the essay leaves the answer deliberately open.

Florian Zappe’s “Gazing Back at the Monster” offers a partial answer by exploring how individual citizens use tools of surveillance to counter the technological monopoly of governments and corporations and reestablish a kind of equilibrium between watching and being watched. His subject is a practice that goes by the name of “sousveillance,” or watching from below, which has intersected with the burgeoning lifelogging movement in an attempt to use self-monitoring technologies, such as smart phones and GPS devices, to take ownership of personal data. The gambit is that lifeloggers can challenge surveillance by offering a complete record of where they have been and what they have done, while at the same time documenting how governments and corporations treat their citizens and customers. Zappe is sympathetic with the cause but skeptical of its tactics, suggesting that sousveillance only increases the overall intensity of monitoring in the name of protecting a humanist individual that technology may have already rendered obsolete. He calls, instead, for a critical ←17 | 18→posthumanism that thinks about subjectivity in networked terms, rather than assuming that data can be private as opposed to public.

Bärbel Harju’s “Too Much Information: Self-Monitoring and Confessional Culture” takes as its starting point the much-discussed “privacy paradox” touched upon in Zappe’s essay: while many people seem to fear that their private information is not secure, they nevertheless display a certain degree of negligence in sharing that information through social media. Contemporary thinkers—and Harju cites a number of them—tend to be critical of this new form of “confessional society.” However, she cautions us against judging too quickly. Confession, she points out, has a long history in Western culture. The genealogy she provides begins with the invention of the confessional in the 13th-century, extends through Puritan practices of self-examination and social shaming, Enlightenment autobiography, 20th-century therapy, and culminates in the United States Supreme Court’s 1965 landmark decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which established a general right to privacy precisely when supermarkets were being flooded with gossip tabloids. There is a sense in which culture has always been confessional and confession has always been contested. Confession can be politically progressive, for instance when it offers members of groups typically excluded from public discussion, such as women and African Americans, the possibility to share their personal experiences and make them political. Confession is also not always as revelatory as it seems, for instance when talk show guests perform for the camera. Confession can even be used to carve out spaces of relative autonomy. In this connection, Harju points to media artist and lifelogger Hasan Elahi who, as part of his “Tracking Transience – The Orwell Project” uploads all of his movements onto a website in order to overwhelm surveillance agencies with too much information. With these various examples in mind, Harju urges us not to be too quick in our condemnation of confessional culture. The boundaries between public and private have always been shifting, and confession is one way to negotiate their relation without necessarily abandoning privacy altogether.

The ethical essays look to culture—and activism—for ideas about how to bolster the agency of those who feel like they are being watched. The next four essays approach form—the examples are novels and rap songs and videos—as an agent in its own right, challenging culturally ←18 | 19→dominant patterns of perception and carving personal narratives out of the sheer quantity of impersonal information. Felix Haase’s “Death by Data: Identification and Dataveillance in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story,” turns to a recent dystopian fiction about rankings, dataveillance, and the numerical classification of identities. In Shteyngart’s nightmare world of the near future, government oppression is only part of the story. Another threat comes from surveillance that is commercialized, social, and—in ways already touched upon in Harju’s and Zappe’s essays—voluntary. Shteyngart’s protagonist Lenny sees data-management as a way to manage all contingency, up to and including mortality. However, a love affair teaches him the superiority of human emotions over numbers, even when it ends badly. Haase points out that it is hardly surprising that a novel would endorse narrative over data as a way to come to terms with existential problems. However, this literary endorsement of literature is coupled with a critique of a corporatized America, which has become the home of global capital but not of “low net-worth individuals.” Monetized surveillance, in this assessment, eviscerates some of the foundational American myths. Lenny ends up moving to Italy, suggesting that there is no way out of the downward spiral of monetization and surveillance, except perhaps high art in the European tradition.

Birgit Däwes’s “Flickers of Vision: Surveillance and the Uncertainty Paradigm in Dave Eggers’s The Circle” analyzes another dystopian vision of the near future. Eggers’s novel is perhaps the most well-known attempt to dramatize the dangers of a powerful, social media corporation modeled on Facebook or Google. Däwes shows how Eggers’ naïve, do-gooder protagonist is a vehicle for his critique of our contemporary faith in technology. As Mae Holland embraces the progressive philosophy of a company that demands her complete loyalty, the readers learn how social media exploits our best impulses—say the desire to protect children and the environment—to colonize the private spheres of ordinary citizens, interfere in the democratic process, and absorb the competition. The novel is scathing in its criticism, but Däwes argues that it goes too far in its efforts to debunk big data. The narrative point-of-view uncannily mirrors the all-knowing ambition of algorithms, implying that literary representation can provide the link between observation and knowledge that surveillance only promises. The melodramatic moralism—narrative ←19 | 20→omniscience is good, corporate control is bad—must be seen as a literary failure, but the failure itself is instructive. Däwes argues that the novel, in its smugness, demonstrates the pervasiveness of the surveillance ethos it seeks to criticize.

Andrew Gross is more sanguine in his analysis of another novel (or novella) of the near future. “The Black Box of Humanism: Surveillance, the Spy Narrative, and Literary Form” analyzes Jennifer Egan’s Black Box, which beginning in May 2012 was published as a series of 60 tweets by the New Yorker, which then published the story in print form. Gross argues that the novella deliberately makes use of the literary conventions provided by the spy narrative, to spy on the electronic medium of its transmission. It’s not that the story reveals something we didn’t know about Twitter. Rather, it re-characterizes data transmission as an adventure tale, stressing the romance plot and the physical aspects of adventure, in order to carve out a space within the flow of digital transmissions for another physical form: the book. The novella’s clandestine mission is actually the old one of literary humanism. Indeed, the history of the novel, when considered from the perspective of the spy story, can be described as attempt to carve out private spaces in the public sphere. Literature does not offer a platform from which to spy on power in the sense of gathering information. Rather, Gross argues that the novel offers a shelter for subjectivity in the midst of data transparency. Narratives distinguish themselves from information through their manipulation of perspective, and perspective—even in its published form—can remain remarkably clandestine.

Silke Järvenpää explores the way form can serve as a vehicle for protest in “Rap vs. Big Brother: The Conscious and the Comical.” She argues that rap artists have always been subject to police surveillance, which is why in the 1980s groups started taking names like Public Enemy and Niggaz with Attitude in order to expose the practice of police profiling. Contemporary rap artists can draw on this established idiom of resistance. Järvenpää’s subjects are Giordano Nanni and Hugo Farrant of the series Juice Rap News, a series of satires designed for YouTube, and specifically the episode “Big Brother is wwwatching you”; and Shahid Buttar’s song “The NSA vs the USA,” which also features an accompanying video. Both songs reflect the efforts of critically informed performers (one has a PhD and a background in critical theory, another is both an MC and a constitutional lawyer), but their styles differ ←20 | 21→radically. Juice Rap News is a satirical news program that features “guests,” i.e. the performers in costume, who rap their points of view. The example she points to is a pro-surveillance general who actually raps like a gangsta, thus suggesting that the true criminals are on the side of the state. Buttar sets a serious protest song to a meditative rap and house track. Järvenpää asks if these performers may be appropriating an African American tradition for their own purposes (Nanni and Farrant are Australian), concluding, on the contrary, that given the current state of surveillance, with the gradual erosion of civil rights, “the ghetto and the ivory tower are equally at risk.”

Järvenpää’s rap artists, who maintain strong digital presences on the web, serve as a transition to the three essays that make up the third group in the collection. These essays explore the shifting boundaries between public and private spheres through a variety of visual cultural practices and artifacts. Hugh Davies explores the evolution of what might be called a confessional aesthetic in “The Art of Surveillance: Surveying the Lives and Works of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei.” Davies pairs Warhol and Ai because their work actually embraces the surveillance technologies of their respective eras. Warhol was obsessed with celebrity culture, and his fear of not being watched (by the public) complimented the Cold War nightmare of being watched (by Big Brother). Public admiration and governmental scrutiny are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. Both sides are invoked in Warhol’s 1966 film Outer and Inner Space, featuring Edie Sedgwick observing images of herself while she herself is observed. Warhol created such moments through a kind of art that anticipates the self-exposure of social media. Ai actually is the target of state surveillance, and he uses social media to transform that surveillance into conceptual art. Embracing the shallowness of “clicktivism,” Ai uses Instagram and Twitter to juxtapose selfies with celebrities and images of social activism. This, in some ways, preempts the Chinese government, which is busy tracking his activities all the time. Warhol fantasized about being watched, Ai cannot escape the official gaze. His art, according to Davies, marks a kind of “democratization of surveillance,” where Ai watches his watchers by watching himself, leaving it to history to sort out the implications.

As Marek Paryż points out, Hollywood has explored the implications of watching and being watched through one of its favorite genres. His contribution, “Paranoia and Surveillance in Andrew Dominik’s Film The ←21 | 22→Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” analyzes a Western that represents the West at a moment of transition. In this version of the Jesse James myth, the protagonist is paranoid that he will be betrayed by former friends, and with good reason: the spies and informers are all around him. They do the bidding of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which expanded with the railroads and actually did target James in the 1870s. The film dramatizes the Agency’s surveillance perspective through a voiceover narration that seems to know everything, and provides for narrative continuity, but also diverges in significant ways from what is pictured on the screen. This trouble at the formal level dramatizes how the Western positions itself as more than a historical study: it becomes a psychological testimony to the costs of living in a surveillance society. Paryż argues that Dominik’s film actually draws on the conventions of noir, which traditionally “emphasizes the hero’s exposure to a kind of disembodied controlling gaze.” It is this gaze that ultimately causes Jesse James to lose control of his own image—and his own identity—so that death becomes an anticlimax to surveillance.

Caren Myers Morrison’s “Mythologies of Violence in American Police Videos” discusses contemporary efforts to turn the gaze back on the police. Her subject is the circulation of videos of police brutality on the Internet. Morrison argues that while such videos are sometimes posted by activists as a form of protest, they are often filmed by the police themselves. The perspective serves to rationalize police violence, encouraging viewers to identify with the aggressor rather than the victim in the same way that viewers of the Western are encouraged to identify with the “good guy” wielding a gun. A recent example is provided by Scott v. Harris, a case tried before the Supreme Court, which involved police who rammed the vehicle of a suspect, crippling him for life. Justice Antonin Scalia compared the footage of the chase, captured by the police car’s dashboard camera, to “a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort.” Morrison cites other examples, pointing, for instance, to the parallels between body camera footage and first-person shooter games, but they all lead to one incontrovertible point: footage shot from the perspective of the police encourages the audience—in this case the judges—to identify with the police. Morrison argues that this traditional narrative needs to be corrected with the counter-narrative of people acting decently rather than violently—or maybe we simply shouldn’t be watching.

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Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity, 2000. Print.

Bauman, Zygmunt, and David Lyon. Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (1992): 3–7. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Gross, Andrew. The Pound Reaction: Liberalism and Lyricism in Midcentury American Literature. Heidelberg: Winter, 2015. Print.

Hier, Sean P., and Joshua Greenberg. “Editors’ Introduction: Contemporary Surveillance Studies.” The Surveillance Studies Reader. Ed. Hier and Greenberg, Maidenhead: Open UP, 2007. 1–9. Print.

Kammerer, Dietmar. Bilder der Überwachung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich A. “No Such Agency.” 1986. Trans. Paul Feigelfeld. Theory, Culture & Society. 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Sept. 2017. https://www.theoryculturesociety.org/kittler-on-the-nsa.

Luhmann, Niklas. Art as a Social System. Trans. Eva M. Knodt. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.

Lyon David. Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.

Marx, Gary T. “Preface: ‘Your Papers please’: Personal and Professional Encounters with Surveillance.” Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies. Ed. Kristie Ball, Kevin D. Haggerty, and David Lyon. New York: Routledge, 2012. xx–xxxi. Print.

Mathiesen, Thomas. “The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s Panopticon Revisited.” Theoretical Criminology 1.2 (1997): 215–34. Print.

Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.

Rosen, David and Aaron Santesso. The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature and Liberal Personhood. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013. Print.

Stewart, Garrett. Closed Circuits: Screening Narrative Surveillance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015. Print.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: U of California P, 2011. Print.

Bernhard H. F. Taureck

Surveillance – A Complex Relationship

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” — Benjamin Franklin

Abstract: This essay attempts to draw conclusions from different types of surveillance. It begins with ancient surveillance in one fragment of Critias the Sophist. Considerations on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and on the film Alphaville from Godard will follow. The conclusions may seem to be disastrous: The non-symmetrical power relations implicit in surveillance create structures that are vulnerable to blackmail. (1) Intelligence-based surveillance needs Internet insecurity to monitor populations in order to protect them from evil elements. (2) Knowledge of Internet insecurity can be and has been leaked. (3) Evil elements profit from Internet insecurity in order to attack the private economy and public infrastructure.

Keywords: Symmetric, asymmetric and non-symmetric surveillance; Sophism; Critias; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Godard’s Alphaville; systemic consequences of surveillance; social security

Surveillance is generally practiced and regarded as an asymmetrical relationship. Asymmetrical controls are structures of strict order which cannot be altered. The parent-child relation, for instance, is a traditional type of that kind. Children are children of parents and parents are parents of children in all possible contexts. Children can wish not to be children of their parents and parents may wish not to be parents of their children. None of them, however, can avoid this relationship.

Love (or even hate or envy) constitutes a different kind of relationship which appears to be symmetrical: Romeo loves Juliet and Juliet loves Romeo. But is love necessarily a symmetrical relation? Of course, it often happens to be. But there are a lot of ‘amours malheureux’ where love is not reciprocated by the beloved. Love therefore is not necessarily symmetrical. It constitutes a relationship of its own. It is neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical, it is non-symmetrical. In non-symmetrical relationships, ←27 | 28→the structure of relationship may be formative but it is not binding. Non-symmetrical relationships offer a chance for freedom. Acting according to the structure of symmetry constitutes an act of freedom and is not a blind consequence of the structure itself as in asymmetrical relationships.

What are the consequences of these insights for the understanding of surveillance? In the case of parents and children, nobody can escape the relationship. But is surveillance inescapably asymmetrical in the same way? The question is the answer: Surveillance is not inescapably asymmetrical. Humans, in other words, are free to defy surveillance. If this is the case, one can speak of two opposing forces, the force of surveillance and the force of resistance, the former tending towards asymmetry and the latter tending to demonstrate that surveillance is a non-symmetrical social relation.

The following essay attempts to understand these opposing forces at work. In doing so, I do not start with obvious reflections upon the consequences of Snowden’s revelations about intelligence-based global surveillance. I choose a different approach. I start with an interpretation of different representations of surveillance in order to compare them with real surveillance. Any choice of representations of surveillance remains arbitrary. To reduce this unavoidable arbitrariness, I select examples from three distinct historical periods; antiquity, early modernity and modernity.

1 The Critias Fragment: Constructing and Deconstructing Control

The Critias fragment, sometimes attributed to Plato’s uncle, relates this story about the invention of the concept of surveillance:

[A];s the laws held [mortals] from deeds

Of open violence, but still such deeds

Were done in secret, – then, I think,

Some shrewd man first, a man in judgement wise,

Found for mortals the fear of gods,

Thereby to frighten the wicked should they

Even act or speak or scheme in secret.

Hence it was that he introduced the divine

Telling how the divinity enjoys endless life,

Hears and sees, and takes thought

And attends to things, and his nature is divine.

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So that everything which mortals say is heard

And everything done is visible.

Even you plan in silence some evil deed

It will not be hidden from the gods: for discernment

Lies in them. So, speaking words like these,

The sweetest teaching did he introduce,

Concealing truth under untrue speech. (Critias Fragment, 9–26, emphasis mine)

This eye-opening text suggests that absolute surveillance originated as a myth. The point of the story is critical enlightenment. People were encouraged to believe that gods were watching them so that they would behave. This, however, was a delusion invented for the purposes of control. The wise inventor of human fear of the gods was “Concealing truth under untrue speech [pseudeî kalýpsas ten alétheian lógoi],” the “truth” being the fact that divine surveillance does not exist. The story is as simple as it is convincing. Humans left the state of nature, which was a state of force, when they began to believe that laws would bring punishment to wrongdoers.

That the gods had to be invented, however, suggests that surveillance is never complete. Penal law, at least as it is imagined in this fragment, admits both the possibility of leaks and the impossibility of perceiving all secret deeds. The step from nature to society did not bring perfection. Crime was not fully overcome. How therefore to prevent humans from breaking the law in secret? Critias’ question remains our question. We answer it partly by devising ethical systems, though there is no agreement about which ethical standards to apply; we answer the question partly through religion, though there is no consensus here either. In a moment I will turn to the issue of electronic surveillance, which I will argue derives its power from the same kind of mythical agency debunked by the Critias fragment. Any super-human agency—religious, ethical, or technical—depends on human consciousness, with its intrinsic fallibilities and limitations. The Critias fragment is historically interesting because it demonstrates a shift from traditional belief in divine surveillance and punishment. The gods did not invent humanity; rather gods were invented to prevent human criminality. This early European document of political surveillance probably tells us with a wink that the fear of an all-seeing god, which does not exist, is predicated on the impossibility of absolute surveillance.

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In other words, the asymmetrical relation between all-seeing god and tractable humanity reveals a deeper non-symmetry of the sort that obtains in unrequited love. Absolute surveillance is a lie necessitated by the problem that people disobey laws in secret. The human capacity for refusal and resistance always exceeds the myth of total control. The Critias fragment deconstructs the relation of asymmetrical power by demonstrating its necessity. There is no manifest contradiction between surveillance and resistance, but there is a contradiction between the theological attributes of an all-knowing being and their fictional origin.

2 Hamlet and Early Modernity: The Tragic Antagonism between Surveillance and Resistance

Hamlet, the play, starts with an atmosphere of eerie uncertainty in the context of monitoring. The beginning “Who’s there?” is interpreted as “the first of the many anxious questions that establish the tone of uncertainty that runs through the play” (Gibson 5). I propose reading the uncertainty in relation to the new kind of surveillance created in Shakespeare’s time. What I am referring to is the secret service of Francis Walsingham, who, for the first time in history, shaped an international net of spies to protect Protestant government from that kind of Catholic assassinations Walsingham witnessed in France in 1572 when Huguenots were killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Hamlet, however, is more than simply a historical document. It is a literary reflection on the way historical phenomena shape social reality.

That Hamlet is concerned with surveillance is suggested by the plot: Hamlet is monitored by his uncle Claudius, the King, in three ways. First, Claudius and Polonius try to find out the cause of Hamlet’s apparent madness. For this purpose, they deploy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and also Ophelia as disguised spies. In both cases surveillance is defined as seeing unseen (3.1.31–32). Second, after Hamlet’s unintended killing of Polonius, the King strengthens his control over Hamlet in order to put him to death in England. In this context, Claudius refers to “the present death of Hamlet” (4.3.64). Hamlet is far from being dead when Claudius makes this remark, but the King is anticipating his death. This suggests not only impatience but part of the inner logic of surveillance: Getting power ←30 | 31→over future events before they happen. Third, another plot to kill Hamlet is carefully prepared by Claudius and Laertes. Their preparation depends on surveillance.

Interpreting Hamlet as a drama of surveillance, one observes both the asymmetry of power and the non-symmetrical structures of resistance. In the figure of Hamlet, the non-symmetrical distance from surveillance becomes productive. The protagonist, a target of surveillance by the King, exercises his freedom in an act of invention. The ghost of his father has revealed to him the eerie message that his father has been secretly murdered by the present King. But is this message true? And how to find out? Hamlet’s invention is his famous play: “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.50–51). “The play” is the famous play-within-the play, which tells a story of a political murder analogous to Claudius’ murder of his father. It is performed before the whole court. Hamlet’s strategy might be understood as an act of counter-surveillance. If the King as a spectator shows any unusual behavior, Hamlet will have the evidence that Claudius is the real murderer of his father. What happens in the play-within-the-play? Apart from the meta-dramatical structure, I want to explore what this episode reveals about the relation of theatre to truth and theatre to surveillance.

The play-within-the-play enlarges the verifying realm of theatre, and by extension of art or fiction. Art is an act of freedom or invention, but it also becomes the measure of what does and does not exist. Another way to put this is that the play-within-a-play is an arrangement of the surveillance of surveillance. If Hamlet is the King’s target, now the King becomes the target of Hamlet. All this is known and needs a complement: As a theatre performance, the play-within-a-play is grounded on the asymmetrical structure between the spectator and the play. The spectator perceives the play, but the play does not perceive the spectators. Actors, of course, often witness their audience, but accidentally, for they are performing the play. With Hamlet’s addition, the spectator does not only perceive the play, but the play is equally perceiving the spectator. Hamlet is part of the play-within-a-play insofar as he acts as its director, continuously commenting on the action. With the presence of Hamlet, the play achieves the force of watching the watchers, especially the King. This unusual addition of a reversed asymmetry to the usual asymmetry of the theatre is Hamlet’s ←31 | 32→work of inventive freedom; it gets rid of surveillance by discovering a hidden truth. To be sure, if Hamlet is superior to the King, Claudius becomes superior to Hamlet by transforming surveillance into liquidation. Hamlet can be read as the first document of early modernity showing a tragic dimension of the two forces of surveillance and cultural resistance. There are other structures of mutual surveillance in Shakespeare (As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew); but they are not tragic.

3 The Modern Picture in Godard’s Alphaville: Satirical Demystification of Surveillance

Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville, from 1965, is a brilliant mixture of dystopia and film noir, providing us with a completely different image of surveillance compared to that of, for instance, Orwell’s 1984, which has become a standard reference in surveillance studies. In Godard’s film we are in the modern setting of a world of comprehensive malevolent surveillance doing harm to humans in order to do harm. It is a world governed by a supercomputer controlling the behavior and attitudes of the citizens, prohibiting all emotions, feelings, poetry and the use of all Why-sentences by replacing them with sentences beginning Because. Whoever speaks of feelings is shot and discarded into a pool; these murders are witnessed by the Nazi professor von Braun, who constructed the supercomputer after being evicted from New York in 1964. The fantastic plot has von Braun on the brink of starting a war against other galaxies. He offers the visitor to Alphaville, Lemmy Caution, control of one of these galaxies. However, Lemmy, who is a private detective, shoots and kills von Braun in his violent struggle against surveillance. He falls in love with von Braun’s daughter, teaches her the meaning of the word “love,” and rescues her from the center of dehumanized surveillance.

The plot of Alphaville depends on the ancient gnostic division between a terrestrial, imperfect and a transcendent, perfect world. However, the film reverses the attributes of the two worlds, suggesting that the perfect order is not the world of light, but that of malevolent control. The imperfect world is the human world of feeling, poetry and resistance. We are told that in Alphaville “people have become slaves of probability.” They are punished for statistical deviation; one citizen, for instance, is shot for ←32 | 33→shouting, “Go straight towards what you love!” Another dies saying, “Listen to me, normal ones! We see a truth that you no longer see. A truth that says that the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice. Everything else is an obstacle put on by your blind progress and ignorance!” The supercomputer 060 asks Lemmy Caution, “Do you know what turns darkness into light?” “Poetry,” Caution replies.

I want to argue that Alphaville, like Hamlet, uses art to expose the malevolence behind surveillance; it does so, like the Critias fragment, by showing that the asymmetrical power relationship built into the structure of surveillance is actually a myth. In this connection it is worth noting that the film does not make use of a science fiction setting but takes place in the Paris of 1965. This helps Godard make clear that the evil presented in Alphaville is happening in everyday life, including the loss of questions, poetry, and conscience. Nevertheless, the rowdy behavior of one detective with a pistol is sufficient to destroy the iron cage of seemingly complete social control. There is no powerful system behind totalitarian surveillance. Complete control is a myth. Godard’s message, however, is not simplistic. He shows that surveillance is not as asymmetrical as it appears to be. Surveillance can be demystified by replacing the myth of asymmetry with an equally powerful myth of symmetry, here embodied in the love affair between Lemmy and von Braun’s daughter. This standard plot device suggests a romance of equality, and it goes a step farther than Hamlet, which reveals the fact behind the fiction, by redressing that system in terms of symmetrical participation.

4 The Three Representations of Surveillance Compared with Real, Intelligence-Based Surveillance

It is instructive to contrast these three historical representations of complete surveillance with the reality of contemporary surveillance, which aspires to the total intelligence-based observation of the global population (cf. Taureck).

What does the contrast reveal? First, one observes the opposite of the situation described in Critias: While Critias suggests there is no divine control but only the fear of it, today many people are monitored without seeming to notice or care.

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Second, if the possibility of a superhuman observer was fictional in Critias and remains fictional in religious beliefs, acutally existing surveillance technology does seem to constitute a superhuman knowledge that functions as a substitute for divine government (cf. Taureck Überwachungsdemokratie).

Third, contemporary intelligence-based surveillance transforms two features of Hamlet and Alphaville into social reality: the anticipation of the future before it will happen and the killing of humans selected as targets.

Fourth, while surveillance interferes with the communicative behavior of the individuals in Alphaville and also in Hamlet, for instance when Polonius publicly censures the language of Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia (2.2.), real surveillance does not interfere with the citizen’s private use of language. The citizens remain free in their intentions, behavior and in the choice of their linguistic expressions, though these expressions are increasingly vulnerable to being picked up by electronic filters.

Fifth, contemporary institutions of surveillance are not personalized as in Hamlet or Alphaville. They are therefore invisibly protected against attacks. Alphaville and Hamlet provide concrete representations of surveillance, while real surveillance appears to be more abstract.

It follows that contemporary surveillance differs from earlier representations. If intelligence-based surveillance anticipates behavior and allows for the targeting and violent elimination of suspects, it nevertheless diverges in significant ways from earlier literary representations of total control. I want to argue that these representations are still useful for demystifying the impression of total control, but at the same time it is important to pinpoint the source of the difference. One possibility is the historical emergence of classical liberalism and the way surveillance has changed in response to liberal ideals.

According to John Stuart Mill, liberalism is basically concerned with the question of “how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control” (20). Liberalism was deeply concerned with strengthening individual rights against governments. Liberalism sought the liberty of the citizens for the sake of liberty. The liberal view of Mill included the sentiment “power itself is illegitimate” (52). Concerning the United States of America, Mill was even convinced of the following:

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let them be left without a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order and decision. This is what every free people ought to be: and a people capable of this is certain to be free. (316)

This was published in 1859. The contemporary preoccupation with security obviously contradicts Mill’s view of more than one-and-a-half centuries ago. Classical liberalism has given way to what I call a democracy of surveillance. A democracy of surveillance attempts to reconcile liberty and security. It is basically interested in making liberty depend upon government. A democracy of surveillance pays lip service to liberty in order to achieve governmental control and power. The question of the ‘fitting’ relationship has therefore to be replaced by a fitting dependence of individual liberty on intelligence-based (and therefore military) surveillance. If this is the case, there is a dissonance between liberalism and surveillance. How could it be possible to simultaneously have both: the violence of targeting citizens and the liberalism of not interfering in their free behavior? In my opinion, neither this dissonance between liberalism and surveillance nor the methods of contemporary surveillance have been adequately reflected upon.

Two arguments can be made to reconcile the dissonance between liberalism and surveillance. The weak argument runs as follows: If there is a dissonance between surveillance and liberalism, this does not vitally affect the political system. The political system protects its citizens by removing the dangerous elements from liberal society. I call this argument weak because the contradiction between the liberal treatment of citizens and the killing of ‘bad guys’ is obvious. One cannot kill in the name of liberalism without violating fundamental liberal ideals.

The stronger argument invokes the asymmetrical structure of intelligence-based surveillance as a necessary condition of freedom. To those who object that surveillance denies liberal freedom and leaves individuals vulnerable to arbitrary acts of state violence, defenders of surveillance may respond: “Absolutely not. The system controls free people. Surveillance of automatons would be senseless, for they will behave by following their programs. If one chooses to prevent an open society from harm and evil one needs to preserve its openness.” Citizens are the objects of surveillance, and there is no surveillance of the system by the citizens. ←35 | 36→The more surveillance is unfailingly executed and the more it happens in an abstract way, the more it can be judged as being unavoidable. This strong hypothesis emphasizes an inescapability of surveillance.

I want to finish by reflecting on a strong structural danger of the surveillance system. Surveillance presupposes access to the citizens. If the citizens where metaphysically closed as the monads in the metaphysics of Gottfried Leibniz, no intelligence service would ever be able to monitor them. But it is generally known that surveillance happens via a medium the citizens widely use, the Internet. The intelligence services’ interest is that the citizens remain completely unprotected against surveillance. The insecurity of the medium is a fundamental condition of asymmetrical surveillance. All this may appear tautological. It is not. The insecurity of the net is the inconspicuous fact which sooner or later may turn out to be the Achilles heel of asymmetrical surveillance. The intelligence community profits from the insecurity of the Internet but they do not hold a monopoly on it. There could be others who use the insecurity in order to blackmail private individuals and the public.

In May 2017, criminals began to block computers used by hospitals in Great Britain, industry in France, political institutions in China and Russia, railways in Germany, and telecommunication in Spain. Victims were forced to pay the blackmailers to unlock their own computers. The criminals used an Internet insecurity created by the NSA. We are told by experts that this was only the beginning. Surveillance is supposed to be a means of protecting citizens, but it also increases the vulnerability of the whole social system.

How could this be possible? The non-symmetrical power relations implicit in surveillance create structures that are vulnerable to blackmail. (1) Intelligence-based surveillance needs Internet insecurity to monitor populations in order to protect them from evil elements. (2) Knowledge of Internet insecurity can be and has been leaked. (3) Evil elements profit from Internet insecurity in order to attack the private economy and public infrastructure. Therefore, the more (1) happens, the more difficult it becomes to prevent (3) from happening. But is not (2) the guilty party? For without leaking information about computer vulnerability, (3) would not happen. The three elements constitute a circle of destruction: Intelligence-based surveillance appears to be unable to prevent either (2) or (3) from ←36 | 37→happening. Therefore, the NSA and other centers of surveillance are part of an vicious circle, which could lead to a catastrophic collapse of the electronic infrastructure.

There is, in fact, one core of the whole problem, number (2). To leak information about Internet insecurity from intelligence-based surveillance is an act of non-symmetrical freedom from surveillance. The motivation of leaking can be morally justified as an act of freedom against manipulation: non-symmetry, as I outlined above, is a valid response to asymmetry. At the same time, the non-symmetrical leaking of information can be used to do harm to masses of humans. (2) is therefore ambiguous, in moral terms, and constitutes the following dilemma: If one does not leak the intelligence-owned knowledge about Internet insecurity, one abets illegitimate, by which I mean illiberal, surveillance. If one does leak this knowledge, one opens the doors to evil elements who may wish to destroy civilization.

The Critias fragment deconstructs the myth of total surveillance, and Alphaville demystifies surveillance by showing its malevolent intent. However, the true ethical challenge is how to justify antagonism to surveillance and resistance. In Hamlet, the solution is tragic and involves the struggles of an individual. In our electronically shaped togetherness, the antagonism at issue could be disastrous, preventing our individual and collective possibilities to act.

But if all is an illusion? I like to answer with Woody Allen: “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet” (10).


Allen, Woody. Without Feathers. New York: Ballantine, 1986. Print.

Critias. (88 B 25) Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Vol II. Ed. Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz. Zürich: Weidmann, 1969. 3386–89. Print.

The Critias Fragment from Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos 9.54. (88 B 25) Trans. Robert G. Bury. Rev. Jan Garett. 19 Oct. 2009. Web. 23 Mar. 2018. https://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/302/critias.htm#note

Gibson, Rex. ed. Hamlet: Cambridge Student Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

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Hofstetter, Yvonne. Das Ende der Demokratie. Wie die künstliche Intelligenz die Politik übernimmt und uns entmündigt. München: Bertelsmann, 2016. Print.

—. Sie wissen alles. Wie intelligente Maschinen in unser Leben eindringen und warum wir für unsere Freiheit kämpfen müssen. München: Bertelsmann, 2014. Print.

Losurdo, Domenico. Controstoria del liberalismo. Bari: Laterza, 2016. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Über die Freiheit. Ed. Bernd Gräffrath. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Taureck, Bernhard H. F. Hamlet: Widerstand gegen den Überwachungsstaat. Eine intertextuelle Interpretation. Velbrück-Metternich: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2017. Print.

—. “Überwachung als religiös-imperiale Macht der Zukunft: Herrschaft und Widerstand.” Überwachung und Privatheit in der Ära nach Snowden. Ed. Peter A. Berger, Robert Brumme and Clemens H. Cap. Rostock: U Rostock, 2016. 39–58. Print.

—. Überwachungsdemokratie: Die NSA als Religion. Paderborn: Fink, 2014. Print.

Townshend, Charles. Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017. Print.

Florian Zappe

Gazing Back at the Monster – A Critical Posthumanist Intervention on Surveillance Culture, Sousveillance and the Lifelogged Self

“‘Control’ is the name Burroughs proposes as a term for the new monster, one that Foucault recognizes as our immediate future.”

—Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”

“Anyone who fights with monsters should take care that he does not in the process become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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Abstract: With the rapid development and increased proliferation of wearable computers and cameras during the past decade, the practice of lifelogging—the voluntary and comprehensive first-person recording and archiving of all data of everyday life by means of digital technology—has emerged as a phenomenon that poses significant challenges for a contemporary philosophy of the subject in the conditio posthumana. This chapter will reflect on a specific application of lifelogging practices and technologies and its effects on the position(s) of the subject in the context of our contemporary surveillance societies. Advocates of lifelogging—e.g. scientist and pioneering lifelogger Steve Mann—have argued that the active use of these technologies as tools for “sousveillance” might have the potential to shift the subject’s position within the network of ubiquitous surveillant gazes in the realm of the social. In their alleged ability to subvert the “hierarchy of the gazes” these strategies seem to hold a promise for empowerment, agency and resistance. This chapter scrutinizes this optimistic claim from the perspective of a critical posthumanism as defined by Stefan Herbrechter.

Keywords: Critical posthumanism; sousveillance; lifelogging; surveillance society

With the rapid development and increased proliferation of wearable computers, smart phones and watches, body cameras, GPS tracking devices and other network interfaces during the past two decades, the practice of lifelogging—the voluntary and comprehensive first-person recording and archiving of all data of everyday life by means of digital technology—has emerged as an increasingly widespread cultural technique. The technique is informed by and a reaction to a tension that is characteristic for our contemporary surveillance culture—the tension between techno-euphoric utopianism and techno-skeptical dystopianism.

Consequently, lifelogging has triggered a wide variety of assessments among cultural critics, scholars, journalists, artists and activists. Those leaning towards a skeptical position see these practices either—e.g. in the form of the Quantified Self Movement—as the latest fashion of neoliberalism’s paradigm of optimizing the self or, when tied to social media activities, as the ultimate triumph of a culture of surveillance in which the monitored voluntarily surrender the last remnants of the private sphere. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, warns that

teenagers equipped with portable electronic confessionals are but apprentices training and trained in the art of living in a confessional society—a society notorious for effacing the boundary that once separated the private from the public, for making public exposure of the private a public virtue and obligation, and for wiping out from public communication anything that resists being reduced to private confidences, together with those who refuse to confide them. (Bauman and Lyon 30)

A cautionary tale such as Dave Eggers’s programmatic yet highly successful dystopian novel The Circle (2013) expresses the same uneasiness regarding an ideal of transparency turned towards the totalitarian with pseudo-Orwellian innuendo: “SECRETS ARE LIES – SHARING IS CARING – PRIVACY IS THEFT” (Eggers 303).

Others have approached the phenomenon with a less apocalyptic and more nuanced outlook. In 2015, the Science Gallery in Dublin organized an exhibition entitled LIFELOGGING and invited a group of international media artists to explore the practice creatively. In their installations, artworks and performances of the participating artists1—many of them ←40 | 41→longtime practitioners of lifelogging themselves—critically scrutinized the effects of recording ‘oneself’ on oneself. The exhibition’s curatorial statement makes clear that the cultural ramifications involved in such practices go way beyond of what one might term ‘data narcissism’:

From critical to creative, LIFELOGGING asks ‘where do we go from here’ and questions whether we can record and analyse happiness, beauty and aesthetics the same way we record footsteps and heartbeats. This exhibition will explore novel methods for capturing data, for visualising, and for analysing the insights that new data affords us about ourselves and society. (Science Gallery)

The question “where do we go from here” is indeed a fundamental one. Its emergence clearly indicates the significant challenges the practice of lifelogging poses for a contemporary philosophy of the self in the context of the conditio posthumana—that particular ontological state of our time in which the boundaries of man and machine, mind and computer, knowledge and algorithm, empirical objectivity and personal subjectivity, and—in the end—data and ‘self’ become increasingly blurred. Against the backdrop of this open question, “the term ‘posthuman’ persists in eliciting conjectures on what remains or arises after the dissolution of the liberal humanist subject”; the posthuman subject, by contrast, is seen as “lacking the features of autonomy and agency central to the Enlightenment notion of the humanist subject, in other words, mastery over the self and mastery over the environment” (Bolton 14).2 In the following essay, I will offer some critical reflections on a very particular application of lifelogging practices and technologies which aims at restoring this “mastery of the self and […] the environment,” to borrow Michael S. Bolton’s words. Recently, a number of activists and scholars have argued that the active use of lifelogging technologies as tools for sousveillance—the practice of watching from below—might have the potential to at least partly reclaim that power of defining the ‘self’ by renegotiating the subject’s position within the network of ubiquitous surveillant gazes in the socio-cultural ←41 | 42→sphere. In their alleged ability to challenge and maybe even subvert the hierarchy of the gazes, lifelogging practices seem, according to their advocates, to hold a promise for empowerment, agency and, at times, even for resistance.

Recent developments in the theoretical field of critical posthumanism—especially Stefan Herbrechter’s highly insightful work—will provide a point of departure for my discussion of this claim. I call lifelogging and sousveillance posthuman practices because they use technology to interact with the world and to renegotiate established notions of individuality and subjectivity. Herbrechter cautions that terms such as “‘posthuman,’ ‘posthumanity’ and ‘posthumanization’ [are] politically, radically open” and he therefore calls for “a critical posthumanism that both takes the issue of the posthuman seriously and problematizes, contextualizes and historicizes it, at the same time” (Posthumanism 69). For him, critical posthumanism is primarily a methodological lens to analyze cultural phenomena typical of the posthuman condition. This use of the term differs from Pramod K. Nayar’s understanding of critical posthumanism as a “strand of posthumanism” that “rejects both human exceptionalism (the idea that humans are unique creatures) and human instrumentalism (that humans have a right to control the natural world)” (8). I will follow Herbrechter in this essay.

Herbrechter has noted the benefits of a critical posthumanist approach (primarily defined in methodological terms) for a reflection of the manifold roles surveillance plays in our contemporary situation:

The modern fight between surveillance and repression, on the one hand, and free use and empowerment, on the other hand, […] continues in the new digital and virtualizing media. From gaming to information war, from new media art to electronic and digital media theory there is thus no question that the technological change provoked by virtualization, digitalization and intensified mediation is transforming, undermining and replacing the notion of the humanist subject. […] A critical posthumanism thus acts as a ‘translator’ between two epistemes and critically illuminates both the humanist tradition, out of which these changes arise […] as well as the processes and new forms of repression at work within the posthumanist regime. (Posthumanism 191)

Confronting contemporary surveillance culture, the question if the idea of using lifelogging as a form of sousveillance can indeed contribute to the empowerment of the subject has to be negotiated within this theoretical ←42 | 43→framework. In other words, I will not invoke a form of posthumanism that rejects the centrality of the human subject but instead attempt to assess the impact of technologies on a subject, and a notion of subjectivity, that still bears some relation to the humanist tradition.

1 Towards an Equilibrium: The Cultural Logic of Sousveillance

The emergence of sousveillance as a theoretical concept as well as a technological practice is usually attributed to Steve Mann, a pioneering practitioner of wearable computing, who crafted a media image as “the world’s first cyborg” (Bilton) when he started to permanently wear data recording technology in the late 1970s. He developed his idea of mirroring surveillance from below over more than two decades of activism, research and publication activity, extending it from an initial engagement with visual panoptical monitoring to new forms of tracking in contemporary network culture. Mann is a particularly interesting starting point for a discussion of the individual’s potentials to exercise agency in contemporary surveillance culture because he himself seems to be the paradigmatic embodiment of Bolton’s understanding of the “posthuman subject” for which “agency entails various interfaces and exchanges with technologies that increasingly comprise the social environment” (Bolton 15). Mann considers science, activism and theory as his fields of action. Holding various engineering degrees including a PhD from MIT, he is a professor for Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto; his institutional web page states, “together with Marvin Minsky, ‘the father of AI (Artificial Intelligence),’ and Ray Kurzweil, […] [Mann] created the new discipline of HI (Humanistic Intelligence)” (“Mann S”). But beside his career as a renowned scientist and inventor, Mann regards his habit of recording data about his everyday life via wearable technology as a form of performance (cf. Mann, “Existential Technology” 19; Mann, Nolan and Wellman 338–48), aligning himself with the tradition of the Situationist practice of the détournement (Mann, Nolan, and Wellman 333). As a lay philosopher, he frequently elaborates on the ethical, political and cultural implications of his use of technology.

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Operating in the elusive twilight zone between techno-activism, political protest and media art performance, Mann targets the power dynamics of large, often transnational bureaucracies (one of his terms for governmental as well as corporate agents of surveillance) and their “increased use of surveillance and monitoring technologies [that] makes the individual more vulnerable to, and accountable to, these very organizations that are themselves becoming less accountable to the surveilled populace” (“Existential Technology” 19).

In this context, it is important to note that Mann continuously stresses that he does not identify as an anti-surveillance activist. On the contrary, he deplores popular culture’s role in focusing public discourse on “the dystopian aspects of the power politics of surveillance [which] often tend to overshadow the use of surveillance to achieve many necessary or useful infrastructural aspects in the ordering of modern citizens […] and societies” and emphasizes that “wearing a camera” is not automatically to be equated with “‘shooting back’ against surveillance” (Mann and Ferenbok 19, 24). His nemesis is therefore neither surveillance nor our culture’s oversaturation with monitoring and tracking technologies per se, but rather “the asymmetrical nature of surveillance [that] is characteristic of an unbalanced power relationship” (Mann, Nolan, and Wellman 334). His formulaic understanding of surveillance is “organizations observing people” (332), a clear-cut top-down process in which “power favours the institutionalized agent, or agency, be it government or corporate or hybrid entities—‘covernments’ and ‘gorporations’” (Mann and Ferenbok 23).

Sousveillance is Mann’s name for the slingshot that the modern David can use to confront this corporate and governmental Goliath. The etymology of the term already explains its basic political assumptions: Whereas ‘surveillance’ literally translates as ‘to view from above,’ ‘sousveillance’ means ‘to view from below.’ Mann considers this bottom-up approach a feasible strategy to break what he calls a “monopoly” of surveillance, held by political power and corporate capital alike (“McVeillance”; see Mann, Nolan, and Wellman 332): “Sousveillance is a form of ‘reflectionism,’ a term […] for a philosophy and procedures of using technology to mirror and confront bureaucratic organizations. Reflectionism holds up the mirror and asks the question: ‘Do you like what you see?’” (Mann, Nolan ←44 | 45→and Wellman 333). The goal of this inversion of the gaze is to “restore balance to an otherwise one-sided surveillance society” (345).

To establish the equilibrium he calls “equiveillance” (Mann and Ferenbok 26), Mann invokes the emancipatory potential of technology in what he calls an ‘existential’ manner “as the technology of self-determination and mastery over our own destiny” (“Existential Technology” 19). For him—presenting himself here once more as an exemplary representative of posthuman subjectivity—technological know-how is the elementary precondition of viable agency. In real-life experiments—he refers to them as performances—with wearable sousveillance technology, he confronts representatives of surveillance organizations, giving them a taste of their own medicine. Mann describes his agenda as follows:

My performances and in(ter)ventions attempt to reflect the technological hypocrisies of large bureaucratic organizations on a moralistic (or humanistic) level by way of firsthand encounters with low-level ‘clerks,’ rather than the more traditional approach of writing letters to management, politicians or the like. By mirroring the structures of bureaucracy and complexity, I engage in a Reflectionist approach that I have found is, in many situations, surprisingly far more successful than writing letters to high-level officials. (“Existential Technology” 19)

In several case studies, Mann describes how his—mostly visible—use of cameras and other monitoring devices (to record geodata, bodily functions, etc.) in everyday situations has caused disruptions within the established hierarchy of the gaze and evoked surprising, somewhat unpredictable reactions from his environment, up to the point where he was physically attacked by employees of an ordinary fast food restaurant for wearing camera glasses (cf. “McVeillance,” Mann and Ferenbok 22). He offers such exemplary incidents as support for his argument about the paradoxical imbalance he sees at the heart of contemporary surveillance: It is taken for granted and generally accepted that individuals are the objects of surveillance technologies, both in the public (streets, train stations, airports, etc.) as well as the semi-public sphere (restaurants, malls, shops, gas stations, etc.). But the fact that an individual might employ the same technologies as the surveillors do to invert their gaze seems to be perceived as scandalous disturbance of the hierarchical structure of control. The harsh reactions triggered by this inversion can therefore, according ←45 | 46→to Mann’s understanding, be regarded as proof of sousveillance’s potentiality to reclaim a certain level of subject(ive) sovereignty. It is exactly this empowering application of technology that Mann links to what he understands as existentialism:

Ironically, Existential Technology serves to empower the individual by disempowering the individual of responsibility for his or her own actions. Empowerment is achieved through self-demotion […]. In the same way that large ‘covernments’ (convergence of multiple governments corrupted by interests of global corporations) are empowered by being less accountable for their actions, existential technologies allow individuals to self-bureaucratize in order to achieve a balance of bureaucracy when dealing with government organizations. Existentialist theory holds that individuals are entirely free, thus entirely responsible. (“Existential Technology” 19)

This passage exemplifies one key problem in Mann’s conceptualization of sousveillance: it is based on a sloganized use of philosophical terms. From the vantage point of a humanities scholar, one cannot avoid remarking that, for example, his understanding of existentialism is—like many of his other philosophical references—rather cursory.3

Mann’s understanding of subjectivity, agency, sovereignty and individual freedom clearly echoes Sartre’s notion that “there is no determinism man is free, man is freedom” (Sartre 34, emphasis in the original). He sees himself as a quasi-cyborgian individual, equipped with the technological possibility to invert the gaze from above and reassert this freedom: “Reflectionism becomes sousveillance when it is applied to individuals using tools to observe the organizational observer. Sousveillance focuses on enhancing the ability of people to access and collect data about their surveillance and to neutralize surveillance” (Mann, Nolan, and Wellman 333). This strategy is one example of how traditional humanism may respond to surveillance ←46 | 47→through the methodological emphasis mentioned by Herbrechter. Mann is one kind of posthumanist. Critical posthumanism offers a vantage point from which to assess the logic of ‘watching the watchers.’ Mann, it must be pointed out, neither states how sousveillance “neutralize[s];” surveillance nor how the first-person accumulation of personal data would win freedom back from the multiplicity of ‘covernmental’ surveillance bureaucracies or how so-called self-bureaucracy would actually have a liberating effect (or even be compatible with the existentialist notion of responsibility).

If we accept Deleuze’s claim that “[t];here is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons” (4) in the societies of control, we must inevitably ask if the reflectionist approach can indeed be considered a viable weapon against this “monster” called control (Deleuze 4). According to Bauman and Lyon, in a control society “surveillance grows less like a tree—relatively rigid, in a vertical plane like the panopticon—and more like creeping weeds” (3). Sousveillance aims at growing in another direction, but it ultimately may knit the tangled web of gazes tighter rather than providing a line of flight from it.

Another concern involves the efficacy of sousveillance as a form of détournement. As we have seen, Mann repeatedly refers to this vanguard “tactic of appropriating tools of social controllers and resituating these tools in a disorienting manner” (Mann, Nolan, and Wellman 333) as a model, and he links his own performative socio-technological experiments directly to the Situationist movement (333). He is certainly not wrong in claiming this kinship, but he does not take into account that the originators of that subversive mode of appropriation already cautioned that “[d];étournements by simple reversal is always the most direct and the least effective.” They lack efficiency because they react “against the construction of an ambience based on a given metaphysics by constructing an ambience within the same framework that merely reverses—and thus simultaneously conserves—the values of that metaphysics” (Debord and Wolman 17). The dynamics that Debord and Wolman describe fully apply to Mann’s “reflectionist” approach. By turning the vector of “veillance” (Mann and Ferenbok 26) upwards against the hierarchical gazes4 coming ←47 | 48→from the “covernments” and “bureaucracies,” the practitioner of sousveillance might enable individual moments of perturbation, but he or she will certainly not topple the ideological and economical metaphysics on which contemporary surveillance culture rests. In the same way that an individual weapon carried for the purpose of self-defense does not subvert the complex grammar of America’s gun culture, sousveillance technology does not fundamentally undermine the paradigms or structures of contemporary surveillance societies—the equilibrium remains primarily a symbolic one.

2 The Lifelogged Self as Empowered Self?

In spite of their philosophical weaknesses, Mann’s theories have proved highly influential in the lifelogging5 community, especially since he himself has labeled the practice a potential “Case Study in Sousveillance” based on the authority of his claim to be the “first person to do lifecasting, i.e. stream continuous live first-person video from a wearable camera” (Mann and Ferenbok 27). What is remarkable is that the proponents of lifelogging as sousveillance have all followed Mann into the interdisciplinary borderlands of IT, philosophy and political involvement and share his euphoric stance towards technology. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT, explicitly refers to Mann’s pioneering deliberations when he advocates the use of logging police activities via body cams to “help reform a police system that is broken in a deadly way” (“Why We Must Continue to Turn the Camera on Police”) in the aftermath of the killing of Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement. In a similar manner, the science-fiction author and transparency activist David Brin argues for “exercis[ing] sousveillance at the level of the street, where power can most-directly affect us” as tool in civil rights struggles (“Transparency and Privacy”).

Besides these popular resonances, Mann’s ideas echo also in the academic realm. One insightful example is the essay “Lifelogging: Privacy ←48 | 49→and Empowerment with Memories for Life” by Kieron O’Hara, Mischa M. Tuffield, and Nigel Shadbolt, three researchers who, like Mann, have a background in computer science and a penchant for philosophy. With regard to the potentially complex implications of surveillance on personal identity, they argue that “lifelogging has the potential to reaffirm the individual’s control of his or her own identity. The lifelog can facilitate a constructed identity that outweighs the others simply by weight of evidence, complexity and comprehensiveness” (157). This argument follows a paradigm very popular among the tech community, according to which personal identity is not primarily defined by—as a poststructuralist would argue—narrative or performance but by quantifiable data.

From this quantitative perspective, the comprehensiveness of the lifelogged information does not constitute a problem, as its gathering happens in a “relatively non-discriminating manner” (161). And since corporate or governmental surveillance bureaucracies rate and sort individuals according to certain discriminating parameters (such as behavior, age, class, ethnicity, etc.), self-tracking would create an individualized counter-bureaucracy—a symbolic Mannian equiveillance—based on a body of data that is attributed a potentially higher level of accuracy. Recorded from the first-person perspective of the lifelogger, this comprehensive and therefore allegedly factual record of the self would empower the individual to correct or counteract abuses of his or her data by other parties.

O’Hara, Tuffield, and Shadbolt are aware of some far-reaching ethical difficulties of lifelogging, especially when the activity ceases to be solipsistic in the sense of “hoarding information about oneself for one’s own purposes” (160), and expands to include invading other persons’ privacy or sharing lifelogged information via social or other networked media. Especially the privacy issue is a crucial one here as self-monitoring technologies do not only record data about the person using them but also about individuals in their environment—a moment, in which sousveillance (empowering from one’s own perspective) becomes surveillance (for others whose data is recorded without their consent)6.

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From the position of liberal humanism, privacy is a necessary condition for the individual to act self-determinedly and independently as it is “the realm that is meant to be one’s own domain, the territory of one’s own undivided sovereignty, inside which one has the comprehensive and indivisible power to decide ‘what and who I am,’ and from which one can launch and relaunch the campaign to have one’s decisions recognized and respected” (Bauman and Lyon 28). As human personhood has its roots in the realm of the private, liberal humanism considers it to be one of the most important territories to be defended against surveillance bureaucracies of all kinds, including those supposedly looking from below. The posthuman position advocated by Mann and those who follow his example, on the other hand, see the information archive of the lifelog as the locus to define the self and from which to act in relation to normative social forces trying to stifle individual sovereignty. While acknowledging that “[t];he privacy argument is clearly real,” they argue that

it must be offset against the empowerment of the individual that lifelogging can provide. Perhaps the most important way in which this can happen is to give the lifelogger sufficient control over his or her information to act as a counterpoint to initiatives by formal authorities—and informal ones, such as families, too—to impose artificial identities. There are many sources of unwanted identities, whether or not it is the creation of a formal system of ID cards, a financial identity or an informal family insistence that one conform to social norm with respect to dress or sexual behaviour. The lifelog, for the lifelogger, might constitute the ‘real’ person. (165, emphasis mine)

This notion of identifying the lifelog with the authentic self is largely based on technological empiricism’s belief in the ontological objectivity of data and is an attempt to settle the “complex dialectical struggle between surveillance and selfhood” (Rosen and Santesso 4) for good—you are what your archive of individual recorded information on yourself shows you to be. This represents a transhumanist understanding subjectivity in which, as Herbrechter aptly notes, “the liberal humanist self […] survives […] but ←50 | 51→merely in a technologized form” (Posthumanism 52). There is a sense in which Mann’s dual devotion to technology and existentialism produces a model of selfhood that Sartre would have seen as anathema.

Also, there is a fundamental aporia in this understanding of selfhood. O’Hara, Tuffield, and Shadbolt accuse the various surveillance bureaucracies of constructing ‘false’ identities by a selective and discriminatory combination of data. As a remedy, they propose the lifelog that “provides a wide range of materials for the lifelogger to deploy and edit” (166), but through this process of editing, the sousveillant lifelogger has to be equally selective (albeit for different reasons). The edited self, no matter its editor, cannot necessarily claim a higher degree of authenticity than those constructed by the ‘covernments’ and ‘gorporations.’ The blind spot here is that the alleged objectivity of data is always defined by an epistemic framework that is likewise defined by cultural, social, economical, material, and ideological factors.

3 Curbing the Enthusiasm: A Critical Posthumanist Intervention

What the various approaches advocating lifelogging as sousveillance outlined above have in common, is an unbroken belief in what Mann and Ferenbok once called “the utopian promise of wearable personal broadcasting” (Mann and Ferenbok 21) and other lifelogging technologies. If we follow Herbrechter’s method, critical posthumanism has to be “a critical engagement with science fictional utopian visions, but at the same time […] also an ongoing critique of our humanist tradition and self-understanding” (“Interview”). Of course, that does not mean that looking at sousveillance in general and lifelogging in particular through the lens of critical posthumanism rejects the assumption that these practices might entail a broad range of benefits. But looking at the complex interdependencies between technology, culture, and the social realm that shape and construct any notion of subjectivity, one cannot avoid noticing a set of debatable premises and impasses implicit in the concept of lifelogging as sousveillance.

The first would be that “like most technologies, many of the surveillant technologies are value neutral until applied towards specific uses” ←51 | 52→(Mann and Ferenbok 19). From the perspective of critical posthumanism, this myth—which enjoys an enduring popularity in the scientific and engineering communities—has to be rejected as it underestimates the fact that

a concrete technology is always already embedded within a socio-cultural context, which means that it has a previous cultural history, so that it cannot just emerge in some kind of value-free environment. On the contrary, the specific technological solution selected for a perceived problem usually depends on premises, which are usually not just systemic or intrinsic to science and technological development but also depend on social, cultural and even personal factors. Technologies are always connected to their social uses whether these are by the military, the economy or even if they ‘merely’ serve some kind of idealist-humanist purpose like ‘saving the planet.’ (Herbrechter, Posthumanism 18)

As surveillance technologies are always designed for surveillance purpose, they always have, regardless of their actual application, power hierarchies inscribed in them: they are made to monitor objects which have not agreed to be monitored.

Can a literal incorporation of surveillance technology—Mann continuously speaks of his own metaphorical cyborgization, and the possibility to implant self-tracking technology into the body is already on the horizon—therefore really serve as a form emancipation in a surveillance society? Or does it, on the contrary, tie in with its modes of control and contribute to a new, even more totalitarian way of monitoring the individual by multiplying the gazes? O’Hara, Tuffield, and Shadbolt address these questions in their essay, admitting that “[l];ifelogging may increase the probability that one actually did appear on a record” (164), but they evaluate this danger as minimal compared to the ubiquitous surveillance bureaucracies of the corporate and political sphere (165).

Nayar claims that at the heart of the posthuman condition is a “radical decentering of the traditional sovereign, coherent and autonomous human in order to demonstrate how the human is always already evolving with, constituted by and constitutive of multiple forms of life and machines” (2). Regarding the lifelogging as surveillance idea, I want to argue for the opposite and claim that its apologists actually work on a re-centering of the “traditional, coherent and autonomous human” Nayar mentions. While its proponents certainly can be labeled as posthumanist in their ontological understanding of technology and their rejection of technological determinism, they also—in their conviction that lifelogged data is a viable ←52 | 53→source for identity and sovereign agency—adhere to the idea of liberal personhood. What can be sensed in their arguments is an implicit rejection of the philosophical tradition of poststructuralism. While this tradition advocates deconstruction and disinterpellation of the so-called ‘authentic’ self and the ‘death of the subject,’ the advocates of sousveillance and lifelogging implicitly reintroduce an essentialist, albeit data-based anthropocentrism that resonates in the existential terminology of Mann. In their belief that the archived data can be mastered by the individual and become a resource for mastery itself, and in the conviction that their practices can be a viable source for reclaiming sovereignty in a totalitarian web of surveillance and control, their (alleged) posthumanism reveals a clandestine, curiously nostalgic humanism that is much closer, for example, to Sartre than to Foucault.

As a strategy to reclaim sovereignty in the light of contemporary surveillance, however, the potentials of lifelogging are limited as surveillance bureaucracies have become too polymorphic and multitudinous to be reflected by a (re-)centered individual, even one whose perception has been augmented by technology. Deleuze suggested “piracy and the introduction of viruses” as potentially viable tactics against the (digital) machines that enable societies of control to operate (6). This could happen, for example, by a playful confusion of the expectations of surveillance bureaucracies via disinformation. But lifelogging as sousveillance does not represent this kind of potentially subversive viral corrosion as it is intrinsically imitative. The mere act of gazing back at the abyss of surveillance and control will not stop this abyss from swallowing you.


Bauman, Zygmunt, and David Lyon. Liquid Surveillance. A Conversation. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. Print.

Bilton, Nick. “One on One: Steve Mann, Wearable Computing Pioneer.” NYTimes.com. 7 Aug. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2018. https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/one-on-one-steve-mann-wearable- computing-pioneer/

Bolton, Michael Sean. “Digital Parasites: Reassessing Notions of Autonomy and Agency in Posthuman Subjectivity.” Theoria and Praxis. 1.2 (2013). 14–26. Print.

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Brin, David. “Transparency and Privacy: What We Need, Want and Do Not Understand.” Contrary Brin. 04 Oct. 2017. Web. 01. Dec. 2018. https://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2017/10/transparency-and-privacy-what-we-need.html

Debord, Guy and Gil J. Wolman. “A Users Guide to Détournement.” Situationist International Anthology. Ed. and Trans. Ken Knabb. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006. 14–21. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (1992): 3–7. Print.

Eggers, Dave. The Circle. London: Penguin, 2014. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8.4 (1982): 777–95. Print.

Herbrechter, Stefan. “Interview with Stefan Herbrechter.” Critical Posthumanism. Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2018. http://criticalposthumanism.net/the-posthuman-review/stefan-herbrechter- interview/

—. Posthumanism. A Critical Analysis. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

“Mann S.” University of Toronto. n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2018. https://www.ece.utoronto.ca/people/mann-s/

Mann, Steve. “Existential Technology. Wearable Computing Is Not the Real Issue!” Leonardo 36.1 (2003): 19–25. Print.

—. “McVeillance: How McDonaldized Surveillance Creates a Monopoly on Sight that Chills AR and Smartphone Development.” wearcam.org. 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2018.http://wearcam.org/mcveillance.pdf

Mann, Steve, Jason Nolan and Berry Wellman. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance and Society 1.3 (2003): 331–55. Print.

Mann, Steve and Joseph Ferenbok. “New Media and the Power Politics of Sousveillance in a Surveillance-Dominated World.” Surveillance and Society 11.1 (2013): 18–34. Print.

Nayar, Pramod K. Posthumanism. Cambridge: Polity, 2014. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Marion Faber. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

O’Hara Kieron, Mischa M.Tuffield, and Nigel Shadbolt. “Lifelogging: Privacy and Empowerment with Memories for Life.” Identity in the Information Society 1 (1) (2009): 155–71. Print.

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Rosen, David, and Aaron Santesso. The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature and Liberal Personhood. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism. Trans. Philip Mairet. London: Metuen, 1960. Print.

Science Gallery. “Lifelogging.” Science Gallery. 2015. Web. 18 Dec. 2018. https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/lifelogging

Zuckerman, Ethan. “Why We Must Continue to Turn the Camera on Police.” MIT Technology Review. 11 July 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2018. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601878/why-we-must-continue-to-turn-the-camera-on-police/

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1 For a full list see: https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/lifelogging/lifeloggers/

2 Michel Foucault has famously observed that “[t];here are two meanings of the word ‘subject’: subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge” (781). When I use the term in the context of this essay, I ask the reader to always keep both connotations in mind.

3 Loosely drawing on Walter Kaufmann’s classic anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, Mann defines existentialism “not a [as] philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. The refusal to belong to any school of thought and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial form the heart of existentialism. Thus, in formulating the concept of Existential Technology, I deliberately try to avoid making it too clear upon exactly whose shoulders I am standing, yet in so doing, I follow the (existentialist) tradition of not following a tradition” (Mann, “Existential Technology” 19–20).

4 Mann is of course aware that, in the context of post-panoptical rhizomatic surveillance, this language of verticality can only be used in a “metaphorical context, such as hierarchically being ‘in high places’ (e.g. police keeping watch over citizens, shopkeepers keeping watch over their shoppers, etc.), regardless of whether or not the police, shopkeepers, etc., are literally at a high vantage point” (Mann and Ferenbok 23).

5 It is important to note that the terms ‘lifelogging’ and ‘sousveillance’ are not synonymous. Lifelogging refers to all practices of first-person recording of personal data, whereas sousveillance refers to practices of ‘undersight’ in Mann’s model.

6 O’Hara et al. identify “three routes by which lifelogging might become surveillance. First, lifelog data may feature the actions of others in photographs, telephone calls, email exchanges and so on. Second, the tools for gathering data about oneself might also become tools for gathering data about others. Third, governments have a lot of power to insist that information that exists is made available to them” (164).

Bärbel Harju

Too Much Information: Self-Monitoring and Confessional Culture

Abstract: Driven by a desire to be seen, the contemporary knack for self-exposure and self-surveillance raises interesting questions regarding the changing notions of privacy, the economics of confessional culture, and their ramifications for constructions of the self in both the public and private sphere. In the wake of the NSA scandal, the proliferation of surveillance technologies, and the accumulation of ‘big data,’ Americans’ privacy is deemed under attack. Cultural critics, however, did not fail to notice peoples’ inclination to forgo reticence in favor of voluntary self-monitoring and public self-exposure, divulging intimate details on talk shows, reality television, and social media. Taking into account both Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “confessional culture” – a culture that values and demands self-surveillance and public confession – and Foucault’s notion of confession as a disciplinary technique, this essay explores contemporary practices of self-surveillance and ‘the obligation to confess’ in American culture and society. Arguing that the proliferation of confessional culture is not a symptom of a society that disregards privacy, I will probe historical (dis)continuities of confessional culture, and discuss the implications of several of its manifestations against the background of ever-present proclamations of the “death of privacy.” Rejecting to read public performances of intimacy as a devaluation of the private sphere, I will question whether people acting as their own PR agents on television and social media may indeed exercise control over their personal lives, possibly even enhancing and consolidating privacy in the act of confession.

Keywords: Privacy, confessional culture, publicity, self-surveillance, visibility, media

In the summer of 2016, an Off-Broadway play titled “Privacy” draws sizeable crowds to New York City’s Public Theater. Its online advertising alludes to privacy concerns in the digital age: “Who are you? Are you the websites you visit, the music you download, the photos you post? Do you measure your value by your followers and your likes? Who’s listening to you? And whom are you watching back?” (“Privacy”). Audience members are asked to bring their cell phones—charged—and leave them on during the show. The play requires audience participation: during the interactive ←57 | 58→show individual audience member’s private data will be exposed—in an effort to demonstrate the public nature of much of our personal information and the degree of visibility we subject ourselves to in the digital panopticon. The plot throws into sharp relief how complicit we are in our own surveillance and raises interesting questions regarding self-monitoring, voluntary self-exposure, and notions of privacy in contemporary US society.

The play reflects the perception that American society is in the midst of an unprecedented privacy crisis: in the wake of the NSA scandal, the proliferation of surveillance technologies, the accumulation of ‘big data,’ and spurred by novel techniques of invasion used by both governments and corporations, many Americans fear that their privacy is under attack. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, most Americans worry about the state and inviolability of their personal privacy, feeling that it “is being challenged along such core dimensions as the security of their personal information and their ability to retain confidentiality” (Madden). Simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically, Americans exhibit a fair amount of negligence towards their own privacy, especially if publicity is to be gained: The tendency to voluntarily waive the right to privacy by exposing private information is pervasive in a culture that pivots on the display of emotions and an emphasis on therapeutic sensibilities. Talk shows, reality television, and social media add to Americans’ inclination to privilege self-exposure and “oversharing” over privacy. They create ample opportunity and enticement to speak—surrendering to “the obligation to confess,” as Foucault put it in History of Sexuality (60), and declaring “aloud and intelligibly the truth of oneself” (“Subjectivity and Truth” 20). Indeed, the so-called “privacy paradox”—peoples’ lip service to care deeply about their privacy and the simultaneous disregard of their privacy in practice—has become a staple in debates over personal privacy (Miller).

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put a positive spin on peoples’ lack of concern, advocating for transparency and asserting in 2010 that privacy no longer appeared to be a “social norm” (qtd. in Johnson). Others, like former NSA employee and activist Edward Snowden, predict a bleak future, an Orwellian dystopia, ushered in by a complete loss of privacy. “A child born today,” Snowden warns in 2013, “will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have ←58 | 59→a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought” (“Edward Snowden”). Snowden adds to a narrative that has become all too familiar: the powerful modern myth about the publicity-seeking masses, who join forces with an all-encompassing surveillance apparatus in the consentient destruction of their privacy.

A cartoon published in the New Yorker in 2010 comments on the notion of a “transparent society” that normalizes and demands ever-increasing levels of self-monitoring and exposure. A mother bashfully smiles as she reads in her diary that she just found in the attic, while her daughter, puzzled, can’t seem to grasp the concept of a private journal: “What was the point of writing a blog that nobody else could read?” The daughter, clearly a digital native, transfers her mother’s technique of self-writing—a private diary—into what is framed as the modern-day equivalent, distinctly different due to its very public nature: a blog, written online for others to read. The inconceivability of self-writing and self-observation for the sole purpose of introspection, testifies to a society in which “we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection—ciphers of numbers and letters—so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose” (Lepore). The Janus-faced nature of today’s privacy crisis manifests itself in these twofold, yet complementary anxieties: one regarding the surveillance by government and corporations, the other pivoting on individuals’ desire for self-surveillance and confession.

This essay explores contemporary practices of self-surveillance and ‘the obligation to confess’ in American culture and society. Arguing that the proliferation of confessional culture is not a symptom of a society that disregards privacy, I will probe historical (dis)continuities of confessional culture, and discuss the implications of various of its manifestations against the background of ever-present proclamations of the “death of privacy.”1 To what extent is confessional culture and the public staging of privacy an inversion of a surveillance society that chips away at citizens’ privacy? Vigilance turned inward demands not only self-monitoring ←59 | 60→and close self-examination for the sake of self-improvement, but also the constant exposure and public proclamation of private details. Driven by a desire to be seen, the contemporary knack for self-exposure and self-surveillance raises interesting questions regarding the changing notions of privacy, the economics of confessional culture, and their ramifications for constructions of the self in both the public and private sphere. I will draw both from Foucault’s understanding of confession as a disciplinary technique and Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of a “confessional society” in order to investigate how these developments have become driving forces in the transformation of privacy in contemporary American culture (Bauman and Donskis 57). I explore the powerful mechanisms of self-monitoring and individuals’ voluntary participation in their own surveillance that are—according to both Foucault and Bauman—inscribed in the confessional paradigm. Following their insightful analysis, I will argue for privacy as a permeable, fluid concept of self and society capable of continuous reinvention and renegotiation. Declining to read public performances of intimacy as a devaluation of the private sphere, I will question whether people acting as their own PR agents on television and social media may indeed exercise control over their personal lives, possibly even enhancing and consolidating privacy in the act of confession. This reconceptualization offers a counter-narrative to conventional readings of privacy and publicity as mutually exclusive. An analysis of contemporary confessional culture might benefit from the notion that privacy and publicity are co-dependent and mutually reinforcing, and that privacy may actually “[thrive] in an age of hyper-publicity” (Jurgenson and Rey 61).

1 Self-Revelation and the Obligation to Speak: Foucault’s Confessing Animal

Any examination of self-surveillance and confession requires the debunking of two widespread presumptions. Confessional practices are neither a direct result of the Internet’s and modern mass media’s endless possibilities to monitor and broadcast the self; nor is self-revelation a deep-seated, ahistorical, transcultural human need or psychological compulsion, “the oldest human longing,” as Zora Neale Hurston put it in Their Eyes Were ←60 | 61→Watching God (10). Today’s media landscape boasts with self-monitoring and confessional practices: voyeuristic reality television programs and talk shows nudge contestants into admitting humiliatingly private details just as much as personal blogs, social media sites (Facebook, Twitter), and confessional platforms (simplyconfess.com). Yet, confession has been an important cultural technique for centuries, shifting and changing with broader cultural currents, and gaining particular currency in US society. The second misconception stems from the observation that the act of confession, painful and excruciating as it may be, promises a sense of relief, considerable compensation, catharsis even.2 The conclusion that the act of confession, thus, satisfies “an innate psychological need” requires careful analysis (Taylor 2, emphasis added).

Michel Foucault makes a series of observations regarding confessional practices in History of Sexuality that help debunk these popular notions of confession. Foucault takes a genealogical approach, famously noting that “Western man has become a confessing animal” (59, emphasis added).3 According to Foucault, the practice of confession has deeply impacted Western society since 1215, when the Fourth Council of the Lateran introduced confession and, from then on, demanded Christians to confess their sins once a year to a priest. Meticulous self-examination became the rule and, thus, “confession became one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth” (History of Sexuality 78). While confession has long left the strictly religious realm, its enticement for self-monitoring and exposure has remained intact, as Foucault observes, and indeed permeates secular life:

←61 | 62→

The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one’s crime, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desire, one’s illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. (78)


ISBN (Book)
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