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Invisibility Studies

Surveillance, Transparency and the Hidden in Contemporary Culture


Henriette Steiner and Kristin Veel

Invisibility Studies explores current changes in the relationship between what we consider visible and what invisible in different areas of contemporary culture. Contributions trace how these changes make their marks on various cultural fields and investigate the cultural significance of these developments, such as transparency and privacy in urban architecture and the silent invasion of surveillance technologies into everyday life. The book contends that when it comes to the changing relationship of the visible and the invisible, the connection between seeing and not being seen is an exchange conditioned by physical and social settings that create certain possibilities for visibility and visuality, yet exclude others. The richness and complexity of this cultural framework means that no single discipline or interdisciplinary approach could capture it single-handedly. Invisibility Studies begins this conversation by bringing together scholars across the fields of architectural history and theory, art, film and literature, philosophy, cultural theory and contemporary anthropology as well as featuring work by a collective of artists.
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14 Vanishing Surveillance: Ghost-Hunting in the Ubiquitous Surveillance Society



The twenty-first century is seeing a rapid transformation of our societies into pervasive or ambient ubiquitous surveillance societies. Ubiquitous surveillance (‘ubisurv’) depends on ‘ubiquitous computing (‘ubicomp’). The gradual infiltration of computing and communications devices into increasingly mundane objects, structures and living things, is one of the key technological enablers of ubiquitous surveillance.

There are many individual technological developments one could give as examples, from geodemographic and geolocation systems to the complex augmented reality environments created by artists. However, surveillance becoming ubiquitous is not simply the proliferation of intensely but narrowly seeing ‘oligoptica’;2 it is also a question of the way in which surveillance is less obvious even as it increases: surveillance is vanishing.

This chapter argues that the increasing ubiquity of technologies of visibility, coupled with the vanishing of the technologies themselves, represents a change in the place of the visual in Western culture, and with it, ← 281 | 282 → challenges to knowledge and politics. In the modern period, the visual gradually assumed a central and privileged place, and the idea that understanding something is secondary to its viewing became dominant.3 As modern subjects, we are acculturated into this sense that vision matters, that seeing something is the prelude to grasping its meaning, and hence to constructing a politics.

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