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Surveillance | Society | Culture

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Edited By Florian Zappe and Andrew S. Gross

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

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Death by Data: Identification and Dataveillance in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

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Abstract: Discourses about surveillance in Western societies often end up in the realm of algorithms, clouds, and databases. Piled and sorted here are not just masses of data, but actual identities. Removed from their embodied owners, these identities become classifiable and quantifiable. The image of individuals as grids of digital categories conveys and perpetuates a specific notion of the self. The protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Lenny Abramov, is repeatedly confronted with this categorical reproduction of his identity. In my paper, I argue that Shteyngart’s novel portrays the interaction of two different sorts of identification, namely categorical identification and narrative identification. Both simultaneously converge and compete in Shteyngart’s dystopian America, raising questions about individual agency and the distribution of life chances. I further suggest that the notion of quantifiable and classifiable identities does not intrude into the characters’ world through brute oppression. Rather, it seeps into their society through the seductive forces of corporate capitalism, which eventually replaces the nation state in the novel and eradicates foundational American myths. Surveillance becomes pervasive because it caters to desires of love and control (of the Other or the body). Hence, Super Sad True Love Story underlines the importance of fictional dystopias for re-describing what it means to be under surveillance today. In order to support my argument, I refer to sociological and philosophical theorizations of surveillance, from Mark Poster’s work on databases to Benjamin Goold’s analysis of categorical identification.

Keywords: Gary Shteyngart; data mining,...

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