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Surveillance | Society | Culture


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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The Black Box of Humanism: Surveillance, the Spy Narrative, and Literary Form


Abstract: I argue that Jennifer Egan’s Black Box, first published as a series of tweets by the New Yorker in 2012, is a covert action, in enemy territory, on the side of literary humanism. The novella responds to threats posed by digital communication—the threat to literature and the threat to privacy—by spying on the electronic medium of surveillance. That is to say it masquerades as a spy story in order to use familiar narrative conventions as a shield for its true subject, which is the pathos of the protagonist’s partially observed destiny, or what I will call clandestinity: the secreting of something private in the midst of the public sphere. Clandestinity is not on the side of surveillance but a refuge from it. Under the guise of patriotism, embedded in data transfer, Egan’s twitter thriller smuggles in the kind of literary character that has become one of the novel’s trademark features in its public representation of the private sphere.

Keywords: Surveillance, literariness, spy novel, humanism, digital communication

From a humanist perspective, technology often seems to dominate those it was designed to help. Surveillance, aided by advances in computer and video technology, is one of the more recent examples of such domination. The search-engines and cameras designed to pander to our interests and keep criminals at bay, end up divulging our secrets, destroying our privacy, and subjecting personal preferences to the impersonal forces of government and the market.

This humanist perspective...

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