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Surveillance and Visual Studies

By Catherine Liu
When I was a graduate student at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York in the late 1980s, I took enough Art History credits to be in that program even though I was doing a PhD in French. I thought interdisciplinarity was the future of all academic work. I was interested in the emergence of the bourgeois sensibility in Literature in the 17th and 18th centuries in France, but taking Linda Nochlin’s courses on French painting gave a whole other dimension to my understanding of the hot house environments where proto-feminist subcultures of aristocratic and literary women tried to communicate to each other their experiences. My understanding of the Enlightenment and the culture industry was enhanced by my years at the University of Minnesota where Frankfurt School traditions were kept alive alongside cultural studies methodologies. I have never been able to think about surveillance without thinking about the liberal formation of privacy at a particular time in European history. For me, Visual Studies has provided a capacious intellectual home in which to explore the full integration of surveillance imagery into contemporary cinema and art practice. I have always been interested in the ways in which the boundary between private and public keeps shifting and why they are so different across cultures.

Surveillance means very literally “to watch over.” It describes a series of activities that are meant to secure political and moral boundaries. Before the advent of modernity, surveillance was carried formally and informally by political and religious leaders seeking to squash dissent and blasphemy. Augustine’s Confessions represented a breakthrough in religious self-observation while Norbert Elias describes the court society in early modern Europe as a place where those close to power learned to watch over each other and themselves. When Jane Jacobs described the safety of urban communities as being guaranteed by “eyes on the street,” she thought of mutual, informal surveillance in a positive way.

The work of Michel Foucault set up a new historical frame in which we could understand discipline and punishment as part of an apparatus of power, incarnated most effectively in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison design. Foucault’s theory of power allowed him to link army, prison and classroom as disciplinary spaces where bodies in grids made conformity and difference legible and punishable. He presented a fully developed, non-economic and non-metaphysical method of understanding not just politics, but identity itself. Significantly, Foucault never talked about property or the surveillance of slaves and the counting of bodies in terms of discipline or punishment.

Americans have always been ambivalent about the interlocking relationship between privacy and surveillance. I have always taught Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 classic Rear Window in my class about surveillant cinema. Hitchcock’s film legitimizes snooping on your neighbors, enhancing Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” with binoculars and telephoto lenses. Jimmy Stewart plays a housebound wartime photographer coaxed back into the hedonism of American consumerism by his beautiful model girlfriend, Lisa, played by Grace Kelly. In the context of the Cold War, Hitchcock’s film justifies surveillance in a beautifully crafted thriller; where you look hard enough, you will find guilt.

Neoliberalism has made our inner lives as tightly monitored and managed as anything external to us. With the rise of social media, ubiquitous and mobile computing, surveillance is built into everything we touch. Despite the warnings about privacy and profits, there has been no stampede away from Google or Facebook. The algorithm rather than the camera or window controls what we see online and who sees us as well. In a deindustrializing world, information gathered about us is the gold for which social media companies are hungry. Wearables and the Internet of Things are other ways for surveillant technologies to penetrate more deeply into what was formerly thought of as private life. Privacy panics about ‘security’ are not adequate responses to a world in which surveillant technologies are built into the infrastructure of social media itself. From the point of the view of future historians, Airbnb and Uber may be  surveillance platforms masquerading as a vacation rental service and a ride hailing app. We need new ways to think and talk about surveillance.
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