Thursday, 6 October 2011

Cultures of Surveillance

In a moment of serendipity I find myself sitting down to write a report about a conference I recently attended at UCL, whilst also reading an editorial published yesterday, both of which address congruent topics - surveillance and culture

The conference was the 'Cultures of Surveillance' hosted by the Autopsies Group at UCL. It ran from the evening of Thursday 29th  through to the evening of Saturday 1st. (website here). There were keynotes from Tom Gunning (which I sadly missed) and from Simon Cole. Cole engaged with the mythology of the 'CSI' effect, finding little actual evidence for the supposed threat to the US juridical system by the television viewing habits of its population, but rather a large institutional perception of a problem and a number of responses. What was fascinating was the way that the media appeared to be adopting the critical stance of public understanding of science scholars.

The conference was diverse, although with a leaning towards the humanities. You can see this diversity from the programme. There were presentations on photojournalism, visibility in court houses (both architecturally and increasingly through mobile phone cameras), the media presentation of judges, performance in espionage, surveillance and art, public images of Guantanamo Bay, the Ring of Steel in London, house numbering, German census boycotts, the sociological 'mass observation project' and several other topics. There was even a delivered-over-video presentation from David Lyon on 'surveillance cultures' (which you can see here). My own contribution was an attempt to look at the way that surveillance studies has drawn upon visual cultural approaches (art theory, photojournalism, art practice) and the ways that it can get stuck within a visual trap.

One of the questions repeatedly asked at various points during the conference was 'is this surveillance?' or 'how can we tell if this is surveillance or not?' Part of this may well be the sort of inclusion/exclusion activity that can mark interdisciplinary fields ("I'm fairly sure I'm working on surveillance, I'm not entirely sure that you are"). There certainly is a place for conceptual clarity on the way that surveillance is used, but I think there's been plenty of this within surveillance studies, which would be useful. I'm cautious about essentialist definitions, but rather see 'surveillance' as a conceptual concept that we can apply to practices in the world (or to elements of cultural products) as an analytical lens. That said, I've got a soft spot for surveillance as 'political epistemology'.

The editorial for a special section of Sociological Quarterly, by Torin Monahan is 'Surveillance as Cultural Practice'. I contributed a paper to this section, which looks at the ways surveillance is represented and discussed in the UK print news media, as well as making an argument about the importance of language in understanding surveillance (available behind a journal paywall here). I'd like to raise the editorial in the context of the UCL conference, because it speaks to several of things things I thought about during the event. Torin suggests that cultural studies of surveillance might be better placed to embrace reflexivity, and to be part of a useful expansion of the field beyond what he sees as its origins within sociological approaches and a focus upon institutional power dynamics. The article traces one version of the trajectory of surveillance studies, and it is a version which might well be useful to conference participants. The list of references would also be of particular use.

The conference also left me thinking about research methods across disciplines, and in particular how this might affect a 'transdisciplinary enterprise' as Monahan calls surveillance studies. I'm convinced that cultural depictions and representations of surveillance practices are meaningful and important. But I think I need to think more about the methodological ways to integrate that. I think I know how to do political discourse analysis, and feel comfortable looking at the way groups talk or write about a practice such as surveillance. I don't quite yet know how to integrate the analysis of a film in terms of surveillance. To what extent does this privilege the perspective of a particular director, and if it does, why are we privileging that over somebody who does not have the cultural and financial resources to produce art? I suspect there might be resources within film studies to help me answer that. It's the sort of debate a discipline has with itself, but that might not be the sort of thing an 'outsider' looking to that discipline for inspiration would encouter.

I'm encouraged by the spread of the concept of surveillance throughout a range of academic networks. Over the last couple of years I've been to conferences on surveillance where I didn't know most of the academics there, and its been exciting. I think it speaks to the purchase the concept has been getting in public life over recent years. Surveillance is a concern, but also potentially a paradigm. The other side of this diversity is that for many papers at such events, the particular work presented is often the author's first (and sometimes sadly last) engagement with surveillance. Without wanting to play at disciplinary gate-keeper (and not actually being able to) the danger is that such contributions tap up against the edges of the body of surveillance studies literature, appropriate the panopticon, or perhaps the synopticon, quote David Lyon, and then return to their own disciplinary home. Surveillance studies carries quite a few concepts and ideas that would be helpful - for example the discussions over the meaning of surveillance. My response would never be to exclude or disregard these contributions, because they've not read all the papers I've read. I think the role that those of us for whom surveillance is a core interests can play is to point such contributions towards those particular ideas and concepts that would help them the most. That requires engagement and participation. My suspiscion is that this works in both directions.

So my thanks to the conference organisers, for some movement in that direction - (and also for the lunches, the lunches were pretty good).

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