Cultural Studies

Surveillance practices of various kinds have always been an important aspect of cultural power valences. However, since we entered the realm of the “new” surveillance within late capitalist societies, scientific analyses of this phenomenon in the social sciences and the humanities are confronted with the peril of fast datedness due to the rapid development of surveillance technologies and their networks. This also rapidly changes our use of these technologies, as well as our cultural attitudes to them, and the way people perceive themselves in relation to surveillance. With this problem, the urgency of cultural analysis of surveillance is expressed simultaneously: We need cultural analysis of surveillance to understand our contemporary life worlds. Examining surveillance from a cultural studies perspective has, therefore, become a growing field in recent years. Several special issues of the journal Surveillance & Society have been dedicated to art and social media practices, and there has also been an increase in the discussion of surveillance aspects within literary, film, and media studies. This entry reviews the history of cultural studies with regard to surveillance and how it has evolved in recent years, and it concludes with an examination of how popular culture and media theorists see cultural studies and the study of surveillance interacting.

Gary T. Marx has already presented a concise genealogy of how American post–World War II popular culture imagined surveillance. The most useful volume concerning this research question—cultural imagining of surveillance—is still the edited volume CTRL [SPACE] (which accompanied an exhibition at the Center for Media and Communication in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2001), due to its theoretical and historical focus. The closed-circuit television camera and its many cultural implications have been an especially fruitful entry point for cultural analysis of surveillance. A more practice-oriented approach to issues of cultural expression and surveillance is represented by the work of John McGrath, who discusses film and theater of and with surveillance from a point of view gleaned from the study of performativity, and examines the cultural implications of expressing ourselves with surveillance technology on a reflected cultural-theoretical level. Early issues of the journal Surveillance & Society focused on the role of new media and surveillance art in a similar context. David Barnard-Wills has discussed the ways of subjectivation that techniques of identification established by the state impose on individuals.

From the middle of the 2000s onward, the interest of cultural studies in surveillance increased for various reasons. First, the route on which surveillance studies had been set—a social scientist lens, empiricist studies often focusing on examples from Great Britain, on the one hand, and a strong foundation of theoretical assumptions in Panopticism, on the other—started to expand both methodologically as well as epistemologically. Second, after the events of 9/11, surveillance and security became the dominant tropes of global politics and increasingly shaped global popular culture. The intertwined development of personal digital communication and consumption, and a global culture of surveillance and security after 9/11 not only increased the ubiquity of surveillance but also brought to the forefront the ambiguities and multiple contexts of everyday life, of which surveillance is a part. In short, the images of Big Brother and the Panopticon started to be diversified. In the field of popular culture, the new culture of surveillance as simultaneously a technique of control, voyeurism, and exhibitionism—or simply an aesthetic convention—became increasingly evoked. Artworks by female artists, as well as the reception of Andrea Arnold’s movie Red Road, changed the conventions of a Western imaginary of the surveillant gaze as male and voyeuristic, including ambiguous aspects of aestheticism, media specificity, melancholia, and care into their representation or performance of surveillance. Film scholars, especially, took this as a cue to discuss the significance of gender, race, class, and sexuality in representations of the surveillant gaze. Film scholar Patricia Pisters shows how female surveillance art is able to express a host of affects that diversify the cultural expressions—evocations of total control or the attempt to evade total control—we have classically connected with film and narratives concerned with surveillance themes.

Nicole Falkenhayner

See also Closed-Circuit Television ; Identity Politics ; Marx, Gary T. ; Panopticon, The ; Social Sorting ; Surveillance & Society

Further Readings

Barnard-Wills, David.Surveillance and Identity: Discourse, Subjectivity and the State. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

Chun, Wendy H. K. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

Fuller, Matthew. Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Lake, Jessica. “Red Road (2006) and Emerging Narratives of ‘Sub-Veillance’.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, v.24/2 (2010).

Levin, Thomas Y.,et al., eds. CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance >From Bentham to Big Brother. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

McGrath, John E. Loving Big Brother: Performance, Privacy and Surveillance Space. London, England: Routledge, 2004.

McGrath, John E. and Robert J. Sweeny, eds. “Surveillance, Performance and New Media Art” [Special issue]. Surveillance & Society, v.7/2 (2010).

Monahan, Torin, ed. “Surveillance as Cultural Practice” [Special issue]. Sociological Quarterly, v.52 (2011).

Pisters, Patricia. “Art as Circuit Breaker: Surveillance Screen and the Powers of Affect.” In Bettina Pepenburg and Marta Zarzycka (eds.), Carnal Aesthetics: Transgressive Imagery and Feminist Politics. London, England: I. B. Tauris, 2013.