“On Surveillance: Monitoring, Tracking, Aggregating”

Inaugural Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies, Weimar, June 6-11, 2011

For its inaugural year in 2011 the Princeton-Weimar Summer School in Media Studies will focus on the comparative analysis and theoretical interrogation of selected aspects of surveillance culture. The one-week series of seminars, workshops, and lectures will be devoted to an interrogation of the technological, aesthetic, political, and conceptual dimensions of practices of monitoring, tracking and data aggregation.

What are the cultural stakes in the contemporary debates about security? How does visibility function in the detection of, and the ostensible protection from, danger? What are the logics of surveillance, its impacts on various economies of representation and what one could call the recalibration of the sensorium? What are the relative merits and pitfalls of conceptualizing monitoring and surveillance in terms of Foucaultian discipline and panoptic regimes versus those of a Deleuzian “control society”? How do strategies and tactics of everyday practices evolve under more or less permanent surveillance? What is at stake in the aesthetic and artistic appropriation of surveillance? The ubiquity of surveillance systems in spaces both public (parking garages, subways, buses, stadiums) and private (stores, homes, cars) has begun to problematize the very distinction between the so-called private and public spheres. When vast numbers of private CCTV cameras directed onto public sidewalk space are networked into and monitored by state “security”operations, or when crowdsourcing is used to monitor the CCTV feeds from commercial establishments — is the public/private distinction still useful?

These and other questions will be discussed in the context of the historical evolution of media. For example, because much of the critical literature has heretofore focused largely on closed-circuit video surveillance, a closer examination of television technology and its cultures can provide productive insights. Almost thirty years ago the American philosopher Stanley Cavell developed the idea of a special mode, or practice, of seeing which he called “monitoring” and which he argued is central to any understanding of television. Cavell contrasts “monitoring,” understood as a practice of screening, controlling, and walling out the world, with “viewing,” which he defines as a mode of perception characteristic of film spectatorship more involved in projections of the world. Even earlier, television technologies and the experiments with flights to outer space had helped develop the dispositif for certain surveillance apparatuses and practices through the refinement of satellite and long distance communication, remote steering, control and monitoring systems, the production and circulation of images on a global scale, and the process of transforming data into an image of the planet. Later, it has been argued, the remote control placed the viewer in front of an immense and permanently moving type of imagery which was no longer meant to be watched, but to be screened or monitored. Here what one might call surveillant modes or habits became central to the domain of everyday life.

With the advent of cyberspace a host of new issues about surveillance arise, ranging from the right to informational self-determination or what could be called the politics of the default setting (is my data mine until I say otherwise and, if so, who can guarantee this and how?) and the dynamics of ubiquitous tracking (GPS-based automobile-monitoring systems used by car rental and trucking companies, cell-phone positionality services used by invasive parents) to the stakes of what one could call a surveillant ontology (I am surveilled therefore I am) characteristic of certain cultures of social media (most paradigmatically Facebook). Is the astonishing ubiquity of the practice of continuously broadcasting all sorts of details about one’s daily life an index of the historicity of certain assumptions about the value of privacy or merely a symptom of a worrisome lag of technological literacy (wherein unwitting users only discover too late the dire and quite permanent consequences of their data promiscuity)? What is the relation of our digital self-fashioning to that other and equally widespread practice of cyber-portraiture known as the “data shadow” which exists for virtually everyone and is created through the corporate aggregation of vast databases of information from frequent flyer, surfing, toll-road, cell phone, credit-card usage, and the like?