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Someone out there is watching

CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Edited by Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne and Peter Weibel, The MIT Press: 656 pp., $39.95

June 15, 2003|Hal Foster | Hal Foster is the author of "Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes)" and is Townsend Martin professor of art and archeology at Princeton University.

A month after Sept. 11, a vast exhibition titled "CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance From Bentham to Big Brother" opened at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. Its curator, Thomas Levin, a media theorist from New York, could hardly have foreseen the convergence of his survey of art and theory concerning surveillance with the "war on terrorism" launched by the Bush administration, including the home-front war of invasive checks, extensive arrests and indefinite detentions that has positioned thousands as "combatants" first and "citizens" second. This confluence makes the exhibition catalog an essential primer in "surveillant literacy," ever more urgent as this awareness is essential not only for the protection of civil rights but also, more simply, for the practice of everyday life.

"Americans," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer remarked soon after the attacks, " ... need to watch what they say, watch what they do." His caution is fundamental to modern surveillance, which works mostly through our inhibition, through our internalization of its "gaze." But, at least in some small measure, "we" might also reverse this threat and watch what "they" say and do as well. This is one persistent message of "CTRL [SPACE]": that new techniques of surveillance also open up new possibilities for awareness and resistance.

"Our world has changed forever," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft proclaimed on Sept. 11. Quickly this remark (attributed to others as well) became a cliche, and this manipulated sense of epochal change permitted the precipitous passage of the Patriot Act. The new law, signed by President Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, allows for all telephone and e-mail activity by an individual to be tapped with a single warrant, for single warrants to be valid nationwide, for suspected foreigners to be held without charge for seven days and for other "enhanced surveillance procedures," including "DNA identification" and "foreign student monitoring." On May 30, 2002, Ashcroft announced further surveillance of religious and political organizations, libraries, Internet sites and other public spaces (many libraries now routinely dump records of use as a result). More recently, the tracking of Muslim men from 25 countries has become mandatory, and the tracking of countless others through data mining, biometric identification and many other means has become common.

Critics, both liberal and libertarian, have pointed to the paradox of an attorney general, the chief enforcer of the Constitution for the executive branch, who seems bent on eroding basic rights to privacy and due process (no less a Republican stalwart than Dick Armey has called Ashcroft's Justice Department "out of control" for its federal activism).

Nonetheless, the march to a bigger kind of Big Brother continues apace. The Pentagon floated its own surveillance project with the Orwellian title "Total Information Awareness." Designed, as William Safire wrote, to "scoop up your lifetime paper trail," it was shelved only when word got out that Adm. John M. Poindexter, who was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, was slated to head it. And now there are congressmen who still wish to make the provisions of the Patriot Act permanent and to propose a Patriot Act II that would give the government access to computerized private information without a court order.

This background makes "CTRL [SPACE]" resonant reading. Its mix of critical texts and art projects traces a rich history of both modern "logics" of surveillance and recent attempts "to appropriate, refunction, expose and undermine these logics." Contemporary reflections on surveillance are much indebted to Michel Foucault, who published his seminal study of the subject, "Discipline and Punish," in 1975. Represented here by a subsequent interview, Foucault argued a decisive shift from the old spectacle of punishment -- with power inscribed on the very body of the criminal, whipped, racked or worse in public -- to the modern practice of discipline, with the prisoner controlled less violently, more privately, again in large part through a gaze that he is led to internalize.

For Foucault, the father of modern surveillance is the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who proposed his famous "panopticon" in 1787 as an initial reform of ancien regime punishments. A structure in the form of a ring, the panopticon has a tower at its center; there, inaccessible to the prisoners, one guard can look into all the cells arrayed in the ring and observe any cell at any time ("panopticon" means "all-seeing").

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