"Surveillance and literature, as kindred practices, have light to shed on each other."
When David Rosen
and Aaron Santesso
considered the discipline of surveillance studies in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, they saw contributions from political scientists, sociologists, legal scholars, and engineers, but found that "the distinctive and necessary contribution of the humanities as such to this conversation" had "largely gone unarticulated" (5). The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood
(Yale University Press, 2013) is a wide ranging, deeply researched, and compellingly argued corrective to that lacuna that places humanistic thought, and in particular literary history, in complex and satisfying conversation with the disciplines working to theorize surveillance for our moment.
Arguing that "the ultimate target of all surveillance activity: the individual self" is best approached as a knot of questions rather than a stable given, Rosen and Santesso offer an account of "the ways that conceptions of selfhood have changed over time" (8). Working across modes and genres, their argument spans from the early modern period to the present day, along the way challenging current discussions of the role of literature in culture and the myth of interpretive competence that lies behind much thinking about surveillance.
Through careful examination of diverse texts, from Locke's Essay on Toleration
through Orwell's oeuvre and Tolkien's novels to Enemy of the State
and other films from our own era, Rosen and Santesso demonstrate that the "hermeneutic problems of surveillance are also literary problems" (13). Engaging thinkers who have attempted to grapple with the power of narrative to shape our lives--Swift, Bentham, Mill, Weber, Adorno, Habermas, Foucault, Baudrillard, and others--Rosen and Santesso essentially set out to rethink modernity, exploring "the effects that fiction has on reality," and finally offering us a new way of understanding how and why we watch and read our neighbors (9).
Carl Nellis is an academic editor and writing instructor working north of Boston, where he researches contemporary American community formation around appropriations of medieval European culture. You can learn more about Carl's work at carlnellis.wordpress.com.