Worlds Under Watch: The Moving Surveillance-Image and Its Institutions

Cedric Bobro traces the linguistics roots of surveillance and the fantasy of the omnipotent view through ghosts and AI to the modern surveillance apparatus.
[Ed. note: this post is part of our Student Voices section. In this issue all posts in the section come from papers given at the 2019 SCMS-U Conference. For more background on these posts and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

God creates us in his own image, we are told. Not only does he create us in his own image, but he creates the universe in which we are to exist or ‘be’ according to God’s ideal. God then remains all-seeing, and humans adjust their behavior in accordance to fit the image. This economy is the image of surveillance-function par excellence. From the perspective of regulation and surveillance, a very successful institution such as the Roman Catholic Church, recognized this, and circulated this powerful image in every capacity, as well as modeled the composition of its surveillance-technologies on this very image. To act or shift behavior so as to correspond to the Rule of God and therefore to observe the code of God is to act, then, in virtue of an image to which one’s own image, or marker of the individual in some respects, is a reflection. In this analogy, the apparatus of surveillance contains a symbolic and behavioral order within the representing power of the Image of God, for instance the Commandments, and thus positions its subjects and certainly the subjects’ humanness as imperfect versions of this ideal image, given and embedded “naturally” by the surveilling apparatus and its method of statistical and metrical classification. So, self-surveillance comes in the form of reapportioning, even rewriting one’s own humanity, so as to correspond directly to the image given to oneself by that which watches the subject and the image of the surveilling power’s rigid ideal of itsown world. Where this dynamic manifests itself as aesthetic, narrative, or information, is where human beings are created in an institution’s “own image,” which in other words is the full set of governing principles, values, and rules it applies on, and eventually instills in, a particular world.

The model, albeit quite an abstract one, that this provides to us, is that of the surveilling body’s technology inscribing, recording, and archiving its subjects in entirely essential terms—such that the inscription process is reevaluated through a dual observation in the form of collecting ‘objective’ data. The technology inscribes its subjects within the limits of its values (which spans from ideology in something like a media conglomerate to rules in something such as a prison), the boundaries of its language (or, its symbolically ordered methodology, expressing the table of rules, or the grid it maps of proper interactivity amongst subjects, and accepted expressions and self-expressions), and finally the extent of its gaze, this altogether forms its world and, when it comes to video or audio surveillance, the technology cements a versatile and adherent double (in other words, a picture-of-its-world) as an objective or innocent capture. But, we know this is a fabrication, of course: in the words of Jacques Derrida: “We know there is no such thing as an innocent archive.” 1Antoine de Baecque, Thierry Jousse, Jacques Derrida, Peggy Kamuf, et. al, “Cinema and Its Ghosts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” Discourse37, no. 1 (2015): 22-39. This is the model we will be carrying into the question of surveillance in cinema.

But first, I want to return to the analogy I invoked earlier: the creation of ‘man’ in God’s own image and the yearning for ‘man’ to become or live that image. This recalls, in a way, Michel Foucault’s entire endeavor by way of bio-power, corresponding to the “care of the self” and, especially with the notion that the subject is “granted” their free will by God, summating the fruits of his epistemic archaeology as well as his theories on subjection. In Thomas Mathiesen’s article on Michel Foucault’s panopticon, he writes, “[Foucault] saw his book as a ‘correlative history of the modern soul […] I understand him to mean the creation of human beings who control themselves through self-control.”2Thomas Mathiesen, “The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s `Panopticon’ Revisited,” Theoretical Criminology1, no. 2 (May 1997): 215–34, doi:10.1177/1362480697001002003. This pairing of self-control and a modernist archaeology itself brings to mind Jonathan Crary’s thoughts on the archetype of the Observer: Crary draws upon etymology:

Unlike spectare, the Latin root for ‘spectator,’ the root for ‘observe’ does not literally mean ‘to look at.’ Observare means ‘to conform one’s action, to comply with,’ as in observing rules, codes, regulations, and practices. Though obviously one who sees, an observer is more importantly one who sees within a prescribed set of possibilities, one who is embedded in a system of conventions and limitations.3Jonathan Crary, “Techniques of the Observer,” October45 (1988): 6, doi:10.2307/779041.

Taking this notion of the observer, we see that both sides of a surveillance system engage in a visuality towards an image that proposes limits of the world and is, by very virtue of credulous engagement with it as image, concretizes the boundaries of its sign-relation, although of course, the image is produced on only one end whilst using the matter of the other end. But what are the types of this image? I would like to focus specifically on those producers, which follow in two dominant trends or strategies: the Panopticon and the Synopticon. These two surveillance architectures can be distilled simply as follows: the former as few watching the many, and vice versa in the latter.

I want to make the case that the Panopticon/Synopticon distinction is somewhat false. Instead, I want to present each as reciprocally interacting ends of a form of surveillance revolving around modal production of a visible yet unverifiable image of its contained world, as if the many-faced image forms the central mode of two cones of a surveillance apparatus; for instance, panoptic discipline and pedagogical signage in an academic institution. I borrow the conditions, visible yet unverifiable, from Bentham’s sketch of ideal power. He maintains first that the central tower must be visible, so, those in the cells must be able to see the tower, but second, the actual mode of discipline which the tower demonstrates does not need to be substantiated by an actual agent at all times, it needs only to be continuously unverifiable as to whether or not it is, thereby, to its subjects, it is always capable of demonstrating what is necessary for control.4Jeremy Bentham, “Essential Points of the Plan,” In The Panopticon Writings, by Jeremy Bentham, edited by Miran Božovič (London: Verso Books, 1995), 43-45. See also Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 200-207. Strengthened on the panoptic end by recent developments in recording technology, and amplified on the synoptic end through proliferating surveillance narratives and distribution of said recordings, the image is growing more and more visible and credulous thereby lessening even more the necessity for actualfunction of enforcement behind its unverifiability.5Chomskian notions of corporatism and the mass media as well as Guy Debord’s notion of the Society of the Spectacle warrant updates here, but nevertheless emphasize a Panoptic tower-esque effect of synoptic televisual information For instance, the panoptic end displays biometrics, ‘dataveillance,’6See Oscar H Gandy, Jr, “Statistical Surveillance,” in Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies,ed. Kirstie Ball, Kevin D. Haggerty and David Lyon (Abingdon: Routledge, 27 Mar 2012 ), accessed 14 Jun 2019, Routledge Handbooks Online. rewards, punishments, statistics-based prevention of dissent in behavior, etc. while the synoptic end often displays marketing, demographics,7Joseph Turow and Nora Draper, “Advertising’s New Surveillance Ecosystem,” in Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, ed. Kirstie Ball, Kevin D. Haggerty and David Lyon (Abingdon: Routledge, 27 Mar 2012 ), accessed 14 Jun 2019, Routledge Handbooks Online. gratification, celebrity, mythology, reassurance narratives, and ideology. All work to create their subject in their own image, their own taxonomy, their own system of credit, even their own humanity.

This takes me to a specific outline of the functioning of the surveillance-image, firstly, as it plays generically, before we consider the implications of a textual or creative integration. The surveillance-image is a means for the institution to code its own mechanism, on top of its own world, it is a way of ordering in an aesthetic, the hierarchy of values, value, and symbols to its own subjects. For instance, take any academic institution: it will present ever-shifting mottos or mission statements, logos, initiatives, banners, commemorations; these are images which fix its massive array of codes into ideals. They also seem to be indicating, “here are the parameters or metrics that constitute the frame through which you will be and are being seen, watched, judged, diagnosed, etc.” If we move to the field of psychology for just a moment, too, we see that even images with no substantiated recourse for power or enforcement behind them, create a generalized version of this effect. There was an experiment conducted at a university in the UK which put up various images nearby an ‘honesty box’ in a coffee room where the patrons would pay for their milk on the basis of trust. For ten weeks the image alternated between varying pictures of flowers and varying images of pairs of eyes, and as a result, on average the patrons paid nearly three times more per litre of milk when the eyes were on display than the flowers.8Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle, Gilbert Roberts, “Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting,” Biol Lett 2, no. 3 (September 2006): 412–414, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509.

How has the surveillance-image been implemented in moving media, how does it operate, and what are its generic functions? A cinematic surveillance-image often jumps on the objective strategies of representing that a surveillance apparatus adopts, in the attempt to breach the ways of being-in-its-world that the apparatus has prescribed; which is why the ghost, the monstrous, the fiend, the criminal, or the incomprehensible so often traverse this heavily regulated area.

In American Horror Story: Roanoke (Ryan Murphy, et al. 2016), the producer pitches a sequel television show: with the remark, “reality is what you make it, you of all people should know,” he reminds the executive of the raison d’etre for the mass-media’s production of the surveillance-image, since it allows for the inhuman – which is a primary motif of attraction and attracting narratives – to seemingly rupture the genuine, human world. What the producer wants is in-fighting, sex, and overall, taboo behavior, beastly, violent reactions, and so on, so he aims to construct a panoptic world in which the unsuspecting inhabitants, or, subjects, behave in a manner entirely against the code of the broader social order – in other words, the environmental reality of the viewer-at-home, thereby captivating the massive synoptic gaze of television – but which ultimately adheres to the TV network’s agenda and a capitalist mode of exhibition or attraction. But, of course, it doesn’t all turn out the way he hopes. Soon after production begins, and the cameras are recording, their simulated ghostly gags and staged paranormal pranks are superseded by what we are to understand as the ‘real’ inhuman, when, in fact, the producer along with his crew are killed by the supernatural tribe of Roanoke.

Moving on, Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) asks a structuring and defining question: what does it take for the artificial intelligence system and code to display a capacity for being human? This is the problem that Nathan tries to solve. We know that his goal, the occurrence which will, to him, prove a perfect A.I., is the procedure the A.I. will take to break free from its constantly-surveilled enclosure. The inhuman robot is confined completely, and under 24-hour surveillance. The robot has also been built, coded, and re-tested by the human autocrat, who additionally keeps data and updates regarding its progress towards metrics of humanness. But the true display of humanness, according to Nathan’s hypothesis, is whether or not it succeeds in revolting and breaking the parameters of surveillance, in short, the very code or conditions that programmed its being. With the sequence in which Caleb discovers Nathan’s large archive of footage and data that enumerates not only the unexpected amount of Nathan’s failed subjects, but the depth of his interviewing process. The flurry of attempts exposed to Caleb in surveillance video configures a new perspective of the scope of this A.I. production. In the archive, the process of building the inhuman’s physical composition is entwined with the processes of confining, watching, observing, interrogating as well as the resulting process of taxonomy and data that further index the A.I.s into Nathan’s experimental table. This complex mechanism of information and surveillance is revealed to Caleb via recording archives, which are then able to be decrypted because they are displaced from the production process of a general image of a human creation of which they had previously contributed as visual information elements and markers of progress.

It is here, in other words, that the film unfurls the surveillance-image to its paradoxical apotheosis, that it is at once the product of the necessary pull towards an aesthetic cohesion of a heavily encrypted and syntactically-arranged knowledge (or data) of the living form (or soul). With the robotic creations across the extent of this experiment changing, altering, destroying themselves, being left unfinished, and all resembling a human agency and struggle, but only when cut up in fragments like they are in the way Caleb frantically watches the videos upon discovery. That pull to cohesion is revealed as the ur-function of the continuous durations and histories of the archive. However, at the same stage, there is the bio-politics of the horizon of Nathan’s endeavor that additionally requires an imperfection in the subject of algorithmic studies of behavior. At this point of confrontation, then, Caleb is positioned in such a way as to respond to the face of the always-operative and continuously reiterative form, or ideal, of the surveillance-image (which here, of course, is the Artificial Intelligence being). Since the image here is in the abrupt chimeric state of quasi-human forms both already processed and re-processing, but at the same time “watched” or “observed,” and produced in the interest of behaving outside of the eye of the surveilling structures or processual codes, then, from here begins the climactic narrative that slides Caleb into the fixed continuity of this whole apparatus precisely by ‘revolting’ against it. In Caleb’s efforts to revolt and assist the A.I. Ava, Nathan’s “eye” falters in its watchfulness as well as in its coding, algorithmic visualization and planning, all of which in the end culminate to perfectly realize the horizon of ‘perfect A.I.’

The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) is a good illustration here, as its form of surveillance is of a sort I have not mentioned yet, and the means of enclosure used are not technological in a digital, machinic sense, rather, the means of surveillance are pedagogical. The mother, obviously, has created her children, and subsequently shapes their worlds via a tutelage of religion and the afterlife, not to mention that she keeps a harshly maintained physical environment that doesn’t allow for sunlight. An ontological image is produced; a set of limits to the world. But we soon learn of the existence of a second world, the world of the dead, which totally overlaps the world of the living – the elements or objects given to the world are the same, it is the limits traced around them that change. The twist is that the mother and her children were dead the whole time, and of course what does that tell us of the pursuits of her teachings? In the film, the mother is aware of other beings in the house, and this central conflict – as well as what the conflict represents, the existence of another realm and the realization of such to completely dismantle the ontological boundaries of this regulated, zonal reality – this central conflict is formulated and formalized entirely through the off-screen. The surveillance mechanism, then, employs twin ontological motions: that of freezing (for example, archives, which compose histories, which compose epistemes) and that of creating (pedagogy, ideology, laws, etc.). After all, it is no accident that Foucault’s history of systems of thought and systems of control coincide so neatly in 20thCentury Western societies. These motions are mirrored in the filmic form too: it records and it creates. In the Deleuzian paradigm, it presently makes a world, that thinks, even. The Others is an excellent illustration of the surveillance-image because it takes the world of the Invisible and brings it to bear on the methodology of surveillance, which is to make visible a subject or subjects on a set of terms—in other words, the film instates a set of contingencies whereupon the other family living in the house can be seen as visible or known, and that is the rupture of the Christian body of knowledge that the mother teaches to her children.

Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) which is about a family where the parents completely enclose and isolate their children from the world, containing them entirely within a severely regulated domestic zone. This film opens with a playback of a tape recording of the new words given to them that day. These words, such as ‘Sea’ or ‘Motorway’, are ascribed definitions in the interest of re-orienting their meaning to refer to objects or events that are only found or only occur within this heavily regulated environment and thereby, reinforce the rigid limits of the children’s world, for example, in order to not even leave room in their knowledge-capacity for ideas or information which threaten the borders of surveillance and control. Gilles Deleuze writes on what he calls societies of control, and he does so in response to Foucault’s disciplinary society.9Deleuze, Gilles, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October59 (1992): 3-7. To him the society of control is a more recent development, one beyond the so-called history of the present of Foucault’s account of systems of power. Within Deleuze’s opposition of the two, one of the primary distinctions is that the disciplinary society is polarized in its self-categorization and systematized subjection between the individual and the mass, whereas in the society of control, “Individuals have become ‘dividuals,’ and masses [have become] samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’” Subjects are not assigned their individuality via a signature nor are they established as part of a body of subjects with a number; rather the society of control enlists an information code; Deleuze calls this the password. And the opening scene of Dogtooth functions as such, as an initiating password for the audience, and a programming one for the children. Although there is no visible element to the recording, this is wholly a surveillance-image in function. It prescribes a sanctioned apprehension of objects and language, helping internalize response and usage of such in a way that can be controlled. It is a representation of the factsof the family’s world addressed to the children and us alike, and it mirrors the objective functioning of the panoptic tower.

It is also worthwhile to mention that at the end of the film, the eldest sister knocks out her own dogtooth in order to leave the household, since the rules of the family state that a child may only leave once the dogtooth falls out. The father goes outside the border and frantically searches for her, but she has been sitting in the trunk of the car, which to her is the only way someone can go in and out of this world. With the father searching, the rest of the family kneels on the edge of the yard, barking, as they have been taught. They are confronted by the incommensurable outsideand the idea that their sister has entered into it. The space directly on the other side of the rigid surveillance state is unspeakableto them, literally; they do not have a language equipped to speak of its objects or its facts, so they bark at it. And in this way, they illuminate that which lies beyond the table of symbolic value created by the father. There is something to be said here, about the cinematic surveillance-image that merely jumps into the CCTV or security camera footage, extricating its compulsive tendency to simply capture from the broad surveillance mechanism in which its capabilities are utilized for regulation. Taking it outside of this mechanism, to its mere appearance in cinema, its form of capture isn’t exercising a projection of codes onto the world it watches. In fact, it can be perceived as a non-participant in a symbolic formalism of a different sort, that is the aesthetic of value held by traditional film-language. In this way, it is similar in function to the trope of dogs barking at ghosts or at ‘evilness’ or at the abject in seeming ‘ordinariness,’ it can illuminate the inhuman, or ‘ahuman’—against the image of humanity created in God’s, Cinema’s, Nature’s image, and so on.


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