ENGL 367 B1: The Surveillance Society: Security and Spectacle in Contemporary Fiction

T. Tomsky

We are living in a society with ubiquitous surveillance: from close-circuit-television (CCTV) and biometric verification, to online searches and data retention on our digital devices, the many experiences of our private and public lives are often mediated, monitored, mined, and managed through technology. In January 2020, Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times writes that our apps are stalking us: “Your location, your purchases, video and audio from within your home and office… every digital wandering, biometric tracking of your face and other body parts, your heart rate and other vital signs, your every communication, recording, and perhaps your deepest thoughts or idlest dreams — in the future, if not already, much of this data and more will be collected and analyzed by some combination of governments and corporations.” The extent of governmental and corporate access to our personal information raises critical questions about the attenuated divide between public and private lives, as well as the power and violence implicit at the heart of surveillance systems. This course explores representations of the so-called “surveillance society” in literature, popular culture, film, and critical theory. We will explore the themes of privacy, control, security, and citizenship as they intersect with subjectivity, gender, race, and sexuality. Our guiding questions are these: what can literature and visual culture tell us about the surveillance state? How do literary mediations of surveillance culture represent public anxiety about technology? What kind of resistance or agency is made possible for the individual subject of surveillance? Why is surveillance literature overwhelmingly dystopic and in what ways might dystopic representations of surveillance societies be considered productive and strategic?

Reading List
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (Emblem, 2011)
Charlie Brooker, dir. Black Mirror (episode TBD)
Dave Eggers, The Circle (Vintage, 2014)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (Vertigo, 2011)
George Orwell, 1984 (Penguin, 2008)
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf, 2014)
Andrew Ridker, ed., Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean, 2014)

Select theory: Michel Foucault; Guy Debord; Simone Browne, David Lyon, Kevin Haggerty, Joseph Masco, etc.