Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Randolph Lewis's "Under Surveillance"

Randolph Lewis is a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written extensively on how visual culture shapes our sense of the nation, often focusing on people who work outside the cultural mainstream. His books include Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground.

Lewis applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Under Surveillance: Being Watched in Modern America, and reported the following:
The page 99 test is useful for my new book, which is about living in a society making unprecedented investments in surveillance technologies. The page in question is part of a chapter called “Growing Up Observed” that deals with the strange ways we get accustomed to (or hostile to) invasive monitoring during our earliest years. What makes us sensitive to being watched is not a question that scholars have been able to really answer, and I don’t make any definitive claims in this essayistic chapter. Instead, I’m considering some ways of thinking about the topic that might help readers to understand their own attitudes about the NSA, drones, Big Data, and other forms of surveillance that the book explores.

Moreover, page 99 is not just about childhood and surveillance, which is a fascinating topic in the era of “Elf on the Shelf”, but also a reflection of the personal nature of this book. While the various chapters on surveillance in nature, churches, or media gently touch on my own experiences, “Growing Up Observed” has a short section that draws on my own life in some detail. That makes page 99 the most personal part of a fairly personal project, and in that sense it’s quite revealing about the origin and deeper nature of the book. Yet am I really writing about myself on page 99 and the pages nearby? Yes and no: mostly it is my attempt to think through the subtle things that make us sensitive, or not, to this vast organizing force in the world today. That was my goal at least.

Finally, I would say something about the writing style that I noticed when I flipped to page 99. Happily, for me at least, the writing on page 99 feels a little more vibrant and personal than the academic work I did in my younger years. Frankly, to the extent that authors can say such a thing about their own books, page 99 seems written with the sort of care and warmth that I hope is characteristic of the book as a whole. So in that sense, I hope the reader of the book gets something that page 99 seems to promise: big questions and subtle insights about a subject of great urgency, written in clear prose with a gently philosophical bent.
Learn more about Under Surveillance at the University of Texas Press website.

Writers Read: Randolph Lewis.

--Marshal Zeringue