Saturday, October 5, 2013

David Rosen and Aaron Santesso's "The Watchman in Pieces"

David Rosen is associate professor of English at Trinity College, and Aaron Santesso is associate professor of Literature at Georgia Tech.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood, and reported the following:
The Watchman in Pieces is our attempt to trace the interrelations, over the past five centuries, between a) the history of literature; b) the theory and practice of surveillance; and c) liberal political philosophy. Since both literary authors and surveillance directors promise “the truth about other people through close observation” – to give the key line from our page 99 – it makes sense that literature and surveillance should have influenced each other since the Renaissance. Because this inspection of inner personhood has inevitably raised questions about individual autonomy, equality and freedom, liberalism, which begins as a defense of these concepts, is also central to the story.

Over roughly 300 pages, we consider such issues as the modern Surveillance State, the origin of privacy rights, and changing ideas about what constitutes a self. We analyze the work of authors ranging from Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, to Poe, to Orwell. Throughout, we also inject some common sense into the key debates swirling around government and corporate surveillance today.

In one way, page 99 is not representative: in a book that’s mainly text, more than half of 99 is a graphic image – in this case, Jeremy Bentham’s schematic for his Panopticon prison. The panopticon is an unavoidable topic in any serious study of surveillance: with its abject inmates under constant watch, it has long been interpreted as anticipating contemporary surveillance at its most oppressive (i.e. Big Brother). In our book, however, the image introduces a sympathetic reinterpretation of Bentham: rather than unremittingly coercive, his panopticon (in our view) was designed to encourage inmates’ natural tendency to perform certain roles.

The rest of page 99 (the text part) brings to an end a discussion about realism and the rise of the novel. Early novels, like those of Defoe and Samuel Richardson, were the perfect forum to test theories about how people behave under pressure. In their pursuit of an elusive human subject, however, novels were also vulnerable to the temptations of invasive surveillance. Thus we write:
The novel’s pursuit of interiority by [means of close observation] often brought it into near alliances with the developing technology of surveillance and [inevitably] caused disruptions in realistic representation…. For now, we may simply observe that realism by the end of the eighteenth century was less a formal set of conventions than a complex ideological effect, depending in equal measure on an adherence to [empirical standards] , and a quiet annexation of forms and ways of thinking fundamentally hostile to empiricism.
In brief: for a long time, both novelists and surveillance workers believed that the careful scrutiny of minor details could generate trustworthy information – even to the point of predicting future behavior. Neither field is so sure about that today: uncertainty is now understood to be unavoidable – not an entirely discouraging development.
Learn more about The Watchman in Pieces at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue