Catherine Zimmer is an Associate Professor at Pace University where she directs the Film and Screen Studies Program. She has published in such journals as Framework, Surveillance & Society, Discourse, as well as Camera Obscura. Professor Zimmer holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Film from the University of California, Berkeley.
We discussed her new book Surveillance Cinema (New York University Press, 2015).
We're fascinated by the topic of your book. Can you remember the moment it came to you to write it? Did something in particular happen?
It’s an interesting question. I actually didn’t so much decide to write a book on the topic of surveillance in cinema as realize that I actually already was writing a book on this topic. Before this project explicitly became this project, I had been writing more generally on self-reflexivity in film, reconsidering films such as Videodrome and Peeping Tom through a materialist, phenomenological lens. I was very interested in the particularity of the technologies represented in these films, as well as the historical context of those technologies, and how that was reflected in the narrative form. As that project continued into explorations of contemporary film, I kept ending up in the same place: I wasn’t so much talking about self-reflexivity as I was about surveillance.
This shift in my framework absolutely did not happen in a vacuum: the distracting shimmer of the 1990s had worn off, and the ongoing reality of the Patriot Act, a newly formed Department of “Homeland Security,” and an extremely ambiguous “War on Terror” was setting in. It’s not that these political manifestations were a big post-9/11 departure or a shift from the 1990s, but it was a focalization and intensification of the formations of power that were already in place. Similarly, I found my work on reflexivity focusing increasingly, and unavoidably, on the politics of surveillance.
As I did more and more research in the growing field of surveillance studies, it seemed to me that though film and television were frequently brought in as examples or metaphors of a culture saturated in surveillance, that cinema scholarship had something to offer in terms of a structural analysis of surveillance technology and practice as well. And conversely, that the treatment of surveillance tropes in film studies was really in dire need of conversation with contemporary political philosophy if continued analysis was going to be of much use.
How much of your study relates to Foucault's panopticon discussion in Discipline and Punish?
Much as I say psychoanalytic frameworks have dominated discussions of surveillance in film studies, many scholars of surveillance from multiple disciplines have both noted and critiqued the centrality of Foucault’s work - particularly his analysis of the panopticon - to theoretical work on surveillance. In many ways, there would not be a field of surveillance studies without the foundational work of Foucault. But honestly I don’t take up the issue of the panopticon that much because despite the obvious production of visible and visual subjects through film, panopticism only very partially accounts for the specific structures of surveillance cinema (both technically and narratively). The general panoptic formation - the idea that we are increasingly visible to a surveillant gaze - is to me both a bit of a given, and also something that doesn’t quite work for a detailed analysis of cinematic structure.
Giorgio Agamben and Paul Virilio have described other ways that power functions culturally and politically that I have found really instructive in looking at how surveillance and cinema intersect. Agamben’s “zones of indistinction” and Virilio’s “aesthetics of disappearance,” for instance - which in different ways describe how power intertwines with the production of the unrecognizable or invisible - structure surveillance and surveillance narratives as much as visibility and discipline. Put simply, the way that surveillance obscures visibility and deploys power through contradiction and ambiguity is actually on full display in surveillance cinema.
But it’s not really panopticism or these other accounts, but panopticism and multiple other elements. The horrible, exhausting “f--- you” of contemporary power is that if one formation doesn’t enfold you, another possibly totally contradictory version will. This problem, of course, doesn't apply to everyone equally, as we can see clearly in the United States: as has been amply demonstrated throughout American history - and as is being pointedly referenced over the past year by the Black Lives Matter movement - representational, economic, institutional and bodily violence are to this day, and by design, subjecting black Americans to the manifold brutality of modern power that combines the extremity of a police state with the intractable sway of contemporary liberal democracy.
How does compulsive documentation play into this?
One of the things I want to acknowledge and attend to in the book is that surveillance in the contemporary era is not simply something done to us, but is a culture and an economy that depends on our active participation in surveilling and being surveilled. Social media is the most obvious example of this: participants engage by monitoring the activity of others as well as often compulsively (and compulsorily) documenting their own lives via Facebook, Instagram, etc.
In turn, this activity is digitally monitored, and used to “improve” service and further “customize” your experience, primarily through targeted marketing. All of these things are part of ubiquitously incorporating one as an ever more individually recognized/constructed consumer in a digital marketplace.
Surveillance here is a consumable commodity, and also kind of the basis of a certain economy. While this is most obvious on something like Facebook, this is also how Google and the internet in general function: tracking is functionality. In short, the price we pay for admission to the internet is surveillance. But it is not just the price extracted from us, but with things like the paradigmatic example of Facebook, the object of our consumption as well.
I call it “compulsive” not just because of how much we increasingly document of our lives, but because at the level of the consumer much of this is driven by affective investment.
How do the first-person-camera films figure into your study?
The first-person camera films are the cinematic version of compulsive documentation. They are a narrativized version of people pulling out their phones to record their experience when anything eventful or spectacular happens.
These films are meant to simulate subjective experience by virtue of seeing everything through the camera of a character in the film. They represent “direct experience” as a technologically recorded experience, as if these were the same thing. They are indicative of the degree to which personal experience is increasingly defined by the aesthetic of documenting that experience on consumer electronics.
Tell us more about the requisite failure.
What most narrative uses of surveillance in cinema point toward is how full of holes most manifestations of contemporary power are. Traditionally, surveillance as an exercise of power is based on ideas of verifiable truth, seamless omniscience, etc., but the great majority of narratives of surveillance unfold through the failure, problems, ambiguities in those principles. The problems are where narrative lives.
On the other hand, often in-between spaces or contradictions - narrative and otherwise - describe how and where we see power function most problematically, such as in what Agamben characterizes as the “states of exception” and “zones of indistinction” that are the basis upon which the United States continues to wage a definitionally ambiguous “war on terror” that suspends both civil and human rights.
This is a broader contradiction that could also be said to characterize the politics surrounding surveillance more generally. It makes it really hard to know whether we should look at these “failures” as points of optimism or not.
You conclude by urging your readers "to attend, very closely, to every aspect of how these stories are constructed." This book is much more than academic scholarship for you, isn't it?
Well, I guess despite my book’s critique of the dominance of psychoanalytic frameworks in discussions of cinematic surveillance, I am still enough of a Freudian that I would think that everyone’s scholarship is more than just academic to them.
But more specifically, I think it would be impossible, and frankly unethical, to write a whole book in any way about surveillance that was not engaged with the politics and the very real violence that attends surveillance in contemporary democratic states, including and especially the United States.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
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