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  • Introduction:Critical Perspectives on Surveillance in Contemporary German Literature and Film
  • Karin Bauer and Andrea Gogröf

Today, total surveillance stratagems are no longer merely figments of our imagination. Yet, the threat and discomfort emanating from contemporary surveillance regimes may lead us, increasingly so, to turn to literature, film, and art as sources for understanding and possibly resisting it in a productive way. Global surveillance is a reality established by the technology that put it into place and without which we can no longer function: neither in the professional world, nor in our private lives—if one can still draw a strict distinction between public and private. Both the erosion and the defence of privacy, autonomy, and democratic values are the cornerstones of contemporary surveillance critique. By accepting the need for security as the legitimizing argument for surveillance, it seems that democratic societies have fallen into a state of regarding the protection of individual freedom, autonomy, and agency at a time when vigilance is of the essence. A certain impassiveness, targeted by the contributors of this special issue and by surveillance critics at large, is reinforced by the idea that compromise is a small price to pay for security and the freedom to roam, to access information, and to be part of the global community. However, what is lacking here is an awareness of the irony contained in the unreflective acceptance of surveillance measures, namely that, because of our dependence on technology, we are only “free” to the extent to which we conform. It is against this bad bargain that surveillance critique addresses itself, often invoking Benjamin Franklin’s famous dictum that a people ready to sacrifice a little freedom for a little security doesn’t deserve either and ends up losing both.

The revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden in June 2013 exposed the scope of electronic surveillance and spy programs and has fundamentally altered the ways in which we think about the use value of information and how we conceptualize its flow, analysis, and storage. What the citizens of the world learned was that, first, governments practice secret surveillance on their own citizens, thereby violating democratic principles established precisely as recourse against the excesses of power. Second, companies, governmental agencies, and the media exchange information to mutual benefit. This alliance has facilitated [End Page 353] what critics denounce as one of the major problems of contemporary surveillance: a recentralization of power by a few corporations that monopolize, on a global scale, the World Wide Web on which depend the roughly 3.5 billion users. Third, this “unholy” alliance provides and enriches these organizations with personal data, mined and exploited in the service of profit and control. Surveillance through the internet, dataveillance, is facilitated by user data, the collection of which is neither transparent nor consensual. Digital technology has become the most formidable and ubiquitous tool of surveillance and control ever devised. The internet, as Ignacio Ramonet points out, has become a kind of fifth element along with the classic ones, earth, fire, water, and air (19, 23).

Since the 1970s, interdisciplinary surveillance studies developed at the intersection of sociology, criminology, philosophy, literature, film and the arts, offering a rich platform for the Humanities—and particularly film, cultural, and literary studies—to understand and think about surveillance as it infiltrates and shapes our lives today. The typical areas of the surveillance critic’s scrutiny include the military, the governmental administration, the world of work and finance, crime control, terrorism, immigration, border control, and, more recently, consumer activities. The consensus among experts is that surveillance, as a political and economic weapon, is a product of modernity, a direct consequence out of the precepts of eighteenth-century Enlightenment spirit intent on “putting world affairs under human management and replacing providence (‘blind’ fate, ‘random’ contingency) with Reason, that mortal enemy of accidents, ambiguity, ambivalence, and inconsistency” (Bauman and Lyon, 139). Thus, surveillance studies bases its critique on the assumption—shared by the contributors of this special issue—that democratic states consistently underestimate or deny the threat emanating from the restriction to civil and private liberties. While modern surveillance theory understands surveillance as an outgrowth of production- and efficiency-driven capitalism, bureaucracy, and “machine...