Surveillance and Bare Life in Contemporary New Media

David Schwarz

Associate Professor of Music, the College of Music, the University of North Texas

I would like to begin with some large-grained remarks on the relationships between reality and representation in New Media, and then move into more small-grained remarks on selected works of Stoeckley, Stout, Vogel, and Assor. People like me usually present such ideas as if they existed in an isolated, ethereal realm of contemplation. In fact the first few pages of this talk are the product of a conversation with Professor Michael Beckerman of NYU on what we know about art, and the conditions that make such knowledge possible.

Large-grained remarks:

How do we know anything about New Media art (or any art for that matter) beyond the self-circumscribed limits of belief systems? How do we know what reality is, and what a representation of reality is? Within the story of what we might think of as traditional art (the entire history of western art before New Media), we certainly eventually see real objects incorporated into what had been an untarnished collection of works that provided mirrors or lamps of inspiration about a distinct, external world, or reality (think of Duchamp, Rauschenberg and others). That incursion of reality into representation at once problematizes the binary opposition of representation against reality, and also makes a discursive position vis-à-vis the binary all the more urgent. And in New Media art, in particular, works include not only visual, acoustic, plastic, and linguistic signifiers but actual objects, actual places, and actual events. These are often so integrated with traditional visual, acoustic, plastic, and linguistic signifiers that a critical discourse of New Media cannot begin to meet its match in practice without at least a provisional stance with regard to the opposition of reality and representation. Much New Media, in fact, has emphasized this embodiment through what has been called the “material turn.” [1]

While it is clearly beyond this moment and my capabilities to provide a transcendent definition of the relationship between reality and representation, I can suggest a provisional pair of definitions whose application to New Media works in general and the works of Stoeckley, Vogel, Stout, and Assor, in particular, allow for a discussion that neither ignores that troubled reality / representation binary, nor flattens it to simplistic definitions.

My approach is Lacanian. For Lacan, reality is that which has been chosen – that within daily life, or in aspects of daily life which cannot be ignored. Lacan approached reality as the mise-en-scène of daily life, the cast of characters who will appear, and among whom relationships will develop. For Lacan the most common element of this reality is the “psychoanalytic transference.” Lacan became famous, however, for his notion of the “Real” – the “brute thingness” of experience that both supports and evades our structures of binary identification (the Imaginary) and languages of deferred signification (the Symbolic) in which we live, forgetting, for the most part, the thin veil that separates us from its invisible, inaudible, unthinkable, brutality. [2]

Such a binary (Lacanian reality / Real) enables us to veer around the traditional representation / reality binary, and explore in a more playful manner how selected objects, events, and places work in connection with the traditional media of acoustic, visual, plastic, and linguistic signs. The Lacanian “reality / Real” binary also helps open up the relationship between discursive language (such as this talk) and the artworks to which it points.

Small-grained remarks:

I will now make some general points about the history, aesthetics, and technologies of high security and surveillance in contemporary culture as a way of setting a context for the works of Clark Stoeckley, Jenny Vogel, David Stout, and Nadav Assor. Specifically, I will address surveillance (after Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault), the gaze (after Jacques Lacan), and bare life (after Giorgio Agamben). My thesis is that the Foucauldian “docile body” of the modern subject, always and already under the internalized gaze of surveillance, has transformed into the strange flesh of bare life in contemporary social space, as represented and embodied in many works of New Media. Bare life is at the edge of the Lacanian Real.

New Media art is a felicitous vehicle for the representation and embodiment of this state of “bare life.” Many aspects of such work make it so: its uses and misuses of what had been traditional and more or less isolated fine arts; its frequent and often pervasive element of interactivity; and its implicit invitation to the listener, viewer, reader, audience member, or user to experience art beyond the relatively safe register of the pleasure principle.

My first move in this talk is to address surveillance in Jeremy Bentham, Foucault, and Lacan, and to consider their work in terms of historical modernity—the period that roughly spans the late 18th to the late 20th century. Only a few decades ago, one might have described historical modernity as spanning the late 18th century to the “present”; now, after the first decade of the 21st century, some other period has begun, called by some “post-history.” Wherever this threshold between historical modernity and post-history resides, on the “early” side there is the project of the Enlightenment, the canon of masterworks, the Cartesian subject, and the regime of diachronic progress in the arts and social space. On the “late” side of this threshold there exists the post-humanism of distributed networks, the fluid nature of interactive and New Media, and its post-Cartesian subject. Throughout his works, Foucault examines institutions and discourses of historical modernism to reveal their underlying power interests. One of the best-known documents on the history and structure of surveillance in the modern era is Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The book opens with two scenes—a brutal and visceral public execution, and a calm scene inside a prison in which a central guard tower looms in silence. Foucault’s intellectual sleight-of-hand is to give us a binary that we might naively understand as brutal (the public execution) and benign (the contained silence of the modern prison). But his project, while not seeking to reverse this binary, is to trouble its implicit complacency. It’s not that public execution is not terrible; it is terrible. But the modern prison is not a benign structure that has moved beyond the brutality of public executions. It is simply more effective in controlling its subjects—the docile bodies of its prisoners.

Foucault shows us that from medieval forms of public humiliation, corporal punishment, and executions, the Enlightenment revisions gathered criminals instead together under the steady gaze of the panopticon and its architectural embodiment—the modern prison designed and theorized by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. From a single viewpoint, all prisoners can be watched, monitored, and controlled. The brilliance of this design relies less on the fact of observation than its internalized potential in the imagination of the prisoner; in Bentham’s own words from 1787: “[i]t is obvious that…the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the prison have been attained. Ideal perfection would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.” [3]

Bentham prefigures in such language, the Lacanian gaze. The Lacanian gaze resides, as it were, on a visual edge of the Real. The essence of the gaze is internalized specularity. The distinction between the look and gaze derives primarily (but not exclusively) from Lacan, and has been an influential component of cultural studies and critical theory for the past half century in the West. Throughout his writings Lacan refers to le regard—a single word in French that refers to what we think of as look in some contexts and gaze in others. Let me briefly review this binary opposition. [4]

The look is a specular exchange between a subject and an another person; looks are exchanged in psychoanalytic adjacency, such as two people of more or less the same power relation with one another in contemporary social space, two characters who function at more or less parallel levels in a novel, film, for example.

The gaze is an instrument of a big Other pinning a subject to a point in space. The source of the gaze is quintessentially hidden; it’s not only that the gaze of the big Other is internalized and imagined, it is often strangely impossible. The very impossibility of the gaze displaces its power onto an inscrutable alterity from which there can be no escape (there’s its visual edge at the Real); think of the sounds of footsteps in an official, cavernous buildings, and the uncanny sense of the big Other watching, or the gaze of a blind man, or an object that seems to be looking at you. Well-known gazes include the cop behind sunglasses asking Marion if she’s OK in Psycho, or the empty eye sockets of corpses in The Birds.

Jeremy Bentham, and Foucault, who imports his ideas into a global exploration of the underbelly of the Enlightenment, describe the gaze of the panopticon that underlies not only the structure of the modern prison, but surveillance writ large, under which all modern subjects are pinned.

Surveillance requires optical, prosthetic devices through which surrogates of the big Other pin its subjects to a location in public and private space. Surveillance, to remind ourselves of the obvious, can be both acoustic, visual, and digital, relying on technological developments in microphones, recording devices, cameras, computers and software programs that search, mark, collate, and store information. These acoustic, visual, and computational prosthetic devices for agents of the Other are becoming cheaper, smaller, and more effective. Think of the importance of acoustic surveillance in the U.S. government’s hunch about the location of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan: subtle vibrations picked up by audio surveillance equipment on the panes of glass in the compound suggested the presence of a person behind the windows who could not be seen inside. Such devices are growing less expensive, and more available to consumers as commodity items. The shift in availability does something uncanny to the structure of docile bodies under the imaginary gaze of the Big Other. Does the availability of ever miniaturized, ever affordable surveillance technology mean that each of us can assume the gaze of the Big Other, that we are looking, as it were, over his / her / its impossible shoulder? Does the individual, consumer availability of high-tech surveillance technology offer the artist a clear opportunity for critique of the political (mis)uses of such technologies by the government, the military, and multi-national corporations? Or might the individual, consumer availability of high-tech surveillance technologies provide the government, the military, and multi-national corporations with an alibi—offering the consumer the illusion of access to power, on the one hand, while keeping actual power even and ever more securely in the hands of established power interests?

Throughout the twentieth century the gaze as an instrument of both acoustic and visual surveillance has implicitly focused on the following scenario: the big Other gazes at subjects; or agents of the big Other gaze at subjects; or agents of the big Other with increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies gaze at subjects; or agents of the big Other with increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies gaze from places that cannot be seen at subjects; or finally agents of the big Other with increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies gaze from places that cannot be seen at subjects, pinning them to specific places in public and private through the internalized gaze (after Bentham, Foucault, and Lacan). There is always a binary opposition in these scenarios: there is a position from which a surrogate of the big Other gazes, and there is the pinned position of the subject who is gazed upon.

These scenarios govern surveillance from the onset of the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth through roughly the end of the twentieth centuries. Now, however, at the outset of the twenty-first century, a new dimension has been added: ubiquity. And the ubiquity of surveillance has shifted the significance of all of the terms and their manifestations in contemporary culture outlined above. The surveillance of Bentham, Foucault, Lacan assumes not only a binary opposition between a surrogate of the big Other who gazes and the pinned position of a subject upon whom the gaze is projected; Enlightenment surveillance (and its after effects lasting through the late twentieth century) assume a centered Cartesian subject; it assumes the gaze in service of an at least apparently benevolent, political power structure in the service of Enlightenment ideals; and it assumes that the gaze will separate criminal from law-abiding citizens of more or less autonomous subjects, working in a cohesive social space in which personal interests are more or less in alignment with the interests of the State (putting aside for a moment, a Marxist critique of such a fantasy as an essential delusion upon which modern capital is set into motion and perpetuated).

I would like to argue three related points: 1) after Agamben that a form of bare life (edged with the Lacanian Real) is emerging from within the bounds of what had been a more or less centered Cartesian subjectivity, resulting in a deep slippage in the coherence of Enlightenment binaries, 2) that bare life is emerging in part from the distributed gaze of ubiquitous surveillance, and 3) that the artworks I will present today (and much contemporary electronic art) embody that bare life to which subjectivity is turning in the early twenty-first century.

Giorgio Agamben refers to the bare life embodied in the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay: “The USA Patriot Act issued by the U.S. Senate on October 26, 2001, already allowed the attorney general to ‘take into custody’ any alien suspected of activities that endangered ‘the national security of the United States,’ but within seven days the alien had to be either released or charged with the violation of immigration laws or some other criminal offense. What is new about President Bush’s order [the executive ‘military order’ of November 13, 2001] is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being.” [5]

Agamben theorized bare life as a function of a disintegration of the binary opposition between man and animal: “When the difference between man and animal vanishes and the two terms collapse upon each other—as seems to be happening today—the difference between being and the nothing, licit and illicit, divine and demonic also fades away, and in its place something appears for which we seem to lack even a name (Agamben 2004: 22).” [6] Agamben will give the name bare life to that thing that appears in the fading of the integrity of enlightenment binaries, and he grounds his ideas in states of exception of the law. For Agamben, states of exception are eruptions of lawlessness that paradoxically call the law into being throughout the modern era: “Like every space of exception, this zone is, in truth, perfectly empty, and the truly human being who should occur there is only the place of a ceaselessly updated decision in which the caesurae and their rearticulation are always dislocated and displaced anew. What would thus be obtained, however, is neither animal life nor a human life, but only a life that is separated and excluded from itself—only a bare life.” [7]

Adjacent to Agamben’s sense of bare life emerging from the dissolution of the man / animal binary, I suggest that bare life is a byproduct of the fading of a wide range of Enlightenment binaries, including man and machine, or (to re-write that binary) the body and its prosthetic devices. For me, Enlightenment prosthetic devices and machines, extend, but do not qualitatively challenge the relatively stable binaries of Cartesian subjectivity. In contemporary social space, prosthetic devices and machines are replacing what had been centered Cartesian subjects, producing a disembodied, autonomous agency—such as the drone. The drone was once like a fighter jet, a weapon for the government, the military, and the multi-national corporation; now you may have your own. Does the consumer of a drone assume the gaze of the big Other; does the consumer of a drone become complicit with the gaze of big Other, or, in the purchase of our own private drone are we being offered a placebo, a token of a source of power to which we will never gain access?

For me, the ubiquity and ever lowering cost of surveillance, the shrinking size and increased computational power of its associated technologies are producing in and among us a widely-distributed bare life. For me, manifestations of bare life are growing through and beyond the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, to a wider segment of social space. Think of the fascination with zombies in popular culture: the neither animal nor human creatures in I am Legend, in the television series The Walking Dead; think of the laconic, ubiquitous surveillance in television series such as Person of Interest (with its desperate attempt to keep Cartesian subjectivity alive through the odd couple heroism of Finch and Mr. Reese), and the odd lethargy that pervades the representation of the powerful (if fictitious) American Policy Institute in Rubicon. The latter television program presents civilian intelligence experts analyzing data and authorizing military action from within a secret location clearly within the United States; its dramaturgy resonates powerfully with recent debates about the policy of allowing civilians to determine the conditions whereby military and intelligence operations can be executed on foreign and American operatives overseas.

But my suggestion about the wide-ranging emergence of bare life in the social space of the West needs one more theoretical move. On the one hand, the ubiquity of surveillance undoes the binary oppositions upon which the gaze of the Enlightenment rests. The gaze is no longer from a here to a there; it is everywhere. We are always / already / all the time seen. But this always / already / all the time produces and circulates around a blind spot—a numbness, a paradoxical invisibility. This numbness articulates another edge of the Lacanian Real. For me, ubiquitous surveillance at once produces, at the same time as the always / already / all the time seen, the sense of not being seen at all, and it is precisely out of this paradox that bare life is emerging.

The works of today’s panel:

Clark Stoeckley presents material in which he brings attention to government whistle-blowers by driving a fake WikiLeaks news truck and drawing courtroom sketches of PFC Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearings. On the one hand, his art is direct political engagement as was practiced in the mid 20th Century movements for civil rights, the end of the war in Vietnam, and equal rights for women; on the other hand, his art is a simulation, an appropriation of the images of various agencies of political action—at times on the part of the government, at times on the part of civilians. And it is the potential of confusion between real acts of authority and simulation that lies at the heart of his work. And think as well in the documentation of Anonymous how the gaze of the Enlightenment panopticon is being turned back upon itself at the protective masks (both literal and figurative) that refuse encryption.

Jenny Vogel presents a narrative of her experience with the internet and the webcam images that have been at the heart of her work; in her talk she presents in detail how technologies of webcam capture that have often been associated with voyeurism and surveillance have been turned by individuals online into a new kind of disembodied, romantic intimacy. I invite you to think of the nature of the gaze in her work, and the gesture of an individual online, redirecting the gaze that would create docile bodies of us all back out to itself in a gesture of tenderness of subjects reaching out to all others online around the world.

David Stout presents clips from an ongoing work entitled NoiseFold—a work in which loops of data generated in part by algorithms, in part by the auditory and visual representations themselves, and, and in part by the input of a real, live performer—Frances Marie Uitti (cellist) in NoiseFold’s most recent iteration–Emanations. For me, it is at once obvious that the cellist’s music is transformed in real time into the auditory and visual fields that fill the space of the performance; it is for me equally apparent that the precise nature of these transformations remain inscrutable—just beyond the cognitive powers of the brain’s apprehending capabilities. The genius of the work is the delicacy with which it maintains that balance just at the edge of the Lacanian Real. His essay deals with large-scale, cultural issues of appropriating technologies of surveillance (turning swords into ploughshares) and turning them back upon their sources – in contemporary New Media practice more broadly, and in his own art.

Nadav Assor presents and discusses the consumer commodification of drones down to details of free gift-wrapping, next day delivery if purchased within a certain time window, accessories, and a choice of three detailing colors—blue, orange, or yellow on Amazon’s website. The information from the drone can be managed from commonly available hand-held devices, making the former seem like a logical and progressive outgrowth of the latter. Assor’s drone is as real as any Lacanian selected entity, and while its inescapability is as sure as the reality of the psychoanalytic transference, he will direct to us a number of questions about how this drone (and the world from which it comes) is changing us, our senses, our movements, our sense of self, and our bodies.


1. I thank Simon Penny for the precise usage of this term. Lecture at the College of Visual Arts and Design, University of North Texas, March 26, 2013.
2. For an introduction, illustration, and explanation of these Lacanian categories, see Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996). For more detailed applications, see (Slovoj Žižek, Looking Awry (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).
3. Bentham, Jeremy. “Panopticon” (accessed May 12, 2011) <> See also Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).
4. For a discussion of the Lacanian gaze, see Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! New York and London: Routledge, 1992).
5. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attell, (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2005) 3.
6. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal. Translated by Kevin Attell.
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004) 22.
7. Ibid, 38.


David Schwarz has written two books: Listening Subjects: Music, Psychoanalysis, Culture (Duke University Press 1997), and Listening Awry: Music and Alterity in German Culture (University of Minnesota Press 2006). His third book is in press at Routledge–An Introduction to Electronic Art through the Teaching of Jacques Lacan: Strangest Thing (anticipated release date 2014). He is an Associate Professor in the College of Music, the University of North Texas.