the Seminar


Edward Snowden’s revelations have made us aware of the scale and the scope of state surveillance, profiling and bulk data collection concerning both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens. The existence of comparable programs in at least India, the UK, Israel, and China indicate that this is a global trend – one that is triggering strongly polarized (but not necessarily party-aligned) responses among citizens and politicians alike. These are some of the most important issues on the public agenda today and have already prompted the extensive and intensive public debate they deserve. Our hope is to expand the academic discussion of contemporary surveillance practices and their entailments. Responses to the recent disclosure of NSA programs have tended to collapse surveillance with espionage, thus distracting us from broader monitoring practices that, while exploited by the state, often originate from corporate efforts to monitor consumer behavior (not to mention the so-called “exhibitionist” practices of many web users that seem to play in the hands of surveillance programs). The state and the military are not, in sum, the sole actors in this story, and traditional political discourse is probably not the best way to make sense of these dramatically important developments.

This seminar will expand and re-balance political conversations about surveillance and espionage by adding scholarly dimensions from humanistic disciplines and comparative perspectives to a process that is likely to reshape what we mean by democracy. We aim to bring to bear the arts, humanities and social sciences to analyze currently changing legal and cultural notions of privacy, liberty, risk, identity, national interest and security, and how these are not only different across countries and cultures but are also changing in response to the impact of globalization. The seminar will bring together artists, anthropologists, legal scholars, historians, media scholars, political scientists, science and technology studies practitioners, computer scientists, and foreign policy scholars to enrich the political debate around global surveillance and give it a much broader context. We plan to pursue these issues through a focus on (1) the ethical and legal issues around anonymity and privacy, (2) the political theory of democracy given regimes of surveillance; (3) the cultural consequences of the monitoring of consumers, especially in light of the apparent collapse of the distinction between state surveillance and consumer monitoring; and (4) emergent forms of artistic, and political resistance. All these topics will be approached from a variety of disciplinary perspectives (art, anthropology, film, law, history, media, science and technology studies, and political theory), with examples and case studies from different countries and cultures, especially the U.S., Europe, Russia, China, and the Middle East.

Growing from a 2012 one-quarter exploratory UC Davis Humanities Institute faculty research group on surveillance and social media (organized by Kriss Ravetto), the 2006 UC Berkeley symposium “Unblinking: New Perspectives on Visual Privacy in the 21st Century” (organized by Ken Goldberg) and the recent “Pan-Optics: Emerging Perspectives on Visual Privacy & Surveillance” (organized by CITRIS members from UC Berkeley and UC Davis), this seminar builds on a pre-existing community of interest, while far exceeding the scope and audiences of the original research group and symposia.