Surveillance as sympathy; Facebook as sensibility novel

I jotted these down during David Lyon’s keynote speech at the Theorizing the Web 2013 conference a few months ago. Lyon urged a view of surveillance as a kind of looking out for others rather than merely a looking at them for purposes of control. He suggested that the term surveillance might be unsalvageable for such a purpose — to pejorative to most people — and offered “visibility” as possible alternative. Surveillance may potentially make certain aspects of society visible and thus negotiable, discussable, resistible. It unveils ideology as well as enforces it. But it is also an site for ideology itself — we believe that surveillance has certain inherent effects and uses, that it can accomplish certain goals, order society in certain ways as a kind of automatic politics.

Lyon invoked Levinas and the infinite responsibility to the other generated by seeing that surveillance makes morally imperative. So the surveillant who may begin by wanting to impose domination through observation may end up in a sympathetic relation that makes that exercise of power problematic. You see the humanity of a target through close observation; they become real, empathetic.

This reminded me of Adam Smith’s claim in the Theory of Moral Sentiments about sympathy and fellow-feeling generated through observation: “In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the bystander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.” You put yourself in their shoes and imagine what you would feel in that place (what they actually feel is not relevant — no need to respect the irreducible difference, the ultimately unknowable emotions of the other). In the 18th century, this line of reasoning led to the cult of sensibility, which held that seeing pitiable tableaux and crying about them proved one’s virtue or exercised one’s innate moral sense, which indexed one’s quality as a human being. To be virtuous you had to be a surveillant, in other words. You had to go to Bedlam and look at suffering inmates, or if you couldn’t do that, you had to at least read novels or what have you, and react with the proper degree of sympathetic emotion. Hence the popularity of sentimental novels in the late 18th century: The Man of Feeling, A Sentimental Journey, etc. The goal was to be seen crying while reading such books, to prove you were a feeling person yourself, not  a hard-headed, calculating, person driven entirely by vulgar interests rather than moral refinement.

It may be worthwhile to consider sensibility novels as surveillance novels; they dramatize the pursuit of appropriate objects of sympathy that can function as moral gymnasiums for the beholder. Conversely, one can regard the lateral surveillance in social-media networks as interactive sensibility novels. The appeal of consuming Facebook’s newsfeed is possibly to exercise the emotions in a similar way, to provoke in oneself a recognizably virtuous feeling of pity or sympathy in response to the various things people post. In this way surveillance gets authorized and excused by the sympathetic suffering of the surveillant. Consuming Facebook becomes a kind of moral imperative, a necessary regimen to build empathic fiber. Liking things on Facebook is the equivalent of crying over a sentimental book in public: an effort to try to log one’s being above mere self-interest, albeit in a highly self-interested and strategic way. Facebook is a forum for the gratuitous outpouring of emotion, but its archiving structure makes that outpouring socially compulsory. It invalidates the “virtue” it provokes. Users are left with a grammar of sympathetic gestures, translated into digital traces, clicks. Rather than exercise the moral sense, the compendium of likes and shares builds a case against our virtue, showing instead how self-interested all our emotions turn out to be.


2 thoughts on “Surveillance as sympathy; Facebook as sensibility novel

  1. The Blog Identity

    I really don’t like facebook, to me it’s too impersonal. It’s good for announcing things, but blogging is much more sensitive. Interactive sensibility novels seem to me more like blogging rather than posting on FB.

  2. stopthecyborgs

    “The do-gooding society”

    Loop zero – how one’s actions will be perceived by those exercising concern
    Loop one – the exercise of ‘concern’
    Loop two – the need to be seen as exercising ‘concern’

    I’m not sure you can make a distinction between control and concern. ‘Concern’ is always about control on some level. For example see Laura María Agustín’s writings on ‘the rescue industry’ and the way in which sex workers are characterized as self deluding victims rather than people with meaningful agency. Thus ‘the concerned in some way dominate and invalidate the subjects of concern.


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