Friday, October 28, 2011

Spaces of Appearance, Spaces of Surveillance, and #OccupyWallStreet

(Warning: contains self-promotion and potentially hazardous levels of theory).

It is a bit of an occupational hazard for bloggers that one is always tempted to comment on current events. It’s the pundit temptation that comes from suddenly coming into (temporary, fragile) possession of an audience. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single blogger in possession of an audience must be in want of an opinion. (Or is it that a single blogger in possession of an opinion must be in want of an audience?). I try to avoid this, since for the most part my opinions on most current topics are not that insightful, and besides they are often more than a little uncertain and muddled. The #OccupyWallStreet movement is no exception; I am still trying to figure out what I think about it. (I’ve been thinking of visiting the “Occupy Wellington” camp to see what’s going on, among other things). But it so happens that I have an actual academic article coming out early next year [update: now out!]  that might (might – results not guaranteed!) shed some light (laterally, at odd angles) on the “Occupy X” protests taking place around the globe. The piece is called “Spaces of Surveillance and Spaces of Appearance” ([update: gated final version hereungated nearly-final version here), and it is forthcoming in Polity (vol. 44, issue 1, January 2012, pp. 6-31). Here’s the abstract:

Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault developed different but complementary theories about the relationship between visibility and power.  In an Arendtian “space of appearance,” the common visibility of actors generates power, which is understood as the potential for collective action.  In a Foucauldian “space of surveillance,” visibility facilitates control and normalization.  Power generated in spaces of appearance depends on and reproduces horizontal relationships of equality, whereas power in spaces of surveillance depends on and reproduces vertical relationships of inequality.  The contrast between a space of appearance and a space of surveillance enhances both Arendt’s and Foucault’s critiques of modern society by both clarifying Arendt's concerns with the rise of the “social” in terms of  spaces of surveillance, and enriching Foucault's notion of “resistance.”

Basically, your bog-standard interpretive piece on Arendt and Foucault, mostly of interest to specialists in (certain kinds of) political theory; I try to put Arendt and Foucault in dialogue with one another with respect to the question of the relationship between power and visibility, and to extract some ideas from both I think are useful for thinking beyond Arendt and Foucault (and not necessarily in harmony with their specific theoretical projects), especially about the relationship between surveillance, appearance, and forms of economic organization in society. But the key points of the piece are relatively intuitive, and some of its arguments may have some relevance to current events, particularly the concluding thoughts on how modern society could do with more spaces of appearance and fewer spaces of surveillance (which, if I’m not too mistaken, is at least in the spirit of the “Occupy” movement). So let me see if I can explain the main points of the paper without too much reference to Arendt and Foucault. (Those who prefer a fuller discussion of Arendt and Foucault can read the paper – and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts about it).

The paper starts by considering the relationship between visibility and power. We can distinguish four ideal-typical ways in which visibility and power are related in particular spaces:

1)      In some spaces, the visibility of those present generates power (the capacity for collective action) by enabling people to act with, and in front of, others. We can call these, following Arendt, spaces of appearance. Her main examples are “egalitarian” democratic spaces like the participatory Soviets of the early Russian revolution, the New England town council, and the classic public spaces of the agora, the parliamentary assembly, etc.; the “General Assembly” at a typical “Occupy” event would be one such space. But lots of other spaces, including spaces structured in non-egalitarian ways, also have the characteristic of generating (forms of) power and influence for those who are visible: consider how a politician’s power is often mediated through his/her visibility to many, and would be reduced by becoming less visible. The key point is that in such spaces visibility enables those who are visible to initiate and coordinate action.

2)      By contrast, in some spaces, visibility subjugates or subjects people to power, insofar as they are prevented from escaping (or find it costly to escape) the gaze of particular spectators (including, sometimes, one another). We can call these, following Foucault, spaces of surveillance. The panopticon is Foucault’s ideal-typical case, but one can easily think of many other spaces where visibility functions in this way. Modern society is in fact notable for the wide variety of spaces in which people are surveilled (for good and bad reasons, by the way – I’m not passing judgment on any particular form of surveillance at this point). Spaces of economic production within firms, in particular, tend to be spaces of surveillance due to obvious principal-agent problems. The key point is that in such spaces it is difficult (but not impossible) for those who are visible to avoid various kinds of sanctions for deviating from whatever norms or rules are current among spectators. These sanctions do not need to be very “explicit” to work: the permanent and unavoidable gaze of others (who may not themselves be visible) can induce powerful pressures for conformity even in the absence of explicit or obvious punishments for noncompliance. People want to get along, or they dread ridicule, and even the otherwise powerful politician fears scandal.

3)      Conversely, in some spaces invisibility enables some people to escape subjugation or subjection, and can even empower them in various ways. We can call these private or secret spaces. The private space of the home, for example, enables people (on occasion) to escape the prying eyes of others; and the secret recesses of intelligence agencies enable people in suits to plan mischief against the rest of us and their invisibility prevents us from controlling their activities. In accordance with the logic of exit, invisibility (or at least the possibility of making oneself invisible) can have a liberating effect.

4)      Finally, in some spaces invisibility marginalizes people, disempowering them. For completeness, we call these marginal spaces. For example, the oikos to which the Greek citizen could retire after a day spent at the agora was at the same time the space to which women were confined.

These spaces are all related, of course, and they are not always sharply distinguished. Within any given space some people may have power that is mediated through their visibility, while others may be surveilled and marginalized. Surveillance is not always asymmetrical, as in the Foucauldian panopticon; it may also be mutual, as in David Brin’s idea of the “transparent society.” It is also never perfect. By the same token, any significant degree of visibility in spaces of appearance is accompanied by the potential for surveillance: the politician who is powerful precisely because he is in the public eye faces powerful pressures for regulating his behaviour so long as he cannot escape that same public eye or hide parts of his life from it. (Even voluntary self-disclosure, as when people share stuff on Facebook or blog, is subject to these pressures to some extent). Spaces of appearance are always tainted by surveillance and pressures for conformity; invisibility often implies some degree of marginalization even if it sometimes also serves to escape from subjugation; and marginalization is often accomplished through various forms of surveillance.

Much of Hannah Arendt’s political theory is a defence of certain kinds of “egalitarian” spaces of appearance on non-instrumental grounds. For Arendt, egalitarian spaces of appearance are valuable not because they promote specific ends like welfare or justice, or because such spaces somehow represent the only way in which political life could be organized so as to respect the equal rights of people, or because they induce appropriate forms of deliberation, but because they are the only spaces in which we can truly be “persons” – actors with individual stories that transcend the routine and repetitive aspects of the human condition. In acting together with and in front of others, we disclose ourselves as virtuous or vicious, or as the people who are responsible for this or that act; we acquire a story, rather than a living. And in acting together with others in such spaces, we can modify the roles and rules that regulate our ordinary intercourse; our actions put these norms in question and enable us to “begin something new,” i.e., to come up with new ways of regulating our ordinary lives. But action itself in such spaces is never “ordinary” or “routine,” and it is never simply effaced behind some achievement. In fact, Arendt indicates that what matters most about action in such spaces (from her perspective, if not necessarily the perspective of the activist, who certainly has some objective in mind) is not the achievement of some particular goal, an achievement that is at any rate uncertain, given human freedom: political activity is not, in her view, like the making of a work of art, or the implementation of some blueprint. What matters is the possibility of appearance in front of others as such; without such a possibility, in her view, our lives tend to the routine isolation of “making a living,” or the self-effacement of other forms of creative activity where what matters ultimately is the work produced (the painting, the book, the poem, etc.) rather than the person and his/her story.

This distinctive understanding of what we might call the joy of public action seems to be echoed in many descriptions of what happens in OWS protests. People discover a sense of themselves as joint actors in the world, and they generally enjoy this above and beyond anything they may or may not accomplish; to put the point in non-Arendtian terms, there is something fun and exciting about revolutions, even when they are supremely risky, and there is something about the public spaces that such movements create that help people experience each other as people who are engaged in a common story in which they all have some part. (This is also what makes some people annoyed about things like the OWS protests: participants seem too concerned with their own voices and actions, and too little concerned with “getting things done.” There is something narcissistic about every “revolutionary” movement and every protest: admiration is an important part of any space of appearance).

But Arendt was also concerned about what she called the “substitution of making for acting,” which involved (in her view) the attempt to use these modes of action characteristic of spaces of appearance for the solution of very specific problems through the implementation of “policies” understood as blueprints for social organization. This, I argue in the paper (drawing on Foucault), always requires not appearance but forms of surveillance: the uses of collective action that can be geared towards the production of specific effects in the world necessarily involves forms of visibility that are in conflict with the possibilities of self-disclosure through stories in spaces of appearance. E.g., if you provide food to people, unless you have unlimited resources, you will need to monitor your activities and make distinctions between those who should and should not receive it.

Arendt thus worried a lot about the transformation of politics into administration, and stressed that politics properly speaking should not be concerned with “economic” and social questions, a position that earned her much criticism. (What else are politicians going to talk about?). But I think what she had in mind had to do with the kinds of power appropriate to different kinds of activity. In her view, “to the degree that politics (which is predominantly conducted in spaces of appearance, however imperfect) becomes ever more directly concerned with the management of production (a development that she connected with the rise of the “social question” ever since the French revolution), the more politics turns into bureaucratic administration (which is pre-eminently conducted in spaces of surveillance): more like Soviet bureaucratic communism than like the original Soviets Arendt praised in her book On Revolution.” (Here I quote myself). Action in public spaces provides an opportunity for putting in question, and perhaps changing (unpredictably), the overall norms and rules that govern our everyday interaction, but it does not offer a model for governing everyday life.

What this perspective suggests is that an important problem about modern societies concerns the balance between spaces of appearance, spaces of surveillance, and other spaces. Let me quote myself again to close this post:
…  Arendt’s worries about the colonization of public space by the social can be restated as a worry about the balance between spaces of appearance and spaces of surveillance, and their proper relationship, within modern societies. The modern welfare state appears then less as a successful or unsuccessful attempt to manage material inequalities than as a diminution of available spaces of appearance and an expansion of spaces of surveillance, and in particular disciplinary spaces. In such a state, any gains in the “empowerment” of individuals occur at the expense of the possibility of self-disclosing collective action (and hence “power” in a different sense). Similarly, Arendt’s other complaints about the rise of the “social” realm can be understood as concerns that even when this realm is not directly concerned with economic production it nevertheless functions as a space of mutual surveillance where common visibility leads to hypocrisy and conformism rather than to self-disclosure and creative individuality.  Arendt’s views converge, on this reinterpretation, with Foucault’s views on the expansion of “biopower,”  where the concern with the management of “life” was accompanied by the development of disciplinary techniques and objects of surveillance (like populations) that produced an intricate ecology of spaces of surveillance.

But where Foucault appears to think that the problematic aspect of these developments lies in the way in which previously more or less unregimented areas of human life come to be regulated by infra-legal mechanisms,  yet at times seems to recommend a strategy of pure resistance that is at the very least easily misunderstood as a kind of nihilism because of his inability or unwillingness to articulate an alternative vision of the operation of power,  an Arendtian perspective is perhaps more illuminating about what is lost in this process, and about what sorts of political action might make things better. On the one hand, we find a shrinkage of spaces of appearance, where human beings in their plurality may emerge in their full individuality, and their replacement by “social” spaces and other spaces where conformity rules, i.e., by spaces where visibility is turned into an instrument of control or regulation, including self-regulation. This includes the deployment of ever more elaborate technologies of surveillance and (self)-monitoring that extend their tendrils into ever more “ordinary” aspects of social life, and the relative narrowing of public spaces to those mediated spaces of modern democracy where only relatively few political leaders can appear and act. On the other hand, and less obviously, we find the “unmooring” of important spaces of appearance from control by a public, so that genuine action not only remains restricted to a few, but these actors are now too much in control of their own visibility to be properly accountable to their publics: the public’s surveillance is no longer sufficiently effective to undermine [or at least exercise some degree of control over] the ordinary hierarchical relationships that structure the modern state. In other words, not only is the space of appearances colonized by people who have too much control over their own visibility, but the spectators are in turn more surveilled and normalized than before, losing control over their own visibility.

(I draw here on an interesting book by Jeffrey Edward Green, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship, which I should like to review properly at some point).

But if this is in fact a problem (a big if, I suppose), how could we think about what to do? I suggest in the paper that “a solution to these problems would at least involve the expansion of spaces of appearance (even if they can never be untainted by surveillance) and the reduction of the reach of spaces of surveillance,” which seems to me to be sort of what movements like OWS are trying to do at some level. (Of course, they are also trying to do all kinds of other things, like decrease income inequality and punish bankers.) But I also indicate that the point is not to eliminate spaces of surveillance, or transforming all of society into a big public space: any moderately complex society, and indeed any society that aspires to a certain level of material security, will certainly contain a very large number of spaces of surveillance, though it would be better if, following on the work of people as diverse as James C. Scott and Hayek, these spaces of surveillance were not large and centralized.  But, to be honest, I’m not very good at thinking about the classic “what is to be done” question.

[Update 10/28/2011 5:45pm - fixed some minor typos]


  1. robbie shilliam5:52 PM

    Hey Xavier, awesome to see that that paper is coming out! congrats! I think the paper absolutely speaks to some of the core issues of the Occupy X phenomenon. Have been down and spoken to/with the people at Occupy Wellington, a core group of which, we should be glad to acknowledge, are our first year pols students!! Yay! In terms of the particular politics of NZ, I think an issue arises which complicates both Foucault and Arendt. That is, the idea of spaces OTHER than public or private. That is, spaces that are not owned in the possessive-private sense (individually or corporately). Nor civic spaces. But spaces that form through and around particular basic purposes (Maori language ="kaupapa") which are protected (not possessively owned) by particular groups (kaitiaki). This is neither simply spatial in the sense of a "place", but can also inhere through a relationality of, e.g., politics, tasks, humans/nature etc. In NZ, the Occupy X has to deal with the fact that as a settler colony, that question of occupation has been alive for 170+ years. The critique of that occupation gets most fundamental when it questions the imported notions of space and ownership (especially private property / civic sphere) that came with the settlers.
    Robbie (your colleague!)

  2. Thanks Robbie! I try to get away in the paper from the public/private distinction; the key idea is about who can see and who can be seen, and how visibility either enhances collective action or subjects to the power of other people. So to describe the spaces you mention you'd have to articulate who is visible, who is invisible, and how such visibility subjects or empowers the particular people involved. But it's not so much ownership that matters, though I agree that that is a live issue here in NZ.