University of the West of England. BA Art & Social Context “Surveillance” by Richard Proffitt.
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Surveillance: Part 2: The State

Contextualised Practice: Evaluation Report. Module: A842S3

by Richard Proffitt September 1997.
Updated in May-July 2015

The State

  • The State System
  • Surveillance and Panopticism
  • Surveillance and the State

    The term ‘State’ is rather complex in interpretation: in particular relevance to the subject surveillance, there are aspects of the state system which are of interest. The State system consists of institutions such as government (and local government to a lesser extent), the military, the paramilitary, administrative elements, the security and police forces and the judiciary. These are the institutions that Ralph MillibandRalph Milliband
    (1924-94) was a Belgian-born British sociologist, a prominent Marxist author, described as "one of the best known academic Marxists of his generation".Wikipedia
    identifies as constituting the state system.

    State surveillance is a prerogative of the police force - although it is not the only medium through which state surveillance moves. Other social institutions and state apparatus can be identified as being ‘outside’ the state system such as mass media and the medical institution. These organisations can be seen to influence the State system by the type of power that they wield. They can be seen as elements of the political system. The medical institution is of particular interest - as pointed out on the previous page. Much of the classification techniques within surveillance have been adopted from historic medical and anthropological theories; notably, the quasi-sciences of Eugenics and Physiognomy.

    Milliband argues that “...holders of state power are agents of private economic power... [that those who wield power are also therefore]... an authentic ‘ruling class’...” Consider the membership of institutions within the sate system. We find that the elite groups of these organisations (the police force is a good example) consist upon a primary base of family connections and the social milieu of a certain class. For an outsider to these groups entry can be exceedingly difficult. For a member of these groups desiring of advance to elite social and political circles their concerns must be shaped by the economic interest dominant in these circles. State power within the police force can be seen to hold close to the interests of capitalism and to the values of the ruling class. The power to survey the majority of society is a modern aid to maintaining the traditional structures of power, wealth and the class system. In a similar way, the majority of those who are placed under state surveillance are not criminals (who present relatively little danger to the state system) but are people who oppose the values of the ruling class. Proof of this can be seen on the rare occasions where the Special Branch are forced to reveal some of their files; the victims are most often people with political sympathies with the left and people who are ‘politically active.’

    A recent example of politically orientated surveillance is the evidence from sympathisers that a database of information on the traveller movement is currently being complied.

    The reasons why surveillance is carried out by the state upon the population can be varied and obscure. One can only guess the extent to which surveillance is carried out, but with the current level of technology it could be said that anyone could be under surveillance without their knowledge at any time! ‘As an US National Security officer indiscreetly put it in 1980, ‘there are three satellites over the Atlantic, each capable of transmitting on about 20,000 circuits. There are 8 transatlantic cables with about 5,000 circuits. We monitor them all.’ [BSSR / Technology of Political Control Groups. Technocop]

    Surveillance and Panopticism

    Michel FoucaultMichel Foucault
    (1926-84) French philosopher, historian, social theorist and critic. His theories addressed power and knowledge, how they are used as a form of social control.Wikipedia
    ’s theories around the PanopticonPanopticon
    A prison building designed in the late 18th century. A single watchman in the central tower may be observing any of the inmates.Wikipedia
    are particularly relevant when considering surveillance issues. Foulcault coined the term ‘panopticism’ after the institution outlined by Jeremy BanthamJeremy Bantham
    (1748-1832) British philosopher, jurist, and social reformer. He is regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.; he also invented the panopticonWikipedia
    in 1791; the Panopticon. Panopticism is the instrumental use of surveillance technologies in disciplinary societies, resulting in a psycho-political state of unremitting surveillance. Bentham’s Panopticon was a piece of revolutionary prison architecture consisting of a cylindrical framework whose cells, raising tier upon tier, gave out onto a centralised observation tower.

    Sunlight streaming through the open ended cells and from the skylight, would result in dramatically back-lighting the figures of the prisoners - making their every movement visible. Wardens could disappear behind an elaborate system of blinds and partitions, designed to prevent light or shadow from betraying their presence.

    The Panopticon facilitated the management of the many - by the centralised few. In fact, theoretically the Panopticon required nobody to operate it as those imprisoned had no way of knowing if their overseers were present in the central observation tower or not. The prisoners had to conclude, therefore, that they could be being observed at any time. Foucault suggests that because of this uncertainty, prisoners began to survey themselves - assuming the part of captor within their own psyche.

    He who is subjected to a field of visibility and knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

    The Panopticon is the prototype of every modern office, school building, factory, asylum, hospital and prison - with the effect, Foucault argued, of altering the behaviour of the inhabitants by unremitting surveillance through the notion of the individuals internalising power relationships and becoming self-surveying.

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