‘Sight Unseen: Seeing, Surveillance, and the Visual Sphere in American Culture’, Trinity College Dublin, 24-25 April 2015
From 24-25 April the Irish Association for American Studies (IAAS) held their annual conference at Trinity College Dublin. The reviews are organised into two parts. The first is a reflection of the opening day of the conference, and the second reflects upon the closing day.
This year’s IAAS Conference, entitled, “Sight Unseen: Seeing, Surveillance, and the Visual Sphere in American Culture” was a fascinating, interdisciplinary two day event that covered a broad range of topics involving literature, politics, film studies and philosophy. This review of the conference’s second day unpacks thematic strands that emerged from the panels and the debates that followed.
The ‘Surveillance’ dynamic of the conference was helpfully approached in a series of discussions concerning specific texts. Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Repo Men (2010), and Surrogates (2009) were used as examples of the self placed as part of a culture of transgression, and the self as anxious. In the case of the former, Antonia Mackay (Oxford Brookes University) contended that Dick’s novel reflected the social changes and destabilisation of self, brought about by the “historical newness” of San Francisco. Susan Flynn (University of the Arts, London) argued that dystopian sci-fi films such as Repo Men (2010) and Surrogates (2009) reflect contemporary anxieties pertaining to the colonisation of the self by state and corporate surveillance. At the crux of this, and an undercurrent throughout the conference, was the recognition of surveillance as a socio-cultural problematic within the sci-fi genre, which reflects directly upon the power relations of dystopian societies.
The contemporary digital age had a notable impact on the conference’s papers. Social network, YikYak was flagged by Lizzie Falvey’s (Wentworth Institute of Technology) to illuminate pressing questions over the nature of the development of artificial intelligence during an age where privacy is being eroded and group-think is becoming increasingly dominant in social networking sites. The design and implementation of a runaway artificial intelligence was a concern felt by many of the panellists. An AI that proved particularly threatening was one that may be built upon the incorporation of human minds into a computer network. The potential for an omnipresent surveillance filtered into an important term used at the conference – ‘hive mind’. Falvey considered this in her discussion of Josh Harris’s concept of the future in which the human race will become amalgamated into a cloud-based hive mind driven to accumulate virtual currency through cultural production and consumption whilst being watched over by a panoptic elite.
Despite first impressions, the notions produced by the conference title were not specific to a time-frame. Testament to its fluidity, themes within the panel, ‘Nineteenth-Century Ways of Seeing’ could be interrelated with those that emerged from the panel centred on racial surveillance. Notions of ‘Seeing’, ‘Surveillance’, and, ‘the Visual Sphere’ can be applied to many disciplines and contexts. Ben Davidson (New York University) for example, offered an intriguing analysis of visual representations of children in antebellum America. Karen Jackson (McMaster University) applied the title to a discussion of Alabama’s HB 56 bill in the context of a post-911 cultural environment. Specifically, how it fosters untenable living conditions for undocumented immigrants by rendering them as security threats. Shirley Samuels (Cornell University) primarily looked at the sculptures of Edmonia Lewis and Hiram Powers to provide a compelling overview of how their works reflected historical issues such as slavery and abolitionism. My discussion centred on the Indian-hating section of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857) with respect to a postcolonial psychoanalytic reading of national narratives of legitimation and the repression of alternate histories. The issue of the anonymity and social status of the confidence-man raised by Samuels during the Q&A unexpectedly related to Jonathan Naveh’s (Ohio University) paper, which focused on The Purge films. In particular, Naveh highlighted how the films reflect current racial and class tensions in the United States. He unpacked the systematic subordination of racial others through an intrusive welfare, the militarisation of the police force, and the criminalisation of ethnic minorities. In this sense his paper had a demonstrably contemporary dimension in view of the current Baltimore riots and recent cases of excessive force by the police against African Americans in the US. The focus of The Purge films on characters and the social and political hierarchies that exist between them as opposed to the spectacle of violence linked back to Davidson’s analysis. Debates raised by both Naveh and Davidson concerned significant issues and questions of social status and visibility. Specifically, in relation to the latter, how the nineteenth-century idea that children should be seen and not heard was translated to contemporary historical perceptions of children.
In conclusion, the conference raised issues and concerns that will become more pressing as we take further steps into the twenty-first century. Its exploration of surveillance, invisibility and ways of seeing were approached from a diverse range of perspectives and subject field disciplines which covered issues of race, class, aesthetics, psychology, historical representations and dystopian futures. As a result, the panels were amongst the most interesting I have attended. They featured a highly imaginative and appropriate selection of papers, which provoked intellectually stimulating conversations during the Q&As. The conference also proved that this is indeed an exciting time for American studies. The insights that were presented take central place in contemporary discussions of ‘sight’ and ‘being seen’ within in American society.