Spectacle, Surveillance, Control

My original plan of a documentary media-themed freshman composition course didn’t work out this semester. Because the course is supposed to introduce students to literature/literary studies, my documentary emphasis didn’t quite fit. So, instead, I’ve decided to teach a very loosely related theme, “Spectacle, Surveillance, Control,” using Debord, Foucault, and Deleuze as reference points for each of these themes. I taught a section of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish together with Deleuze’s “Postscript on Control Societies” at Tech a few years ago, and the discussion of both essays turned out to be fairly productive (thanks to Anne for the link). I’m planning to use excerpts from The Society of the Spectacle for Debord, but that’s still somewhat up in the air.

I think that one of the major benefits of this type of approach will be that it will portray the means by which academic argument can proceed. Foucault responds to Debord. Deleuze responds to Foucault. At the same time, we can “test” their approaches on a range of contemporary phenomena. Inspired by Ryan, I’ll likely start the semester with the unit on spectacle, by focusing on the inauguration and protests as forms of spectacle (and given last year’s controversy, the Super Bowl halftime show might be interesting to watch, too). Later in the semester, I’ve heard that Georgia Tech is planning a symposium on Freedom Tower, so that might be a useful moment to revisit those questions.

I will also require students to read Douglas Coupland’s Miss Wyoming and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. The latter, especially, can introduce students to questions about control societies quite nicely. Plus, I think both novels would be fun to teach. I’ve been trying to think of some good short stories/films for teaching alongside of Foucault. I think Bentham’s Panopticon is such a powerful image that it stands on its own, so I’m more intrigued by the ways in which Foucault talks about disciplinarity. If you have any suggestions, I’d appreciate them. I have thought about teaching Cube, but that doesn’t quite seem to fit what I’d like to do in terms of surveillance and disciplinarity. One other possibility (again, for control societies) would be Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, another film I’ve long wanted to teach.


  1. Jill Said,

    December 21, 2004 @ 4:19 am

    Wonderful idea, and I’ll be interested to see how you end up structuring the course. I used some of this material in my networked culture course this semester, though we focussed more on the aesthetics, and talked about emergence and digital art more than I’d imagine you doing. I had originally intended to start off by reading Pattern Recognition, but dropped that when the reading list became too long, which is a pity, really. I added a little on situationism at the end, too late to add Debord to the list but it would have been better to have Debord there, especially since we did read Foucault on the Panopticon.

    The course site has the assignments I gave and the schedule includes links to short versions of what we did each day. Some info is in Norwegian, because we started the semester in Norwegian but switched to English when two exchange students joined us.

  2. Jill Said,

    December 21, 2004 @ 4:23 am

    Oh, as for novels about disciplined societies, how about Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? This is a particularly important time for that book to be read… Brave New World would be good too, though I haven’t read it since I was in my teens the discipline described there still haunts me. I guess they’re not short stories, though, are they… I haven’t seen the film version of Handmaid.

    Also, I just bought a book by Alex Galloway called Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralisation, which looks really interesting.

  3. Brendan Riley Said,

    December 21, 2004 @ 8:59 am

    While I haven’t taught them in the context you discuss here, it seems like Brazil or 12 Monkeys would work well for discussing the panopticon. Brazil features a variety of surveillance elements and techniques, and plays on the Kafka-esque man-stuck-in-the-bureaucratic-mess motif. 12 Monkeys has even more direct Foucault-ian elements: the “prison” at the beginning looks a lot like the panopticon, and Cole’s internalization of surveillance (the idea that his tooth is “watching” him) illustrates the idea nicely. I haven’t thought in detail about these things since I was an undergrad, but your question reminded me of it.

  4. Chuck Said,

    December 21, 2004 @ 11:40 am

    Jill and Brendan: lots of good ideas here. I want to do some film, so 12 Monkeys, especially could work really well. In some ways, I think arguments could be made that the film engages with spectacle just as much as surveillance, and I have the added benefit that I’ve written a lot about that film over the years.

    The contagious media assignment on your syllabus sounds like a lot of fun, too.

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