Closed Circuits: Screening Narrative Surveillance (2015) completes Garrett Stewart’s trilogy on the millennial turn from photochemical to electronic screen procedures, as begun with the celluloid basis of cinema in Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis (2000) and followed by the turn to digital generation and projection in Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema (2007), all published by the University of Chicago Press.  James O. Freedman Professor of Letters at the University of Iowa and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with previous teaching appointments at Boston University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), he has held Guggenheim and Leverhulme Fellowship and, in addition to his film writing, is the author of numerous books on fiction, literary language, and visual art.

Surveillancinema: Critique or Capitulation?

My 2015 book on the specular “Closed Circuits” between film’s surveillance plotting and the proliferating variants of incorporated CCTV downloads, together with both satellite and drone relays, had meant, in its subtitle “Screening Narrative Surveillance,” to highlight three separate if tangent issues while also running them together as a descriptive phrase for this current film “subgenre” or “aesthetic.”  My conference paper on this “surveillancinema” (one elided mode of thematized overlook) will move forward not only to films released since then in the same high-tech lineage but also, and all the more so because of them, to a mounting sense of popular cinema’s consolidated generic blinkers in the matter of global surveillance, where scopic priorities seem too narrowly geared to medium at the expense of a wider diagnosis of monitored identity in wired civilian space.  As raised by potential red flag in my paper’s interrogative subtitle, one wonders whether the moment of recoil and critique in regard to technoptic oversight has become more anodyne than analytic?  Screen narrative’s relentless spectacle of invaded privacy under order (and sometimes ordnance) of state or rogue surveillance—that multifarious exposé of audiovisual exposure itself in both its forensic and its weaponized forms, especially when isolated in the mode of digital display and its secondary or tertiary transmits—does often seem to luxuriate in the visual finesse and logistics (ubiquitous even when not ballistic) that a given film’s cautionary plotting would otherwise appear to cite in scenic scare quotes.  And the contamination of polemics by technique is reversible as well, a two-way circuit.  The embedded tactical manipulations of panning and tracking, of cross-cut visual recognition and serial reframing, of optic search and seizure, even of zeroing in and zeroing out, with focus become target function—all of it bleeds over into the grain of filmic montage per se from the violent manhunts so dynamically conveyed across the layered and recessed planes of real-time display (in what Thomas J. Levin calls “surveillant enunciation”).  Ultimately moving beyond such “screening of narrative surveillance” as a metanarrative reflex of the so-called kino-eye, minimizing as it does the nonphotogenic armatures of dataveillance—and, in fact, moving beyond mainstream narrative and even cinema altogether—my paper turns for contrast to transmedium works of what I call Conceptualism 2.0 that intercept the premises of both surveillance technology and global image circulation in order to upend the priorities of optic coding and transmission with a resistance internal to the image itself.