│Johannes Völz teaches American Studies at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. He is the author of Transcendental Resistance: The New Americanists and Emerson’s Challenge (UP New England, 2010) and the forthcoming The Poetics of Insecurity: American Fiction and the Uses of Threat (Cambridge UP). He has also edited a number of books and special issues, most recently Security and Liberalism (Telos No. 170, March 2015) and Chance, Risk, Security: Approaches to Uncertainty in American Literature (Amerikastudien/ American Studies 60.4, forthcoming). His new monograph project studies the transformation of privacy in contemporary American literature.

Surveillance, Privacy, and the New Sincerity Movement

In recent years, literary writers, filmmakers, musicians, comedians, and other artists have participated in forging an aesthetic sensibility that is now often referred to as the “New Sincerity.” In general terms, the “New Sincerity” movement eschews the distancing effects of irony and aims to inhabit the edge at which fact and fiction meet, as can be seen in a broad range of contemporary American writers, including Miranda July, Ben Lerner, and Tao Lin. This makes it tempting to interpret “New Sincerity” artists as propagators of self-surveillance, who play into the hands of biopolitical control apparatuses and who boost a neoliberal ethos of self-display, self-investment, and self-enhancement. In short, New Sincerity writers prod critics to describe their art as “literary selfies.” My talk will challenge this view—not, however, by arguing that instead of enacting and perpetuating the logic surveillance, these artists critique or subvert it. Instead, I will take by its word the idea of calling (self-)surveillance a “cultural practice.” If the propagation of sincerity in the works of contemporary New Sincerity writers is indeed part of a cultural practice of (self-)surveillance, then it is not enough to look at the functions such a practice has for biopolitical and neoliberal governmentality. Rather, it becomes crucial to approach (self-)surveillance from the practitioner’s perspective. In the case of the New Sincerity literature, self-observation and self-display serve purposes that cannot be reduced to control; for instance, self-exposure, for these writers, takes on the double meaning of self-display and vulnerability. Artists like July and Lerner articulate an ontological sense of (social) precariousness, which their writings make available to the experience of the reader, but which they also attenuate by claiming art as spaces of intersubjective responsibility. Vulnerability and trust-building turn out to be two forms of sociality located at the center of the New Sincerity’s cultural practice of (self-)surveillance. The ultimate aim of this talk, then, is to arrive at a richer notion of surveillance that can incorporate its built-in ethics.