"The twentieth century is... the filmed century. You have to ask yourself if there's anything about us more important than the fact that we're constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves. The whole world is on film, all the time. Spy satellites, microscopic scanners, pictures of the uterus, embryos, sex, war, assassinations, everything."
- Don DeLillo*
"Everything with you is seeing, isn't it? Your primary sensory intake that makes your dream live is seeing ---reflections, mirrors, images."
- William Petersen as FBI agent Will Graham, to the serial killer in Manhunter
I. Totally Hidden Video
We watch, and are watched.
"Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance," wrote Michel Foucault.* Motion-sensing cameras swivel to follow the movements of bank patrons, convenience store customers, elevator passengers. In chichi emporiums, behind two-way mirrors, security personnel lie in wait for shoplifters. Spy satellites gaze earthward, their high-definition imaging technology able to pick out objects 12 inches in length from 100 miles up. They relay streams of images to command centers, in any weather, at any time, almost instantly; neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these sentinels from their ceaseless surveillance.
In the springtime after the Cold War, as military budgets melt away, photoreconnaissance technology is finding commercial applications. A USA Today article unperturbed by ethical questions, legal issues, and other untidy details asks,
Curious about how many widgets are on your competitor's lot? Or what the recluse next door is digging up in his back yard? Soon, your very own spy satellite photos could tell you---for about $2,200 a shot. WorldView Imaging of Livermore, Calif., has become the first company to get a government license to launch small, inexpen- sive spy satellites...that take super-sharp photos from 250 miles up... WorldView's photos will be able to distinguish between two cars parked three yards apart.*
In the article's closing sentence, the author informs us almost as an afterthought that WorldView's chairman just happens to be Walter Scott, former head of the so-called "Star Wars" satellite program at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. (Somehow, just knowing that one of the notoriously corrupt program's former employees is turning government-funded knowledge into private wealth, that corporations will spy with impunity, and that busybodies will at last be able to satisfy their nagging curiosity about "the recluse next door" makes the $30 billion squandered on Edward Teller's Spielbergian dream of space-based lasers worthwhile.)
Of course, prying eyes in the sky will look beyond orange crops and eccentric excavators. "[E]x-Los Angeles police chief, now state senator Ed Davis (Republican - Valencia) has proposed the use of a geosynclinical space satellite to counter pandemic car theft in the region," writes Mike Davis. "Once in orbit, of course, the role of a law enforcement satellite would grow to encompass other forms of surveillance and control."* Davis augurs a near-future Los Angeles in which upper-class fear of racial unrest, compounded by hysteria over gangs, has ushered in the universal electronic identification of people and property, tracked through centralized surveillance. A geosynchronous satellite would extend an electronic net over Los Angeles's ever-expanding sprawl, exposing each tagged citizen or possession to the unblinking scrutiny of the eye in the sky.
Before dismissing Davis's speculations as sci-fi for disaffected leftists, one would do well to remember the tamper-proof electronic bracelets used to monitor prisoners under house arrest, and their workplace counterpart, the active badge, an I.D. card-sized, clip-on microcomputer invented at the Olivetti Research Laboratory, in Cambridge, England. Beaming signals to a central system, the badge allows employers to track employee movements, determining what room an individual is currently in and approximately how long he has been there. "The data from the badges can also be displayed on a screen showing a model of an entire office floor," a New York Times article reports, "thus visually indicating where each badge-wearer is in relation to everyone else."* Married to a radio satellite network such as the U.S. military's Global Positioning System, which transmitted geographic coordinates to ground troops during the Gulf War, thereby allowing soldiers equipped with hand-held receivers to pinpoint their locations within 10 feet, such badges and bracelets might make the uninterrupted tracking of each and every citizen a reality.
For now, though, law enforcement will have to content itself with surveillance technology of the sort used by the LAPD's "Astro" program---French Aerospatiale choppers whose "forward-looking infra-red cameras are extraordinary night eyes that can easily form heat images from a single burning cigarette, while their thirty-million-candlepower spotlights, appropriately called 'Nightsun,' can literally turn the night into day."*
Meanwhile, on the ground below, growing numbers of Americans are turning arcane gadgets formerly known only to CIA operatives and political dirty tricksters on each other. A book called How to Eavesdrop on Your Neighbors is readily available, as is the Listenaider, a listening device disguised as a Walkman, and the Mail Inspector, a spray that renders envelopes transparent.* A New York City snoop shop called Spy World does a brisk business in night vision goggles, briefcases with secret cameras, and Spy Glasses with rear-view mirrors. The owner, a former "bug planter" for the NYPD, will install concealed cameras for jealous spouses or lovers who wonder what goes on in the bedroom when they're not home. Of course, unfaithful partners can always turn the tables with a visit to Manhattan's Counter Spy Shop, where cameras disguised as cigarette lighters, lie-detector telephones that measure microtremors in a caller's voice, and $14,000 "Pentagon level" digital phone tap detectors can be had.
"It is phenomenal what is available out there," marvels Tom Carpenter, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project, a private group that protects whistleblowers from corporate surveillance, among other things. "You have remote-control cameras, long distance microphones, cellular phones---all perfectly legal---that can be operated by one person with a modem, who can spy on you from his own home."*
What was once the stuff of paranoid delusions is, increasingly, quotidian reality. Sifting through my mail, I find yet another letter warning me that time is running out on a limited offer to sign up, free of connection charge, for Call ID, a PHONESMARTsm service that displays the phone numbers of incoming calls on a small box attached to the subscriber's phone. The letter is from New York Telephone, whose unintentionally Orwellian tagline---"We're all connected"---hints at the dark side of McLuhan's global village. You can run but you can't hide, in a wired world. "The entire globe is turning into one nervous system," observed writer William E. Burrows in the PBS program, Space Age. "When we sneeze, the Germans hear it; when the Japanese hiccup, the Italians hear it."
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault considered the rise of the disciplinary society, governed not by "the relations of sovereignty but the relations of discipline,"* during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The disciplinary society, which Foucault argues had its inception in "lock up" measures taken in plague- stricken towns, is characterized by a body of "physicopolitical" techniques: enclosed, partitioned spaces; unrelieved inspection by unseen but all-seeing observers; and the registration, classification and never-ending examination of the individual by means of a bureaucratic network linking the periphery of power with a centralized data-processing agency. Moreover, Foucault emphasized, these techniques may be abstracted from the specific historical institutions and apparatuses with which they are associated, into the "infinitely generalizable mechanism" of "panopticism" (after the institution set forth by Jeremy Bentham in his 1791 treatise, Panopticon).
Bentham, an 18th century British political economist of the utilitarian school, conceived of a revolutionary prison consisting of a cylindrical framework ("an iron cage") whose cells, rising tier upon tier, gave on a central courtyard dominated by an observation tower. Sunlight, streaming through the open-ended cells and pouring down from a skylight in the annular building, would turn each prisoner into a dramatically-backlit figure whose merest movement could easily be seen. The warders would disappear behind an elaborate system of blinds, partitions, and zig-zag openings designed to prevent light or shadow from betraying their presence. Each prisoner, wrote Foucault, "is securely confined to a cell [whose] side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication."*
The Panopticon---whose name derives from a Greek word meaning "all-seeing"--- accomplished multiple miracles with the simplest of means: optics, geometry and architecture. It facilitated the management of the individuated many by a centralized few---or one, or none, since the incarcerated had no way of knowing precisely when the overseers were at their posts and therefore had to assume that they were being spied on at all times. Thus was the machinery of power automated and the feudal dungeon, with its chains, locks, and impenetrable gloom---a welcome cloak to scheming prisoners--- rendered obsolete.
An ingenious machine for spying, the Panopticon prefigured Le Corbusier's regimented, modernist "machines for living" as well as the carceral, chicken coop architecture of the Levittowns of the 1950s. It is prototypical of the modern office, factory, asylum, schoolhouse, penitentiary, and any other conspiracy of the architectural and the optical to create a space in which behavior modification is effected through unremitting surveillance. Foucault is at pains to remind us that
"[T]he Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use."*
Implicit in such a machine is the promise (threat?) that once abstracted it is destined to spread, virus-like, throughout the social body. This infestation, evoked by Foucault in a marvelously French phrase, "the swarming of disciplinary mechanisms," marks the "de-institutionalization" of those control apparatuses known collectively as the Panopticon. They will "emerge from the closed fortresses in which they once functioned and...circulate in a 'free' state."*
Bentham's dream of "a network of mechanisms that would be everywhere and always alert, running through society without interruption in space or in time"* comes true in an image world whose inhabitants have internalized the paranoid psychology of high-tech panopticism. It is in the insidious nature of panopticism, maintains Foucault, that he who is under surveillance and is aware of his predicament "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."* A character in DeLillo's Running Dog dances around this idea, observing,
"When technology reaches a certain level, people begin to feel like criminals... someone is after you, the computers maybe, the machine-police. The facts about you and your whole existence have been collected... It's the presence alone, the very fact... of technology, that makes us feel we're committing crimes".*
Panopticism, in a cybernetic society, has given rise to an ocular culture in which scopophilia, voyeurism, narcissism, and "technommetaphobia," the fear of inhuman eyes,* are everywhere in evidence. Their traces are legible in the amateur porn that affords a peephole into the Joneses' bedroom; in Totally Hidden Video, which turns covert operations into practical jokes (and vice versa); and in I Witness Video, a show that airs news footage shot by junior Zapruders. During commercial breaks, children are beguiled by ads for Nintendo's Superscope 6, a video game-cum-spyglass that seems to belong in 1984 ("Hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdrop- ping little sneak... had denounced his parents to the Thought Police").* At the video store, their parents browse through titles such as Night Eyes, a trashy thriller about a surveillance expert seduced by his subject ("He was hired to watch, now he's tempted to touch..."); Sliver, about a perverted landlord who secretly videotapes his female tenants; If Looks Could Kill ("Voyeur. Witness. Victim."); and Manhunter, the 1986 prequel to Silence of the Lambs.
Manhunter is about watching and being watched, sight and blind- ness, time stopped with a twitch of the trigger finger and a click of the shutter. Based on Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, it follows the trail of a psychopath in search of a Blakean apotheosis. Nestling shards of broken mirror in his victims' eye sockets, the killer arranges the dead into captive audiences. In the soulless, silver windows of their eyes, he sees himself desired, transformed from a gangling creature into a radiant being---Blake's Great Red Dragon, "clothed in the rays of the sun."
The film is a bravura improvisation on the interrelated themes of narcissism, voyeurism, and the homicidal gaze mediated by technology. The authorities bring to bear a daunting arsenal of optical technologies---scanners, lasers, microscopes, black lights---in their pursuit of Francis Dollarhyde, a serial killer who works in a film processing lab. Selecting his victims from the home movies he develops, he slips into the families' homes at night, taking infra-red snapshots of them asleep and after death, posed in his grisly tableaux.
In camcorder culture, documentation supersedes experience; sights are truly seen only when they are viewed from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy recliner, as slides or videos. Dollarhyde, a grotesque travesty of the camera-toting tourist, cares little for reality's carcass; to caress seductive surfaces with his eyes, to savor again and again the staged event of being the cynosure of all eyes, is everything, for him. When FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen) observes that Dollarhyde's "act fuels his fantasy," his reversal of the traditional psychological equation underscores the fact that the killer manufactures events so that they may be recollected in tranquility, projected on his living room screen. Dollarhyde plays, always, to the unseen audience behind the camera lens: himself.
Nearly every scene in Manhunter reminds us that "the twentieth century is the filmed century," that we are "constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves." Although it is a commonplace that vision is the dominant sense in postmodernity, the degree to which we have internalized photographic, filmic, and TV paradigms is seldom noted. The act of remembering is reconstituted, in the mind's eye, as the projection of home movies on memory's screen. Daguerreotypes, sepia-toned and timeworn, are hackneyed cliches for a romanticized preindustrial past; Kodachromeª prints and 8mm movies, their colors bleary with age, stand in for Baby Boomer nostalgia (The Wonder Years, a sitcom set in the '60s, opens with jerky "home movie" footage, blotched by sun glare and dust on the lens); and the fake viewfinder and faux video effects incorporated in TV spots for Betty Crocker's Hamburger Helper Cheeseburger Macaroni, Burger King, and Kellogg's Rice Krispies---hang- onto-your-stomach zooms, off-kilter angles, viewfinder crosshairs, and onscreen logos ("B teevee," "Krispie Kam") ---signify a kinesthetic now, a hyperaccelerated real.
In instances such as these, viewer becomes viewfinder; the assumption of the camera's perspective is tantamount to becoming a camera. There is something uncanny about this transmigration of the human subject into a technological apparatus that records, with equal equanimity, family picnics and wartime atrocities. As Sontag asserts, in On Photography,
"Part of the horror of... memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism... comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene."*
The shift, by degrees, from a technologically-mediated world-view to the unconscious assumption of ocular technology's vantage point is attended by an abdication of moral responsibility and a concomitant dehumanization. Like the accomplished photographer whose compositional skill attests to his ability to envision scenes as the camera sees them, we reincorporate what McLuhan would call our "autoamputated" sensory apparatuses.* We are borged--- cyborged--- by our own hand (or eye, as the case may be).
Manhunter begins with a shaky tracking shot from the murderer's vantage point as he mounts the shadowy stairs of his victims' home, en route to a ghastly assignation. In psychosexual mysteries and slasher films, the unsteady, hand-held camera shot has long signified the psycho killer's POV, perhaps because it cannot do otherwise. Even as the
audience is aware that the device is supposed, in purely dramaturgic terms, to communicate the world as seen through the eyes of a murdering maniac, it is simultaneously aware of the cinematographic---that is, inhuman---nature of the subjective perspective it inhabits. Humans whose visual apparatus jump-cuts from tracking shots to close-ups, or who see the world in negative, infra-red, night vision, or fish-eye convexity, are unnatural, and what is unnatural is traditionally read as infernal.
At the same time, cameras kill, suspending animation so that fleeting moments may be fixed for eternity; it is entirely fitting that photographers load, aim, and shoot. Sontag argues that "There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera... [T]here is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder---a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time."*
Sontag's insights into the photographer as body thief and soul snatcher assume new significance in light of Philip E. Ginsburg's assertion that the "prowling voyeurism" typical of the serial killer is characterized by the killer's conviction that he "could have taken possession of his victim without ever touching her."*
It's almost as if he can see into her mind, and yet her mind holds no idea of his presence. He watches the way she holds her hands, shifts her weight, turns her head to the sun. She thinks she is alone, does what she would do if she were alone. But she is not alone, he is present, and he could reach out and touch her if he wanted to, he could do anything else he wanted to, anything, whatever he wants. She belongs to him.*
"Everything with you is seeing, isn't it?" The serial killer who sees himself as a dispassionate agency of Jehovan will is both director, actor, audience, and camera. "My eyes are cameras," says Charles Manson in Manson in His Own Words.
The Mansonian media psychosis reflected by Manhunter's Francis Dollarhyde is refracted more frighteningly by Gary Rattray, the Queens youth who coolly operated a video camera while a friend ripped a gold chain off another teenager's neck and kicked him repeatedly. The dominant aesthetic in Rattray's 45-second tape is home movie-meets-"gangsta" fantasy: at one point, when the victim is lying in a fetal crouch, a bystander leaps into the frame and grins; the video ends with a closeup of the victim's stunned face. Rattray told investigators that he "just likes to videotape things."*
Rattray, who witnessed an act of supreme ugliness with yawning indifference, is the curious product of panopticism: a man who has turned himself into a surveillance device. He regards and records but does not see, in the sense of moral discernment. Seeing, in a carceral culture, is a privilege reserved for the unseen---the warders, from whose vantage point the larger societal picture is apparent.
[Continued in Part Two]