Surveillance, Freedom of Expression, and Affect


Manhattan, February 16

To be in New York, or any city for that matter, is to be watched, not just by the human eyes of your fellow New Yorkers, but by mechanical ones as well. The gift of anonymity that New York’s size and dynamism seems to grant is more illusory than real in the age of surveillance. Since the 90s, the surveillance structure in New York has extended exponentially, presiding over private and public spaces alike (Siegel).

There is a misconception that only people who have something to hide should be worried about being surveilled. Part of this perception is due to the fact that surveillance currently works within a black box—an object lacking in transparency to the process in between the input and the output (which are also often concealed). It’s mystery plays neatly into the illusion of security that we, the general population, prefer to maintain. It is a chosen ignorance for the sake of comfort and convenience. The unsettling reality is a surveillance state where the lines between what’s private and what’s not are obliterated, and all information is able to be recorded, viewed, manipulated and distributed.

This is a perilous situation because privacy, the essential element of a civil society that is guaranteed the rights of the First Amendment, is threatened. Even those who identify as “regular people” who feel like surveillance does not concern them, are at risk of the mining of their personal information and unlawful profiling, both online and through physical surveillance, that can eventually be used against them in unseen ways. What’s even more concerning is that groups with political views or identifications that are different from that of conventionally accepted ideology, such as minorities, the LGBTQ community, non-conformists, social activists, and dissenters are left defenseless against exposure by surveillance and the consequent persecution.

Without the assurance of privacy or protection, people invariably self-censor. And when dissent and political expression is discouraged, society loses its most basic safeguard against the failures, corruption, or discriminatory practices/beliefs of those in power. This is Foucault’s panopticon in all it’s affective glory. There is no need to silence a people that silence themselves.

Self-censorship’s overwhelming power is a product of affect. Teresa Brennan, author of The Transmission of Affect, explains affect as an energy, or a “physiological shift accompanying a judgement.” The transmission of affect between individuals and their environments reveals the permeability between bodies, and how easily our emotions can affect the behaviors and even the biology of others. And according to Brian Massumi in “The Autonomy of Affect,” a nuance in understanding how affect operates is to think of it as a force that is abstract and unconscious, yet “it is not exactly passivity, because it is filled with motion, vibratory motion, resonance” (26). There is action, because affect creates very tangible effects, but it is a non-linear and not always intentionally produced motion. The power of looking and the impact of being looked at are transmissions of affect, or the impingement of the energies of one body upon another.

Massumi writes about how this impingement of affect is amplified by what Felix Guttari calls “transversality,” which is the transmission of an impulse that is unavoidably experienced, and overcomes the limits of the tools of materialization to spread “from one actualization to another and across all” (42). This what Massumi calls an “analog theory of image-based power,” where images and media are the sites where affects can be transferred, “emerge,” and absorbed by receiving bodies, to varying degrees of potential harm.


Works Cited

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. PDF.

Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique, no. 31, 1995, pp. 23–43.

Siegel, Loren, Robert A. Perry, and Margaret Hunt Gram. (n.d.): n. pag. Who’s Watching? New York Civil Liberties Union, 2006. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

~ by Emily Tang on February 19, 2017.

7 Responses to “Surveillance, Freedom of Expression, and Affect”

  1. Best in Show– Your post caused an affect in me in which I was suddenly very aware of my behavior on the streets, I usually go about my days oblivious to my surroundings. The idea of being surveilled was very stressful and i think you got that across very well. Very interested in seeing the development of your site.

  2. I think this is the Smartest post because Emily was able to synthesize the concept of self-surveillance and apply it within Massumi’s affective model.


  3. Thinking-Smartness Award! You have a very thoughtful analysis of affect from both texts (and in my opinion, one of the best ones). The application of the ideas of affect to your own claims about self-censorship and privacy are among the most thought out arguments that have been made in this blog, and have really made me think about my relationship with surveillance. Gold star!

  4. This was the most thoughtful post in my opinion because it integrated the readings fairly seamlessly into the ecological concept that was being addressed. The serious precarity of said ecology was very well communicated.

  5. Most thinking. It is very nicely explained. The readings are explained so well and very nicely articulated.

  6. Best in Show: This was the most inspiring blog post to me. You integrated the reading very well. The readings are really connected to the materials. The concepts are well-defined.

  7. Best in show — really interesting topic and your post made me think more about my experience with surveillance in my life. Readings worked well with your ideas and the affect you created in the first two paragraphs.

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