Visibility and Exposure at the Margins

I had a recent run in with the public eye because of an op-ed article I wrote for the Queen’s Journal on a controversial exploration of the limits of free speech in terms of the ability of the (in)famous Queen’s Alive (anti-abortion) group to table and canvass for supporters on campus.

This lead to a public debate and lots of discussion. It also lead to a ton of mudslinging and attempts at public smearing.

I had also experienced this in the past when myself and another advocate for queer rights filed a human rights complaint against a magazine for a publishing an unsavory article illustrating a scathing hatred for queer folk (they referred to us as evil and pagan). I was waist deep in understandably complex, multidimensional and very contested discourse. These discourses led to unpleasant hate messages and full transparency in the provincial (and to some degree, international) media.

That is not the topic of this blog post. What I would like to discuss isn’t the status of free speech or the unpalatable existence of hate speech. Rather I am interested in the intense visibility that activists (and others) are exposed to through unpredictable new media interactions. These interactions are typically escalated and amplified by the Internet. This is a dimension of contemporary surveillance not conventionally covered by many academics. It is the subjects of surveillance that I would like to explore.

This surveillance phenomenon occurs on a variety of levels of severity.  From a controversy hitting local Twitter hashtags and Facebook groups to overblown, international controversies. On the far extreme of this form of invasive visibility is the “#Gamergate” controversy. This was a humungous and viral campaign designed to threaten and smear the feminist critique of video game culture and its spokespersons. In particular, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian were the targets of endless anonymous and pseudonymous hate (death threats, rape threats, and general scummy comments).

I recall a seminar lecture last year with Dr. David Lyon (Current director of the Surveillance Studies Center) who was discussing the concept of visibility in the larger surveillance corpus. Surveillance is not just about watching, it is about being visible. This is especially the case in the emerging culture of connectivity (see the work of Jose van Dijck)—where our appearance and connection to social media is a social ‘necessity’.

Social media is always unstable and infinitely complex. It is unstable because of its complexity—no one can hope to truly predict what kind of controversies will emerge. Sometimes events, such as the publishing of a homophobic article, trigger controversy to cascade into a province wide discussion. Other times already existing tensions boil over—“#Gamergate” emerged from the tensions of a sexist ‘boys club’ responding to criticisms from the disenfranchised feminist gamer community.

In any case, from my personal experience, such visibility is an uncomfortable and sometimes threatening vantage point. It is a phenomenon that discourages ‘knowledge production’ or debate from the social/cultural margins. And though such a phenomenon can tear down the powerful, it chips away at the already rickety foundations of the oppressed.

According to Ball (2009), however, surveillance is not always something a social actor will avoid—sometimes, the opposite occurs and the actor seeks the public eye (641). This is especially the case for activists whom tend to seek out the spotlight in order to bring mass attention to a contentious and important issue.

The surveillant experience of the subject is elaborated in a concept that Ball titles the Political Economy of Interiority: “A process where an aspect of an individual’s personal or private world becomes exposed to others, via a process of data representation, interpretation, sharing through intermediaries within a broader surveillance assemblage” (643).

Ball frames interiority as the ‘unmarked’ dimensions of the actor’s body. This could be an emotional or psychoanalytic state or tid bits of an intimate life-world. With the development of ubiquitous social media, this sort of interiority is at a precarious risk of amplified exposure. Ball observes, “We are now in a world where seeing at a distance is commonplace, automated, pan-spectral and instant: no-body is watching, but bodies are watched” (644).

To be exposed is to be vulnerable. In a performative stage to which activists expose themselves, through mass social media, to the unknowable and often vengeful public, activists carry their causes into the spotlight. In my case, I took a pummeling of angry comments to my article—most of them pseudonymous, the greater portion of them inflammatory.

In the case of Quinn, Wu, Sarkeesian, during the ‘#Gamergate’ fiasco—they were threatened with violence and rape. They were told to commit suicide. They were exposed, precariously, to a vengeful audience attempting to bully them into silence. A vengeful audience that took the global stage and shook the sensibilities of the entire gamer community.

This carries an immense shaping capacity. Though this capacity is still the subject of many sociological and psychological studies, it is still rendered a topic of debate and curiosity. The most popular way of framing this shaping in surveillance studies is through the self-monitoring that accompanies exposure to the panoptic gaze. Originally a nightmarish prison devised by the mind of Bentham—it was borrowed by Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) to explain how docile bodies are shaped by self-discipline through a feeling of constant surveillance. If an actor is constantly surveilled by unknown forces, then theoretically, that actor will act in accordance with established laws and societal norms.

This is obviously very problematic for an activist. Activists tend to challenge laws and norms for whatever moral dilemma or controversy that they represent. When I challenge the boundaries of free speech, I am challenging an established ideological norm. This results in a push back from those who support such a norm.

I am not trying to say that this push back is wrong, because it is not. The pushback is the clashing of ideologies and discursive regimes. It’s as important as it is inevitable.

What needs critical scrutiny is not the friction between worldviews, but the experience of the subject of exposure to this tension. When the subject is already coming from the fringe, from disenfranchised or systemically oppressed groups—the ensuring pressure can amplify the force of oppression. A silencing force.


REFERENCES:

Ball, Kristie. 2009. “Exposure.” Information, Communication & Society 12(5). Retrieved March 29th, 2016.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.

 

About Abigail Curlew

Abigail Curlew is a PhD student of the sociology of surveillance at Carleton University, a freelance journalist, and an activist. She writes to bring attention to surveillance issues in technology, media, and politics in order to inform the public of the threat of ubiquitous watching.