The State of Surveillance

"We didn’t particularly set out to write a book about state-sponsored surveillance."

The Inspection House: An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern Surveillance by Emily Horne and Tim Maly. Coach House Books. 154 pages.

THE INSPECTION HOUSE: An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern Surveillance is the latest in the “Exploded Views” series from the innovative Toronto-based publisher Coach House Books. In a prefatory note, the authors, Emily Horne and Tim Maly, describe it as “a field guide to a conceptual terrain.” This terrain is the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon (the prison he designed in the 1870s), as seen from the viewpoint of Michel Foucault. The authors use Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison as a gateway to discussion of what they call “our strange present condition,” meaning our “disciplinary” society and its enforcement through the widespread practice of surveillance by governments, corporations, and individuals.

The preface ends with a section on “How to Use This Book”:

The structure of the book is: seven longer chapters, each focused on a particular site and organized in a way that loosely mirrors the argument of Discipline & Punish. […] You do not need to read the book in order. Use this guide to help you identify, classify and resist the panopticons and pseudo-panopticons you come across in your daily life. An understanding of the genus is critical to understanding the ecology of surveillance culture.

“The Inspection House” is intended for “the everyday reader.” The first chapter does a nice job of summarizing Bentham’s plans for the panopticon and how Foucault viewed this invention. Despite what the authors say, it helps if you read the first chapter first. Horne and Maly quote essential passages from Bentham and Foucault as epigraphs for each chapter and in other examples throughout the book, providing food for thought and context for their commentary.

If the book has been written for the “everyday” or general reader, the authors might have explained what they mean when they refer to Noam Chomsky’s “rationalist view of human nature as opposed to Foucault’s anti-essentialist one.” While I give them credit for acknowledging a few of Foucault’s critics — Chomsky, Jurgen Habermas, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Janet Semple — they could easily have added the names of more recent writers (Nancy Fraser comes to mind) and probed the question of why Foucault has been such a controversial figure.

Maly bought a pair of “Prison Blues,” jeans manufactured by prisoners of the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. The jeans “are a kind of charismatic megafauna from a strange and complex ecosystem. They might be a heraldic emblem for an old and unsolved debate about what should happen to people who go to prison.” Despite the inflated language, this chapter offers a brief, interesting history of prison labor in the United States, exploring the impact of a policy that claimed at once to punish and reform, while in many cases exploiting prisoners as slaves. There are some distracting stylistic irregularities in this chapter:

When the U.S. amended its Constitution for the thirteenth time in 1865 to ban slavery, it explicitly reaffirmed prison labour as totally okay.

After the [cotton] gin, which offered a fiftyfold increase in speed, processing was no longer the limiting factor. Instead, the limit was the amount of available land, which, in the southern U.S. was, like, all of it.

That’s, like, totally okay with me, because the points they make are perfectly valid. But these bathetic examples are part of a certain self-conscious cuteness, as manifest in the subtitle, “an impertinent field guide,” and the first page, where, instead of the half title, the reader is invited to “Personalize Your Field Guide” by filling in “name, address, date of birth and social security number/insurance number.” Yes, I understand this book is gently satirizing the idea of a field guide, and I see the humor or irony of including a place for private information in a book about surveillance.

On a more substantive note, the book suffers from its attempt to imitate or replicate Foucault’s point of view, an impossible task, given the complex and protean nature of his work. Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations) see him as “beset by competing theoretical commitments,” and “a conflicted thinker,” although these phrases by no means sum up their thorough survey and assessment of his philosophy and its reception by academics and critics. Horne and Maly, though, have fallen hook, line, and sinker for Foucault. Their adoration of his panoptic metaphor breeds a myopic view of contemporary industrial society, as they concentrate on the sense of sight and the gaze while forfeiting a chance to explore that powerlessness of the individual peculiar to our technophilic age.

The third chapter begins by paraphrasing the beginning of “The Body of the Condemned,” from Part One of Discipline and Punish, a horrifying account of an execution in Paris, the torture-unto-death of Damiens the Regicide in 1757:

In Foucault’s recounting, the torture of Damiens the Regicide is a botched execution. […] [T]he executioner’s pincers don’t do a good job of tearing off Damiens’s skin. The horses are not up to the job of drawing and quartering […] the executioners […] cut his limbs to the bone so the horses have an easier time. But though the execution was botched, it was not chaotic brutality. A procedure was followed. There was a recipe for the mixture of molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and poured over Damiens’s wounds. There was a specific order of events […]

Horne and Maly go on to quote Foucault’s famous passage about “judicial torture,” in which he wrote that “it was certainly cruel, but it was not savage” — again, in his logic, because “it was a regulated practice”; a procedure was followed. I couldn’t help but think of the Monty Python sketch in which a murderous gangster, Dinsdale, is described as “a cruel man, but fair.”


Vince, after he nailed your head to the floor, did you ever see him again?


Yeah … after that I used to go round his flat every Sunday lunchtime to apologize, and we’d shake hands and then he’d nail my head to the floor.


Every Sunday?


Yeah but he was very reasonable about it. I mean one Sunday when my parents were coming round for tea, I asked him if he’d mind very much not nailing my head to the floor that week, and he agreed and just screwed my pelvis to a cake stand.

Foucault’s fascination with torture went well beyond the intellectual sphere, and I find his distinction between “cruel” and “savage” provocative and beguilingly outré, but also dubious and vague. All of the worst offenses against humanity by human actors might be said to be part of “a regulated practice,” and so what is left to be defined as “savage”? It is an empty category.

While there is a mildly interesting discussion of government memos and propaganda, ultimately the third chapter is a rather fruitless exercise in trying to see the Guantanamo prison camps “through Foucauldian eyes.” A description of Inside the Wire, a documentary produced by the Defense Department about Guantanamo Bay, yields the observation, “it sounds awfully panoptic to me.” Except for the panoptic paraphernalia with which the authors attempt to illuminate the history of “GTMO,” drawing a parallel between the prison’s transformation from a place of torture to a giant holding cell and the ancien regime’s replacement by disciplinary society, there is little in this chapter that adds to what readers of The Guardian, The New York Times, and other publications already know.

Also, I could not help but find it strange to read Foucault’s “cruel, but it was not savage” argument cheek by jowl with the denial by the Department of Justice’s Steven A. Bradbury that waterboarding or sleep deprivation meet the legal definition of torture. This unlikely juxtaposition casts an eerie and unintended light on the patron saint of The Inspection House.

And imitating Foucault begets some silly comments, as in chapter five, “London’s Ring of Steel.” Described by The New York Times as “an extensive web of cameras and roadblocks designed to detect, track and deter terrorists,” the ring of steel was built to protect the City, London’s financial center. Horne and Maly: “It is hard to imagine a clearer illustration of the link between discipline and industrial commerce than a decision to protect the seat of finance over the throne.” Writing about the monarchy of the ancien regime is one thing, the royals in the 21st century quite another. And, as a practical matter, it is not hard to imagine what the British public reaction might be if Queen Elizabeth suddenly surrounded Buckingham Palace with a moat.

The final chapter, “Our iPhones,” addresses questions of contemporary surveillance:

Mobile phones allow surveillance to be mutual, which is what Foucault predicted […] Power operates multidirectionally, not simply from above. We watch, we are watched and we watch each other.

Although smart phones and other technology products may operate “multidirectionally,” it does not therefore follow that surveillance is mutual, if by “mutual” the authors imply some sort of parity. It is power from above that ought to worry us most. Surprisingly, the book contains almost no discussion on the subject of “social media” — just a couple of paragraphs about Facebook and one on Edward Snowden’s revelations. And despite the stated aim of The Inspection House, there is nothing here to help us “identify, classify and resist the panopticons and pseudo-panopticons” we find in our daily lives.

Perhaps it isn’t too surprising that resistance remains an unexplored topic for Horne and Maly, just as it was for Foucault, according at least to Best and Kellner:

While Foucault has argued that power breeds resistance and has on occasion pointed to tactics of resistance, there is no adequate description of resistance, the scope, detail, and rigour of which approaches the analysis of technologies of domination.

I find it astonishing that in a book based on Discipline and Punish there is not a word about Michel Foucault’s views on science. In the final chapter (“The Carceral”) he explains the relationship between “the carceral network” and the growth of the human sciences. And the relationship he saw must necessarily have bearing on his concept of panopticism, with implications for the digital world, the internet, and social media.

The Inspection House ends with a few words of faux Foucault, as the authors imagine what his response might have been to the criticism of English historian Janet Semple, whose work they derisively dismiss. But Semple’s essay, “Foucault and Bentham: A Defence of Panopticism,” (Utilitas, May 1992) offers an even-handed critical assessment of Foucault’s world view:

Foucault’s intensely imagined vision of western society mesmerizes, indeed horrifies, but does it convince? It is a picture imbued with distrust, hatred, and fear. It is easy to agree with Jerrold Seigel that Foucault personally found his world ‘an uninhabitable trap’. Foucault had a revelation of a new meaning of human existence which must be either accepted or rejected—we are in the realms of the unverifiable. Within the prison of this revelation all knowledge or discussion is an artefact of power and subjection. No investigation within the limits of the human mind is possible for that too is subject. Argument is impossible—the more vehemently an individual protests that he is not subject, the greater is the proof of his subjection.

Semple describes the panopticon as “an ambivalent and at times abhorrent institution” and admits that “Foucault’s criticisms” are often “valid.” But, she points out some important deficiencies in his representation of Bentham’s thought, chiefly that Foucault ignored essential texts that did not fit his preconceptions, such as The Rationale of Punishment and the Constitutional Code. And she faults Foucault for failing to consider the work of John Howard:

Howard’s works, The State of Prisons and An Account of the Lazarettos, which contain a vast mass of factual information on the conditions within penal establishments throughout eighteenth-century Europe are not mentioned […] His ideas on management, work, discipline, and reformation were the foundation of nineteenth-century penology. If we were looking for the precursor of the penitentiary in England we would look to Howard rather than Bentham. […] But we can understand why Foucault ignored Howard and concentrated on Bentham. Howard, humdrum, sensible, religious and genuinely altruistic was far less suitable for Foucault’s polemical purposes.

I will not speak for Emily Horne and Tim Maly as they have attempted to do for Foucault, but will end with an email exchange I had with them about their new book:

BRUCE JOSHUA MILLER: What prompted you to write this book?

EMILY HORNE AND TIM MALY: We were both introduced to Foucault, Bentham, and the panopticon more than a decade ago as part of various undergrad university courses at the college where we met. Thanks to professors who encouraged creativity and general weirdness, we were able to co-write several papers on surveillance. Our most successful project began with a plan to photograph all the CCTV cameras in a local mall, and ended with an interview by the head of mall security.

This juvenilia bubbled back to the top of mind when the NSA surveillance revelations came out in 2013. We’d been working together on the architecture and design of border towns that also involved thinking a lot about surveillance. It seemed like the right time to look at the topic again, and luckily Coach House Books agreed.

For whom was it written? That is, ideally, what audience are you hoping to reach?

This is a book for people who might have seen some popular mentions of the Panopticon and want to dig a bit deeper into the topic.

Analyzing present-day surveillance culture through Foucault has been common in more academic circles for a long time now, so much so that the Panopticon has become passé in surveillance studies. But we wanted to write a book that looked at contemporary surveillance and Foucault for people who’d never read him before. We saw the Panopticon metaphor being used in popular writing (Glenn Greenwald’s book about Edward Snowden devotes a few pages to the topic, for instance), but the interpretations tend to be very surface-level: if the government is watching its citizens, then we must all be living in a panopticon. We wanted to look at some of the less-discussed notions in his book, like hygiene as a method of control, normalization of populations under surveillance, or the isolation of the prisoners in a panoptic institution.

You say on page 137: "Smartphones can operate as vectors of surveillance and counter-surveillance. They are tools that allow corporations, governments and individuals to watch over the details of our lives, but they also allow us to watch right back." How do they "allow us to watch right back"?

[…] For a long time, the story that got told about mobile tech — especially mobile tech with cameras in it — has been about the empowerment of the individual. At street protests, activists bring their cameras to record abuse by the police. People sneak recording devices into meetings with government officials to record corruption and catch unguarded remarks. The mythology around the Arab Spring, Occupy, and even the Ferguson and the Hong Kong protests is that Twitter or other mobile communications allow them to coordinate in defiance of state power. After 9/11, the authorities became very concerned about people with cameras hanging around critical infrastructure, as it seemed like a security risk.

Think back to Rodney King. Who knows how many other brutal beatings went unrecorded on the side of a highway? The hope was that once everyone had cameras, more of us could capture and record the movements of those in power, and use that to share and coordinate and fight back.

The popular consciousness of the other side of things — that these tools are part of the infrastructure for the mass surveillance of customers and citizens by companies and governments is a relatively new phenomenon.

The subtitle of the book describes it as "an impertinent field guide to modern surveillance," but to me the book appears to be a sort of love letter to Michel Foucault, rather than a book about state-sponsored surveillance in our time or in recent history. Your response, please?

If this book is a love letter to anyone, it’s a love letter to Jeremy Bentham. When we first conceived of the book, Bentham wasn’t going to be a huge part of it. But when we started to read his Panopticon writings, he became integral to the story. Bentham’s hopeful optimism about his panoptic project runs in sharp contrast to Foucault’s dire warnings about the spread of disciplinary institutions. It was important to us to engage with Bentham, since that’s where Foucault’s metaphor had originated. But we hadn’t been expecting to find his social engineering so relevant to the present day, or for his words about privacy to be echoed by people like Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg.

We didn’t particularly set out to write a book about state-sponsored surveillance. We set out to consider contemporary surveillance through a panoptic lens. That has us visiting a number of state-run sites (an Oregon prison, GTMO, the NY/NJ port, the City of London, Oakland’s DAC), but states are far from the only actors involved in surveillance. Contemporary surveillance takes a lot of forms; there are a lot of agents watching us and each other. So in the port, the state and corporations have partially overlapping and partially conflicting interests. In Oakland, activists and the police have pretty plainly conflicting interests, with the civic government awkwardly straddled between them and the background noise of federal funding for anti-terror security further distorting the situation.

You spend a good deal of time writing about CCTV, but social media receive far less attention. Can you explain why? Do you see Facebook, etc., as primarily benign in this age of "surveillance"?

We tried to keep the CCTVs confined to a section of our chapter on London’s Ring of Steel, but because they’re such a bread-and-butter tool of surveillance, they make cameos here and there throughout the book. Both CCTVs and Facebook are charismatic things to point at, but they’re both fundamentally symptoms. We’re trying to talk more about the structures, systems, and attitudes that make these things omnipresent.

Before Facebook there was MySpace, and after Facebook there will be something else. Today, there are plenty of other tracking companies on the web running more or less silently. The recent attention to Verizon and AT&T’s device-linked tracking cookies is the latest eruption. There are doubtless more to come (this was the hardest part about working on the mobile phones chapter — there were new revelations on a weekly basis).

Any time information is concentrated in a database, that information becomes valuable to anyone who deals in information: spies, the police, researchers, scam artists, advertisers, civil servants, insurance companies, and credit agencies, to name a few. Some will access it through business deals. Some will use illicit means.

So no, we don’t think Facebook is primarily benign. We think it’s a repository of valuable and dangerous material that has already been exploited. So is Target’s now-compromised credit and debit card database. And so on.


Bruce Joshua Miller is the editor of Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research. He blogs at

LARB Contributor

Bruce Joshua Miller is the editor of Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research. He blogs at and tweets @brucejquiller.


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