Faculty Research Seminar Takes a Closer Look at Surveillance

What are the hidden costs of our increasingly pervasive social networking technologies? What is the relationship between surveillance and social networking sites? How do new social and surveillance technologies change notions such as the social, the person, knowledge, and privacy?

These are just a few of the questions the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Research Seminar (FRS), “Surveillance and the Social Network,” is addressing this quarter. Convened by Associate Professor Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli (Cinema and Technocultural Studies), the seminar aims to situate discussions of the growth of social networking sites in relation to discussions of the numerous and dispersed surveillance technologies that permeate our everyday lives.

“This seminar has a great dynamic,” commented Ravetto-Biagoli. “We all come at the topic from different angles. Some members have interests in surveillance that are completely political, approaching the topic from the point of view of power apparatuses. Others are more interested in the historical and cultural contexts.” Participants are pursuing more specific topics ranging from nanotechnology and biosensing to the politics of atmosphere, the history and politics of surveillance, and the subversive practices of social networks.

The Faculty Research Seminar is conceived as a collaborative incubator for works-in-progress. Each seminar brings together a mix of scholars from across the humanities and social sciences to engage timely issues. Faculty members select the topics to explore, and the Humanities Institute provides the space and resources. The seminar participants meet for a single quarter each year to think in community, challenge each other, and generate new insights into individual research trajectories.

Each week, a participant presents a work-in-progress to discuss and workshop with the rest of the group. The variety of projects and approaches is one of the most valuable aspects of the seminar, according to Professor Sunaina Maira (Asian American Studies). “The DHI seminars in general are quite valuable,” said Maira. “Despite having a central theme, we’re doing many different types of projects and have different approaches. All of this leads to original, creative, and unexpected entry points into the theme and into each other’s work.”

At a recent FRS meeting, creative, collaborative work was abundantly in evidence. Assistant Professor Tim Choy (Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies) presented a work-in-progress on the politics of air. “Air’s Substantiations” works to “’think seriously about the non-solid as substance,” asking what air demands of political thinking, using examples such as iPhone apps that allow users to stay abreast of air pollution monitoring in China as well as thinking through ways in which air and atmosphere challenge notions of strict national borders.

Throughout the presentation and afterward, participants asked probing questions of Choy and offered suggestions for further connections and sites of research, ranging from complex theoretical insights to Mel Brooks’s playful take on “Peri-Air” for the rich. Drawing from his or her own disciplinary expertise, each participant had something to offer Choy’s project.

Professor Caren Kaplan (American Studies) remarked, “This has been a wonderful experience, and an incredibly valuable one. Not only do we get to learn about each other’s work; the seminar allows us to make connections that we would not have otherwise made.”

Maira further emphasized the importance of these connections: “Davis is a dispersed campus, and the seminar is one of the few spaces where we actually get to share each other’s work. Without the Faculty Research Seminar, there would be a paucity of these types of conversations.”

For more information on the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Research Seminars, please see http://dhi.ucdavis.edu/?page_id=444.

This winter’s seminar participants and their individual projects are listed below:

Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli (Technocultural Studies), convener

Lawrence Bogad (Associate Professor of Theatre & Dance) “Satire, Surveillance and the States: a Performative Exploration”

Tim Choy (Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies)
“The Making of Political Atmosphere: Technoscience, Affect, and the Ontological Politics of Air”

Jaimey Fisher (Associate Professor of German & Russian)
“Eavesdropping on the Past: Domestic Terrorism, Political Dissent, and Surveillance in Contemporary European Cinema”

Caren Kaplan (Professor of American Studies)
“The Visual Culture of Stealth: Deception and Detection Under Neoliberal Militarism”

Sunaina Maira (Professor of Asian American Studies)
“Surveillance Effects: Youth and ‘Radicalization’ in the War on Terror”

Colin Milburn (Associate Professor of English)
“Touching Little Things: Probe Microscopy as Surveillance Technology”