Peter Marks, Imagining Surveillance: Eutopian and Dystopian Literature and Film

Peter Marks, Imagining Surveillance: Eutopian and Dystopian Literature and Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2015) £19.99 Pb, £70.00 PDF & EPUB, £70.00 Hb. ISBN 978-1-474-42655-8

Peter Marks’s Imagining Surveillance is an interdisciplinary attempt to illuminate the manifold connections between the humanities and social sciences, especially literary criticism and surveillance studies. He has a close look at how eutopian and dystopian narratives conceptualise and imagine surveillance, the idea being 'to transform loose conversation into productive dialogue' (4), by scrutinising various novels and movies from the Anglophone world for sociological use and interpretation. Marks starts from the assumption that surveillance studies have doubtlesslbeen inspired by George Orwell’s classic dystopian tale Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). However, he also states that scholars of surveillance studies have left much literary space unexplored. Eager to convey his point, Marks cites the following passage, from David Lyon’s The Electronic Eye (1994), three times within the first twenty-five pages:

Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ and Foucault’s understanding of the Panopticon should be in no sense thought of as the only, let alone the best, images for yielding clues about surveillance. Powerful metaphors lie relatively unexamined in various films as well as in novels such as Franz Kafka’s The Castle or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (12)

Exploring these novels, Marks hopes to supply interdisciplinary research about surveillance with other literary concepts and ideas of surveillance that exceed what the rather worn-out tropes of Orwell and Foucault have to offer. Marks argues convincingly that a continued focus on Orwell and Foucault overshadows other attempts of conceptualising surveillance. He claims that their ideas – influential as they undeniably are – fail to adequately represent surveillance in the twenty-first century and thus blind scholars and the public to new developments, such as Big Data. Surveillance studies today 'need to go beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four in order to understand and respond rationally to the challenges good and ill that surveillance presents to us'. (63)

The following survey is divided into eight chapters. Marks’s introduction offers a worthwhile immersion in the basics of dystopian scholarship. Citing key thinkers like Lyman Tower Sargent, Tom Moylan or Raffaella Baccolini, Imagining Surveillance provides a useful and refreshing introduction to dystopian writing – both to newcomers to the genre as well as to those already familiar with canonical dystopian concepts and novels.

In his first chapter, 'Surveillance Studies and Utopian Texts', Marks sheds light on the long and fertile co-operation between literature and surveillance studies, citing various sociologists working with dystopian fiction. Examples range from David Lyon and his The Electronic Eye (1994), a pioneering text in this respect, to Stanley Cohen’s Visions of Social Control (1985) and Gary T Marx’s Undercover: Police Surveillance in America (1988).

Chapter Two, 'Surveillance Before Big Brother' gives a brief historical overview of eutopian and dystopian writing before Orwell. These pages are aimed at enhancing the reader’s understanding of Orwell’s text. Examples include Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) or movies like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

Central to Marks’s argument is Chapter Three 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', the novel at the heart of both the book and its argument. Orwell’s classic is the constant point of reference against which all new hypotheses about the conceptualisation of surveillance are to be tested; it is therefore advisable to be at least roughly familiar with Orwell’s text. However, even readers unacquainted with Nineteen Eighty-Four will profit from the comprehensive introductions and plot summaries offered by Imagining Surveillance. This chapter is the pivotal point of the argument since the preceding and following chapters constantly refer to the standards set by Orwell’s classic. In this chapter, Marks introduces the reader to the dense web of generic relations that characterises the dystopian genre and situates Nineteen Eighty-Four in its historic as well as its generic context, hoping that thorough background information will make it easier for readers to see beyond Orwell’s classic.

What follows next is a handful of chapters that initiate a different approach. Rather than offering a historical overview, 'Visibility', 'Spaces', 'Identities' and 'Technologies' open up various novels and movies according to their elements of surveillance relevant in the respective contexts. Marks can draw on an extensive pool of eutopian and dystopian novels and movies, offering ways of conceptualising surveillance beyond what Orwell and Foucault describe. For instance, he introduces the reader to the concept of surveillance in relation to identity as portrayed in the movie The Truman Show (1998), or that of technology in Minority Report (2002), before he gives an outlook in his last chapter 'Things to Come'.

To an extent, Marks does the humanities a great favour. He argues for the benefit of literary studies and stresses literature’s worth for other subjects as well. His voice is one of reconciliation in the context of the 'Two Cultures' debate. But although his study is clearly written with an interdisciplinary audience in mind, it focuses on a social sciences audience. This focus has two effects: on the one hand, Marks is right to hope for a refreshed conversation between the social sciences and literary studies. Surveillance studies profits from a thoroughly researched summary of the utopian genre starting from Thomas More’s Utopia. Having explained the added value of literature for sociology and other disciplines in his introduction, Marks goes on to introduce this part of his audience to well-chosen examples from the canon. Interdisciplinary research looking for new metaphors or new literary texts to draw ideas from will certainly gain considerably from this journey through roughly five hundred years of eutopian and dystopian writing.

Literary critics, on the other hand, come away rather empty-handed. While certainly well crafted and adequately described, Marks book treats literature as a mere repository of apt metaphors for the social sciences. His chapters on 'Visibility', 'Space', 'Identities' and 'Technologies' offer merely plot summaries with a special focus on surveillance aspects. Scholars looking for an in-depth analysis or an innovative approach to novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013) or China Míeville’s The City and The City (2009) or movies such as Brazil (1985), Blade Runner (1982) or I, Robot (2004) will hardly find new inspiration.

Overall, Imagining Surveillance can be recommended to both scholars from a non-literary background as well as beginners in the research about dystopian fiction. His concise writing and the reader-friendly style will definitely promote a continued engagement with these texts worthy of attention from different disciplines.

Annika Gonnermann, University of Mannheim