JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Abjection and the spaces of torture

Characters from Saw II revisit the torture space in Saw. Notice the floor is stained with blood and the corpse of the victim who was left to die at the end of the first film.

The leftover index of violence in Abu Ghraib only adds to the space's abject quality.

A woman hung in a freezing shower until she dies in Saw III, a film which actively engages with post-9/11 U.S. politics of torture and revenge.

Manadel al-Jamadi, killed in a prison shower during interrogation at Abu Ghraib. His murderers are known but have never been tried.

The infamous photo of England. It should be noted that the image was actually cropped, cutting out another female guard standing to the left of England.

Acknowledging the camera's gaze and performing for it

The infamous thumbs up.

An example of amateur porn's self reflexivity.

Granger and Harman stitching up a prisoner at Abu Ghraib.

Mission Accomplished, the ultimate post-9/11 thumbs up.

The surveillance gaze in torture porn narrative and mise-en scene

Saw II. The filmic camera begins in the torture room and slowly zooms out of the room and …

... into Jigsaw’s lair.

At a later sequence, viewers are shown a close up of the screen and the filmic camera slowly zooms …

... back into the torture space in Saw II. The camera allows Jigsaw to be both “voyeur” and “monitor.”

The surveillance gaze most disturbingly manifests in Saw IV where police agent Riggs’ gaze is slowly aligned with that of Jigsaw’s. We as spectator are invited to see what Jigsaw sees in order to

... feel what Jigsaw feels. The gaze is directly linked with the body. We are looking in order to feel. Indeed the entire film is about Jigsaw’s attempt to convince the police agent, an “authorial” figure, as well as the audience that the people being punished deserve their punishment. Similar to Jeff in Saw III, Riggs is tortured less by Jigsaw and more by his own conscience and conflicting desire to see “his” victims be punished for their unpunished crimes. Shots like this are some of the few examples of POV shots used in “torture porn,” emphasizing the sadomasochistic subject being constructed. Riggs dually functions as both Jigsaw’s and our “surrogate.” Through Riggs, we more than symbolically become torturer. We are forced to ask ourselves, as pseudo torturers, “Would I let them go? Or would I punish them?" [62]

Hostel. An example of the “surveillance angle.” There is no surveillance camera in this room.

An outdoor “surveillance angle” shot from Hostel. There is no surveillance camera on the wall.

Cuthbert’s Jennifer stares at a video of an unknown woman being tortured. She is disgusted, but can not resist looking.

After a reverse-cut, viewers are given a glimpse of the video. Then the film cuts away from the television screen back to Jennifer turning her head away.

Surveillance and disciplinary culture

The victim in Saw II can not help but stare into the mirror as he attempts to gouge out his own eye.

He does not need a mirror to stab out his own eye, yet he can not help but watch his own suffering.

Saw II. The man who peers through the door’s “peephole” gets shot in the eye. The context of violence (the “peephole” being voyeurism’s penultimate motif, thanks to Sartre) makes this a condemnation of voyeurism, privileging surveillance. Voyeurism is dead, now there is only surveillance. This is particularly fitting considering the characters being trapped in a surveillance laced, crueler “Big Brother” house.

The “eye” motif in Captivity compliments the surveillance apparatus that monitors Jennifer. The “eye” allows the other
killer posing as a kidnapped victim to monitor Jennifer.

Yuki is punished by having her eye burned out of her socket.

In Saw IV, this man has to push through these knives in order to prove to himself, and to Jigsaw, that he truly wants to live. He is, therefore, going to be “re-born” via this symbolic vagina.

A character from Saw II attempts to escape the furnace with the antidote. He cannot escape the fiery womb. He is a miscarriage.

Overbearing bright lights punish Jennifer for her misbehavior, thereby conditioning her behavior.

Perhaps then, these unconventional representations are responding to another series of images which challenge gender roles and traditional sexuality. I speak about the historical disruption in sexual imagery that came about with the mass publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs. My intention here is not to suggest that torture porn films are directly molding their representations after, or in response to, the Abu Ghraib images despite some rather disturbing iconographic similarities.

Beth in Hostel II Victim in Hostel II
Iraqi detainee from Abu Ghraib [50] Iraqi detainee from Abu Ghraib

I do not consider these documentary images the inspiration for torture porn’s iconographies and narratives,[51] [open endnotes in new window] but rather I think it is important to recognize and engage with the unique public discourse that arose after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, specifically in relation to gender and sexuality.

With respect to gender, one image, that of Lynndie England holding a cigarette between her lips and pointing with gun-shaped fingers to a blindfolded Iraqi prisoner’s genitals, received the most attention in the media and is of particular importance. The image did not incite outrage because it showed a person exercising power over the powerless, but rather because it was of a woman exercising power over a man—a white woman, an U.S. soldier with power over a blindfolded naked Iraqi man. England’s rigid stance, the phallic (hands-free) cigarette in her mouth, her two hands shaped liked guns pointing at the Iraqi prisoner’s penis suggesting castration via shooting (similar to how Jennifer killed Gary in Captivity)—these traits present her as a hyper-masculine woman, something the media found to be just as reprehensible as torture. In fact, her (and Sabrina Harman’s) minimal presence in the few images posed a delicate conundrum for feminist critics.[52] On one hand, the media turned the women into jokes or victims, yet on the other hand, these women transgressed their gender roles by being aggressors.

The Abu Ghraib images reinvigorated discussions about torture, porn, homosexuality, proper sexuality and gender. However, most of the early discussions were selectively tailored to promote certain political agendas rather than engage with the images’ complexity. These are porn, liberals like porn, liberals are to blame and are evil; or these are torture, conservatives like torture, they are to blame and are evil: the critical debates enacted a “torture/porn” dichotomized discussion. Although I believe the torture porn sub-genre in film is, at least in part, inspired by these polemic discussions about torture and porn, it is not my intention to revisit these discussions or debates, in which others have gone into the political issues in depth.[53] Rather, the images’ relevance here pertains to their visual associations. The Abu Ghraib photographs have brought sexualized violence into U.S. consciousness. Their infusion with and espousal of surveillance and surveillance culture enact a specific kind of cultural and political constellation of visual rhetoric unique to our time.

The gaze: from voyeurism to surveillance

In theorizing the horror film, Carol Clover’s key work Men, Women, and Chainsaws provides against-the-grain readings, arguing that horror’s representations, specifically of gender, are neither simple nor stable. I have already discussed Clover’s “final girl” and the modern cross-gender incarnation of the “final boy” and how these characters function in shaping the narrative. I wish now to focus now on Clover’s discussion of identification. Although Clover’s book uses horror as a case study, her analysis of spectatorship breaks down the rigid dichotomy of Mulvey’s theory from the 1970s by suggesting that one need not identify with one’s own gender.[54] That is to say, male viewers do not necessarily and are certainly not forced to identify with the (usually) male killer, and that women need not identify with the (usually) female victim. For Clover, male spectators could identify with the female victim and female spectators could identify with the male killer. She opens up the spectrum of identification in part to refute Mulvey’s assertion that women inhabit a perpetually masochistic subject position and men a sadistic one, or Christian Metz’ denial of a potential male masochistic position.

By allowing for cross-gender identification, Clover endows men with the capacity for masochistic viewing, and woman for sadistic viewing, thereby granting both genders a form of spectatorial agency. This concept of spectatorial identification simultaneously rejects some popular notions that mainly men can and do take pleasure in causing pain and that women are forced into, and may only understand pleasure through, pain, which is subsequently forced upon them. What Clover allows for is not only cross-gender identification but a fluidity of identification. That means men and women can switch their identification mid-film; they did not have to choose one position and remain faithful to it throughout the course of a narrative.[55]

The horror film has definitely changed since the 1970s and 1980s, and torture porn’s careful construction of subject positioning not only encourages the cross-gendered identification positions seen by Clover but begin to approach a “genderless” practice. That is to say that one of the innovative features of torture porn is not only the variable array of male and female victims, killers and nude bodies, but also what I believe is a conscious configuration of a political, rather than gendered, subject. I am not naïve enough to suggest that gender (sexuality, race, class, nationality, etc.) does not play a factor in shaping one’s experience, subject positioning, or understanding of a film, or that these films are geared towards female or equally gendered audiences. What I am suggesting is that unlike previous horror films which were geared towards male audiences, these films seemed to be geared towards U.S. audiences. Subject positioning in these films are thought across stronger political and, therefore, ethical lines.

To return briefly to the Abu Ghraib photos, those images, like amateur porn, are actions being performed primarily for the anticipated gaze behind the camera as well as for the prisoner onlookers and for themselves. Indeed the “performative” and “theatrical” nature of the torture scenes in torture porn are similar to the images of torture at Abu Ghraib in that they anticipate and reflexively acknowledge the future viewer’s gaze. Furthermore, the media’s acquisition of many of the photographs establishes that an understanding existed where everyone knew that the guards and their actions could be documented and recorded at any time.[56] As Nina Martin has argued,

“The awareness and acknowledgement of surveillance produces pleasures in performance and gives rise to exhibitionism.”[56b]

Despite shots from a higher level suggesting surveillance[57], it is the camera’s commonplace use by soldiers which makes the images participatory. In images where smiling guards give the thumbs-up to the camera, their gesture acknowledges the multiple gazes intended to see one performing for the camera. The thumbs-up does not just say “Hey, look at me,” but “Hey, I know you are looking at me and this is me acknowledging your gaze and performing for it.” In fact, in that aspect, the Abu Ghraib images also remind a viewer of the performative aspect of much of amateur porn, where guys give the thumbs up to the camera while receiving oral sex or having intercourse.

This is what makes the photos from Abu Ghraib so problematic. From the guards’ perspective, they are posing while torturing for the sake of the gaze, so to some extent the gaze spurs on their desire to torture. As these illicit images made their way throughout the prison, they became “viral.” What strikes the viewer now as uncanny about the published photos is this hook: the viewers’ desire to see meeting the guards’ desire to be seen. On a deeper level, we of course cannot forget the Iraqi prisoners forced to perform for both the military personnel and the camera’s gaze. The detainees are often blindfolded, robbing them of the right to look back, emphasizing their powerlessness within this specific visual economy. This “forced performativity” is repeated in a parallel way in torture porn, whereby the victims are “forced to perform” for the victimizer as well as for the spectator’s gaze. This kind of plotline about forced performativity points to an amalgamation of sadistic voyeurism and surveillance.

The relation between torture, surveillance, and visibility can also be evaluated in cinematic terms of camera work and its effects. As Clover has pointed out,

“The jerky vision of the first-person murderer is a cliché of horror.”[58]

The POV shot highlights the genre and medium’s affinity for voyeurism. In torture porn, however, the minimal use of direct POV shots from both victim and killer opens up a spectrum of identification. The POV shot in horror highlights voyeurism’s invisibility. The killer is invisible in horror; we the spectators are invisible. Torture porn, however, deals with excessive visibility. Everything in torture porn is acknowledged as a performance for not only the torturer but for the camera and surveillance apparatus. Voyeurism suggests limits on visibility. The horror killer’s POV shot both reveals the victims and consequentially obscures them via the very act of watching them from a distance, from behind blinds or through the bushes, etc.. Surveillance’s relation to torture porn, in contrast, suggests limitless visibility, an all-encompassing gaze that desires and has the ability to see everything.

Our surveillance culture is marked by an obsessive desire to record everything and, in some respects, be recorded by everything. A consistent cinematographic motif in torture porn is the constant alignment between the filmic camera and story camera’s surveillance lens. Even when the surveillance apparatus is missing from the storyline, the films, at times, position the camera at a “surveillance angle.” Such a “surveillance angle” refers to a high level shot, tilted downward at a 45 degree angle, usually taken from the corner of the room (where surveillance cameras are generally located). This angle appears throughout Hostel, signifying surveillance, standing in for the lack of the physical camera’s presence.

Another example is in the recent film Pornography: A Thriller (2009) where the character Michael becomes obsessed with the suspicious holes in the corner of his ceiling. The audience is given numerous reverse shots from the surveillance angle referencing and embodying the space of where the surveillance cameras used to be, suggestively foreshadowing Michael’s discovery that surveillance cameras were indeed installed in the corners of the room. In fact, I have found that the “surveillance angle” has become a common motif widely used in narrative cinema, signifying surveillance even if the film is not explicitly, or even implicitly, about surveillance.[59] This angle is synecdochic of our time.

It is this “acknowledged” surveillance gaze that constructs a spectator position across a political axis. As Hollyfield concludes his analysis of Hostel, he remarks,

“Roth directly implicates his audience…Roth’s films hold his audience culpable for the current cultural climate, refusing to allow their horror to become a means of catharsis or blame to fall on one particular entity.”[60]

By guiding the spectator to become both torturer and torture victim, spectatorship in torture porn is tantamount to participation. In this way, the surveillance gaze is enacted to criticize the very act of watching and more importantly, the desire to watch. By appropriating this hyper-visible gaze, torture porn seeks to indict the cultural appropriation of the surveillance gaze. If as Clover has noted, “eyes are everywhere in horror cinema…because, more crucially than any other kind of cinema, it is about eyes,”[61] then torture porn as contemporary texts privileges the all-seeing mechanical eye of surveillance, or in the case of Hostel, the combined synoptic gaze. Torture porn films are allegories about excessive looking, about hyper-visibility. Indeed everywhere in the films, characters are constantly forced to confront the act of looking.

Characters are not only consistently punished for their gaze but are punished for being looked at; what the films punish is visibility. Surveillance seemingly implies there’s a system that keeps us safe; constant visibility is supposed to mean security. Torture porn inverts this belief. In torture porn, when you are watched, you are in extreme danger. These films literalize Foucault’s statement that “visibility is a trap.”[62] When visible, the characters are in actual traps. Torture porn is censorious of our constant visibility, suggesting that a lack of invisibility actually puts us in danger.

Because horror films are so invested in primal libidinal energies such as sex and violence, the punishment of these libidinal energies charts certain narrative and thematic elements in the genre. Edelstein points out that horror cinema is predicated on narratives about “masked maniacs [who] punished nubile teens for promiscuity,” while the “victims [in torture porn] are neither interchangeable nor expendable.” For Edelstein, torture porn’s victims are “decent people with recognizable emotions.” These are not vacant bodies whose sole purpose is to add to the film’s body count (although this happens at times in the Saw series). They are characters with more depth and complexity. Because, as Gabrielle Murray discusses, torture porn is so invested in eliciting visceral reactions in the spectator’s body, the films cannot rely solely on spectacle but require a deeper connection in order to make an impact. When the scripts develop characters instead of caricatures, viewers develop a greater emotional investment in and connection with the victims, thereby making the characters’ pain and suffering all the more intense for the spectator. The characters become people with flaws, not flawed people; they are average and more like the viewer sitting in the theatre or on their couch.

Furthermore, torture porn often punishes U.S./Western decadence and consumption. In Hostel, the men are ignorant of the culture they are immersed in. These characters reflect how most of the world perceives the United States and Western Europe. They have no interest in the people or spaces other than how they can use and consume those things for their own selfish satisfaction. These men are not anomalies. The same can be said for the women of Hostel II who go to Bratislava to be pampered at a luxury spa; the script uses a typical narrative of the wealthy Westerner visiting a developing nation to exploit the relative cheapness of a luxury resort.[63] In the Saw series, the characters who are kidnapped or tortured are guilty of over-consumption; too much sex, drugs, and investment in personal desire and satisfaction. Jigsaw consistently punishes those who are born into privilege and leverage this for evil (Troy in Saw III, all the characters in Saw V). They are too selfish, thinking solely about their own wants. In Saw II and V, two male characters die because they refuse to work together as a team, placing their interests over those of the group. Captivity’s Jennifer symbolizes the American dream. Her punishment is an allegorical punishment of Americana and the U.S. lifestyle of consumption and empty investment in celebrity.

Although torture porn attempts to present a “liberal critique” in an otherwise extremely reactionary genre, these critiques are truncated. While horror cinema punishes vices such as sex and drug-use or alcohol consumption, the punishments in torture porn have a much stronger political and social tinge to them. If we follow Edelstein’s belief that these are “decent” people, it is then the “average” person who is being punished, and if it is the average person being punished, then these films are attempting to pass judgment on the average Western life. Horror cinema punished vice, but torture porn punishes “lifestyles.” In Captivity, Jennifer can also be seen as a financially independent, successful modern woman who is punished for her independence. In Hostel, the men are punished for their vices; of particular concern is the sensitive, gay-coded, character’s punishment. The women in Hostel II are similarly punished for their independence and their sexuality. The film begins with the girls painting a nude male and enjoying the sight of his penis; when the shyest character, Lorna, gets drunk, she allows her desire for sex to get the best of her and is punished accordingly. The most evident however are the Saw films.

The Saw films are exponentially more reactionary than the Hostel films or Captivity.[63b] They may punish over-consumption, but the over-consumption and social ills they punish derive from “liberal” culture. Adultery leads to the destruction of the heterosexual, nuclear family. Self-mutilation/self-loathing/wallowing come from the neglect or excessive self-punishment of one’s divinely ordained life and body. Rape, drug addiction, and the death of children and babies (symbolizing abortion) also characterize this culture. For conservatives, these are staples of “liberal culture,” one set to destroy the fabric of decent civil society. In the Saw films the Jigsaw killer (and his accomplices) can be thought of as a sadistic conservative panopticon. Jigsaw surveils, judges, and then designs individualized “treatments” to help these “victims” with their “afflictions,” merging and highlighting the relation between surveillance and psychiatry. Jigsaw does not torture his captures, he “cures” them or rather he helps them help themselves. By putting them in tortuous yet personalized situations, he forces the victims to confront themselves. He lets them prove to themselves how badly they want to live by suffering excruciating pain for a brief period and living, or doing nothing and dying. In this sense, Jigsaw does not torture (something he makes clear throughout the series) and technically he does not.[64] But such an appeal to semantics is suspiciously similar the U.S. government’s assertion that it “does not torture.” The characters (like those who dare to resist America’s global grasp) brought their punishment upon themselves. Jigsaw is not responsible as he did not murder them; they “committed suicide.”

In the Saw series, the victims are forced to “confess.” At times, before the torture begins, Jigsaw leaves a tape recorder behind which not only informs victims about their particular situation but also details why they find themselves in such a predicament; in other instances, victims are forced to “confesses” as part of their punishment.[65] Jigsaw also co-opts their voices and because of his “all seeing eye,” he is aware of his victims’ crimes and confesses those crimes on their behalf. Jigsaw is a metaphor for the Bush-era conservative panopticon. He is “judge, jury and executioner” rolled into one. Quite often Jigsaw informs his victims what needs to be done in order to survive. Not following his orders leads to death; not following authority and authorial instructions leads to death. It is as if liberal culture were weakening the United States, and only conservative discipline and regimentation could cure these ills and make the United States strong again. Jigsaw is an Evangelical, allowing his victims to be “born again.” Through his forced confessions, he lets them see how “liberal” culture has led them astray and allows them to start their life again.

Saw’s Amanda was a self-cutter whom Jigsaw forced to confront her perverted fetish for mutilation by cutting up an unanesthetized man and digging through his organs for the key which would unlock the contraption around her head. By confronting her perversion, she gained strength to overcome her affliction and joined Jigsaw in his crusade to “help” others. She and he then go forth to “spread his message” and method. By the end of Saw IV, viewers also realize that Jigsaw had added another member to his congregation, a successful convert named Mark Hoffman, a police detective working on the inside for him, who, starting in Saw IV, has taken over for Jigsaw after his death, becoming the new Jigsaw killer in Saw V. Jigsaw’s panoptic gaze is a regulatory and disciplinary gaze. He watches, judges, and attempts to remold his victims’ thinking and behavior.

In horror, the villain voyeuristically spied on you; the gaze was—diegetically and subjectively—pleasurable, invested in the desire to kill the subject(s) in its field of vision. In torture porn, the victims too are spied upon, but are placed under surveillance, enacting a disciplinary and scopophilic/voyeuristic gaze, whereby the pleasure is located not in the victim’s potential future death, but the current act of judgment and guaranteed future “punishment.”

The surveillance gaze

Michel Foucault’s critical history Discipline and Punish has been a foundational text in surveillance studies. For Foucault, surveillance functions through a network of “looks” designed to regulate, discipline, and order “docile bodies” into efficient, useful and productive cogs in the social machine. Enacting a system of behavioral monitoring based on a hierarchy of privilege and reward ensures that everyone (except possibly the person at the top) is being watched. Surveillance is about power, the power to exercise control over subjects through the power-holder’s act of looking everywhere. In discussing Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison called the Panopticon in the seventeenth century, Foucault extrapolated from Bentham’s beliefs about how prisoners in the Panopticon would internalize surveillance. Foucault demonstrates not only how this internalized gaze spreads throughout other institutions but also how individuals would monitor themselves as though they were potential criminals. Considering the surveillance effect in contemporary times, Brett Mills’ article on Peep Show articulates how,

“the surveillance society functions to control without an explicit display of authoritative power. It is a system which manages to constrain by inducing those within it to watch and condemn themselves and others; it is what Foucault has called ‘a disciplinary society.’”[66]

Mills argues that in being given full access to the protagonists’ thoughts, Peep Show exposes the internal thought patterns of individuals in Western “surveillance societies,” reflexively exposing how the disciplinarian society conditions individuals to monitor and censor themselves.[67] In the history of social monitoring, as Niedzviecki argued, before the Industrial Revolution, “gossip functioned as a kind of community policing,”[68] but as urbanization took off and communities faded, new forms of surveillance were introduced to define and enforce social norms and maintain control. In the past, a nosy neighbor’s potential ear or gaze kept one disciplined, now it is the constellation of visible and invisible external surveillance, often through a state or capitalist apparatus, as well as self-surveillance that configure thoughts and behaviors.

Within recent history, older social networks of monitoring have been ruptured. As narrativized in torture porn, we see evidence of contemporary fears about new versions of monitoring. The disciplinary society Foucault described has disappeared, requiring the never previously built panopticon to be finally realized within torture porn. In fact, the sets in this genre comprise prison-like spaces where the victims are placed and surveilled in a high-tech way. As Foucault argues, “the disciplinary space is always, basically, cellular.[69]

In general, in ordinary day-to-day life, the disciplinary society plays much less of a normative role. Ironically, as a result, often through their use of the Internet, many people’s internalized gaze with its ambivalences of fear and desire spurs them on to the very restricted actions they were supposed to refrain from, with the spread of websites about previously taboo topics as an example of this.

Our theoretical understanding of the disciplinary society requires revising a simple application of Foucault’s ideas. This begins by scrutinizing the complex and shifting intersections of surveillance and voyeurism. To begin with, surely we can conceptualize the panopticon as to some degree “voyeuristic.” The gaze in the watchtower, although understood as intermittently present, was meant to be invisible. Such a gaze was meant to condition and discipline; it was meant to be known but not seen. In contrast, usually the voyeur does not monitor but just watches. The voyeur’s gaze is not meant to change behavior or regulate it but simply enjoy it. Unlike that kind of watching, the gaze of panoptic surveillance is more utilitarian, although surely the power to look at and therefore down upon others is pleasurable. From the very beginning, the hypothetical watchguard’s gaze is posited as ambivalent: part voyeurism, part surveillance.

For Foucault, surveillance is a human action brought upon by a system of human gazes which combine to monitor everything. In contemporary discourse, however, surveillance is often conceived as something technological, requiring surveillance cameras or auditory wiretappings, as depicted in film in The Lives of Others (2008). Voyeurism still commonly refers to a human gaze, closely associated with the "peeping Tom," yet more often now, voyeurism does not entail spying through a neighbor’s window but watching a video on YouTube of someone else’s recording of their neighbor.

Because of our fascination with what and how those in power know, much of contemporary film and television, across genres, deals with surveillance, and many fictions, documentaries, and non-fiction TV shows spend time detailing the actions of cops and spies. To consider the social apparatus of spying, it seems that the spy’s surveillance usually has to be invisible. The spy him/herself is less interested in deterring or shaping behavior than recording it. The spy identifies potential infractions in order for others to punish them. Other kinds of surveillance in society are openly visible (as with security cameras) so as to monitor and deter infractions. We need to note such differences as we make use of two competing conceptions of surveillance to analyze this important, worldwide social phenomenon that has such great political and psychological impact. One is more classically Foucauldian and one more recently conceptualized, highlighting the military-industrial-security/governmental/corporate complex’s surveillance that is both visible and invisible.

Psychologically, people’s awareness of and reaction to surveillance has a long cultural history. For example, in the Christian tradition the reason for God’s creation seems to be to discipline us under his all seeing, all knowing gaze.[70] Only now that gaze has been superseded by his secular/corporate doppelganger Santa Clause. We all sing, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good…,” showing how we have normalized surveillance even in seemingly innocent Christmas carols. Consider how this song attempts to mold children’s behavior by demanding they “not shout,” “not cry,” and “ not pout”—regimented behavior to be rewarded with consumer products. Surveillance and capitalism in Western societies need each other to reinforce the consumer/citizen’s conditioning. We expect to be “measured” and from an early age on begin consuming. Depicting adults who must decide whether to accept or reject the rules of the traditional disciplinary society, fictional narratives since the nineteenth century often have as a protagonist a rebel who stops caring about social rules and norms of success, or who is defeated by them, and who then just goes his/her (usually his) own way (Brave New World is an example).

While surveillance is generally associated with monitoring public space, voyeurism seems to be an invasion of private space and intimate moments. Voyeurism is considered one person’s gaze, while surveillance is a multiple gaze; both practices are assumed to witness an otherwise unknown or unremarked upon “truth.” Of special interest to media scholars is the surveillance production practice and its effect on the content of reality television or documentaries, where people filmed choose to be under constant surveillance. We know their behaviors must be slightly altered by the presence of the camera, even though its presence is not meant to alter the action but rather more or less unobtrusively “capture reality.” Even under the gaze of surveillance cameras which simply record non-stop, some people will at some moments act as if they know they are being recorded while others seem oblivious. Thus, on a surveillance tape it is possible to see two people standing next to each other, framed within the same shot, but with two distinct gazes and possibly distinct behaviors—if one acts as if aware of being recorded while the other does not. In contrast, a voyeuristic gaze need not be hidden but is often overt, especially in sexual matters, as when one person openly shows admiration for another’s body. However, probably the covert glance of sexual appreciation is far more common in daily life as this can provide pleasure with no social consequence.

It seems to me, that voyeurism belongs to a time when people were less visible, when the pleasure of spying or secretly looking at someone during private moments was still intrusive, unexpected and shocking. Surveillance has changed visibility, gazing, and visual culture.

Surveillance and voyeurism do not simply intersect or replace each other, but they complement and complicate each other; they overlap like a Venn diagram. The voyeuristic gaze is not being replaced by the surveillance gaze nor does it necessarily entail surveillance. The nature of the gaze depends on the context. More important, it is imperative to understand that our concepts of voyeurism and surveillance have to change because they have become intertwined. In discussing gender and technology and using the example of Jennicam (in which a woman leaves a camera on in her apartment and publishes all the video on the Internet) as an example, Mirzoeff argues:

“Whereas the male gaze was structured around voyeurism, a looking in which the looked at was unaware of being under surveillance, the watcher here knew that the watched was not only aware of being watched but had enabled it.”[71]

For Mirzoeff, voyeurism entails surveillance, but in the case of Jennicam, Jenny and the viewers are aware of the gaze. Despite the fact that she has placed herself under surveillance and is unaware at any given moment if she is being watched or by who, the gaze is different. Also writing about webcams, Olivier Asselin has argued:

“Webcams are thus clearly a part of surveillance, that is to say of self-surveillance”[72]

Yet he also asserts,

“Webcam sites thus maintain a voyeurism in its pure state – an objectless gaze.”[73]

Such an “objectless” gaze also follows from recording people 24 hours a day, as does the CCTV system in Great Britain, regardless if there is anything happening or not. Voyeurism is, more often than not, specific, while recorded surveillance can include copious amounts of “dead-time.” Voyeurism, then, partly rests upon an act of surveillance, and sometimes voyeurism and surveillance can merge within the very same gaze.

Go to page 4


To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.