Look at me! Don’t look at me!


The digital turn (or revolution) writ large, digital rhetoric and writing studies in particular, necessitates an ongoing and recursive (re)analysis of the question of “subjectivity.” Within the context of digital rhetoric and writing studies, we can locate the question of “subjectivity” at the intersection of visual rhetoric and object-oriented ontology/rhetoric (OOO/OOR), both of which have produced substantial scholarship since the advent of the digital institution (the electrate apparatus). In a practical sense, surveillance studies helps to facilitate this question of “subjectivity,” as currently mediated in part by visual rhetoric and OOO/OOR: How do we see subjects (i.e. how are they rendered visible)? How are subjects rhetorically represented within and through the digital institution? What constitutes a subject as distinguished from non-human subjects or objects? How does the distinction of subjects/subjectivity inform rhetorical invention and writing within the digital institution?

These otherwise conceptual questions beget the more practical question of surveillance: who (i.e., what subjects) should be seen—or even tracked, monitored—and how and by whom? Needless to say, subjectivity has exploded and imploded and been redrafted by the digital institution. We must consider: virtual subjectivity, as substantial of, or divorced from, (otherwise) subjectivity proper; the externalization of an otherwise interior, private subjectivity; and the choral collection of subjectivity as multiplicative rather than univocal and singular, etc.

Again, surveillance brings this back to a practical dimension: who’s watching, viewing you; what representation of your-self are they watching, viewing, perhaps monitoring; and should they be allowed to do so?

And should you care?


“There is desire and the socius, and nothing else”
—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Don’t we desire to see and be seen? Is such desire not the foundation of the massive proliferation of social media? As the primary surveillance modality has thus shifted from vertical, top-down surveillance, wherein the State views, monitors, and tracks subjects, to a horizontal surveillance, wherein subjects view, monitor, and track each other, we call the practice of surveillance and the concept subjectivity to the witness stand. As the latter, emergent modality of surveillance subsumes the digital institution, we coin the term desiring-surveillance.

(Desiring-surveillance has many conceptual bedfellows: Bauman and Lyon’s “liquid surveillance,” Mark Andrejevic’s “lateral surveillance,” Anders Albrechtslund’s “participatory surveillance,” Steve Mann’s “co-veillance,” Reg Whitaker’s “participatory panopticon,” and Clay Colvert’s “voyeur nation”).

Figure 1: Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) as transposed over a rendering of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Originally published in Media Fields 11. Creative Commons


Visibility is at the heart of surveillance, as it pertains to subjectivity. Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon note in Liquid Surveillance that there is a “desire for more and more surveillance,” and to such a degree that we have become a “confessional society,” in which secrets are no longer valued. “Surveillance is growing and welcomed,” they note (vi-vii): “we seem to experience no joy in having secrets.” Should we?

Consider this a move from the Cartesian cogito of Being to Beseen. Such a shift implicates not only surveillance studies but visual rhetoric, too. Not entirely unlike our otherwise Being, we curate the visual/visible dimension of our Beseen-ness.

Laurie Gries’ book, Still Life with Rhetoric, to use just one example, applies a new materialist approach to examine visual rhetoric. More specifically, she uses iconographic tracking. This makes good sense: tracking is both a feature and methodological tool for any kind of digital studies adventure, be it visual rhetoric or whatever else. The (pen)ultimate failure is that we regard subjectivity as of some higher order than an icon, despite the fact that electracy has clearly demonstrated the brand/emblem/persona character of subjectivity within and through the digital institution. The concept of avatar, both figuratively/conceptually and literally/practically, involves an icon. A brand, an emblem, a persona. But alas, the paranoia of tracking our “selves” strikes fear in the populist imagination.


Meaning is meaningless; it’s part of that “language ghetto,” as Graham Harman would have it; meaning is part of the epistemological trap (or “fallacy,” as Levi Bryant would have it) that creates access to the real or material only for our own benefit, as constructed by us “subjects.”

Let’s cut to the chase: the upshot of OOO/OOR is the conflation of subjects and objects, an ontological flattening. Fair enough (though we strongly oppose such a model of thought for a litany of reasons). In such a case, however, then we should have no reason to fear surveillance, to be paranoid of an “intrusion” on “self.” Surely, OOO/OOR might retort that State, jurisprudence, logic of capital, etc. are not necessarily on the same page as the philosophical pronouncements of OOO/OOR (ironically pronouncements only because of their meaning-formation, but we’ll table that). Concept and everyday practice don’t always meet, they might say. But how would they categorize State, jurisprudence, and/or logic of capital within such a totalizing and reductive ontology?

You see where we’re going with this.


What are you afraid of? Beware the paranoiac-despot. Micro-fascisms breed much more rapidly than the more readily identifiable macro-fascisms. We all know what a Fascist looks like, sounds like, acts like; the fascist in minor key, as encountered in the mirror, however, is usually a bit more blurry. That we think we have something to hide, that we have some or any iteration of interior, private subjectivity just reproduces a paranoiac hostility that misrecognizes self and subjectivity, externalized and multiplied within and through the digital institution. Do you “own” yourself—and what constitutes your-self? If rhetorical theory is radical enough to adopt OOR, then we surely should be radical enough to adopt a sense of subjectivity that rejects the bourgeoisie coveting of interiority, privacy, and ownership.

Give me the privacy of the rock—over and against the pebbles therein. OOO/OOR called for this. I surely didn’t. To be honest and fair, this is an ontological and juridical question: to be and to have a body or subjectivity, respectively. Where does your body or subjectivity begin and end—ever…but particularly with regard to the digital iteration of such? Is your being reducible to data tracks, footprints, algorithms? Do you own “your” digital movements?

To fear surveillance is to be already complicit with the over-arching agenda of conflating being (meaning) with data (information). I’d hate to have to pull Heidegger into this—so I won’t. BUT: this bourgeoisie coveting of interior, private subjectivity, reduced to data imprints by way of the very surveillance paranoia that concedes such, plays into the very logic of capital that those opposed to surveillance would otherwise resist. I own this—whatever this is. Lest we forget the primacy of desire—that we desire to see “others” and be seen by “others”—and that it’s only how such desire gets (re)coded and (re)territorialized that leads to this ideology/rhetoric (shout out to Berlin) of subjectivity and “privacy.”

We end up afraid of each other: see something, say something (“they” tell “us”). Whether peeping through suburban blinds or watching America’s Most Wanted, our paranoia has been commodified into a surveillance product and practice that exceeds our capacity for critical examination (or so it seems). Yet we want to see “others” and be seen by “others”—desiring-surveillance. But this can be too easily (re)coded, (re)territorialized: the desire to see “others” and be seen by “others” channeled into a program of paranoia, a pattern of micro-fascisms that facilitate the micro-fascism of the figurative (and all too real and material) macro-fascism.

Figure 2: Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) remixed and remediated. Originally published in Media Fields 11. Creative Commons.


Perhaps we should worry less about who can see “us” and more about how we’re visibly represented as “subjects.” Take a cue from the desire-aesthetics of the Third Sophistic, as Victor Vitanza instructs. Exchange the paranoid holding of breath for the laughter-sigh that engages in the breaking up [at]totality, as Diane Davis recommends (but don’t sign off on letters that blindly support sexual assault predators because of the academic standing of that predator—that’s always a bad look).

Point is: subjectivity is a rhetorical construction that is entirely circumscribed by desire-aesthetics, especially with the advent of the digital institution (i.e., electracy). We desired, constructed the stage—“it is the ‘users’ of the services of Google and Facebook who produce the database,” note Bauman and Lyon—so make a poetic theater. Subjectivity is not the biunivocality of either/or; it’s the conjunctive multiplicity of and, and, and…. Surveillance is not something imposed externally upon your internal self; it’s something desired by all of us and mutually exacted on each other.

So compose yourself, rhetorically or otherwise.


Do you use Turnitin? Do you monitor or track course content usage via learning management systems (LMS)? Are you the paranoiac-despot?

About Author

Scott Sundvall

Scott Sundvall is an assistant professor in the Department of English and director of the Center for Writing and Communication at the University of Memphis.

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