Best Books of 2013

Without question, these are the two books that have most stimulated my writing and thinking over the past year. Neither appeared in 2013; they are just books that I happened to engage with during this time and that mattered (and matter) to me.

They are not perfect works. They are powerful evocations of themes that are important to me and to the understanding of contemporary culture: surveillance in modern society, and the use of photography as a mode of social research.

John Gilliom and Torin Monahan. SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society. U of Chicago P, 2012.

This is not the first book about the surveillance society, or the best, but it is the book that I picked up on this topic in 2013 and could not put down. Gilliom and Monahan’s focus is on consumer society and civic life and culture, and how civil rights, power, and (in)equality are being transformed, or eroded, by a very wide-ranging variety of complex surveillance practises including pervasive data capture, profile-building and -matching, and screening. It is not a book specifically about surveillance and the military-industrial complex, although there is some gesturing towards the ways in which many technologies developed for military use filter down to affect civilian social experiences.

This book engaged me because I have spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about learning analytics as a surveillance practice; this ties in very much with my interest in MOOCs. At this year’s Australian Association for Educational Research (AARE) Conference in early December, there was an excellent symposium on surveillance in schools. Educational researchers are just starting to pick up on these themes. I am still waiting, though, for ed. researchers to cotton on to the fact that the new R&D (and sales) industry around learning analytics constitutes one very pervasive form of surveillance culture in our schools and universities that needs to be interrogated and challenged very much more than it has been to date.

In many ways, I dislike the conceptual framework that Gilliom and Monahan use to discuss surveillance cultures. They propose a mishmash of Actor Network Theory-influenced notions of materiality and affect and Foucauldian language, and assert — without substantiation — that the notion of privacy is simply unhelpful and outdated. I’m afraid I don’t buy this. Privacy is not only a cultural artefact across cultures, but it has a legal definition in many places. The concept of privacy carries huge significance for many people and has very real practical / legal implications, irrespective of whether it is deserving of critique, and for these reasons I believe we cannot simply dispense with privacy in discussing cultural practices around surveillance.

The chapter headings are simple, descriptive and intriguing: My Cell, My Self; It’s in the Cards; Lives Online; Surveillance in Schools (a particular eye-opener); Watching You Work; Security at Any Cost?. It is a solid introductory text that is designed for use with undergraduate students, and it is written in a highly accessible and fluent style that also makes it a good overview for academic and general readers new to the subject.

John Berger and Jean Mohr. Another Way of Telling. Writer and Readers Cooperative Publishing Society, 1982.

Thoughtful, lyrical, provocative. Another Way of Telling is at once a classic work on photography, a depiction of a human community, a reflection on researching social life, and an investigation of the ambiguities of the visual image as “standing for” an idea, an act, or a person. In this latter role in particular, it is still probably unequalled.

My participation this year in a project on ethics in visual research has stimulated me to think about the many meanings of visual representation and, in particular, how visual evidence is extracted, subtracted, and quoted by visual researchers in the process of constructing research findings. Under a section titled “The enigma of appearances”, the authors contrast the evidentiary or positivist use of photography (which they term an “ideological use”) with the “popular but private” use of photography for the substantiation of subjective feelings. This is a tension that I observe today in visual research in social scientific contexts. The rise of visual research approaches that are more aligned to art practice and art therapy traditions, and which are often characterised by an increased attention to affect and emotion both for research practitioners and research participants, poses many challenges to the still positivist leanings of much visual social research.

The book contains both written texts and visual images, but it disdains textual “subtitling” in the form of captions. The photographs and photographic reproductions appear uncaptioned and unannotated, and their situated meanings emerge through bold or subtle contrasts. Series of photographs evoke themes and questions and are interspersed with written texts. There is an interplay between image and text, but it is left to the reader to discern. The freedom of interpretation gifted to the reader, and the sensitive reflexive thinking on research practice, is what I like most in this book. The photographs are also very beautiful, and sometimes startling.


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