Something is changing. We know it, but we can’t say what’s happening. Not yet. But there is something uneasy in the air. It’s playing out both in grand narratives and the tiny shifts of attention that stitch together a sense of the real.
There are social feelings here, emergent in a time of rapidly changing modes of connection and circulation, and the ineffable shifts in embodiment and encounter that go along with changing technological habits. Performance here is always for an unseen and unpredictable audience. What would an ethnography of this emergent feeling be like?
I want a rash of little stories here to mimic rapid fluctuations of attention, which to many of us are becoming as natural as blinking. But all these little stories link outward, to something harder to pin down. Or maybe they link back in, to something that’s always been there. Tensions between the naturalized and the strange come to the surface.
You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe in ubiquitous surveillance anymore. Paranoia sounds like a 20th century word.
You told me that something came over you while driving and you decided to trail the Google Street View car as it cruised your city’s streets. The Google brand was painted brightly on the doors like a pizza delivery car, and its world management device seemed gamely stuck on the car roof like an oldtime TV antenna. When you pulled up beside it at a red light, the young guy driving waved to you. You waved back and took his picture with your iPhone. His face performed a series of quick changes: first the bashful pleasure of mini-celebrity, shifting into a small frown as your act of recording him re-charged the air between your cars. You turned off that street, and went your separate ways.
There was a deer problem in the neighborhood. They were more abundant than squirrels; on an evening stroll in the neighborhood you would always encounter several groups of deer. This particular doe must have run a while before collapsing in front of my house. She was lying half on the sidewalk, half on my lawn. Her hind legs were crossed at the delicate white knees, and the front legs were bent in two symmetrical Vs, freezing the last moment of running. A raw sliver of her chin, sticking out like a beard, must have been where a car made contact. She appeared there on Saturday morning, but Animal Control could not come to remove her until Monday. By that afternoon bugs had collected on her white underside in a frantic darkening. By Sunday morning areas of the white fur had been replaced by black holes. It was odd, for the neighborhood, to watch the natural process begin. All weekend the alien deer eyes remained open and it was impossible not to try to read in their inscrutability some kind of animal knowledge about death.
Finally on Monday morning, a man from Animal Control came out in an old unmarked pickup, dragged her by the hoofs into a lowered truckbed and drove her away. There were a lot of fawns around our neighborhood, and usually if you saw fawns you would see a doe too, watching them from across a short distance. Then one day the fawns were wearing collars. Scientists from a university in another city were tracking them. Occasionally one saw the small white science truck, with its tracking device stuck on its roof like an oldtime TV antenna. We didn’t know what kind of data they were collecting exactly, but the exploding deer population was controversial and obviously it was necessary to track them. Quickly, for the residents, the animals changed from seeming wild to not-wild. The collars were a dull pink shade, with a large buckle at the throat, making the fawns look uncomfortable but dapper. A single wire stuck up from the back of the collar. The collars with their wires didn’t surprise people anymore. This is what fawns looked like, now.
I thought it must be the dead doe’s orphan I saw a few times, ambling alone in yards with little branches and twigs stuck in its collar; it looked at first glance as if the tracking wire had begun to multiply, but really this orphan fawn was just getting tangled and stuck in the suburban bush.
For a long time, I listened with an ethnographic ear to people talk uncanny conspiracy theory. They told of surveillance by the powers that be. I heard disenfranchised social feelings and a mourning for nature entangled with overarching plots and underlying structures, all centered on a covert panopticon. In people’s intellectual beliefs and gut instincts, they – the nameless, faceless they — were always watching us. They tracked the moves of the little man, while they shifted powerful global agencies and destroyed nature, negotiating with space alien agendas to follow and abduct people. As they gathered medical and intimate information, discourses of intertwining knowledge and power tumbled out of a Foucaultian dream, grew legs and wings and nested in roofs. The huge black animal eyes of the alien evoked endless hidden watching. They sometimes emerged from the all seeing Illuminati but morphed into new coalitions behind the surface, as things sped up towards an end. I wanted to get a vernacular theory of power. It emerged in small communities of UFO experiencers and uncanny theorists, describing a power that was too big to see in its entirety but whose effects made patterns you could follow. People kept saying in many ways: something’s coming. Something’s changing. Something’s been lost.
Of course, all that covert government watching and listening stuff came true.
Back then, surreptitious watching, listening and tracking were imagined as the sole provenance of enormous, uncanny power. But as modes of surveillance also integrate down into the techniques of the ordinary, and to saturate the fabric of things, their association with power both splinters and intensifies in ways we still can’t sum up.
John Jackson Jr. (2012) muses on the vanishing of an ethnographic “backstage,” recalled as a place to test scholarly ideas in an oral talk before the finality of publication, since any academic talk (or classroom lecture, or seminar) will now most likely be recorded on a phone and posted online to sustain a “potential afterlife” (Jackson 2012: 494). Now the context of any performance, including the performance of an anthropological talk, shifts into the unknowable, making it impossible to plan for its reception; Jackson wonders, “does [the] ethnographer talk about his project the same way in the academy as he does when he’s … representing himself and his work to his subjects?” (Ibid).
Anxieties of an unknown audience transcend the disciplinary ethics of anthropology. We’re not just anthropologists immersed in our discipline’s longstanding concern about the power implications of representing others. We are also just subjects of the same changes in technology and circulation as everyone is; we are not above any of it. Reflections on unknown audiences resonate as much with vernacular discourses about shifting power and surveillance as they do with thinking specifically about writing culture in the digital age. Ethnographic authority and its dilemmas then play on more widely unpredictable channels of circulation, the permanence of the seemingly throwaway moment, and the ubiquitous anxiety of being tracked from above or below…
A shift in the air drifted from the margins to the center of things. It went along with a habitus shifting in subtle ways, a glimmer of perceiving rapid change – about bodies in relation to devices, to information, and to each other as we speak.
My middle school nephew sits on the couch, laptop open, while adults drink tea. He looks up with a quick nostalgic smile, the kind we use for shared memories, and says, “Remember when everyone used to get all upset because the N.S.A. reads our email?”
Jackson Jr., John. 2012. “Ethnography Is, Ethnography Ain’t.” CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 27, Issue 3, pp. 480–497.