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Kien Postmodern Gargoyles

Kien Postmodern Gargoyles

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Published by: Communication and Media Studies on Dec 20, 2012
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10.1177/1077800406286232QualitativeInquiryKien /PostmodernGargoyles
Postmodern Gargoyles,Simulated PowerAesthetics
Grant Kien
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
This work incorporates a camera as participant in the showing of experiencesof surveillance, exploring some effects of defining power as the circulation of signifiers. This techno-ethnographic piece moves through numerous spaces,documenting how myth and aesthetics are experienced and play in everydaylife, inducing performances that ultimately appear to stabilize and furtherlegitimate a globally reaching network of surveillance.
 Keywords:
surveillance technology; aesthetics; power; panopticism;simula-cra; everyday life
A
uthors such as Baudrillard (1994, 2002), Virilio (1986, 2002), Dyer-Witheford(1999),and Hardt and Negri (2001) have theorized power inthe contemporary global situation as the circulation of signifiers. In terms of national and international security, this means creating and maintaining theappearance of authority and control, even if the signifiers of power mightoftenbepuresimulacra.Contemporary powerfunctionsaesthetically,work-ing cultural myths and manipulating personal fears. Panopticism is now ourcommonplace everyday experience. Is anyone actually there watching usthrough all those cameras, or is our “Big Brother” of (inter)national securityyet another myth given form through an illusive but ubiquitous aesthetic?Incorporatingelementsofautoethnography,performanceethnography,tech-nical reporting, and photo essay, this article exemplifies a methodology of technographyfromaqualitativecommunicationsresearchapproach. Takingseriously the Latourian perspective that technological devices function asactants in the social actor-network (Latour, 1992), this work exemplifies theexperience of surveillancecamera technology by incorporating the programand cultural tracings of the aesthetic of contemporary surveillance camerasintoitsnarrative.Thecameraisaparticipantinthetellingofitself,exploringthesimulacraofaestheticpowerbyturningthecameraontoothercameras—as Steve Mann puts it, surveilling the surveillers—revealing contemporary
681
 
Qualitative Inquiry
Volume 12 Number 4August 2006 681-703© 2006 Sage Publications10.1177/1077800406286232http://qix.sagepub.comhosted athttp://online.sagepub.com
 
myths about theaestheticsof control and anequallymythologized historicalprecedentforthecontemporarysurveillanceaesthetic.Perhapswhatappearsto be new is not a new cultural phenomenon at all. From an apartment block lobby to a gym, to a stadium, and even to the heavens in the form of satellitesurveillance, this technography questions the authenticity of an authoritybasedontheaestheticsoffearandcontrolandhearkensbacktoabygone erawhen a phenomenologically similar kind of power aesthetics also had cul-tural currency.DEVICE: RADIOSHACK 49-2569LOCATION: LOBBY, 308 NORTH PRAIRIE ST.“Do you think they’re real?” I ask suspiciously. My neighbor Enriquelooks puzzled for a moment and replies, “Why else would they put themthere?...Theyhavethatlightflashing...Ithinktheymustbeworking....”Ithink for a second and toss off an “I don’t know . . . I justwonder....Iglanceagainupinto the top corner of ourapartment lobby and ponderthe flashing red LED besidethe lens of the surveillancecamera. “If they
are
fake, theydid a good job. . . . Wherewould they put the rest of theequipment?Ienvisionthelaun-dry room housing a lockedcabinet full of electronic sur-veillance equipment, or possibly the utility room where I believe the cableTV and telephone wiring runs into the building. I imagine our building’smaintenancepersonpeeringintoalargemetalcabinetstackedwithTVmon-itorsandotherelectronicgadgetry.“Ithinktheyjustputthemtheretoprotectthe furniture,” I hypothesize. I’m referring to the recent makeover of ourlobby: New beige paint, the black and white marble floor restored and pol-ished, a new Oriental-style red rug to replace the worn grey mat that used torun from the front door to the elevator, an original oil painting and newframed mirror, new wooden furniture to replace the broken castoff sofa andcard table set I had grown accustomed to, and the finishing touch . . . faketreesinthecornerstoaddsomegreen.Altogether,itconstructsaperfectsim-ulationofalivingroom—allthatsmissingisaTVand,ofcourse,somepeo-ple. The new building owner had wasted no time in his mission to gentrify
682 Qualitative Inquiry
 
our “historic” building (which used to just mean it was kind of run-down),havingundertakenthislobbytransformationwithinaweekoftakingposses-sion of the property. The grand finale is the pair of surveillance camerasnested high up in opposing corners of the room to witness the drama of peo-ple quietly passing through this space 24 hours a day, seven days a week.“You know,thefurniture ischained tothewall...Imention, having previ-ously noticed thin chains running from the furniture’s legs to bolts in thewalls.“I guess they don’t trust us! Ha ha . . . like we’re gonna stealthe lobbyfurniture....Ilaugh,butthinktomyself,“Thatsnotsuchabadidea....ItsdefinitelyalotnicerthanthecrapIhavesittingupinmyapartment.Enriquebids me good night as the elevator arrives and I head up the stairs to the nextfloor with my bicycle in tow. I enter my one-room apartment and look at myramshacklefurniture.Thedrawlingwordsofthemaintenancemanfromear-lier in the week run through my head: “You know, he told me he spent eight-thousand dollars just for the furniture for this lobby. . . . ” “Fuck!” I say outloud to my empty room, “He’s gonna fuckin’jack the rent up and force mypoorassouttahere....ThatfuckingASSHOLE....Itakeaseatatmydesand turn my attention to my computer screen.* * *I’minthelaundryroomwaitingthelastfewminutesforthewashertofin-ish spinning so I can put my clothes in the dryer. Morning sunlight fights itswaythroughthedirtybasementwindow,supplementingthestalefluorescentlighting.Everything intheroom isfilthy.Mygazewipesoverthewallofgasmetersonthenorthwalloftheroom,overtothedirtyboilertankthattakesupthebetterpartofthenortheastcorner.Ilookuptotheceilingandnoticethereare a lot of wires running along the open beams. I notice some of them arecoaxialcable,likewhat,forexample,avideocamerafeedwoulduse.Acou-pleofthewireslookfairlynew.IfollowtheroutesofacoupleofwiresasbestI can, adjusting my vantage point to try to determine if any of them actuallyenterfromthelobbyontheothersideofthenorthwall.TryasImight,Icantdetermine whether or not any of the coaxial cable enters the room from thatdirection. The washer finishes winding down, and I switch back from play-ing private eye to laundry man.* * *“What the hell . . . ” I mumble to myself, “Might as well try it out. . . . ” Ifinish my thought internally. It’s early afternoon. I’ve just retrieved my mailfrom the box in the hallway beside the lobby. “I should find out what eight-thousand dollar furniture feels like,” I tell myself, taking a seat in one of thecushionedchairsandsettingtheenvelopesinmyhandonthecoffeetable.Its
Kien / Postmodern Gargoyles 683

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