Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Robert Pippin reviews Closed Circuits

Garrett Stewart. Closed Circuits: Screening, Narrative, Surveillance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 281 pp.

Review by Robert Pippin

It is estimated that, thanks to an exponentially increasing use of surveillance cameras, each of us is photographed (for the most part, unknowingly) an average of two hundred times a day. Since almost everything we write is written electronically, much of what we have written is retrievable and, if sent in an email, always inspectable. Everything ever on the internet is preserved. Intimate photographs or videos can be and often are posted online by jilted lovers, stalkers, and journalists. Sony pictures and the government can be hacked; the government’s spying can be spied upon (Snowden). By some accounts the best television drama ever filmed, The Wire, explores at great length the way surveillance changes the relationship between the police and the policed. And that is only an instance of a something like a genre covering all sorts of media, the surveillance genre. Something has happened to the dynamic of looking and being looked at (which means to the dynamic relationship between societal independence and dependence, perceptions of active and passive subjects; the self as the self always under inspection), something both radically new yet also familiar in cinematic treatments of stakeouts, voyeurism, espionage, or detective surveillance (M, Rear Window, The Conversation), “ocular totality” at a global level, electronic surveillance and warfare based on it, and science fiction fantasies/nightmares of total or absolute surveillance. (Person of Interest, Homeland, Minority Report, Déja Vu, The Bourne Legacy, Caché, Source Code, and so on and on.)

The subtitle of Garrett Stewart’s timely book, Closed Circuits, indicates a series of three themes, but that series is both a successive series and a semantic unity. His topic is screening narrative surveillance. Narratives of surveillance are always also, he wants to show, reflective attention to the condition of cinema, historically indexed, conditioned by possibilities of the recoding apparatus. Even older pre-digital films like Rear Window (1954) can be sites of reflective medial analysis. (Hitchcock’s character is a photographer, but why does he take no pictures to document his murder suspicions; why is there no mention of the other sites of surveillance on his side, the fourth wall?) The situation, according to Stewart, is the condition of cinematic voyeurism itself rendered explicit. His main interest is twofold, at both an object level and metalevel. He wants to understand the new intersection of a time-based medium, narrative film, with a time-coded recording technology, especially since he thinks that the latter “parodies and contaminates narrative cinema.” (His account insists that we have arrived at “the subsumption of seeing to sighting; a shift from the photomechanical to the postfilmic.) At the metalevel, Stewart is interested in what sort of a theory we need to understand the double development he is tracking: a new technological version of medium specificity (digital production and projection) and a new cultural event, massive electronic surveillance. This metainterest leads him to what he calls a “retrieval of lapsed or dormant theoretical concepts from the legacy of film theory”; more specifically from  apparatus theory, suitably updated and re-thought, and a revised suture theory, indebted to Oudart, whose interest (along with Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan) in what must be made absent for any present image to function (“masked discontinuity” “the internal shadows of an exclusion”), is put to detailed use throughout. Stewart’s interest is fixed on new conditions of cinematic intelligibility but his account inevitably touches on the implications of mutual intelligibility itself implicit in the throwaway but prophetic line by the nurse Stella in Rear Window; “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.”