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First French-Australian Online Conference Series on Surveillance and the Humanities

Australian National University (Australia), 24 August 2020 to 10 September 2020
Centre Bentham

Notes de l’auteur

The centres co-organising the event – the Law and Humanities Research Centre of CERSA (Panthéon-Assas University, France), the Centre for Law, Arts and the Humanities (ANU College of Law), the Centre Bentham (Sciences Po Paris Law School, France) and VALE/PRISMES (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, France) – are unique in their respective countries and share a commitment to taking multidisciplinary approaches on contemporary issues.

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This event was funded thanks to the generous support of an AFRAN grant

1Surveillance is central to the functioning of 21st century capitalism and modern social welfare. It has often been displayed as necessarily intrusive and threatening. The present research builds on the suggestions that an articulate discussion about humanities could be fruitful in producing a more complex picture and that literary works in particular could flesh out operative concepts in studies of surveillance.

2In a world dramatically changed in the last few months, surveillance has become even more critical to public policy and corporations. The series of talks sought to address its new meaning, scope and representation and initiate a conversation between arts, humanities and the various fields which surveillance is used.  

3The COVID-19 pandemic forced organisers to rethink their symposium. It was thus moved online as a series of conferences. Recordings of the event are still available on the ANU website:​event/​virtual-conference/​surveillance-humanities

Part 1: In sickness and health, surveillance in an age of COVID-19

Lesley Seebeck, CEO at the Cyber Institute (ANU), opened up the conference series with the observation that, in our digital society, we have grown used to being tracked; our movements, preferences, and social networks quantified, linked, logged and transmitted. The advent of COVID-19 is disrupting normality and accelerating many trends, including the widespread use of digital tools.  With that has come increasing levels of surveillance and control unanticipated only months ago, in the name of public health.  What can we say about the use of technology for this purpose?  What is ‘normal’ going to look like post-pandemic? And what effects will such use of technology and tolerance of surveillance have on us and our society?
Lesley Seebeck’s presentation addressed these issues.

Part 2: Surveillance and policing

5In the first presentation in this second series, Philippe Sabot, from Lille University, talked about “Surveillance and its Ambiguities”. He proposed to explore some ambiguities of contemporary forms of surveillance. These have become both desirable, insofar as they relate to the protection of human life, and problematic, because they contribute to placing individuals in a network of data available for uses that are difficult to control.

Gregor Urbas, ANU College of Law, and Peter Grabosky, ANU RegNet both presented their work on “Covert Online Investigations and Surveillance by Public and Private Actors”. The presentation explored the use of covert online investigative methods by state agencies, and by individuals and institutions in civil society. They looked first at their potential for abuse by state agencies, and the remedies available to the targets of illegal or otherwise questionable state practices. Then they turned to non-state investigators, and noted that the targets of private investigation have even less protection.

Georgiana Banita, from Bamberg Universität spoke on “Black Futures Matter: Critical Narratives of Race and Predictive Policing”. She started her talk presenting policing measures aimed at preempting black violence, measures which range from Terry stops and the chokehold to predictive algorithms. Her presentation then analyzed the specific nature of pre-crime racism. The argument is informed by scholarly, documentary, and daily critiques that expose the manufacture of putatively dangerous black futures. Whether subjective or systemic, these projections become self-fulfilling prophesies as well as shackling discourses that create and maintain a docile black underclass whose potentially violent futures override and overwrite their vulnerable present. She concluded with the suggestion that in resisting prediction mechanisms and machines, black futures can truly matter only to the extent that they will become invisible. 

Part 3: Space and power

8The third series started with Lucie Cluzel, from Paris Nanterre University. She presented a study on “Safe Cities”. Indeed, in a context of tensions exacerbated by terrorist and health threats, cities are increasingly taking advantage of innovative technologies to put them at the service of an exclusively safe public order. This contribution aims to highlight the risks that these "techno-police" projects pose to fundamental freedoms in France.

Aliette Ventéjoux, from Saint-Etienne University, was unable to join for her talk on “Space and Surveillance in Jonathan Raban’s novel Surveillance”, but a pre-recording made it possible for participants to have access to her research. She discussed how surveillance affects space – be it personal, global or even cyberspace – in Jonathan Raban’s novel Surveillance, published in 2006. She also looked at the author’s criticism of the use of surveillance in the American society after 9/11 throughout his novel.

10The third series ended with a presentation of Gavin Smith’s research (ANU School of Sociology) on “The Work of Watching and Being Watched”. Indeed, he argued that surveillance is typically conceptualised in terms of power asymmetries. Those entities operating the technologies, whether human or non-human machines, are assumed to occupy a position of power over those subjects being exposed. However, when relations of surveillance are empirically contextualised, the picture that emerges is more complex. His presentation revealed some of this complexity by accentuating the forms of labour that attend cultures of surveillance, and how this work of watching and being watched generates contradictions, messiness, failures, struggles, estrangement, exhaustion, and micropolitics.

Denis Beaubois is an artist living in Sydney. He presented a work entitled “In the event of Amnesia the city will recall”. He discussed this 1996 project. In this body of works, he used public and private surveillance systems as a platform to generate a series of performance works. By using the vehicle of suspicion to create a captive audience, the city was used as a personal repository to temporarily deposit one's identity. 

Part 4: Surveillance versus privacy

In the fourth series of conferences, Jelena Gligorijevic, ANU College of Law, spoke on “Privacy as Liberty and Security: Implications for the Legitimacy of Governmental Surveillance”. Security is often deployed to justify privacy-intrusive governmental surveillance. This is problematic because security, alongside liberty, is embedded within the very concept of privacy. Given as much, and given the derivative relationship between individual and collective interests in liberal democracies, Jelena Gligorijevic argues that an appeal to collective security cannot per se legitimise governmental surveillance. Indeed, particularised, evidence-based arguments are required to address the deeper moral concerns for individual security and individual liberty.

Jennifer Merchant, from Panthéon-Assas University, then presented her work on “Protecting Genetic Privacy”. She started with the assessment that Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, some forms of cancer and potentially hundreds of others grave diseases are now capable of being detected through genetic analysis. She explored the legal frameworks in the United States and in Europe (especially France) that attempt to prevent this highly sensitive private medical information from falling into ill-intentioned third-parties, and she analyzed whether these protections are sufficient.

In “Overexposed: Genetic Privacy on Film and TV”,
Jay Clayton, from Vanderbilt University, outlined a new model of collaboration between humanists and scientists from a diverse range of fields. His multiyear project examines the role of culture in shaping public attitudes toward genetic privacy, including threats to privacy such as government and corporate surveillance as well as hacking.

Part 5: Critical perspectives on surveillance: Post-colonialism, gender and social control

15The fifth series started with Rachel Joy, from the Australian College of Applied Psychology, who spoke on “Through a glass darkly: the atmospherics of settler surveillance of Indigenous peoples in Australia”. She focused on the settlers’ eye, as gazing into a murky glass. What emerges of her study is not the violence of dispossession but a fantastical parallel universe of neat lawns, net curtains and neighbourhood watch. She wanted the audience to peer through the net curtains, across the lawn and surveil the local park. It used to be a corroboree ground. And it still is.

16Yvonne-Marie Rogez, from Panthéon-Assas University, investigated “Policing the Margins: Political Challenges and the Homeless in California”. She kicked off with the statement that an estimated 108,000 people sleep outdoors in California. Her talk presented an overview of the legislation, case law, political issues and tensions raised by the need to deal with homelessness and its visibility. Looking towards the fields of legal studies, urban anthropology, as well as iconography, it focused on the questions of efficiency and lawfulness raised by government action. Part of her paper was also dedicated to responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Claire Wrobel, from Panthéon-Assas, then discussed issues of “Gender and surveillance in Margaret Atwood's fiction, from Bodily Harm (1981) to The Testaments (2019)”. Margaret Atwood’s work has consistently engaged with gendered surveillance from the 1980s onwards. Claire Wrobel argued that it makes up for the “gender blind” bias in surveillance studies by laying bare the complex mechanisms - from the most brutal to the most subtle - which produce the female surveilled subject and her docile body.

Part 6: Surveillance, utopia, satire in 18th century British literature

18In the last conference of the series, Alexis Tadie, from Sorbonne Université, looked at how satire addressed surveillance. He asked whether surveillance was a condition of utmost happiness. While utopian schemes sought the good of all, this is rarely achieved without strict control over the population. Reading utopias through satirical authors, Swift or Pope for instance, made it possible to highlight the contradictions in utopias and their reliance on surveillance.

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Centre Bentham, « First French-Australian Online Conference Series on Surveillance and the Humanities »Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2020, consulté le 01 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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