Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon – Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation


Polity Press, ISBN: 978-0745662831, English, 152 pages, 2013, UK

Can a book about surveillance published in early 2013 still be relevant in today’s post-Snowden era? In the case of this conversation between two noted theoreticians of surveillance, David Lyon and Zygmunt Bauman, the answer is clearly yes, even if their argument may require some recalibration. The central part of the book is spent arguing that the dominant metaphors of the surveillance discourse – Orwell’s big brother and Foucault’s panopticon – are no longer adequate. Foucault declared the panopticon (a prison envisioned in the late18th century, designed to create the effect of constant surveillance in the minds of the prisoners) to be a metaphor for the disciplinary society. Bauman, who does most of the talking in the conversation, argues that today “panopticon-like practices are limited to sites for humans booked to the debit side, declared useless and fully and truly ‘excluded’.” Such practices, however, demand substantial resources and responsibility for the inmates, both of which today’s managers no longer want to shoulder. Bauman speaks of the “emancipation of the managers from the burden of management” and argues, “they refuse to manage, instead they demand self-management from the residents, on the threat of eviction.” Thus surveillance works in two modes: the traditional repression-based model where people are locked away and a more contemporary version in which people are induced to ‘voluntarily’ place themselves under the gaze of authority figures in order to be allowed to stay inside the consumerist paradise. While Bauman and Lyon spend a lot of time developing the metaphor of the panopticon, the concept of big brother is less significant for them. However, in the light of recent information regarding the expansive reach of state surveillance, rethinking big brother has become an urgent task. Felix Stalder