Monday, February 13, 2017

TV, Surveillance, and Screens (Core Response #3)

Television has transformed from its earliest days in which it was confined as a medium to low picture quality and a small screen. However, like other forms of media, technological advances have transformed television into a medium that transcends the traditional domestic limiters initially in place into a wide reaching media entity. This shift was, in part, due to the technology of screens- small, portable, and high-definition screens that allow you to take your television with you wherever you go. The uses of portable screens extend beyond just television viewing and are now utilized for many other uses. Screens allow the viewers a privileged look at the world, reaching far beyond what is in your immediate field of vision. In this way, screens (and by extension television) break down the wall between public and private spaces more today than ever before. As Patricia Phillips was quoted in the article “Domesticity at War”: “just as the public space has become diminished as a civic site, the home has become in many senses, a more public forum. The public world comes into each home as it never has before through television, radio and personal computer'" (Colomina 9).

For Homeland, a television show in which the plot centers on the War on Terrorism in post 9/11 America, the notion of screens breaking down the barrier between what is private and what is public takes on another layer of significance. For example, in the first few episodes of Homeland season 1, Carrie Mathison’s domestic space was taken over by the surveillance equipment she used to observe Stg. Brody in order to prove her theory that he is involved in an upcoming terrorist plot. Additionally, while Carrie has her reasons for beginning her surveillance of Brody and his family, she is essentially invading their domestic space by her spying on and watching Brody and his family. As Beatriz Colomina writes in her article, “not only were these computers ‘concerned’ exclusively with domestic issues (displacing onto themselves traditional forms of domestic relations in areas as crucial as housework, decoration, companionship) but moreover, domestic space itself was deeply disturbed” (5). Therefore, we can see how the act of looking (either through a screen as with Carrie or a window as with Brody watching his wife, Jessica, and her former lover) is framed as a disturbance of the safety of the domestic space. We can also recognize this as an intrusion of privacy through Carrie’s reaction to the intimate moments between Brody and Jessica. Although Carrie’s initial reaction was to look away from the screen, the voyeuristic need to watch pulls her back in. This relation to the screen also means we can simultaneously view and be viewed. As Margret Morse wrote in “An Ontology of Everyday Distraction” television screens create a “dualism of outside/inside within these separate realms” which “means that a connection with ‘outside’ drifts between a ‘real’ outside and an idealized representation” (202). After watching Brody for more than a month, the lines between subject and observer have begun to blur for Carrie as by episode 4, Carrie has come to know Brody so well she can predict what he is going to do before he does it. This further breaks down the separation of private lives and the public image Brody is creating for the world.

Additionally, to look at this on another level, Brody’s message to his terrorist cell also directly invaded the domestic spaces of countless television viewers as he broadcast the message through the TV screens whenever he appeared on camera. By using mass media as a way to contact his terrorist cell, Brody was imbedding an extra layer of information directly into the TV screens. As Morse said, “discursive segments also constitute a plane of passage between the shows, items, and stories embedded within the plane” meaning that within the televisual plane, there can be many layers of meaning. Although as in the case with Brody, the meanings only become visible to those who know when and where to look (205). In this instance, as well as with Carrie’s surveillance, one type of gaze is privileged over another through the technology, viz. the screens, which allow for one to engage in this type of looking.


  1. I really like how you've connected the readings to Homeland (and I always appreciate your pictures, too). I have some stray thoughts on the role screens play in the pilot--maybe you have some thoughts?

    --I like your point on how the act of surveillance, as mediated through the TV screen, invades the sphere of domesticity. I also wonder if a connection can be made between the act of surveillance and the act of waiting? To a certain degree, Carrie is really playing a waiting game. She can't really do a lot of the active "spy work" (following, interrogating, etc.) and is subjected instead to this sort of passive observance of Brody's life, waiting for him to reveal himself in some way as a terrorist. So I think, to an extent, the screen is related to passive waiting, and the constant viewing of the action on the screen helps to demarcate time (the kids go to school in the morning; Brody eats dinner; Brody goes to sleep; etc.).

    --Also interesting that she has that realization about Brody's "code" by glancing at a television that is located in a bar. I'm not sure how significant that is, but one could argue that it reinforces the idea of TVs promoting a sense of productivity in places that are associated with leisure?

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  3. Your connection between Homeland and the reading was very interesting. I think it's also interesting to explore the idea of surveillance space being used as the non-space for Carrie's character. In many ways this defies many notions of the specific mechanism of 'television' in the classical sense being something that must be designed to provide the sort of waiting and flow that encourage people to use it as a non-space/ separate from their daily lives.
    Carrie's role in observing Brody and the obsessions he develops almost demonstrates how simply watching life reproduced without any of the commercial structure can still create a compelling point of escape for an individual within their own domestic space. I wonder what this does to notions of narrative. In many ways it shows that the "fiction effect" that Morse describes may still be in effect even outside of the institution of television. Carrie is watching uninterrupted documentation and her "sinking into another world" as Morse describes it, becomes even more complete.

    It's fascinating to think about the show's creators designing something that deeply challenges notions of viewership and what makes a compelling narrative/ escapist media while building it into their own narrative

  4. It strikes me that the type of looking Carrie does is a detail-oriented scrutiny that we share (emphasized by strategies such as close-ups), and this meticulousness lends validity to her later claims. Accordingly, it frames counter-terrorist surveillance as a precise activity that simply does not correspond the reality of this practice. For instance, the US Military frequently conducts drone 'signature strikes' by targeting anonymous victims based their patterns of behavior (e.g. visiting a particular compound or mosque). As in Homeland, domesticity is invaded as a site of evidence, but the precision of Claire's targeting -- represented by her HD screens -- vindicates a practice that more often targets unidentified victims on pixellated screens and all those unlucky enough to be within its blast radius.

    1. I think this is a very valid point you have brought up here, Sasha. And one that will interestingly play a crucial role later on in the series. If the military surveillance is considered detail oriented in theory but in practice, as you said, "more often targets unidentified victims on pixellated screens and all those unlucky enough to be within its blast radius" are affected by the fallout. Later in the first season it is revealed that the reason Brody became radicalized (Carrie was right about him, btw) was because of a US drone strike that accidentally hit a school and killed 83 children. While the military was targeting the terrorist Abu Nazeer, Nazeer's 9 year old son, Issa, and Brody's student was killed by the blast. So, if the series seems to vindicate the practice of surveillance in the first episode, this attitude is quickly complicated and begins to take a much more critical approach.