You may recognise the face. The human face of the usually-faceless Stasi. It is a still from The Lives of Others, set in East Germany in the year of Our Brother 1984.
Wiesler is a Stasi agent asked to set up a surveillance operation to spy on a writer and his girlfriend. An idealist, Wiesler is disturbed by the deceits he discovers in the state (The Lies of Others) and impressed by the authenticity of the dissident artist community. He lives by the imperative of his conscience, this inner voice leading him to protect the writer, not recording suspicious conversations and removing from the writer’s apartment a typewriter which had become incriminating evidence.
The conscience is morally self-aware whether the eyes of others are watching or not. Surveillance encourages the opposite: morality is in the eye of the beholder, and wrongdoing is done if it is seen to be done. Photography as replacement conscience.
The distinction between an exterior code of conduct and an interior one has been described as the difference between a ‘shame culture’ and a ‘guilt culture.’ In a guilt culture, actions cast their shadows inwards, falling inside the mind, and goodness matters whether or not others see it. A shame culture uses the public stare, a sense of surveillance so that conduct is regulated according to what is outwardly judged, and its punishments are dishonour and contempt.
Conscience is a soloist and its ethics may be solitary and in opposition to the state. Not only Wiesler, but also Winston Smith, hero of 1984, and Edward Snowden all worked in state security, and acted alone opposing surveillance. The vision of conscience is as solitary and as ineluctable as one’s own gaze, out, through one’s own pupils, learning the world.
How you see: that is the key to guilt culture.
How you are seen: that is the key to shame culture.
The concept of ‘face’, including honour and reputation, is allied to shame culture. In China, the idea of ‘face’ is ancient, and you can lose face, save face, gain face (by achieving status) and give face (by making someone else look good.) China today embraces shame culture in the form of mass surveillance and the Communist Party’s aim is total-coverage facial-recognition. There is an eerie irony in that term, reversing the honour both of ‘face’ and the idea of ‘recognition’ as acknowledgement. In the willing mass surveillance world of Facebook, the shame culture is apparent: trying to gain face through public recognition, many people (particularly the young) find themselves losing face, shamed by others, or indeed by themselves, in perpetuity. When footage of the woman putting the cat in the wheelie-bin was posted online, the purpose was punishment through public shame.
In a surveillance state, what should be private – inner, sheltered and intimate – is stolen. This privacy is priceless: it is an agent of conscience, a prerequisite of art, it is a sculptor of dissent and a cocoon of innocence. Privacy is where the human spirit breathes. But wraparound sealed-in surveillance is as suffocating as cling film over the human face, so you cannot freely ask, pray, protest or create.
Fat with ubiquity, mass surveillance is a blanking gaze, a one-way face, giving nothing away but sucking everything in. It collects data forever, eternal and omnipresent as God, this oblong block of absolute recall, this slab of totalitarian perpetuity. China’s aim for total surveillance has been described as the ‘one, all-seeing eye’ and the nation has one surveillance camera for every 43 citizens. It’s worth noting, though, that if you include private surveillance, the UK has perhaps one camera for every fifteen citizens and in the US, the Prism programme gives the state the means of mass online surveillance.
Surveillance is designed to identify behaviour which is criminally or politically suspicious, but so widely is it defined that many security agencies are now asking the public: ‘If you see anything unusual, report it.’ The odd, the specific, the individuated, the especial. This itself is political, encouraging not the banality of evil but the evil of banality, the glutinous torpor of conforming to trivia: TV’s Big Brother.
The word ‘surveillance’ came into the English language from French in 1793, when the Jacobins, tyrant-revolutionaries, set up ‘surveillance committees’ in every municipality to spy on outsiders and dissidents. If you are innocent, they say, you have nothing to fear from surveillance. But there are maps of innocence – and calendars too – and an act or an attitude that is innocent in one place is incriminating in another place, or in the same place at a different time. Innocence when?, Innocence where?, are the questions: and no one can know the answers of the future. Revolutionary behaviour innocent in France in 1793 would be incriminating in 2014. Protest innocent in Britain in 1993 was incriminating in Britain (post Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) in 1994. What was innocent in East Berlin on 9/11/1989 was incriminating in East Berlin the day before.
In the photograph, Wiesler is looking up at the (comically placed) CCTV sign; he is under surveillance, prey, caught on camera, trapped on film. In the animal world, strategies adopted by prey include avoiding drawing attention to oneself, being silent, hiding, reducing activity, mimicking others: in human prey, these all have political corollaries. The camera in this photograph is called Wolf Safety, while other surveillance technology includes Night Hawk and Night Owl. Talons of cameras grip onto posts; they hunch in the stance of a bird of prey, their zoom lens eyes the hooded fixed stare of the cryptic bloodless predators.
The predator stares before it pounces. Mammals (including humans) loathe being stared at because it is a prelude to attack. Staring is aggressive, from ‘It’s rude to stare’ and ‘Who do you think you’re staring at?’ to the widespread traditional belief in the Evil Eye, the malevolent stare which is thought to cause injury, illness or death.
In mass surveillance, the Evil Eye is a camera, its black lens a false pupil, learning about you. In a cruel conjunction of meaning, the Chinese authorities are setting up surveillance cameras in university classrooms so the learning pupils are under the super-vision of the camera’s pupil-eye. Cameras have also been placed in cinemas and theatres, in mosques and temples, and outside the doors of dissidents. What is threatened? Questioning, mutability, thoughtfulness, innerness, prayer, dissent, creativity, art and innocence, quiddity, this-ness, peculiarity and Anything Unusual.
Mass surveillance, in its function of creating conformity and breeding banality, has the geometry of ahuman power. Where is there escape?
An opposite of power is innocence, an opposite of totality is dissent, an opposite of banality is art and an opposite of surveillance’s peculiar ahumanity (neither human nor inhuman) is conscience.
I don’t suppose the Chinese authorities read Dante very much. But if they did, they’d find an uncanny mirror. As they focus (literally) on places of art and spirituality as sources of dissent, Dante focuses (metaphorically) on art and spirituality as sources of conscience. Metaphors and imaginative capability bring ethical knowing, which moves through the poetics of prayer into a purity of love. At its heart, this is a tender openness to the Other, an unguarded gaze into the lives of others, an empathic look at the minds of others, a creative conscience. It could be a description of the path taken by Wiesler in The Lives of Others.
Con-science is ‘knowing-with’. Scire, to know, is not enough: that is merely knowing like a surveillance camera amassing detail. Con-scire, to know-with, is the kind of knowing of the director’s camera, tracking empathy, creating art, illustrating the beautiful pupillage, a form of reflective seeing which is cast fathomlessly inwards and also boundlessly outwards.
In a late scene in The Lives of Others, it is 1989 and the Berlin Wall has fallen. The writer visits the ex-Stasi headquarters and begins to read the files on himself, expecting to find information stored against him. Surveillance, after all, doesn’t concern itself with goodness, and the Recording Angel of the state only ever subtracts. But the files have for once become a store of positive evidence – of Wiesler’s goodness, as the writer discovers how Wiesler had acted secretly to protect him. Secret, that is, but for the one (accidental?) red ink mark from the telltale red typewriter ribbon. Caught red-handed in an act of courage: is it a fingerprint or a signature?
It begs a wider question: what if the purpose of surveillance were to store our goodness as meticulously as our misdemeanours? What if we might all be discovered in secret acts of kindness, committing treasonable acts of innocence, conspiring to create masterpieces? What if surveillance recognised our faces – and gave us face, with acknowledgement – honouring our lives?
In the closing moments of the film, Wiesler walks past a bookshop with a huge photograph of the writer’s face, as he is a well-known – recognised – writer. His new book (Sonata for a Good Man) has just been published, and Wiesler goes to buy a copy. He finds it dedicated to him. Unknown though he is, a ‘faceless’ agent, yet he is truly recognised and acknowledged: ‘To HGW XX/7, with gratitude’. Transfiguring comes from within, as he has acted according to his own lights, true to his conscience. Clear as a crystal prism, conscience gives his face radiance: his expression lifts and lightens to the loveliest moment of the film, as if his eyes were a source of light, shining rainbows outwards into the world, the minds and the lives of others.
Jay Griffiths is the author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, and Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape. She won the Barnes and Noble ‘Discover’ award for the best first-time author to be published in the USA, and has been shortlisted for the Orwell prize and a World Book Day award, and is the winner of the inaugural Orion book award. She lives in Wales.