a critical summary of Jessica Lake’s text Red Road (2006) and emerging narratives of ‘sub-veillance’ (in film)

Jessica Lake’s reviews surveillance mechanisms in film by analysing Red Road (2006) and emerging narratives of ‘sub-veillance’ (2010). The film Red Road is directed by English filmmaker and former actor Andrea Arnold and set in Glasgow. The protagonist of the film is called Jackie. She works as a CCTV operator, and we follow her as she surveys streets, a council estate and high-rise flats. Glimpse into office buildings and the personal lives of others. Jackie recognises a specific man. She initially follows him around on her many monitors. She takes the CCTV footage home and soon takes the bus to the other side of the screen. The seemingly ‘objective’ view of CCTV cameras moves to an ultra-subjective view in the streets. Jackie’s in-person street view is mediated through glass windows. Quickly, the barriers between her and the man (Clyde) dissolve. 

Through Glass 

Camera lenses, screens, bus-, laundromat, and cafe windows interfere with Jackie’s sight. The glass mediates her gaze. What we can see as a viewer watching the film obscures the same way. Visibility in the film is limited by lens and screen, unlike Bentham’s panopticon’s axial visibility; as Lake argues, “the practice of surveillance reconfigures screens as points of entry or exit” (Lake, 2010, p. 238). Things seem out of reach or missed when we travel through the CCTV screens. Glass, however, does not symbolise distance in this narrative but instead is a tool. Explaining that Jackie even picks up a piece of glass to use as a possible weapon, Lake argues that Jackie considers glass a potential means for bodily invasion. (2010, p. 237) Jackie’s haptic and optic senses on glass, screens and CCTV content tie with movement. ‘Haptic’ is to motion and touch what ‘optic’ is to vision and sight (Lake, 2010, p. 238). As a CCTV operator, the protagonist zooms in and out, panning and switching between screens. Jackie controls the screens with a joystick, the act of surveilling seems similar to controlling a transportation vehicle or playing a computer game. The content on the CCTV screens is interactive and manipulable, unlike the television or cinema screen. 


Jessica Lake coined the word sub-veillance. Her essay Red Road (2006) and emerging narratives of sub-veillance unfolds the origin of how it differs from surveillance as a specific film genre (Lake, 2010). The prefix sur- in surveillance defines above, upon and over. Sub- derives from below and under, as in lower (in rank) or inferior. Lake claims that Andrea Arnold’s film Red Road (2006) reverses the dynamics of looking by arguing that looking takes place from below. She implies that “those traditionally considered as subordinate” are watching instead of being watched (Lake, 2010, p. 231). Redirecting the act of watching as something done by “children, by women, by prisoners, by the poor, by coloured and colonised peoples” create a situation of sub-veillance and thus subversion by overthrowing traditional surveillance (Lake, 2010, p235). Red Road (Arnold, 2006) reveals how individual motives twist and unofficial motivations for surveillance -the cultural, social and subjective- reshape/play with perception. This narrative unveils the obscured panopticon guard. It questions conventional stories and theories of surveillance. Traditional power dynamics evident in surveillance systems are recognisable but shift. Still, sub-veillance differentiates from sousveillance, which means reverse surveillance. Sousveillance counters corporate surveillance by giving ‘ordinary citizens’ power. Lake claims that it, contrasting to sub-veillance, overlooks one crucial point; the alleged ‘ordinary citizens’ have no social identity. 

Three categories 

Gender, age, race or class are not considered, which is genuinely problematic. White middle-class men represent ‘ordinary citizens’ as spectators. Analysis of surveillance in cinema is stuck in the panoptic model. Lake asserts the asymmetry in representation in films about surveillance by using Torin Monahan’s argument: ” [surveillance operates in] a discourse of surveillance dominated by masculine dreams of disembodied control from a distance” (as cited in Lake, 2010, p233-234). She classifies films into four categories: surveillance and male voyeurism, neutralising criticisms and potentially progressive. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1945), Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960), Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966), The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) and The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck, 2006) fit in the first category. The films Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998), Minority Report ( Spielberg, 2002), Panic Room ( Fincher, 2002) display mixed feelings involving care and control, protection and violation. These films “neutralise ‘real life’ criticisms of state surveillance and privacy” (Turner cited in Lake, 2010, p234). Films like The Truman Show ( Weir, 1998), Gattaca ( Niccol, 1997) and Code 46 (Winterbottom, 2003) ponder on potentially progressive. They examine how the image of surveillance shapes the viewers’ perception. The Truman Show (Weir, 1998) encourages the audience to question surveillance instead of demoting them to passive watchers. Lake declares that encouragement in this film is still confined “to assessing the ideological impact [..] upon audiences” (Lake, 2010, p. 234). They steer the audience in a set direction. Actions to defy what it means to look or to be looked upon are not considered in these films but resonate with the narrative of Red Road (Arnold, 2006). Both this film and Hidden ( Haneke, 2005) fit in the category ‘sub-veillance’. The second and third film categories merely focus on state or organisational surveillance and therefore unfold surveillance within a non-critical cautious political correct report or conventional, almost mythical, panoptic framework. Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century concept of the panopticon “deliberately de-personalised and de-subjectified power” had the power to become non-corporeal, argues Michel Foucault, who wrote about it extensively (as cited in Lake, 2010, p. 233). The panoptic framework does not take into account that power exists in many forms. Lake argues this to ground her claim that the panoptic frame of reference is outdated. It overlooks crucial issues. What do we tolerate from an (established) surveillance model that retains distance and objectivity? The first category films listed links the practice of surveillance (to the sexual drive of males) voyeurism. Analysis of this category confronts Foucault’s theory of the panopticon by inserting that the identity and motivations of the surveyor are significant to how people are surveilled. Looking at Red Road (Arnold, 2006), where we follow Jackie’s gaze, the individual ‘sub-veyor’ feels more intimidating than anonymous state surveillance. The protagonist could be both the predator and prey, the victim or vigilante. 


What Lake excludes is how Red Roads’ protagonist misuses surveillance. Failure of oversight correlates with individual human failure in this film. By problematising the concept of “the little man against the system” (Lake, 2010, p233), Lake touches upon diminishing traditional ideas about who is allowed to look and at whom alone. White, middle-class men are rarely challenged in their role as ‘acceptable’ surveyors, especially when they stand against the faceless gaze. Lake unveils how film forms our interpretation of surveillance by faceless organisations (corporations, governments) and opposition but understates tensions of an individuals life. This reading makes her assumption of how viewers view the ‘sub-veying’ protagonist a bit narrow. Additionally, the text underestimates how films challenge the stereotypes and the (grim) landscape–how the viewer sees Red Road’s Glasgow, regards council estates and other settings that interfere with the viewer’s judgment and position toward the protagonist. Finally, Red Road (Arnold, 2006) challenges both the ethical justification of revenge and manipulation on behalf of the sub-veyor. There are multiple ways to interpret evidence of (haptic and optic transgression) surveillance in film. Cutting the personal(ity) from surveillance film analysis might debunk the point of watching from below.

Lake, J. (2010). Red Road(2006) and emerging narratives of ‘sub-veillance.’ Continuum,
24(2), pp.231–240.

[This text was initially written for a Contemporary Literature MA module at The University of Westminster in November 2020.]

Big Other

We are at home, listening to fake news and watching propaganda while omnipresent government surveillance mechanisms monitor us. People are in constant denial, and the current situation is uncomfortable. In the premise of 1984, Big Brother is watching through the telescreen. If we misbehave, we are locked up. In the panoptic prison, the prisoner does not see the guard hidden in the central tower and behaves as if they are constantly under their gaze. The architecture is both a building and theory, envisioned (in the late eighteenth century) by Jeremy Bentham. The panoptic mechanism’s disciplinary power, the effect of self-interiorisation of the surveillant gaze, is not limited to the penal institution and can be implemented at educational, corporal and clinical institutions. Even consumerism (although initially missing from surveillance studies in Foucault’s Panopticism) thrives on surveillance. Both these metaphors, bluntly put, are insufficient to cover today’s surveillance mechanisms. 

The Tower of Power (2021), image by Swaeny Nina via Vimeo

Zuck is Watching

James M. Harding argues that (biblical) metaphors like ‘the all-seeing eye’ and Bentham’s panopticon obscure the basic fact that surveillance is a form of punishment. In agreement with this concept of punishment, Shoshana Zuboff’s current omnipresent observer, what she coined ‘Big Other’, is guarding every detail of our digital lives. Zuboff once made use of the panopticon’s metaphor but acknowledges that this is outdated.

“Even the panopticon of Bentham’s design [..] is prosaic compared to this new architecture [..]. In the 1980s it was an apt metaphor for the hierarchical spaces of the workplace.”

Zuboff claimed in 2015.

Computer mediation, tracking devices and cameras dismissed the panopticon. Software systems take the place of the guard. There is no stranger in the tower. Companies (a.o. Amazon, Alphabet Inc., Facebook, Alibaba) replaced the totalitarian Big Brother. The question haunting us today is, as foreseen by Zuboff, “Did George Orwell die in vain?”

Surveillance Capitalism

This no-longer stranger, the surveyor, is unfamiliar familiar to us. “Big Other’s knowledge is about us, but it is not used for us. Big Other knows everything about us, while we know almost nothing about it,” Zuboff clarifies in the TIME. We have entered a new era, she claims, the era of ‘surveillance capitalism’. Tech companies transformed the world and our logic of accumulation. The current political power is transferred by their ’coup from above,’ as Zuboff claims. Modern capitalism’s market and non-market products, like services and activities formerly produced with concealed forces, are now transparent and anticipatory; however, their mechanism is opaque. From Facebook’s Marketplace to sponsored posts on Facebook’s owned Instagram platform, instant messages, Facebook’s recent additional feature Video Room and Stay at Home stickers for Instagram stories a.o.; the tech company has many tricks under the pervasive cover of linking everything for everyone’s benefit. Photos posted, quiz answers submitted, views counted, location logged, the number of likes given; all data -extracted, calculated, analysed, clustered, combined and processed- produces a predictive mechanism for oversight. Zuboff claims that the Big Other controls us by not only predicting what we will post (feel and do), but the Big Other also “automate[s]” us to do these things. Facebook’s -or Big Other’s, sticking to Zuboff’s term- tower of power stretches beyond the panopticon, the workplace and settles in its ‘community,’ piercing within the architecture of ourselves. As Zuboff argues, “There is no place where the other is not. In this world of no escape [from the Big Other], the chilling effects of anticipatory conformity give way as the mental agency and self-possession of anticipation is gradually submerged into a new kind of automaticity.”

Conformity, as Zuboff states, works differently from Foucault’s notions of the self-internalisation of the surveillance gaze; it is “not as action but as result, not cause but effect.” For example, an already liked post will likely get more likes, a post a ‘friend’ commented on will likely speak to you too, critical comments from someone you follow will make it more likely to agree with them; fake news, dis-information performative activism, memes and advertisement… We submit to, willingly or are required to this anticipatory conformity. 

screenshot of Alibaba.com

Much of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is controlled by Big Others, companies and totalitarian government systems (like the Social Credit System in China), including Alibaba, Amazon and Google. All their data transactions involve monitoring, rewarding and targeting -real!- people. Habitually or routinely, unknowingly, locally and globally, we are pushed in a new era of bigger, more intrusive surveillance expanding discursively. The Big Other is unavoidable present.

The Tower of Power

Swaeny Nina for Worm - My Pandemic Year, an online film screening for video works dedicated to your experience in a time of covid, 12 March 19:00 (CET) Rotterdam, NL

The Tower of Power is a short-reflective essay video about a year in lockdown. A collection of images and memes received and sent (to), my digital prison tower. The digitally rendered Tower of Power is a response to Michel Foucault’s disciplinary power from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’s (1975) chapter Panopticism. Duration: 00:02:22

Security By Julia X

Security By Julia X
image source: https://www.estherschipper.com/artists/51-julia-scher/works/5792/

Security By Julia X – Julia Scher

Medium: Camouflage-painted desk, wooden platform, chair, monitors, video printer, printing paper rolls, signage, switchers, guard hat, playback video, time-lapse video recorder, brackets, Biometric reader, cables, wires, power strips, media player Date: 1991 Dimensions: 2,4 x 1,8 x 2,1 m


image source: https://www.fluentum.org/en/collection/guards/

Guards – Hito Steyerl

The Art Institute of Chicago museum’s head of security, Martin Whitfield, and museum guard Ron Hicks talk about their background as police officers and demonstrate a defence strategy. The museum, a white cube is transformed from an art institution into a battlefront under the protection of security mechanisms. – a (commissioned) work of Institutional Critique now under surveillance of the Art Institute’s security team.

Medium: 2/5+2, 1 channel video, color video, stereo audio, 1080px x 1920px, 20’12” Date: 2012

Guarded View

Guarded View – Fred Wilson

This installation consists of four black, headless mannequins dressed as museum guards wear a uniform from one of four New York cultural institutions: the Jewish Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Medium: Sculpture; wood, paint, steel and fabric Date: 1991 Collection: Whitney Museum of American Art