Surveillance and the City in Michael Winter's This All Happened

By Thompson, Peter | English Studies in Canada, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Surveillance and the City in Michael Winter's This All Happened


Thompson, Peter, English Studies in Canada


Over the past decade, surveillance has become a regular feature of life in North America. In the wake of 9/11, governments in Canada and the United States passed laws such as the Patriot Act and the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act, giving both states broad and unprecedented authority to monitor citizens. North Americans are at once critical of surveillance practices and accustomed to the fact that digital background checks, closed circuit television, and drug testing have become standard obstacles to moving between countries, purchasing goods, and even taking out library books. At the same time, the rise of elaborate social networking infrastructures has made informal instances of surveillance both routine and seemingly innocuous. Facebook users habitually censor themselves in case their friends photograph and post their embarrassing moments, and employers uncover information on prospective employees through simple internet searches. This heightened tension surrounding surveillance has emerged in several ways in contemporary popular culture; television shows such as The Wire, Big Brother, and CSI dramatize the surveillance society's potential ethical and philosophical concerns and tap into the often exhilarating appeal of voyeurism.

Michael Winter's This All Happened (2000) engages these anxieties and addresses the question of how innovative forms of surveillance and technology create and manage the body and personal identity. The narrator of This All Happened, Gabe English, both embraces and rejects surveillance: he watches over St John's with binoculars and writes about the city's goings-on in his diary but also expresses discomfort with the state or his neighbours monitoring him.

Gabe's contradictory approach to surveillance and apprehensions about the changing community of St John's sheds light on Winter's role in shifts taking place in contemporary Newfoundland literature. In his 2004 essay "Report from the Country of No Country," Lawrence Mathews notes that contemporary Newfoundland authors make use of the "strategic deployment of irony" (10) to move past the two dominant preoccupations found in twentieth century literature from the province: the attempt to come to terms with the island's forbidding landscape and the almost equally mythical struggle to understand Newfoundland's troubled political history. He argues that writers such as Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Edward Riche, and Winter are instead interested in working out Newfoundland's relationship with the globalized world and exploring the increasingly cosmopolitan and urbanized space of St John's. While critics commonly cite Winter's work and that of fellow members of the Burning Rock Collective as evidence that Newfoundland literature has moved beyond romanticized portrayals of the family and place, his protagonist in This All Happened finds in surveillance a strategy for preserving traditional forms of community and sealing off Newfoundland to outsiders. The text offers on the one hand a critique of the impersonal nature of contemporary forms of surveillance and an uneasy analysis of Newfoundland's "ironic" urban culture on the other.

Contemporary Surveillance Studies: The Postpanopticon

Scholars in literary and cultural studies have responded to the rise of complex digital forms of surveillance by examining the societal effects of North America's intrusive and ever-present security apparatus. Virtually every study on this subject cites Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In it, Foucault observes that the state employs highly organized and efficient forms of policing and surveillance to secure what he calls "social discipline" (213). Foucault argues that by breaking space into easily manageable geometric units, ensuring that the gaze of authority is not only everywhere but also impossible to detect, separating people from one another and organizing power hierarchically, modern forms of surveillance impose social control by forcing individuals to police themselves. …

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