Surveillance of Our Time: Protecting the Flame

The word surveillance comes from the French ‘sur’ – over – ‘veiller’ – to watch.  Surveillance is overseeing / watching over. From the outset, this word appears to have been connected to the activities of the state in relation to its citizens.[1] Its very existence is built, primarily, on a foundation of distrust. The surveillance state sees and expects only the worst from its citizens, and therefore practices what it might call ‘vigilance’ – from the Latin ‘vigilare’ – the root of ‘veiller’. The surveillance state is, therefore, watching, taking its language for this activity from the great, watchful, empire state – Rome.

The question that must surely be asked is, however, Is this activity appropriate in our own time? We come here to the very root of the social question – namely, the relationship between the free, individual creative capacity of human beings, and the society in which they find themselves. It is a question – a riddle – whose answer can be found only within the human being. Here – in the creative capacity – in the capacity for freedom – that lies in the heart of the human individuality – here we find both the cause and answer to the social question of our time, and to the issue of surveillance – to watching over – in the widest possible sense of the word.

The issue, fundamentally, is whether or not it is appropriate for the free individuality of the human being to be overseen – to be watched over – by anything outside of itself. If this happens, it ceases to be a free individuality and instead begins to take on the values and ideas and meanings of that which watches over – in this case, the apparatus of the state. We thereby have a state built upon unfreedom, on the subjugation of its citizens; and one that perpetuates the notion that such activity is warranted. This can manifest in the form of surveillance as we usually think of it, but also in other forms of ‘overseeing’ that we tend to take more as a given but are, in fact, nothing other than human creations.

Any time the state decides what is taught in a classroom – at any level – we find ourselves, as individualities – teachers and students – in the position of unfreedom and subjugation. If the teacher is not able to educate out of his or her own creative, free capacities as an individual, responding to the needs of the individual students in their classes, we see nothing but state ‘overseeing’ taking place.[2] Whether it be setting the curriculum or dictating testing activities, or any other incursion, we find the free human being in danger – the fire of creative capacity is at risk.

The same can be said of a political system that does not allow this creative human individuality to have any influence in the creation of the policies and laws under which it itself must live – if every human being is unequal not only ‘before the law’, but where it also has an unequal say in the creation of these same laws. Representative democracy is nothing other than a once-in-every-few-years vote for the overseeing – for the surveillance – of the creative self by someone else; it is a vote for who shall oversee our own freedom in the best way. This is contrary, however, to the actual need for self-determination – for our voice to count equally with our fellow citizens. The vote that the free individual seeks to cast is not one which will determine who shall best oversee their own freedom in the creation of laws but is, rather, one where the free self is itself to have its say in determining which laws to put forth and adopt.

Surveillance also exists in any kind of economic ideology that sees the human being simply as a consumer or as labour power. The free, creative individuality is not a mere consumer but is inherently a creative, productive being. Nor is it a mere source of labour for sale – its labour is not for sale; labour is not part of the economic process. Rather, it is the products of this labour that have economic value. Labour without production is itself without economic value. To sell it is to act economically untruthfully, and is in antipathy to the productive activity of the free and creative kernel of the human being. The economy is the mechanism by which the free human being is able to meet its needs in order that it may continue to produce out of its creative capacities. This has nothing to do with such things as profit, but everything to do with meeting the needs of all human beings. When this true economic activity is overshadowed, it is an act of over-watching, over-seeing, that serves to subjugate the human being to the needs of the false economy, rather than allow the economy to perform its true function of meeting the needs of all human beings.

The social question of our time comes primarily to this: How can we build a social organism upon the foundation of the reality of the human being? The human being of today comes more and more into the experience of the truth of his or her own free individuality. It is a flame that burns in each one of us. It is something we must care for. As Beuys would have it: “Protect the flame!”[3] This is the true vigilance – the true surveillance – necessary in our time. Any other kind of surveillance, however subtle it may be, serves to blow a cold wind across this flame; or else it serves to fan it into a destructive fire that can, if unchecked by its own forces, burn out of control (whereby freedom is also lost). But it is the human being who must determine such matters. The only suitable overseer, over-watcher – the only suitable surveillance technician – of the individual in our time is the individual him or herself. Each one of us is asked – by ourselves – to become both the watcher and the watched when it comes to our own free individuality, our own free creativity. It is only each one of us who has this power authentically in relation to our own selves. To be free is to watch over one’s own self. If this power is transferred to others, it comes at the cost of our own freedom, and our own humanity. To justify such unfreedom in the name of security – protection against terrorism or anything else – in order that we may be ‘safe’ and ‘happy’, is to perform an act of terror against our own human nature. This will ultimately lead to neither safety nor happiness, but rather to further violence and discontent. To act in this way is to abdicate our own throne to an usurper even as we sit on it, and to disregard the whole procession of evolution that has led us to this point. It is a regression of the social order, a degeneration of the human spirit. We fall, as it were, back through the French Revolution, through the ‘vigilance’ of the Roman state, and further back through ancient Egypt and beyond, surrendering our own individuality as we go, though without gaining the spiritual support that earlier civilisations afforded. We become marooned, as it were, on an island of unfreedom and subjugation – our creative, spiritual individuality suppressed by the low clouds and cold winds to a meek fire we can barely warm our own hands by.

But this fire does not seek this! It seeks to burn! It seeks to burn freely, creatively, offering its warmth and light selflessly to other human beings – to join with them – with other freely-burning fires – to light up a new world – a world – a social organism – shaped by the creativity of this same fire and all that flows through it. The society we currently live in is not a natural, given phenomenon. It has been, and is, created by human beings. To relinquish our own freedom is to relinquish our own inherent capacity to shape the world we live in according to its inner social reality. To take up our own freedom – to protect and grow our own fires, and make the space necessary for others to do the same – means we take up the possibility and the responsibility to shape the world through the free, spiritual, creative capacities that each of us carries as human beings.


John Stubley

[1] The term seems to have arisen in France during the so-called ‘Reign of Terror’ following the French Revolution – it was, in effect, the state that was doing the terrorising at that time. See:

[2] Even if the curriculum is set by people who were once teachers, they still remain outside the sphere of free creativity which takes place between teacher and student in specific, individual classroom situations.

[3] Joseph Beuys “Thanks to Wilhelm Lehmbruck” in Joseph Beuys: In Memorium of Joesph Beuys, Obituatries, Essays, Speeches (Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1986), p. 61.

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2 Responses to Surveillance of Our Time: Protecting the Flame

  1. Leslie says:

    While you place these observations and questions greatly on those of state, I am contemplating how these same issues are mirrored in institutions and organizations–and, in some cases–communities. Is it because we know only what it is to be watched and have no real practice in setting up organisms of freedom, or is it because we don’t trust one another? And how interconnected are these? Some thoughts that percolate.

  2. Maxwell Zeff says:

    More random thoughts…Althusser in the 70s I think it was talked about self surveillance- when for instance an advertisement hails a subject-us, maybe thats where Foucault took off…Facebook! and then the problem of the creation of the persona at the expense of the Self and to the empowerment of the shadow. All mystery schools start with the idea that only our thinking is really free and its our job to dive in and question our desires/motivations which means self surveilling- being foremost hard on ourselves since institutional ‘death’ is within as without,- we shouldn’t trust ourselves ‘entirely’…but its not easy to find a good mystery school or to do the work which i guess begs the question of the larger social arena- Karmically the world is gonna throw stuff…If everyone is an artist in potential/Beuys, then we each need a free sphere of practice but more than that a real ongoing commitment. I wrestle with that everyday…

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