Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Essays

Seeing and Being Seen

Our political moment demands to see who we are—a beautiful and terrifying ordeal.

Russell C. Bogue

Lonely Metropolitan, 1932, by Herbert Bayer; private collection/Bridgeman Images; © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

On May 20, 2013, a pale, nervous American landed in Hong Kong and made his way to the Mira Hotel. Once there, he met with reporters from The Guardian and the Washington Post and turned over thousands of documents his high-level security clearance had enabled him to acquire while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency. Soon after this exchange, the world  learned about PRISM, a top-secret NSA program that granted (court-ordered) direct access to Facebook, Apple, Google, and other US Internet giants, including users’ search histories, e-mails, file transfers, and live chats.11xGlenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, “NSA Prism Program Taps In to User Data of Apple, Google and Others,” The Guardian, June 7, 2013, Additionally, Verizon had been providing information to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis” about customers’ telephone calls, including location data and call duration (although not the content of conversations).22xGlenn Greenwald, “NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily,” The Guardian, June 6, 2013, Everyone, in short, was being monitored. Glenn Greenwald, one of the first journalists to meet with Edward Snowden, and one of his most vocal supporters, wrote later that “the NSA is collecting all forms of electronic communications between Americans…and thereby attempting by definition to destroy any remnants of privacy both in the US and globally.”33xGlenn Greenwald, “The Crux of the NSA Story in One Phrase: ‘Collect It All,’” The Guardian, July 15, 2013,

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, fully 91 percent of Americans believe they have lost control over their personal information.44xLee Rainie, “Americans’ Complicated Feelings about Social Media in an Age of Privacy Concerns,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, March 27, 2018, What is such a public to do? Anxious computer owners have taken to covering their devices’ built-in cameras with bits of tape.55xKatie Rogers, “Mark Zuckerberg Covers His Laptop Camera. You Should Consider It, Too,” New York Times, June 22, 2016, Messaging services tout their end-to-end encryption.66xDavid Cohen, “WhatsApp Launches End-to-End Encryption,” Adweek, April 6, 2016, Researchers from Harvard Business School have started investigating the effectiveness of those creepy online ads that seem to know a little too much about your preferences.7Tami Kim, Kate Barasz, and Leslie John, “Why Am I Seeing This Ad? The Effect of Ad Transparency on Ad Effectiveness,” Journal of Consumer Research (May 7, 2018),

For some, this pushback has come far too late to be of any use. In a recent article in The Atlantic depressingly titled “Welcome to the Age of Privacy Nihilism,” Ian Bogost observes that we have already become unduly reliant on services that ask us to relinquish personal data in exchange for convenience. To reassert control over one’s privacy, one would have to abstain from credit card activity and use the Internet only sparingly. The worst part? We don’t get the simple pleasure of blaming this state of affairs on Big Government or the tech giants. Instead, our enemy is, as Bogost intones, “a hazy murk, a chilling, Lovecraftian murmur that can’t be seen, let alone touched, let alone vanquished.”88xIan Bogost, “Welcome to the Age of Privacy Nihilism,” The Atlantic, August 23, 2018,

The enemy may be a bit closer to home, however. While we fear being surveilled, recorded, and watched, especially when we are unaware, we also compulsively expose ourselves to others. Not only has the number of people using social media continued to grow each year, but the importance of such platforms to users has only deepened: The proportion of Americans saying they would find it “hard to give up” using social media grew 12 percentage points from 2014 to 2018, to 40 percent.99xAaron Smith and Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2018,” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018, One suspects that the other 60 percent of respondents are likely not being honest with themselves (or at least with pollsters). The sharing of our lives online has become so ingrained that there are now articles detailing the proper etiquette for posting photos and video of live music concerts for the enjoyment of your online friends.1010xDaniel Craig, “How to Snapchat at Concerts,” Philly Voice, May 31, 2018, (Just don’t do it.) Few now see the irony in bemoaning intrusive behavior in a series of tweets that go out to millions of followers, as Kim Kardashian did in 2013.1111xErin Clements, “Kim Kardashian Posts Twitter Rant about Privacy, Selfies,” The Huffington Post, June 7, 2013, updated December 6, 2017, We desperately want to be seen—just on our own terms.

Yet this is about more than our online profiles. The vocabulary we now use to frame our political demands is predicated on seeing and being seen: looking certain ways, identifying with certain groups, dissolving certain barriers to public scrutiny. The complex set of convictions and strategies awkwardly lumped under the term identity politics is concerned, at least in part, with how certain groups are represented or misrepresented in the public sphere. “The personal is the political,” some feminists used to cry, directly linking the liberation of women to the ability to see into realms previously protected by the walls of the private sphere.1212xSee, e.g., Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). (As the historian Sarah Igo notes, televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority used a similar strategy, though with rather different political objectives.)1313xSee Sarah Igo, “The Beginning of the End of Privacy,” The Hedgehog Review 17, no. 1 (2015): 18–29, In a more recent work, The Known Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), Igo also notes the tension between claims to privacy and the desire for visibility and recognition, writing that “Americans’ desire for privacy today is seemingly matched only by their quest for self-disclosure,” 352.

What are we to make of this ambivalence? How do we make sense of the tension between increasingly strident calls for privacy, on the one hand, and a confessional culture of exposure, social recognition, and solidarity, on the other? Why do we claim to care about our privacy when our actions and our political rhetoric counter such claims? What, in short, does it mean to see and be seen?

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