DOI: 10.1515/zaa-2023-2043 ISSN: 0044-2305

Becoming (In)Visible: Self-Assertion and Disappearance of the Self in Contemporary Surveillance Narratives

Betiel Wasihun
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics


Visible surveillance technologies are vanishing in the wake of dataveillance. The practice of surveillance is certainly not disappearing, but it has become inconspicuous. In a regime of invisible surveillance, the watchers and the watched alike are hard to identify, for the latter have also become socially invisible as human beings. I argue that the idea of becoming invisible in both digital and pre-digital surveillance societies is multifaceted. On the one hand, it suggests total deprivation of personal autonomy as a result of overexposure resulting in the disappearance of the subject and, on the other hand, it implies a possibility of resistance and self-assertion. Self-exposure is taken to extremes in Dave Eggers’s dystopian novel The Circle (2013) where the protagonist becomes the centre of attention in a “viewer society” (Mathiesen 1997) and “goes transparent” (Eggers 2013, 351). In contrast, Wolfgang Hilbig’s Stasi novel “Ich” (1993) works with different notions of invisibility. Recruited to spy for the Stasi, Hilbig’s protagonist – an unsuccessful poet – is at the same time targeted by East Germany’s secret police and wants to become invisible, hiding from the omnipresent Stasi surveillance in Berlin’s maze-like cellar corridors in an attempt of self-assertion. The comparison of these novels will elucidate how different discourses on (in)visibility and transparency contribute to an account of subjectivity that attempts to resist surveillance.