Jonathan Raban's Novel "Surveillance" and Its Criticism of Surveillance in the American Society After 9/11

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The author

III. The topic of surveillance
III.a. What does surveillance conceptually mean?
III.b. Surveillance and the Bush-administration: The USA PATRIOT Act
III.c. Reasons apart from 9/11 for increased surveillance in our time
III.c.1. The World Wide Web
III.c.2. Globalisation and the “clash of cultures”
III.d. Surveillance – pro and contra

IV. The criticism of surveillance in connection with the novel’s writing style
IV.a. The setting
IV.b. The narrator’s point of view
IV.c. The structure of the plot

V. The critcism of surveillance in connection with the novel’s content
V.a. Lucy and surveillance
V.b. Tad and surveillance
V.c. August and surveillance
V.d. Charles O. and surveillance
V.e. Alida and surveillance
V.f. Finn and surveillance

VI. Summary

VII. Works cited

I . Introduction

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September

11th 2001 (9/11 hereafter), much has been said and written about the spectacular, almost incredible crime, which could be witnessed by large parts of the world’s population live on television. In order to be able to cope with the events and understand what happened on that day in September 2001, many works of fiction and non-fiction, that deal with the events of the attacks, have been created. People have made films, such as World Trade Center (2006), United 93 (2006) and Remember Me (2010) and documentaries, such as and 9/11 (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Zeitgeist (2007). They have created music, sculptures and paintings, such as the song Where Were You (When the World Stopped

T urning) (2001) by Alan Jackson and they have written novels and stories, such as the

novels Windows on the World (2003) by Frederic Beigbeder or Falling Man (2007) by Don DeLillo . Now that almost nine years have passed since the day when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the buildings collapsed, the incidents and the aftermath can be viewed from a certain distance and much of the work, that was written and created in order to be able to cope with the events, offers itself for an analysis. The novel Surveillance (2006) by Jonathan Raban is part of the literature that deals with the aftermath of 9/11. However, unlike most of the literature that is focused on this situation and this period of time, the actual attacks do not play much of a role and (apart from one exception on page 136) remain almost unmentioned throughout the novel. Surveillance rather focuses on the years after the attacks and the prevailing anxious atmosphere in the American society of that time. The novel depicts the life of a fictional character named Lucy Bengstrom and her daughter in Seattle in the years after 9/11. The society which Lucy lives in, is coined by an atmosphere of menace, uncertainty and surveillance, much of which is based on the political decisions that followed 9/11. In its first part, this seminar paper discusses the topic of surveillance itself. It will try to answer how surveillance became such a present topic in today’s media and briefly debate the controversy by which it is surrounded. Secondly, this seminar paper analyses the writing style of Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance and the conclusions that can be drawn from it concerning the topic of surveillance. The third part focuses on the content of Jonathan Raban’s novel Surveillance. It analyses Jonathan Raban’s more direct statements and conclusions concerning the topic of surveillance.

II . The author

Much of the plot of Surveillance can be explained and understood much better when the author’s biography is taken into account briefly. Although Surveillance is not an autobiography, it certainly tends to reflect upon much of Raban’s personal life and echo much of his personal experiences. As Marx points out: “[Raban’s writing merges] disparate genres: travel writing, autobiography, political commentary, and fiction” (Marx 2007). Jonathan Raban was born in 1942 near the city of Norfolk, England, while his father fought in World War II. In the 1960s he attended the University in Hull, and then he became a lecturer at British universities and then a writer. Raban has published a number of books and articles as a travel writer, such as Arabia through the Looking Glass (1979), which deals with his discovery of the Middle East and Hunting Mr Heartbreak (1990), which deals with his discovery of America (Campbell 2003). Unhappy with English conservatism and the political situation with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, as well as his personal situation and his marriage in England, Raban moved to Seattle permanently in 1990, marrying there for the third time and fathering his first and only daughter at the age of 50, Julia, in 1992 (Campbell 2003). The two novels that Raban has written since then, Waxwings and Surveillance are similar in many ways. For example they are both set in Seattle and they both deal with the political situation. Similar to the character of August Vanags, Raban, an occasional smoker, states that if he could choose one extra talent, it would be the ability to play the piano (Frizelle 2007). Raban likes to put emphasis on his European origin: "I am an English writer living in America, but very much an English writer” (Campbell 2003). In an article named September 11, The View from The West, which Raban wrote for the New York Review of Books, he states that during the time of the attacks he was about 2800 miles west of New York, namely in Seattle. Raban states that the news were unique in the way they were received. Unlike the news about school shootings or assassinations of presidents, the news of September 11th was not about other people and other communities. The news of September 11th was about “ourselves” (Raban 2005).

III . The topic of surveillance

In general, surveillance is usually associated with totalitarian, socialistic regimes such as the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) or fictional dictatorships like the one that is presented in the novel 1984 by George Orwell. However, it seems that 9/11, the fear of further terror attacks and the “War on Terror” that came along with it, were the reasons for a country, which praises itself for granting its citizens the maximum of liberties, to set up an immense system of surveillance as well. As Dan Coxon points out: “The political climate in the US has become something of a cause celebre in the popular media over the last few years, with journalists, novelists and filmmakers attacking the present regime from every conceivable angle. When even Green Day can achieve international success with a Bush-whacking album, then you can be sure that something’s going on in the public consciousness” (Coxon). However, even now that the Obama administration has succeeded the Bush administration, the topic of the “War on Terror” might have lost attention, however the topic of surveillance remains very present in the media. This chapter discusses the topic of surveillance itself. Firstly, it explains what is actually meant by the word “surveillance”. Secondly, it explains some of the decisions that were taken by the Bush-administration regarding increased surveillance in the aftermath of 9/11, namely the USA PATRIOT Act. Thirdly, factors apart from 9/11 that made surveillance an important topic of the present will be taken into consideration and lastly, the complex of problems revolving around surveillance will be debated briefly.

III.a. What does surveillance conceptually mean?

Conceptually, “surveillance” can be viewed from different perspectives (Bloss

2003:209). Firstly, surveillance is explained as “the police activity of gathering information on individuals”. It involves “human and technological gazing where officials watch the physical movements and activities of persons” (Bloss 2003:209). To put it plain and simple, this first category means direct observation of suspects by the police or another authority which is responsible for security. For example, observation using video cameras belongs to this first category, but also direct observation of suspects by investigators.

Secondly, surveillance involves “the acquisition of personal data. This includes the collection of biographical, biometric, or transactional data on individuals harvested from personal communications, electronic transactions, identifiers, records, or other documents” (Bloss 2003:209). This second category has gained more and more importance over the past decades, following technological progress. In the past, information was stored on analogue media; for example texts and pictures were stored on paper, film on film strips and music on records or tapes. Even phones and television had their own specific signals of transmission. The advancing digitalisation has made it possible that all the different media is now turned into the same signal and can be accessed with computers. Furthermore, all the information can easily be collected, found, copied, stored, shared, edited and processed. Former media often was stored and archived in big rooms and/or needed expensive equipment in order to be viewed. Nowadays only one computer hard disk drive is needed to store possibly even more information. All this digitalised, easily accessible and storable information has led to a huge collection of data. Not only state authorities collect data, but also companies and banks can, for example, create extensive statistics about the behaviour of consumers and clients. Even private persons nowadays have access to a huge amount of information and can easily collect data themselves.

Thirdly, at least one more concept of surveillance can be identified: surveillance can be almost used synonymously with the “War on Terror”. To a certain degree, militaristic interventions can be considered acts of surveillance as well. While the former two kinds of surveillance are concerned with the interior of a country, militaristic interventions aim at the national level. The “War on Terror” is not only fought on America’s own soil. The alleged major motivation for the war on Iraq was the assumption of an existence of weapons of mass destruction. The major motivation for the war on Afghanistan was the assumption that Osama Bin Laden and the command of terror organisations like al-Qaeda could be arrested and plans for future terror attacks could be detected early and prevented.

III.b. Surveillance and the Bush-administration: The USA PATRIOT Act

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 are widely considered as a watershed event that provided the catalyst for the widening of police surveillance and search authority (Posner in Bloss 2003:208?). On October 26th, 2001 Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act (an apronym for “U niting and S trengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct errorism”). The bill contains 342 pages (Karg

2003:21) and includes the following resolutions (in this paper in a summarized, facilitated and abbreviated form):

- Investigators can easily and fast obtain judicial permissions, which allow them to monitor phone calls and every other kind of electronic conversation of suspects
- Investigators are allowed to secretly search apartments and computers of suspects, without immediately having to inform the suspect about the search
- the list of crimes which justify monitoring of a suspect is extended
- Information can be exchanged between the police and the secret service without judicial review
- The access to banking secrets is facilitated and transactions are more strictly monitored
- The number of personal of the border control and the personal of the Immigration and

Naturalization Service (INS) is raised

- Punishment for terrorism and support of terrorism is tightened
- Victims of terrorism are compensated (Karg 2003:21)

Furthermore, the USA PATRIOT Act is adjusted to the new means of communication. The emergence of the World Wide Web and its interconnected means of communication have facilitated the exchange of information extensively. The laws that existed before the USA PATRIOT Act mostly only covered communication over landline telephones, no cell phones and no internet communication. On October 30th 2001, another bill was passed, which gave crime investigators the right to even monitor phone calls between lawyers and their clients, although the right of confidential conversations between lawyers and their clients has been a cornerstone of judicial law for centuries. However, only information about planned terrorist attacks may be circulated, not about the guilt or innocence of the accused (Karg 2003:22). Furthermore, George W Bush ordered the CIA to do everything possible in order to Kill Osama Bin Laden. Hence, he abolished a law which prohibited assassinations of individuals that were not convicted by a court (Karg 2003:22).

To sum up, the U.S. administration has reacted to perceived global terrorism and crime threats by modifying established civil privacy protections, thereby giving the police broader surveillance powers. As a result, the police have transformed their operational approaches and surveillance practices to focus more on information and intelligence gathering, powered by the emergence of the new media. This has produced a deep cut into civil liberties and a new privacy paradigm, as the balance between police surveillance authority and civil privacy protection shifts (Bloss 2003:208?).

III.c. Reasons apart from 9/11 for increased surveillance in our time

Increased surveillance is not just a topic which is important for the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. It is a topic which has gained importance worldwide over the past years, and especially in the western world. Surely, the reasons for this are very complex and cannot be dealt with comprehensively in this seminar paper. Nevertheless, two major reasons can be assumed for this development, which will be briefly dealt with: the emergence of the World Wide Web over the past twenty years and the increasing globalisation after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s.

III.c.1. The World Wide Web

One of the reasons for increased surveillance is the World Wide Web. To be precise, the internet has existed for a much longer time than most people think. It was used in the late 1960s for the first time. However, the word internet is nowadays used synonymously with the World Wide Web, which came into existence around the year


Excerpt out of 25 pages


Jonathan Raban's Novel "Surveillance" and Its Criticism of Surveillance in the American Society After 9/11
University of Bayreuth  (Anglophone Literaturen und Kulturen /Amerikanistik)
HS 9/11 and American Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Jonathan, Raban, Novel, Surveillance, Criticism, Surveillance, American, Society, After
Quote paper
B.A: Uwe Mehlbaum (Author), 2010, Jonathan Raban's Novel "Surveillance" and Its Criticism of Surveillance in the American Society After 9/11, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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