Surveillance, Mass Culture and the Subject: A Systems/Lifeworld Approach

Stephen Marmura


Habermas’s (1984/1989) Theory of Communicative Action provides distinct advantages for considering both the evolving character of surveillance within the context of late capitalism, andrelated changes to human subjectivity and culture. In particular, the concepts systems, lifeworld and colonization may be employed to identify key threats to democratic life within information- based, consumer-driven societies. Many recent social theoretical approaches to the study of surveillance emphasize the entanglement of human subjectivity with “electronic language” and computer-based practices of personal data gathering and profiling. One result is that conscious, embodied, human subjects are often not treated as potentially significant agents of progressive social change. Alternatively, Habermas makes a methodological distinction between the impersonal workings of administrative and economic systems, and the lifeworld of communally shared experience. This allows for critical attention to the potentially negative social/cultural effects of commercial surveillance practices, while preserving a role for rational human actors.


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