Politics of Vigilance

Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, Munich (October 2022)

CRC 1396: Cultures of Vigilance. Transformations – Spaces – Practices
Annual Conference, October 27-28, 2022
Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, Munich
Organizers: Klaus Benesch and Martin Schulze Wessel

The degree to which political systems engender vigilant behavior in both individual citizens and in their political leaders or those in power at large differs significantly. In an authoritarian political environment, a heightened sensibility vis-à-vis critics and dissidents or, conversely, for the critical individual to be on alert with respect to the state apparatus and its various forces of control and oppression seems almost a given. At a closer look, however, democratic societies may equally find it expedient for their citizens to be vigilant: not only has democracy itself proved to be volatile and in constant danger of being eroded from both without and within (just note the foreign attempts to influence the 2016 elections in the US as well as the Republican’s concerted attempt to reverse Trump’s demise in 2020). What is more, in radically egalitarian, democratic societies with considerable social mobility such as the United States the status and political clout of each of its members is itself volatile, that is, subject to being altered, demoted, or denied altogether. As early as 1790 John Adams, the founding father and second president of the US, has claimed that the poor are now mostly miserable not because they are deficient in material wealth, but because they lack in social recognition and attention, that is, they are simply “not seen.” The need for individuals to constantly observe others and, simultaneously, to draw attention to themselves—either by sociable means or, as Adams feared, by pretense and deceit—has since become a trademark not only of American society but of many modern liberal societies in the West.

To identify forms of vigilance indigenous to the two major political formations of the modern era, East European centralist socialism and US free market capitalism, this year’s conference of the DFG funded research institute “Vigilanzkulturen/Cultures of Vigilance” will focus on the geopolitical spheres of North America (including Canada) and Eastern Europe. To put calls for vigilance or contemporary man-ifestations of vigilant behavior in both societies in historical perspective, contributions will range from the early eighteenth century to the post 9/11 present. In line with the institute’s research agenda we define vigilance as any commitment to either called-for or self-appointed wariness on behalf of a higher, collective, social, or political objective. Speakers may address issues as wide-ranging as 18th century political discourses on self-observation, racial vigilance from slavery to the present, the role of vigilance in the creation of a new socialist man, mutual observation of bystanders and collaborators in mass crimes of the 20th century, the paranoic style in politics of the cold war era (Hofstadter), the regime of vigilance in neo-nationalism in Eastern Europe since 1989/91, or Texas’ new anti-abortion laws that call upon individual citizens to enforce by way of private lawsuits the State’s restrictive re-production rights.