Project Details
Funding Scheme : Early Career Scheme
Project Number : 28602416
Project Title(English) : Whitman on the Grid: Surveillance, Democracy and the Autobiographical Moment in Contemporary American Literature  
Project Title(Chinese) : 座標上的惠特曼: 當代美國文學的監控、民主、與自傳 
Principal Investigator(English) : Dr Clapp, Jeffrey Michael 
Principal Investigator(Chinese) :  
Department : Department of Literature and Cultural Studies
Institution : The Education University of Hong Kong
E-mail Address : jmclapp@eduhk.hk 
Tel : 2948 7835 
Co - Investigator(s) :
Panel : Humanities, Social Sciences
Subject Area : Humanities and Arts
Exercise Year : 2016 / 17
Fund Approved : 200,510
Project Status : Completed
Completion Date : 31-12-2018
Project Objectives :
To identify the autobiographical moment as a prominent feature of contemporary American literature
To show how the autobiographical moments in contemporary literature explore the changing relationship between surveillance and democracy
To examine the symmetry between practices of surveillance and practices of contemporary democracy, which both work with experiences of appearance and representation
To assess the relationship between mass surveillance and democratic society with the use of insight from sociology, political science, and critical theory
Abstract as per original application
In his 2014 novel 10:04, Ben Lerner frankly states that he writes as “the Whitman of the vulnerable grid.” Through this “autobiographical moment” (de Man 1979), Lerner opens a double perspective on the meaning of self-representation in contemporary American literature. On the one hand, autobiographical writing in the United States has long referenced Walt Whitman’s equation of the author’s appearance on the page, with the citizen’s right to representation within democracy. On the other hand, Lerner recognizes that his writing not only participates in a democratic public sphere, but that it also appears on the “vulnerable grid” of what has been called “surveillance society” (Lyon 2001). In this project, I argue that through such autobiographical moments, contemporary authors are exploring the emergence of mass surveillance within democratic culture, focusing on what democracy and surveillance both enjoin: the appearances and self-representations of twenty-first century citizen-subjects. When an author announces his or her presence within an otherwise fictional or poetic text, their appearance can be experienced as a relationship between foreground and background, between main and paratext, or between manifest and encrypted meanings. In such moments, which take place without the identity of author, narrator, and subject guaranteed via conventional autobiography’s implicit “pact” (Lejeune 1989), contemporary authors are advancing arguments about the shifting meanings of appearance and representation. While contemporary authors are responding to the emergence of “mass self-communication” (Castells 2009), in which both practical and enculturated barriers to representing oneself in public are dissolving, and while such communications are sometimes celebrated as democratic self-expression, this same externalization of the self also enables what has been called the “surveillant assemblage” (Haggerty and Ericson 2000)—the coalescing of strands of personal data into a far more complete knowledge of the individual than previously possible. In this context, the contrast between a “totalitarian” surveillance and a democracy based on the right of the citizen to be represented no longer seems to hold. In response, contemporary authors are using partial, compromised, and strategic self-representations to understand the substantial continuities between surveillance society and democratic culture. Exploring varieties of the autobiographical moment in two pivotal contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace and Lyn Hejinian, and in three newly prominent writers (Claudia Rankine, Miranda July, and Tao Lin), this project shows that the autobiographical moment is at the core of contemporary literature’s cultural politics.
於此研究,我主張當代作者正透過其作品中的自傳式時刻,探究於民主文化當中大規模監控的形成。當一位作者於其虛構或韻文的文本當中,表面其自身的存在,他們的出現便為存在與再現的意義變換做出了論證。儘管當代作者正就「大眾自傳播」(mass self-communication),當中對公眾再現自己之實際的障礙和同化的障礙兩者都正在消逝,作出回應;及當這種傳播往往獲頌揚成民主的自我表現,同樣的自我外在化亦使所謂的「監視者聚集」(surveillant assemblage) 成為可能──令個人資料得以串聯起來,使對個人之完整了解,遠比過去可能。
Realisation of objectives: The four objectives of this project have been fully achieved. Working according to the schedule as originally planned, I have conducted research, given a series of conference papers, published journal articles and book chapters, and worked on a book manuscript and book proposal. Below I discuss each of the four project objectives in turn. 1) To identify the autobiographical moment as a prominent feature of contemporary American literature. I have examined a large number of texts which foreground the divide between autobiography and other genres of literature. This boundary work is reflected across contemporary American writing, including for example Ben Lerner’s 10:04, from which this project takes its title phrase: “Whitman on the grid.” As this phrase suggests, the tradition of US autobiographical writing, first seen as related to democracy in the US by the poet Walt Whitman in the 19th century, continues to evolve in the 21st. During the period I have been working on this project, American literary studies has seen increasing use the term “autofiction” to describe the same body of work I have been researching. This term, taken from French criticism, where it has been commonplace since the 1970s, has recently become a keyword of 21st century US literary studies, which has never really needed to distinguish between “autofiction” and other forms of postmodern literature. The increasing attention to this term and to this area indicates the validity of my overall hypothesis. My own monograph draft now bears the title Whitman on the Grid: Surveillance in Contemporary American Autofiction, reflecting this new usage and joining a growing conversation. The course of research described in my original project proposal indicated five strophes of inquiry, each focused on a particular author. These included research about David Foster Wallace, Lyn Hejinian, Claudia Rankine, Miranda July, and Tao Lin. I have conducted research on each of these authors and published about both Hejinian and Rankine already. In the case of David Foster Wallace, I did extensive archival research at the University of Texas using this grant’s funding, but decided to retain the resulting material for my book monograph rather than publishing a stand-alone essay. I have given several conference presentatations containing this material. Additionally, while I was at the archive in Texas, I was also able to make use of the Robert Lowell archive, and I have published an essay about Lowell which forms part of the project’s research outputs. In the cases of Miranda July and Tao Lin, I have already given conference papers reporting the results of my research into their work, as described in the abstracts attached to this report. I have therefore produced research outputs related to all five of the authors I originally mentioned in the proposal, with an additional significant output related to Robert Lowell. However, I have not by any means limited my attention to these figures or their works. My monograph in progress will analyse autofictional texts by many authors, providing a deeper and more compelling case that, as I suggested in this project objective, “the autobiographical moment” is a central feature of contemporary American literature. The monograph will—at minimum—analyse works by the following writers in the following configurations: Introduction: Philip Roth and Lisa Halliday Chapter 1: David Foster Wallace and Joshua Cohen Chapter 2: Miranda July and Sheila Heti Chapter 3 Susan Choi and Tao Lin Chapter 4: Teju Cole and Claudia Rankine Chapter 5: Ben Lerner and Dana Spiotta These arguments, currently in different stages of development, will provide a wide-ranging description and theorization of American autofiction in the twenty-first century that fully demonstrates this project’s first research objective. 2: To show how the autobiographical moments in contemporary literature explore the changing relationship between surveillance and democracy. Many of the texts I have researched in this project, intensively investigate the nexus of relationships between surveillance and democracy. My archival research in Texas can provide an example. David Foster Wallace’s important novel The Pale King, which has often been understood as an attempt to reconfigure the notion of American citizenship for the twenty-first century, actually began as a series of sketches of surveillance operations by internal revenue agents. This is an archival discovery which clearly demonstrates the growing relationship between surveillance and democracy in the United States and which represents an important contribution to studies of David Foster Wallace. Other works, some of them published since this project was begun, also bear out similar conclusions. Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry (2018), which has been widely discussed in the US in the last couple of years, specifically picks up on the autofictional work of Philip Roth, but juxtaposes the element of metafiction with an examination of US surveillance and security practices in the post 9/11 era. As one might hope, my hypothesis that autofiction, surveillance, and democracy are closely related in the group of texts I originally identified has also been borne out in later cases. 3: To examine the symmetry between practices of surveillance and practices of contemporary democracy, which both work with experiences of appearance and representation. My first three versions of this argument, in papers about Robert Lowell, Claudia Rankine, and Lyn Hejinian, have been warmly welcomed by editors and reviewers and published in good venues with high visibility. Additionally, important theoretical texts recently published in the United States and focused on the culture of social media have helped to substantiate this way of reading contemporary US culture. For example, Clare Birchall’s Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data (2017) and Kris Cohen’s Never Alone Except for Now: Art, Networks, Populations (2017) both make cases similar to mine, and such works will help substantiate my argument. For both of these authors, the strange proximity of the democratic and egalitarian imaginary to the one underlying contemporary surveillance—something like an “aesthetics of transparency”—has enabled the growth of surveillance practices in the United States. 4: To assess the relationship between mass surveillance and democratic society with the use of insight from sociology, political science, and critical theory. This project, which was timely when I proposed it, has only grown more so in the intervening period. Major works of theoretical insight, like Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018) have borne out the project’s sense that the homology between surveillance and democracy made on the basis of self-representation is largely a false one, and that contemporary structures of self-representation replace or subvert, rather than enhancing or strengthening, the ability for contemporary citizen-subjects to govern themselves. The works of autofiction I examine in the project invariably involve both a melancholic outlook on the future of democratic society, and a distinctive attempt to refigure literary self-representation as a model for political representation. This grant project has therefore provided crisp new arguments about contemporary US literature while at the same time offering insight into epochal changes in contemporary US society.
Summary of objectives addressed:
Objectives Addressed Percentage achieved
1.To identify the autobiographical moment as a prominent feature of contemporary American literatureYes100%
2.To show how the autobiographical moments in contemporary literature explore the changing relationship between surveillance and democracyYes100%
3.To examine the symmetry between practices of surveillance and practices of contemporary democracy, which both work with experiences of appearance and representationYes100%
4.To assess the relationship between mass surveillance and democratic society with the use of insight from sociology, political science, and critical theoryYes100%
Research Outcome
Major findings and research outcome: Part C of this report refers to three specific published outputs that have come directly from this project. These publications document the development of my thinking during the project period and articulate the theoretical concepts that I will deploy in the monograph. The publication about Claudia Rankine (2017) depended on this project’s conference travel funding. The paper examines the culture of United States surveillance and United States democracy with reference to the culture of racialization in the US. Rankine’s re-reading of citizenship as something other than community or belonging, but rather as an element of bureaucratic modernity with deep ties to race and discrimination, has been widely recognized as a major insight. My paper shows that her work regularly develops an analysis of citizenship that depends on images of surveillance and on the figure of “hypervisibility” as a description of the exposed contemporary citizen-subject. The publication about Robert Lowell (2018) depended directly on this project’s archival travel funding. The article argues that it is possible to see today’s culture of ubiquitous surveillance—both visual and informatic—emerging in the previous surveillance panic of the 1970s, which was predominantly focused on auditory surveillance. By examining both Lowell’s contemporary poems of “overhearing” and the rhetoric surrounding Richard Nixon’s White House taping system, I was able to show that the “performance space” defined by ubiquitous surveillance has many meanings, some of which are empowering and enabling—rather than merely disciplinary, as in Foucault’s familiar account of panoptic subjectivity. This paper thus provides a cultural and theoretical backdrop to the always-on culture of self-representation that typifies the 21st century US. The publication about Lyn Hejinian (2019) depended directly on this project’s archival travel funding. Documents in the archives in San Diego showed that Hejinian’s work has taken a distinctive recent turn, one I was able to theorize—just as Hejinian herself has done—via a reading of Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s vision of the public sphere, as many have noticed, depends on a very stark distinction between public and private. While it has long been a matter of consensus that this distinction does not really hold in the way that Arendt imagined, my reading of Hejinian shows how important this distinction remains. Hejinian herself has expressed her appreciation of my careful reading of her archival materials, and her general agreement with my analysis of how her work engages emergent “surveillance capitalism.”
Potential for further development of the research
and the proposed course of action:
The major themes of this project, which are surveillance and democracy, have only become more urgent and more salient in the last several years. Large strides have been made, for example, in the use of facial recognition technology in public places. At the same time, these surveillance technologies have increasingly been used for the purpose of increasing transparency in democratic governments. Moreover, writers, artists, and filmmakers have continued to produce an extended body of work that engages and critiques contemporary surveillance practices and contemporary cultures of democracy. From this vantage, a wide of array of continued further studies may be considered. The path I have chosen, however, leaves the issue of mass surveillance to one side. My next body of research will be primarily about the faltering and even retreat of democratic self-governance in many parts of the world. In the new project I explore contemporary fiction in English, focusing on its many means of representing what I call “democratic formalism”: the actual mechanisms by which democracy is operated. The project has already begun, with the publication of a book chapter about fiction and democracy in India, and a related GRF grant has been submitted.
Layman's Summary of
Completion Report:
This project explored a trend in contemporary American literature: books that stand on the border between fiction and reality. The project proposed that the popularity of such books—both from the point of view of those who write them, and those who read them—results from two major aspects of contemporary American culture: the emergence of mass surveillance in everyday life, on the one hand, and a crisis of faith in representative democracy, on the other. The project further proposed that the emergence of mass surveillance and the crisis of democracy were related phenomena. However, this relationship is not the one that might be expected, in which a totalitarian surveillance practice challenged a faltering system of democracy. Instead, contemporary American literature shows that surveillance and democracy have profound continuities, insofar as both work with experiences of appearance and representation. In works of “autofiction,” authors both appear and do not appear, both represent themselves and fail to do so. The project demonstrated that this pattern of ambivalence indicates the extent to which surveillance has proven congruent with democracy in the United States.
Research Output
Peer-reviewed journal publication(s)
arising directly from this research project :
(* denotes the corresponding author)
Year of
Author(s) Title and Journal/Book Accessible from Institution Repository
2018 Jeffrey Clapp  "Robert Lowell, Richard Nixon, and the Poetics of Surveillance." Texas Studies in Literature and Language (60:1), 1-31.  No 
2019 Jeffrey Clapp  “The Along Comes Device: Surveillance Capitalism and the Space of Appearance in Lyn Hejinian’s Twenty-First Century Writing.” College Literature 46.3 (Summer 2019): 712-740.  No 
2017 Jeffrey Clapp  “Surveilling Citizens: Claudia Rankine, from the First to the Second Person.” In Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves, eds. Susan Flynn and Antonia Mackay. Palgrave: 169-184.  No 
Recognized international conference(s)
in which paper(s) related to this research
project was/were delivered :
Month/Year/City Title Conference Name
Amsterdam “Memoir against Metafiction: David Foster Wallace and the Internal Revenue Service”  American Comparative Literature Association Conference 
New York “Data Exhaust: Tao Lin’s Quotation Marks and Surveillance Capitalism.”  Modern Language Association Convention 
Hong Kong We are Data!: Twee Surveillance in July and Heti  ASAP11/Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present 
Other impact
(e.g. award of patents or prizes,
collaboration with other research institutions,
technology transfer, etc.):
Realisation of the education plan: