Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Theory and Criticism


Nick Dyer-Witheford


This dissertation brings together multiple discourses, including surveillance studies, autonomist Marxism and posthumanism, as the groundwork for a novel discussion of contemporary visual art— in particular surveillance art, that is, art that addresses and problematizes the omnipresent digital monitoring now part of everyday life. Because in this dissertation contemporary art is defined as necessarily political, aesthetic (in the Kantian sense) and responsive to conditions of current history and society, I use Marxist theory to identify the particular features of contemporary capitalism that this art is responding to. I first characterize post-Fordist capitalism, focusing on the increasing reliance on extracting network value from what Maurizio Lazzarato called immaterial labour. I discuss Marx’s theories of formal and real subsumption vis-a-vis their impacts on production, technology and subjectivity, and conclude that we need a new term that adequately emphasizes the novel imbrication of technology and subjectivity. In particular, I claim that surveillance capitalism, rising from military technologies and research, characterizes capitalist valorization under hypersubsumption. I then look at the impact of surveillance on labour and subjectivity, with a particular focus on unwaged immaterial activities. Do these activities count as work? To answer that, I propose looking at a combination of Marx’s concept of unproductive labour with a modified type of constant capital. I conclude that the effects of hypersubsumption on labour, consumption and production have produced a new type of capitalist subjectivity: coerced posthumanism, which I contrast with Marx’s authentic species-being. In order glimpse a post-capitalist species-being, I articulate a theory of contemporary art by bringing together Jacques Rancière’s dissensus with Peter Osborne’s notion of contemporary art; both theorists show how contemporary art is necessarily political— what’s more, it is oriented towards an open future. I then apply their ideas to particular artists who have responded to capitalist surveillance by creating ‘artveillance’ (art about surveillance). I evaluate the political effectiveness of three categories of artveillance as experiments in post-capitalist sensoriums.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation brings multiple disciplines and areas of research together to present a new theory of contemporary art. The areas I use include surveillance studies, autonomist Marxism and posthumanism. I use autonomist Marxism, a strand of Italian Marxism that focuses on the revolutionary power of the worker, to identify the defining features of capitalism today. Autonomists would say we are in a period of post-industrial capitalism, or what they’d called post-Fordism. I claim that today, capitalism’s increasing reliance on surveillance, which rose from military technologies and research, characterizes capitalist value-making under a period I dub “hypersubsumption.” I focus on the transformations in capitalism that have occurred with the advent of networked technologies, algorithims and digital platforms, which have enabled corporations to profit from what theorist Maurizio Lazzarato calls ‘immaterial labour.’ I look at the impact of surveillance on unpaid immaterial labour and subjectivity. I ask: do these activities count as work? I conclude that under hypersubsumption, unwaged immaterial labour is work done for free— or for certain privileges and pleasures— produces a category of labour I call “coerced posthumanism,” which I contrast with Marx’s idea of authentic human species-being. I propose that capitalism has created its own version of species-being, which provides the enticement to continue working for free on digital platforms, or to have data voluntarily monitored and harvested. Finally, I generate a theory of contemporary art by bringing together philosopher Jacques Rancière’s concept of opposing communities of sense with art theorist Peter Osborne’s notion of contemporary art; for them, art is necessarily political. I then compare three categories of contemporary art about surveillance with my theory of contemporary art.