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Surveillant Antiquities: Religion and the Invention of the Surveillance Society in the Ancient World

Wednesday, April 5, 2017, 11:00 am

Ever since George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), total surveillance of whole societies has been perceived as a feature of a morally and socially dysfunctional future. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, however, Edward Snowden and other lesser known whistle-blowers and investigative journalists have informed the general public that, in an age of electronic communication and digital storage, comprehensive spying on entire populations is no longer an intimation only of a dystopic futurity. These revelations ignited unprecedented critical engagement with the topic of surveillance all around the world. Yet we won’t be able to engage critically with the surveillant present or face the challenges of a post-privacy tomorrow if we don’t take a long, searching, and honest look at the past. In my lecture I intend to do just that, exploring millennia-old evidence of the construction of various models of social and individual transparency in writings and architecture from ancient Mesopotamia to early medieval China and from classical India to the late antique Mediterranean world. This investigation will allow us to discern in today’s vast data archives, personal tracking devices, and stalking camera lenses reflections of ancient forms of power – and resistance.                                           

Tudor Sala (Ph.D., Yale University) specializes in the cultural and religious history of Eurasia in late antiquity. He has been awarded postdoctoral fellowships from the Leibniz Association/DAAD, the Dahlem Research School/COFUND, and the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. He has held research and teaching positions at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (2012-2013), the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (2013-2014), and the Freie Universität Berlin (2014-2016). He is currently Junior Thyssen Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at CEU. While in Budapest, he is working on a monograph on the early history of surveillance.