2018 Conference, Bern: Secrecy and Surveillance

Secrecy and Surveillance in Medieval and Early Modern England

13–14 September 2018, University of Bern

Convenors: Annette Kern-Stähler and Nicole Nyffenegger


At a time when government secrecy and surveillance has reached an unprecedented scale, there has been a growing scholarly interest in the history of the forms and cultural means of these operations. This conference explored medieval and early modern practices of secrecy and surveillance. Karma Lochrie has defined secrecy as the “intentional concealment that structures social and power relationships” and has focused on “operations rather than objects of secrecy”. Such operations may include practices of confession, of riddling and decoding, and of thinking with metaphors for the clandestine (secrets are hidden behind seals, veils, doors, in books or treasure chests). Covert operations also invite us to explore how the unspeakable can be transmitted and how secrets can be owned and administered. Foucault’s notion of panopticism points to an increasing need to control, monitor and discipline individual members of society. Surveillance in this sense goes hand in hand with the establishment of the norms and conventions of behaviour that secrecy and covertness seek to circumvent. What can be known and done is called into question as individuals transgress the cultural and behavioural norms imposed on them by society. At the same time, the powerful elite define the epistemological boundaries between themselves and those who become subjects of suspicion and surveillance.


Plenary speakers:

Prof. Karma Lochrie (Indiana University), Prof. Paul Strohm (Prof. em., Columbia University), Prof. Sylvia Tomasch (Hunter College, University of New York), Prof. Richard Wilson (Kingston University, London)

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