Media @ McGill

Pooja Sen: Mission: Impossible: Espionage and the Imagined Geographies of Cold War America

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My research lies at the intersections of visual culture studies and contemporary new media art history, theories of geography and imaginative spaces, and the politics of surveillance and the gaze in the midst of shifting definitions of American identity during the Red Scare in the United States at mid-century.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, believing that a massive ideological power vacuum existed in the world as Europe slowly rebuilt and nations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa declared their independence, the United States adopted a stringent policy of containment against communism. This foreign policy was mirrored and refracted constantly in visual culture throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In my research, I would like to focus on the immensely popular television series, Mission: Impossible, which ran from 1966-1973 for nearly two hundred episodes and was promoted as glimpses into the real practices of government agents using technological and psychological devices to keep ordinary Americans safe at home. Alongside other popular media such as The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, network television series such as I Spy, Get Smart, and Star Trek, and even MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” the show created millions of armchair tourists who could learn about the world abroad and experience the Cold War from the safety of their homes.

In my research, the series will serve as a springboard for discussion on the power visual and popular culture to create a mediatized gaze on foreign (i.e. non-American) spaces and the American public’s fascination with espionage and the figure of the spy. The work of Rob Shields and John Urry will be useful for their work on theories of space and the tourist gaze. Furthermore, Steven Stark, Thomas Doherty, and Michael Kackman’s scholarship on television, espionage, and Cold War culture will be important in thinking about the greater socio-political context of the show. Given that the series also emerged from the cultural context of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and radical changes in independent filmmaking and a political context of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, visual and material culture theory are integral to unpacking the consequences of the media’s manipulation, satirization, and surveillance of the Cold War world. The series will help bridge a number of wider questions: how did popular media create a tourist gaze and how was that gaze meditated? What are the politics of surveillance on foreign spaces and people? How are they made legible and ripe for political and cultural control?