In her introduction to the book “Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness”, Simone Browne presents the concept of racializing surveillance, “when enactments of surveillance reify boundaries along racial lines, thereby reifying race, and where the outcome of this is often discriminatory and violent treatment”. The author does not perceive surveillance of black subjects to be “inaugurated by new technologies”, but rather as ongoing phenomena that are established and maintained through the white gaze (“the only valid one”). Thus, racism and antiblackness, resulting from an unfinished emancipation, “undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order”, fixing the black subject within a “rigid and limited grid of representational possibilities”.
Through Foucault’s Panopticon and its more contemporary developments – such as Oscar Gandy’s “panoptic sort” and William Staples’ “participatory monitoring” –, she speaks to “the embodied effects and outcomes of surveillance practices” in what could potentially be a “maximum-security society”. One of such instances is Richard Ericson’s “surveillant assemblage”: the creation of “data doubles” through methodical observing and recording (in consonance with Frantz Fanon’s “mise en fiches de l’homme”). She introduces the idea of security theater, the practice of investing in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to achieve it (Schneier, 2003), which can eventually lead to extended screening of individuals to the point of harassment, also disproportionately affecting the lives of people of color, especially women. Browne also delineates “sousveillance” through Steve Mann’s definition (“a way of enhancing the ability of people to access and collect data about their surveillance and to neutralize surveillance”) and comments on “dark surveillance” instances as tactics to render one’s self out of sight as means to pursuit freedom from slavery.
Biometric information, mentioned briefly in Browne’s introduction, has been gathered throughout history in various forms, the first of which were the prehistoric hand stencils prevalent in cave art, as they might have been used as the artist’s signature. Fingerprints are also prominent, utilized in ancient Babylon to infer identity on clay tablets regarding business transactions. Foucault (2003) dates “power’s hold over life (…), the State control of the biological”, to the nineteenth century. Biopolitics – consisting of technologies of power and regularization – deals “with the population, with the population as political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem”. There is a stark contrast to seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ technologies for “adjusting power mechanisms to the individual body by using surveillance and training”, in institutions such as “schools, hospitals, barracks, workshops”. The nineteenth century introduces
a technology which brings together the mass effects characteristic of a population, which tries to control the series of random events that can occur in a living mass, a technology which tries to predict the probability of those events (by modifying it, if necessary), or at least to compensate for their effects. This is a technology which aims to establish a sort of homeostasis, not by training individuals, but by achieving an overall equilibrium that protects the security of the whole from internal dangers. (…) A technology in which bodies are replaced by general biological processes.
It is during the nineteenth century when Sir William Herschel, a British officer for the Indian Civil Service in the Bengal region of India, started using handprints and fingerprints on native contracts, as means to “frighten [them] out of all thought of repudiating [their] signature.” In 1879, Alphonse Bertillon established a method that “combined detailed measurement and classification of unique features with frontal and profile photographs of suspects—and which recorded the information on standardized cards in orderly files”.
Bertillon’s system was based on five primary measurements: (1) head length; (2) head breadth; (3) length of the middle finger; (4) the length of the left foot; (5) the length of the “cubit” (the forearm from the elbow to the extremity of the middle finger). Each principal heading was further subdivided into three classes of “small,” “medium” and “large.” The length of the little finger and the eye color were also recorded.
In 1903, Bertillon’s system was discredited for identifying two similar-looking men as the same person, being overtaken by fingerprinting, however, Bertillon’s “mug shot” persisted.
Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained – Martha Rosler, 1977.
Martha Rosler’s opera in three acts, “Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained“, reflects upon social standardization and scrutiny enforced on women’s bodies. Initially conceived as a performance piece, which took place in 1963, the video is divided into three distinct moments and begins with no image, as the artist introduces the artwork. Rosler references biometric experiments conducted by institutions and authoritarian regimes throughout history, such as the armed forces or concentration camps, and elaborates on the inhumane treatment towards those subjected to biological and psychological experiments.
Bureaucratic crime can be brutal or merely devastating. We need not make a choice. Sartre says: “Evil demands only the systematic substitution of the abstract for the concrete, that is, it demands only the derealization of the fully human status of the people on whom you carry out your ideas and plans.”
The voiceover continues as an improvised doctor’s office comes into frame, in a wide shot. There are two men in lab coats as Rosler enters in plainclothes. What follows is an escalating and exhaustive measuring of the artist’s body, which grows increasingly invasive with time (bear in mind that the duration of the video is almost one hour). In a certain moment, three women join the two doctors, surrounding the scene much like a Greek chorus. The doctor proceeds with the measurements, affirming them loudly. The chorus answers: when a measurement is average, a bell is tolled; when it is above average, a whistle is blown; When it is below average, a horn. With ritualistic rigor, Rosler follows doctor’s orders and unclothes. When the artist is naked, the narrative splits into two: instead of putting her clothes back on, two assistants help her into two outfits, a wedding gown, and a little black dress — two prevailing archetypes for women: the virginal bride and the femme fatale.
Her mind learns to think of her body as something different from herself. It learns to think, perhaps without awareness, of her body as having parts. These parts are to be judged. The self has already learned to attach value to itself, to see itself as a whole entity with an external vision. She sees herself from outside, with the anxious eyes of the judged, who holds within her mind the critical standards of the ones who judge.
The two remaining acts consist of the artist breaking different colored eggs to reveal their identical insides and the final litany of “crimes against women”. During the litany, slide images from scientific records show fragmented bodies being accessed by phantasmagoric hands.
Scientific human measurements have been used to education. To keep certain races and nationalities out of America. To keep women subordinate. To keep women in their place. […] The need for testing to keep control over society.
Martha Rosler plays biometric theater, emphasizing the prevalence of biometric and statistical methods, originally rooted in eugenics, and the internalization of classification standards that can determine the one’s identity and self-worth.
Browne, Simone (2015) “Introduction” Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press).
U. S. Marshals Service (2017). Fingerprint History. https://www.usmarshals.gov/usmsforkids/fingerprint_history.htm
Foucault, Michel (2003). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York, NY: Picador.
Visible Proof (2006). The Bertillon system. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs/galleries/technologies/bertillon.html
Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (transcription of audio)
Ideas for our collaborative project:
FemTechLab as a #syllabus?
In a platform such as WordPress or Tumblr (both easily editable and customizable), establish threads to which the general public would be able to contribute with links, text, video and other material. These threads could model FemTechLab’s syllabus, with themes such as “Solidarity Research” and “Intersectional Feminist Technology”. Creating a (visual and textual) repertoire would facilitate the expansion of our experiments as well as create new relations yet to be explored. The visual aspect of it also interests me — in Tumblr, for example, it is possible to create a wall of images as a mood board of sorts which is enticing for the reader.
A common thread that has been emerging constantly in our discussions has been labour (specially in the context of activism and education) and the hierarchization of labor in society. We can extrapolate this towards many areas, such as the Arts, wherein techniques perceived as feminine (textile arts, ceramics, etc.) are deemed unimportant in relation to the traditional means of (male) expression. KG Graham brought it up in the first video we watched, mentioning differing exchange and labor relations which disrupt capitalist dynamics, citing “innovations women were making in the turn of the century” as “cooperative living technologies” and the book “The Grand Domestic Revolution” by Dolores Hayden. The technologies regarding care and education (tasks often relegated to women) are frequently taken for granted.