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.

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.

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.


10 thoughts on “Surveillance and biometrics: producing meaning through measurement

  1. ### LeticiaCobra
    Surveillance and biometrics: producing meaning through measurement.
    Leticia, your synthesis and analysis of biopolitics was succinct and thought provoking. I too thought about biopolitics but in regards to the racialized medicine, BiDil.
    Its interesting to think of how biology and politics come together to oppress the marginalized. Your example of British Officer Sir William Herschel and his usage of hand and fingerprints on native contracts reminds me of how agricultural ranchers would treat their (often time immigrant, illiterate, and not formally educated or even fluent in the English language) farmhands as peons and work their political system by having them sign unfair, unethical labor contracts. *(see Mario T. García, Desert Immigrants)*
    What worries me in todays technology age is the potential for abuse of fingerprint as well as facial regoncitnion technology for unlocking devices. Whereas surveillance and homeland security have been of pressing importance in the U.S. since 9/11 – and especially more rampentally so since Trumps election – our technology are prone for seize and search by state authorities.
    When crossing the border, for example, law enforcement currently has the power to take my phone and go through its contents should I give them permission and the password – but with the advent of fingerprint technology it is possible for them to bypass my consent by force, forcing my fingerprint onto the home button should they desire. Same threat applies for facial recognition technology. Where virtual models or even – drastically – beating up the user and using their face to open the device, is possible for more than just state authorities. Should we reconsider who this technology is benefitting? The state or the user? Is the iPhone X more than just a neat gadget and tech improvement or a device capable of tracing facial recognition for use beyond just opening the phone? Any thoughts, Siri?


    1. A few days before entering the US I was instructed by various people in my life, mainly friends and family, to go along with the security theater and offer no resistance to TSA demands (including unlocking my phone or allowing them to rummage through my belongings). Resistance could have actually prevented me from stepping on American soil even though I had all the proper paperwork, which would land me in a precarious position. That is a very serious prerogative to bestow upon a faceless branch of the government, especially in terms of welcoming foreigners. I am reminded, for instance, of the first moments of Trump’s travel ban, when the protocol had not yet been properly established and TSA agents were judges, jury, and executioners of who could board an airplane or not.


  2. Your discussions of biometrics as tools of surveillance and oppression remind me of what some of my friends who are new to the job market are experiencing – the incentivization of “fitness” and monitoring bodies in order to save money on health care costs. So, insurance companies can give cheap FitBits or other wearable technology out to companies who give or sell them to their employees for cheaper than retail value. Their data is collected and the employees are incentivized to walk a certain amount of steps, for example, and are rewarded somehow because they’re believed to be making health care costs cheaper for the insurance companies. (Just look at this search:

    Or, for example, the university that gives students FitBits and collects their data as an extension of their fitness requirements. The data is used to pass a fitness class. Some folks, however, are concerned that since their data can be accessed and FitBits can track when someone is having sex, that the (Christian) university is trying to see if their students are having premarital sex. Though they deny it. (

    Though not necessarily as obviously egregious, I think these FitBit data collection examples are indicative of a larger culture of surveillance of “health” and “movement” in the name of “fitness” which is informed by a society plagued by fatphobia (in addition to the fear of surveillance of sexuality).


  3. Martha Rosler’s biometric theater is a great piece to consider in relation to this week’s reading. I couldn’t help but think about how new technologies are mapping individuals’ faces for easy photo identification (Snapchat, Instagram, FB). Not to mention the ability of users to tag people in a photo. This reminds me of a news report I heard on NPR over the summer about an engineering professor at the University of Arkansas who was falsely identified as a white supremacist (tagged on Twitter) based on a photo taken in Charlottesville. To make matters worse the man that protested with the white nationalists was wearing an Arkansas Engineering t-shirt. The professor was able to prove that during the protest he was in fact over 1,000 miles away in Arkansas. This lead to ‘doxxing’ of his private information, which left him vulnerable to harassment.


  4. Your focus on surveillance and biometrics reminded me of the mass coerced sterilizations of women of Color in the U.S. during the 1970s. These sterilization followed eugenic ideas of who was not “fit” to procreate. There is a great documentary by Virginia Espino called “No más bebés” (2015) [] that talks about the cases of Mexican women who were sterilized in LA. Thinking about this case makes me think about how not only the body but also language is policed and surveilled since doctors would mainly decide that these women “should be sterilized” based on the fact they were poor and did not speak English. Mass sterilizations also took place in other parts of the US, including Puerto Rico where “between the 1930s and the 1970s approximately one-third of [the] female population of childbearing age had undergone the operation, the highest rate in the world” []. The history of forced sterilizations makes clear the importance of intersectional feminism since while white women in the 1970s were demanding their right to not have children and access medical sterilization (since doctors would refuse to perform a tubal ligation on them), women of color around the U.S. were being forcefully sterilized.

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  5. I loved your take on Rosler’s “Vital Statistics”–thank you so much for introducing it to me! Your discussion of biometrics brought to mind the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells were harvested and used without her permission after she was diagnosed (and passed away from) cancer. Her cells are now widely distributed in labs all over the United States (the HeLa cell line is hers). Oprah recently put out a documentary about Lacks, but the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is amazing as is Hannah Landecker’s article “Immortality, in Vitro: A History of the HeLa Cell Line.”


  6. Using a close reading of Rosler’s “Vital Statistics” is a very useful model for thinking through the collection of data regarding the body. As surveillance methods evolve, we can see how perceptions of the body shift as well. The relationship between the body and that which analyzes the body seems to be shifting towards authoritarianism. In developing our final group project, perhaps addressing how technologies could assist in redefining the body as separate from its surveilled representation could be an additional emphasis.


  7. I appreciated your thoughtful historical archeology—it was fascinating and chilling in equal measure. Your invocation of Foucault in this context reminds me of something I have been thinking about off and on recently, albeit in the form of Japanese pop culture. As you point out, the various metrics of “people” had a standardizing effect; that is, creating a discourse of physical normality. This co-figured the grotesque as a modern concept that reifies the normal through its mere existence. Obviously, these twin formations are tightly intertwined with power, and the subjugating/subject-making of (post?)modern personhood. Rosler’s “Vital Statistics” is remarkable, I agree, because it actually reverses this formula—showing the grotesque within scientific measurement. This, in turn, raises a question about if the grotesque can itself be a counter-hegemonic platform. In any case, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.


  8. Thank you so much for introducing me to Martha Rosler’s work, what a powerful intervention that has everything to do with our conversation on bodies, biometrics, surveillance, and technologies.

    I also think that the point you bring up regarding the project about women’s technologies, women’s work, crafting and it’s historical grounding in art and women’s labor is totally central to the ideas we threw up on the board. It makes me consider how to incorporate all of these larger historical technologies into the conversation we create with the group project.


  9. Thank you for the thoughtful and vivid introduction to Rosler! This brings to mind two things –
    1. Sexing the Body – Anne Fausto-Sterling : Fausto-Sterling is a biologist that breaks down science/medicine’s history of imposing/creating gender on bodies, and then shows how different forms of nature decry this binary
    2. Anatomy Theatre – An opera based on 18th c texts that follows the conviction of a murderess, and then presents her dissection. Some of my friends loved it – and others thought it reified the male gaze. Would be wonderful to discuss someday!


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