pdf Download PDF

Surveillance as Race Struggle:
On Browne’s Dark Matters
Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 224pages. 20 illustrations. $23.95 (pbk). $84.95 (hc). ISBN 9780822359388

Argus Panoptes was a giant in Greek mythology, with 100 eyes scattered about his body. Only some of his eyes closed and slept at any one time, and there were always eyes open and awake so that he could ceaselessly keep watch. As his name suggests, Argus was the ‘all-seeing’ (‘pan-optes’). Jeremy Bentham envisioned the ‘all-seeing’ prison design in the late eighteenth century called the Panopticon, which Foucault argued became a paradigmatic mode of governing bodies in the modern West. In a sense, the suffix of ‘pan-’ (or ‘all’) on which modern surveillance is founded is the territory Simone Browne sets out to explore in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Her book makes a consequential contribution to our understanding of the politics of surveillance by revealing the ways in which practices and technologies of surveillance are racialized and racializing certain bodies. Browne shows that far from having eyes on all bodies, surveillance, both historically and presently, often operates through the “white gaze” and discriminately targets the black body. Drawing from black feminist scholarship as well as social and cultural theories, she reinvigorates blackness as an analytical frame to cast light on the politics of surveillance.

Two main concepts underpin Browne’s Dark Matters. The first is the concept of “racializing surveillance”, which she defines as “a technology of social control where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise a ‘power to define what is in or out of place’” (16). Racializing surveillance, she continues, “signals those moments when enactments of surveillance reify boundaries, borders, and bodies along racial lines, and where the outcome is often discriminatory treatment of those who are negatively racialized by such surveillance” (16). Second, inspired by Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance (‘surveillance-from-below’), Browne proposes the concept of “dark sousveillance”, which is “a site of critique, as it speaks to black epistemologies of contending with [End Page 280] antiblack surveillance, where the tools of social control … were appropriated, co-opted, repurposed, and challenged in order to facilitate survival and escape” (21). Browne’s project thus not only discloses the racialized mechanisms of surveillance, but also concretely documents a series of black struggles with racializing surveillance. She vividly illustrates forms of racializing surveillance and dark sousveillance in an extensive range of contexts and examples, from the transatlantic slave trade to contemporary biometric information technologies.

The opening Chapter, ‘Notes on Surveillance Studies’, initiates Browne’s project on racializing surveillance with a critical response to Foucault’s reading of Bentham’s Panopticon and its legacy in contemporary surveillance studies. At the beginning of Discipline and Punish, Foucault noted that in the late eighteenth century, the entire economy of punishment was redistributed. Torture as a public spectacle began to disappear and modern penal codes were introduced in Europe and in the United States. Foucault theorized this historical transformation in terms of a shift from sovereign power to disciplinary power: the manifestation of sovereign power in blood and the scaffold began to give way to disciplinary power that, through architectural arrangements, supervision, and examination, normalizes and tames bodies. When bodies were black, however, this historical transition was interrupted, says Browne. She argues that techniques of disciplinary power that Foucault laid out were always violent and operated both as spectacle and as discipline when applied to the black body (38, 42). She supports this claim through the detailed analysis of the diagram of the eighteenth-century slave ship Brooks [1789] and the techniques of plantation surveillance. Produced in the same period as Bentham’s diagram of the Panopticon [1791], this plan of a slave ship—which may well be understood as a “maritime prison” (42, 45)—shows the detailed architectural plan for stowing slaves on shelves with a height of only 2 feet 7 inches. The combination of the sheer violence of slavery and surveillance is further highlighted in the context of the US plantations where racializing surveillance practices—such as the slave pass system, runaway slave advertisements, and census enumeration—were introduced. Plantation surveillance was “an exercise of both sovereign power and racialized disciplinary power, working simultaneously, discretionarily, and in a prescribed fashion, as both were put to use in plantation societies to render slave life expendable” (52).

Brown extends further her analysis of racializing surveillance practices during slavery in the United States with particular reference to the regulation of black mobilities. In Chapter 2 ‘“Everybody’s Got a Little Light under the Sun”’, she discusses two distinct, yet interrelated, modes of regulating black mobilities: the regulation of internal black mobilities within New York City; and the regulation of international black escape from the colonial city. For the former, the central [End Page 281] focus of her analysis is what she calls the “lantern laws”. By the “lantern laws”, she refers to a series of laws, introduced in New York City during the eighteenth century, that “compelled black, mixed-race, and indigenous slaves to carry small lamps, if in the streets after dark and unescorted by a white person” (25). Reflecting the role of light in Foucault’s reading of the Panopticon, she argues that this is a light that does not make all bodies visible but “shines more brightly on some than on others” (68). She characterises this as “black luminosity” that is not only racially coded—making a given social group subject to surveillance—but also “produce[s] them as the racial body” (68). The candle lantern was, she argues, “a form of knowledge production about the black, indigenous, and mixed-race subject” (79) that criminalized and dehumanized these bodies while humanizing those who needed no lantern in the city (80).

At the international level, racializing surveillance was operational as a mode of tracking blackness. Black mobilities, or more precisely, black escape from the colonial city, were carefully documented and monitored in the Book of Negroes. The Book of Negroes is “an eighteenth-century ledger that lists three thousand self-emancipating former slaves who embarked mainly on British ships … during the British evacuation of New York in 1783” (25). Rather than reading the ledger as a mere list of black escape, Browne shows how the details of each passenger in the ledger operated as the surveillance technology tracking and identifying the black body, and making authorized embarkations while simultaneously making a “no-sail list” (86). On this basis, she argues, “the body made legible with the modern passport system has a history in the technologies of tracking blackness. My discussion on the making of the Book of Negroes offers a historicizing of the ways in which the tracking, accounting, and identification of the racial body, and in particular the black body and black social life, form an important, but often absented, part of the genealogy of the passport” (70).

Browne’s genealogical approach to surveillance carries on in Chapter 3 ‘B®anding Blackness’, where she traces the historical use of bio-metric technologies to inscribe race on the body. She analyses human branding during the transatlantic slave trade, which was, she argues, a prototype of contemporary biometric information technologies “as it was a measure of slavery’s making, marking, and marketing of the black subject as commodity” (91). Burning human flesh with branding irons was both a violent act and a technique of racializing surveillance that dehumanized black bodies and made them identifiable. She suggests that the history of branding the black body—that is “our biometric past”—“can allow us to think critically about our biometric present” (91). As previous critical studies on biometrics have shown (for example, Joseph Pugliese’s Biometrics [2010], Shoshana Amille Magnet’s When Biometric Fails [2011]), contemporary biometric technologies [End Page 282] are far from being race-, or gender-, neutral. Biometric technologies are embedded within the knowledge production of ‘normal’ bodies, which privileges whiteness and maleness. As a result, ‘other’ bodies such as dark-skinned faces and Asian female fingerprints fail to enrol. However, Browne also explores the history of branding the black body in relation to contemporary capitalism that commodifies—and indeed brands as in corporate advertising—blackness. For instance, she looks to visual artist Hank Willis Thomas’ B®anded series including Branded Head [2003] that captures the image of Nike’s logo Swoosh branded on the side of a black man’s head “for the ways in which it points to and questions the historical presence of branding blackness in contemporary capitalism” (92).

In the closing Chapter ‘“What Did TSA Find in Solange’s Fro?”’ Browne tells a number of “airport stories” in order to bring a question of race, and in particular, that of blackness, in the contemporary politics of security and surveillance at airports. The protagonist of one of these stories is American singer Solange Knowles, who commented on her Twitter account in 2012 that her Afro hair was searched by an agent of the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Browne cites a report released in 2000, noting that at US airports, “black women who were U.S. citizens had the highest likelihood of being strip-searched and ‘were 9 times more likely than White women who were U.S. citizens to be x-rayed after being frisked or patted down’” (132). Solange’s story of Afro hair as ‘dangerous’, along with many other similar stories of discrimination and humiliation, exemplifies the ways in which blackness operates in airport security and surveillance. As Browne puts it: “These stories disrupt common notions of airports as merely transportation spaces. Instead, they allow me to situate airports as spaces where enactments of surveillance reify boundaries and borders, and weigh down some bodies more than others, where the outcome is often discriminatory treatment” (134). Today, especially in the post-9/11 era, the politics at airports have increasingly been problematised by social and political scientists. Browne offers a broader historical view, disclosing how antiblackness persists in, and coexists with, these seemingly ‘new’ techniques of security and counterterrorism.

Dark Matters reveals many more stories of struggle in racializing surveillance than this review can afford. Suffice it to say that Browne makes a critical and compelling intervention in surveillance studies by bringing the question of race to the fore. That said, allow me to raise some reflections on her project. My first point is in relation to her treatment of history and historicization. Throughout the book, she seems to overstate the historical continuity of racializing surveillance. She recurrently reminds readers that historical events in the past “anticipate” (24), “inform” (64), or “shape” (50) contemporary conditions [End Page 283] of surveillance. The “white gaze” and “white racial frame” in surveillance technologies did and do exist. But the magnitude of transatlantic slavery should not be undermined. The slave pass system, the “lantern laws”, and human branding appear as precedents for the passport system, face recognition technologies and contemporary biometrics in general. While she is not explicitly suggesting this equation, drawing such historical lineages risks neglecting the changing dynamics of power relations in which race and racism persist.

To unpack this point, let me recall Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the book that Browne’s project departs from and that she implicitly engages throughout her genealogical approach to the history of the present (8, 26, 70, 91). Discipline and Punish is a crucial text for the development of surveillance studies in that it casts light on the modern paradigm of the Panopticon. This aspect has probably been most influential in contemporary studies of surveillance. However, Foucault also traced a broader historical trajectory in Discipline and Punish. For him, the Panopticon was not just an historical event that has a significant impact upon our present, but the emergence of a new form of power relations that was made possible by humanist or progressivist penal reforms. In this regard, the history of the present is about historical discontinuities and transformations just as much as it is about historical continuities. The history of race and racism is also characterized by a series of discontinuities and transformations. As one form of racialization—be it slavery, colonialism, racial sciences, or segregation—is discredited through anti-racist reforms, a new form of racialization emerges.

These are the moments that vitalized a new logic of race and racism. For instance, the emergence of a new economy of culturalist and differentialist discourses of race in the late twentieth century largely replaced biological and hierarchical discourses of race. One might also recall Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended lectures, where he describes the emergence of a new economy of race in nineteenth-century Europe wherein the logic of racism was biologically—and biopolitically—rationalized. Analysing racializing surveillance in connection with historical transformations would raise important questions concerning the distinctive character of contemporary power. Browne questions the historical shift from sovereign power to disciplinary power that Foucault traced in Discipline and Punish, and demonstrates that sovereign and disciplinary power co-existed during transatlantic slavery. However, what seems to remain unanswered is what happens to the model, or modality, of power in contemporary racializing surveillance. She shows how the earlier taxonomic knowledge of race (for example, ‘Mongoloid’ and ‘Caucasoid’) is reproduced and empowered in contemporary biometric information technology R&D (research and development) [End Page 284] (111). But the power relations that are reproduced here are not equivalent to the dynamics of sovereign and disciplinary power in which slave branding was deployed. While recognizing the historical lineage of racializing surveillance, I think there is a need to distinguish different modalities of power and racial government across time.

My second point concerns a question of geography. Dark Matters is the project that is specific to its own geographical context—namely, North America—and it is in this geographical context that Browne problematises racializing surveillance exclusively in terms of whiteness. Yet, the strategies of racism and racializing surveillance in general are hardly reducible to whiteness or the ‘colour line’. The logic of race and racism was translated and appropriated beyond the Western context. For instance, during Japanese colonialism, racism within the ‘yellow race’ was made possible, which later led to the development of racializing surveillance—most notably against the Korean residents—in the second half of the twentieth century. The recognition of the multiple operations of racialization is also an important reminder to readers that the “white racial frame” of contemporary biometric information technologies is just one form of racializing surveillance. A study of Japanese face identification systems, for example, finds that it is not “darker-skinned faces” that fail to enrol in these systems but “non-Japanese” faces, which are said to be mainly Caucasians.1 In other words, the racial frame of surveillance and the normalization of certain bodies are geographically coded rather than being uniformly embedded in whiteness. Although my point here may well be beyond the geographical scope of Browne’s project, it is nevertheless important and relevant for the future research on racializing surveillance.

Neither of these points undermine the value of Browne’s book. Dark Matters is of great importance not just because it illuminates historical and contemporary surveillance technologies of (anti)blackness, but equally because it opens up a series of questions around geography, race, power, and surveillance.

Hidefumi Nishiyama

Hidefumi Nishiyama is Teaching Fellow in Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Associate Tutor in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He is currently writing a research monograph on race, biopolitics and biometrics in modern Japan. Parts of the manuscript were previously published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Hidefumi can be reached at hidefumi.nishiyama@googlemail.com


1. Tanaka K, Machida K, Matsuura S, and Akamatsu S, ‘Comparison of Racial Effect in Face Identification Systems based Eigenface and Gaborjet’, SICE Annual Conference in Sapporo, August 4–6, 1 (2004): 669–674. [End Page 285]