restricted access Surveillance as Race Struggle: On Browne’s Dark Matters
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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...