Making Meaning Matter
11 4 2014
Radical Camouflage: the disassembly of visibility[i]
With and without our consent, surveillance has become an integral part of modern life. Embedded into our social, political, national, and consumer realms, we rely upon surveillance as a matter of convenience and a means of security (surveillance is a convenient security). In a post-911 world, the technologies of surveillance[ii] have raced ahead to form a “liquid modern society [that] is a ‘contraption attempting to make life with fear livable’” (Bauman, Lyon 101). The acceptance of a continual state of fear and suspicion and the constant negotiation of our rights combine to form the lived experience of surveillance. As an extension of the culture it is created in, our surveillance technologies reify our social inequalities – seamlessly reproducing evaluative tiers[iii] through the process of generalization, categorization, and privileging. To radically alter the terms of engagement with surveillance thus becomes a move to dismantle not only one’s compliance with dominative power, but the very scaffolding it is perched upon.
The lived experience of surveillance is a series of enlistments that render the individual legible, locatable, and neutralized. Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism[iv], derived from Jeremy Bentham’s late 18th century architectural plans for a prison watch tower, claims the power of surveillance to reside in the understanding and internalization that the self is always, or may always be, watched. Foucault enumerates: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Foucault 202-203). The knowledge of one’s own surveillance engenders a productively multiplied regulation, meaning: one who knows they are being watched is inevitably enlisted in their own surveillance, monitoring their behavior and the behavior of others accordingly. Poet-activist Emily Abendroth asks: “How is ‘my safety’ turned against me? How is ‘my safety’ turned against others?” With surveillance posited as the necessary means to our security, the lived experience becomes one of the internalized police-state.
In face of the rampant development of surveillance technologies, the monolithic architecture of the panopticon has melted into the unfixed and omnipresent. Zygmut Bauman explains the certainty and breadth of modern surveillance as liquid; “without a fixed container, but jolted by ‘security demands’… surveillance spills out all over” (Bauman, Lyon 2-3). With even our most mundane moments being quantified and collected via surveillance, our lived experience mirrors that of forced symbiosis. In a network of cameras, wireless signals, thermal heat detectors, and biometric scanners, surveillance surrounds us and our relationship to it exists within a paradigm of asymmetrical transparency. Amongst its liquid spread, we are at once aware and ignorant of surveillance[v].
Although the notion of a centralized and visible panopticon is no longer relevant, our movement within the flows of a now liquid surveillance represents our compliant enlistment to the processes of our own undoing[vi]. Our compliance proves the Foucauldian notion of self-subjection as a still powerful factor in our relationship to surveillance today. “The right to privacy ceases upon the publication of the facts of the individual, or with his consent” (Brandeis, Warren 218). Our divulgement of personal information becomes a voluntary surrender of our right to privacy. Particularly in the realm of social media, we willingly surrender our rights in earnest attempts to become more connected to one another. In this yearn for social connectivity; we enlist ourselves into a process of disconnection by which information about us is deterritorialized from our physical bodies. “Knowledge of the population is now manifest in discrete bits of information which break the individual down into flows for purposes of management, profit, and entertainment” (Haggerty, Ericson 619). In the construction of our surveillant assemblage, our deterritorialized data coagulates to form a data double, by which real life consequences are predicated upon.
Despite its proclaimed[vii] mechanical objectivity, surveillance technologies replicate the socio-political ideologies of the culture that creates them. In this way, their application works in service of discriminatory practices, the commoditization of bodies, and the coded assignation of value. Where these technologies are currently deployed becomes a key insight into their dutiful purposes. The state funding of surveillance has engulfed border security, welfare programs, and the criminal justice system (Magnet 32). The move to mechanize the process of legitimation for border crossing belies an ever-increasing investment in the fixed boundaries of inclusion. Shoring up the line between US and THEM under a veil of “objective”, mechanical procedures bespeaks a deeply entrenched pedagogy of Othering that justifies the neo-colonial pursuit as well the disenfranchisement of whole populations living within[viii] our borders.
The multiple failures of biometric technologies for particular categories exemplify the embedded prejudices of which bodies have value within the dominant cultural framework. The narrative of biometric failures stands as proof to Shoshana Magnet’s proposition that “culture is always encoded into technology” (Magnet 20). Fingerprint scanners more often fail to scan the hands of Asian women and clerical, maintenance, and manual laborers. Iris scanners neglect those with visual impairments and those who use a wheelchair. Facial recognition software struggles with the elderly and the disabled (Magnet 30). In effect, biometric surveillance sorts whole populations of people as legible or illegible, legitimate or illegitimate in the new social catalogue for order. This process designates bodies through fixed categories of race, gender, sexuality, and ability – it is predicated upon the assumed biological and static nature of identity. Within this procedure, our identity becomes not a living part of ourselves (flexible and self-authored) but rather something easy to designate, extract, and disseminate[ix].
Shifting the terms of engagement with surveillance is borne not from a simplistic denial, but rather a “radical negativity”. A strategy that “belongs neither to negation, nor to opposition, nor to correction (‘normalization’), nor to contradiction (of positive and negative, normal and abnormal, ‘serious’ and ‘unserious’, ‘clarity’ and ‘obscurity’) – it belongs precisely to scandal: to the scandal of their nonopposition” (Felman 104).
When visibility itself becomes compliance and asymmetrical transparency shrouds the domain between the surveillers and the surveilled – nonopposition becomes a strategy for the reclamation of agency. This will not be an agency self-interested and acute, but an agency enacted as a “singular plural”, in which our “entity registers as both particular in its difference but at the same time always relational to other singularities” (Munoz 10-11). The radical task then is an armament of disassembly, with a shared recognition of the “covert” as not the proprietary province of the state or corporate enterprise. This enactment of the covert, our camouflage, begins the radical shift of engagement.
To appropriate camouflage in the service of human rights and social justice is a gesture in dissonant dissent of its ties to colonialism, empire, and violence. In order to radically disentangle ourselves from surveillance, we must first be knowledgeable about the methods of our own subjection. For example, the use of facial recognition software relies upon accurate readings of key facial features[x]. By obfuscating the markers of our assigned identifying features, we can effectively dematerialize in the face of digital observation.
Camouflage is a product of the landscape, its success contingent upon one’s ability to know the terrain and replicate it. The act of hiding in plain site, hiding from “within”[xi], mimics the techniques of surveillance while dismantling its procedural efficacy. In a speech given in 1919, Lieutenant-Commander Norman Wilkinson of the British navy (creator of Dazzle[xii]) explains, “the primary object of this scheme, [is] not so much to cause the enemy to miss… but to mislead him… as to the correct position to take up” (Newark 74). Enacting our own invisibility thus becomes a method of creating chaos in a well-monitored system; it is a technique of survival that denies access and integration upon non-consented grounds. Looking to the horizon of our “worldly bodies-in-the-making” (Haraway 137), I close with Zygmut Bauman:
“Humans constitute an endemically transgressive species… having been blessed or cursed with a language containing the particle “no” (that is, the possibility of denying or refuting what is) and the future tense (that is, the ability to be moved by a vision of reality that doesn’t exist ‘as yet’ but might in ‘a future’…” (Bauman, Lyons 143).
[i] VISIBILITY, STRATEGY, WARFARE, RECIPROCITY, COMPLIANCE, DENIAL, DISSONANCE, REPLICATION, AESTHETIC TERRORISM, SPECTATORSHIP, POSITIONALITY, ACCESS, TRANSPARENCY, ANONYMITY, PERSONALIZATION
[ii] Facial recognition software, CCTV, RFID microchips, fingerprint capture, iris scanners, and drones to name a few.
[iii] Along race, gender, sexuality, ability, practices of faith, citizenship status
(Photos courtesy of University of Washington)
[v] We know of our surveillance, but we are not certain at all times which surveillance methods are being deployed nor do we know the destination of the information collected about us.
[vi] We are undone by the procedure of “making”, that is the rendering of our identity into legibility through fixed categories with attached values.
[viii] Within but not among.
[ix] Historically contested bodies, the bodies of people of color, women, those with a disability, non-normative sizes/shapes, the elderly, and transgender and queer bodies must be cordoned to appropriate vectors of identity to fit within the framework of surveillance. Generalized categories become technologies of control, all in the name of our “freedom” from fear.
[x] “Nose Bridge: Partially obscure the nose-bridge area: The region where the nose, eyes, and forehead intersect is a key facial feature.”
“Eyes: Partially obscure one of the ocular regions: The position and darkness of eyes is a key facial feature.”
“Head: Research from Ranran Feng and Balakrishnan Prabhakaran at University of Texas, shows that obscuring the elliptical shape of a head can also improve your ability to block face detection.”
“Assymetry: Facial-recognition algorithms expect symmetry between the left and right sides of the face. By developing an asymmetrical look, you may decrease your probability of being detected” (Harvey).
[xi] Surveillance is sold to us on the grounds of national security. Yet, it is within our own borders that our greatest fears are realized.
(Painting by Edward Wadsworth, 1919)
“The most famous camouflage in the First World War was ‘Dazzle’, the boldly modernist and highly decorative disruptive pattern designs that were applied to British ships” (Newark 74).
Bauman, Zygmunt, and David Lyon. Liquid Surveillance: a conversation. Malden: Polity Press,
Felman, Shoshana. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin, or Seduction in Two
Languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 203. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books,
Haggerty, Kevin D., and Richard V. Ericson. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” British Journal Of
Sociology 51.4 (2000): 605-622. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
Haraway, Donna. Modest Witness@second Millenium.FemaleMan Meets OncoMouse: Feminism and
Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Harvey, Adam. “Style Tips for Reclaiming Privacy.” CVDazzle. Web. 4 November 2014.
Magnet, Shoshana. When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity.London:
Duke University Press, 2011. Print.
Munoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New
York University Press, 2009.
Newark, Tim. Camouflage. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Print.
Warren, Samuel V., and Louis D. Brandeis. “The Right To Privacy.” Harvard Law Review 4.5
(1890): 193-220. Business Source Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
Bauman, Zygmunt, and David Lyon. Liquid Surveillance: a conversation. Malden: Polity
Press, 2013. Print.
Felman, Shoshana. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin, or
Seduction in Two Languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 203. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage
Books, 1977. Print.
Haggerty, Kevin D., and Richard V. Ericson. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” British Journal
Of Sociology 51.4 (2000): 605-622. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
Magnet, Shoshana. When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity.
London: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.
Munoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New
York: New York University Press, 2009.
Newark, Tim. Camouflage. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Print.
Warren, Samuel V., and Louis D. Brandeis. “The Right To Privacy.” Harvard Law Review
4.5 (1890): 193-220. Business Source Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.