Surveillance, Late Liberalism & Race(ism)

If, as scholars have suggested, surveillance is no longer about speech (content) but about circulation (form), then the question “Can the subaltern speak?” is superseded by: how does the subaltern circulate? Discussing the new social networking app “Yo”, Robin James, draws on Jodi Dean’s notion of communicative capitalism to discuss how an emerging politics may be about circulation:

Speech, understood as the transmission of meaning, that might be relatively obsolete these days. But circulation might have its own politics, its own political possibilities. In fact, I would argue that most contemporary concerns about, say, data surveillance, these are actually contests over the politics of circulation, not the politics of speech. (Or, maybe more accurately, they’re primarily about circulation, secondarily about speech.)

(To be fair to Spivak, if I recall correctly, the essay was somewhat about the strategic circulation of the “subaltern” and not about recovering an authentic “subaltern” voice or speech.)

“Big data” has been critical to this project. In late liberalism, the goal of surveillance, as some scholars (Robin James, Jasbir Puar, among others) are pointing out, is calibration: to establish patterns of normalcy and weed out outliers. So, the US government’s claim that it’s not “listening” to us is somewhat correct. The point isn’t to listen to speech so much as it is to establish big data sets for the project of calibration. And, as with NSA surveillance, so with the drone wars: The former NSA director has stated “we kill based on metadata.” Thus, this calibration idea also underlies the imperial global policing regime, which is about constant and never-ending policing to continue calibration. Although we refer to drone attacks as “war” loosely, I think this project is conceptually different from “war.”

Going back to Spivak’s essay, the Subaltern Studies School was dealing with the silence of the archives — the figures written out of history. Now, we are dealing in a sense, with a different problem: an enormous archive. We’ve gone from questions about repression/silence/exclusion to questions about appropriation/manipulation/circulation.

This is, I think, partly a result of the success of humanitarian regimes to some extent, that is, the insistence that we are all human means that the ostensible logic of categories of killing must become ever more fine-grained and therefore, we must all get “heard”/surveilled. So, for instance, while the old orientalist trope about “wild tribesmen” is still around, the strongest argument on the (neo)liberal side is not that the tribesmen are all savage, but rather that the imperial state is conducting a “surgical” campaign to weed out the “militants” –i.e. calibration and policing which unlike war, are never-ending and pre-emptive projects.

This is partly what explains the sudden upsurge of interest in surveillance among white, upper-middle class Americans, those classes and groups of people who have historically been considered (and considered themselves) beyond the scope of activities and actions the government usually reserves for the marginalized. Thus, it was not the surveillance of Muslims, or the AP breakthrough reports on that topic, that spurred interest. It was Edward Snowden’s revelations of the systemic, widespread and mass nature of the surveillance that turned it into an issue. The NSA is surveilling everyone where everyone is code for white, middle-class America. In response, organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have made arguments that effectively seek to put into motion the old, race-based ideologies to argue against surveillance. Consider this article on their website titled “Tea Party, Taxes and Why the Original Patriots Would’ve Revolted Against the Surveillance State” about how the “founding fathers” would not have stood for this. The EFF mobilizes a whitewashed version of American history to argue that to ‘true’ American patriotism is being like the founding fathers — who would have opposed surveillance, a story that implicitly marks American origins and its founders as pure, beacons of the right and true and ethical. That leads one to wonder where the rest of us – who are subjects of racial profiling – might find solidarity, since EFF’s rhetoric is not meant for us.

For, if racism seems to disappear overtly, it has nonetheless become a standing procedure of governance, as Sherene Razack has argued. In her book, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, she writes that when racism “is systematized and attached to a project of accumulation, it loses its standing as a prejudice and becomes instead an organizing principle.” (9)

Those are my notes for now.

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The Image and Terror

Did American citizens in the spring of 2004 notice the resemblance of Lynndie England leading an Iraqi on a leash to Tintoretto’s treatment of a similar moment in the Passion? Did they notice the uncanny coincidence in the release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ at the very time the Abu Ghraib images were made public in the spring of 2004? Did they notice the resemblance between Gibson’s portrayal of the pleasure and glee that the Roman soldiers take in torture and the grinning faces of American soldiers mocking their Iraqi victims? Did they ask themselves what has become of Christianity in a time when its major cinematic expression completely eliminates its positive message in favor of an obsessive concentration on the minute details of the tortured human body, from beatings, to a scourging that literally flays the flesh from the victim, to agonizingly slow death by that “stress position” known as crucifixion? Did they notice that Arabs and Muslims have now assumed the position of the sacrificial victims in a Christian crusade against evil?

Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present by W. J. T. Mitchell

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Re-presenting Pakistan | Upcoming Talk

Re-presenting Pakistan: Journalism, Justice and the “War on Terror”

Pakistan has been called a failing state and the most dangerous country on earth. Yet, stories about the Pakistani victims of the “war on terror” remain scant even though thousands of Pakistanis have been bombed, disappeared, detained and displaced. This panel will examine the relationship between representation, media and war in the context of Pakistan. It will discuss alternative models to pursue and publish ethical journalism.

PLACE: Columbia University | Journalism School |  3rd Flr, Lecture Hall
TIME: 7pm – 8:30pm

MODERATED by: Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and dean of Columbia Journalism School

Madiha Tahir is an independent journalist who recently produced a short documentary, Wounds of Waziristan, about survivors of drone attacks in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. She is co-editor of a collection of essays, Dispatches from Pakistan and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University.

Asim Rafiqui is a photojournalist who has been investigating human rights issues in Pakistan. His most recent project covers the lives and stories of Pakistani prisoners in the US prison at Bagram. Rafiqui is also a fellow at the Open Society Foundation

Sarah Belal is a prominent Pakistani human rights lawyer who has been working to get Bagram prisoners released. Her organization Justice Project Pakistan has been litigating on behalf of families of prisoners. Belal is also a fellow with the UK based human rights organization, Reprieve.

Saadia Toor is the author of State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. She is an associate professor of sociology at CUNY and works on populist movements and feminism and religion, in Pakistan.

Presented by The Sevellon Brown Fund, Columbia Journalism School Photojournalism Dept., & Center for International History

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LATELINE | ABC AUSTRALIA

On Nov 08.2013, Steve Cannane interviewed me about Wounds of Waziristan on Australia’s national primetime show:

 

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The Takeaway | NPR

Nov 04.2013, an interview on The Takeaway on the significance of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death:

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 7.23.19 PM

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What It’s Like to Live With Drones | Policy Mic

Full article HERE. Nov 01.2013:

These stories show immense human suffering that we, as Americans, need to acknowledge and be sensitive to if we hope to effectively combat terrorism. By ignoring the deaths of these civilians, we tacitly imply that their lives are worth nothing, that they are less human than American citizens.

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Views from the Ground: Investigating U.S. Drone Strikes

Event took place on Tues, October 29, 2013. Event description:

Hosted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (NYU School of Law) & the Open Society Foundations

Under President Obama, the US dramatically expanded targeted killing outside traditional battlefields. Over 400 strikes since 2009 have killed thousands of people. Yet rarely do American audiences hear directly from victims, or about investigations into civilian deaths. Experts at this event discussed soon-to-be released, groundbreaking reports, a new film, and legal actions that reveal serious concerns around US strikes and—for the first time—a victim of a US drone strike will speak directly to an American audience.

Welcome: Sarah Knuckey (NYU Law) and Christopher Rogers (OSF)

Moderator: Steve Coll, Dean, Columbia Journalism School; Staff Writer, The New Yorker

Speakers:
+ Rafiq ur Rehman, whose mother was killed in a 2012 drone strike in Pakistan
+ Robert Greenwald, director of the upcoming documentary “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” which documents Rehman’s case, among others
+ Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, speaking on his new UN report on targeted killings and the right to life.
+ Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International Pakistan Researcher, speaking on his recent investigations of strikes in Pakistan.
+ Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, speaking on the ACLU’s litigation challenging targeted killings secrecy and the killing of US citizens in Yemen.
+ Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch Senior Terrorism/Counterterrorism Researcher, speaking on her new report on drone strikes in Yemen.

This event was presented in memory and honor of Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni advocate and writer who made enormous contributions to awareness of the civilian and security impacts of US targeted killings. Mothana died at the age of 24 in September 2013.

This event took place on Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

The most revealing section of this appears towards the end in response to the first question by an audience member. I’m transcribing it roughly here:

1:09:00 Audience member: Based on the evidence we have now – which is a great amount, do you think the United States should stop completely its drone attacks right now? right now?
(Panelists look at each other.  Steve Coll: it’s a clear enough question. laughs from audience.)

1:10:00 Shamsi (ACLU): I think that [pause the answer to that is based not he info we have, it appears clear that several hundred civilian bystanders have died. Mistakes have been made, but i cannot say to you that the use of drones is in itself unlawful or always unlawful. sdrones may be used um and lethal force might be permissible under very restricted circumstances including in the context of human rights as well as the laws of war. i think our position is that the unlawful killing, and we think that killing people far from any battlefield under the circumstances that the Obama administration is currently engaged in results in unlawful killing. That needs to stop. That the president’s promises of reigning and restricting the use of lethal force have to be followed upon.

1:11:16 Tayler (Human Rights Watch): I’ll take a drone over a cluster munition any day but i share all of hina’s concerns about the sue of, secrecy surrounding the drone program, the questions about the legality of the strikes, so what we need is enough basic information, and it’s shocking that this many years later, we do not have it – about how exactly drones are being used, but the weapon itself is — i do not think that we need to stop using drones, and i don’t think we’re in a position to say that we should stop all strikes – uh – there are serious terrorist threats in this world uh theres a lot of debate and discussion that should happen on the best way to address that threat but um – thats a long way from saying stop now.

1:02:06 Heyns (UN Special Rapporteur): I would also say that i also  don’t think that drones are inherently illegal if they are used in a situation of armed conflict within the rules of international humanitarian law. it can be justifiable. I think the problem comes in outside of situations of armed conflict and that is where i think the main focus should be.

Sarah Knuckey remarked on the answers, which kicked off a conversation online.

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Life in the Dronescape | VICE Motherboard

Full interview HERE. Oct 29.2013:

Your film begins with President Obama’s description—that he’s “haunted” by the loss of civilian lives. What moved you to make that that description a guiding motif in the film?

A couple of things. I’ve been trying to think about the ways we can talk about drones beyond the legal reports. So what are the ways that we can think about what it means to experience life under drones. Another aspect is that yes, Obama said he is haunted by loss of civilian life, but that nevertheless we need to continue with our war. I thought that was interesting because there’s a whole literature within academia and in fiction about ghosts and haunting and what that means. If you think about Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The sociologist Avery Gordon has an excellent book on this called Ghostly Matters. Being haunted is about not being able to go on as if you were not being haunted. Even horror films are about this.

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NOS Op 3 | Netherlands

Interview on Oct 29.2013. Starts at 6:19: Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 7.30.02 PM

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