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 is superseded by: how does the subaltern circulate?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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