Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

by Simone Browne

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In Dark Matters Simone Browne locates the conditions of blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and resisted. She shows how contemporary surveillance technologies and practices are informed by the long history of racial formation and by the methods of policing black life under slavery, such as branding, runaway slave notices, and lantern laws. Placing surveillance studies into conversation with the archive of transatlantic slavery and its afterlife, Browne draws from black feminist theory, sociology, and cultural studies to analyze texts as diverse as the methods of surveilling blackness she discusses: from the design of the eighteenth-century slave ship Brooks, Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, and The Book of Negroes, to contemporary art, literature, biometrics, and post-9/11 airport security practices. Surveillance, Browne asserts, is both a discursive and material practice that reifies boundaries, borders, and bodies around racial lines, so much so that the surveillance of blackness has long been, and continues to be, a social and political norm.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822375302
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/17/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,131,095
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Simone Browne is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Read an Excerpt

Dark Matters

On the Surveillance of Blackness

By Simone Browne

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7530-2




The door is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. As islands and dark continents are. It is a place which exists or existed. The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.

— DIONNE BRAND, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging

* * *

In early August 1785, English social reformer Jeremy Bentham set out from Brighton, England, destined for Krichëv, Russia. It was in Russia where Bentham would first conceive of the Panopticon in a series of letters "from Crecheff in White Russia, to a friend in England." At one point during his journey, in an attempt to reach Constantinople, he embarked from Smyrna on a cramped Turkish caïque with "24 passengers on the deck, all Turks; besides 18 young Negresses (slaves) under the hatches." Much of Bentham's writings that addressed slavery were written before this voyage. In those texts he touches on such topics as sugar production, punishment, and abolition. Writing during the 1770s on "afflictive capital punishment," that being when the degree of pain imposed upon the body surpasses that necessary to produce death, Bentham details the severe methods of torture and punishment reserved for "negro slaves" of the European colonies in the West Indies for the crime of rebellion, a crime so named, he writes, "because they are the weakest, but which, if they were the strongest would be called an act of self-defense." While acknowledging Europe's desire for "sugar and coffee" and other crops produced through enslaved labor in the colonies, he suggests that when these goods are obtained by keeping people enslaved "in a state in which they cannot be kept but by the terror of such execution: are there any considerations of luxury or enjoyment that can counterbalance such evils?" On the terror of the codes that governed slave life in the West Indies, Bentham has this to say: "let the colonist reflect upon this: if such a code be necessary the colonies are a disgrace and an outrage on humanity; if not necessary, these laws are a disgrace to the colonists themselves." Bentham arrived in Krichëv in February 1786. One can only wonder if he thought of the terror of "capital punishment" and of the slave's "self-defense" when he came across those eighteen "young Negresses" held captive in the hatches of that cramped Turkish caïque.

That somewhere along a journey that ends in The Panopticon; or, The Inspection House Jeremy Bentham traveled with "18 young Negresses (slaves)" guides me to question the ways that the captive black female body asks us to conceptualize the links between race, gender, slavery, and surveillance. In other words, how must we grapple with the Panopticon, with the knowledge that somewhere within the history of its formation are eighteen "young Negresses" held "under the hatches"? If Bentham's Panopticon depended on an exercise of power where the inspector sees everything while remaining unseen, how might the view from "under the hatches" be another site from which to conceptualize the operation of power? This chapter asks that we rethink the Panopticon (1786) through the plan of the slave ship Brooks (1789), as a way to link surveillance studies to black feminist scholarship.

The first section of this chapter offers an overview of the Panopticon, disciplinary power, and sovereign power. In the second section I discuss some of the ways that the Panopticon and panopticism have been put to use in theorizing surveillance, and in particular three analytical concepts derived from this model of social control: synopticon, banopticon, and postpanopticism. In the third section I discuss the plan of the slave ship. Following this, I examine surveillance technologies of slavery, such as advertisements for runaway slaves and the census, as well as a set of rules from the 1800s for the management of slaves on an East Texas plantation. I do this in order to understand how racializing surveillance functioned through these technologies. I end this chapter by looking to black feminist theorizing of surveillance, including bell hooks on "talking back" (1989) and "black looks" (1992) and Patricia Hill Collins's concept of "controlling images" (2000) as a way to situate surveillance as both a discursive and a material practice. I also look to artist Robin Rhode's Pan's Opticon (2008) and artist Adrian Piper's video installation What It's Like, What It Is #3 (1991), as these creative texts offer ways to understand black looks and talking back as oppositional practices that challenge the stereotyped representations of controlling images and their material effects. My use of Rhode's Pan's Opticon and Piper's What It's Like, What It Is #3 is a way of drawing on black creative practices in order to articulate a critique of the surveillance of blackness. In this fashion, these works open up a way to think creatively about what happens if we center the conditions of blackness when we theorize surveillance.

Seeing without Being Seen: The Plan of the Panopticon

* * *

The Panopticon was conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1786 and then amended and produced diagrammatically in 1791 with the assistance of English architect Willey Reveley. Bentham first came upon the idea through his brother Samuel, an engineer and naval architect who had envisioned the Panopticon as a model for workforce supervision. Pan, in Greek mythology, is the god of shepherds and flocks, the name derived from paien, meaning "pasture" and hinting at the root word of "pastoral," and in this way the prefix pan- gestures to pastoral power. Pastoral power is a power that is individualizing, beneficent, and "essentially exercised over a multiplicity in movement." Bentham imagined the Panopticon to be, as the name suggests, all-seeing and also polyvalent, meaning it could be put to use in any establishment where persons were to be kept under watch: prisons, schools, poorhouses, factories, hospitals, lazarettos, or quarantine stations. Or, as he wrote, "No matter how different, or even opposite the purpose: whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education." Of course, "the willing," "the idle," and the so-called rising race might be more able to leave this enclosure at will or by choice than "the suspected" or "the incorrigible." With this "seeing machine," the unverified few could watch the many and "the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the establishment have been attained." This is control by design, where population management and the transmission of knowledge about the subject could, as Bentham explains, be achieved, "all by a simple idea of Architecture!"

The Panopticon's floor plan is this: a circular building where the prisoners would occupy cells situated along its circumference (figure 1.1). With the inspector's lodge, or tower, at the center, his field of view is unobstructed: at the back of each cell, a window, and in its front a type of iron grating thin enough that it would enable the inspector to observe the goings-on in the prisoner cells. The cells in the Panopticon make use of "protracted partitions" — where the partitions extend beyond the iron grating that covers the front of the cell — so that communication between inmates is minimized, and making for "lateral invisibility." In this enclosed institution the watched are separated from the watchers; the inspector's presence is unverifiable; and there is said to be no privacy for those that are subject to this architecture of control. Security in the Panopticon, as Bentham asserts, is achieved by way of small lamps, lit after dark and located outside each window of the inspection tower, that worked to "extend to the night the security of the day" through the use of reflectors. By employing mirrors in this fashion, a blinding light was used as a means of preventing the prisoner from knowing whether or not the inspection tower was occupied. Power, in the Panopticon, is exercised by a "play of light," as Michel Foucault put it, and by "glance from center to periphery." The inspection tower is

divided into quarters, by partitions formed by two diameters to the circle, crossing each other at right angles. For these partitions the thinnest materials might serve; and they might be made removeable at pleasure; the height, sufficient to prevent the prisoners seeing over them from cells. Doors to these partitions, if left open at any time, might produce the thorough light, to prevent this, divide each partition into two, at any part required, setting down the one-half at such distance from the other as shall be equal to the aperture of a door.

With Bentham's plan for prison architecture, we can see how light, shadows, mirrors, and walls are all employed in ways that are meant to engender in many a prisoner a certain self-discipline under the threat of external observation, as was its intended function. The Panopticon would allow for a disciplinary exercise of power. Such exercises of power are not ones of pomp and pageantry, like a queen's coronation, a state funeral, or a royal wedding, or of the overt kind of spectacular violence that often accompanies sovereign power. Instead, in this instance, power is covert and achieved by a play of light.

If an act that is deemed criminal is an assault on the sovereign's power, an exercise of sovereign power is that which seeks to make the sovereign's surplus power plainly understood by all. It is spectacular and episodic, and functions "to make everyone aware," often through ceremonial terror, "of the unrestrained presence of the sovereign." This is a power exercised through excessive means and force, like the public execution of Damiens the regicide, the gruesome scene that opens Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). In 1757, Robert-Françoise Damiens was made to make the amende honorable, a symbolic apology for his crime against the sovereign. He was carted through the streets of Paris, France, holding a burning torch in one hand and his weapon of choice, a knife, in the other. Boiling resin, sulfur, wax, and oil were combined and poured into his open wounds, and he was drawn by horses, quartered, and eventually hacked apart for his attempt on the life of Louis xv, king of France. With onlookers surrounding, Damiens's body was burned and his ashes were "thrown to the winds."

Another, but less well-known, public execution took place twenty-three years before that of Damiens the regicide in Paris. This time it was in the French colony of Nouvelle-France, and it was a black woman who was subjected to this gruesome exercise of sovereign power. Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Portuguese-born enslaved black woman, was tried and convicted of setting a fire that left much of the town of Montréal in ruins in 1734, the arson itself ruled to be an affront to that same sovereign that Damiens the regicide attempted to assassinate, King Louis xv. Angélique arrived in Montréal from New England after being sold to François Poulin de Francheville in 1725. After Francheville's death in 1733, his wife, Thérèse de Couagne, became Angélique's sole mistress, but through escape, insolence, unruliness, and talking back, Angélique was never quite fully under Madame Francheville's complete control. Madame Francheville would later make arrangements to sell Angélique for six hundred pounds of gunpowder. That sale was never fulfilled as, on the evening of April 10, 1734, a fire broke out on the roof of the Francheville home and Angélique was named the arsonist and arrested the morning after. Claude Thibault, a white indentured servant from France who was under contract to Madame Francheville, was named as Angélique's accomplice. Thibault was Angélique's lover. Angélique and Thibault had escaped from Montréal that previous winter, but were captured and returned. Days after the fire, Thibault disappeared and was never arrested. Angélique's trial lasted two months. Under interrogation she reportedly stated, "No one told me to set the fire. No one helped me, because I did not do it." Later, under repeated torture, she recanted that assertion of her innocence — "C'est moi. It's me and no one else. I want to die. C'est moi." Condemned to death, she was carted through the streets of Montréal, made to make the amende honorable with a burning torch held in her hand at the door of the town's parish, and hanged. Angélique's body hung in the street for all to observe for hours after her execution, was later burned and her ashes thrown to the winds, as was the ceremony prescribed for the capital punishment of an arsonist according to French law.

The ceremony of Angélique's execution, according to Katherine McKittrick, achieved at least two things: "spectacular punishment of someone and something that is said not to exist," that something being blackness in and of Canada as absented presence; and "the destroying of bodily evidence." The trial and hanging of Angélique points to the criminalization of black women's resistance to captivity. The will of the sovereign was violently inscribed in Angélique's excruciating and spectacular death (both a public spectacle and spectacularly elaborate in its excessive violence) and made known for all who observed it — both free and enslaved — the expendability of slave life.

Foucault chose to begin "The Body of the Condemned," the first chapter of Discipline and Punish, with the brutal public execution of Robert-Françoise Damiens in order to set up, in stark contrast, his discussion of the discrete and also distributed way that exercises of disciplinary power operate in the form of rules "for the House of young prisoners in Paris," where regulation of the subject happened through observation and also through routines, repetition, self-discipline, and by following instructions and timetables. For example, the delinquent's day would be structured like this: "Art. 18 Rising. At the first drum roll, the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors"; "Art. 20. Work . ... They form into work teams and go off to work, which must begin at six in the summer and seven in the winter"; and "Art. 22. School. At twenty minutes to eleven, at the drum-roll, the prisoners form into ranks, and proceed in divisions to the school. The class lasts two hours and consists alternately of reading, writing, drawing and arithmetic." The rules for the management of delinquents came eighty years after the execution of Damiens. Foucault cites both the execution and the rules to say that "they each define a certain penal style" and mark the decline of punishment as a public spectacle. Disciplinary power did not do away with or supplant the majestic and often gruesome instantiations of sovereign power, however. Instead, at times, both formulations of power — sovereign and disciplinary — worked together. In reading punishment as public spectacle in the Old France and the New, I chose to recount the hanging of Marie-Joseph Angélique here because her torture and killing evidences blackness and slavery in Canada pre–Book of Negroes (1783), pre–Underground Railroad escape of black people from the United States to Canada (early nineteenth century), and pre-Confederation (1867). Putting the life of Marie-Joseph Angélique in conversation with the death of the regicide Robert-Françoise Damiens is my way of interrupting Foucault's reading of discipline and the birth of the prison, as doing so points to an alternative archive from which to understand the hold of both disciplinary and sovereign power on black life under slavery. While Foucault argued that the decline of the spectacle of public torture as punishment might have marked "a slackening of the hold on the body," this chapter contends that when that body is black, the grip hardly loosened during slavery and continued post-Emancipation with, for example, the mob violence of lynching and other acts of racial terrorism.


Excerpted from Dark Matters by Simone Browne. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii

Introduction, and Other Dark Matters  1

1. Notes on Surveillance Studies: Through the Door of No Return  31

2. "Everybody's Got a Little Light under the Sun": The Making of the Book of Negroes  63

3. B®anding Blackness: Biometric Technology and the Surveillance of Blackness  89

4. "What Did TSA Find in Solange's Fro?": Security Theater at the Airport  131

Epilogue. When Blackness Enters the Frame  161

Notes  165

Bibliography  191

Index  203

What People are Saying About This

Windows Into the Soul: Surveillance and Society - Gary T. Marx

"With flair, creativity, and intellectual breadth Simone Browne illuminates the historical and contemporary surveillance ordering of (presumed) biologically based racial identities. With an expansive interdisciplinary reach and drawing on helpful concepts such as racializing surveillance, dark sousveillance, epidermalization, and bordering, the book is a welcome contribution to an emerging field."

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination - Alondra Nelson

"Simone Browne paints a devastating portrait of the compounding work of racial surveillance—a process in which profiling serves as both the justification for information gathering and a defense of the heightened, disproportionate scrutiny this information is said to warrant. From the branding of flesh as stigmata of captivity to biometric markers as gatekeepers, Dark Matters transports us across space and time, illuminating how the sorting, counting, and surveilling of human beings was as central to the dawn of industrialization as it is to the information society. Browne’s incisive, wide-ranging, and multidisciplinary meditation shows us the scale and persistence of surveillance culture, and especially its urgent stakes for communities of color. Her deft history of the present moment reveals how data becomes us."

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