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Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity and Biometrics


DOI: 10.1177/0896920509347144

Browne, S. “Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity and Biometrics.” Critical Sociology 36.1 (2010): 131–150. Print.

p.132: This article considers the ways in which what Paul Gilroy terms ‘epidermal thinking’ operates in the discourses surrounding certain surveillance practices and their applications, with a focus on identification documents and biometric technologies in particular. My aim is not to re-ontologize race, but instead to outline the notion of digital epidermalization, stemming from Frantz Fanon’s concept of epidermalization, as it allows for thinking through race, ontological insecurity and the ways in which the body materializes with and against biometric technologies. I examine key research in surveillance studies, governmental policy documents concerning biometric enabled identification documents and the 2003 ‘deportation’ to India of a Canadian citizen through the issuance of an expedited removal order by the US Immigration and Naturalization Services. By interrogating how digital epidermalization gains meaning and is put into practice, this article seeks to posit a space for refusals of such epidermal thinking through a critical biometric consciousness. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.133: Identification documents serve as a key technology in the contemporary management of human mobility, security applications and consumer transactions, particularly those that are state sanctioned. By putting identity into practice, identification documents, such as photo enhanced credit cards and more so passports, not only codify gender, race and often citizenship, but they also help to organize understandings of security, the nation and its material and discursive borders. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.133: In this article, I consider the ways in which what Paul Gilroy terms ‘epidermal thinking’ (1997: 195) operates in the discourses surrounding certain surveillance practices and their applications, with a focus on identification documents and biometric technologies in particular. Epidermal thinking marks the epistemologies concerning sight and the racialized body. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.133: Following Eugene Thacker’s call for a ‘critical genomic consciousness’ (2005: 172) in relation to biotechnology, what I am suggesting here is that we must engage a critical biometric consciousness as well. A critical biometric consciousness entails informed public debate, accountability by the state and the private sector and sees biometric technology as a human technology, where the ownership of and access to one’s own body data and other intellectual property that is generated from one’s body data must be understood as a human right. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.134: I review key thinking in surveillance studies and the governing of the self. Such a discussion considers the market-oriented, governing principles of neo-liberal capitalism to understand this moment of the integration of the military, the private sector and the state in for-profit identity management. This integration marks the ascendance of a global, ‘identity-industrial complex’ (Browne 2005, 2007). I suggest that this focus on identity is not only about new technologies of surveillance and governance at the border, but it is also about the neo-pastoral governing of the responsible and ‘enterprising self’ (Rose 1992). -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.134: What I attend to in this article are these moments of observation, calibration and application through the use of Gilroy’s assertion that the pseudoscientific enterprise of truth-seeking in racial difference, where the intention is ‘to make the mute body disclose the truth of its racial identities’, can be more fully comprehended through the Fanonian concept of epidermalization (1997: 195). -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.134: For Fanon, epidermalization is a way of thinking the ontological insecurity of the racial body as it experiences its ‘being through others’ (1967: 109). -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.135: So this making of ‘out of placeness’ must be read also as indicative and productive of what Katherine McKittrick terms ‘the deep spaces of black geographies’ (2006: 25). These deep spaces are rooted in what Rinaldo Walcott calls ‘a diasporic sensibility’ where geography must also be understood as political, ‘related, in various resistances and responses, to an internationalist ethic and solidarity that refuses current transnational capital’s organization of our lives’ (2006: 88). Such refusals and solidarity mark the productive possibilities of alternatives to epidermal thinking. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.135: The application of this technology is in the verification and identification practices that enable the body to function as evidence. Identities, in these digitizing instances, must also be thought through their construction within discourse, understood, following Stuart Hall, as ‘produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discursive formations and practices, by specific enunciative strategies’ (1996: 4). -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.136: For Gordon, this is a structured violence where ‘all is permitted’ and where this structured violence is productive of and produced by a certain white normativity. Meaning that whiteness is made normative, and in so being, raceless, or what David Theo Goldberg terms ‘racially invisible’ (1997: 83). What Gordon insightfully terms the ‘notion of white prototypicality’ (2004: 4) is the enabling condition of the structured violence of ‘the dialectics of recognition’ (2004: 3). -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.136: What I am suggesting here is that this prototypical whiteness is one facet of the cultural and technological logic that informs many instances of the practices of biometrics and the visual economy of recognition and verification that accompany these practices. Practices here are taken to include research and development (R&D), applications, and governmental rationalization. Digital epidermalization is the exercise of power cast by the disembodied gaze of certain surveillance technologies (for example, identity card and e-passport verification machines) that can be employed to do the work of alienating the subject by producing a ‘truth’ about the body and one’s identity (or identities) despite the subject’s claims. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.137: Such epidermal thinking is present in other research on facial recognition technology where ‘the facial feature quantities (spacing between eyes, turn up of the eyes, thickness of mouth etc.) are classified’; it is suggested that systems ‘can search for faces with a certain feature, if the degree of the feature quantity is designated’ (Lao and Kawade 2004: 346). -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.138: A key ideology involved in the practices and arrangement of border control and selfcontrol is that of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism has been explained as a ‘choice obsessed discourse’ (Valverde 1996: 364) where the idea of enterprise models of governance is found not only within the state, but extends to the subject as well. Here the individual is understood as conducting herself in enterprising and entrepreneurial ways through a discourse of rights and freedoms (Rose 1992, 1993). So people are tasked with becoming entrepreneurs of themselves (Lemke 2001). As a form of governmentality, neo-liberalism is premised on market values structuring the ways of being of institutions and of social actors. It is a rationality where governance is sought through the market, where even the state is organized to ‘think and behave like a market actor’ (Brown 2003: 3). This often means pursuing public-private partnerships, such as trusted traveller programs. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.138: Here governance might take the shape of liberalism and ‘non-liberal’ practices such as patriarchy, despotism and racism. Instead, Valverde calls for an approach that takes into account the limits and instabilities of liberal governance and suggests looking at how space, specifically how the reliance of liberal governance on ‘common-sense assumptions about spatially based difference’, works to naturalize relations of rule that have both liberal and illiberal logics (1996: 368). For example, the developments of racist taxonomies of colonized spaces and the people who inhabit them as a rationale for the application of specific techniques when governing ‘the passions in hot climates’ at the same time as liberal governance is purportedly happening in the so-called moderate climates of the metropole (1996: 368). Or the ‘illiberal logic’ of rule at international border crossings, where one’s crossing depends on the prerogative of the inspection agent, whether human or machine. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.139: Similar to Lyon in asserting that bodily surveillance is by no means a new occurrence, Christian Parenti discusses the surveillance systemof the plantation of the AntebellumSouth of the United States and names the information technologies of the written slave pass, organized slave patrols and wanted posters for runaways as key features of the surveillance practices of this system (2003). Parenti situates plantation surveillance as the earliest form of surveillance practices in the Americas. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.140: Current biometric technologies and slave branding are not one and the same; however, when we think of our contemporary moment where ‘suspect’ citizens, trusted travellers, prisoners and others are having their bodies informationalized by way of biometric surveillance – sometimes voluntarily and sometimes without consent or awareness – and then stored in large-scale databases – some owned by the state and some owned by private interests – we can find histories of these accountings and inventories of the bodies in slave registers, slave branding and the slave vessel manifests that served insurance purposes. My suggestion here is that questioning the historically present workings of branding, the body and race, particularly in regard to biometrics, could allow for a critical rethinking of our moments of contact with our increasingly technological border. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.143: The application of surveillance technologies in this way leads to questions concerning the idea that gender and race can be specified, and also, how transgendered and intersexed people ‘fit’ into this algorithmic equation. There is a certain assumption with these technologies that categories of gender identity are clear cut, that a machine can be programmed to assign gender categories or what bodies and body parts ‘should’ signify. Such technologies certainly can be applied to determine who has access to movement and stability, and to other rights. Following Anne Balsamo here, I am suggesting that we question the effects that certain technologies (in this case, ID cards, databases and biometrics) have on ‘cultural enactments of gender’ (1996: 9) and how such technologies are ‘ideologically shaped by the operation of gender interests and, consequently, how they serve to reinforce traditional gendered patterns of power and authority’ (1996: 10). -- Highlighted may 7, 2014

p.146: Understanding how biometrics are rationalized through governmental policy making and industry specification and texts provides a means to falsify the idea that certain surveillance technologies and their application are always neutral regarding race and other categories of determination. Examining biometric practices and surveillance in this way is instructive and it invites us to understand the social relations and prevailing discourses that are part of the enabling conditions of certain technologies. -- Highlighted may 7, 2014