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Dark Matters: Branding, Biometric Technology, and the Surveillance of Blackness

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Abstract:

This paper questions how the intimate relation between branding and the black body – our biometric past – can allow us to think critically about our biometric present. Biometric information technology, in its simplest form, is a means of body measurement that is put to use to allow the body, or parts, pieces and increasingly performances of the human body, to function as identification. In order to understand the meanings of biometrics as historically situated, this paper explores some early applications of this technology and questions its role in the racial framing of blackness as property. What I am suggesting here is that branding in the transatlantic slave trade was a biometric technology, as it was a measure of slavery’s making, marking and marketing of the black subject as commodity. Guided here by Avery Gordon’s work on the ways that slave narratives can offer us a “sociology of slavery and freedom” and Hortense Spillers’ writings on transatlantic slavery’s rendering of the captive body as “a territory of cultural and political maneuver,” I look to narratives to answer the question: what can a realization of the conditions of blackness – the historical, the present and the historical present – help social theorists to understand about our contemporary conditions of surveillance. What I am suggesting in this paper is that the history of branding in transatlantic slavery anticipates the “social sorting” outcomes that David Lyon’s work alerts us to regarding some contemporary surveillance practices, including passports, identification documents, or credit bureau databases.

Situating blackness as an absented presence in the emerging field of surveillance studies, this paper also examines the roles played by prototypical whiteness and racializing surveillance in the making of some bodies and not others as problematic in contemporary biometrics and its attendant practices. I close this paper by looking to visual artist Hank Willis Thomas’ B®anded series and select films starring Will Smith to suggest that these texts allow us a reading of biometrics as a commodification of information of and about the body that is contingent upon discursive practices for its own making and, in the case of B®anded, unmaking.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p656739_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Browne, Simone. "Dark Matters: Branding, Biometric Technology, and the Surveillance of Blackness" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Washington, Washington, DC, Nov 21, 2013 <Not Available>. 2014-12-10 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p656739_index.html>

APA Citation:

Browne, S. , 2013-11-21 "Dark Matters: Branding, Biometric Technology, and the Surveillance of Blackness" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Washington, Washington, DC <Not Available>. 2014-12-10 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p656739_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: This paper questions how the intimate relation between branding and the black body – our biometric past – can allow us to think critically about our biometric present. Biometric information technology, in its simplest form, is a means of body measurement that is put to use to allow the body, or parts, pieces and increasingly performances of the human body, to function as identification. In order to understand the meanings of biometrics as historically situated, this paper explores some early applications of this technology and questions its role in the racial framing of blackness as property. What I am suggesting here is that branding in the transatlantic slave trade was a biometric technology, as it was a measure of slavery’s making, marking and marketing of the black subject as commodity. Guided here by Avery Gordon’s work on the ways that slave narratives can offer us a “sociology of slavery and freedom” and Hortense Spillers’ writings on transatlantic slavery’s rendering of the captive body as “a territory of cultural and political maneuver,” I look to narratives to answer the question: what can a realization of the conditions of blackness – the historical, the present and the historical present – help social theorists to understand about our contemporary conditions of surveillance. What I am suggesting in this paper is that the history of branding in transatlantic slavery anticipates the “social sorting” outcomes that David Lyon’s work alerts us to regarding some contemporary surveillance practices, including passports, identification documents, or credit bureau databases.

Situating blackness as an absented presence in the emerging field of surveillance studies, this paper also examines the roles played by prototypical whiteness and racializing surveillance in the making of some bodies and not others as problematic in contemporary biometrics and its attendant practices. I close this paper by looking to visual artist Hank Willis Thomas’ B®anded series and select films starring Will Smith to suggest that these texts allow us a reading of biometrics as a commodification of information of and about the body that is contingent upon discursive practices for its own making and, in the case of B®anded, unmaking.


Similar Titles:
Branding Blackness: Cable Programming and Black Viewers

GPS Surveillance Technology and Sex Offenders: The Technological Regulation of Criminality

Rezoning the Global: Technological Standards, Technological Politics and the (Un-)Making of Biometric Borders

It Don’t Matter if You’re Black or White? Exploring the Content of Stereotypes of Black Politicians


 
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