Counter-Periodizing Surveillance Studies

A Review of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

Lindsay Weinberg

Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015) fills a critical gap in the literature on surveillance: the absence of studies on the pre-conditions of surveillance that make contemporary practices, such as biometric surveillance and predictive policing, possible. Rather than focusing on what is new about contemporary surveillance technologies, Browne’s study examines the continuities between earlier modes of monitoring, overseeing, predicting, and policing subjects and newer modes of surveillance. Browne’s work is arguably a work of counter-periodization; it situates blackness as “integral to developing a general theory of surveillance and, in particular, racializing surveillance- when enactments of surveillance reify boundaries along racial lines, thereby reifying race,“ (8) and focuses on the counter-surveillance tactics of black subjects in the time span ranging from the transatlantic slave trade to post-9/11.

One of the main questions Browne explores is the following: “when blackness, black human life, and the conditions imposed upon it enter discussions of surveillance, what does this then do to those very discussions? Put another way, how is the frame necessarily reframed by centering the conditions of blackness when we theorize surveillance?” (2015, 162). Browne analyzes the metaphors and technologies so central to surveillance studies discourse and demonstrates how a different set of theoretical tools are needed:

If, for Foucault, “the disciplinary gaze of the Panopticon is the archetypical power of modernity,” as Lyon has suggested in the introduction to Surveillance Studies: An Overview, then it is my contention that the slave ship too must be understood as an operation of the power of modernity, and as part of the violent regulation of blackness.” (2015, 24)

The slave ship destabilizes the Panopticon as an adequate metaphor for describing modern conditions of surveillance for all subjects. It historically precedes the Panopticon and makes race central to the design and implementation of technologies of surveillance. Whereas Foucault’s metaphor explores the internalization of discipline so that subjects come to self govern, the metaphor of the slave ship emphasizes the explicit and violent racialization of subjects that is met with both tacit and explicit black resistance.

Some of the most striking moments in Browne’s text are her self-conscious questioning of the position she occupies when ‘observing’ the archive. She notes that:

my methodology raises questions around my own surveillance practices in reading the archive: by accounting for violence, and counting violences done to the three thousand people listed in the Book of Negroes and those who did not make the cut, do my reading practices act to reinscribe violence and a remaking a blackness, and black bodies, as objectified? Thus, I am mindful of Katherine McKittrick’s caution that there is a danger of reproducing “racial hierarchies that are anchored by our ‘watching over’ and corroborating practices of violent enumeration.” (2015, 67)

Rather than denying the objective power of occupying the position of “observer” over the archive, even when seeking to enumerate violent practices of subjugation and oppression, Browne is always conscious of the gaze she produces. Browne’s theorization is in part a self-critical exploration of the ways that without being careful, scholars might come to occupy the very positions of power they seek to critique. When analyzing a schematic for a slave ship, she questions the following:

What does it mean that I now look to this plan, but not from the elevated and seemingly detached manner as it was first intended to be looked upon? When the plan was first fashioned, this vantage point was meant to be that of the predominantly white and male abolitionists and lawmakers. I am reminded here of what Donna Haraway calls the “conquering gaze from nowhere.” A gaze that is always unmarked, and therefore already markedly white and male, and one that claims a power to “represent while escaping representation”…What the visual representation of the slave ship points to is the primacy given in these abolitionist text to white gazes and vantage points to the trauma of slavery, where the tiny black figures are made to seem androgynous, interchangeable, and replicable. (2015, 49)

Part of Browne’s theoretical practice is to expose the situatedness of her gaze as a scholar in order to avoid reproducing the white male gaze for which the document was originally designed. Browne also works against the visual representation of the slave ship that massifies black subjects by attending to the gendered specificity of the organization of the slave ship, as well as how individual black subjects engaged in acts of struggle in a multiplicity of ways that cannot be reduced to a static or singular definition of resistance.

Today, where submission to technologies of observation and monitoring has become a form of self-expression on social media, and where the mantra “if you are not doing anything wrong you have nothing to hide” continues to assert itself against all historical evidence to the contrary, it becomes necessary to consider the fact that in many cases, perhaps most cases, surveillance is always already a moment of contact with the white gaze that expresses itself differently according to the race, class, and gender of the subject observed, and with a raced, classed, and gendered historical legacy that should not be periodized as somehow outside the frame of contemporary techniques of surveillance. Looking strictly at new instances of surveillance tends to highlight questions of privacy rights, a liberal democratic discourse that relies upon the abstract, raceless citizen of the social contract that presupposes the white male body (Mills 1997, 53). What Browne’s work points to is the long history of the monitoring, policing, and punishing of those who are outside the frame of liberal democratic discourse, and who have historically never enjoyed the same conditions of privacy and state protection afforded to whites. Indeed, the history of surveillance is in part the history of protecting the private property of white men and of the deployment of state power to secure the monetary value of the black laboring subject.

It is the question of the economic value of the enslaved person, and the use of surveillance to secure that value, that Browne’s text explores implicitly rather than explicitly. Perhaps this is because tracing the practices of commodification and dehumanization endemic to the slave trade can in some cases reproduce the very reification of enslaved peoples it seeks to critique: it becomes more important to understand the ways that unremunerated slave labor produces economic value for the slaveholding class than to analyze the moments of resistance to such dehumanization. Browne’s methodology privileges resistance, but in some cases this might obscure the relationship between surveillance and the securing of the economic value of slave labor. For example, Browne argues that “What Tait’s rules for overseers also make known is that plantation surveillance was an exercise of both sovereign power and racialized disciplinary power, working simultaneously, discretionarily, and in a prescribed fashion, as both were put to use in plantation societies to render slave life expendable” (Browne 2015, 52). But were Tait’s rules for overseers not a set of tools for regimenting, rationalizing, monitoring, and incentivizing the most optimal output of labor by performing “the right amount” of discipline and punishment? In other words, the emphasis on the expendability of slave life seems to diminish the role of the surveillance of black subjects in securing the monetary value of the enslaved person as a commodity. The surveillance of the black subject seemed to be, in part, a project that treats the enslaved not simply as expendable, meaning easily replaced or strictly meant to be used and discarded, but as a commodity that is indispensable to the labor process and therefore in need of constant monitoring, and in the cases of escape, recapture. The role of surveillance as an instrument for securing capital, in this case, becomes obscured.

But Browne’s distancing from the economics of slave trade seems to be deliberate and self-conscious, given that her central occupation is not to reproduce the objectification and dehumanization of black subjects in her analysis. When discussing the practice of branding, Browne does describe its relationship to commodification, noting how branding “was not only individualizing but also a “massifying” practice that constituted a new category of subject, blackness as saleable commodity in the Western Hemisphere” (Browne 2015, 42). Branding served to mark “those deemed most fit to labor unfreely” (Browne 2015, 94). Browne also addresses how the regulation of black mobilities revealed that branding was, in part, the use of surveillance on behalf of white slave owners to ensure a literal as well as financial return on capitalist investment. Browne’s goal is to not only detail the role of surveillance in racializing, exploiting, and massifying black subjects, but also to emphasize practices of resistance against the hypervisibility of the runaway slave: “Sally’s ability to evade surveillance through makeup, wicked tricks, and hiding in plain sight exposes the one-drop rule as a social construction that, for some, could be subverted by performing whiteness” (Browne 2015, 54). For Browne, building from Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance, Sally’s countermeasures against her hypervisibility is a form of “dark sousveillance,” meaning “a way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight” (Browne 2015, 21). By performing whiteness, Sally was able to be out of sight as a black body.

Feminist and critical race scholars, including Browne, demonstrate that practices of surveillance are always bound up with the monitoring and disciplining of the boundaries that sustain patriarchy, racism, and capitalist exploitation. Autumn Whitefield-Madrano pointedly argues that while perhaps the Snowden revelations about NSA spying on U.S. citizens were shocking for white male subjects, for women, the sensation of being observed is integral to the experience of being gendered female (Whitefield-Madrano 2013). She cites from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing the following passage:

A woman must continually watch herself…Whilst she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. …Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. This surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (Quoted in Whitefield-Madrano 2013)

In addition to the role of surveillance in mediating the relationship between men and women, where men occupy the position of viewer and women that of the object viewed, we can add following Browne that surveillance is also a racialized logic of monitoring, policing, and disciplining black subjects that imposes race on the body. How might the discourse around new modes of surveillance shift if we keep in mind, as Dark Matters urges us, the long historical arc of the relationship between blackness and surveillance, when confronted by contemporary state-controlled measures to remedy the problem of police brutality against blacks with more surveillance? When one considers the use of body cameras to provide increased police oversight, the record of truth purportedly provided by camera footage has also provided another medium through which police can observe and monitor subjects. Police body-camera footage was used to further incriminate Melissa Click, whose actions during an October homecoming demonstration became the grounds for her termination from the University of Missouri. It would not be surprising if the notion that police are monitoring themselves means that there is allegedly no longer a need for citizens to monitor the actions of police. It is possible that these kinds of citizen oversight will be increasingly criminalized, as was the case for Ramsey Orta, arrested for filming Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the NYPD on his camera phone.  

But what Browne’s interdisciplinary analysis of the Brooks slave ship, the airport and TSA procedures, and contemporary art and popular culture demonstrates is the importance of blackness as a crucial site not only of surveillance but also of subversion. Whereas Foucault’s Panopticon, and Whitefield-Madrano’s discussion, following Berger, of the relationship between surveillance and gender emphasizes the internalization of surveillance, Browne points to the Panopticon’s inadequacy as a metaphor for reconciling less tacit forms of surveillance and the unwillingness of black subjects to internalize it. These sites of resistance include critical contemporary art, flight from the overseer’s gaze, the performance of defiant gazes and the mimicry of whiteness, and calling public attention to discrimination in spaces such as airports where “security” is produced through the raced and gendered application of monitoring and searching to those most likely to “pose a risk.” Browne’s insight into the racializing logic underpinning contemporary surveillance will be essential for analyzing new technologies of security and control, where the gaze of an allegedly neutral machine comes to supplant the gaze of a disciplinary other, and where surveillance is enacted not only to monitor the present, but also for predetermining future discipline and control. One such example is predictive policing, where surveillance is used as an analytical technique of law enforcement to predict and preempt future criminalized activities. It would do well for scholars of surveillance studies to heed Seb Franklin’s warning in Control:

Asserting the radical difference between the present and the past without examining the contingency of the conceptual frameworks, spatial diagrams, and metaphors one uses in order to do so risks obscuring those shifts in the conditions of knowledge that are required for diffuse groups of individuals, institutions, and systems to desire, conceptualize, and enact such differences in the crucible of history. (Franklin 2015, xvi)

Browne is writing against this tendency to periodize at the expense of tracing the way contemporary technologies of discipline and control are indebted to previous technologies and racial epistemologies. Browne’s work not only opens up the possibilities of resistance but the possibilities of surveillance studies to meaningfully and critically situates the present through a more thorough and historically attuned consideration of the past.


Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Franklin, Seb. 2015. Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Whitefield-Madrano, Autumn. 2013. “I’ll Be Watching You: NSA Surveillance and the Male Gaze.” The New Inquiry, June 18.

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