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The Subject of biometrics.

The Subject of biometrics

Joseph Pugliese, Biometrics. Bodies, Technologies, Biopolitics (New York: Routledge, 2010)

Joseph Pugliese's book synthesizes a long journey through a complex genealogy of biometric systems in their attempt to provide technologies for making the subject intelligible, predictable and disciplined. As such, 'biometrics can be succinctly characterised as a technology of capture: that is, [it] is fundamentally predicated on capturing images of subjects' (p. 2) in order to secure physical and/or symbolic access to sites and/or information. Today, as in the past, the framework within which biometric systems are created and implemented is imbibed by the positivist 'search for truth' and serves objectives of national security. Despite their advocates and manufacturers' claims that they are neutral and objective, cleansed of all human interventions and/or interpretations, biometric systems seem to reflect gendered, racialised, hetero- and ability-normative patterns that constitute the cultural terrain that fosters them. Projected and enacted since the end of the 18th century as techniques of human body measurement functional to criminal anthropology's prediction of crimes and criminal attitudes, they have been endorsed massively after 9/11 in their complete new biometric articulations (that include iris-scan, facial-recognition, fingerprints, brain fingerprints, gait signature, and even facial expressions transmuted in schematised templates and stored in biometric databases) by the US, Europe, Canada and Australia's governments.

The main aim of the book is 'to begin to map the ways in which biometric technologies operate as systems for the discrimination of non-normative subjects, including people of colour, refugees and asylum seekers, transgender subjects, labourers and people with disabilities' (p. 2). The book's framework draws from Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas: Michel Foucault's concepts of biopower, discipline and governance are utilized to understand how biometrics is functioning as the apparatus of contemporary biopower, '[bringing] life and its mechanisms into the realm of the explicit calculations and made Knowledge/power an agent of transformation of human life' (pp. 7-8); from Derrida the idea of the continuity and compenetration of techne and bios (from where the concept of somatechnics derives), since from the very beginning 'the body is already intextuated and instrumentalized by a series of technologies' (p. 19); from Levinas the idea of the 'irreducible category of difference at the heart of the Same', in order to understand the modalities of the disjunction between the subject and the exercise of agency over his/her body and identity (p. 95).

The first trajectory of the book unpacks biometrics' denied partiality, revealing as, since their very first instantiation and institutionalisation as techniques of body-measurement at the end of 18th century, they have been enabling and reproducing particular ideas of normativity and truth. 'The key terms that frame biometric--discourse authentication and verification--underline the manner in which biometric technologies transmute a subject's corporeal or behavioural attributes into evidentiary data inscribed within regimes of truth' (p. 3). In spite of this, since the first experiments of physical anthropology, craniology, phrenology, physiognomics, and anthropometry, what was operative in their systems of classification were measurable visual marks, exteriority or physical characteristics (bones, skulls, blood vessels, genitals, brains, blood quantum) which heuristic measurement was secured by the replicability, certainty and universality of experiments, data-extractions, gauges and grids. Without establishing a direct filiation of biometrics' impartial pretentions and scopes from these experimental disciplines and their assumptions and mistakes, Pugliese reveals that the common appeal to universal standards produces in both cases the obliteration of human beings as active individual subjects. Here and there, humans are selected, grouped, and prejudged according to hidden/de-individualised 'scientific' schemes of bodily normality/a-normality grounded on race, gender, (dis)ability and class normative presuppositions and inscriptive categories (or infrastructural normativities).

'Embedded within the very infrastructural operations of the technology are a series of normative presuppositions and inscriptive categories [...] that, because of their normative infrastructural status, cannot be named or rendered visible' (p.7). These presuppositions' a priori status--that enables a definition of biometrics as objective, impartial, and non-discriminatory--comes into being only when the non-normative subject, as subject of exteriority, comes to enrol in the biometric system and fails because of her/his non-normative status. His/her failure reveals thus how 'the seemingly objective scientific gaze claims to "discover" or "disclose" in the purity of its objective field of perception is, structurally, predetermined to appear as such through the (effaced) analytical and discursive conditions that enable the very re-cognition of what is seen' (p. 16). What is predetermined and made invisible, as it prompts the 'scene' for biometric measurements, is whiteness: 'the power of whiteness resides in this capacity to occlude and so mystify its status as a racial category that it too often escapes taxonomic determination, while simultaneously remaining the superordinate racial category that effectively determines the distribution of all other classificatory categories along the racial scale' (pp. 6-7).

Notwithstanding its invisibility, the infrastructurally normative nature of whiteness produces the calibration to whiteness of all biometric devices, gauges, and grids. This calibration provokes the immediate identification of non-normative people for their walking, behaving, speaking, heart-biting, brain-waving differently or being 'non-reflexive' to the white gaze (p. 61). This, regardless of the importance, highlighted by de Certeau, of situating patterns of human locomotion/behaviour within the dense sociocultural fabric that inflects a subject's kinematic characteristics (p. 83). Such a classification encodes the trope of the 'shadowy figure' of a prospected terrorist for 'men of Middle Eastern appearance', or that of refugee seekers as 'suspicious travellers' whose gait at the frontier is immediately biometrically captured. The consequent targeting of non-normative bodies can also produce the opposite effect, that of, in the case of black people, a failure in scanning black-eyes, and thus recording and producing iris based algorithms. The failure to enrol of black-eyed people sets them outside the system of measurement of risk, both enhancing prejudices and pre-emptive measures against 'the unknown', and preventing black people's access to knowledge/power. In the case of disabilities it produces a double invisibilisation: 'first, through the phenomenon of failure to enrol (FTE), and, second, through their systematic elimination from the failure-to-enrol rate of particular biometric system' (p. 9). In the case of Asians, finger scan doesn't capture their fingers' ridges because of their alleged lower-quality fingerprints: they simply fail to figure as templates. In the case of transgenders, the category of gender variant subject makes the individual fall outside the gender-normative assumptions encoded in the biometric system.

The second trajectory of the book is that of an investigation of how the parcelling, measurement, and abstraction of body-pieces into body-bits, although inscribed in Western Enlightenment and positivist tradition of a reflexive and agent subject, deprive the subject of her/his agency and causes a scission between body/subject/identity. This corresponds to a sort of regime of colonisation: 'biometric systems are predicated on the notion that the body can be subject to economies of explicit calculations that can be mobilised toward political ends' (p. 7). Subject to the same regime of the 'gaze', a regime that Franz Fanon first unpacked in his discussion of the 'epidermalisation' of the negro (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952), the body is sectioned into body-pieces recorded as body-bits, subject to 'centralised individualisation' and to a Foucauldian microphysical distribution of power: this biopower controls and disciplines the body's movements, locations, and spaces. Intelligibility, discipline, and control make the body a sort of inanimated set of (digital) things that has no will in itself--unless re-embodied in a living body whose will is potentially dangerous--and can be mobilised as de-individualised object for a number of reasons and goals pertaining to the political sphere. This function is clearly shown by the very first use of body-measurements in the British Empire, when after the Sepoy mutiny (1857), fingerprints were taken to enable colonial servants to differentiate otherwise too similar Indian people (p. 50), to distinguish 'criminal tribes', and solve 'the problem of administering a vast empire with a small corps of civil servants outnumbered by hostile natives' (p. 17). There the 'metabody' of ancestors' criminal attitude overdetermines the single individual behaviour legitimising the mathematization of the bios, and the use of the corresponding data in the everyday operations of the colonial State in the governance of 'its (hierarchised and segregated) populations' (p. 51).

On his/her side, the subject is disabled to govern and control the 'heterogeneous dispersal of his/her identificatory body-bits-as-template-proxies. It is at this juncture that a disarticulation is enunciated, a disarticulation that vitiates a subject's agentic self-recovery and governance of her or his body-bits and identity proxies' (p. 98). The only remnant of the agentic living body allowed is the deviation from the full replicability of a biometric datum--something that is actually required. Signature, brain and gait signature--what is called 'Frontier Technologies' to differentiate, in a time of global war on terror, 'friend from foe'--need to be replicable but different: self-reflexivity needs difference to testify that this is not a mimetic body-bit produced by an hacker or a machine, 'a simulacrum of a stolen identity' (p. 111). Talking about the 'metaphysics of the presence' in the processing of a biometric system, Pugliese refers to de-corporised (that is reduced to sets of body-bits from where a 'dominance identity' is deduced) human beings that need to manifest their physical/living presence (which is always an electronically mediated presence) to validate the datum. The subject recovers body-bits and a sort of conjunction between physis and agency only through the biometric device's compulsory request for a (alleged) living sign of difference or deferral.

The third trajectory of the book aims at revealing the biopolitical purport of a number of biometric operations--individuation, identification, classification, distribution of the templates of biometrically enrolled subjects across complex political, social and legal networks. In substituting the question for biometric enrolment 'what have you done?' with the question 'who are you?'--at the very base of pre-assumptive and stereotypical classifications of human being grounded on race, gender, (dis)ability and class normative presuppositions--biometrics operates a further move to the question 'what are you?', that relying on algorithms and mathematics pretends to calculate the level of risk of a person before s/he has committed any crime. The apparatus of biometrics activates here a double form of disciplining process: it disciplines them hermeneutically, sectioning them in infinitesimal particles deciphered through abstract formulae and hence transformed in silico body-bits that finds in repetition their a-temporal veridicity; it disciplines them biopolitically as living subject, according to the correspondence or the FTE the biometric machinery finds. Biometrics has thus a material consequence on human lives and social settings, and this is verified also when, in the biometric schema, 'not to produce a template is equivalent to having no legal ontology, to being a non-being' (p. 73). Against those who state that non-representability could also be a way for agency and escape, Joseph Pugliese highlights the necessity of positioning the subject that fails to enrol--what social and cultural position s/he occupies, what legal status s/he has, and what his/her privileges are in terms of race, gender, disability and class--to measure the liberatory potential of FTE. He also argues the impossibility of justice without any form of recognition: '[FTE] can preclude a subject in terms of gaining "logical access to data or information"; "psycal access to tangible materials or controlled areas"; as well as identifying or verifying "the identity of an individual from a database or token"'. In brief it precludes subjects to get access 'to both physical sites and knowlege/power' (p. 75).

The animating principle of all biometric systems, argues Pugliese, is the technologisation of the body's key identifiers: the body's identificatory features must be extracted and technologised into digital templates. Its aim, in Derrida's language, is that of transforming the body/subject into something communicable, transmittable, decipherable, iterable for a third, and hence for every possible user in general. Pugliese's books, in analysing the new forms of power/knowledge that the ultimate integration of bios and technolog(ies) has engendered, reveals the insidious normative operating of hidden colonial power-relations. These power-relations disguise themselves as objective, transparent, non-discriminatory and impartial by virtue of enhanced scientific-mathematic methodologies and techniques that break down the subject's ontology and recode it in body-bits. These body-bits' repeatability, reproducibility, difference, sameness, and self-reflexiveness play an important role today in a reconceptualisation of the subject. This extremely rich book offers an original and deep historico-philosophical and cultural perspective on the topic, making a crucial contribution to a research-field that wants and needs to be interdisciplinary and transnational.

Gaia Giuliani

University of Bologna

Gaia Giuliani is a researcher in Political Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies at the University of Bologna, Italy. Her interests are in colonial, settler-colonial and postcolonial history of intersectional constructions of racialised identities in modern and contemporary Italy, Europe, Australia and the United States.
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Title Annotation:Joseph Pugliese's Biometrics: Bodies, Technologies, Biopolitics
Author:Giuliani, Gaia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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