Who's looking at whom.
Rachel Dubrofsky and Shoshana Magnet's introduction to Feminist Surveillance Studies begins with a description of an academic scene:
At a recent roundtable of academics and privacy advocates discussing surveillance studies and inequality, the conversation variously turned to consumer surveillance, new technologies, and the weakened legislative climate on privacy in both the United States and Canada. While we share the interests of the discussants, we wonder at the place of feminist concerns about surveillance and issues of inequality (p1).
I turn to the resulting book Feminist Surveillance Studies off the back of a similar scene--an academic symposium on transparency and secrecy--with similar questions. As Rachel Hall notes, in her chapter for Feminist Surveillance Studies on the use of full body scanners in US airports, transparency is a threshold concept for all those interrogating public practices of surveillance and governance. Hall writes that an 'aesthetics of transparency' can be defined as the forcing of 'a correspondence between interiority and exteriority on the objects of the preventative gaze, or better yet, to flatten the object of surveillance' (p127). What this new collection convincingly asserts is that the demand for transparency placed on people by governing regimes does not affect all equally; that 'correspondences' are forced and made in service of different ideological ends; and that the academic and activist methods we might have for analysing, interrogating and countering regimes of transparency and surveillance must be able to engage 'terms of gendered, sexualized, raced and classed representations of bodies' (p2).
Feminist Surveillance Studies is a collection of eleven chapters that model different ways of doing Feminist Surveillance Studies. The chapters are varied, and include writing on surveillance as an apparatus for making colonial violence thinkable, and actionable; on surveillance and the work of anti-sex-trafficking advocacy in the mid-twentieth century; on the birth certificate as surveillance apparatus, as highlighted in the legal history of a transgender persons' right to have their birth certificate changed; on transnational surrogacy and new media communications; on police photos of 'the battered face of the popular U.S. singer Rihanna Fenty', and the way the police camera 'flash regulates skin colour to produce the subject of domestic abuse' (pp1078). Although the chapters vary by subject and methodology they speak to and across each other and together they model the precise and provocative benefits of a feminist intervention in surveillance studies.
The collection is also committed to underscoring the historical, or rather foundational, aspect of surveillance. As Andrea Smith argues in her chapter on settler violence and surveillance, '[t]here is not a pure or benign state beyond its strategies of surveillance' (p35). This kind of critical insight runs throughout the collection and frequently stems directly from fields of discourse beyond the discipline of surveillance studies. This is particularly the case in chapters by Andrea Smith, Laura Hyun Yi Kang, Lisa Jean Moore and Paisley Currah and Kelli D. Moore which write through the intersections of anticolonial, legal, feminist and media frameworks. It is further evidenced in Yasmin Jiwani's chapter on honour killings and 'interlocking surveillance(s). In her analysis of a case of femicide in Canada in 2009 that was presented in the media and court as an honour killing, and so an exceptional event, Jiwani argues '[t]he mediated emphasis on "honour killing" as a particularly exotic variant of femicide contributed to the hypervisibility of the Shafia case against the unstated and muted backdrop of the everyday gendered violence that women experience, or of the prevalent femicide of specific groups of women' (p80). Throughout, this collection demonstrates the ways a feminist surveillance studies enables academic discourse to register and act on what is not seen, or unseen, in the construction of a dominant optic.
The final third of the book is dedicated to chapters working 'toward a feminist praxis in surveillance studies'. In their chapter for this section Kevin Walby and Seantel Anai's set out a methodology for surveillance studies, a version of Canadian Sociologist Dorothy E. Smith's 'Institutional Ethnography' which 'examines how sequences of texts' in institutions, for example the documentation of an employee generated by Human Resources management, 'coordinate consciousness, actions, and ruling' (p214). For Welby and Anais a new methodology is necessary in order to evidence the value of surveillance studies as distinct from policing, security, and intelligence studies. Such a distinction, whilst important for the veracity of emerging scholarship, is always also in tension with the intra-disciplinarity of the work on display in this collection. In addition to the concerns this collection shares with recent work in critical media studies, and visual culture studies, the book as a whole is an intervention as an intersection: feminist surveillance studies. Each contributor supports Dubrofsky and Magnet's introductory statement that 'the ways in which supposedly "neutral" technologies are used requires a feminist analysis to access issues of disenfranchisement' (p5). The book does have a disciplinary coherence and it comes from the way feminist analysis is leveraged as the primary interrogative method. Critical feminism is revealed as a distinct enough aspect to hold together the disparate studies represented here, to make a consistent claim about an emerging discipline, and not compromise on the significant contribution this book also makes to intra-disciplinary study.
The book presents a mix of social sciences and cultural studies methods. The foreword and afterword, by Mark Andrejevic and Lisa Nakamura respectively, reference these methods as concerns of media. Andrejevic and Nakamura are both well-known for their work on new media and popular culture and so although these only occasionally come together as sites of analysis in the book (mainly in Dubrofsky and Wood's chapter on celebrity women on twitter, Kelli D. Moore's chapter on Rihanna and images of domestic abuse, and Sayantani DasGupta and Shamita Das Dasgupta's chapter on transnational surrogacy blogs) critical new media/media studies of contemporary culture begin and end the book, serving as a key disciplinary frame.
It is testament to the structural intra-disciplinarity of Feminist Media Studies that the subject categories this book is labelled with--Gender Studies, Surveillance Studies, Cultural Studies--don't cover the half of it. These framing points are enriched by the various socio-historical contingencies presented throughout. The multiple critical connections are precisely what is so vital about the book, and a reason I would include chapters from this book on reading lists for a general new media studies course, or contemporary literary studies and visual culture courses. In Lisa Nakamura's afterword, legacies of disenfranchisement by surveillance-state-building are accounted for in today's issues of internet access and digital literacy:
lack of access to digital tools and techniques, the industry practice of shipping smartphones and other devices preloaded with applications like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and, most important, a lack of awareness of options and training in how to seek out and install alternative platforms makes it unlikely the most-surveilled populations in Canada and North America can escape from the 'walled garden' of social media (p224).
In this collection Nakamura's research on race and new media today exists in a generative constellation with Andrea Smith's histories of surveillance and colonialism. Significantly for anyone concerned with and by 'aesthetics of transparency', the discourse that emerges from such a constellation asserts that the very privacy which new media modes of surveillance violate today, is itself the production of foundational regimes of surveillance.
Throughout the collection, discourses of visuality--gazes, ways of seeing, mechanics for visualising--are put into play with verbal literacies. As Ummni Khan writes, with reference to her work on surveillance of sex industry clients, '[...] the glitz of high-tech surveillance should not prevent us from also paying critical attention to surveys as a traditional form of (and etymologically connected to) surveillance' (p192). Khan's work on the survey builds on the collection's recognition that surveillance is not just being looked at, but being called to show, being called to speak, and having that speech and that demonstration already framed within categories of surveillance. In Khan's analysis the sex industry clients surveyed by the prohibitionist group Prostitution Research and Education, are shown to have been denied their agency by the problematic methods of the surveys themselves, and by the subsequent representation of their data. Khan's description of these surveys is proximate to the descriptions of the flattened image-object of surveillance discussed in the other chapters; all the contributors forcibly interrogate the function of given 'correspondences'. In addition, in an uncanny aspect, the work of demonstration and surveying is reflected in the book project as a whole; the academic researcher is also a kind of surveillance apparatus. Anxiety about this academic position is perhaps detectable in Mark Andrejevic's suspicion of the collective 'we' produced by methods of surveillance (pxvii), and in Dubrofsky and Magnet's description of the roundtable on surveillance studies and inequality. In this reflexive vein, a criticism of the book I had intended to make was that the images included are black and white and could maybe serve the analysis better in colour--particularly in Kelli D. Moore's chapter on Rihanna and police photography. But this material manifestation of the problematic of looking, and the questions it raises--should the object of surveillance be reproduced? How?--only serves to deepen the case made throughout the book for the value of feminist surveillance studies.
Zara Dinnen is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Birmingham.
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|Title Annotation:||Feminist Surveillance Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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