At the end of her razor-sharp article on the racialized, sexualized and gendered elements of contemporary surveillance, Sydette Harry asks a provocative question: “What is the solution to being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Tatyana Fazlalidadeh‘s Stop Telling Women to Smile offer an answer.
A History of Abuse
The backdrop for Harry’s question and her larger article is the inherently abusive nature of surveillance. As Harry writes, surveillance “is based on a presumption of entitlement to access, by right or by force.” As she goes on to argue, black bodies, particularly female black bodies, are understood as being especially accessible. This understanding is troubling in and of itself, but as Harry points out, it exacerbated by the fact that this accessibility often results in the paradoxical erasure of black women. Literally, the more visible black women become, the more they are rendered invisible.
For instance, though the recorded abuse of Janay Rice was the catalyst for a national conversation about domestic abuse, Rice’s voice was quickly muffled, splintering into discussions of the professional future of Ray Rice and whether Janay should have stayed with him to begin with, among other things. Harry’s point is that these peripheral conversations eclipsed Janay Rice’s voice: there were more stations looping the elevator footage of her being abused than there were looping her response to the situation.
Harry provides other strong examples – the discussion following the Knowles and Carter elevator incident, Vogue claiming that JLo made big butts acceptable – but her real interest is coming up with strategies for eliminating this paradox and rendering black women visible, as they are and as they want to be, not simply as silent objects of a CCTV screen or a WSHH video.
Toward this end, she expands then ultimately rejects Steven Mann’s concept of sousveillance, which seeks to counter surveillance by rerouting the collected information of surveillance to the ones being surveilled: users. This expansion of sousveillance is interesting, especially since Harry defines it as “all forms of using tech to jam surveillance.” (I really like the word “jamming”) The examples of “tech” that she uses are all technological – hashtags, phone recordings, photos – but towards the end of the article, she emphasizes that surveillance existed before these particular technologies, so I’m going to read sousveillance as all forms of using techniques to jam surveillance.
Harry acknowledges the potential strength of sousveillance, but she is wary of how much personal disclosure they involve. For example, she cites the Buzzfeed article that details the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the police officer that stalked and sexually abused black women. The article has pure intentions, but in order to make its case, the article must render the abuse of Holtzclaw’s victims in vivid detail, subsequently treading the troubling line between journalistic rigor and gonzo exploitation. I think that the article is ultimately rigorous, but Harry’s trepidation towards sousveillance still stands, especially when she cites very recent instances in which sousveillance proved ineffective, like the multiple accounts of police violence in Ferguson. Despite the ubiquity of recorded instances of police brutality, convictions are still rare. In other words, even when black people open up their raw wounds to public scrutiny, sympathy and justice are still delayed, if they ever even arrive.
Because sousveillance jams surveillance of black bodies by inundating those same bodies with sunlight, resulting in black people still getting burned, Harry rightfully rejects it. Thus, she is left with the opening question: “What is the solution to being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?”
Lessons From the Invisible Underground
Invisible Man is the story of a black man who is black in an America that has finite and constraining visions of what or who a black man can be. Throughout the novel, the Invisible Man is forced to serve multiple roles; he is variously a mouthpiece for a Communist organization, a symbol of racial betrayal for a Pan-Africanist organization, a source of entertainment for rich white men, a symbol of bestial sexual fulfillment for white women and a mindless drone for industrial capitalists, among many other things. In all of these instances, his personal goals, opinions, desires and needs are overlooked, ignored or dismissed. Through coercion, manipulation and even sheer force, he is continually made to serve the wills of others.
In regard to the matter at hand, the Invisible Man’s experiences highlight an interesting dimension of surveillance: for every will he must serve, for every force that accesses him without his permission, there is a corresponding form he must embody. In order for him to become a boxer, he must be given gloves; in order for him to become a speaker for The Brotherhood, he must be given lessons from the group’s appointed propagandist; in order to become The Invisible Man, he must give himself a story. In each instance, the Invisible Man is reshaped into the image that fits the designs for his body.
This reshaping transformation is a necessary condition of surveillance. Although surveillance is perhaps experienced as an all-seeing eye, it is actually an eye that sees all it wants, things that it deems worth seeing. This valuing of certain things over others transforms the object being seen. There is a reason that the TSA looks for bombs, knives, guns and hockey sticks, but doesn’t look for copies of Hitler’s autobiography. Likewise, there is a reason that the NSA monitors people with links to so-called terrorists and not people with links to My Little Pony fanfiction. Of course, what a surveilling body wants to see is always mutable, and thus potentially more invasive, more abusive, hence the inherent discomfort of surveillance. Yet, this potential for further abuse is also a liability because it necessitates more items to screen, more data to process, more bodies to transform. As the data accumulates, images become less intelligible, less discernible, so parsing it entails either increasingly sophisticated methods of looking or continued looking with increasing gaps in the image.
In the Invisible Man’s view, he created so many gaps in his oppressor’s images that he became invisible, hiding in plain sight. While I do think he was successful, I am not comforted by his course of action. After all, he had to conduct his own sousveillance: he had to relive his very painful and traumatic life story. Thus, even if it is on his own terms, invisibility still feels like a defeat. I want to be seen, I want to be felt, I want to be heard. Furthermore, who’s to say that his invisibility isn’t temporary? Who knows that, but on the lower frequencies, he isn’t being wiretapped?
That said, I think that the Invisible Man ultimately offers a useful answer to Harry’s question: the solution to constantly being watched is to make yourself unwatchable. The Invisible Man’s mistake was to think that becoming unwatchable meant becoming invisible, jamming through an absurd self-determination that was actually self-denial. Becoming unwatchable means becoming undetectable, becoming unintelligible as that which you are supposed to be perceived as. Invisibility can be a part of such a program, as well as anonymity, disguise, mask, or grotesqueness, but none of these tactics necessitates self-negation, absence. Quite the opposite, these tactics necessitate an increased presence. However, this presence is unrecognizable to the surveilling body: classified.
I do not know exactly what it means for black women in particular to render themselves unwatchable, especially on a collective level, but I think that there are already interesting developments out there. For instance, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh‘s series, Stop Telling Women to Smile, actively opposes the idea that women should be seen on others’, especially men’s, terms. What is particularly powerful about the series is that each screenprint features the unique words of the woman being pictured, so each woman is responding to her specific experiences of surveillance and rejecting surveillance in a distinct way. More importantly, unlike the Invisible Man, these women are not appearing as disembodied voices or phrases or having to gruesomely unveil their wounds. They are simultaneously rejecting surveillance and affirming their visibility. They are becoming seen and unseen, concurrently shunning a form that does not fit them and embodying a new one, one that they actually already have.
In the end, becoming unwatchable is ultimately about undermining the infrastructure of surveillance. Because the reigning infrastructure of surveillance is so well-integrated into our lives – technologically, socially, and culturally – it is difficult to imagine ways to jam it, especially ways that don’t involve opening wounds and risking further pain. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. Though there are literal and figurative cameras everywhere, there are also endless amounts of oppositional forms we can embody, from isolated invisible tunnel dweller, to militant, self-affirming screenprints, to rocks rocketing toward a closed circuit television. It is not fair that we have to embody these forms, but my point is that most of us are already in them. We are them. So becoming seen isn’t a matter of repairing the gazes of those who watch us, giving them further access through futile sousveillance. It’s a matter of constantly reminding them that their access is neither appropriate nor accurate. They cannot see because we refuse to be defined by their gaze, not because they need to see more (sousveillance). Also, we are jamming the shit out of their cameras.