2015, Sat, Jan 17

Secrecy & Surveillance

with Claudia Aradau, Gregoire Chamayou, Burkhardt Wolf; Moderation: Peter Hallward

As surveillance has become more dispersed, more insidious and less perceptible, what space is there for critique today? Techniques of surveillance and regimes of knowledge reconfigure the play of visibility and invisibility and the modulation of power. How can we gauge their effects upon our contemporary political condition? What difference do they make for political being?


Claudia Aradau: Anticipation, surveillance and big data
Since the Snowden revelations of NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance, intelligence agencies have repeatedly justified their practices through the analogy of ‘finding a needle in a haystack’. Although the analogy invokes imaginaries of detection and the production of conjectural knowledge analysed by Ginzburg, I argue that the practices of intelligence agencies today have more in common with astrology than detective knowledge. Drawing on historical research on astrology and Adorno’s reading of the Los Angeles Times astrology column, I show how data constellations which promise to ‘foretell the future’ reproduce a pseudo-rationality of security.

Burkhardt Wolf: Big Data, Small Freedom?
Today’s surveillance is not confined to the scope of images and visibility. More and more, its panoptism comprises possible futures and virtual modes of existence. This has led to a shift in the concepts of privacy, subjectivation and the political itself. Nevertheless, this exercise of power is anything but new: governance via statistical data, probabilities, social sorting or preventive measures has a long tradition in Western politics. This paper will give a brief historical review of this modern ‘statistical rule’.

Grégoire Chamayou: ‘Patterns of life’ as a tool of government: a very short genealogy.
The precondition for the recently revealed practices of state surveillance lays in a broader sociotechnical fact: the ubiquitous electronic capture of the traces of most of our social activities. We witness the emergence of a generalized ‘bio-graphic’ regime that tends to turn each micro-event of each life into registered data. The phenomenon of data capture is not reducible to the function of surveillance. I want to suggest that there lays one of the main points we should try to address. One of the most common means to deal with such a mass of accumulated data consists notably in extracting ‘patterns’ by way of algorithmic processing. Both counter-insurgency analysts and marketing experts search for ‘patterns of behaviour’ or ‘patterns of life’ in order to identify their target – be it a potential customer or an alleged terrorist. This vocabulary, along with the corresponding methodologies and epistemological categories, is shared today among very heterogeneous fields of power. The questions are: How might captured data and patterns of life be used to govern things and people? What are the tactical possibilities and the epistemological limitations linked to this kind of governmental tools? I will try to sketch a genealogy of the use of patterns of life as tools of government in the 20th century. A pattern, certain kind of graphs, will provide us with the breadcrumb trail for this enquiry.