Surveillance doesn’t work if I don’t give a crap

The anthropology blogosphere has been quieter than usual lately, mostly because most English-language anthrobloggers are American and quite a few of them are attending the American Anthropological Association’s conference taking place right now in San Jose. But that just leaves more room for us non-Americans. I was saving this post for when I finally moved hosts, but seeing as how it might not be before Wednesday, when this issue of The Coast becomes out of date, I thought I should post this now instead while I’m waiting for my rice to cook (yes I cook rice at 3:30 in the morning, I want it ready for when I get up).

Anyway, I was reading The Coast, Halifax’s alternative newsweekly (Canadian home of Dan Savage’s column) when I came across an interesting claim made in the current editorial. Halifax right now is obsessed over crime, at least as far as the local news is concerned. I think it’s partly a case of a manufactured moral panic (is there any other kind?), though it seems to be true that violent crime has been increasing. Regardless of whether or not the statistics say what people claim (I suspect it’s not so black and white), it’s true that people experience the world anecdotally, not through a judicious weighing of the evidence at hand. Constructed truths (again, are there any other kind?) have a reality of their own for the people who experience them, regardless of what a mythical neutral observer might see.

Now then, in the editorial I mentioned, it’s claimed that visible and public video surveillance hasn’t been shown to decrease crime rates. I don’t know if the data bears out this assertion, I’ll have to check the sociological literature later. But instead of preventing crimes by their presence, video surveillance cameras just help to solve them after the fact.. That touches upon what I said before, when I theorized that constant surveillance might make the surveilled upon uncaring of who’s watching them. If someone could always be watching, does it matter if you stab someone on the street or in a dark alley? Certainly not very 1984-ish. In fact, it sounds rather more grim.

Of course, there are other things to consider. The idea of surveillance as deterrence I think rests on the assumption that humans are more rational than they really are. Who acts after a careful assessment of the costs and benefits of action? People, I think, use more emotion when making decisions than suggested by the criminal justice system’s orthodox view of human behaviour.

Or it might be that people are actually more rational than given credit for. Violence against others is an extraordinary act, and if one is moved to actually commit violence, then perhaps it wouldn’t matter if one is being watched by others. Once you’ve decided violence is called for, then it might be so necessary to you that even the abstract threat of punishment is worth it. Put simply, perhaps by the time one has decided that violence against others is worthwhile, then at the same time one has also decided that the risks from using violence are acceptable.

I know, weak. I need to develop that more. There’s another thing to consider as well. Video surveillance as it’s conceived of takes the camera to be a proxy for the human gaze. The hope is that a publicly visible surveillance camera be seen as a human being in absentia, that the surveilled upon might experience the same disciplining effect that the direct gaze of others can do. However, perhaps video cameras are too difficult to anthropomorphize into a human being. Perhaps they’re too different from a person to have the threat of the gaze of others be anything more than an abstraction. In that case, what is to be done? Perhaps surveillance cameras should be installed in mannequins so that the gaze of others be felt more directly. You could even put a police uniform on the mannequins to make things abundantly clear. Or, to make it interesting, perhaps surveillance cameras should be installed in gargoyle statues. What gaze can be more terrifying than that of a leering monster made of stone? Isn’t the essential purpose of surveillance the production of fear in the surveilled?

I think it would be an interesting experiment, and even if it’s a bust, then you have interesting urban art to attract tourists with. A win-win situation! Actually, probably the simplest thing to do is install better lighting on public streets since it’s been shown to have a significant impact on crime rates, but I think gargoyles are better anyway. If I ever become mayor of a city that demands concrete measures against crime, I may actually implement The Gargoyle Initiative. And just to bring the whole thing back to panopticon, what if on a random basis, police officers dressed in gargoyle costumes should take the place of the surveillance statues? Think about it, an entire city whose residents are terrified that the statues around them might be alive. It would be the world’s greatest performance art piece. After all, what’s the use of power when it’s not absolute?

I’m posting this as a message of warning to the world. Don’t ever let me get any power, because I’ll be sure to enjoy it too much. There you go, now you’ve all had fair notice. Don’t come crying to me when you’re all forced to listen to broadcasts of my karaoke renditions of sappy love songs a la Nero.

It’s
the way you love me,
It’s
a feeling like thi-is.
It’s
centrifugal motion,
It’s
perpetual bli-is.
It’s the way you love me, baybee!
This kiss, this bli-is!
Subliminal!

Clap or you’ll be shot.

Technorati tags: , , , , , ,

So I married a killer robot

I know I’m kind of late to this party, but danged if I’m a gonna quit. I’ve been reading a bit of what the reaction to the new season of Battlestar Galactica has been on some parts of the English blogosphere and I just had to offer my take.

Battlestar Galactica began as a clash of civilizations: the genocidal and merciless Cylons versus the battered yet defiant humans. The people of the Colonial fleet were shown as noble but flawed, peace-loving but driven to violence, grief-stricken but stalwart, courageous, craven, paranoid, and cooly rational — in short, they were shown as human. The humans were the flawed heroes while the Cylons were the perfect Others, the anti-humans: relentless where the humans faltered, inscrutable where human pain was displayed, and all-knowing where the humans groped around blindly in the dark.

That was where Galactica began, but it’s certainly not where it is now. Slowly, we began to see more of what Cylons were really like, and slowly, we began to sympathize with what had been an unknowable enemy. Finally, by the third season the tables had turned and “we” were supposed to feel conflicted as to which side root for: the violently incompetent Cylons, or the suicide-bombing humans?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of suicide bombing in the show has become so controversial. After all, suicide bombing has been relentlessly portrayed in the news media as a cowardly tactic used by the enemies of civilization, possibly in league with Satan, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort. Setting aside the issue that cowards cower, not willingly blow themselves to smithereens, it’s a bit odd that the characters’ use of suicide bombing should be so fraught with moral crisis. I’d always gotten the impression that the problem with suicide bombing was that it was inconsiderate of distinctions between civilians and soldiers, whereas the tactic on Galactica has been used only against military targets. I think that the discomfort with suicide bombing among the show’s viewers comes from two main reasons.

The first reason is that suicide bombing lays bare the fiction that soldiers are human beings. That is, suicide bombing acknowledges that soldiers are not and cannot be human as long as they are soldiers; rather, they are military assets, pawns to be moved back and forth in war, the true game of kings. If a cause is worth killing others for, then it’s also worth killing your own soldiers for (Dean Stockwell’s character voiced a similar sentiment on the show, though he was arguing for the war to become genocidal again). Soldiers are trained to be the tools of their leaders, and the more perfect they can be as machines, the more perfect they become as soldiers. Therefore, when you see Colonial rebels blowing up themselves and their enemies, you aren’t seeing humans killing Cylons. Instead, what you are witnessing is the spectacle of killer robots killing other killer robots.

The second reason I think that suicide bombing in the show is controversial to its viewers is that its viewers are mostly composed of those who conquer, instead of those who are conquered. That is, it is the privilege of the viewers to see suicide bombing as a horrendous crime instead of being forced to consider it as a viable tactic. Which is why I don’t relate at all to the controversy over suicide bombing, since I’m descended from people who might have considered suicide bombing had the option been available.

What I’m referring to is the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902 (the latter year being somewhat arbitrary since armed resistance was still taking place in many “pacified” territories). It’s an obscure war to most Americans, though its impact is still felt today. Many historians see it as the precursor to the Vietnam War and therefore the ancestor of the current war in Iraq, though I see the Indian Wars as the truly prototypical conflicts that lent their shape to later wars of American imperialism.

Briefly, the Philippine-American War grew out of the the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, having finished its land-based empire-building in the Indian Wars like the Russians in Siberia, wanted to get into the overseas possessions game. Spain was already in the process of imperial decline and it was the ruler of colonies immediately adjacent to the US (remember, the Monroe Doctrine had already established the Americas as the playground of the United States). With the Philippines in hand, the US hoped to use it as a springboard into China. US troops invaded the Philippines, arriving in the middle of an ongoing insurrection by Filipino rebels. Hoping to use the native insurgents against Spain, the US tacitly encouraged the cause of Philippine independence. By the time the Spanish-American War ended, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which claimed the colony for its own. Feeling betrayed, Filipino rebels went to war against a new colonial master. In the end, they lost and the Philippines became a US Commonwealth.

The conflict soon became a guerilla war for the Filipinos, who could not use conventional tactics against better-equipped and better-trained Americans. The US Army saw guerilla war as dishonourable and uncivilized. A US general, in an exchange with a leader of the revolution, remarked that war

[C]ould only be justified by a combatant where success was possible; as soon as defeat was certain, “civilization demands that the defeated side, in the name of humanity, should surrender and accept the result, although it may be painful to its feelings.” Combatants who strayed from this principle “place themselves in a separate classification” as “incompetent in the management of civil affairs to the extent of their ignorance of the demands of humanity.” In this specific case, the end of conventional war and the dispersal of the Philippine Army meant that continued Filipino resistance was not only “criminal” but was “also daily shoving the natives of the Archipelago headlong towards a deeper attitude of semicivilization in which they will become completely incapable of appreciating and understanding the responsibilities of civil government.” Civilization meant “pacification” and the acceptance of U.S. sovereignty: “The Filipino people can only show their fitness in this matter by laying down their arms…” (Kramer 2006)

However, the Filipino revolutionary countered that the statement

was simply the claim that might made right, that the U.S. war was “just and humanitarian” because its army was powerful, “which trend of reasoning not even the most ignorant Filipino will believe to be true.” If in real life, he noted, “the strong nations so easily make use of force to impose their claims on the weak ones,” it was because “even now civilization and humanitarian sentiments that are so often invoked, are, for some, more apparent than real” . . . [T]he Filipinos had been left no choice. The very laws of war that authorized strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones were those that “persuade[d]” the weak to engage in guerrilla war, “especially when it comes to defending their homes and their freedoms against an invasion.” (Kramer 2006)

Update the language a bit and they might have been talking about suicide bombing. I think that instead of asking how suicide bombing can exist, it is better to ask what kind of dire situation a person can live in that they would think blowing themselves up is a good idea. Make no mistake that suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, else they would be using cruise missiles and nuclear threats.

Therefore, I cannot really understand why just the very use of suicide bombing in a fictional context can be so fraught with debate. Personally, it seemed perfectly logical that people in the position of the Colonials on New Caprica would turn to suicide bombing in the face of the overwhelming power of their enemies. Why suicide bombing? Why not? To me, something less would have seemed more unrealistic.

Multi-culti: Good, bad, or ugly?

In an effort to be more environmentally friendly, I am now recycling some of my previous writings from other online forums. In this case, I have here some constructive criticisms I offered to Thomas Hylland Eriksen about his working paper on the relationship between identity and cyberspace. I rather like what I wrote, so it seemed a shame just to keep it on the Media Anthropology Network’s servers. Plus I get to back up my stuff in case of fire or some sort of apocalypse. But, onwards:

My only substantive issue with the paper is the implied position that, were it not mostly for the transnationalizing efforts of migrants aided by the Internet’s technologies, the natural trajectory of the immigrant is towards assimilation. This does not address the active and institutionalized efforts at exclusion enacted by the nation-state and by many of its native-born population towards immigrants and their descendants. Often, this exclusion is based upon an ideology of race, upon the idea that immigrants and those born of immigrants are always already Other than the authentic indigenous population by virtue of being visibly different. I recall Lisa Lowe’s point that she is always an Asian American and never just American (Lowe 2003), or as James Clifford observed, with diasporas many times being the product of exclusion, the rise of a diasporic consciousness can be seen as making the best of a bad situation (Clifford 1997:257). In other words, diasporas are one of the consequences of the political ideology of race.

This ties into a broader point I want to make about nation-states and national identity. In many ways, nationalist ideology and racialized ideology are tied together, or at least are allied ideologies. Nation-states base their legitimacy in part on being the political manifestation of the nation, or being the nation writ large. The logic of nationalism demands that nation-states have homogenous populations, else the legitimacy of the state is called into question — if a nation-state rules because it is the representative of a people, what happens when other peoples exist within its territory? The empirical answer is that the nation-state suppresses these other nations, through direct and indirect violence (think of Native Americans in the former and African Americans and their economic and geographical segregation in the latter, but especially immigrant populations as well). If a nation-state’s people are essentially the same, then those not of the nation-state and its people are essentially different, essentially Other. This talk of essential difference, of course, is linked to the pseudo-scientific discourse of race, which supplies the essentialized categories necessary for many of nationalism’s constitutive fictions (in this way, I think Nazism is really nationalism taken to its logical extreme, but that is a digression).

Now then, what is really interesting is when one considers what nation-states are like today, in light of the new era of mass migration. Nation-states claim to represent the nation, but what happens to that notion when part of the nation exists outside the territory of the nation-state? As Thomas’ paper mentions, a nation-state can try to incorporate its diasporic members into its national and political imaginary, as in the case of Chile’s 14th region, and I will add the example of Haiti’s Tenth Department too. But wouldn’t the host country of those diasporic people object to the meddling of external actors in the host country’s territory? Shouldn’t the host country object, particularly because the new (or rediscovered) ideology of multiculturalism is already attempting to incorporate the otherness of migrants within the framework of the nation-state?

Here I will mention the results of the Canadian Ethnic Diversity Survey, which found that Filipinos in Canada scored highly both in their sense of belonging to their ethnic group and to Canada. They are loyal both to the Philippines and to Canada, in other words. I think this speaks to Sasskia Sassen’s observation that globalization, instead of weakening the nation-state, merely requires its rearticulation. David Graeber’s article on globalization being the re-emergence of older patterns of transnationalism is also interesting in this regard, particularly his point that today’s situation of an international elite in Europe using an international language mostly incomprehensible to the elite’s countrymen and living in cities with working class neigbourhoods composed of people drawn from around the Mediterranean echoes the situation in medieval Europe. My essential point is that what we might be observing is a new or reinvigorated transnational order, where members of a nation-state do not need to be exclusively loyal to that nation-state to be incorporated within it. So is race being decoupled from nation today? I think that race is actually still being deployed in the service of the nation-state, especially within the discourse of multiculturalism. It is, of course, an attempt to incorporate heterogeneity within a nation-state, or rather, an attempt at homogenizing heterogeneity. “Regardless of race or colour or creed, we’re all Canadian here,” is the message being promoted here in Canada. But multicultural discourse also obfuscates the differences between immigrants and already existing oppressed minorities (African Canadians and Natives in Canada’s case). It hides the historical oppression of minorities under the sameness of multiculturalism: Koreans are the same as Haitians, Ojibwa are the same as Poles, and the French are the same as Nigerians. So race still has political consequences even in the brave new multicultural world.

References:

Lowe, Lisa (2003). “Heterogeneity, hybridity, multiplicity: Marking Asian-American differences”. In Braziel, Jana Evans; & Mannur, Anita (eds.), Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader (pp. 132-159). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Clifford, James (1997). “Diasporas”. In Clifford, James, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (pp. 244-277). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Canadian Ethnic Diversity Survey
Statistics Canada
http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/89-593-XIE/89-593-XIE2003001.pdf
Now then, I’ll have to apologize but this only contains half of the information I referred to and does not have the data on Filipino’s sense of belongingness to Canada. I’m still in the process of tracking down the survey data. Actually I know where to look now thanks to my school’s librarians, but I still haven’t gotten around to getting the stuff.

Graeber, David (2002). “The anthropology of globalization (with notes on neomedievalism, and the end of the Chinese model of the nation-state).” American Anthropologist, 104(4):1222-1227.

Sassen, Sasskia (1998). Globalization and its discontents: essays on the new mobility of people and money. New York: The New Press.

Marx went away but Karl stayed behind*

Just the other day I was in the lounge of my school’s student union building minding my own business when I suddenly found myself surrounded by Marxists. It turned out that the Marxism class had been overly popular and the professor had needed to accomodate the handful of students who were unable to attend the regular class. So they were there in the student union lounge holding their own little Marxism class. I figured out what was going on and asked to sit in. The prof readily agreed after first jokingly asking if I was a Mountie spy (as in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are essentially the national, provincial, and local police force for much of Canada, and who rarely mount anything with four legs nowadays).

It was because of this that I learned that at one point, a third of the Communist Party in the United States was composed of FBI agents. In fact, the reds in the US were to a certain extent subsidized by the FBI, since FBI agents could pay their membership dues, as opposed to many of the party’s poorer members. Of course, as the prof pointed out, it’s not easy to fake a genuine commitment to Marxism, and how well run can a Communist Party be if it can be so easily infiltrated by those hostile to it?

Now, this prof is an old school Marxist. He is all about the original Marx. I mentioned that I’d actually read more Neo-Marxism than classical Marxism (which is rather common in anthropology) and he started going on about what he called academic Marxism and how it had in practice given up revolution. Fair enough, but as he went on I was reminded why Neo-Marxists started writing in the first place. The love affair with development and progress (making it kin to capitalism), the ordering of societies along a continuum from primitive to modern, the idea of the vanguard elite bestowing Marxist enlightenment upon the ignorant masses, and the ideological commitment to violence — these were all things that stuck in my craw. I was only a guest who hadn’t read the required readings and it would have been inappropriate for me to bring in more-sophisticated criticisms when the undergrads the class was designed for were still learning the basics, so I mostly kept my trap shut (though I was actually the second-most talkative person then even despite my self-censorship).

The prof mentioned anarchism as a competing ideology contemporaneous with early Marxism. He described it as a utopian project since it mostly rejected violent revolution. Rather, anarchists set up areas where they live as if the state did not exist and by doing so hope to inspire people to give up the state system by their example. Put that way, anarchism does sound rather naive, though it’s changed quite a bit since the 19th century.

I found the professor’s remarks interesting because I’d only recently read David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. It’s a short little booklet outlining some ideas of what an anarchist world might look like given anthropological data on non-state anarchist societies. It’s not a scholarly work but a call to action and some proposals for anarchism. It really is just fragments of an anarchist anthropology and not a unified theoretical construct.

In Fragments, Graeber discusses hunter-gatherer groups such as the !Kung, who have — or rather, had — elaborate strictures and spiritual taboos designed to prevent the accumulation of surplus and the formation of hierarchy. He also brings in cases like Madagascar, where the government is so weak that in many places there exists an anarchist social order on the ground, while officially the areas are still under the control of the state. Graeber also discusses anarchism within industrialised state societies, especially in modern activism and Zapatismo.

Now, the more I study nations and the state, the more I get convinced that the state system is too inherently unjust to keep should we truly want to create a better world. I keep going closer and closer towards anarchism. So it was fortunate that a couple of days after my encounter with Marxism, I attended a talk given by my department’s new anthro prof about the Zapatistas and Zapatismo. One thing that I found particularly interesting was the elucidation of the relationship between Marxism, anarchism, and Zapatismo. Mexican leftists are of course quite steeped in Marxist thought, so when those cadres retreated to the jungles of Chiapas to foment rebellion, they tried to use Ye Olde Handbooke of Marxist Mobilization. Which didn’t really get them anywhere with the local people. The Chiapenos told them, “We understand your words but we don’t understand what you’re saying.” They could not see what kind of relevance to their everyday lives Marxist rhetoric could have. The leftist cadres had to change their strategy. What they came up with was Zapatismo.

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the most visible of the Zapatista leaders, has referred to Zapatismo as an intuition. It is true that as a political philosophy it has no coherent theoretical whole. Rather, it seems to me that it is more like a set of general principles and methods. Zapatismo’s emphasis on practice over theory resembles some strains of anarchism, and its position that it will “Lead by obeying” certainly sounds anarchist (anarchy = “without leaders”). This is not surprising, since the Mexican leftists who helped found Zapatismo were also familiar with anarchism. However, the Zapatistas avowedly do not call themselves anarchists, but instead prefer to be simply called Zapatistas.

Zapatismo has of course spread beyond Mexico, becoming a symbol for the social justice movement in general (also called the anti-globalization movement by advocates of neoliberal globalization). It is not an ideological philosopher’s stone capable of healing all wounds and righting all injustices — in the talk on Zapatismo, for instance, my department’s new hire mentioned how women living in Zapatista territory appreciated the change in their lives: “Our husbands don’t drink as much and beat us less” — but I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Anyway, that was what I did last week.

*This is the title of an ethnography by Caroline Humphreys about her work in post-Soviet Russia. It’s a joke made by one of her informants, who was referring to the sign of the farm she did her work in — the sign originally said “Collective Farm of Karl Marx”, but the famous last name had weathered away. I’ve only read the preface of the book, which is reprinted in The Anthropology of Politics: a reader in ethnography, theory and critique, Joan Vincent (ed.), Oxford: Berg, 2002, pp. 387-98.

Invasion America, or Texas Hearts Part 2

Max Weber’s definition of the state is of “a relation of men dominating men [sic], a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence” (Rassmussen). Put more simply, a state is an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence over a certain group of people. Note the use of the word “legitimate.” Both of the passages I discuss in yesterday’s post examine how it is that violence is made acceptable and legitimate in modern democracies. How can modern democracies break their promises of peace and still appear peaceful? Both Comay and Povinelli, then, seek an emic understanding of this democratic violence.

Comay says that “[w]ith the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been.” She’s referring to one of the major events marking the beginning of the French Revolution, when the Third Estate (the French commoners) vowed to establish a new constitution for France based on their authority as representatives of the majority of the French population. The French revolutionaries were treasonous rebels according to the laws that existed at the time of their revolution. However, according to the revolutionaries themselves, it was the French government that was illegitimate, since it did not represent the will of most of France. Therefore, the revolutionaries were the ones enacting legitimate violence, while it was the royalists that had no authority. Or as Sir John Harrington observed,

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Therefore, where the authority of the king made the violence of the royalists legitimate, the authority of the people — or rather, the authority conferred by claiming to represent the people — made the violence of the revolutionaries legitimate. Which is a pretty story, but wasn’t it actually the might of the royalists that conferred authority, and wasn’t it the greater might of the revolutionaries that made them legitimate in place of the royalists? Didn’t their political power grow out of the barrels of their guns?

Yes and no. Ideology isn’t just a justification for violence. It’s also a reason for it. The Third Estate rebelled because they wanted more power (to put it crassly), but they wanted more power because they thought they had the greater legitimacy.

In the passage from Povinelli, she examines how violence and liberal democracies can coexist, how violence is made acceptable in a liberal democracy. While Hegel, by way of Comay, says that democracies by their very nature demand violence, Povinelli describes the twists and turns in logic liberal democracies take to make their violence seem reasonable and rational.

It seems to me, though, that asking why democracies are violent isn’t the right question. Rather, I think it’s more interesting to ask why democracies shouldn’t be violent. All democracies are states and all states are violent, so why should democracies be an exception?

There are many theories of state formation that are empirically supported by archaeological and historical evidence. In truth, states probably formed for different reasons and for combinations of reasons. However, one of these reasons was for the organization of people for the purposes of violence — in other words, for war. In this theory, the ultimate cause of state warfare is the development of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer societies can’t accumulate material surpluses, since the resources they depend on cannot be stored for long periods. The domestication of plants, however, means that grain be stored, and more crucially, that it can be stolen. Therefore comes raiding parties to capture that grain, and therefore states are needed to both organize for and defend against the seizure of resources. Or so goes the simplified evolutionary schema taught in undergrad anthropology courses.

Just as with the birth of the French Republic, so the birth of states was also fraught with violence. State formation is not simply marked by violence; rather, it was for purposes of violence that states were formed. All states are violent and all democracies are states; therefore, all democracies are violent. Individual states may be extinguished by the violent actions of other states, or even by the violent reactions of their own citizens, but despite this, states still act out in violence. So how could one expect a democracy to act in any other way?

Asked the frog of the scorpion, “Why did you sting me in the back as I was carrying us both across the river? Now we will surely drown.” “I couldn’t help it,” replied the scorpion. “It was my nature.”