Review of Simone Browne’s ‘Dark Matters. On The Surveillance of Blackness.’

‘Blackness is identity and culture, history and present, signifier and signified, but never fixed.’ (Browne,S. p.8)

Simone Browne is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Browne began her faculty position in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. She is Associate Professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies.

She teaches and researches surveillance studies and black diaspora studies. Browne is an Executive Board member of HASTAC. She is also a member of Deep Lab, a feminist collaborative composed of artists, engineers, hackers, writers, and theorists.

Her first book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, examines surveillance with a focus on transatlantic slavery, biometric technologies, branding, airports and creative texts.

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness was published in 2015 and has been awarded three awards:

 

‘Dark Matters takes up blackness, as metaphor and as lives materiality, and applies it to an understanding of surveillance.’ (Browne, S. p.7)

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne was one of the major theoretical sources that fed and shaped my dissertation, which primarily focused on the Agency[1]  of artists of colour, or rather the lack thereof, and thinking of ways I (as a black artist, as a black CC) could navigate URL vs IRL and circulate my own practice safely which I speak generally using an encompassing term: the black CC’s, and discover what current methods of resistance that can be and have been employed. My research on obfuscation, the surveillance of blackness and on methods of resistance, lead me to Simone Browne’s Dark Matters.

Through information from Simone Browne’s writing and knowledge, I was able to formulate the language and pinpoint a topic to dissect; that being, the point of departure between two opposing poles of hyper visibility and total refusal, which I termed ‘Radical Visibility’.

What I enjoy most about this book is the use of language. It’s accessible, which is really important. Meaning you don’t have to be in academia and/or an academic to understand or to grasp the language and context of her writing. From Browne’s historical contextualization of surveillance and how it started within the transatlantic slave trade, to Fanon’s epidermalization and the racializing of skin to current forms of digital surveillance of blackness, to forms of resistance,

I was taken on an insightful and generous journey of realisation, reflection and made me more hyperaware of the current technological devices used today by all of us through her capture on ‘B®anding Blackness: Biometric Technology and the Surveillance of Blackness’.

‘Dark Matters suggests that an understanding of the ontological conditions of blackness is integral to developing a general theory of surveillance and, in particular, racializing surveillance – (..)’ (Browne, S. p.8)

The chapters explore a multiplicity of subversions and touched on forms of resistance such as Dark Sousveillance: being oppositional gaze, the  “talking back”, ‘’the rolling of the eyes’’: the performative drag and racial passing of runaway slaves; encoded spiritual songs; artistic confrontations such as Adrian Piper’s What It’s Like, What It Is #3 Video art installation, etc.

In the chapter “What Did TSA Find in Solange’s Fro?”: Security Theater at the Airport, Browne

writes about Solange Knowles’s “Discrim-FRO-nation,” a 2012 series of tweets calling out TSA’s discrimination against black women and their traumatic experiences in spaces such as Airports.

‘ (..) Rather than seeing surveillance as something inaugurated by new technologies, such as automated facial recognition or unmanned autonomous vehicles (or drones), to see it as ongoing is to insist that we factor in how racism and anti blackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order.’  (Browne, S. pp.8-9)

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne rightfully sits within the top category of books that I recommend on blackness and/or racialized surveillance, on forms of resistance and on refusal.

[1] Agency (in context of ‘agency over one’s body’): Could be defined as a sense of ownership and/or control over one’s body, actions and in terms of URL the control over reproduction and circulation of visuals of one’s body and even how it’s consumed.

Further Reading on Agency by Tiff: http://shadesofnoir.org.uk/but-is-agency-something-to-be-had-at-all/

Further Links:

Surveillance and Race Online | Simone Browne at MozFest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBwz-Jag1ZE

Panel Discussion: Hosted by Deep Lab and NEW INC at IDEAS CITYhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9izCkWH1r0

Dark matters: on the surveillance of blackness. (2016). Feminist Media Studies, 16(3), 544–546. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2016.1161347