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Dossier Editor Richard Maxwell

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy Richard Maxwell 1

Every Move You Make: Bodies, Surveillance, and Media

Michael J. Shapiro 21

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia Kelly A. Gates 35

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space: The Case of Sex

Workers in Bengal Swati Ghosh 55

Resisting Surveillance John Gilliom 71

Global Citizens and Local Powers: Surveillance in Turkey

Çağatay Topal 85

From Privacy to Visibility: Context, Identity, and Power in

Ubiquitous Computing Environments David J. Phillips 95

Suppressing Grief: The Politics of “McCarthy”-Era

Testimonies Margaret Morganroth Gullette 109

Copying Kill Bill Laikwan Pang 133


Rebecca Baron is a Los Angeles–based fi lmmaker and faculty member at

CalArts School of Film/Video. Her experimental and documentary fi lms
have been screened extensively in the United States and internationally at
the Whitney Biennial, New York Film Festival, Cinémathèque Française,
Oberhausen, Viennale, and in Rotterdam. She is the recipient of a 2002
Guggenheim Fellowship. More information about the Mass Observation
movement can be found in her article in the fall 2004 issue of Cabinet.

Kelly A. Gates is professor of media studies at Queens College of the

City University of New York. She is the author of “Wanted Dead or
Digitized: Facial Recognition Technology and Privacy,” in Television and
New Media (Sage); “Authorship and Identity in the Genome Age,” in
Information, Theory, and Society (James Nicholas); and “Technologies of
Identity and the Identity of Technology: Race and the Social Construc-
tion of Biometrics,” in Race Identity and Representation in Education, vol. 2,
ed. Greg Dimitriadis and Cameron McCarthy (Routledge).

Swati Ghosh is a lecturer in economics at Rabindra Bharati University

in Kolkata. She publishes occasionally in Economic and Political Weekly
and is a member of the editorial collective of from the margins, a journal of
concerned writings on gender, coloniality, and postcoloniality.

John Gilliom is a professor in political science at Ohio University. He is

the author of Overseers of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits
of Privacy (University of Chicago Press) and Surveillance, Privacy, and the
Law: Employee Drug Testing and the Politics of Social Control (University
of Michigan Press).

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of Aged by Culture (Uni-

versity of Chicago Press) and the prizewinning Declining to Decline: Cul-
tural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (University Press of Virginia).
She is also the author of Safe at Last in the Middle Years. Her articles have
appeared in American Prospect, the Nation, American Scholar, Representa-
tions, Feminist Studies, New Political Science, Profession 2001, PEN Ameri-
can Journal, and many other literary quarterlies. She is a scholar at the
Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.
Richard Maxwell is a professor of media studies at Queens College of
the City University of New York. His recent publications include Herbert
Schiller (Rowman and Littlefield) and (as a coauthor) Global Hollywood 2
(British Film Institute).

Laikwan Pang teaches fi lm and cultural studies in the Department of

Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
She is the author of Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-Wing
Cinema, 1932–1937 (Rowman and Littlefield) and Cultural Control and
Globalization in Asia: Copyright, Piracy, and Cinema (RoutledgeCurzon).

David J. Phillips is a professor of radio-television-fi lm at the University

of Texas at Austin. He studies the political economy and social shaping
of information and communication technologies, especially technologies of
privacy, identification, and surveillance. He is the author, most recently,
of “Negotiating the Digital Closet: Online Pseudonymity and the Politics
of Sexual Identity,” in Information, Communication, and Society (Taylor
and Francis), and “Cell Phones, Surveillance, and the State,” in Dissent.
He is working on a book exploring identity, visibility, and power in sur-
veillance infrastructures.

Michael J. Shapiro is a professor of political science at the University of

Hawai‘i. Among his recent publications are Methods and Nations: Cultural
Governance and the Indigenous Subject (Routledge), For Moral Ambiguity:
National Culture and the Politics of the Family (University of Minnesota
Press), and Cinematic Political Thought (New York University Press).

Çağatay Topal holds degrees from the Middle East Technical Univer-
sity in Ankara and is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department
of Sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. His
recent research papers include “The Proletariat of Empire or the Counter-
Empire of the Proletariat” and “Surveillance over Life-Production: Turk-
ish Migrant Workers in Germany.” His dissertation is titled “Surveillance
over Migrant Workers from Turkey in Germany: From Disciplinary Soci-
ety to Society of Control.”
Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy

Go back to work. Richard Maxwell

—President George W. Bush to the CIA workforce, 26 September 2001

The Problem of Surveillance Labor

Surveillance is tough work. Depending on the job, the U.S. Department

of Labor tells us that working conditions can include any combination of
the following: stress, considerable time spent on the feet, danger, confron-
tations with angry or upset individuals, risk, physical discomfort, lethal
hazards, fieldwork in high crime areas, monotony, constant alertness to
threatening situations, irregular hours, and a heavy toll on private life.1
On top of the physical and psychological strain, a surveillance worker
must also possess great self-discipline to control unproductive ethical
impulses to look away, to perceive innocence instead of guilt, to see a
friend not a foe, to accept the ineffable and resist the probable. Such care
for the person being watched may not be so tempting as screwing around
on the job, which for a surveillance worker could amount to the same
thing as having an ethical moment. Whatever the case, the humanity of
the surveillance worker has always been a weakness of surveillance sys-
tems, especially in the eyes of those overseeing the work.
The problem of surveillance labor has been recognized in surveillance
architectures at least since the 1780s when Jeremy Bentham modified his
brother’s plans for his Krichev estate in Russia to conceive the panopti-
con. In “Letter VI” of Panopticon, Bentham fl attered himself with a smug
assessment of the key advantages of his Inspection House, admiring above
all how the “apparent omnipresence” of the all-seeing chief inspector
kept the population of inmates from misbehaving. Then, in the remain-
ing paragraphs of “Letter VI,” Bentham outlined further “fundamental
advantages” that envision nothing less than a division of panoptical labor
based on a coercive system that would restrain workers’ temptations to
slack off or to moderate their judgment with forbearance toward the people
they were watching. 2
It is well known that the fi rst aim of the panoptical design was to

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Richard Maxwell.
reduce the effort it took to watch over the carceral theater, automating the
effect of surveillance with its famous circularity, central inspection lodge,
and individuated cells. Less commentary has been spent on the layer of
under keepers, who Bentham said would not only subject the inmates to
more individuated inspections but who would themselves fall under the
watchful eyes of the chief inspector, or Director, as Bentham would sub-
sequently call him in the postscript to Panopticon. The “under keepers or
inspectors, the servants and subordinates of every kind,” wrote Bentham,
“will be under the same irresistible controul [sic] with respect to the head
keeper or inspector, as the prisoners or other persons to be governed are
with respect to them.” In Bentham’s plan, the under keepers would be more
responsive to those under their supervision. But it was precisely this close
encounter that enhanced the possibility of a “prisoner . . . appealing to the
humanity” of an inspector. Bentham could only promise to his interlocu-
tors—the potential funders of his panopticon—that the Director would
certainly see to it that the underlings did not succumb to such weakness:
“In no instance could his subordinates either perform or depart from their
duty, but he must know the time and degree and manner of their doing
so. It presents an answer, and that a satisfactory one, to one of the most
puzzling of political questions—quis custodiet ipsos custodes? ” (who will
watch the watchers?).
Today there are about 3 million people employed in the protective
services in the United States, as well as an estimated 82,000 intelligence
agents employed by the U.S. government. 3 These combined job categories
involve varying amounts of surveillance work, commonly defi ned as the
continual observation of an individual or group of people, and include
nearly 1 million security guards, over a million jailers and local police,
and tens of thousands of spies, game wardens, private investigators, detec-
tives, U.S. Marshals, FBI agents, drug enforcement agents, immigration
officers, border patrol agents, customs agents, secret service, as well as
public-safety employees (so-called fi rst responders working as police and
fi refighters). Virtually all of these jobs have come under greater scrutiny
since the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, in Septem-
ber 2001, when the work of surveillance became a key problem for the
management of the U.S. political crisis. Starting with public criticism of
the interagency rivalries “built in” to President Truman’s 1947 National
Security Act, subsequent efforts to reorganize surveillance labor included
passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, the creation of the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, the Intelligence Authorization Act for
Fiscal Year 2004 (Patriot Act II), and The 9/11 Commission Report released
in the summer of 2004.4
The Patriot Act was passed hurriedly in the aftermath of the 9/11

2 Richard Maxwell
attacks by a stunned Congress that did not pay close attention to the act’s
content until civil liberties groups began to highlight its overreaching
authority to snoop on Americans and the fact that it did little to alter the
preexisting capabilities of domestic intelligence agencies to collect and
share information. The Patriot Act II enacted in early 2004 was a modi-
fied version of a controversial set of proposals circulated in 2003 that were
fi nally rejected by Congress after widespread public resistance. In this
version, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was granted wider power to
subpoena personal information from insurance companies, travel agencies,
real estate agents, stockbrokers, the U.S. Postal Service, jewelry stores,
casinos, car dealerships, and other “fi nancial institutions,” which were
thus incorporated into a larger surveillance industrial complex.5
The DHS was created at the urging of Congress in response to public
pressure to do something about the crisis in the national security system.
Initially resisted by the Bush administration, the DHS would unify and
coordinate twenty-two separate agencies and the work of over 180,000
federal employees. By unifying the surveillance workforce under the mas-
sive umbrella of the DHS, the U.S. government created new problems
of coordination, provided inadequate funding, and allowed the DHS to
reorganize the workforce in a way that made much of the surveillance work
harder while also undermining the federal employee unions’ institutional
support of the workers.6 Before discussing the DHS solution to the labor
problem, I consider in more detail The 9/11 Commission Report’s answers
to the failures of surveillance work in the United States, which the report
argues resulted from technical, legal, and human obstructions of informa-
tion flows.7
Presenting detailed reenactments of the training and surveillance work
carried out by the 9/11 hijackers, the report describes how administration
officials in both the Clinton and the current Bush administrations could
not comprehend the connection between events and reports of midlevel
inspectors in different agencies who, for the most part, were well aware of
the activities of those under their watch. The salient organizational prob-
lems were compartmentalization of surveillance work and poor informa-
tion management, a combination that created informational blind spots
that prevented inspection of the entire carceral theater of terrorism and
counterterrorism. The problem of compartmentalization became a crucial
predicate for the report’s most widely publicized recommendation that the
U.S. Congress create a “single, principle point of oversight of all surveil-
lance work related to national security.” 8 Responding as if to the ever-
looming presence of Orwell’s 1984, (libertarian) Right and Left pundits
attacked this recommendation, respectively, as “central planning” 9 and
“the fi nal ingredient for absolute power.”10 Meanwhile, factions within

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 3

the U.S. intelligence elite raised quite different though self-serving con-
cerns about how such reform would redistribute the intelligence budget,
over 80 percent of which was reportedly controlled by the Department of
Defense.11 Because the 9/11 commission’s proposals targeted technical and
organizational reform, public commentary alighted on the failings of the
“intelligence apparatus” and on identifying those in the U.S. leadership
who were accountable for these failings.12 The discussion of solutions pre-
dictably centered on the report’s technical stopgaps, including proposals
for horizontal information networks, interoperability, database manage-
ment, and so on.13 Ignored was the commissioners’ blueprint for a new
division of surveillance labor in the United States, one that absorbed the
workforces of the DHS, military intelligence, FBI, and CIA into a single
coordinated system.
The 9/11 commission recapitulates Bentham’s thinking about the
“puzzling political question” of who will control the under keepers, though
it does this using two distinct registers, both alien to Bentham. The fi rst
envisions a pastoral form of control over the surveillance workforce. While
the report subordinates surveillance labor to the information technology
and the management team that will be deployed to solve (or further com-
plicate) the nation’s crisis, it also offered a plan to care for some of the
frontline surveillance workers. The field agents, said the report, had been
ill prepared to understand the strange threats emerging in the post–Cold
War world. They need better training, better education, better organiza-
tional skills, and better understanding of the specialized technical and
legal possibilities of national security work.14
Perhaps because he straddled absolutist and modern disciplinary soci-
eties, Bentham did not have quite such a caring view of his under keepers,
much less any sympathy for them. Indeed, he said they would feel the pan-
opticon’s “necessary coercion” as a “curb to delinquency” and a “scourge
to guilt.”15 The contrast between methods of coercion and care sharpens
when the antecedents of Bentham’s panopticon are contextualized.16 The
immediate source for Bentham’s plan to control the under keepers was a
group of rowdy English workmen at his brother’s Krichev estate. Hired
in 1785 to train and supervise the Russian peasants in shipbuilding and
manufacturing on the estate, the English supervisors had begun a year later
to slack off, drink too much, get into fi ghts with each other, and clash with
their boss, Samuel Bentham. By applying the panoptical method to the
organization of estate labor, the Benthams successfully raised the peasants’
productivity, but failed utterly to improve the Englishmen’s discipline. The
problem of how to control the under keepers would not go away, except in
the idealized panopticon that Bentham insisted offered a civilized form of
coercive force over this inferior strata of surveillance worker.17

4 Richard Maxwell
Despite the panopticon principle, the problem of surveillance labor
remains an unstable element in the foundation of the surveillance state.
The 9/11 commissioners acknowledge as much when speculating that
a well-tempered surveillance workforce will be less of an obstruction
and more productive of useful information flows. But if the past is any
guide, even productive surveillance labor can generate intelligence that
the supervisory machinery cannot consume or has historically consumed
to ill effect. The public record is rife with intelligence failures—political,
marketing, and economic—some failures were the stuff of farce, others
the cause of bloody tragedies. The 9/11 report nevertheless dreams of a
pastoral system that increases consumable intelligence in the day-to-day
surveillance of the lower orders.
When discussing the role of the overseer, the 9/11 report shifts from
the pastoral to the language of nation and sport. In their conclusion, the
commissioners ask: “Who is the quarterback? The other players are in
their positions, doing their jobs. But who is calling the play that assigns
roles to help them execute as a team?”18 In their Knute Rockne reading
of Hegelian dialectics the quarterback possesses the higher consciousness
of what history holds in waiting for the United States. The quarterback
in question will be a “National Intelligence Director,” one who needs
no pastoral care because he will be drawn from a special class already
endowed with the power and consciousness of the all-seeing sort. It will be
the job of this director to carry out one of the commission’s most bizarre
recommendations: “To fi nd a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing,
the exercise of imagination” within his national surveillance team—the
sort of imagination that would foresee the unseen and unknown threats
to national security, which the report likens to thinking up scenarios that
one could fi nd in a Tom Clancy story.19
The panopticon principle of enhancing the Director’s virtual pres-
ence through a clever use of light and space in the centrical lodge gave
the Director a bit more freedom to enjoy his position of authority without
constant vigil over his underlings who, by contrast, are supposed to be
kept in thrall by the Director’s apparent freedom to control when and
where he will be watching them. The source of this design feature was
Orthodox Church architecture, which was confi gured to remind peasants
of their place in the cosmological order and give the clergy—the middle-
men between God and dirt—a symbolic power over their subjects via their
visibility as God’s active agents. 20 The peasants were mere spectators, who
passively watched from the nave, knowing “that God was judging and
watching over them.” 21
In the contemporary management structure proposed by the 9/11
commission, the National Intelligence Director works above the tier of

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 5

unfreedom where, under his watch, his deputies and their agents are fated
to labor. We can imagine a clever use of public relations playing the pan-
optical shell game with the director’s presence to keep the under keepers
on their feet. In their present-day roles, a second tier of under keepers will
work within “a National Counterterrorism Center,” while a third tier will
work in one of three reconfi gured agencies for domestic, military, and
foreign counterterrorism. All agency heads will report to the National
Intelligence Director. 22 And like the Director of Bentham’s panopticon,
the National Intelligence Director will be subject to visitation by a “higher
order” of superintendent—in the panopticon: magistrates and judges; in
the new division of labor: Congress and the president—who would be
“called down . . . from the superior ranks of life” to the “irksome task” of
inspection of the lower orders. As in the design for the gentlemen visiting
the panopticon, these latter-day lords will not feel the “proportional repug-
nance” toward the surveilled, fi nding that the new division of surveillance
labor had eliminated a “great load of trouble and disgust.” 23
The 9/11 commission also reiterated the last of the advantageous forms
that Bentham attributed to the panoptical division of labor: the publica-
tion of the 9/11 report, which immediately became a best seller, made the
contemporary carceral theater of counterterrorism a theater accessible
to “the curious at large—the great open committee of the tribunal of the
world,” as Bentham put it. In our present context, the question remains
how passive the spectators will be after seeing the proposed new division
of surveillance labor, especially when they fi nd out that the U.S. leadership
will zealously control its own visibility within it while denying that same
freedom to the rest of us.
One answer to this question is that a growing number of communi-
ties in the United States are not content to watch from the wings. By the
end of summer 2004 numerous city councils had gathered to read and
debate the unconstitutional provisions in the Patriot Act. By that point
over “330 cities, towns, and counties” in the United States and four states
(Alaska, Maine, Vermont, and Hawai‘i) had passed resolutions condemn-
ing the act. This growing resistance has helped give municipal, state, and
local employees the freedom not to follow provisions in the Patriot Act
that would have transformed them into surveillance agents for the U.S.
Department of Justice. 24
Another possible answer will come from the ranks of surveillance
workers themselves. After the DHS overhaul of the surveillance workforce,
there was a surge of resistance from the unions representing federal work-
ers involved in some form of surveillance—homeland security, counterter-
rorism, and so on. The main confl icts fractured the Bush administration’s
fantasy of automating a more efficient surveillance state. A principal point

6 Richard Maxwell
of contention was privatization, or outsourcing of surveillance work to
private corporations. According to a report issued by the American Civil
Liberties Union in 2004, aptly titled The Surveillance-Industrial Complex:
How the American Government Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in
the Construction of a Surveillance Society, corporations have been enlisted
to make up for insufficient federal surveillance operations. 25 The insuf-
ficiencies involved politically imposed structural limits on the number of
surveillance workers the government was willing to employ and on the
funding the government was willing to provide for research and develop-
ment, as well as infrastructural improvements throughout the national
defense system. Another study showed that the Bush administration was so
reluctant to form the DHS that it not only bungled preparations for housing
the DHS—its headquarters ended up in a warehouselike building in an old
naval intelligence complex—but the administration ensured that funding
for the DHS would not expand much beyond what was effectively money
previously budgeted to the twenty-two agencies that comprised the new
Homeland Security behemoth. 26 Next to the amount of federal dollars that
bled into Iraq and the pockets of privateers like Halliburton and Bechtel,
the U.S. government was starving its own domestic surveillance opera-
tions. By outsourcing to private corporations, the Bush administration also
condoned the elimination of public oversight of certain counterterrorist
surveillance operations in the United States while it undermined whatever
role the federal unions representing surveillance workers might play in
development and deployment of surveillance technology.
Clearly, there was a conscious, politically motivated strategy to dis-
empower the lower strata of federal surveillance labor; it was not merely
an accident of an inept administration. The U.S. leadership targeted the
federal workers by adding into the Homeland Security legislation rules
to replace the old pay schedule for federal employees with a new merit or
performance pay system. This alone created new insecurity for workers
whose commitments to the job were tested rather than encouraged. The
U.S. leadership also allowed the DHS to impose a new human resources
system—with little negotiation in what is known as a “meet and confer”
process, which the DHS walked out of in August 2004. 27 The nature of
these changes led to an extraordinary standoff between the three major
labor unions representing surveillance workers and the DHS. On the one
side, the DHS and administration were touting the new efficiencies in
the way Homeland Security coordinated surveillance work in the United
States. 28 On the other side, the National Treasury Employees Union
(NTEU), the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE),
and the National Association of Agriculture Employees (NAAE) greeted
the new DHS human resources system as an attack on collective bargain-

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 7

ing, on the right to organize, and on other statutory protections of the
workforce. 29
Within days of this standoff, the National Border Patrol Council and
National Homeland Security Council of AFGE released a survey from
its membership of Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protec-
tion (CBP) inspectors. 30 Membership in these unions account for about
65 percent of all customs and border patrol workers. The survey results
showed that a majority of these frontline inspectors, all of whom were self-
identified patriots, did not support DHS strategies to “fight terrorism.”
This general attitude was accompanied by low morale, a feeling that the
management was weak, a sense that the DHS’s pay and job security reforms
along with the DHS’s failure to provide adequate tools and equipment had
threatened their protective mission. There was also strong opinion among
the inspectors (nearly half of those surveyed) that the United States was no
safer from terrorist attack in 2004 than it had been in the fall of 2001. One
frontline worker said that there was “just no support from the higher-ups
from DHS. . . . people talking about us doing our jobs, but [not supplying]
us with what we need to do them.”31
The AFGE leadership was especially angered by the DHS’s unilat-
eral creation of the new “CBP inspector” job and the centralized rules
for training and deployment of these agents. Prior to the creation of this
job category, there would have been three distinct specialists working the
border—one in agricultural surveillance, one in immigration, and one in
customs. The DHS rolled all three of these specializations into one job and
then offered only seventy-one days of training for these new “specialists.”
By reconfiguring a CBP position during the hiring freeze of 2003–4, the
DHS created a managerial improvement on paper that proved to be an
unqualified disaster in practice. Charles Showalter, president of AFGE’s
National Homeland Security Council, noted that these officers simply
weren’t trained to do the job and, moreover, had been restricted by a “one
face at the border” rule that deployed agents to one site to “meet and
greet” people entering the United States. Showalter described the new
role as akin to an amusement park worker welcoming patrons and held up
a DVD instruction guide on good “meet and greet” manners as evidence
of the measly tools for training that the DHS had provided to the CBP
inspectors. 32 Further, by collapsing the three positions into one, the DHS
bypassed the unions to unilaterally pull the surveillance agents out of job
categories represented by each of the three main labor unions, leaving
the CBP inspectors in a state of institutional limbo about their statutory
rights as federal workers. Without labor representation, as an AFGE vice
president noted at the press conference where the border patrol worker
survey was announced, surveillance agents would be less likely to voice

8 Richard Maxwell
concerns about weaknesses in the DHS’s national security organization
and its management structure, recalling that the post-9/11 whistle-blowers
in nonunion shops like the FBI were no longer working there. 33
These disruptions tell us something about the contemporary prob-
lem that surveillance labor poses for the state, in particular how the Bush
administration responded with a division of labor that hindered rather than
enhanced the work carried out by the lower strata of surveillance personnel.
The tensions between the workforce and the “higher orders” exacerbated
the political and ideological crises of national security. With its campaign to
assail federal surveillance labor, the Bush administration managed to devalue
frontline national security workers and alienate them from the state’s war
on terrorism (AFGE endorsed Kerry in the 2004 election). In addition, as
I have shown, the conditions of state-sponsored surveillance labor are no
longer solely determined by centralized state operations à la Big Brother. The
antistatist ideology of the Right—while contradictorily enlarging govern-
ment—has been driving work into the commercial sector with outsourcing
and privatization. This has further expanded private control over domestic
surveillance systems, reduced the power of unions, and encroached on public
oversight of funding and custody of the surveillance workforce. Though it
is too soon to know the impact of these changes, there can be little doubt
that this political economic realignment will increasingly determine the way
surveillance technology and labor are developed and deployed.

Myths of Surveillance Power

It is striking then how the general literature on surveillance has been silent
about the problem of surveillance labor and has had little on the whole
to say about the political economy of surveillance. One cause of this may
be what David Nye and others have called the technological sublime, in
this case the sense of the awesomeness of modern surveillance technology
that overwhelms and defi nes how we think about surveillance. 34 Surveil-
lance technology can be both conspicuous and innocuous in the travails
of daily life. The sublime response relies on and resides in the publicity of
the technology’s grandeur, whether the source is political or cultural com-
mentary, popular culture, architecture and urban planning, commercial
advertising, or scholarly writing. Once it becomes spectacle, surveillance
technology can dazzle and intimidate. But for surveillance technology to
overwhelm thought, a culture must embrace a living myth of the tech-
nology’s awesome, central presence, from its barefaced and breathtaking
forms to its unannounced operations within modern institutions. The
technological sublime exercises a powerful hold on the imagination.

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 9

Vincent Mosco extends this notion to encompass the digital sublime, the
present-day mythos engendered and sustained by the hyped-up mania for
new digital media and information technology. There is little to be seen of
labor in the cultural discourse of the digital sublime, which captivates the
imagination of surveillance writers through paradoxically linked myths
of the divine and demonic powers of information technology (IT). 35 The
9/11 report is redolent with this muddling mythos—“Technology as an
Intelligence Asset and Liability,” the openness of the Internet serving good
and evil alike, and so on. 36
We have seen elsewhere how an incessant reverie, even ecstasy, inflated
the dot-com bubble of the 1990s. Then, of course, the true believers of
Total Information Awareness and Homeland Security were getting their
own incredible buzz from ingesting these myths of an all-powerful digi-
tal presence. The DHS and Department of Justice were, for their part,
enraptured by the quasi-private Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information
Exchange (MATRIX), which was created by a Florida database cor-
poration and shepherded to Washington, DC, by Florida governor Jeb
Bush—MATRIX has reportedly identified 120,000 people in the United
States with a “High Terrorist Factor” (HTF) score. 37 In the digital sub-
lime of counterterrorism, suspicious types appear to have surrounded us;
they may even be us. As Mosco says, the myths guiding the application
of such technological wonders “matter in part because they sometimes
inspire powerful people to strive for their realization whatever the cost.”38
Induced into this sublime disorder, the Bush administration and its fellow
travelers seemed to be in the thrall of the ubiquitous surveillance machin-
ery, perhaps less to catch the bad guys than to sate an infantile desire for
omnipotence or to serve the divine mission of the all-seeing Christian
god, or both. 39
But then these reveries are matched by quite different but equally cap-
tivated musings about communitarian nirvanas in the global cybervillage,
transidentitarian polities, hybrid constituencies, and smart mobs. Market-
ing researchers are no less spellbound by the identity-defi ning powers of
cyberspace and IT in general—every innovation for improved data mining,
market segmentation, and Internet-based targeting is an invocation of the
powerful myth. IT feeds the faith that inspires marketers and advertis-
ers to strive for more control over the infrastructure of consumption. At
the same time, these myths of progress are shadowed by their demons:
fi nancial bubbles and day trading, terrorist cells, the Unabomber, genetic
mutations, social isolation, political apathy, child pornography, the end of
privacy, and so on. The end of privacy has become a particularly powerful
myth about freedom’s withering in the presence of the digital sublime.
As Mosco points out, the government “plays an enormous role in

10 Richard Maxwell
manufacturing cyberspace magic because much of its legitimacy is based
on identification with this future wave.”40 We can see this magic at work
in the 9/11 report. It is also there if we look more closely into the moment
of Porter Goss’s Oedipal embarrassment when his own children chided
him for lacking computer skills.41 The crucial mythos was not resid-
ing in his children’s attack but in the question of whether Goss (Bush
Minor’s fi rst choice to replace the feckless George Tenet as director of
Central Intelligence) would suitably fit the Olympian role of a DCI who
must manage those aspects of the “transcendent spectacle” that attends
to digitized supersurveillance power.42 This mythical role was amplified
by the 9/11 commission’s recommendations for a new chief inspector to
oversee surveillance management in the U.S. government, and then again
in an August 2004 executive order that gave the DCI expanded oversight
of some of the fi fteen intelligence agencies operated by the government.43
It remains to be seen what power, if any, the überinspector will exercise
over the privatized sector of domestic surveillance run by commercial
The myths of the digital sublime and the metaphors that join them—
the library, road, bazaar, community, and narrative44 —not only shape
thought and debate about surveillance technology but also inform the
competing aspirations over how to use or disable it. Myths “can foreclose
politics, can serve to depoliticize speech,” says Mosco, “but they can also
open the door to a restoration of politics, to a deepening of political under-
standing.” Myths can be repoliticized if treated as prepolitical—that is,
as a starting place for a “critical retelling [and] a political grounding that
myths appear to leave out.”45
Myths of surveillance power have been increasingly politicized in anal-
yses of biopolitics, as exemplified by the contributors to this issue of Social
Text. In the lead essay, Michael J. Shapiro revisits the stories of bodies, sur-
veillance, and imperial violence from antiquity to the contemporary media
representations of war and sci-fi crime fi ghting, fi nding restive memories
disrupting the state’s dream of a quiescent populace. The system-serving
narratives of all-powerful surveillance enshrine the state’s capabilities for
successful governance by information management, but these are inevi-
tably shot through with weak plots and a stable of unreliable surveillance
workers: the heretical antiheroes, converts, and whistle-blowers. A con-
temporary manifestation of these instabilities can be found in the recent
success story of biometric surveillance and face-recognition industries.
Perhaps more than other pretenders, these folks have cashed in big on the
digital sublime, as Kelly A. Gates shows in her analysis of the emergence
of these predictable but powerful sectors of the informationalized political
economy in the immediate post-9/11 period. Drawing on the seductions

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 11

of technostalgia and the demand for information technology to manage
systemic crises, these surveillance businesses have engorged themselves on
their growing authority to deepen their pockets, despite the considerable
imprecision of their services. One wonders what other stories might be
circulating within the lower strata of the biometric workforce to disturb
the fault lines in an already shaky industrial-surveillance complex.
Turning to what might be called postcolonial biopower, Swati Ghosh
examines how state and local “watch-care” forms of surveillance in Bengal
have recast prostitutes as sex workers worthy of welfare and health care
but disqualified from having moral rights of full citizenship because of
the very bodilyness of their work. Their visibility as deserving citizens is
paradoxical: they are not granted full personhood and yet are made objects
of state care; their social visibility is championed by artists, progressive
civic organizations, and politicians, and yet their publicness remains both
proscribed and compulsory, coordinated through disciplines of geographic
confi nement and health services. In this context, a Westerner might invoke
the power of privacy rights. But here such an option is nonexistent. Exiled
outside the moral boundary of privacy protection, those who resist sur-
veillance come to rely on what John Gilliom calls, after James Scott, the
“weapons of the weak,” the often lonely, often selfless tactics to preserve
dignity, defend loved ones, and “work the system.” Gilliom reveals in
his essay how the commitments to families, friends, and the fight for a
modicum of freedom inspire a group of women caught in a net of welfare
surveillance in the poorest reaches of Appalachian Ohio. Drawing on
their experiences, Gilliom shows how privacy rights talk becomes unintel-
ligible and irrelevant for the weakest among us and argues that the Left
must discover new ethical and political sources for fi ghting or reforming
system-serving surveillance.
When a nation’s role in the current geopolitical realignment is both
central and uncertain, biopolitics tends to get knotted up by transversal
lines of crisis management, as Çağatay Topal shows in the case of Turkey.
The Turkish state’s ambivalence toward modernization, globalization, and
informationalization has created conditions for weak central population
surveillance. But rather than seeing this as creating spaces of freedom
from surveillance power, Topal argues that weak surveillance places Turk-
ish citizens in a precarious liminality between a society of control and a
society of discipline. Topal perceives this as another of the tragicomedies
of Turkish life and proposes that the outcome will become clearer as the
state advances toward a “rationale of control suitable for capitalism’s global
de/recodification strategy.” Returning to the United States in David J.
Phillips’s essay, we fi nd no such ambivalence in government or business
toward informationalized capitalism. Echoing several of the other con-

12 Richard Maxwell
tributors, Phillips challenges liberal notions of privacy for failing to grasp The fact of the
or contain the power of contemporary surveillance societies. He then
develops the concept of “resources of visibility and knowledge production” matter is that
to argue for ways to modify ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) systems
through the ethical allocation of these resources. Phillips draws on the workers, the
experience and political expediencies of “coming out” to fi nd alternative
under- and
ethical and political sources for distributing resources of visibility within
ubicomp systems. Phillips’s impulse to get into the workings of ubiquitous
disemployed, the
computing environments and away from the mythos of the digital sublime
questions how contemporary political economic alignments have trans- incarcerated, the
formed surveillance from a “resource of visibility” into a system-serving
economics of display. In this political economy the balance of power to homeless, and
control these resources tilts decidedly toward the state and capital. The
struggle to wrest control of these resources away from their current com- those dependent
manders turns our attention fi nally to the question of policy.
on welfare (most

Policy of whom are

women) are the

There is a tendency to frame policy about surveillance in terms of tech-
nological developments and civil rights. The fi rst is predicated, either most exposed
explicitly or in unstated fundamentals, on the idea of technological deter-
minism—the technological revolution changed us, technology will solve to surveillance
this or that social problem or threatens to create new ones, technology
changes the nature of work, and so on and so forth from Theodore Vail to and the least
Daniel Bell to Howard Rheingold. Moreover, technological determinism
underpins the ideology of the information age—again the mythos that enfranchised of
attends to the spread of global networks, post-Taylorist discourses about
knowledge work and workers, and postindustrialism.46 Policy therefore privacy rights.
needs to critique technological determinism while it focuses on reform
or more radical challenges to the technology of surveillance. It would be
foolhardy not to confront the technological dimensions of surveillance,
but not at the risk of reiterating another version of technological deter-
In contrast, a focus on civil liberties related to the sanctity of private
life presupposes universal attainability of privacy—a right endowed to
varying degrees by capitalist property relations. Privacy is a right best
protected as private property. This is true whether we are talking about
sovereignty of hearth and home or image rights. The fact of the matter is
that workers, the under- and disemployed, the incarcerated, the homeless,
and those dependent on welfare (most of whom are women) are the most
exposed to surveillance and the least enfranchised of privacy rights. These

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 13

are the semisovereigns for whom survival in the informationalized political
economy depends on their relinquishing all “reasonable expectations of
privacy.” The growing population of semisovereigns marks a clear trend.
Between 1987 and 2002, for example, the number of U.S. companies
conducting drug tests on their employees increased 277 percent. The
ACLU estimated in 2003 that U.S. employers eavesdropped on over 400
million employee telephone calls.47 On average, 12 to 14 percent of the
total population in the United States lives in poverty, while 75 percent of
Americans are exposed to the statistical risk that within a ten-year cycle
they could be one of the “40 percent of Americans who experience poverty
for at least one year.”48 The average annual growth rate of incarceration was
3.7 percent throughout the 1990s, while the number of homeless tripled in
the 1980s, with a growing proportion of families and children becoming
homeless in the 1990s.49
And for those who can tap into the privilege of privacy rights, the
right to be left alone is sometimes no match for powerful inducements
to be watched. A discount shopping card is a reward for giving up a slice
of personal information about your shopping habits. The indispensable
credit card that mobilizes your movements through the informationalized
infrastructure of consumption demands that you allow the card issuer
to peek into your intimate fi nancial doings. An extreme version of this
mobility surfaced in Barcelona last year when a club owner began to offer
subcutaneous implants the size of a grain of rice to regular customers at a
cost of 125 euros each. “I know many people who want to be implanted,”
said the club owner. “Almost everybody now has a piercing, tattoos or
silicone. Why not get the chip and be original?” With the equivalent of a
debit card under your skin, you could leave home without any money, eat
and buy drinks, and pay by being scanned. The account statement arrives
later.50 For those who are limited to enjoying only the psychological benefits
of spending and playing like the privileged, no amount of surveillance is
too much.
The popular culture of talk shows, reality TV, and Hollywood fi lms
issues more authoritative representations of surveillance along with lessons
on how to live under its gaze. Recent fi lms such as Enemy of the State (1998),
Gattaca (1997), Sliver (1993), The Net (1995), Minority Report (2002), and
a handful of others, while morally and politically ambiguous fi lms (though
none as much as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 fi lm The Conversation), are
seductions into the power of surveillance, into the digital sublime. One
fi lm in particular, Sliver, eroticized the leap into the surveillance image
when one character learns that her lover, an apartment neighbor and secret
stalker, has networked their building with minisurveillance cameras. She is
drawn into his control room and slowly begins to switch from apartment to

14 Richard Maxwell
apartment, witnessing scenes of love, incest, fighting, sexual play, melan- Clearly, a
choly, and other intimacies belonging to her neighbors. She is sickened at
fi rst but then at the tender urging of her lover, who remarks, “You like to progressive
watch . . . don’t you,” she becomes rapt by the experience of omnipresence
and omniscience. The intended irony of the scene mixes toxically with her policy toward
horny fi xation on the screen, which is intercut with her lover’s gratified
surveillance or,
expression and shots of unwitting neighbors’ personal affairs.51
Makers of reality TV, for their part, invite us to internalize this eco-
to borrow from
nomics of display and to scorn whatever power privacy rights might prom-
ise, thus mitigating our resistance to surveillance. As Laurie Ouellette and Phillips, toward
Susan Murray have argued, reality TV increasingly relies on “the willing-
ness of ‘ordinary’ people to live their lives in front of television cameras. the allocation
We, as audience members, witness this openness to surveillance, normalize
it, and in turn, open ourselves up to such a possibility.” We learn “that of resources
in order to be good citizens, we must allow ourselves to be watched and
watch those around us. Our promised reward for our compliance within of visibility will
and support for such a panoptic vision of society is protection from both
outer and inner social threats.”52
be allied with
Clearly, a progressive policy toward surveillance or, to borrow from
Phillips, toward the allocation of resources of visibility will be allied with
movements for enhanced civil liberties—tentatively and attuned to a class- for enhanced
oriented interpretation—and with an informed critique of technology and
the digital sublime as it circulates in the polity, among elites, and in the civil liberties—
experience and amusements of popular culture. But such policy can enrich
its ethical and political sources if it also accepts the simple premise that tentatively and
helped begin this essay: surveillance is work. Surveillance work is one of
the three essential mediums through which the technology develops, along attuned to a
with organized and informal antisurveillance social movements and the
political economic realignments that have installed information technol- class-oriented
ogy at the center of systemic crisis management. Work is also the means
through which the technology is enabled. As Bentham knew well, the pan-
opticon is not an automatic machine—it relies on the internal discipline of
the under keepers’ behavior and the management of their humanity.
So in the end a Left policy must confront a risky choice: What are
the alliances the Left can make with the under keepers? The surveillance
workforce has been a centerpiece of system crisis management at home
and throughout the Imperium—all the protective service workers, sol-
diers, spies, and market researchers have played a role in the recent rear-
rangements of the imperial political economy. Surveillance labor was the
U.S. leadership’s scapegoat for increasing domestic surveillance, then its
predicate for the imperialist war in Iraq, then its heroes of national secu-
rity, though this last encomium disguised how the Bush administration’s

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 15

zealous antilabor policies actually harmed the mission of “homeland secu-
rity.” How the Left answers this vexed question will have an impact on the
culture and politics that defi ne our relation to our publicness and delimit
our influence over the distribution of the social resources of visibility. If
we cannot contemplate such alliances, we might end up relinquishing the
development of surveillance to the preemptive actions of the state and
military leadership and leaving resistance to surveillance to prescripted
political and cultural stereotypes generated by pollsters, bad journalism,
and marketing research. And the more that private corporate interests
intercede in the business of surveillance in the name of national security,
the more structurally disengaged the American people will become from
the processes that determine how surveillance is developed and deployed.53
If we cannot grasp the problem of surveillance labor, we leave little room
for debate and deliberation over the need for or interpretation of market
research, counterterrorist surveillance, soldiering, street-level surveillance,
etc., and the technocratic solution will continue to be preordained.
The people who run surveillance are not at the top. So let us not be
confounded by the Benthamite bluster of the idealized panopticon or fall
for the pastoral gimmicks that improve ways of watching the watchers.
Provoke the internal disruptions of the surveillance society at the crucial
points of weakness: the problem of surveillance labor, the fabulist’s myths
of technology, and a failing policy based on technological determinism and
the liberalism of stratified access to civil rights. Get yourself in trouble and
speak to the humanity of the surveillance worker. As Joseph Welch once
bravely said to Joe McCarthy . . . “at long last.”


1. U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, Protective Service

Occupations, reprinted from the Occupational Outlook Handbook (Washington,
DC, 2004–5).
2. Jeremy Bentham, “Letter VI,” “Panopticon: or, the Inspection-House;
containing the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of
establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspec-
tion; and in Particular to Penitentiary-houses, Prisons, Houses of industry, Work-
houses, Poor Houses, Manufacturies, Madhouses, Lazarettos, Hospitals, and
Schools; with a plan of management adopted to the principle; in a series of letters,
written in the year 1787, from Crechoff in White Russia, to a friend in England,”
in The Panopticon Writings, ed. Miran Bozovic (London: Verso, 1995), 29–95, (accessed 4 August 2004).
3. U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational
Employment and Wages, 2003: Protective Services Occupations,”
oes/2003/may/oes330000.htm (accessed 6 August 2004). For estimates of U.S
intelligence employee numbers, see Geoffrey R. Weller, “The Internal Modern-

16 Richard Maxwell
ization of Western Intelligence Agencies,” International Journal of Intelligence and
Counterintelligence 14 (2001): 300.
4. Jay Stanley and Barry Steinhardt, Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The
Growth of an American Surveillance Society (Washington, DC: American Civil
Liberties Union, 2003),
(accessed 27 August 2004); The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (Washington, DC:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), 86,
(accessed 4 August 2004).
5. Jay Stanley, The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Govern-
ment Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance
Society (Washington, DC: American Civil Liberties Union, 2004).
6. Department of Homeland Security, Major Management Challenges Facing
the Department of Homeland Security (Washington, DC: Office of Inspector Gen-
eral, 31 December 2003).
7. 9/11 Commission Report.
8. Ibid., 421.
9. Richard A. Posner, “The 9/11 Report: A Dissent,” New York Times Maga-
zine, 28 August 2004. The libertarian Right’s ambivalent public stance to state-
sponsored surveillance gets a run for its money from the Orwell fans in the U.S.
government. In the midst of the cold war, the CIA’s Psychological Warfare Work-
shop employed future Watergate criminal E. Howard Hunt, who clandestinely
funded the purchase and production of the fi lms Animal Farm (1954) and 1984
(1956). See Karl Cohen, “The Cartoon That Came in from the Cold,” Guardian
(London), 7 March 2003.
10. Mike Whitney, “The 9/11 Commission and Civil Liberties: ‘We Need
an American Secret Police,’” Counterpunch, 2 August 2004, www.counterpunch
.org/whitney08022004.html. The Left has historically focused its critique on
state-sponsored surveillance, largely neglecting the privatization of surveillance
operations that were embedded in the wider political economic rearrangements
that have positioned information and communication technology at the center of
crisis management since World War II.
11. 9/11 Commission Report, 86. The exact amount of the intelligence budget is
hard to track. See Accord-
ing to the Heritage Foundation, the “current level of overall spending on domestic
and overseas counterterrorism activities is unclear. OMB reported that for FY
2003 total funding on counterterrorism was about $54.9 billion. . . . This estimate
included funding for homeland security and counterterrorism operations overseas.
Subsequently, OMB estimated homeland security funding at $42.5 billion. This
would make overseas counterterrorism operations for FY 2003 at about $12.4 bil-
lion.” See Office of Management and Budget, “2003 Report to Congress on Com-
bating Terrorism,” 9 September 2003,
combat_terr.pdf and
.cfm#pgfId-1123798. Current estimates by the Heritage Foundation suggest
that 57 percent of the $40 billion budgeted for domestic intelligence goes to
the Department of Homeland Security (
Issues2004/HomeSecurity.cfm). See also Matthew Brzezinski, “Red Alert,”
Mother Jones, no. 5 (2004): 39.
12. For a look at the commission’s “cop-outs,” see Matthew Rothschild,
“Who’s to Blame for September 11?” Progressive, no. 9 (2004): 45–48.
13. 9/11 Commission Report, 418.

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 17

14. Ibid., 426–47.
15. “Letter IV.”
16. Simon Werret, “Potemkin and the Panopticon: Samuel Bentham and
the Architecture of Absolutism in Eighteenth Century Russia,” Journal of Ben-
tham Studies 2 (1999): n.p.,
(accessed 8 August 2004). See also Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Prince Potemkin
and the Benthams,” History Today (August 2003),
mi_m1373/is_8_53/ai_106423708 (accessed 28 August 2004).
17. Werret, “Potemkin and the Panopticon.”
18. 9/11 Commission Report, 400.
19. Ibid., 344. The report’s one example of such “imagination” was the coun-
terterrorism expert Richard Clarke’s “awareness” of the “danger posed by aircraft
in the context of protecting the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, the White House com-
plex, and the G8 summit in Genoa.” Clarke himself attributed this vision “more to
Tom Clancy novels than to warnings from the intelligence community” (347).
20. Reflecting the Russian social hierarchy, the Byzantine inner central dome
was illustrated with the “Christ Pantokrator, the ‘Ruler of All’” gazing upon the
clergy who “were active, controlling their own visibility, and that of the sacred
actions which only they were permitted to perform” (Werret, “Potemkin and the
21. Ibid.
22. 9/11 Commission Report, 403–12.
23. “Letter VI.”
24. Timothy Egan, “Sensing the Eyes of Big Brother, and Pushing Back,”
New York Times, 8 August 2004.
25. Stanley, Surveillance-Industrial Complex.
26. Brzezinski, “Red Alert,” 39.
27. Stephen Barr, “Homeland Security Management Walks Out on Union
Talks,” Washington Post, 20 August 2004,
28. Brzezinski, “Red Alert,” 41–42.
29. “Joint Comments and Recommendations Submitted by the National
Presidents of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), the American
Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and the National Association
of Agriculture Employees (NAAE)” (Washington, DC: OPM Resource Center
Office of Personnel Management, 22 March 2004).
30. Peter D. Hart Research, Attitudes among Front-Line Border Protection Per-
mentID=503 (accessed 26 August 2004). See additional material, including the
survey details, at
31. Hart Research, Attitudes among Front-Line Border Protection Personnel, 5.
32. Border Patrol Agents and Immigration Officers on Homeland Secu-
rity, press conference, National Press Club, Washington, DC, 23 August 2004.
Archived at
33. Andrea Brooks, national vice president for AFGE’s Women’s Fair Prac-
tices Department, Border Patrol Agents and Immigration Officers on Homeland
Security, press conference, National Press Club, Washington, DC, 23 August
2004. Archived at
34. Vincent Mosco, The Digital Sublime (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004),

18 Richard Maxwell
35. Ibid., 23–24.
36. 9/11 Commission Report, 88.
37. Jim DeFede, “Mining the Matrix,” Mother Jones, no. 5 (2004): 17–18.
38. Mosco, Digital Sublime, 24.
39. This should be modified when considering the fundamentalist Christian
factions within the U.S. leadership. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, for
one, may have thought of cyberspace as his hunting ground. But as a member of
the Assemblies of God Church, he knows that his work is subordinated to the big
eye in the sky. For example, see the lesson on cybersex posted on the Assemblies
of God Web site: “Cybersex feels safer than buying pornographic magazines, visit-
ing your local adult movie store, or having your pornography delivered in a plain
brown wrapper. It feels like you are alone and nobody sees what you are doing. Yet
we know that our Heavenly Father sees everything and is grieved when He sees
us secretly committing these sins” (
cybersex.cfm [accessed 6 August 2004]).
40. Mosco, Digital Sublime, 43.
41. “Moore Embarrasses New CIA Chief,” BBC News, 12 August 2004,
42. Mosco, Digital Sublime, 41.
43. 9/11 Commission Report, 399–428; Douglas Jehl and Philip Shenon, “Bush
Preparing to Bolster CIA Director’s Power,” New York Times, 27 August 2004.
44. Mosco, Digital Sublime, 51–53.
45. Ibid., 16.
46. Nicholas Garnham, “Information Society Theory as Ideology,” Loisir
et Société, no. 1 (1998): 97–120; reprinted in The Information Society Reader, ed.
Frank Webster (London: Routledge, 2004), 165–83.
47. American Civil Liberties Union, Privacy in America: Electronic Monitor-
ing, Washington, DC, October 2003,
14170&c=132 (accessed 6 August 2004). For an overview, see Stanley and Stein-
hardt, Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains.
48. Michael Zweig, “Welcome to the Working Class!” New York Times, 13
July 2002.
49. U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prison Statis-
tics,” (accessed 1 September 2004); for sta-
tistics on homelessness see
50. Chetna Purohit, “Technology Gets under Clubbers’ Skin,” CNN, 9
June 2004,
(accessed 6 August 2004).
51. Outside the mainstream Hollywood fare, we can fi nd more interest-
ing examples of this eroticization of surveillance in such fi lms as Bad Timing: A
Sensual Obsession (1980) and Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). See Toby Miller,
Spyscreen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). And, of course, the resolu-
tion of Orwell’s 1984 fi nds the newly well-tempered Winston Smith at peace with
his condition after he has learned to love Big Brother above all other loves.
52. Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray, introduction to Reality TV: Remak-
ing Television Culture, ed. Ouellette and Murray (New York: New York University
Press, 2004), 6.
53. Stanley, Surveillance-Industrial Complex.

Surveillance: Work, Myth, and Policy 19

Every Move You Make: Bodies, Surveillance, and Media

Every move you make, every vow you take, I’ll be watching you. Michael J. Shapiro
—The Police

The Shibboleth

Historically, the forms of surveillance attending episodes of militariza-

tion, warring violence, and internal surveillance are part of a more gen-
eral biopolitics. They are articulated with other political functions aimed
at accepting, rejecting, or managing bodies. The concept of biopolitics,
which is increasingly invoked in critical political analyses, originates with
Michel Foucault’s discussion of the “biopolitics of the population,” an
exercise of governance that “brought life and its mechanisms into the
realm of explicit calculations” in the nineteenth century.1 Whereas pre-
viously states contained a “people” who were subject to the sovereign’s
prerogatives, by the mid-nineteenth century, governance involved more
than merely extracting obedience from its subjects. It became involved in
managing a “population,” understood in terms of the energy and coop-
eration that could be expected from bodies that work, serve in the army,
or, at a minimum, maintain the coherence and positive functioning of
the family.
Foucault’s emphasis in his treatment of the biopolitics of the population
is on the usefulness of bodies, the calculation of their performance
capabilities. However, the contemporary problem of governance—after
9/11—has been on dangerous bodies, not only those that constitute threats
from the outside but also those on the inside who collaborate with or serve as
vehicles for enemies of the state. Addressing the global context of “the war
on terrorism,” Giorgio Agamben revises the familiar Foucauldian notion
of disciplinary power. He notes that the old forms of power that involved
defense of territories is being displaced by an aggressive, outreaching
securitization: “While disciplinary power isolates and closes off territories,
measures of security lead to an opening and globalization; while the law
wants to prevent and prescribe, security wants to intervene in ongoing
processes to direct them.”2 Nevertheless, the law, whose function Agamben

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press.
sees as being transcended, has been complicit with the hypersecuritization,
with its increasingly global reach.
Under the Patriot Act of 2001, levels of surveillance have been
intensified, and the surveilled body’s danger-related identity has been
greatly extended. Its corporal boundaries constitute a mere core of a
system of acts with considerable territorial extension, acts constituted
with attention to the surveilled body’s money trail (e.g., purchases and
donations), its library borrowing, its telephone conversations, its Internet
travels, and its patterns of consumption, among other things. Two political
issues are involved in those historical moments of securitization and
militarization when bodies become subject to increased tracking and
coercive management. The most manifest one is a process of distinguishing
friends and enemies, the primary function of “the political,” as politics is
famously theorized by Carl Schmitt.
However, there is another, more complex way of constituting the
identities evoked during intense periods of violent political contention.
We can view the politics of identity as, among other things, a struggle
between those seeking to control, eliminate, or impose meanings on bodies
and the bodies themselves, understood as active agents impelled by their
own willed and unconscious determinations. What is involved in such
struggles is nothing less than the intersection of physical bodies, applied
technologies of surveillance, and episodes of altered political will deployed
by governments and alternatively assisted and resisted by the governed.
For example, in reaction to FBI surveillance of Internet searches and book
borrowing at libraries under the Patriot Act: “Librarians have taken a lead
in speaking out on the issue . . . [and] in January [2003] the American
Library Association passed a resolution calling sections of the law ‘a
present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library
users’ and asking Congress to step up oversight of its implementation.”3
To appreciate the fi nite historical forces at work within the present
intensification of surveillance and the technological and political contexts
within which that intensification is enacted, one needs to look at past
instances against which the peculiarities of the present circumstances
can be highlighted. Accordingly, I begin with one of the earliest recorded
circumstances, reported by the scribes of the book of Judges, a high-
stakes moment of surveillance that involved oral conversations. In chapter
12, verses 4–6 of Judges, there is an encounter between Gileadites and
Ephraimites. Shortly after Jephthah, “a mighty man of valor” (albeit an
exiled son of Israel because he was the “son of a harlot”), was recruited
as a captain of Israel in a war against the Ammonites, he and his army got
into a quarrel with the Ephraimites. Angry about not having been called

22 Michael J. Shapiro
to serve in the war against the Ammonites, the Ephraimites attacked
Jephthah and his Gileadite army, only to be soundly defeated and thence
to be regarded as enemies of Israel.
After the battle the Ephraimite survivors tried to cross the Jordan and
blend in with the rest of the people of Israel. Although they were apparently
visually undistinguishable, they had a distinctive style of speech, which
gave them away. As is noted in verses 5 and 6, “When those Ephraimites
which were escaped said, let me go over; . . . the men of Gilead said unto
him, art thou an Ephraimite? If he say Nay; Then said they unto him, Say
now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce
it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and
there fell that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”
Ever since, shibboleth has been a term applied to passwords, especially
to words used for voice-based surveillance. For example, during World
War II, the Dutch underground resistance made suspected German spies
pronounce the name of Sceveningen, a coastal city near Den Hague. This
was a shibboleth that even the most Dutch-fluent Germans could not say
correctly. Like the unfortunate Ephraimites, they could not “frame to
pronounce it right.”
The “frame” expression can be given a more abstract and technical
specification in order to locate the pronunciation difficulty within a
historical trajectory of relationships between surveillance technology and
bodies. The Ephraimites who engaged in the unsuccessful phonatory acts
were trying to manage what the linguist Roman Jakobson refers to as the
“two sides” of the sign: the sound, which is “the material side,” and the
meaning, which is “the intelligible side.”4 It was the fi rst side that proved
fatal. While the Ephraimite participation in the conversations worked as
mutual intelligibility, their inability to make the precisely correct sounds
doomed them. Anatomically speaking, in shaping the acoustics of the
word, their tongues failed to divide “the resonator . . . of the mouth cavity”
correctly. To locate this fi nite historical episode within a general conceptual
frame, we see an encounter between two levels of the social order—bodies,
which are materially specified in terms of the phonatory capacities, and
a politically evinced and administratively coordinated model of identity-
difference. With this initial framing of the politics of surveillance in
view, we can turn to a much later historical episode of militarization and
surveillance to move toward a more historically acute elaboration, one
sensitive to a genealogy of surveillance technologies.

Every Move You Make 23

The Case of Elizabethan England

In the sixteenth century, Elizabethan England experienced a reign of

state terror provoked in part by its “decisive break from Roman Catholi-
cism” and implemented by a Cecilian regime. Sir William Cecil (aka
Lord Burghley) and his progeny were involved in the “construction of a
Protestant State Church as a precondition for both domestic repression
and external aggression.”5 In creating a tightly controlled, surveillant,
and militarized Protestant state, the Cecilian regime established an early
modern version of the national security state both by expanding its mili-
tary adventures and by developing an internal security network of clients
and informants. England’s external militance under the Cecilian regime
was directed primarily against Spain and Portugal, a project that involved
episodes of plunder at sea, primarily by government-approved merchant
privateers, rather than full-scale clashes of fleets or land armies.
Although the Cecilian regime’s reliance on privateering merchant
adventurers would seem to distance its militarization from the contempo-
rary case, a version of privateering is being entertained as a contemporary
option. For example, two writers (one a “think tank” security analyst and
the other a journalist), pondering the ways to prosecute the “war on ter-
rorism,” have advocated a return to privateering.6 They recognize that (as
was the case with powerful merchants in earlier historical periods) large
corporations have the requisite power to, and interest in, lending consider-
able resources to the pursuit of the state’s enemies. For example, although
they are not directly involved in hot-war privateering, Halliburton, a large
oil-service company, “bedeviled lately by an array of accounting and busi-
ness issues,” is profiting significantly from the “war on terrorism.” Their
participation has included building cells for detainees at Guantanamo Bay
in Cuba, feeding troops in Uzbekistan, and serving as a logistics supplier
for the U.S. Navy.7
The relevance of the Elizabethan case to the present is also evident at
the level of domestic oppression. Given the religious cleavage involved in
its battle for European hegemony, the Cecilian regime regarded Protestant-
ism as synonymous with patriotism. 8 Although there was no significant
standing army, the militias, formed through levies and used primarily
for service abroad, were also employed for domestic pacification.9 At the
same time a growing intelligence system had developed, using “human
resources.” A vast network of informants was employed to identify those
involved in subversive acts. And laws were in place to provide the required
judicial leverage: “The scope of treason was extended by Acts of 1534 and
1536, principally to encompass treason by word as well as overt deed.”10
Because of what was increasingly seen as a Catholic threat, anyone asso-

24 Michael J. Shapiro
ciated with that threat was surveilled by the network of spies recruited to
curtail domestic subversion. Many English Catholics and many associated
with Spain were turned into traitors.
As is the case with the contemporary intensification of military adven-
turism and domestic surveillance, the Cecilian regime was concerned with
legitimating its imperial sovereignty. The primary genres used to evince
ideological support for the extensive militarization taking place were the
book and the pamphlet, carrying “military treatises” and “pro-military
propaganda,” respectively.11 But on the side of a generalized encourage-
ment for England’s imperial expansion, arguably no genre or set of texts
was more influential than Richard Hakluyt’s treatises: Discourse on Western
Planting (1584) and Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the
English Nation (1589). In Discourse on Western Planting, Hakluyt juxta-
poses England’s global role with that of Spain, inveighing against Spanish
tyranny in “the New World” and suggesting a more effective commercial
English version of global hegemony.12 Hakluyt also saw global economic
and military expansion as a way to manage the domestic population. The
colonies, he said, would be a place where England’s “waste people” and
“idle people” could be employed to avoid the damage they would otherwise
do at home.13
Hakluyt’s travel narratives helped articulate the cartographic change
of the new, expansive England. He was among those involved in “the
articulation of England itself,” celebrating English navigation, on the one
hand, and promoting its expansion, on the other.14 And because Hakluyt’s
views of the nation’s domestic issues and its imperial aspirations were
congenial to those of the ruling elite, he was sponsored by that elite.15 How-
ever, Hakluyt’s nation- and empire-building texts (and the other complicit
books and pamphlets), which were absorbed into the Cecilian regime’s
cultural governance strategies, were not the only genres addressing the
newly militarized and surveillant state. Elizabethan drama was signifi -
cantly implicated in both affi rming and criticizing the Cecilian regime’s
domestic terrorizing of the population as well as its foreign adventures.
The dramatist most famously involved in the regime’s terror and milita-
rization was Christopher Marlowe. On the basis of equivocal evidence,
it has often been assumed that Marlowe, who was patronized by Francis
Walsingham’s cousin Thomas, participated in the regime’s covert spying
activities.16 Moreover, the traditional reading of his play The Massacre at
Paris (1592) sees it as an unequivocal and passionate expression of horror
about the slaughter of Huguenots by French Catholics. But others see a
subversive element in the play, for example, Curtis Breight’s point that it
“deploys Catholic propaganda written not by the French Catholic league
but by English Catholic exiles [in a] direct and powerful attack on the

Every Move You Make 25

Cecilian regime.” Breight regards Marlowe’s violent death as a political
assassination by agents of a Protestant-dominated regime that read such
nuances in the play as subversive to a Protestant hegemony (116).
The case with respect to the position on the regime’s surveillance and
militarization in Shakespeare’s historical plays is also ambiguous. Although
some see Shakespeare as a promonarchy patriot, on one view Shakespeare’s
historical dramas, particularly his Henriad and his Richards, are allegori-
cal; the plays are read as treatments of contemporary Elizabethan politics
and as implicitly critical commentaries on the effects of state terror and
military adventurism on commoners. In the case of the Henriad, the dire
effects of military recruitment are shown; for example, “Falstaff’s recruit-
ing practices and the ultimate destruction of his men” are represented,
reflecting the fact that many commoners died not in battles but as a result
of the hardships of service (210). And Coriolanus “boldly exposes what the
Henriad could only imply by accretion—that war functioned to dispose of
commoners” (237). In addition, Shakespeare’s historical plays reflect on
the abuses of the security apparatus. “Under the guise of historical remote-
ness,” they map aspects of the Elizabethan culture of surveillance and
manifest a concern with the “lower-class victims of upper-class confl ict”
(172–73). In a close reading of the histories, Breight argues that rather
than siding with the monarchy and its aristocratic henchmen, Shakespeare
effectively “delineate[s] how the medieval modern state helps to manufac-
ture itself by destroying alternative conceptions and practices of power,”
in this case regional communities with inconvenient religious affi liations
led by traditional elites.17 The contemporary policies of militarization
and surveillance are also supported and contested within media genres,
but rather than the stage, the primary venues are fi lm and television. In
what follows, I locate the contemporary politics of surveillance in space,
in technologies, in bodies, and, fi nally, in the media.

The Contemporary Scene: Expanded and Resistant Bodies

One of the more familiar approaches to history of states is Anthony Gid-

dens’s sociological gloss. His widely accepted treatment of the modern
state’s history of violence is one of a successful process of the “pacifica-
tion” of state populations and a subsequent “withdrawal of the military
from direct participation in the internal affairs of the state.”18 However
appropriate to the history of European states Giddens’s linear narrative
may be—certainly episodes of militarization in a wide variety of global
venues suggests that “military withdrawal from domestic affairs” has
not been continuous—trends in post–Cold War sovereignty and secu-

26 Michael J. Shapiro
rity practices present a new challenge to the narrative. In addition to Certainly, the
a growing use of military technologies for crime fi ghting, domestically
and abroad (for example, in U.S. antinarcotic assaults in Colombia), the paper trail and
post-9/11 developments in “homeland security” and the elaboration of a
domestic intelligence network, which reconfigures CIA and FBI investi- its electronic
gatory functions, permits unprecedented levels of domestic surveillance
realization in the
(under the Patriot Act of October 2001) and insinuates military tribunals
into the domestic juridical network in the United States. Ultimately, the
form of computer
current security and intelligence policies dissolve many of the former
distinctions between domestic crime fi ghting and global warfare.19 files remain
Along with the territorial ambiguities that the new warfare-as-crime-
fi ghting entails, a new biopolitics is emerging. The criminalization of significant, but
military adversaries has been accompanied by a biometric approach to
intelligence and surveillance. The significance of this change becomes the new modes of
evident if one contrasts Giddens’s treatment of the surveillance technolo-
gies that paralleled the modern state’s monopolization of violence with the warfare-as-crime-
current ones. Throughout his discussion Giddens refers primarily to the
use of paper trails. He begins with a treatment of the state’s use of writ-
fighting involve
ing, proceeds to the state’s “coding of information,” and concludes with
the development
some observations about cultural governance, the sponsoring of printed
materials, not only for surveillance but also for enlarging the scope of the of a biological
public sphere. 20 Certainly, the paper trail and its electronic realization in
the form of computer fi les remain significant, but the new modes of war- rather than
fare-as-crime-fi ghting involve the development of a biological rather than
merely a paper trail, as new genetic tracing discoveries are being recruited merely a paper
into intelligence gathering.
Is the biometric, designer weapon far behind? Anticipating the role of trail, as new
biometric coding in futuristic forms of warfare, the science fiction writer
William Gibson began his novel Count Zero with this passage: “They genetic tracing
set a SLAMHOUND on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his
discoveries are
pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street
called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through
being recruited
a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of
recrystallized hexogene and fl aked TNT.”21 Thanks to advanced cloning into intelligence
technology in Gibson’s futuristic war world, “Turner” is reassembled
from some of his own parts and some others (eyes and genitals bought on gathering.
the open market). He lives on as the novel’s main character, a commando,
operating in a war over research and development products.
Whether or not the military logistics of biometric warfare is now
underway, the surveillance dimension is being rapidly developed. And the
use of pheromones in the Gibson account is technologically anachronistic.
The technology of DNA tracing, now well developed, is complementing

Every Move You Make 27

the photograph and paper trial to surveil and intercept dangerous bod-
ies. 22 Shortly after the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan,
then–U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft sought changes in federal law
“to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to maintain a DNA databank
of profi les taken from al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters detained in Afghani-
stan and Cuba.”23 Subsequently, “forensic experts” were dispatched to
Afghanistan to test the human tissue found in one battlefield to see if any
of the dead included bin Laden or his senior associates.
Of course, policy makers face legitimation issues when introducing
new modes of surveillance and criminalization. When those operating the
“reasons of state” are involved in implementing a historically unorthodox
“governmentality”—in this case an extraordinary mode of surveillance,
and management of the global order and the domestic population—they
have to produce warrants for the new policy initiatives. Accordingly, after
the 9/11 episode, the Bush administration began operating on two fronts
to solicit acquiescence to its simultaneous intensification of domestic
surveillance and preparation for global military incursions (a strategy of
“preemptive defense”). 24 On the one hand, there was a feverish search
for legal precedents, hence the designation of an American citizen as an
“enemy combatant” to apply a law of war that was earlier applied only to
foreign nationals; on the other hand, the administration approached fi lm
and television producers to encourage them to create patriotic feature fi lms
and TV dramas designed to elicit public support for the new policies.
For example, in early November 2002, the media carried a story about
a meeting between White House adviser Karl Rove and several dozen top
television and fi lm executives. Aware of the fi lm industry’s role in World
War II, the Bush administration wanted to encourage “patriotic war movies
that characterized the early years of that war.”25 After that meeting, “nearly
a dozen” patriotic war movies were under production and television dramas
followed suit. Among the most notable of the TV genre was an episode of
JAG (a CBS drama about military lawyers). The 30 April 2002 episode,
produced with the Pentagon’s help, featured a trial of a defi ant al-Qaeda
terrorist (undoubtedly modeled after Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged
twentieth 9/11 hijacker) by a military tribunal at which he received a “fair
trial” (a promise by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the media after
the tribunal plan was floated). As one commentary notes: “The strategy
behind the ‘Tribunal’ episode is more transparent than ever: the show
creates the wish-fulfi llment fantasy of capturing a terrorist responsible for
the attacks, depicts an idealized military, yet ends with an ominous threat
of more terror in the works, affi rming the government’s real-life message
that America must remain vigilant.”26

28 Michael J. Shapiro
Minority Report

Everybody runs; everybody runs.

—John Anderton (Tom Cruise)

The government’s attempts at suborning the media and, in particular, the

Hollywood fi lm industry, and enlist its feature fi lms in support of mili-
tarization and surveillance, face significant resistance. By virtue of their
form as well as content, feature fi lms often challenge the government’s
attempts at achieving public acceptance of its policies. Given the recent
tendency of the official discourse on terrorism to criminalize “the enemy”
and to employ biometric surveillance technologies, Steven Spielberg’s fi lm
Minority Report (2002) provides the most notable ideational challenge to
the state’s surveillance practices. To place the fi lm within the contempo-
rary politics of surveillance, we must recognize what Gilles Deleuze has
characterized as “societies of control.” He suggests that the disciplinary
societies, which Foucault saw as supplanting the old societies of sover-
eignty based on enclosures—the school, the factory, the prison—have
been displaced by the societies of control. Rather than walls, this system
of domination is based on modulations and coding procedures. “In the
control societies what are important are no longer numbers and names
but codes, a password instead of a watchword,” codes that control move-
ments from one function and setting to another and which, above all,
control access to information. 27 While much of Deleuze’s emphasis is on
the control measures of corporations, his model of the control society also
pertains to the control measures of the state.
Referring to the mode of security imposed by the state, Deleuze and
Guattari put it this way: “The administration of a great organized molar
security has as its correlate a whole micro-management of petty fears
[amounting to] . . . a macropolitics of society by and for a micropolitics of
insecurity.”28 Within such a process of securitization, the social order has
two significant modes: machines of capture in which bodies and spaces are
coded, and lines of fl ight, which are the mechanisms and routes through
which people elude the machines of capture. The geometry of control is
never complete; the pursuit of lines of fl ight constitute a micropolitical
reaction to the macropolitics of capture, a departure from “normalizing
Spielberg’s Minority Report plays out the tension between the machines
of capture and the micropolitics of escape. Set in 2054 (and based on a
Philip Dick short story by the same title) the venue is Washington, DC,
where a “precrime unit,” with aspirations to become a national program,
deploys a policing function to arrest and incarcerate individuals who

Every Move You Make 29

will commit a future crime. They are identified by three “precogs” with
predictive powers, suborned bodies held in a drugged state of suspended
animation. While the eventual escape and return to normal life of one of
the precogs is part of the fi lm’s drama, the most significant body in the fi lm
is that of John Anderton, the chief arresting officer of the precrime unit.
Throughout the fi lm, his body is in motion, fi rst as a wholly committed
operative of the unit and then as a fugitive who has been marked as a future
criminal. During his fl ight from the “justice” of the precrime program, he
learns that the three precogs do not always agree. Some of those marked as
future perpetrators have been identified as such by a majority report (of two
precogs). As Philip Dick’s version of the story puts it: “The existence of a
majority logically implies a corresponding minority.”30 In the fi lm version,
Anderton learns that the minority reports have been suppressed (because
the overall head of the program, eager to have it implemented nationally,
has suppressed the minority reports in order to represent future criminal
acts as certainties rather than probabilities). Anderton is told that his only
hope is to fi nd the one in his case, if it exists.
As in the current situation—former Attorney General Ashcroft’s
“preventive detention” in which aliens and Muslims have been arrested,
incarcerated, and denied legal representation because they are “of interest”
to those seeking to end the threat of terrorist attack in the United States31—
the future perpetrators in Minority Report are given no legal redress. While
the narrative has a positive ending (ultimately Anderton is exonerated, the
head of the program is discredited, and the precrime program is eliminated),
the fi lm’s most significant aspects are nonnarrative and micropolitical.
In the opening scenes, Anderton’s body functions as a physical extension
of the precrime surveillance and arrest functions; his movements are wholly
modulated and choreographed by the system as, at fi rst, his swinging arms
are shown pulling up the relevant images on a large screen, and subsequently
his moving body is shown closing in on the alleged perpetrator.
But while Cruise displays a wholly suborned body controlled by the
state’s apparatus of capture at the outset, after he is set up and becomes
another victim, he becomes a subversive body, one whose movements and
gestures are no longer orchestrated by official policing policy. He manifests a
counterenergy and goes so far as to modify his body to subvert the surveillance
system, having his eyes replaced to subvert the coding system, which reads
retinal patterns. Anderton is therefore a Deleuzian fugitive; “Everybody
runs,” he says when the police fi rst try to apprehend him, and thereafter
his running requires him to move in ways that allow him to escape from the
coding apparatuses and exemplify the Deleuzian suggestion that there are
always forms of flow that elude the capturing, binary organizations.
But apart from his manifestation of Deleuzian lines of fl ight by

30 Michael J. Shapiro
exploiting the gaps in the apparatuses of capture, the subversiveness of
Anderton’s body is also a function of a fi lm form that opposes the body
to the narrative. As Vincent Amiel notes, the tendency of classical cinema
was to give in to the economy of narrativizing, to use bodies as vehicles
for a story and thereby to abandon the body’s density for the exclusive
profit of functionality, that is, leaving the body “at the service of narrative
articulations, precisely disencarnate.”32 But in much of contemporary
cinema (and Spielberg’s Minority Report is an exemplar), “the idea is
for cinema to dis-organ-ize the body, by means of revealing the notion/
destiny of a coherent and unitary organism imposed into the body, by
means of revealing its fragmented nature, by extracting it from the ‘yoke
of unity and consciousness, by giving it back the complexity of its own
The Deleuzian political inspiration to resist the apparatuses of capture
is therefore enacted in Minority Report. But even those Hollywood fi lms
that appear to support the politics of surveillance and capture contain
subversive elements. For example, although the Jerry Bruckheimer/Ridley
Scott treatment of the U.S. intervention in Somalia, Black Hawk Down
(2001), drew optimistic administration support (the Washington premiere
was attended by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney),
the fi lm does not unambiguously provide the romantic soldatesque that the
administration expected. 34 Although the fi lm portrays an (unsuccessful)
attempt to eliminate a political leader involved in violence unfavorable to
American interests (now part of the administration’s war agenda), it does
not clearly valorize the policy or the attempt. Certainly, its version of good
guys (American soldiers engaged in resolute duty, and often heroic mutual
support), and bad guys (murderous Somali mercenaries) plays into the
administration’s hands, but, at the same time, no clear point of view on
the policy or its failed implementation strikes the viewer.
An even earlier movie with a clearer stance on imperial overreach
has attracted the attention of the U.S. military apparatus. As Michael
Kaufman reports: “Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare
in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of The Battle of Algiers
[1965], which, ironically, was popular among anti-Vietnam War activists
in the 1960s.”35 The fi lm’s historical gloss on the war between the colonial
French military and Algerian nationalists moved many viewers to identify
with Ali La Pointe, the leader of the urban part of the struggle, the network
of resistance in the Casbah in the city’s Muslim section. In contrast, the
Pentagon viewers were fi xated on the instruments of repression—torture,
among others—used by the French military to extract information about
enemy operations. However, as was the case with Black Hawk Down, the
recent rerelease of The Battle of Algiers is open to other ways of seeing.

Every Move You Make 31

Moreover, the fi lm, unlike Black Hawk Down, delivers a more heroic and
idealistic set of images of the “terrorist resistance.”
What is the place of cinema in an era of hypermilitarization? As Kaja
Silverman has suggested, such “aesthetic work is a privileged domain for
displacing us from the geometrical point, for encouraging us to see in
ways not dictated in advance by the dominant fiction.”36 Moreover, in the
case of fi lm, unlike painting, for example, that “us” is a mass audience
involved in “collective reception.”37 Minimally, at a historical moment
when a government is seeking support from the arts to extend its sphere of
imperial violence while surveilling and closing what has been one of history’s
most open societies, fi lm can be seen as a site of challenge and resistance.
In addition to the feature fi lms to which I have referred, Errol Morris’s
documentary of Robert MacNamara’s decision-making role during the
Vietnam War (The Fog of War, 2004) and Michael Moore’s documentary
response to the Bush administration’s Iraq war (Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004)
counter the weapons of war with critical thinking, which, in its philosophical
mode, Immanuel Kant figured as a permanently armed state, and in its
cinematic mode, Gilles Deleuze figured as a life-creating weapon.


1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York:
Pantheon, 1977), 139, 143.
2. Giorgio Agamben, “Security and Terror,” trans. Carolin Emcke, Theory
and Event 5 (2000) at
3. Judith Graham, “Library Users Warned of FBI Spying,” Honolulu Adver-
tiser, 6 April 2003.
4. Roman Jakobson, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, trans. John Mepham
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978), 1.
5. Curtis C. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan
Era (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996), 50. I do an extended analysis of the Elizabe-
than case in Michael J. Shapiro, Methods and Nations: Cultural Governance and the
Indigenous Subject (New York: Routledge, 2004).
6. Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Anthony A. Cipriano, “Patriotism and Profit Are
Powerful Weapons,” Honolulu Advertiser, 21 July 2002.
7. Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., “In Tough Times a Company Finds
Profits in Terror War,” New York Times, 13 July 2002.
8. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, 31.
9. Ibid., 57.
10. Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch (New York: Blackwell,
1985), 49.
11. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, 59.
12. See Richard Helgerson’s treatment of Hakluyt in Forms of Nationhood
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

32 Michael J. Shapiro
13. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, 33.
14. Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood, 152.
15. Rewarding his complicity with the cultural governance of the Cecilian
regime, Walsingham, the head of the state spy network (to whom Hakluyt dedi-
cated the initial edition of Principal Navigations), “bore or at least arranged part
of the expense of the publication.” Sir Robert Cecil was one of Hakluyt’s patrons
to whom subsequent editions of Principal Navigations were dedicated. The histori-
cal details and quotations are from “Hakluyt, Richard,” in Catalog of the Scien-
tific Community at,
accessed 16 December 2004.
16. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, 127.
17. Some see Shakespeare’s play differently, however. For example, Richard
Helgerson reads Shakespeare as a loyal monarchist, arguing that the plays mani-
fest a doubleness. They show “kingship in a narrative and dramatic medium that
not only displayed power but revealed the sometimes brutal and duplicitous
strategies by which power maintained itself.” They both celebrate authority and
“bear a subversive potential” while playing to audiences that included everyone
from commoners to kings. But for the “discursive community” of the theater,
which, Helgerson states, was “far removed from the councils of power,” the plays
(especially in Shakespeare’s case) were not subversive but rather “contributed at
once to the consolidation of central power, [and] . . . to the cultural division of
class from class” (Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood, 244–45).
18. Anthony Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1985), 192.
19. For example, on 10 June 2002, the New York Times reported the arrest of
an American citizen, whom the U.S. attorney general alleged to be an al-Qaeda
operative (James Risen and Philip Shenon, “U.S. Says It Halted Qaeda Plot to
Use Radioactive Bomb”). Commenting on this citizen’s legal status, Ashcroft
said, “[He is an] enemy combatant. . . . We have acted with legal authority both
under the laws of war and clear Supreme Court precedent, which establishes that
the military may detain a United States citizen who has joined the enemy and
has entered our country to carry out hostile acts” (“Ashcroft’s Announcement,”
Associated Press, 10 June 2002). Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul F. Wolfowitz
said in a press conference at the Justice Department that the suspect, Mr. Al-
Mujahir, was being held by the Department of Defense “under the laws of war”
(U.S. Department of Defense News Transcript, 10 June 2002, www.defenselink
20. Giddens, Nation-State and Violence, 47, 179.
21. William Gibson, Count Zero (New York: Ace, 1987), 1.
22. Dexter Filkins, “U.S. Is Studying DNA of Dead Al Qaeda and Taliban
Combatants,” New York Times, 15 March 2002.
23. David Johnson, “Law Change Sought to Set up DNA Databank for
Captured Qaida Fighters,” New York Times, 2 March 2002.
24. David E. Sanger, “Bush to Formalize a Defense Policy of Hitting First,”
New York Times, 17 June 2002.
25. Rick Lyman, “White House Sets Meeting with Film Executives to Discuss
War on Terrorism,” New York Times, 8 November 2001.
26. Caryn James, “TV’s Take on Government in a Terror-Filled World,” New
York Times, 30 April 2002.

Every Move You Make 33

27. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Societies of Control,” October 59 (1993):
28. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian
Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 215–16.
29. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 208–31, section titled
“Micropolitics of Segmentarity.”
30. Philip Dick, Minority Report (New York: Pantheon, 2002), 45.
31. David Cole, “ ‘Preventive Detention’ Was a Legal End Run,” Honolulu
Advertiser, 15 June 2003.
32. Vincent Amiel, Le corps au cinema: Keaton, Bresson, Cassavetes (Paris:
Presses Universitaires de France, 1998), 2. The translations of the Amiel
quotations are mine.
33. Ibid., 7.
34. Geoffrey Gray, “ ‘Black Hawk’ Damned,” Village Voice, 12 February
2002, 26.
35. Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in Battle of Algiers?”
New York Times, 7 September 2003.
36. Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York: Routledge,
1996), 184.
37. See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Repro-
duction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York:
Schocken, 1985), sec. 12.

34 Michael J. Shapiro
Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia

Of all the dramatic images to emerge in the hours and days following Kelly A. Gates
the September 11 attacks, one of the most haunting was a frame from
a surveillance-camera video capturing the face of suspected hijacker
Mohamed Atta as he passed through an airport metal detector in Portland,
ME. Even more chilling to many security experts is the fact that, had the
right technology been in place, an image like that might have helped avert
the attacks. According to experts, face recognition technology that’s already
commercially available could have instantly checked the image against
photos of suspected terrorists on fi le with the FBI and other authorities. If a
match had been made, the system could have sounded the alarm before the
suspect boarded his fl ight.
—Alexandra Stikeman, Technology Review

The idea that computerized face recognition may have helped avert the al-
Qaeda terrorist attacks was perhaps the most ambitious claim circulating
about biometric identification technologies in the aftermath of September
11. Along with the enormous flood of imagery of the day relayed in the
news media were the out-of-focus surveillance-camera images of two of
the alleged attackers. The recorded video image from the airport in Port-
land that appears to show Mohammad Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari pass-
ing through airport security is a familiar part of 9/11 iconography. It is
virtually impossible to reference this image without also invoking the claim
that facial recognition technology could have identified the men in the
image as wanted terrorist suspects. Already existing commercially avail-
able technology, according to this regretful yet strangely hopeful asser-
tion, “could have instantly checked the image against photos of suspected
terrorists.” Technologies that use digital readings of the face to identify
individuals could have saved the United States from the worst terrorist
attack in its history.
The precise origin of the claim is hard to identify; it seemed to spring
forth simultaneously from multiple sources. If it fi rst came from a biomet-
rics industry representative, like oft-quoted Visionics CEO Joseph Atick, it
was quickly embraced and repeated by other public voices who felt sure it
was true.1 This possibility was the basis for hearings held on Capitol Hill
following 9/11. On 14 November 2001, the Technology, Terrorism and

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press.
Government Information Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Commit-
tee held a hearing, “Biometric Identifiers and the Modern Face of Ter-
ror: New Technologies in the Global War on Terrorism.” In her opening
remarks, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked, “How could a large
group of coordinated terrorists operate for more than a year in the United
States without being detected, and then get on four different airliners in a
single morning without being stopped?” The answer, she noted, “is that
we could not identify them.” Voicing again the assertion that had become
part of the repertoire of public responses to the 9/11 events, she said, “In
the case of at least two of the hijackers authorities had pictures of them as
suspects prior to the attack, and airport cameras actually photographed
them. But because these cameras didn’t use facial biometric systems,
security was not alerted and the hijackers remained free to carry out their
bloody plans.”
The idea that the events of 9/11 could have been prevented with the
sophisticated technological products of modernity is laden with what Pat
Gill has called “technostalgia”: the desire to revise the past to redetermine
the present, at the same time admitting the impossibility of this endeavor. 2
The claim might be said to embody a collective psychological need to
believe that the nation was not as vulnerable as it appeared, that our tech-
nological sophistication remains unscathed and in fact would have stopped
the men had it been in place. This technostalgic longing to revise the past
provides a paradoxical sort of origin myth for facial recognition technology.
In the post-9/11 context, the technology emerges as an already existing,
reliable, and high-tech solution to the newest, most pressing problem facing
the nation. This move effectively erases the history of these technologies,
even as it inserts them fully formed into the past. What is effectively erased
is the fact that well before 9/11, a whole set of social actors was engaged in
ongoing struggles and negotiations over the development and deployment
of this technology. While it was not already fully formed and ready to iden-
tify the nation’s post–Cold War enemy Other, it was already “embedded
in and shaped by a rich web of cultural practices and ideas.”3
I explore this web, unpacking the black box of facial recognition
technology.4 The analysis is informed by scholarship that examines the
emergence of new media technologies in both contemporary and histori-
cal contexts.5 Facial recognition technology is itself a form of new media,
relying as it does on media technologies like photography, video, and
computer hardware and software. It is also being bundled or integrated
with other new media, including the Internet and computer networks. In
other words, facial recognition and other biometrics are literally becoming
components or actors in new media assemblages. The central questions
that guide this analysis come from studies of new media, namely, why

36 Kelly A. Gates
facial recognition, why now, and what is “new” about this technology?
In his study of television as both a technology and a cultural form, Ray-
mond Williams advocated an analysis that “would restore intention to the
process of research and development. The technology would be seen . . .
as being [envisioned] and developed with certain purposes and practices
already in mind. At the same time the interpretation would differ from
symptomatic technology [i.e., studies that view technology as in essence
an effect of a particular social order] in that these purposes and practices
would be seen as direct: as known social needs, purposes and practices to
which the technology is not marginal but central.”6
My aim here is to restore intention to the process of research and devel-
opment of facial recognition technology. This effort requires rescuing it
from post-9/11 technostalgic narratives and recapturing some of its history.
I discuss late-nineteenth-century ancestors to biometrics, early research
on machine recognition of faces in the 1960s, and the growing state and
private interest in the technology during the 1990s. The early emergence of
face recognition as part of the state surveillance apparatus and as marketed,
commercially available products takes place in the post-Soviet/post–Cold
War decade of the 1990s. Its arrival on the scene happens alongside and
in relation to the spread of the Internet and computer networking, neo-
liberal economic policies like NAFTA and the 1996 Telecommunications
Act, and the enormously publicized public-private competition to map
the human genome, creating a universal digital representation of human
essence. Biometrics embody a digital mode of representing the body, and
techniques of digitalization are enlisted to lay a particular claim to truth
about the relationship between the body and identity.7 By automating the
process of connecting bodies to identities and, in some cases, distribut-
ing that identified body across computer networks for specific purposes,
biometrics can control access to the benefits of citizenship, to the national
territory, to information, to computer networks themselves, to transpor-
tation systems, and to specific spaces of consumption and safety. Facial
recognition and biometrics must be located fi rmly within their historical
and cultural context of emergence, with particular attention to the ways
these technologies are being enlisted to control access to the spaces and
information of value in the digital age.

Late-Nineteenth-Century Bodily Identification Systems

To understand how and why computerized facial recognition has become

both a possibility and perceived necessity, it helps to consider the problem
of identification in historical perspective. In The Origins of Totalitarian-

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 37

ism, Hannah Arendt argued that the claim to authority for determining
who belongs and who does not is a central component of sovereignty. 8
The identification of subjects residing within or attempting to enter state
territories has been a particular preoccupation of modern states. Since
their emergence out of traditional societies, modern states have neces-
sarily invested considerable effort in defi ning their membership—those
individuals entitled to state benefits and protections, and subject to state
controls.9 The rise of a culture of identification, in which individuals are
assigned official identities and routinely asked to verify those identities in
social and economic exchanges, corresponds to the expansion of the mod-
ern state. Identifying citizens and distinguishing them from noncitizens
became an essential function of the modern state, one that required the
construction of “state memory” as a complex of archives, records, docu-
ments, administrative procedures, and human agents.10
The state and other institutions have faced and consistently attempted
to address a complex of problems in their ongoing efforts to construct
systems for accurately and reliably identifying individual constituents at
key points of contact. One enduring problem has been that of articulating
identity to the body in a consistent way. The seemingly natural connec-
tion between the body and identity of the person reveals itself to be in
perpetual slippage, a never-ending mirror stage of development where
identity never precisely occupies the body or vice versa. The hybridity of
both identity and the body, and their instability over time, makes their
accurate, reliable articulation that much more difficult, even with the most
cooperative subjects and precise renderings. A second problem—and one
that has been clearly and consistently targeted in the effort to improve
and perfect identification systems—has been the fallibility of the human
agents or workers operating within identification systems, both in terms
of their cultural prejudices and lack of objectivity, as well as their inability
to manage the amount of information required to individuate bodies and
identities. Human agents of identification, such as police and immigra-
tion officers, necessarily draw on their own subjective perceptions and
preconceived notions about individual types to identify or verify identi-
ties, a process seen as fraught with error and inefficiency. The proposed
solutions to this so-called problem of human fallibility have frequently
involved delegation of responsibility for identification to technologies,
including letters, printed documents, bodily measurements, photographic
portraiture, archival systems, and administrative procedures—a leap of
faith based on the problematic assumption that technologies are neutral
and separable from the messiness of human social agents. Each successive
technology of identification is constructed as more scientific, and hence
more neutral, than those that preceded it. A third enduring problem has

38 Kelly A. Gates
been the immensity of the archival and administrative effort necessary to
achieve universal identification, especially given the hybridity of popula-
tions and their perpetually changing compositions. The task of identifying
each individual consistently and reliably across time and space has been
difficult even with the most static of populations, and as subject popula-
tions grow in size they inevitably complicate systems of identification such
that controlling individual identities becomes an enormous bureaucratic
challenge for even the most organized and informationalized apparatus.
Biometrics are not the fi rst technical effort to connect bodies to identi-
ties. Several key nineteenth-century developments in identification systems
evidence a perceived need to use the body itself as a marker of identity
at that time of modern state expansion. These included the application
of photography for identification purposes, the relatively short-lived and
sporadically applied method of anthropometry, and the much more suc-
cessful and enduring scientific method of dactyloscopy, or fi ngerprinting.
While these efforts to devise identification systems were motivated by the
problem of identifying criminals and criminal recidivists, the imperative
to identify criminals, and the systems elaborated to do so, overlapped with
systematic state efforts to identify and distinguish between citizens and
noncitizens. In the United States, as elsewhere, fear of criminals and fear
of foreigners blended into one another, particularly as “nativists” stereo-
typed immigrants as inherently criminal.11 According to Jane Caplan and
John Torpey, “Police practices in the [late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries] asserted a more specialized domain of authority over criminal
identification and detection, which became a crucial site for further iden-
tificatory and supervisory developments that were then reappropriated into
universal systems of civil identification.”12 This is not to say that identifica-
tion systems were deployed universally for the identification of all citizens;
while such projects were certainly conceived, such a massive undertaking
probably would have exceeded the administrative capacities (and interests)
of the state. Still, systems devised for criminal identification, including
photography, anthropometry, and dactyloscopy, were employed in vari-
ous contexts for identifying entrants to state territory; such systems lent
themselves to targeted procedures for identification outside the realm of
criminal identification, strictly defi ned.
The invention of photographic portraiture was enlisted to enhance
or “modernize” identification systems virtually from its very inception,
and this use of photography shaped both the development of the medium
and its cultural significance. Photographic portraiture carried with it
utopian visions about the possibilities of photography’s realist representa-
tional capacity. Its emergence coincided and interacted with the growing
professionalization of policing and the introduction of “expert” sciences

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 39

Individuation into the work of law enforcement. Authorities clearly saw it as a potential
solution to the problem of binding identities to bodies and compensating
involved turning for the fallibility of human agents of identification systems. The value of
photographs for identification was realized early by the British police, who
real lives not only began employing photographers for such purposes in the 1840s.13
Although “the photograph’s status as evidence and record (like its
“into writing,” as
status as Art) had to be produced and negotiated,”14 the leap of realism
(not to mention speed) that it achieved over artists’ portraits surely was
Michel Foucault
difficult to contest. It was a medium uniquely suited to truth-production.
elaborated,16 According to John Tagg, photography’s power to evoke truth resulted not
only from the privilege that industrial societies attached to mechanical
but also into means but also from the way that a new and more penetrating form of the
state mobilized photography as part of a complex of emerging state appa-
images that could ratuses.15 The emerging disciplinary institutions incorporated photography
into sophisticated new surveillance techniques that generated a new kind of
be meticulously detailed and productive knowledge about the subjects being observed. Tagg
inserts photography into the Foucauldian historical analysis of discipline
examined one and outlines the “striking rendezvous” that occurred between the growth of
photographic records and the growth of the state, especially the formalized
by one and
police apparatus. The disciplinary method relied on both the individual
accumulated into portrait of the criminal—the body made object—and the accumulated
images organized into fi ling systems. Individuation involved turning real
filing systems, lives not only “into writing,” as Michel Foucault elaborated,16 but also into
images that could be meticulously examined one by one and accumulated
amounting into fi ling systems, amounting to a new representation of society.
Despite their realist representational mode, photographs alone could
to a new not completely solve the problem of identification. Photography repre-
sented a promising new technique of identification but could not fully com-
representation pensate for the inadequacies of human perception in terms of its capacity
to connect bodies defi nitively to identities. There were added problems
of society.
of using photographs for bodily measurement and other classification
schemes. Moreover, amassing photographs created new administrative and
archival problems, necessitating new procedures and areas of expertise.
Not only did this require some mode of archival organization, but it was
soon learned that photographs were subject to deterioration and misinter-
pretation. Individuals had ways of looking drastically different over time
and strikingly similar to one another, especially in photographs.
To accurately and reliably bind identities to bodies, new methods were
needed. The French police official Alphonse Bertillon answered the call,
developing the system of anthropometry in the 1880s, an elaborate scheme
that resembles modern-day biometrics in that it involved both standardized
bodily measurements and a sophisticated archival and retrieval system. As

40 Kelly A. Gates
examined extensively by such scholars as Alan Sekula, Martine Kaluszyski,
and Anne Joseph, the science and system of anthropometry were used spo-
radically by emerging police and state programs to identify criminals and
other “undesirables.”17 Bertillon’s anthropometry involved the meticulous
measurement and description of individual bodies, records that were then
stored in archives according to a highly organized system that allowed
for easy retrieval. According to Sekula, the central artifact of Bertillon’s
system was not the camera but the fi ling cabinet, a “bureaucratic-clerical-
statistical system of ‘intelligence.’”18 Bertillon’s anthropometry involved
not just measuring and documenting faces and bodies but also classifying
those measurements and documents according to an intricate scheme that
allowed for more efficient retrieval, a necessity for effective identification
and a precursor to the computerized and networked database. The archive
promised to provide “a standard physiognomic gauge of the criminal” and
to “assign each criminal body a relative and quantitative position with a
larger ensemble.”19 Proponents made a considerable effort to invest anthro-
pometry with legitimacy and to position it as a credible, scientific solution
to criminal recidivism and other problems of identification—problems
that the expanding modern state was beginning to address systematically.
According to Sekula, Bertillon’s was the fi rst rigorous system for archiving
and retrieving identity, projects that became central to the state’s admin-
istrative apparatus.
Other innovative actors conceptualized systems for coding and dis-
tributing the identified body across existing information networks in order
to extend the state’s authority to defi ne its citizens and territorial control.
Matt Matsuda describes two systems developed by early-twentieth-century
doctors in France for transforming bodies into coded numerical references
and circulating those references as a system of signals via telegraph. 20 One
was Dr. A. Motet’s method, which involved “attributing to each individual
physical feature . . . a classifying number based on the recognized elements
most characteristic of their physical person, and inscribed in some ways
upon their organ.”21 Anthropometric measurements, physical descriptions,
and photographic portraiture would be translated into reference codes for
easy distribution across telegraph networks to identify vagabonds and other
problematic bodies. While such a system was never fully institutionalized,
it was clearly conceptualized well before computerization, digitization, and
electronic information networks provided new possibilities and new areas
of need for storing and distributing representational forms of bodies and
their corresponding identities. Computerized forms of bodily identification
are in many ways consistent with these earlier state efforts and similarly
tied to cultural preoccupations with constructing the limits and possibili-
ties of the state and other governing institutions.

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 41

Automated Facial Recognition

Teaching the computer how to “see” a face has been no simple accom-
plishment. As two MIT computer scientists noted in the early nineties,
“developing a computational model of face recognition is quite difficult,
because faces are complex, multidimensional, and meaningful visual
stimuli.” 22 Faces change considerably with aging, emotions, fatigue,
trauma, and surgery. The dynamic states of the person and the range of
images that can be rendered of that person make automated or computer-
assisted facial recognition a difficult technical problem. The simple mat-
ter of looking at and recognizing a person turns out to be an exceedingly
complex process when it comes to teaching machines how to do it, and
doing so means devising systems that, underneath the surface, have little
resemblance to how humans recognize each other. The effort to produce
automated facial recognition has involved research in a number of sci-
entific areas, including computer vision, image processing and analysis,
pattern recognition, and statistics. 23
Some of the earliest research on machine recognition of faces can be
traced back to the 1960s at a company called Panoramic Research, Inc., in
Palo Alto, California, one of many companies springing up in California
at the time to conduct research in what was later termed artificial intel-
ligence (AI). The work at Panoramic Research was funded largely by the
U.S. Department of Defense and various intelligence agencies, and thus
was unavoidably entrenched in the U.S. fight for Cold War technologi-
cal dominance. 24 As Manuel de Landa has noted, in the early 1960s the
military was sponsoring research in pattern recognition aimed at getting
humans “out of the loop” of mechanized surveillance and intelligence
efforts, while independent researchers were working in the opposite direc-
tion to develop “an interface between humans and machines capable of
assembling them into a synergistic whole.”25 Research on machine recog-
nition of faces at Panoramic was conducted by a man named Woodrow
Wilson “Woody” Bledsoe, one of the company’s cofounders. Bledsoe is
now widely recognized as one of the early researchers of AI and a pioneer
in the field of automated reasoning. A member of the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers during World War II and a devout Mormon, he was a fi rm
believer in incremental scientific advances as opposed to major leaps or
paradigm shifts. The technique Bledsoe developed was dubbed “man-
machine facial recognition” and drew on his earlier work on computer
recognition of letters. It involved manually entering into a computer the
positions of facial feature points in an image, a process known as “feature
extraction.” A human operator would use a “rand tablet” to extract the
coordinates of features such as the corners of the eyes and mouth, the top

42 Kelly A. Gates
of the nose, and the hairline or point of a widow’s peak. The name of the Bledsoe was
person in an image was stored in a database along with facial coordinates,
and records were classified based on those measurements. The computer apparently proud
was then prompted to identify the name of the closest test image, given a set
of distances between facial feature points. Bledsoe was apparently proud of of this painstaking
this painstaking research on machine recognition of faces; however, very
research on
little of it was published because the funding was provided by an unnamed
intelligence agency that did not allow much publicity. 26
This early stage in the development of computerized techniques for
identifying faces involved a great deal of manual work, and it took place dur- recognition of
ing a decade when the computer still had the aura of a Cold War machine.
In the early 1960s, institutions compiled decidedly less information about faces; however,
individuals, and records were stored by and large in hard-copy fi ling sys-
tems. Individuals were officially identified with recourse to signatures, ink very little of it
fi ngerprints (for criminal identification), photographs, and identification
documents. In addition, sharing information among different systems was published
often involved the labor-intensive process of physically locating fi les and
distributing records through the postal service or some other form of
because the
hard-copy transmission. For example, the decentralized, regionally based
funding was
credit reporting industry, perhaps the most intensive site for compiling and
distributing information about individuals, did not incorporate comput- provided by
ers until 1965, when TRW Credit Data Corporation began computerized
operations in Los Angeles. 27 TRW, and the credit reporting industry in an unnamed
general, faced considerable struggle and expense in creating a compre-
hensive, centralized computer system. In law enforcement, state and local intelligence
agencies had initiated efforts by the mid-1960s to create centralized state
databases for criminal history and wanted warrant information, using agency that
high-speed telecommunications networks to connect different agencies, 28
but again, nothing resembling a universal integrated network materialized, did not allow
as the practical effort proved more daunting than planners envisioned. The
much publicity.
FBI began to use computers to process criminal histories in 1963, but it
did not initiate serious efforts to develop a nationwide computerized system
until 1970. 29 In addition, defense strategists at RAND Corporation were
already beginning to conceptualize a nuclear blast-proof decentralized
computer network, but the idea would not be born as ARPANET until
the end of the decade, and then with only four nodes in the network by
December 1969.
Thus scientists working on rudimentary, programming-intensive proj-
ects to simulate machine face perception were not doing so in response
to an immediate need for the identification of individuals via computer
networks. What computerized face recognition research clearly partici-
pated in was a more general effort at programming computers to do what

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 43

humans could do or, better, what humans were incapable of doing. For
some researchers conducting work in pattern recognition, as de Landa
notes, “the idea was not to transfer human skills to a machine, but to
integrate humans and machines so that the intellectual skills of the for-
mer could be amplified by the latter.”30 In a study titled “Man-Machine
Interaction in Human-Face Identification,” scientists at Bell Labs aimed
to optimize “the man-machine system so that we can take advantage of
both the human’s superiority in detecting noteworthy features and the
machine’s superiority in making decisions based on accurate knowledge
of population statistics.”31 In addition, there can be little doubt that efforts
to develop computerized face recognition techniques were motivated in
part by processing problems posed by the vast quantities of photographs
compiled by the criminal justice system. The computer promised to offer
new methods for organizing and sorting archives of photographic identi-
ties, and especially for reducing them to a manageable quantity so that
they could be used for identification purposes. The archival problem that
Sekula and others identified as characteristic of early police uses of pho-
tography—in simplest terms, the tendency of photographs to accumulate
in disorderly piles—persisted into the twentieth century.
Insulated to some extent from public sentiment, and well funded by
the federal government in the post–Vannevar Bush context, 32 researchers
at places like Panoramic Research chipped away at the process of program-
ming computers to see objects, including human faces. The earliest work
to successfully program a computer to confi rm the existence or absence of
a face in an image, without human operator intervention, was published
in Pattern Recognition in 1969. 33 Then in 1970, M. D. Kelly produced a
landmark dissertation project on face recognition at Stanford. 34 His tech-
nique enabled the computer to automatically extract the head and body
outlines from an image and then locate the eyes, nose, and mouth, using
three images of each individual: the body, the background without the
body, and a close-up of the head. In 1973 Takeo Kanade’s dissertation
research at Kyoto University in Japan reported the same results using only
a photograph of the face and a new “flexible picture analysis scheme” that
consisted of a collection of simple “subroutines,” each of which worked on
a specific part of the picture. 35 Kanade’s project correctly identified fi fteen
out of twenty people. In a manuscript of the dissertation published in 1977,
Kanade noted that the techniques of “picture processing” to which his
research contributed lent themselves to “sophisticated applications such
as interpretation of biomedical images and X-ray fi lms, measurement of
images in nuclear physics, processing of a large volume of pictorial data
sent from satellites, etc.”36 Computer recognition of faces was one solution

44 Kelly A. Gates
to a set of problems on how to automatically interpret images and handle
an overproduction of visual information in medicine, science, law enforce-
ment, and military intelligence.
The effort to automate the process of human face recognition made
incremental advances in the early 1970s, but it clearly had far to go before
machines could achieve the same capacity as human beings for recognizing
faces and connecting them to identities. The personal computer itself had
yet to become a staple in middle-class American homes, and networked
computers were the exclusive domain of scientists, the state, and big busi-
ness when researchers were envisioning and working on the automated
identification of people by machines. The computer would need the capac-
ity to see, and especially to see and discern individual human beings, if it
could ever achieve “intelligent” status. Whether early developers precisely
envisioned institutional applications for automated identification, and for
connecting bodies to identities in networked environments, is difficult to
determine, but research articles suggest that at times they did have surveil-
lance applications in mind.
Research on computer face recognition conducted throughout the 1970s
focused by and large on “typical pattern classification techniques” or
“measured attributes between features in faces or face profi les.”37 In short,
much of the work was done manually. According to a 1995 survey of the
field, research in computer face recognition remained largely dormant
during the 1980s. The reason for this dearth of research interest during
the Reagan era is unclear, but the lack of attention did not extend to all
types of biometrics, as patents were being awarded on optical fi ngerprint
technology, for example, and entrepreneurs were moving to commercialize
and capitalize on the transformation from ink to digital fi ngerprinting in
law enforcement. The lack of research on automated facial recognition may
have resulted in part as a residual effect of the much-publicized critique
of artificial neural networks, or “perceptrons,” published in 1969 by two
scientists at MIT. 38 This disciplinary attack effectively defunded neural
network research for about fi fteen years, most significantly drying up the
monies distributed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA). The field of neural networks recovered in the early 1980s and
experienced a major resurgence by the end of the decade, at about the same
time that scientists at places like MIT and Rockefeller University were
developing techniques of computer face recognition that would eventually
move out of the lab and into the real world of “security.”

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 45

Biometrics and Informationalized Capitalism

It is necessary to put the emergence of facial recognition technology and

other biometrics in the context of the information revolution taking place
during the latter half of the twentieth and into the twenty-fi rst century.
As Dan Schiller has elaborated, we are living through a transition to
an informationalized capitalism, a historical phase-change that com-
menced during the 1960s and arose out of a systemic economic, social,
and political crisis. 39 Profit slowdown and industrial stagnation, along
with the legitimation crisis posed by the Vietnam War and domestic
civil rights issues, were among the major problems leading to a recog-
nized need on the part of corporate executives and national politicians
in the United States to create new sites of profit and to mollify social
unrest. According to Schiller, “the central role accorded to information
and communications as an economic stimulant was unprecedented,” as
corporate capital invested in the development of information and commu-
nication technology (ICT) and integrated ICT into business processes,
especially to coordinate dispersed locations.40 As an integral part of the
process, telecommunications infrastructure worldwide experienced a top-
down overhaul during the 1980s and 1990s to bring it in line with the
needs of transnational capital.41 For diversified businesses with dispersed
operations, telecommunications provided “an indispensable coordinating
mechanism.”42 Widespread decisions to interoperate computer systems
were motivated by the interests of corporate capital to spread their reach
across the globe and deep into economic, social, and cultural life.
Corporate reconstruction around networks has occurred economy-
wide, with the installed base of computers in the United States rising from
5,000 in 1960 to 180 million by 1997.43 The fi nancial sector took a leading
role in this process, significantly increasing its telecommunications operat-
ing expenses, linking up its offices transnationally, and installing 165,000
networked automated teller machines in the United States by 1998. Banks
were not alone, as companies in other sectors “sought to integrate networks
into core activities of production, distribution, marketing, and adminis-
tration” (14). U.S. corporate capital spending on information processing
and related equipment outpaced factory machinery and mobile equipment
by the mid-1980s (16). U.S. legislators were necessarily onboard; “the
U.S. policymaking establishment was determined to grant business users
the maximum freedom to explore information technology networks as a
private matter” (7).
Along with these sweeping changes in the structure and policy of
existing telecommunications infrastructure came proliferating forms of
corporate surveillance, including a growing need for automated forms

46 Kelly A. Gates
of identification in order to control access to information networks and to Employers of all
identify the millions of individuals whose personal data circulated through
those networks. Computerization and the spread of information networks sorts saw the
provided both the possibility and the areas of need for new identification
technologies. Identification documents, like passports and driver’s licenses, need to monitor
which had always had their shortcomings (especially in terms of their
and control their
inability to accurately and reliably connect bodies to identities) were seen
as increasingly inadequate to the task of identification across networks.
employees’ access
The banking, credit card, and telecommunications industries were among
those social actors expressing an ongoing interest in technologies that could to both computer
give them greater control over transactions and information. Not only was
identity verification needed at the point of transaction, but the intensive networks and the
private-sector drive to know the consumer meant that each transaction
became part of individual records that could be mined and compiled to physical space of
develop consumer profi les. In addition, employers of all sorts saw the need
to monitor and control their employees’ access to both computer networks the workplace.
and the physical space of the workplace. These institutional users, along
with state and law enforcement actors, represented the primary markets
These institutional
for emerging commercial biometric systems.
users, along
As Kevin Robins and Frank Webster have argued, new ICTs have
been enlisted in the extension and reconfi guration of Fordist principles of with state
scientific management, so that such principles can be applied well beyond
the workplace. “Cybernetic capitalism” involves the application of new and law
ICTs toward a new regime of social mobilization, characterized in part by
“a heightened capability to routinely monitor labor processes by virtue of enforcement
access to and control over ICT networks.”44 The individualization of labor,
and the increased capacity to monitor work and productivity rates in “real actors,
time,” creates an increasingly “flexible” and “disposable” workforce.45 In
addition, with the penetration of the home by ICTs, leisure time similarly represented the
becomes “increasingly subordinated to the ‘labor’ of consumption.”46
primary markets
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this new regime of
social mobilization without technologies for automatically fi xing identities
for emerging
to bodies across information networks. During the 1980s and especially
1990s, fi nger imaging, iris and retina scanning, voice recognition, and commercial
other types of biometrics made their way into real-world applications,
along with advances in the research and development of facial recognition biometric systems.
technology. Driven in part by the profit potential in serving the needs of
state security and law enforcement, not to mention the interests of cor-
porate actors to control information networks, the 1990s saw an increase
in research interest in facial recognition technology, as well as the com-
mercialization and the integration of prototypes into existing real-world
identification systems. Scientists made advances in programming com-

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 47

puters to locate a face in an image, to segment the face from background
clutter, and to extract facial features. Increasing amounts of computing
power facilitated faster techniques and accommodated larger, higher-
quality images, in greater quantities. The transition of computerized face
recognition from the lab to the marketplace followed the development of
the “eigenface” technique at the MIT Media Lab, a technique called “local
feature analysis” developed at Joseph Atick’s Laboratory of Computational
Neuroscience at Rockefeller University, and the resurgence of research in
artificial neural network technologies that mimicked brain function.
By the mid-1990s, a number of scientists studying such techniques in
academic research labs had remade themselves as entrepreneurs, hoping
to ride the IT economic boom and capitalize on the needs of institutional
users to monitor and control individual constituents, be they customers,
employees, citizens, or criminal suspects. Thanks in part to the technology
transfer provisions of the Bayh-Dole Act, which widely opened up federally
funded research to industry, scientists took their academic research to the
private sector to form new companies, dedicated to designing and market-
ing facial recognition products to potential users in need of and lured by the
promise of new automated identification systems.47 In the United States,
Miros Inc., Viisage Technology, and Visionics Corporation emerged as
among the most promising and visible vendors, attracting venture capital
and grants from federal government agencies, if not an immediate cus-
tomer base. Scientists forming these companies joined legions of others in
a variety of fields who hoped to capitalize on their academic research and
make millions in the so-called growth economy of the nineties.
By the turn of the millennium, the small biometrics industry was tak-
ing off, and biometric technologies, including automated facial recognition,
were being integrated into a wide range of private-sector identification
systems, namely for controlling access to physical spaces and computer
networks. According to Biometric Technology Today, total biometric indus-
try revenues jumped from $120 million in 2000 to an estimated $424
million in 2003, with revenues expected to reach $1.86 billion by 2006,
as “large-scale projects move from the drawing board to the real world.”48
Facial recognition technology’s share of the market rose from 3.9 percent
in 1998 to 14 percent in 2003, still eclipsed by fi ngerprint technology, with
46 percent of the market in 2003. As was noted in Biometric Technology
Today, “the government sector . . . has become the primary source of rev-
enue for the industry’s technology providers—although in most cases this
revenue is fi ltering through large systems integrators.”49 As the global reach
of information networks expands, automated forms of identification have
become critical to the interests of corporate capital. They are also increas-
ingly useful to state and law enforcement actors in their responsibilities for

48 Kelly A. Gates
security provision, responsibilities that often coincide intimately with the
interests of capital. These institutional users have shaped the form that
biometric systems have taken, and the technologies have become pivotal
in the transition to informationalized capitalism.


As David Lyon has argued, the “deeper shifts” toward intensified surveil-
lance practices were already in process before 9/11; the attacks “served
simply to accelerate their arrival in a more public way.”50 The state and
private sectors envisioned uses for biometrics well before 9/11, and the
biometrics industry began marketing its technologies to serve the insti-
tutional needs of the digital age. The erasure of the early development
and investment in facial recognition technology in post-9/11 claims about
its “homeland security” potential has accommodated the young biomet-
ric industry’s rhetoric of scientific neutrality and its effort to secure the
authority and desirability of its product. The high-tech, scientific image
so critical to the industry’s efforts to sell its technologies relies in part on
the dissociation of the biometrics from the investments, struggles, and
negotiations involved in their early development, as well as the ongoing
social and technical challenges that they face. These challenges detract
from the image of the technology as scientific and “state of the art,”
revealing the extent to which these new bodily identification systems are
enmeshed in the politics and preoccupations of interested actors. The
very notion of “high-tech” or “state of the art” necessarily involves the
reification of that which is labeled high-tech; a faith or belief in the high-
tech inescapably involves committing the error of mistaking an abstrac-
tion for a material thing.
A technocratic rationality clearly framed the policy response to 9/11,
and the biometrics industry was among those sectors mined for “secu-
rity” expertise, in turn taking the opportunity to posit its technological
systems as solutions to the newly salient problem of securing the nation
from terrorism. Thus an examination of the historical emergence of facial
recognition technology provides an opportunity to consider whether the
post-9/11 moment represents a decisive transformation in the configura-
tion of state power. Are the U.S. “homeland security” policies ushering in
a new era of state sovereignty with potential authoritarian tendencies? The
significant pre-9/11 investment in biometrics suggests that while the full-
scale moral panic resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks helped greatly
intensify “security” consciousness, this security consciousness and its
corresponding surveillance techniques were already on the rise along with

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 49

Post-9/11 the postindustrial transformation of cities and the enclosure of all forms of
information into the market system. In addition, while the national security
homeland state may be empowered by a resurgence of funds and priorities, private
sector interests in fact remain at the forefront of the new homeland security
security regime. More precisely, the post-9/11 homeland security consciousness has
helped fuel the newly fortified network security regime that the full-scale
commodification of information requires.
Identification is at once an individualizing and a classifying process, a
has helped
paradox that underlies all identification schemes, from their earliest forms
fuel the newly to their present incarnations. Biometrics are designed to transfer some of
the responsibility for the culturally confl icted process of identification from
fortified network humans to computer systems. The actual contribution of facial recogni-
tion and biometrics to technological surveillance systems—to automated
security regime identification—certainly should not be equated with the infl ated claims
of the biometrics industry or other proponents. Just as Katherine Hayles
that the full-scale argues that we have always been posthuman, 51 and Bruno Latour argues
that we have never been modern, 52 we have always relied on technologies
commodification in the effort to fi x identities and bind them to bodies, and we have never
achieved technically perfect identification systems. However, facial recog-
of information
nition and biometrics are already unmistakably important developments in
requires. techniques of visual and bureaucratic surveillance, and they require both
critical attention and political intervention.


1. Visionics Corporation is now Identix, Inc. Visionics and Identix merged

in 2002.
2. Pat Gill, “Technostalgia: Making the Future Past Perfect,” Camera
Obscura: A Journal of Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 40 (1997): 163–79.
3. Susan Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899–1922 (Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), xv.
4. There are a variety of commercially available technologies designed to
“digitize” the body in order to read it as an identification document, store it in
a database, and distribute it across information networks. The now-familiar list
of biometric technologies includes not only facial recognition but also digital
fi ngerprinting, hand geometry, iris and retina scanning, and voice recognition.
Here I focus on facial recognition technology precisely because the “content”
of the medium—the image of the human face—carries such social and cultural
significance, and because of the considerable sway this particular biometric tech-
nology has come to have in the public imagination. However, to understand the
historical emergence of facial recognition technology, it is necessary to consider it
in isolation from other biometric technologies. When I use the term biometrics, I
mean to generalize across the range of identification technologies that use digitized
readings of the body to identify individuals. Conversely, when I use the term facial

50 Kelly A. Gates
recognition I mean to specify this unique type of biometric that aims to mimic one
of the primary, visual ways that humans recognize each other, and a technique
that promises to identify humans in their direct interface with an identification
5. See, for example, Kevin Barnhurst and John Nerone, The Form of News: A
History (New York: Guilford, 2001); Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting;
Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1988); and Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form
(New York: Schocken, 1975).
6. Williams, Television, 8.
7. According to Irma van der Ploeg, it is important to consider “how the
translation of (aspects of) our physical existence into digital code and ‘informa-
tion,’ and the new uses of bodies this subsequently allows, amounts to a change
on the level of ontology, instead of merely that of representation.” She argues that
biometrics, genetics, and other technologies for digitizing the body signal the
emergence of a new ontology of the body rather than merely new ways of represent-
ing or defi ning the body. This new ontology of the body redefi nes and reworks it
as information flows and communication patterns and is quite distinct from the
familiar anatomical-physiological ontology of the body, itself a late-eighteenth-
century historical construction that altered the meaning and experience of embodi-
ment through its gradual incorporation into the institutional practices of medicine,
law, education, public policy, etc. The informatization and digitization of the body
through biometrics, genetics, biomedical, visualization, and other technologies are
not merely defi ning the same body with new language. They may substantively
reconfi gure bodies and have real effects at the level of embodiment. “The notion
of body ontology enables us to describe the way the human body is implicated in
a process of co-evolution with technology—information technologies, but also
surgical, chemical and genetic, and visualization techniques, and combinations of
these” (Irma van der Ploeg, “Biometrics and the Body as Information: Normative
Issues of the Socio-technical Coding of the Body,” in Surveillance as Social Sorting:
Privacy, Risk, and Digital Discrimination, ed. David Lyon [New York: Routledge,
2003], 59, 64).
8. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1973), 248.
9. Anthony Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, vol. 2,
The Nation-State and Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
10. Matt K. Matsuda, The Memory of the Modern (New York: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1996).
11. Simon Cole, Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal
Identification (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
12. Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds., Documenting Individual Identity: The
Development of State Practices in the Modern World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Uni-
versity Press, 2001), 9.
13. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation (London: Macmillan, 1988),
14. Ibid., 6.
15. Ibid.
16. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan
Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977), 191.

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 51

17. Alan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (1986): 3–64; Mar-
tine Kaluszyski, “Republican Identity: Bertillonage as Government Technique,”
in Caplan and Torpey, Documenting Individual Identity, 164–83; Anne M. Joseph,
“Anthropometry, the Police Expert, and the Deptford Murders: The Contested
Introduction of Fingerprinting for the Identification of Criminals in Late Vic-
torian and Edwardian Britain,” in Caplan and Torpey, Documenting Individual
Identity, 123–38.
18. Sekula, “Body and the Archive,” 16.
19. Ibid., 17.
20. Matsuda, Memory of the Modern.
21. Ibid., 138.
22. Matthew Turk and Alex Pentland, “Eigenfaces for Recognition,” Journal
of Cognitive Neuroscience 3 (1991): 71.
23. Rama Chellappa, Charles L. Wilson, and Saad Sirohey, “Human and
Machine Recognition of Faces: A Survey,” Proceedings of the IEEE, no. 5 (1995):
24. As Manuel de Landa has noted, “Artificial Intelligence has been a product
of post-Sputnik American military research. . . . The specific balance of power
between DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and other
Cold War think tanks (e.g., ONR, RAND, etc.), the paramilitary agencies trying
to monopolize cutting-edge computer research (the NSA, for instance) and centers
for corporate research (IBM, DEC, etc.) formed the environment wherein modern
computers evolved” (Manuel de Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines [New
York: Zone, 1991], 176–77).
25. Ibid., 193.
26. Michael Ballantyne, Robert Boyer, and Larry Hines, “Woody Bledsoe:
His Life and Legacy,” AI Magazine, no. 1 (1996): 7–20.
27. James Rule, Private Lives and Public Surveillance (New York: Lane, 1973),
28. Kenneth C. Laudon, Dossier Society: Value Choices in the Design of National
Information Systems (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 40.
29. Ibid., 43.
30. De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, 193.
31. A. Jay Goldstein, Leon D. Harmon, and Ann B. Lesk, “Man-Machine
Interaction in Human-Face Identification,” Bell System Technical Journal 51
(1972): 399–427.
32. See Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, ashbks/computer/bushf.htm (accessed 12 Octo-
ber 2002). During World War II and the postwar period Bush famously cham-
pioned the institutionalization of military-government-industrial support of
scientific research. He is also considered the forebear of hypertext research for
having envisioned an automatic memory machine, the “memex,” which stored vast
amounts of data that were linked and accessible via thematic association.
33. T. Sakai, M. Nagao, and S. Fujibayashi, “Line Extraction and Pattern
Detection in a Photograph,” Pattern Recognition 1 (1969): 233–36.
34. M. D. Kelly’s work is summarized in Chellappa, Wilson, and Sirohey,
“Human and Machine Recognition of Faces,” 712.
35. Takeo Kanade, Computer Recognition of Human Faces (Basel: Birkhäuser,
1977), 1.

52 Kelly A. Gates
36. Ibid., 1.
37. Chellappa, Wilson, and Sirohey, “Human and Machine Recognition of
Faces,” 706.
38. For an accounting of this episode in the history of artificial neural net-
work research and development, see “Robert Hecht-Nielson,” in Talking Nets: An
Oral History of Neural Networks, ed. James A. Anderson and Edward Rosenfeld
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 293–314.
39. Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999); Schiller, “Informationalized Capitalism:
Retrospect and Prospect” (unpublished manuscript, 2004).
40. Schiller, “Informationalized Capitalism,” 2.
41. Schiller, Digital Capitalism.
42. Dan Schiller, “Business Users and the Telecommunications Network,”
Journal of Communication, no. 4 (1982): 86.
43. Schiller, Digital Capitalism, 13.
44. Kevin Robins and Frank Webster, Times of the Technoculture: From the
Information Society to the Virtual Life (New York: Routledge, 1999), 115.
45. By “individualization of labor,” Castells means “the process by which
labor contribution to production is defi ned specifically for each worker, and for
each of his/her contributions, either under the form of self-employment or under
individually contracted, largely unregulated, salaried labor. . . . Individualization
of labor is the overwhelming practice in the urban informal economy that has
become the predominant form of employment in most developing countries, as
well as in certain labor markets in advanced economies” (Manuel Castells, End of
the Millennium [Malden: Blackwell, 1998], 72).
46. Robins and Webster, Times of the Technoculture, 116.
47. As a result of the Bayh-Dole Act, over 2,200 new companies were formed
between 1980 and 1999 based on the licensing of an invention from an academic
institution. See Council on Governmental Relations, “The Bayh-Dole Act: A
Guide to the Law and Implementing Regulations,”
(accessed 5 March 2004).
48. “2003 Market Review,” Biometric Technology Today, January 2004, 7.
49. Ibid.
50. David Lyon, Surveillance after September 11 (Cambridge: Polity, 2003),
51. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cyber-
netics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
52. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

Biometrics and Post-9/11 Technostalgia 53

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space

In depicting contemporary panopticism, Roy Boyne has identified danger Swati Ghosh
as the single most effective cause of surveillance, where “danger from
our enemies, danger from those who might grow into our enemies, [and]
danger from those who could not look after themselves” were differ-
ent categories.1 The dangers posed by the vulnerable and the criminal
are linked within the regime of surveillance that has been imposed on
the sexually marginalized female prostitutes of Bengal, who are neither
criminals nor victims and yet have been both criminalized and victimized
by the medico-moral-legal code of surveillance that defi nes them. The
prostitute as the site of work, sex, disease, power, desire, and pleasure has
recently emerged from these contested constructions as a new political
subject. The global epidemic of AIDS has forced a radical remapping
of sexual boundaries, with prostitutes as the most likely group to con-
tract and spread the disease. The concern for sexual health has given the
prostitutes new visibility: from the familiar status of a marginal group
of sexually aberrant women, they are now being considered a significant
target for public health policy. In the post-1990 phase of modernization,
the Indian state has been keen to include them in the welfare agenda and
regulate their behavior through surveillance that marks their bodies as
domains of sexual health and social discipline.
The prostitutes themselves have responded by asserting their rights
as workers. The emergence of a prostitutes’ forum and their demand for
workers’ rights has engendered a new political identity that gives voice and
agency to prostitute women. The worker status of the prostitute is the crux
of an ongoing debate that has generated an enormous volume of literature
and increased involvement of NGOs and liberal and radical feminists. Still,
it remains to be seen whether this new cultural inscription on the body
of the contemporary prostitute will create a subject position with eman-
cipatory potential. The form of surveillance operating on the sex worker
follows designs of the welfare state and acquires a liberal code that speaks
about sexual well-being of the marginalized group. This creates what I
call a watch-care system, whereby the prostitute is subordinated at once to
supervision, careful concern, regulation, and control. This system enables
the prostitute body to become an object of knowledge, linking sexual plea-

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press.
sure to the normalizing aims of power. While the heterosexual, normative
structure of this extrafamilial, nonreproductive domain remains intact,
the prostitutes are being included within the purview of the paternalistic
state, an entry that was previously denied.
The change in the process of objectification and surveillance can be
understood by examining the genealogy of postcolonial prostitution. The
prostitute’s criminalized body of the colonial past, confi ned to red-light
zones removed from public sight, takes visible form as a vulnerable or vic-
timized body during postcolonial modernization, becoming conspicuous
through the present endeavor to gain the status of a subject-citizen through
claims of workers’ rights. The patterns of surveillance that befall the body
of the contemporary prostitute reveal powerful disciplinary mechanisms
that regulate the decolonized social space of Bengal, India.

The Colonial Past

The colonial phase was a defi ning moment for Indian prostitutes after
prostitution became an important socio-legal context for reformation
under the British regime, which, on the pretext that their work was morally
degrading, initiated legal measures to segregate and criminalize the prosti-
tutes. The once independent prostitutes who had lived scattered through-
out the city were clustered in urban pockets where surveillance could be
initiated. The colonial government then sponsored the institutionalization
of prostitution through government-run brothels that came to be known
as chaklas. The closely guarded chaklas were set up under strict vigil of
brothel keepers and the police in cantonment areas where European troops
were stationed. Every such brothel had high walls and small carefully
barred windows so that the women could not escape. The mahaldarni, or
brothel keeper, was careful to ensure that women did not escape or associ-
ate with any of the native men. In addition to being held in captivity, the
women were also physically and sexually abused by the soldiers and fi ned,
imprisoned, and starved by the officialdom without reason. Each chakla
also had its own prison hospital where women were confi ned against their
will.2 While recognizing the need for British troops to have command over
Indian women’s bodies, the colonial project was to manage the issue of
public health through control over the sexuality of the “public” women.
To avoid infecting young European soldiers with syphilis from the native
prostitutes of the regimental bazaars, the movement of the prostitutes was
legally restricted within these specific clusters. Thus red-light areas were
created in the city to confi ne and regulate the prostitutes.
To the colonizers, the native prostitute by her very origin was perceived

56 Swati Ghosh
as an “amalgam of fi lth, vice, and disease.”3 The British administrative
authority in its official discourse always addressed the local prostitutes
as a collective of “notoriously unchaste women” in need of control.4 The
Indian prostitutes were further defi ned as criminals by the Cantonments
Act XXII of 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act XIV of 1868, and by the
various amendments to these acts and the Indian penal code. This legis-
lation was passed during the same period that the Contagious Diseases
Acts were undertaken in England in the 1860s. The colonial regime intro-
duced compulsory registration for periodic medical examination where
the prostitutes were bodily subjected to medical checkups and treated in
“lock hospitals,” legal confi nements popularly known as the lal-bazaars.
The enumeration of the prostitutes by religion and caste was taken up in
the census of colonial India as early as 1872.5 The fuzziness of the com-
munity that lived by sexual activity was fi nally erased as the prostitutes
were reduced to a defi nable, enumerable category. The “sexual myths of
the Oriental woman were now eclipsed” as diseased bodies became disci-
plined through legal and social measures.6
How did the resolution of the women’s question in the late nineteenth
century accommodate the prostitute, the woman-of-the-home’s other? To
the colonized, the modernity of Indian women had been resolved without
making it a matter of political agitation. The “new woman” emerged as
the educated and refi ned companion of modern man upholding traditional
purity.7 As an impure entity, prostitutes could not be accommodated in
the nationalist discourse shaping “our own modernity,” which was unique
in preserving tradition along with liberal notions, a non-Western model
of achieving modernity. 8 The Indian elite therefore did not contest the
legal territorialization of prostitutes, but rather dovetailed with the Brit-
ish in pushing the prostitutes within the socially demarcated areas of
the red-light zones, far apart from home and the woman-of-the-home.
Prostitution became one of the fi rst women’s issues discussed in annual
Congress meetings when, in an 1888 session, Congress passed a resolu-
tion to cooperate with English “well wishers” of India in “regulating the
prostitutes by the State of India” as long as they discriminated against the
“mistresses and courtesans of high caste/class male clients.” 9 The interest
of the local patriarchy was in accord with that of the colonizer and thus
helped criminalize prostitutes. The differential construct of the public
sphere was supported both by the social reformers and by the nationalist
political leaders. Opposition came only on occasions when Indians were
not included within the law-enforcing authority or when the autonomy of
the male client was hurt.
In 1923 the Calcutta Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA) was
passed and eventually replaced by the Bengal Suppression of Immoral

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space 57

Traffic Act in 1930. The SITA embodied a mix of policies that would
reduce trafficking of women and legalize prostitution at the same time.
Legal enforcement helped enhance state domination through police harass-
ment of prostitutes and raids on brothels. Interestingly, the nonsexual
performance of prostitutes did not unsettle the indigenous elite. Actors
and playwrights of the Bengali stage were keen to accommodate prostitute
women in public performance, which was considered an act of moral degra-
dation for “respectable” women. During late-nineteenth-century Calcutta,
conservative reformers resisted prostitutes’ participation in the cultural
realm while liberal bhadraloks encouraged it.10 In the early twentieth cen-
tury, prostitutes’ social participation became a symbol of liberal national-
ism, on occasions when prostitutes became involved in fund-raising and
brothels were used to provide shelter to nationalist revolutionaries.11

The Postcolonial Present

The issue of prostitution was relatively settled and undisturbed dur-

ing the post-Independence period. As a signatory to the International
Convention for the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls
Act, the Indian government passed the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act
(ITPA) in 1956. Under this act the commercial organization of prostitu-
tion was made punishable in legal terms, but the sexual act per se was not
considered an offense.12 But in the early nineties the situation changed
dramatically. With the advent of AIDS, “a sexual panic pervaded the
political and cultural life of the developed nations” and permeated the
developing countries.13 Efforts to erase the profane and diseased image of
the prostitutes became a social priority. Bengal achieved a unique position
in this respect. In 1992 local organizations assisted by NGOs and funded
by international donors soon formulated a common platform to serve
the interests of prostitutes. With direct support and assistance from the
Indian government, an STD/HIV intervention program at Sonagachhi,
one of the largest red-light districts in India, was launched. In just five
years, the program successfully extended its approach from medical inter-
vention to social and moral issues associated with the AIDS question.
The prostitutes since then earned a new name: sex workers. The dif-
ferent connotations of the various indigenous terms were erased from the
new label that immediately gained currency.14 The social hierarchy of the
prostitutes based on class, experience, cultural accomplishments, and so
on was also smoothed out in the naming. The term jouna karmi, or sex
worker, brought the prostitute’s work into the limelight—she became a
worker earning her living from sexual labor.

58 Swati Ghosh
The worker status was important from the point of intervention so A 1997 World
as to ensure safe sex. As long as prostitution was identified with disease,
sin, and crime, it was difficult to normalize the activity within the scheme Bank report
of work. The attempt to erase the image of a diseased body and include
prostitutes as a category of workers was part of a liberal agenda for the noted that
decolonized nation. The prostitutes responded to the initiative toward
donor funding
health awareness and wanted to be included within organized labor as
workers having a right to work, choice, and collective bargaining. They
was “critical
organized a forum demanding workers’ rights and claimed legalization of
the profession. The logic of this intervention was for prostitutes to seek in gathering
social countenance through productive labor and the wage-labor status
previously denied to them. surveillance data”

on patterns
Welfare and Well-Being
of “sexual
AIDS prevention initiatives transformed the prostitutes into a target of
welfare through knowledge formation and surveillance. To provoke reluc-
behavior . . . of
tant governments to action, global organizations helped formulate policy
those most
by providing leadership and funding for AIDS prevention programs. Of
the three types of development agencies that took the initiative, global likely to contract
donors assumed the major fi nancing burden, NGOs displayed their
skills by generating information previously not in hand, and government and spread HIV,”
attended to the formulation and implementation of cost-effective inter-
vention strategies. A 1997 World Bank report noted that donor fund- and donors
ing was “critical in gathering surveillance data” on patterns of “sexual
behavior . . . of those most likely to contract and spread HIV,” and donors could impose
could impose “conditionality for the receipt of an aid package upon the
national government.” Information about AIDS control was projected as “conditionality
a “public good” with positive externalities for citizens across the globe, as
for the receipt of
intervention in health policies supposedly produced a “positive spillover
effect through creation of knowledge” often beyond state initiative.15
an aid package
With the detection of the fi rst Indian case of HIV infection among
prostitutes, they became the most important target for national AIDS upon the national
policy. The rate of progression of the AIDS epidemic was noted, and
elaborate prevention and control programs were set in motion. Soon the government.”
issue of prostitution caught the imagination of several agencies such as the
National Commission for Women (NCW), the National Human Rights
Commission, and the Department of Women and Child Welfare. Traffick-
ing, child prostitution, and risk from infection became primary concerns,
although reworking the legal basis of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act
to criminalize abuse of prostitute women was not attempted. Among the

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space 59

several feminist activist groups were the liberals seeking legalization and
decriminalization and the radicals working to eradicate prostitution and
rehabilitate prostitutes.16
Before the advent of AIDS, police raids and harassment were the only
signs of a state presence in Sonagachhi. This changed with the govern-
ment’s initiative of HIV/AIDS prevention. The number of prostitutes in
each red-light zone suddenly became important as the stock of sexual
bodies possessing the potential to infect the general population. The
state’s welfare agenda started including prostitutes and their prospective
clients as groups needing reorientation of their sexual behavior. The widely
publicized prevention measures reflected the state’s concern for public
health, though the question of morality was not addressed by state health
departments, which preferred to depict the prostitutes as beneficiaries of
a healthcare program. The prostitutes were projected as victims who fell
into the profession as if by default and therefore needed to be educated
about safe-sex measures and “scientific” forms of contraception.
The classificatory criteria, however, used by the colonial government
continued into the postcolonial era, and the official information collection
system of the state such as the census continued to include the prostitutes
as those engaged in “ungainful activity,” which included the categories
of beggars and vagabonds. Although sexual health and well-being were
important causes for intervention, improvement of the living and working
conditions in the brothels never emerged as a developmental activity to be
undertaken either by NGOs or by the state.

Surveillance Techniques

NGOs acted as local agents with direct field access to make institutional
power less visible in effecting desired changes. A strategy of deploying ex-
prostitutes to collect base-level data was taken up as an important NGO
activity. A small number of ex-prostitutes who had been active practitio-
ners and continued to reside in the area were assigned to keep watch over
young prostitutes. The ex-prostitutes were quick to identify the diseased
and the infected, to furnish detailed information about individual work-
ers, and to motivate prostitutes to adopt safe-sex practices. Having a com-
mand over the trade and contact with other agents within the network,
they were efficient supervisors functioning as “peer educators” employed
by the NGOs. The different NGOs involved in the information collec-
tion system were accountable to the funding authority that monitored the
activity of the local agencies collaborating with the government.
In the brothel the prostitutes were ranked into categories according

60 Swati Ghosh
to level of income and social status. Information gathered included the
monthly, weekly, and daily work schedule of women in each category, the
number of clients attended per day, the nature of sexual act performed, use
of contraception, and frequency of visits to health clinics. The prostitutes
were identified by name, age, and other personal specifications such as
relation with the madam, tenancy structure, asset ownership, and eco-
nomic status within the network. The rate of infection from syphilis and
other sexually transmitted diseases was regularly noted on health cards,
and while the infected individuals were encouraged to get treatment, the
defaulters were constantly counseled.
Information on detailed sexual behavior was possible without coercion
or legal compulsion, as was necessary in colonial times when prostitutes
had to flee to avoid registration. Strategies of persuasion, counseling,
and advice replaced the colonial rule of punishment for breach of law.
Moreover, the disciplinary mechanism of “a few watching many” was not
prevalent in the peer education system. The concern for the prostitutes’
well-being seemed to evolve from the urge to guarantee a regular flow
of income from healthy, infection-free bodies. It was an open cameralist
economy, where “seeing” and “being seen” were not counter confi gura-
tions but ways to ensure sexual health as a prerequisite for a higher income-
earning potential. Observation occurred in a multilayered network, where
the observer and the observed were closely known to each other and lived
as neighbors or coworkers. A spatial mapping of the area divided the zone
into several small units consisting of a number of prostitutes under differ-
ent madams. Some of the madams were employed as peer educators and
controlled several prostitute women; NGO personnel supervised the peer
educators. A network of familiarity, trust, and hierarchical social order
between the observer and the observed of the same community was put to
use in implementing discipline. The information collection system through
ex-prostitutes was cost-effective and efficient in utilizing an already exist-
ing network of supervision. In adopting the technologies of observation
the community entered the “field of knowledge” about the present as well
as the future sexual well-being of the population.
In this system of welfare administration, the prostitutes watched over
themselves and others. The objective of observation was projected as an act
of assurance for each other’s health and earnings, while medical examina-
tion and treatment of diseases became a form of care. To watch was to care,
and caring was a mode of watching. Efficient implementation produced
an ambience where the watched felt obliged to respond to the initiative of
the care provider and to modify their behavior. As a consequence, regular
health checkups were undertaken almost as a voluntary response by the
prostitutes. Apart from sexual health, the availability of medical service

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space 61

While claiming for children and the aged helped convince the prostitutes, over their cli-
ents’ objections, to insist on using contraceptives as safe-sex devices. This
workers’ rights, enhanced the opportunity for NGOs to organize meetings for promoting
condom usage as well as health checkups for willing male partners.
the prostitutes did The site of intervention was no more the body alone; observation over
sexual norms and regulation of conduct became the focus rather than mere
not ask for better
physical examination of the body. Restrictions were imposed when sexual
behavior conducive to infection was identified. Inclusion of prostitutes
work conditions
within AIDS prevention policy was extended to other aspects as well.
or job security; State-run hospitals and clinics admitted women without asking them to
disclose their identities, resulting in the replacement of clandestine clinics
their contention and unsafe abortion chambers. Strikingly, condom use—a male contra-
ceptive—became a proxy to ensure safe-sex practice among prostitutes.
was assertion This indicated the priority given to prevention of sexually transmitted
infections rather than reproductive health or right to use contraceptives
of agency, for prostitute women. The peer educators counted on the distribution of
condoms (initially cost free) to raise awareness of STDs and contain the
proclamation of spread of HIV infection within the community. Thus the possession of
a safe and disease-free body became crucial in achieving a worker-status
human rights,
for the prostitutes.
and equality with

other workers. Response of the Prostitutes

In the postcolonial era, prostitute women were no longer passive objects of

inquiry. They used the campaign against the AIDS epidemic “creatively”
by organizing themselves to fight daily oppression without the help of the
government, the medical community, or the women’s movement. They
pushed the state welfare agenda beyond health claims to resist unfair legal
practices, regular police raids in brothels, and frequent arrests of prosti-
tutes for nonpayment of protection money. They advocated for licensing
of prostitution, repeal of the ITP Act, and formation of a self-regulatory
board for controlling entry into the profession. In the charter of demands,
in the public meetings, in the pamphlets issued, prostitutes formulated
their right to self-determination through slogans that said: “Sex work is
real work, we demand worker’s rights”; “We earn our bread from physical
labor, and want to be recognized as wage labor”; and so on. While claim-
ing workers’ rights, the prostitutes did not ask for better work conditions
or job security; their contention was assertion of agency, proclamation of
human rights, and equality with other workers.
The prostitutes acted as a collective. The most common metaphor
that they used while referring to their forum was family. They did not

62 Swati Ghosh
want to pursue individual interests of community members in terms of
property or legal problems and relied on the intimate bonds of kinship
while voicing their concerns through the forum. The forum organized
collective action against police harassment and unjustified arrests in the
red-light areas of the suburban pockets where prostitutes were yet to get
organized. The forum announced its opposition to child prostitution and
took the responsibility as the familial head to send minor girls back to
their parents in the villages. The social welfare component of the forum’s
activity proposed the inclusion of nonformal education centers, drop-in
centers for children, and vocational training for the aged and the retired,
apart from the regular activity of organizing sports, coaching classes, and
cultural functions for children. The forum arranged for loans from their
cooperative for the aged prostitutes, looked after HIV-infected members,
and arranged for treatment as attempts toward better living.
The forum was also a body through which the community negotiated
with the outside world. The leaders of political parties, academicians, art-
ists, and media celebrities sympathetic to the prostitutes’ cause were often
invited to participate and express solidarity with the family of prostitutes.
The forum organized rallies and peace meetings, inviting representatives
of other associations of prostitutes and NGOs across the country, even
if they were hostile to its stand. The forum organized processions and
sit-in demonstrations in support of the brothel prostitutes against police
atrocities in the neighboring country of Bangladesh. They supported and
submitted memorandums on common agendas with leftist trade unions
against the economic measures of the structural adjustment program of the
central government. The forum invented strategies to interact with vari-
ous state agencies such as the police, the labor commission, and the legal
services cell that were instrumental for implementing welfare measures,
and influenced them to sensitize their personnel through training pro-
grams. They proposed the formation of a self-regulatory board including
representatives of the National Commission for Women, National Human
Rights Commission, Social Welfare Ministry, and the local Councilor. In
the process, the prostitutes emerged as a conspicuous community negoti-
ating their claims with the state.
In claiming workers’ rights, the prostitutes were seeking legal equality
with other workers. While making their demands, the prostitutes did not
stake their identities to sexuality but to work. In their pattern of nego-
tiation, they demanded entry to civil society as nonstigmatized women
workers. Their strategy of negotiation with the state included the modern
rhetoric of autonomy and right to collective bargaining of a worker within
organized labor. The demand for the right to work implied an erasure of the
moral stigma associated with the profession and entry into civil society as

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space 63

universal worker. It was a democratic claim seeking a change of the conven-
tional gender meanings and social relations of prostitution, to be achieved
with state support and sanction. The state’s dubious stand on prostitution
was exposed to a large extent in its mode of interaction.17 The strength
of the collective was that the state could neither ignore the demands for
inclusion nor accept the claim of the prostitutes, univocally.
Outside the domain of civil society, the marginalized community of
prostitutes acquired a political language to negotiate on its own terms with
the state. The emergence of the sex worker as speaking subject seeking
political identity was a novel turn in this period. The prostitutes came into
the limelight and the elite cultural space lent a hearing to their stories.
The prostitutes were invited to participate in seminars and conventions at
academic institutions, while the media sympathized with the subservient
position of the stigmatized, marginal sex worker. Within a short span of
time, a number of literary works mushroomed with prostitute women as
protagonists trying to voice their claims for entry into the mainstream.
Public opinion began to favor replacing the profane and immoral image
of the prostitute by that of a healthy, disease-free sex worker. The pros-
titutes were claiming to have achieved a new subject position by voicing
their needs within their immediate public sphere, although they never
questioned their social and moral quarantine.

Subject Formation

The subject-formation process for the prostitute was complex. She

remained a lesser citizen when it came to the state’s attempts at modern-
ization. The everyday practice of citizenship already excluded the pros-
titute. Prostitutes were “citizens” with voting rights without the voters’
identity cards essential to exercise the right. They could not dwell any-
where in the city’s residential areas as independent, rent-paying tenants
because they practiced “immoral activities on commercial terms.” Their
freedom of movement was physically restricted within the red-light zones.
Children of prostitutes were refused admission to both public and private
schools. Often a fake name of the father of the child had to be stated in
school admission forms. If the mother chose to disclose the nature of her
occupation, the child was socially ostracized. Prostitutes were required
to produce a certificate of “good moral character” when they participated
in mainstream activities, such as opening a bank account or starting a
cooperative for themselves. Prostitutes were citizens with rights denied
and workers with moral stigmas. Yet in selecting the language of rights,
the popular movement of prostitutes wanted to establish their claims for

64 Swati Ghosh
equality. In the assertion of collective rights the gendered group of work-
ers was seeking an engagement with the state and law. The struggle was
for erasure of the moral stigma associated with the profession and for
sharing the universal status of labor with others in the workforce.
While the prostitute longed for the position of the subject-citizen in
civil society, she belonged to a world of subjection through economic,
political, and cultural processes. The fact that she could be brought under
governmental health schemes and approached by NGOs indicated that she
did not belong to the unreachable domain of the subaltern. The liberal,
paternalist state included her in the welfare agenda, and she was not barred
from participating in rights movements, if not as part of organized labor,
then as individual subjects. But despite being able to name her price in the
market and voice her demands, she did not enjoy the kind of autonomy
typically bestowed on the bearers of productive labor. Although being
able to act collectively and having gained a presence as a political agent,
the prostitute did not have the power to assert her claim either as a worker
or as a citizen.
The prostitute was produced and constituted through a process of
exclusion that operated at a different plane. Inclusion into state welfare
schemes evidently wiped away the social rejections, while the nature of her
work posited her as nonproductive, social refuse. The prostitute was not
a sexual minority at work having a clear “erotic preference”18 but rather
a sexual worker, her livelihood evolving from sexual performance with a
partner in exchange for money—a sex worker with work underlined. She
was the complex of an outcast worker offering nonreproductive, hetero-
sexual service (pleasure) to be consumed on the site of her body through
the market. The body as the site of work and consumption was a significant
marker of difference in the prostitute’s case. She had to deliver pleasure
in compliance with the desire of another. She lived at the cost of letting
others use her body in consensual sexual activity as the only option avail-
able to her. Her work violated her self and impinged on a personal zone of
her being mediated through the body. The oppression resulting from the
instrumentality of body and sexuality in work is distinct from the subjuga-
tion to capital shared by a worker. The surplus meaning of her body over
and above that of labor power discerns her. The prostitute is thus differ-
ent from other workers even without the moral implications of her work.
Remaining tied to her body was specific to the work she performed, and
this bodilyness led to abjection and subservience not found in any other
labor form. Involvement in collective bargaining, therefore, could not
empower her at work or salvage an impersonal self of a citizen.
The postcolonial prostitute identity was thus constituted by the aspi-
rations for a subject-citizen and the actuality of an overtly sexual entity.

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space 65

In effect she was part political subject aspiring for subject-citizen sta-
tus through workers’ rights and part empirical subject with the concrete-
ness of her bodily existence. While the former would grant her universal
worker status, her particularity barred her from being “dis-incorporated”
as required by the protocols of citizenship.19 Her position may best be
described as that of the subaltern-citizen. The bodilyness of her being
that could not be represented as individualized entity excluded her as a
citizen. The “politics of citizenship” are uneven and do not allow for the
incorporation of her body’s positivity as a subject-citizen. The prostitute
was always already excluded. Thus she remained within and beyond the
reach of liberation; beyond the efforts of modernity and yet constituted
by it. 20 She was a metropolitan subaltern in partiality, “outside the reach
of organized labor, below the attempted reversal of capital logic,” and yet
being constituted by them. 21 This is where she shared the traits of the
unique position of a subaltern-citizen.


The colonial state attempted to transform the traditional lifestyles of the

community of women who lived by sexual activity into substantive entities
in themselves through application of medical science and statistics. The
postcolonial perspective projected a homogeneous category of healthy
sex workers. The prostitutes were eager participants of health programs
and responded further by demanding workers’ rights. Such attempts at
negotiation with the welfare state and demands for inclusion as subject-
citizen could be achieved without coercive regulation, not conceivable
during the colonial period. An elaborate system of surveillance operated
over the prostitutes with the obvious aim to promote their sexual well-
being. Extending beyond enumeration of the regular prostitutes, changes
in the behavioral pattern and regulation over sexual norms were achieved
through counseling, caring, and watching.
The most significant aspect of monitoring was to create a spontaneous
response toward watching. Watching as a form of care was initiated, where
to watch was to care, to provide care and extend a helping hand to those
wanting to be cared for. While caring was a means of effecting well-being,
the watch-care system became a novel mechanism for enhanced monitor-
ing of bodies and behavior. Thus the prostitute’s body was rendered as
the target, object, and instrument of power and knowledge, acted on by
health care systems generating and collating information. The precondi-
tion for her subject position as sex worker was the disease-free, laboring
body, which made her susceptible to refi ned and improved techniques of

66 Swati Ghosh
surveillance and control of bodies. Power did not confront sexuality from
outside but was able to gain a hold on bodies by regulating sexual behavior
and standardizing sexual norms through the watch-care system. In this
way power was productive of the subaltern-citizen under surveillance, a
process that subjected the prostitute’s body to power and delimited her
subject formation.
The prostitute remained an internal other of the heterosexual domain
and even promised to serve better with a healthy, robust body. But her
embeddedness in her body denied her a role in liberal democracy. This
aspirant to the world of rights was subjected to constant othering, deprived
of the disincorporated, individualized presence with the right of entry into
civil society. The extension of universal rights for the female prostitute
could not, therefore, erase the marks of exclusion despite an apparently
shared equality with other workers. She remained within and beyond the
reach of modernity in this decolonized space.


I wish to thank Richard Maxwell for his encouragement and suggestions. I would
also like to thank Anirban Das and Brati Sankar Chakraborty for their thoughtful
comments on earlier versions of this article.

1. Roy Boyne, “Post-Panopticism,” Economy and Society 29 (2000): 285–307.

2. Ratnabali Chatterjee, The Queen’s Daughters: Prostitutes as an Outcast Group
in Colonial India (Bergen, Fantoft, Norway: Chr. Michelsen Institute, Department
of Social Science and Development, 1992), 15; Sumanta Banerjee, Dangerous
Outcasts: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal (Calcutta: Seagull, 1998), 61;
Prabha Koteswaran, “Preparing for Civil Disobedience: Indian Sex Workers and
the Law,” Boston College Third World Law Journal 21 (2001): 205–6.
3. Chatterjee, Queen’s Daughters, 11.
4. Elizabeth Andrew and Kate Bushnell, The Queen’s Daughters in India (Lon-
don: Morgan and Scott, 1899), cited in Chatterjee, Queen’s Daughters, 15.
5. Biswanath Joardar, Prostitution in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century
Calcutta (New Delhi: Inter-India, 1985), 25–37; Banerjee, Dangerous Outcasts,
6. Chatterjee, Queen’s Daughters, 9.
7. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial
Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).
8. Swati Ghosh, “White Nights in Bengal,” from the margins (August 2000):
9. Radha Kumar, The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements
for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India, 1800–1990 (Delhi: Kali for Women,
1993), 34–37; Janaki Nair, “Nationalist Patriarchy and the Regulation of Sexu-
ality,” Women Law and Colonial India: A Social History (Delhi: Kali for Women,
1992), 171.

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space 67

10. Banerjee, Dangerous Outcasts, 126–37.
11. Sandip Bandopadhyay, “Swadhinatar Andolone Barbonitara,” Bratya
Jibaner Barnamala (Calcutta: Seriban, 1999), 76–79.
12. The aim of the legislation was “to inhibit or abolish commercialized
vice namely, the traffic in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution as an
organized means of living” (preamble to the 1956 version of the act). Immoral
Traffic (Prevention) Act, No. 104, of 1956 is commonly known as PITA since its
amendment in 1986. The ITPA merely extended the SITA’s application to both
women and men and increased the punishment for certain offenses. There was
no reformulation of policy under the amendment, fi rst in 1978 and later in 1986.
However, the act punished anyone maintaining a brothel (section 3), living off the
earnings of a prostitute (section 4), procuring a woman for prostitution (section 5
and 6), practicing prostitution in the vicinity, 200 meters, of public place (section
7), or soliciting (section 8). A woman could, however, carry on prostitution on her
own within her premise without it being considered a criminal act.
13. Linda Singer, Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epi-
demic (New York: Routledge, 1993), 6.
14. The different terms used to describe a sex worker such as the beshya (the
prostitute), barbonita (the public woman), patita (the fallen), baaiji (the royal
court musician and dancer), ganika (the courtesan), barangana (the accomplished
courtesan), randi (the low-class woman of the bazaar), khanki (the scandalized
woman), or even the more recent liner-meye (the line-girl) were homogenized
under the umbrella term sex worker.
15. World Bank, Confronting AIDS: Public Priorities in a Global Epidemic
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 259–65.
16. Among the city-based local NGOs in Kolkata involved with the prosti-
tutes, initially Mahila Samanwaya Committee and later Durbar Mahila Saman-
waya Committee (DMSC), supported by the All India Institute of Hygiene and
Public Health, were liberal in their stand and were proponents of decriminaliza-
tion. They concentrated on the rights denied to prostitutes and aimed at decrimi-
nalization through legalization as the fi rst step. Soon the DMSC started proclaim-
ing prostitutes’ autonomy and, in a fashion similar to the postmodern sex-radical
position, called for the empowerment of prostitutes in the workplace, something
that was lacking even for an Indian housewife. (See Shannon Bell, Reading, Writ-
ing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body [Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1994]). DMSC considered prostitutes to be entertainment artists and formed
solidarity with male sex workers. NGOs such as Sanlaap, Jabala, and a few other
women’s organizations shared the radical feminist stand that defi ned prostitution
as “law of male sex right” and female sexuality to be a construct of male desire.
They thought that there were already enough laws and that legalization would lead
to further commodification of women.
17. The DMSC wanted to repeal the ITP Act. ITPA allowed for oppression
of all prostitutes subject to police regulation and harassment for soliciting. Sec-
tion 15 allowed the police to conduct raids on brothels without a warrant based
on the mere belief that an offense under ITPA was being committed. Amending
ITPA to achieve partial decriminalization was still far away, as suggested by Jean
D’Cunha and Ratna Kapur, pioneers in the field of policy research on prostitutes
(Koteswaran, “Preparing for Civil Disobedience,” 192–93). The response of the
government was to commission studies by the National Commission for Women,

68 Swati Ghosh
to organize workshops, and to initiate networking with the member nations of the
South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) on the trafficking
of women across the border. Child prostitution was being banned and legally
enforced. However, recommendations of the National Law School, Bangalore,
about reform of ITPA were not consulted. In 1989 the law reform initiatives
undertaken by the central government formulated and “nearly passed a loath-
some and potentially discriminative” AIDS Prevention Bill (233). The National
AIDS Control Organization later drafted a national AIDS policy that was “more
progressive” (234) and characterized the issue as more than a simple public health
measure during its HIV prevention efforts.
18. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics
of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carol S.
Vance (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 286.
19. Vivek Dhareshwar and R. Srivatsan, “Rowdy Sheeters: An Essay on Sub-
alternity and Politics,” Subaltern Studies 9 (1996): 201–31. Dhareshwar and Srivat-
san use the concept of dis-incorporation to explain the “politics of citizenship”
operating in the context of the “rowdy sheeter” (one with multiple convictions—or
a long rap sheet—for public rowdiness) who was excluded because of the larger-
than-life image that he created about himself to maintain the positivity of his body.
His attachment to body was high and not disentangling, and therefore did not pos-
sess the privilege of being “dis-incorporated” for the norms of citizenship.
20. For the prostitute it created confl icts and ambiguities. The strain was
contained in presenting a confused version of an abused/empowered self while
relating her lived experiences that were far-off from the official proclamations of
empowerment. The narrative relating to personal histories of the prostitutes at
Sonagachhi depicts her fallen and victim status (interview-based survey under-
taken by author, 2002), while newsletters and bulletins emphasize the prostitute’s
role as an entertainer and comfort-giver (see Sohagnama, the monthly bulletin of
the DMSC, January–February 1999; and the DMSC report, Namaskar, 1998).
21. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Woman in Difference: Mahasweta Devi’s
‘Douloti the Bountiful,’ ” in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Rout-
ledge, 1993), 96–117.

Surveillance in Decolonized Social Space 69

Resisting Surveillance

If you ever visit the remote hills and hollows that make up the far south- John Gilliom
eastern corner of Appalachian Ohio, you will fi nd the poorest counties
in the state. There will be roads you can barely drive on, schools that are
chronically underfunded, and legions of people who are unemployed or
consigned to jobs that lack the income and benefits needed for a secure
life. Because of the structural poverty of the region, many families receive
help from the state’s Department of Job and Family Services, formally
called the Department of Human Services and known by everyone but
the bureaucrats as “the welfare office.”
When people turn to the welfare office in Ohio, they meet CRIS-E—
the Client Registry Information System—Enhanced. A computerized
information management system of awesome reach and power, CRIS-E
runs the show. It leads frontline agency workers through an intake and
assessment interview as it prompts all questions and demands answers
about household makeup, living patterns, sexual relations, fi nances,
employment, schooling, and so on. CRIS-E then combines and assesses all
of this information and makes decisions about program eligibility. CRIS-E
goes on to manage the many fraud control measures undertaken by state
and federal authorities—number matches with IRS and Social Security
data, with workers’ compensation and unemployment programs, with the
various pension funds, and others. If any concerns turn up, or a scheduled
meeting is due, CRIS-E sends a letter to agency clients instructing them
when and where to report. If CRIS-E fi nds a problem or discovers a crime,
the sanctions can result in a warning, termination, or a jail cell. CRIS-E
is a surveillance system that matters. As a statewide matrix that unites
virtually all programs dealing with lower-income families into one system
of assessment, monitoring, enforcement, and sanction, CRIS-E mobilizes
and solidifies an official framework for managing the poor in Ohio. Under
its reign, the poor face a level and intensity of directly targeted surveillance
that relatively few of us may currently experience but that we can expect
to see more of in the coming years.
Our research project exploring life under CRIS-E grew out of a
conviction that we actually know very little about the experiences and
understandings of the surveilled.1 Until quite recently, almost all research

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press.
on how people perceive and respond to surveillance has been limited to
mechanistic opinion surveys and by the assumption that the issue in the
politics of surveillance was the venerable right to privacy. Instead, this
project sought to assess the life of a surveillance subject that in a way did
not presume what the languages, concerns, and responses would be but,
rather, set out to explore these very questions in a manner as unstructured
and unlimiting as possible. The essay at hand draws on those fi ndings to
focus on the questions surrounding opposition and resistance: How, if at
all, do people struggle with, evade, combat, trick, criticize, undermine,
or otherwise speak and act out the confl ict that they must inevitably have
with a system that enacts such manifest and consequential control over
their lives?
The answers we found suggest that if you ever do visit Appalachian
Ohio, you will not encounter picketers with signs reading “Welfare Moms
against Big Brother.” You will not fi nd a staff of activist attorneys preparing
litigation strategies. You will not fi nd a field office for any of the national
privacy rights groups. But you will fi nd, I argue, a widespread pattern of
unorganized resistance to surveillance in which several important things
are happening:

• The welfare mothers we spoke with engage in an array of tactics to evade

and thwart the detection and control of the surveillance system.
• They voice a widely shared critique of the goals and practices of the
surveillance program. Their critique breaks with the conventional grounds
of the right-to-privacy arguments to advance tangible concerns about food,
shelter, and the welfare of their children.
• Their tactical efforts strengthen the values of the critique, challenge the
powers of the surveillance system, and produce tangible improvements in
their families’ lives.

In short, what we found was a dense pattern of unconventional and

seldom-noticed politics through which an internally coherent combination
of ideology and action advanced the interests of these families and thwarted
the mission of the surveillance regime.

The Unorganized Opposition

The fi ndings reported here are not based on a comprehensive survey

or national analysis of opinions on surveillance policy. To the contrary,
our exploration of the issues was motivated by a concern that such sur-
veys—which are so limited and limiting in their options—were failing to

72 John Gilliom
get anything close to a meaningful picture of how everyday people think
and speak about surveillance in their lives. The path chosen here was one
that leads through the local community and emphasizes approaching a
conversation about surveillance in the most informal and everyday terms
that can be achieved while still undertaking research. Field interviews
with fi fty welfare mothers were undertaken by local women who were
themselves long-standing clients of the system until shortly before the
project began. In open-ended one- to two-hour conversations under con-
ditions of anonymity, the women told us about their lives under CRIS-E
and the welfare bureaucracy.
Although the system got some credit for speeding up the processing
of forms, the complaints came fast and hard. “Too nosy.” “Degrading.” “I
feel like a number.” “They make you feel like a dog.” “It drives you crazy.”
“It seems like they want to know too much.” A mother of two, who chose
the pseudonym “Moonstar,” had been on assistance for the twelve years
since the closing of a major governmental facility ended her career. Here,
she echoes many women as she voices her feelings about the information
demands of the welfare system:

Moonstar: Well, they want to know everything. I mean everything. How

many people you got living with you—and that’s nobody’s business. How
much rent you pay. How much utilities you pay and if you can’t pay it, then
that’s tough luck. They put everything on this big screen and anybody and
everybody can look right there on that big screen and say, “Oh look at this.”
Cindy (interviewer): Can anybody fi nd out this information on you?

M: I think they could, I think they really could.

C: How does that make you feel?

M: Well, I feel cheap when I walk in there. I feel that everybody’s looking at
me and like she ain’t got no job, she’s dirty and I just feel worse when I go
in there and come out than I did going there. I don’t like asking for help but
I had to. And I just don’t like it and I should have got off it a long time ago
because I don’t like everybody knowing me too good.

The complaints were clear, pervasive, and multifaceted. But it is

important to stress that Moonstar and the other women went well beyond
talk. Along with the complaining, these women and many of the others
took action against the surveillance in their lives. They did not sue, they
did not march, they did not boycott, and they did not join the ACLU. What
they did was to become artful managers of their fi nancial lives—creating
ways to come up with necessary (and forbidden) extra income without
triggering the surveillance system. Some babysat for cash, others mowed
lawns, cut hair, sold crafts, or cleaned houses. Still others took unreported

Resisting Surveillance 73
support from relatives, lovers, or the fathers of their children. Some had
living arrangements in which homes or apartments were secretly shared.
The list goes on. As Moonstar explains:

The only way that you can make it, if you make it, is by working under the
table. Welfare don’t give you enough money to barely make it and you have
to do little things just to keep your head afloat. I have no money in the end
because I pay all the money. I have no money at the end. And the ADC is
supposed to be for dependent children. How can I take care of my kids when
I have got to pay everything in the household and not have no money to take
care of my children? I have to go out and make a little extra money because
I don’t get enough to support my family, pay the bills, and be able to buy my
kids shoes. If I have to go out and mow a yard for $10 that will get my kids
extra shoes. Because my bills takes all of my money, every bit of it.

From what Moonstar and other women told us, getting a family of four
through the month on the state’s allowance of, at that time, a little over
four hundred dollars was next to impossible. 2 Making things worse was
the fact that state regulations at the time either forbade any extra income
or made the reporting and surveillance system about allowable income
prohibitively risky and cumbersome. So when the mothers did what they
had to do—fi nd extra cash and keep it secret—they placed themselves at
odds with the law and at odds with one of the most advanced fi nancial
surveillance systems of its time.
The mothers’ defi ance of the rules and besting of the system through
petty fraud, subterfuge, and other tactics manifests a pattern of “everyday
resistance” to the surveillance regime. 3 As James Scott explains in Weap-
ons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, everyday resistance
encompasses “the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot
dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance,
slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.”4 He continues, “When a peasant
hides part of his crop to avoid paying taxes, he is both fi lling his stomach
and depriving the state of gain. . . . When such acts are rare and isolated,
they are of little interest; but when they become a consistent pattern (even
though uncoordinated, let alone organized) we are dealing with resistance.
The intrinsic nature and, in one sense, the ‘beauty’ of much peasant resis-
tance is that it often confers immediate and concrete advantages, while at
the same time denying resources to the appropriating classes, and that it
requires little or no manifest organization.”5
Here we hit on a new way of thinking about age-old practices of
noncompliance, masking, misrepresentation, and other ways to beat the
system. In situations where these activities work to defy the goals of the
surveillance program by evading detection and engaging in forbidden or

74 John Gilliom
regulated behaviors, they have to be understood as a form of antisurveil-
lance politics. Moving beyond the welfare context, we emphasize that these
are not necessarily laudable politics, for many nasty things are done in hid-
ing. Nor is it to argue that any instance of noncompliance is necessarily a
significant political phenomenon. Rather, it is to argue that in a society in
which surveillance increasingly becomes the defi ning face of government
and corporate influence and domination, resisting surveillance programs
becomes one key way for citizens to express and act on their disagreement
with the norms and rules of the state. And when that resistance becomes
sufficiently widespread to be recognized as a pattern in the lives of large
numbers of people, it becomes hard not to recognize it as a significant
movement on the political landscape.
Welfare mothers lack the political influence to raise their allowance
through legislative change—but they have the personal resources to do it
on their own. Middle-class families cannot rewrite the laws of Medicare
eligibility, but they can learn to shift assets to achieve what are effectively
the same ends. All around us, the demands of various systems of regulation
and enforcement create webs of control and power. These systems seek to
monitor, channel, identify, sanction, and reward according to established
norms and goals. When we see that individuals are able to assert their
autonomy and opposition through these millions of small skirmishes, we
must conclude that a massive, underground, uncoordinated, antisurveil-
lance movement is underway.

The Politics of Everyday Resistance

But just how widespread are the patterns of everyday resistance to surveil-
lance programs? When employee drug-testing programs came online in
the mid-1980s, small companies emerged selling “clean urine” through
magazines and newspapers. When police began using radar to catch
speeders, drivers began installing radar detectors. When the Internal
Revenue Service develops profi les used to identify those who will be
audited, tax advisers, newspapers, and Web sites broadcast the param-
eters of those profi les in a very public manner. Herds of tax attorneys and
preparers assist middle-class and wealthy families as well as businesses
in shirking, as much as possible, the obligations of taxation and besting
the surveillance systems designed to implement those obligations. Thus,
in these ongoing battles to prepare and divide the pie of national fi nance,
the welfare mothers do nothing different from what many typical families
would do, and they do it from a position of greater need and risk and with
less advice and support.

Resisting Surveillance 75
When viewed from this perspective, there are millions upon millions
of people throughout the industrialized world engaged in widespread
and diverse types of opposition and resistance to surveillance regimes.
Depending on class, context, and circumstance, some get more formal,
public, and organized while others must necessarily remain personal, pri-
vate, and solitary. Some types of resistance—like the upper-middle-class
tax shirker—are tolerated, even smiled on, by political leaders. Others,
like the poor women here, are vilified and hunted. In all these different
contexts and manners, the politics of surveillance are played out daily. It
is here, rather than in the official arenas of the courts, legislatures, and
blue-ribbon commissions, that the most important and dynamic politics
of surveillance may be taking place.
These recognitions and possibilities mean that we should take par-
ticular interest in how practices of everyday resistance work as forms of
politics. There is a danger that depicting something like petty fraud as a
vital form of politics may well mistakenly amplify insignificant gestures,
place false hope in tiny acts of individual defi ance, and give inappropri-
ate, if implicit, approval to what are often selfi sh and destructive acts.6
In his 1992 presidential address to the Law and Society Association and
his subsequent article “Postmodernism, Protest, and the New Social
Movements,” Joel Handler distinguished between different generations
of scholarly studies about these “protests from below”—the struggles of
relatively powerless groups such as American slaves, welfare families, and
impoverished individuals. The fi rst generation consists of such authors as
Eugene Genovese, Carol Stack, Frances Fox Piven, and Richard Cloward;
the second, authors like Susan Silbey, Patricia Ewick, Austin Sarat, and
Lucie White.7 All of them share an interest in everyday resistance as a form
of politics. But where the fi rst generation centered on how the politics of
everyday resistance lead to the building of bonds, solidarity, and new terms
and languages that could, in turn, lead to new forms of empowerment and
mobilization, the second generation, charged Handler, was bent on decon-
structionism and symbolic action and kept its attention on individualistic
acts of defiance and opposition with little concern or attention paid to what
Handler saw as pivotal questions of solidarity, organized politics, material
outcomes, and new opportunities. 8
Handler’s critique urged scholars to undertake a more complete critical
examination of everyday resistance as a form of political struggle. This
essay does this by considering the following questions.

• Do acts of everyday resistance produce any tangible improvements in the

lot of the resister or of others?
• Are acts of everyday resistance purely the isolated tactics of self-interested,
even antisocial, individuals?

76 John Gilliom
• Is there any sort of sharing or collaboration that could be laying the
groundwork for new forms of communities or politics?
• Is there an ethical grounding or ideology within which to frame resistant

Assessing Everyday Resistance

In the end, the everyday resistance seen among the Appalachian welfare
poor formed a pattern of widespread behavior that produced or supported
an array of important material and symbolic results, including cash and
other necessities of survival, a status of autonomy, a potentially powerful
collective consciousness of the struggle of welfare mothering, and a stra-
tegic opposition to and undermining of surveillance mechanisms.
The fi rst payoff is the most straightforward; the women studied here
get immediate and crucial cash or material relief through their efforts.
While we have no specific fi ndings on exactly how much that is, it is, for
many of these families, what makes it possible to get by. Kathryn Edin’s
1993 study of welfare family budgets in Chicago found that women roughly
doubled their resources in these ways. Obviously, this is a massive and
critical source of material improvement for the poor. Indeed, one could
argue that while these women are powerless to change formal government
policy about levels of income maintenance on welfare programs, they have
effected a local and personalized change in the policy by taking charge
of their own conditions. For them, their subterfuge means that allowable
levels of income have been effectively raised. Through their necessarily
quiet actions, they have achieved what would be one of the central goals
of a more organized social movement for welfare justice: more income.
This may call to question some of our fi xation on the questions of whether
everyday resistance can lead to more formal collective action, which could
then lead to “real” change. With neither picket signs nor a head office,
real change is taking place in the lives of these individuals. It is not “per-
manent”; it is not, at least in the traditional sense, “collective”; it is not
centralized reform of the state apparatus. But out at the margins, in the
lives of these people, it is a change that makes a crucial difference.
The struggle for material subsistence also produces less tangible but
nonetheless important results. For one, resistance marks and maintains
a zone of autonomy and self-determination that denies the clients’ status
as dependent. The poor are neither “wards” of the state nor the “welfare
dependent” when they are out hustling to pull together enough money
to get through the month. They are partially freed from the oversight of
CRIS-E and their caseworker as they enact a strategy that, whatever else

Resisting Surveillance 77
In that the may be said about it, makes them the initiators of an array of entrepre-
neurial pursuits. As Sarat has argued, this is a critical aspect of resistance
welfare by the welfare poor; those moments “in which welfare recipients . . .
demand recognition of their personal identities and their human needs”
administration or “establish unreachable spaces of personal identity and integrity.” 9 Their
struggles also, importantly, put the lie to assumptions and claims that they
demands that a
are bad parents, are lazy or incompetent, or lack initiative—through their
works they care for their children with creative and risky labor in a hidden
client open her
low-wage market.
life to them in the There is another important sense in which the ongoing pattern of
income enhancement works as an important front and form of political
form of income resistance—this has to do with the relationship of the surveilled subject
to the surveillance state. In that the welfare administration demands that
verification, a client open her life to them in the form of income verification, com-
puter matches, and other tactics in what can only be called a full-scale
computer surveillance assault, her secret actions are an act of resistance to the very
structure of the surveillance society. The welfare system works as hard as
matches, and it can to force that secret out of her. It will solicit “rat calls” in an attempt
to get neighbors and relatives to expose the situation. It will use computer
other tactics in
matching searches to check bank accounts, social security payments, and
what can only other searchable databases disclosing records.
This is, in short, a power struggle over the compulsory visibility of the
be called a full- welfare poor. The surveillance mechanisms of the state are mechanisms of
domination that seek to force the poor into the open, prevent them from
scale surveillance augmenting their meager allowance with entrepreneurial pursuits, and,
as a result, disempower them by closing off more and more of the secret
assault, her secret places in which to hide, at least temporarily, from the power of the state. To
the extent that the poor can maintain those spaces, augment their income,
actions are an and assert the needs and values of their own identities, they have won a
temporary but not so small victory in the broader struggle.
act of resistance
These are all important political effects. But taking stock of the prom-
ising dimensions of a politics of everyday resistance does not imply that
to the very
more formal and public politics would not be a more preferential and
structure of the heartening course (and one that might even be more effective at achieving
some of these ends). It is also not meant to imply that there are no costs.
surveillance There are, of course, potential costs, risks, and drawbacks in all political
choices. Many of the actions taken by these women are crimes, and they
society. may be caught and punished. More broadly, politicians may use evidence
of “welfare fraud” to reduce support and advance even more draconian
measures of surveillance. All of this may happen. But the tactical compari-
sons of such cost-benefit analyses overstate the extent to which relatively
powerless people can pick and choose from a menu of political options. For

78 John Gilliom
these poor women, the pressure is on and the resources are slim. Most of
their choices are shaped by social, legal, economic, and political contexts
over which they have little control—these contexts, after all, are far more
affected by the interests and desires of the powerful than they are by those
of the sorts of people who turn to the “weapons of the weak.”

The Lonely Struggle?

The idea of everyday resistance centers on what is apparently the oppo-

site of a traditional picture of collective action—an isolated, often secret
act in pursuit of personal, even selfi sh, goals. But the contrasts may not
be so clear. The practices of everyday resistance may not amount to a
classic social movement, but what we have seen here is a form of politics
that, while fragmented and dispersed, is by no means individualistic or
selfi sh.
First, I want to suggest three ways in which the resistance seen here is
not “individualistic.” Surely, these women have not locked arms in a col-
lective march to the state capital, but there are alternatives to traditional
collective action other than a full retreat into the self. Because structural
and institutional arrays of power help shape the opportunities for resis-
tance, the resistance of those who, like these women, face a largely uniform
pattern of law, surveillance, domination, and need, is, if not collective,
widely shared. They may, in other words, seem to be “individualistic,” but
they are not alone, as there are legions of others experiencing the same
pressures and engaging in the same actions. If we can momentarily ignore
the organizer’s cry to “get these people united,” we can see that there are
already tacit collectivities in place.
Second, although public cooperation is limited because of the need
for secrecy regarding these often illegal activities, we found clear evidence
of mutual support and cooperation among the mothers.10 Most apparent
is the amount of conversation and advising that goes on among clients
about how to “work the system” or “play the game.” Of the thirty-one
interviews that had discussions of this issue, twenty-six women reported
that they talked with other welfare clients about how the system works, who
the good caseworkers were, and what programs were available. Eleven of
those reported getting or giving advice on how to generate extra income or
get away with it without getting caught. One woman spoke of a group of
neighbors who would use each other as references in required verification
forms. In the face of conditions that seem to compel distrust and secrecy,
we still see important signs of solidarity.
Finally, but perhaps most important, these women—like most of

Resisting Surveillance 79
These stories us—are far from alone in that their actions are designed to meet the needs
and interests of their families. Importantly, as discussed below, the moth-
are replete with ers explain their actions in terms of supporting their families. Collective
action? Not in the traditional sense. But as they struggle to care for their
references to families, they are surrounded by millions of other low-income mothers,
by the occasional helping hand from a sympathetic caseworker, neighbor,
mothering, child
or family member, and by the very needy hands of their children.
care, the need

to provide for Beyond Privacy—The Principles of Resistance

children, and the “Delilah” is forty-one. She has two children and two grandchildren living
in a rural home that she owns. In her sixteen years using various assis-
widely shared tance programs, she has tried many ways to make ends meet—once trying
to sell Tupperware until her ex-husband turned her in. These days, she
conviction that cuts hair and says that her friends sell food stamps, fi rewood, and scrap
metal. She explains: “I think as long as someone is using what they are
any actions taken doing for their home, or they are buying something that their kids need, I
don’t see anything wrong with it. If they are going out and they are doing
in the interest
it and they are boozing it up and they are using drugs, I think that’s a
of children are shame.” As another mother said: “If you have kids, you will do anything
for your kids. I mean, I do. So it’s not really illegal.” These stories are
legitimate— replete with references to mothering, child care, the need to provide for
children, and the widely shared conviction that any actions taken in the
including, for interest of children are legitimate—including, for many, patently illegal
many, patently One of the most interesting things we noticed in our interviews was
the near absence of claims to privacy rights in the women’s complaints
illegal actions. about surveillance. Given the failures and limits of the predominant pri-
vacy rights discourse, the identification of alternative ways of complaining
about surveillance suggested new possibilities for critique and action. That
we were able to identify new framings and ethical positions from which
to criticize surveillance indicates that the privacy rights paradigm is both
too limited—because it fails to address these concerns—and not the only
show in town.12
But these alternative ways of complaining about surveillance are also
important to a discussion of everyday resistance, because they show that
the women’s actions are framed within a sensible and compelling moral
argument. Skeptical readers of works on everyday resistance have noted
the frequent absence of something that we might hope to see in politi-
cal struggles—principles: some form of broader argument or ethic that
positions and explains the actions of the oppressed and the wrongs of the

80 John Gilliom
oppressors while building the possibility of shared consciousness. Isolated
acts of opportunistic self-expression or petty thievery that make no contri-
bution to building a vision of a more promising world, they argue, should
not get more attention or significance than they deserve.13
But here we see patterns of everyday resistance that are neither unprin-
cipled nor unrelated to broader political critiques. While the mothers
studied here do not regularly quote the Bill of Rights or make speeches
about the right to privacy, many of them do make consistently principled
arguments about need, duty, and obligation and explain their actions and
their critique of the state in terms of those principles. Similar complaints
about the welfare surveillance regime and explanations for resistance
mark many of these interviews. This fi nding shows that there is a shared
frame of reference—an ideology of caring or parenting within a context
of need—behind the seemingly discrete and apolitical actions of women
in the welfare system. Although they are not united spatially, politically,
or socially, the women interviewed here do share economic, institutional,
and familial identities, and we can see that they also share a unified
framework of language and values with which to mobilize their critiques
and actions.14
In the conditions and contexts in which they live—united by abusive
practices in welfare administration, family obligations, poverty, and rural
life—it is not hard to understand how an individualistic privacy claim based
in the nobility of a law would fail to make sense. In lives surrounded by
the obligations of meeting both the needs of families and the commands
of the surveillance system, the ideal of the autonomous and rights-bearing
individual must be rather far from the tip of tongue. In many critical
dimensions, then, these women’s lives, roles, experiences, and values
appear to gravitate away from the assertion of individualistic rights and
toward the focus on responsibility and care. The sense of disempowerment
tied to their fear, distrust, and alienation from “the law” struggles with
the reality of their situations in which something is wrong and something
must be done about it. Rather than publicly objecting to the infringement
of their rights as citizens, they quietly meet the needs of their dependents
through daily actions that defy the commands of the state while advancing
the needs of the family.


These stories show that in welfare administration and numerous other set-
tings there are widespread uprisings against surveillance. They are often
(and sometimes necessarily) out of sight; they are not always expressed

Resisting Surveillance 81
Several women in the expected language of privacy; they do not look like social move-
ments are “supposed” to look. But they are, nonetheless, important and
spoke of the frequently productive expressions of frustration, opposition, and political
horrible stress This accounting of the senses in which everyday resistance advances
the interests of these women is not meant to gainsay the power of the sur-
of keeping
veillance program with which the poor must live—our interviews made it
clear that ongoing record keeping, observation, and verification manifest
their secrets
a considerable and fearsome presence in their lives. Several women spoke
and fearing of the horrible stress of keeping their secrets and fearing apprehension;
beyond the stress lies the real possibility of apprehension and sanction.
apprehension; Further, the subterfuge and deception necessitated by the comprehensive
enforcement system means that many of the subjects here must “live a
beyond the lie” and deny real aspects of their lives that are of great importance to
personal dignity. The truth may be that they are not lazy, not helpless, and
stress lies the not involved in a pattern of broken relationships, but that they must hide
that truth as part of their struggle against the state. As research into the
real possibility politics of surveillance continues, one of the most interesting challenges
will be the exhumation and exploration of the many truths suppressed as
of apprehension
powerful institutions assert and enforce their own particular order.
and sanction.


1. The project, which was undertaken in the mid-1990s, is most fully explored
in my book, Overseers of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits of Privacy
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), from which portions of this essay
have been adapted.
2. These fi ndings are affi rmed by Kathryn Edin’s research on the budgets of
Chicago’s welfare poor. See Kathryn Edin, There’s a Lot of Month Left at the End
of the Money: How Welfare Recipients Make Ends Meet in Chicago (New York: Gar-
land, 1993); and Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein, Making Ends Meet: How Single
Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work (New York: Russell Sage Foundation,
3. See also Gary Marx, “A Tack in the Shoe: Neutralizing and Resisting the
New Surveillance,” Journal of Social Issues 59 (May 2003): 369–90.
4. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), 29.
5. Ibid., 296.
6. Joel F. Handler, “Postmodernism, Protest, and the New Social Move-
ments,” Law and Society Review 26 (1992): 697–732; Michael McCann and Tracey
March, “Law and Everyday Forms of Resistance,” in Studies in Law, Politics, and
Society, vol. 15, ed. Austin Sarat and Susan Silbey (Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1995),

82 John Gilliom
7. Carol B. Stack, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community
(New York: Harper and Row, 1974); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The
World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage, 1972); Lucie White, “Subordination,
Rhetorical Survival Skills, and Sunday Shoes: Notes on the Hearing of Mrs. G.,”
Buffalo Law Review 38 (1990): 1–58; Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward,
Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Vintage, 1972);
Piven and Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail
(New York: Vintage, 1977); Patricia Ewick and Susan S. Silbey, The Common
Place of Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Austin Sarat, “The
Law Is All Over: Power, Resistance, and the Legal Consciousness of the Welfare
Poor,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 2 (1990): 343–79.
8. Handler, “Postmodernism, Protest, and the New Social Movements,”
9. Sarat, “Law Is All Over,” 344, 347.
10. See also Stack, All Our Kin.
11. “It is no coincidence that the cries of ‘bread,’ ‘land,’ and ‘no taxes’ that so
often lie at the core of peasant rebellion are all joined to the basic material survival
needs of the peasant household. Nor should it be anything more than a common-
place that everyday peasant politics and everyday peasant resistance (and also, of
course, everyday compliance) flows from these same fundamental material needs”
(Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 295).
12. Gilliom, Overseers of the Poor, 93–114.
13. McCann and March, “Law and Everyday Forms of Resistance,” 218–19;
Handler, “Postmodernism, Protest, and the New Social Movements.”
14. Many authors have now advanced the idea that an ethic or discourse of
“care” emphasizing needs and interdependency stands as an alternative to the
traditional discourse of “rights” or “justice” that emphasizes individual rights
and autonomy. Where the latter posits an individualistic realm of legalist and
rationalist calculations based on universal principles, the ethic of care emphasizes
responsibilities, particular needs and differences, and compassion. See Julie Anne
White, Democracy, Justice, and the Welfare State: Reconstructing Public Care (Uni-
versity Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000); Carol Gilligan, In a
Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1982); Joan C. Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political
Argument for an Ethic of Care (London: Routledge, 1993); Eva Feder Kittay and
Diana T. Meyers, eds., Women and Moral Theory (Savage, MD: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1987).

Resisting Surveillance 83
Global Citizens and Local Powers

The Basic Characteristics of MERNİS Çağatay Topal

Turkey’s Central Population Administrative System—Merkezi Nüfus

Ídaresi Sistemi (MERNİS)—is at the center of the Turkish state’s efforts
to establish a database of information about its population. MERNİS
increases the state’s powers to (re)produce individuals for hegemonic
purposes by adapting the state’s administrative practices to the dynamics
of contemporary processes of global production. By assigning individu-
als a unique number that identifies them as citizens, MERNİS gener-
ates the necessary local conditions to align Turkey with the emerging
global control society. MERNİS was designed to eliminate repetition
and inconsistencies in the state’s information systems and to consolidate
various kinds of information on its citizens. According to the Ministry of
Internal Affairs, this one-numbered system supplies perfect, rapid, and
reliable services, making life easy for citizens.1 One number also indicates
the centralization of power and helps solidify Turkish state authority.
This is centralization not only of power but also of identification of the
Yet, while MERNİS centralizes power in the sense that it can direct,
manipulate, and share personal information among different state bod-
ies, thus reinforcing the state’s monopoly over the use of information, this
power is also paradoxically decentralized, since it exists in its effects, that
is, in the subjects of its surveillance. In this system, individuals become
bearers of state power as MERNİS catalogs and redefi nes them as effects of
system-serving surveillance. Of course, this does not mean that individu-
als have the sufficient capacity to influence the functioning of MERNİS.
MERNİS is fundamentally governed by the state, which controls the
system’s operations for its own interests. Moreover, when MERNİS decen-
tralizes power’s effect in the visible bodies of individuals, it also defi nes
the individual as an embodiment of society’s risks. And when the source
of risks and social problems appears to be the individual, the source of
the solution becomes the state. Without acknowledging its or MERNİS’s
role in the construction of this risk, the state can thus present itself as the
remedy of social problems and MERNİS as the technological fi x.

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press.
By design, MERNİS can produce moment-by-moment information on
the registered Turkish population. The goal is to obtain this information
at the national and local levels. Consequently, it is hoped that MERNİS
will observe changes immediately and through its capillary power obtain
information about the social and economic characteristics of citizens. Its
technology was meant to offer efficient control mechanisms to the state
and to guarantee the permanence of a reshaping process of the individual
as an object of constant control—as something posing imminent risk to
society—watching all citizens to determine who is “abnormal,” “dan-
gerous,” “sick,” or “criminal.” These tasks entail the constitution of a
prevalent surveillance system endowed with the authority to decide who
will be more productive in which sites of production and thus who will
contribute to a “healthy” society—a society that is necessary for the con-
tinuation of production activities. In effect, a “healthy” society means a
“productive” society. MERNİS thus functions to locate the broken parts
of the production process.
Because both local and national forces have significantly shaped its
operation, MERNİS must not be regarded as merely a national system.
The local dynamics that influence the relation between the individual and
power center on the significance of MERNİS for the state and corporations
in Turkey that use MERNİS to supply actual, fresh, and revised informa-
tion about the forces of production. However, this is not executed in a local
sense only. Its rationale is shaped within a global context where information
and communication technologies have become integral to the sphere of
production. MERNİS is thus an outcome of global necessities that have
superseded national requirements. The state and corporations in Turkey
can exploit MERNİS to produce a suitable labor force for contemporary
capitalism. In this context, MERNİS could function as a bridge between
the labor force of Turkey and global production sites. The MERNİS num-
ber of each individual is his or her registration number for global systems
of production. These are its design goals. In reality, as I show, MERNİS
is not a well-functioning residence-based system and currently produces
and gathers only aggregate information of the population as a whole. This
is not necessarily good news for the Turkish people.

The Significance of MERNİS

MERNİS’s rationale is completely compatible with the ideology of effi -

ciency. An efficient MERNİS would mean that the state in Turkey pro-
duces life with its own resources, a significant advance for Turkey in the
global dynamics of today’s communication and information revolutions.

86 Çağatay Topal
MERNİS’s failure to achieve this efficiency is in part a mark of the state’s
ambivalence toward modernization. The state distrusts some techno-
logical developments while it paradoxically constructs a whole system on
them. In the opinion of most state officials, technology appears to solve
every problem. Yet technology also signifies change, and with change
comes a challenge to the existing order. This ambivalence is reflected
in the low proportion of public institutions using information and com-
munication technology: only 11 percent. The degree of standardization
between the institutions that share information is also weak. Only 17 per-
cent of the upper-level managers see information technology as essential.
In 86 percent of these institutions there exists no administrative informa-
tion system and no decision support system. 2 It is not reasonable then to
expect that an electronic state based on administrative efficiency will be
realized soon. Self-assessment of this problem is generally difficult for
inflexible states and adds to Turkey’s particular problems of inefficiency
in systems like MERNİS; a self-critique would force the state to admit
error, impotence, or weakness within its own mechanisms. Such a situa-
tion would mean questioning the state’s legitimacy.
University researchers and, to some extent, government researchers
and officials have shown how this ambivalence contributes directly to
MERNİS’s inefficiency. According to a social scientist in the Institute of
Population Studies, for example, the state is not able to comprehend the
significance of MERNİS at the macro level and therefore has no proper
vision of the usage of information collected in the MERNİS database. This
researcher claims that the state has attempted to build up MERNİS with a
highly centralized view but has “lacked” the foresight of a global-minded
administration. He underlines that there is very little commitment to
MERNİS, especially in the political arena, since it does not provide short-
term political rent for politicians and bureaucrats. 3 Because MERNİS’s
“vitality” has not yet been understood by the project operators, the full
application of the MERNİS system seems to lie in the future.
Yilmaz Atasoy, a director in the Department of Information and Pro-
cessing in the Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs, counters
that MERNİS has taken a long time to become operational because of
technological insufficiency, a large population to work on, and lack of
personnel. He says that data entry took a lot of time, adding that Turkey
is a very crowded country compared to European countries, a condition
that slowed MERNİS’s construction.4 But this argument does not account
for the crowded countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world—like
Germany, England, and the United States—that have successfully imple-
mented MERNİS-like systems. Moreover, as Seref Hosgör of the Institute
of State Statistics argued, it would have taken only one person to enter the

Global Citizens and Local Powers 87

entire record of Turkey’s population over the last twenty-eight years into
the MERNİS database.5
One reason that MERNİS developed slowly was the untimely start of
the system.6 The necessary substructure for MERNİS was not and had
not been mature enough for a considerable time (at least until 1995) while
MERNİS was being set up. In other words, despite the fact that MERNİS’s
technical infrastructure had been constructed to a great extent, the mental
infrastructure had yet to be established. When the state began the project,
it did not have adequate technological knowledge and capacity, though
today it seems that this problem has been largely resolved.
Still, questions about MERNİS’s administrative efficiency remain. The
chief mistake is that while MERNİS is legally mandated to operate on the
basis of residence, it has failed to do so.7 There are a number of people who
appear registered where they do not reside—places of residence and places of
registration are in most cases different. 8 Because of this feature, the system
cannot provide the social and economic information of a particular district
or province.9 There is thus only partial local information of the population.10
Hosgör has claimed that given this existing situation, MERNİS will not be
completed until 2012. He emphasizes that there is a considerable lack of
human capital, experience, and infrastructure. This is because of ignorance
of the state and citizens, according to Hosgör, who argued that the state
should become more active and coercive to implement the mandate to make
MERNİS functional and effective.11 Ünal Yarimagan, a professor in the
Department of Computer Engineering at Hacettepe University, added that
institutions that are keeping or will keep the records of citizens’ residences
have to be better organized, and he suggested that one valid address could
be held by one institution: the police.12
Most state officials presume that MERNİS can solve the existing
problems of population registration. For instance, Atasoy claims that it
is not so difficult to form a residence-based system, since the infrastruc-
ture is almost ready.13 This is clearly not the case. As can be seen in this
statement, state officials conceive of technology as the predominant fac-
tor in the operation of MERNİS. They neither question the rationality
of the technology nor introduce new kinds of rationality. Technological
rationality is not enough to continue a nationwide organization without
also applying logics of efficiency, flexibility, and globalization. The cru-
cial problem for the conception and the application of MERNİS, then,
is a deficient comprehension of the rationale behind the whole system.
MERNİS necessitates a different kind of standpoint, which surpasses the
current perspective of state officials, politicians, and bureaucrats. This
standpoint places MERNİS in a global world order rather than within the
borders of a nation-state.

88 Çağatay Topal
Power in the Contemporary Era The lifetime

For a global system of production, comparison is crucial. Comparability services given by

means observation, identification, and assessment. These are naturally
significant characteristics of a surveillance system. Since production is the Singaporean
carried out on a global scale, power requires global regulations and nor-
(electronic) state
malization practices. Almost every country today supplies a labor force
for global production. Electronic registration systems gain importance
can be regarded
in local and global economies for their capacity to coordinate and direct
the activities of labor. The contemporary production system thus forces as an attempt to
nations to construct an electronic state, which is rooted in information
and communication technologies. In Singapore, for example, the elec- hold personal
tronic state provides a lifetime of public services to citizens, who do not
have the option to refuse or ignore these services, which include educa- information
tion, military service, settlement, family, transportation, work, health,
law, legal regulations, and employment.14 The lifetime services given by about the citizens’
the Singaporean (electronic) state can be regarded as an attempt to hold
personal information about the citizens’ productive capacity.
MERNİS has been designed to fulfi ll the same functions as Singa-
pore’s system. As such, it can be seen as the endeavor of the Turkish state
to regulate the productive capacities of the Turkish population from birth
to death. Essential shifts in today’s production dynamics and technological
changes emerge together, constituting the new peculiarity of capitalism.
In the contemporary era, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, the
nation-state controls the flow of wealth to and from imperial powers and
formulates the division of wealth as it disciplines its own population. That
is, the nation-state realizes the biopolitical organization of its people.15 But
to do this, an electronic nation-state must develop systems like MERNİS,
which can “train” individuals with reference not only to national priorities
but also to global imperatives. MERNİS has the potential to integrate dif-
ferent surveillance techniques and administer all kinds of data drawn from
different spaces through differentiated power practices. The decentralized
and autonomous operation of surveillance machines gives MERNİS the
potential to become what Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson have called
a “surveillant assemblage,” which brings different technologies together to
increase the capacity of surveillance and transforms the abstracted bodies
of surveilled subjects into discrete flows of information.16 By integrat-
ing networks through continuous information transfers MERNİS also
enhances its ability to support the global reproduction system.
Importantly, the materiality of this political economy is buttressed
by a discourse sustaining the idea that technology enlarges the space of
freedom. Freedom, here, is determined within the limits of the political

Global Citizens and Local Powers 89

economy of global capitalism and its politics of neoliberalism. MERNİS
is an information network that subsists as a part of neoliberal discourse
that depicts such networks as ideology-free carriers of information and
truths. From such a perspective, MERNİS can be regarded as a legiti-
mate complex because it provides individuals with basic survival tools
and social protections. MERNİSS seemingly creates new benefits and
increases opportunities for people to take advantage of these. As Roger
Whitaker argues, however, there arises in this scenario a seductive and
insidious participatory panopticon as power operates by appearing to serve
the desires and needs of the individual.17 Moreover, as Castells implies,
networks like MERNİS carry cultural—that is, ideological—codes that
defi ne exploitation procedures and frame an ideological infrastructure for
global capitalism.18 The power of the electronic state is not just a forceful
one but operates on a consensual basis. Power’s new “mobile police forces”
are, as Christopher Dandecker points out, the individuals themselves.19

The Tragicomedy of MERNİS

Information and communication technologies provide efficiency and flex-

ibility for the exercise of power. An efficient administrative system is use-
ful for citizens, but it is more so for capital and the state. Despite the fact
that people can develop different identities at a given time, hegemonic
power has the capacity to differentiate these identities and to use the
suitable ones in its production activities. MERNİS provides spaces for
individuals to claim multiple identities for various different social inter-
actions, but it also defi nes this multiplicity within the limits of a fi xed,
system-serving singularity. When MERNİS stores information about the
different identities of the individual—who, say, is a worker and a mem-
ber of an organization, was born in Istanbul, and is married—MERNİS
also displays its ability to re/deterritorialize identities. These different
identities are defi ned within one number that facilitates state governance
of individual complexity. By this logic, MERNİS can be turned into a
totalitarian tool as a kind of democratic mask of domination. On the sur-
face, MERNİS offers a secure, easier, and more comfortable life for citi-
zens. But in exchange for MERNİS’s apparent protections, citizens may
forgo aspects of their freedom. In this context, it is extremely difficult for
individuals to constitute an autonomous complex of identities without
MERNİS intervening to recode these identities as the little production
machines of Turkey.
MERNİS may produce useful outcomes for citizens and make an
individual’s life easier in many respects, but its primary function is to make

90 Çağatay Topal
the life of the Turkish state easier. The foremost benefit of MERNİS for The foremost
the state is inclusion of the individual into the production system through
a legitimate governance process. Once an individual is registered, his benefit of MERNI˙S
or her information is kept within the MERNİS database during his or
her lifetime and even after. The state holds this information as an object for the state is
that, in principle, it can exploit at any time to manipulate aspects of an
inclusion of the
individual’s life chances. However, as I have shown, MERNİS does not
operate as planned. This situation derives from the ambivalence toward the
individual into
transition Turkey has attempted to make to become a modern electronic
state. As a result, Turkey has not yet entered the mode of control societ- the production
ies. For the time being, this means that MERNİS will simply function as
a registration system. system through
The tragicomedy of MERNİS in particular and the state system in
general comes into view at this point. Since the Turkish state has an insuf- a legitimate
ficient global outlook and lacks the necessary technological, political, and
economic resources, the relation between the individual and the state in governance
Turkey does not resemble the countries where the MERNİS-like systems
function more efficiently. The state is unable to construct a strong control
mechanism and to apply normalization practices to the extent that would
allow Turkish authorities to control citizens “properly” for a global pro-
duction system. Although MERNİS can produce and keep a huge amount
of population information, it is uncertain that the state is able to use this
information to form effective surveillance procedures. Consequently, citi-
zens cannot take advantage of the benefits and facilities that MERNİS
offers; but neither are they exposed to continuous surveillance. Unless
the state pays greater attention to the citizenship-production function of a
global control society, it will continue to operate surveillance systems like
MERNİS from a sense of fear rather than administrative efficiency—the
fear of losing its traditional authority to the dynamics of the global sys-
tem. This fear prevents the state from comprehending the significance of
MERNİS and actually works against its own interests and the interests of
capital. Ironically, citizens of Turkey seem freer in this regard than those of
other countries where there is an effective registration system. The lack of
necessary rationality in state mechanisms appears to be to the advantage
of the people.
Nevertheless, the citizens of Turkey may have to face more dangerous
effects than citizens in the advanced countries where an effective control
has been established. The state’s lack of rationality indicates also the lack
in the stability, certainty, and legality of the system—derivative perhaps
of the state’s ambivalence toward modernization. This internal contradic-
tion has deprived the Turkish state of some of the properties possessed
by states in societies of control. Gilles Deleuze suggests that in societies

Global Citizens and Local Powers 91

of control individuals are included in continuous spaces of reformation
within a complex of military, educational, and corporate practices that
work together to encode identity. 20 In a disciplinary society, by contrast,
individuals pass through discontinuous institutional enclosures in which
they are surveilled and marked by distinct institutional identities. The
individual in a control society is coded by continuous surveillance to
become a production machine, and capitalism cannot survive without its
precoded production machines.
The question is how states will constitute governance based on the
rationale of control suitable for capitalism’s global de/recodification strat-
egy. In the case of Turkey, the state has resisted the control rationale of the
contemporary age, fi nding it a threat to the traditional bureaucratic power
of the state. (Significant agents of control do appear among powers other
than the state, including some nongovernmental organizations). Turkish
citizens, in this context, may be subject to a more dangerous type of sur-
veillance, which is a hybrid between societies of discipline and societies of
control. Because the structures and agents of power in Turkey are com-
patible with neither disciplinary nor control practices, citizens are fated
to live somewhere between these two types of societies in the same way as
Deleuze describes the position of Kafka’s protagonists. 21 Citizens cannot
conceive the implications of this in-between position. They are unaware,
to a considerable extent, that MERNİS can be turned into a dangerous, if
inefficient, surveillance tool. For the time being, then, MERNİS cannot
fulfi ll its design function. The situation may change, and to prepare for
altered circumstances it is important to be mindful of MERNİS’s potential
effects as it grows to serve the parallel imperatives of the imperial political
economy and the society of control.


This article is a condensed version of my master’s thesis, “Cybercodification and

Invisible Documentation of the Population.” I would like to thank my supervi-
sor, Kenneth Barr, for his many contributions to my research. I also thank John
Frauley for his comments. And fi nally, I thank my PhD supervisor, David Lyon;
without his help, I could not have produced this piece.

1. T. C. Íçisleri Bakanligi Nüfus ve Vatandaslık Ísleri Genel Müdürlügü,

MERNİS Projesi (Ankara: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Internal Affairs, Direc-
torate of Population and Citizenship Affairs, 1998), 40.
2. “E-Devletin ‘altı’ dökülüyor,” Radikal Daily, 5 November 2002.
3. Interview by the author, Institute of Population Studies, Hacettepe Univer-
sity, March 2002. The name of this informant has been withheld on request.
4. Yilmaz Atasoy, interview by the author, Directorate of Population and
Citizenship Affairs, March 2002.

92 Çağatay Topal
5. Seref Hosgör, interview by the author, Institute of State Statistics, March
6. This was the position of Ünal Yarimagan, a research professor in the
Department of Computer Engineering at Hacettepe University, whom I inter-
viewed in March 2002. This rush to construct MERNİS might suggest a lack of
desire to wait to adapt to global developments, but it could very well have been
an (obviously unsuccessful) attempt of the Turkish state to shorten the transition
period from a society of discipline to one of control.
7. In the MERNİS booklet published by the Directorate of Population and
Citizenship Affairs, it says that although the residence-based registration is a legal
obligation, it has not been effectively applied.
8. Hosgör, interview by the author.
9. Kemal Madenoglu (then director general for social sectors and coordina-
tion), interview by the author, Organization of State Planning, March 2002.
10. Interview by the author, Institute of Population Studies.
11. Hosgör, interview by the author.
12. Ünal Yarimagan, interview by the author, Department of Computer Engi-
neering, Hacettepe University, March 2002.
13. Atasoy, interview by the author.
14. N. Murat Ínce, Elektronik Devlet: Kamu Hizmetlerinin Sunulmasında Yeni
Ímkanlar (Electronic State: New Opportunities for the Provision of Public Services)
(Ankara: Devlet Planlama Teskilati, 2001), 56–57.
15. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2000), 310.
16. Kevin D. Haggerty and Richard V. Ericson, “The Surveillant Assem-
blage,” British Journal of Sociology, no. 4 (2000): 610.
17. Roger Whitaker, The End of Privacy (New York: New Press, 1999).
18. Manuel Castells, “Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network
Society,” British Journal of Sociology, no. 1 (2000): 23.
19. Christopher Dandeker, Surveillance, Power, and Modernity: Bureaucracy
and Discipline (Cambridge: Polity, 1990), 129.
20. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59
(1992): 5.
21. Ibid., 3–7.

Global Citizens and Local Powers 93

From Privacy to Visibility


Identity in Ubiquitous Computing David J. Phillips

Everywhere in our daily lives, we are identified, tracked, profi led, and
known. Infrastructures of surveillance—everyday, taken-for-granted,
institutionalized, and technically mediated practices that identify indi-
viduals and observe and analyze their actions—permeate society. These
infrastructures determine who is able to view whom, at what expense,
and for what purpose. They mediate the production of social knowledge
and social power.
The popular press decries these developments for the loss of privacy
they entail. Scholars warn that these surveillance practices group individu-
als into classes, then treat those classes in a discriminatory fashion. But
visibility is not always detrimental to individuals or social groups. The
construction of identity, the naming of a group, the claiming of member-
ship in that group, the representation and dissemination of knowledge of
the group, is a strategy of political power. The political (and epistemologi-
cal) question is not whether individuals are known and typified. We always
are. Rather, it is a question of how individuals are known and typified—by
whom, to whom, as what, and toward what end we are made visible. This
article moves the arguments over information environments away from
issues of privacy, probing instead the ethical allocation of the resources of
visibility and knowledge production.
I start from the position that there is no preexisting “self” that privacy
protects. Social roles, social situations, and social relations are created in
their performance. According to Erving Goffman, social identities are
the enactments of social relations. “To be a given kind of person, [is] to
sustain the standards of conduct and appearance that one’s social grouping
attaches thereto. A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing,
to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct,
coherent, embellished, and well-articulated. . . . It is something that must
be enacted and portrayed, something that must be realized.”1 The abil-
ity to present the self, and to make moral claims about how one is to be
perceived and acted toward, is a fundamental mechanism for structuring
social relations and for asserting social power.

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press.
But these roles and relations are not created anew with each perfor-
mance. The performances themselves occur within, and are structured
by, institutionalized settings and culturally specific “common sense.” Nor
do these contexts exist apart from the performances within them. Places
are constituted through social action. The experience of an urban park
is the physicality not merely of trees, fountains, and playgrounds but of
the interactions that are tacitly permitted and encouraged in the locale
understood as “urban park.” There is thus a recursive relation between
performance in the here and now and enduring social structures. To
paraphrase Anthony Giddens, social structures are always the product of
the activity they recursively organize. 2 Therefore research into the social
construction of identities necessarily looks simultaneously to the agency
of performance and the structure of context.
Understanding the mediation of activities that sustain identity, subcul-
tural knowledge, and regenerative places becomes even more important as
physical spaces—our offices, our homes, our shopping districts—become
more and more shot through with “pervasive” or “ubiquitous” or “con-
text-aware” computing and information systems. Research and develop-
ment of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) focus on the coordination of
sensors, software agents, and databases to serve appropriate information
to appropriate individuals in appropriate contexts. Ubiquitous comput-
ing environments, then, form part of an infrastructure of identity, social
relations, and place making.
A ubicomp environment is part of the setting in which the performance
of social identity occurs. It does not monitor an objective context or situ-
ation; it is always implicated in the construction of those contexts and
situations. Consider, for example, this description of an ubicomp environ-
ment developed by GeePS, a location-based marketing service: “Think
of GeePS as a local market, a one-mile circle of energy around a potential
customer, which moves with him or her, providing local information that
fits individual needs. This information is dynamic and controlled by the
merchants, communities and establishments in that radius.”3 Designers of
such ubicomp environments aim not only to construct the place the indi-
vidual inhabits but to manage the flow of informational resources within
that space: they control which “local market” to present to the individual;
they impose both a predetermined set of “needs” and the social ontology
on which those needs are predicated; and, in the case of GeePS at least,
they insert commercial criteria for determining social goals.
The intent of this article is to take some lessons from the “real-world”
negotiation of identity and apply them to rethinking the design of ubiq-
uitous computing systems. I analyze how gay identity is managed in per-
sonal and political terms and map the prerequisites of successful identity

96 David J. Phillips
management onto ubiquitous computing environments. Though the same
processes are involved as any individual embraces identity and community
and negotiates social position, the gay rights movement, gay politics, and
the everyday praxis of gay men and lesbian women demand that these
management activities be acute, conscious, and theoretically informed.
Drawing on this experience, I suggest ways that ubicomp environments can
be structured to ensure the ethical allocation of the resources of visibility
necessary for the construction of identity, context, and social relations.

Processes and Resources of Identity Politics

“Coming out”—self-identifying as gay and presenting that identity to the

larger world—serves at least three political functions. First, it enables the
individual to acknowledge, engage, and counteract the fear and shame of
social stigma. Second, it enables the formation of a community within
which to create a social identity, a culture, and a political power base.
Finally, by coming out, gay men and lesbians are able to present publicly,
interpret, and argue for the social value of a gay identity, offering an alter-
native to the received hegemony of the heterosexual, patriarchal ideal.4
None of these stages are isolated; each relates to the others. A public
identity must be available before an individual can claim it. In-group
codes preexist individual interactions, yet it is exactly those interactions
that generate, reinforce, and modify those codes. Individuals may them-
selves come to represent public identities; celebrities may typify the group.
Identity categories and their representations are contested at every level.
They are never monolithic. One may claim the identity while adamantly
contesting its meaning, and that contest differs depending on whether one
is arguing with self-proclaimed members of the identity group or with
outside individuals or institutions.
“Coming out” is, then, an act both of personal empowerment and of
political claim staking. Self-identification, in-group cohesion, and social
representation and articulation are all tactics, and tactics that occur in
contexts of power. The following section probes the nature of the power
dynamics and the social resources involved in each mode of coming out. It
then makes theoretical and normative links between these social processes
and the institutionalization of visibility through the design of information
infrastructures. These normative links are not to justify any particular
type of identity or any particular type of context. Instead, they are meant
to guide the design of ubicomp environments to support vital contestation
over the propriety of any particular identity or contest.

From Privacy to Visibility 97

Claiming Identity

By this act of self-identification, by saying “I am a gay man,” the individual

places himself within a social category and within a social order.5 In doing
so, he affi rms, to some degree, the validity of the category. This identity
claiming is not merely the acceptance of a label—it is the acceptance, to
some degree, of the resources and constraints that the label entails. It is an
acceptance of the self as a social self, and a particular kind of social self. It
not only places one, it also gives one a sense of how to go on.
However, our identities are always multiple. We stand in different
social relationships, we perform different roles, vis-à-vis our clients, our
coworkers, our neighbors, our families. Successful social life involves not
only the appropriate performance of a particular identity in a particular
situation, but the graceful passage between roles and situations.
This usually unconscious negotiation can become quite salient when
one’s identity is itself stigmatized, or when the appropriate venue for iden-
tity performance is not well established (as in, for example, new online
social environments), or when one is deploying one’s identity as a specifi -
cally political tactic. Despite recent, remarkable, and welcome changes
in the legal and cultural position of some sexual minorities, coming out
still entails risk—the risks of loss of income, of personal assault, of social
stigma. These risks vary according to the circumstances of the actor.
Popular chanteuses face a very different cost-benefit analysis in coming
out than do tenured professors or truck-stop waitresses.
The risks and benefits of coming out are also historically specific. In
certain moments it may be politically and personally expedient to proclaim
one’s sexuality at a public rally but not at work. In other moments, the
opposite might be true. The anonymous declaration in a crowd would be
meaningless, whereas coming out in the workplace would catalyze power-
ful economic and political forces.
Finally, each individual will maintain differing sexual identities
depending on social context. One might be entirely “out” to one’s friends
and coworkers but still maintain a formal indeterminacy at family reunions.
The ability to segregate these contexts is a measure of social power.
Therefore, in strategically claiming identity, one needs three resources
of visibility: the availability of a recognized and acceptable identity cat-
egory, the awareness of the context in which one acts, and the ability to
limit one’s proclaimed identity to particular social contexts. The distri-
bution of these capabilities within an information environment will be a
determining factor in the distribution of social power within that environ-
ment. Socially informed design of those environments will then address
issues such as the degree to which individuals control the scope of their

98 David J. Phillips
identifiers and the models representing their activities. Socially informed Ubicomp
design would also address the extent to which those identifiers and those
models, indeed the operation of the information environment as a whole, designers should
are visible to its inhabitants.
In evaluating the degree to which an information environment makes incorporate such
available a recognized and acceptable identity category, ubicomp designers
models of strong
might ask whether and to what extent users are aware of the data records
used to represent them. Are those data records malleable? Do they permit pseudonymity to
novel structures and novel values? For example, do census forms permit
subjects to occupy multiple racial categories, or none? Can one assume protect separable
trans, or for that matter N/A, as a gender identity? Can one assert that one
is “married” to several others? performance
In designing for awareness of the context in which one acts, and one’s
performance in that context, ubicomp environments need to provide contexts for
feedback. This could take the form of what David Nguyen and Elizabeth
Mynatt have called “privacy mirrors”—interfaces that enable users to these separable
monitor the data impression they are exhibiting to others.6 Performances
identities and
are self-reflexive—dancers rehearse before a mirror, actors rely on the
director to let them know what “plays.”
install some form
To facilitate the ability to limit one’s proclaimed identity to particu-
lar social contexts, designers might consider strong pseudonymity as an of privacy mirror
appropriate solution. Strong pseudonymity would allow any actor in an
informational environment to “try on” a persona, to take advantage of the to heighten
attributes of that environment without fear that the persona will be linked
to other identity performances in other social contexts. This is similar to the awareness
going to an unfamiliar neighborhood to buy pornography or going to gay
bars only when on business trips. For example, the lamentably defunct and experience
Freedom service permitted users to establish several unlinkable pseud-
onyms, say a “WorkerJoe,” a “GoodTimeJoe,” and a “CitizenJoe.” Joe could of each
choose among those pseudonyms for each Internet session, so that, though
Web sites may be able to track his activities, his work activities could not
be linked to his political activities.7 Ubicomp designers should incorporate
such models of strong pseudonymity to protect separable performance
contexts for these separable identities and install some form of privacy
mirror to heighten the awareness and experience of each performance.

Construction of Community

The second political function of coming out is the formation of com-

munity. By this I mean the formal or informal associations of people who
are somehow “like-minded.” It is within community that one fi nds dates,

From Privacy to Visibility 99

acquires senses of humor and fashion, attains historical consciousness.
Communities produce common meanings, common sense. Communities
enforce insider-outsider distinctions and have codes and shibboleths for
determining who belongs and who does not. Such distinctions are never
concrete; they are susceptible to change. The cultural production of these
consciousnesses, codes, and boundaries—of the identity category itself—
is constant and contested (the very existence of a “gay community” is
routinely questioned in the gay press, for example). We never live in a
single, monolithic community of meaning. Instead, we each interpret our
social contexts using various frames of meaning inherited from numerous
sources, including shared generational experiences, the particular quirks
of our parents, deeply ingrained religious or ideological orthodoxies.
The extent to which these frames of meaning are shared is a measure
of their dominance. This dominance can be enforced in various ways.
Interpreting a stop sign as other than a directive to stop is very expensive.
Significant stigma can result from misinterpreting social situations and
acting “out of place.” Spaces, like public parks or corporate meeting rooms,
are designed to avail themselves more easily to dominant notions of propri-
ety within that space. The production of alternative spaces, meanings, and
sensibilities protects members of subcultures and sustains those frames of
meaning integral to subcultural identity. George Chauncey describes how,
in early-twentieth-century New York City, gay people developed private,
local knowledge, “developing tactics that allowed them to identify and
communicate with each other without alerting hostile outsiders to what
they were doing.” In part, this involved “constructing a gay map of the
city,” which “had to consider the maps devised by other, sometimes hostile,
groups.” 8 Yet the production of alternative cultures benefits more than the
members of that subculture. It also acts as a public good, contributing to
a diverse, vigorous, vibrant, and evolving civic life.
The negotiation of social identity is not only about the construction
and maintenance of boundaries, regions, and performances. It is also about
negotiating the permeability of those boundaries: the wink, the grin, the
appreciation of an “in” joke invite new participants to another region,
another performance. The formation of community involves strategic
To model this form of intimacy and community formation, designers
of ubiquitous computing environments might provide means of contin-
gently linking pseudonyms. This may involve development of technologies
that permit knowledge of locality, rather than identity. That is, instead of
inviolably separate personae, models might be developed for overlapping
and permeable spatial contexts of identity—circles of knowledge built on
degrees of trust.

100 David J. Phillips

For ubicomp environments to facilitate the generation and sustenance
of these circles of knowledge, they must follow two essential criteria. First,
since this sort of symbolic exchange and meaning creation occurs within
groups, individual actors should have some means of determining whether
other participants are group members. This policing of the in-group/out-
group distinction is a fundamental process of group identity formation.
Ubicomp environments can mediate such encounters and operationalize
the surveillance that establishes trust relations through discretionary rev-
elation of personal information. The ethical distribution of these resources
of visibility would allow gay men and lesbians to share a useful categorical
link and discover circumstances in which their interests and identities
diverge. Management tools such as danah boyd’s SecureId allow users to
segregate their personal information into “facets” of identity. Before a visi-
tor can have access to a particular facet, the visitor must answer a question
that proves in-group membership. In this way, SecureId mimics, in part, the
social signaling work of fashion and speech codes and uses those cultural
codes to limit or extend social visibility and interpersonal trust.9
The second criterion for subcultural knowledge production is the
availability of a public environment from which, and within which, to
make sense. The context of ubiquitous computing environments should
be open and available for contestation and sense making by special pur-
pose knowledge engines. To achieve this open system, it is important to
understand that ubicomp environments, as well as human activities and
other attributes of the environment in which they operate, become texts
once they are stored in databases. They are the signs, the vocabulary, the
utterances from which sense and meaning are made. Of course, how these
texts are used will determine what they mean in a given context. When a
ubiquitous computing system “perceives” the “context” of a situation and
“decides” to take “appropriate” action, it is interpreting and constructing
the meaning of the text.
While the structure of the vocabulary and the decision to create
certain textual entities and not others were made in response to a prior
understanding of the context—a prior “common sense” and meaning—the
meaning of the text-in-use can, generally speaking, be diverse and negoti-
ated, informed by the cultural position of and the resources available to
the reader. Just as Hamlet or the Fourth Amendment lend themselves to
confl icting reinterpretations, so may different participants ascribe very
different meanings, different “appropriate uses,” to the same space or
set of activities. These multiple contested meanings of common spaces,
common texts, and common resources are at the core of struggles for
social power.
However, a tendency toward interpretive closure is inevitable within

From Privacy to Visibility 101

institutional uses of texts. That’s what institutions do—they pattern and
constrain possible actions/readings. That is one arc of the recursive rela-
tion between institutions and action. For example, the action a pervasive
computing system takes (a change in lighting, perhaps, or the differential
distribution of information to those present) influences the activities that
the system itself is monitoring and responding to. In this way, it reinforces,
extends, and projects its own interpretation of the text available to it. As
such, the range of possible actions within ubicomp environments tends to
be delimited by recursive closures around the meaning of the text-in-use.
To counter this tendency toward closure, a ubicomp environment “needs
to be able to support . . . repurposing, and needs to be able to support the
communication of meaning through it, within a community of practice.”10
From a design perspective, this involves making the text and the means of
interpreting that text available within ubicomp environments.
Of these criteria, perhaps the most difficult to understand and imple-
ment is the availability of text. I referred above to a system’s data as if
they were public and freely accessible to all. But of course the collection,
storage, and dissemination of information is rife with political and ethical
problems attendant to the contemporary political economy. At the very
broadest level, what we need is good theoretical work on the ethics and
the economics of commodifying behavior through “datafication.” We
need more and better work on the processes by which public behavior
is captured, stored, and analyzed privately. We must incorporate in the
design process legal philosophies such as Helen Nissenbaum’s extension
of privacy protection to public actions.11 Addressing these concerns would
help establish not public or private activities or places per se, but some kind
of equity in access to the raw material with which individuals and com-
munities make sense and order out of the world. It should be noted that
this attempt bucks the current trend in intellectual property law, which
seeks ever to enclose and privatize the cultural commons.
But access to a public text is not sufficient for subcultural knowledge
production. Information environments must also facilitate community-
based generators of knowledge and meaning. Like the gay men of New
York in Chauncey’s study, subcultures should be able to use public space
to create their own maps, their own set of appropriate relations and places.
In assessing ubicomp design, we should ask who, and in what circum-
stances, decides what are appropriate actions within, say, a corporate
business meeting? Who decides that a street or region is to be approached
as a marketplace rather than as a cruising ground or a site of politi-
cal discourse? Malcolm McCollugh proposes that rather than designing
for “anytime/anyplace universality,” context-aware computing designers
should “design for recurrent situations of everyday life,” and that “[con-

102 David J. Phillips

text-aware] design must include some layer of what is and is not appropri- The network
ate by situational type.”12 I would argue instead that ubicomp designers
should work to include the facility for accommodating multiple concepts then correlates
of propriety rather than only those “appropriate by situational type.” The
same “space” must be available for different meanings. The “text” of the each individual’s
environment must be available for interpretation within various commu-
location with
nities of meaning.
In design terms, this translates into a structure in which shared public a database of
space (i.e., data) is linkable with private “place-making” drivers. These
drivers are the conceptual models and algorithms that interpret data accord- that person’s
ing to the design goals of each user or community of users. To illustrate,
consider two examples of information environments, one that serves cen- preferences
tralized and system-serving interpretations of data and one that supports
subcultural knowledge production. As an example of the fi rst, imagine a and histories
downtown shopping district. People walk through this district with wire-
less-enabled personal digital assistants (PDAs). The PDAs are constantly and serves
emitting identifying signals. Those signals are received by networked sta-
tionary sensors placed throughout the district. The network triangulates
the received signals to calculate each individual’s location. The network
information to
then correlates each individual’s location with a database of that person’s
preferences and histories and serves “appropriate” information to that per- that person.
son. As an example of the latter, more socially available system, consider
Place Lab.13 In this design, stationary transmitters throughout the district
constantly emit signals that are received and triangulated by each PDA. The
PDA then calculates its own location. The PDA’s user can then refer to local
information and guides previously downloaded to the PDA. These guides
may have been produced within any number of communities or cultures,
for any number of purposes. If information infrastructures can be assessed
according to the degree to which they facilitate equity, the Place Lab model
tips the balance in the distribution of informational resources toward the
user. Not only is there access to the raw material with which individuals and
communities make sense and order out of the world, but also in principle
users decide which drivers will forge knowledge from that data.

Claiming Social Power

With the third political function of coming out, gay men and lesbians
publicize, interpret, and argue over the social value of a gay identity. This
includes the public recognition not merely of a gay identity but of gay
icons, gay political districts, gay markets, the “queer eye.” This mode of
coming out links in-group recognition with public representation.

From Privacy to Visibility 103

Public argument over the social position of gay individuals, identi-
ties, and communities is the core of the modern gay rights movement.
Not only is this argument publicly visible, it is also about public visibility.
It simultaneously addresses and reconfigures the social consciousness of
sexual minorities and other cultural groups. It provides fodder for the
public imagination, and it constitutes the public identity that is a prereq-
uisite for personal identification and “coming out.” It also reconstitutes
social relations through public moral demands to be treated at all (fi rst)
and appropriately (second).
These public identities will always be contested in a grand cycle of
identity claiming, space claiming, co-optation, stabilization, and repres-
sion of the margins. For stable, globally recognized identity categories
come at a cost. Identities classify and typify. They turn humans into know-
able objects. This stabilization is necessary if the political goal is to bring
an excluded group within the mechanisms of bureaucratic power and to
begin to exercise that power on behalf of that group. These stable identity
categories become both the tools for, and the outcome of, enduring social
relations and interactions. So the decision to be “out” comes with the deci-
sion to be out as what? What does the proclaimed identity do?
Arguments over the representation of gay men and lesbian women in
the popular imagination have a long history in gay and lesbian politics.
Activists have contested popular culture images where sexual minorities
are depicted as sick, victimized, or criminal, and often all three simultane-
ously—essentially weak but still utterly dangerous.14 Should aficionados
of sadomasochism be excluded from public events like pride parades? Are
Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy steps toward liberation
or throwbacks to pernicious stereotypes? These are important questions
in part because the availability of public representations recursively refers
to the fi rst aspect of coming out: the personal claiming of identity. Icons
and imagery must be available before any individual can say “Look! I am
that!” But they are also important because the public representations of
identity form the ontological models that guide actions of individuals in
that identity category. The understanding of what a gay man is, what a
gay man does, informs political debate as questions of gay marriage and
gay military service become public issues. It also informs the creation of
demographics, “lifestyles,” brands, and marketing strategies.
The social issue here is not so much that these descriptions are untrue
or inaccurate but that they are useful, and they are used. They guide the
decisions of marketers and policy makers. They thus reify the types they
describe. After all, as Eliza Doolittle noted, “The difference between a
lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”15
Differential treatment of social types, especially in the marketplace for

104 David J. Phillips

essential goods, reentrenches pernicious discrimination and stereotyping.16 To use established
Therefore arguments over typification and representation have erupted as
gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians have been configured, represented, identities
and analyzed as a market segment.
Marketers use market profi les for their own purposes. The interests of ironically—to
the subject, or of the demographic group to which the subject is assigned,
are considered only insofar as they align with the interests of the profi ler.
These interests may well be partially aligned. Public recognition of gay or
lesbian markets—whether for Subaru cars or “I can’t even think straight”
T-shirts—is certainly advantageous to some buyers and some sellers. But mock, or change
interests are often at odds, and it is quite possible that one would not be
offered ads for health insurance or particular vacation packages because how identity
of a private analysis of one’s Web surfi ng habits.17
In a sense, these digital models may be more insidious than public categories are
representations, because the models and the algorithms that guide their use
are privately owned and circulated, and so unavailable for public contesta- created and
tion.18 Ubiquitous computing has the capacity to feed the demographic
process with almost limitless data. Since the representation of groups is a
process of social structuring, it is a political contest. The issue that design-
creation and
ers of ubicomp systems must address is not what the proper representations
are, but rather how the system lends itself to claims and contests over those that use must
representations. In particular, designers should ask two questions.
First, how far does the environment permit individuals to occupy it be visible.
as public space? I mentioned earlier the necessity of an available public
environment in which and with which to make subcultural sense. Another
criterion for evaluating information infrastructures is the degree to which
they facilitate making that subcultural sense visible, unavoidable, pres-
ent. We must ask how widely queer readings of information resources can
be disseminated and the extent to which it is feasible to institutionalize
oppositional understandings of what is appropriate where, or how certain
groups are to be treated.
Second, to what degree does the environment make its workings
known and avail itself for interpretation and contestation? Judith Butler
and Donna Haraway both insist on the political necessity of seriously
playing with the boundaries and meanings of constructed identities.19
In particular, Butler asks how to “use [an identity] in such a way that its
futural significations are not foreclosed? How to use the sign and avow its
temporal contingency at once?” 20 She answers that this may be possible
through “drag,” through ironic performance, through the self-conscious
signaling of identities. To use established identities ironically—to analyze,
manipulate, mock, or change how identity categories are created and
used—that creation and that use must be visible. To facilitate this cul-

From Privacy to Visibility 105

tural play, information infrastructures must make themselves evident.
They should be structured in such a way that individuals are aware of
how their identities are constructed and used. This awareness has at least
three components: the statistical construction of the category itself, the
“personal” data used to categorize a particular individual, and the effect of
that categorization. Not only should that construction be visible, it should
be available for contest and for alternative use.


Increasingly, ubiquitous computing environments structure our daily life.

These systems scan regions for data and serve informational resources to
individuals based on certain notions of what is appropriate for each indi-
vidual in a particular context. Moreover, these are political systems. They
mediate identity, social relations, public and private spaces, and social
power. As such, they should be designed with a critical awareness of the
politics of visibility and the political economy of information.
In particular, as I have suggested, there are several criteria by which the
viability and desirability of information environments might be assessed.
First, to what degree do they permit individuals to claim a particular social
identity in a particular social context? To facilitate the expansion of per-
missible claims, ubiquitous computing environments should multiply the
number of separable contexts and separable identifiers. The environment
should permit subjects to mirror and hone their own performances and to
be aware of the reactions of the audience for whom they perform.
Second, to what degree do environments enable the subcultural gen-
eration of knowledge and the strategic revelation (in the multiple senses
of the phrase) attendant to community formation? They should permit
the formation of in-groups who are able to share insights and produce
knowledge with each other while excluding out-group members. They
should provide a common context, a public space, from which to produce
subcultural knowledge. That is, they should facilitate in some equitable
way the production of culture that can also contribute as a public good to
a diverse, vibrant, and evolving civic life.
Finally, to what degree do environments permit the public claiming of
their resources? They must make their own workings visible and facilitate
the public visibility of the various knowledges produced by their members.
But useful knowledge of the environment goes beyond mere awareness of
information exchange. It involves a good working knowledge of the history
and motives of the other participants in the region. On a personal level, this

106 David J. Phillips

may come by listening to gossip or by learning from social errors. This kind
of learning can be facilitated in the design of information environments.
However, to understand institutions, actors need a theoretically informed
understanding of the political economy of information.


1. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York:

Doubleday, 1959), 75.
2. Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Struc-
turation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
3. Ann M. Mack, “Unplugged,” Brandweek, no. 42 (2000): 50.
4. Patricia Boling, Privacy and the Politics of Intimate Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1996), 132–36.
5. Here I should engage in self-identification. I am a gay man, and I feel
myself, in this work, speaking as a gay man. The epistemological, ontological, and
sociological implications of this type of identity claiming are, in large part, what
this article is about. I mention this particular identity here, though, to explain
my use of the masculine pronoun. I make no claims as to the universality of my
perspective, but sincerely hope that others who do not share my social position
can fi nd this perspective useful.
6. David H. Nguyen and Elizabeth D. Mynatt, “Privacy Mirrors: Under-
standing and Shaping Socio-technical Ubiquitous Computing Systems,” Georgia
Institute of Technology Technical Report GIT-GVU-02–16, 2002, (accessed 21 September 2003).
7. Ian Goldberg and Adam Shostack, “Freedom 1.0 architecture and pro-
.pdf, 1999 (accessed 12 January 2000; site is no longer active).
8. George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making
of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic, 1994), 187–89.
9. See danah boyd, “Faceted Id/entity: Managing Representation in a Digital
World” (master’s thesis, MIT, 2002); see also
10. Paul Dourish, “Seeking a Foundation for Context-Aware Computing,”
Human-Computer Interaction 16 (2001): 240.
11. Helen Nissenbaum, “Protecting Privacy in an Information Age: The
Problem of Privacy in Public,” Law and Philosophy 17 (1998): 559–96.
12. Malcolm McCollugh, “On Typologies of Situated Interaction,” Human-
Computer Interaction 16 (2001): 337, 346.
13. Jason Hong, Gaetano Boriello, James A. Landay, David W. McDonald,
Bill N. Schilit, and J. D. Tygar, “Privacy and Security in the Location-Enhanced
World Wide Web” (paper presented at the Workshop on Ubicomp Communities:
Privacy as Boundary Negotiation, UBICOMP, Seattle, WA, October 2003).
14. Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet (New York: Harper and Row, 1981).
15. Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1951), 99.
16. Oscar H. Gandy Jr., The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal
Information (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993).

From Privacy to Visibility 107

17. K. Chi-Wen Li, “The Private Insurance Industry’s Tactics against Sus-
pected Homosexuals: Redlining Based on Occupation, Residence, and Marital
Status,” American Journal of Law and Medicine 22 (1996): 477–502.
18. Gandy, Panoptic Sort.
19. Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in The Critical
Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed., ed. D. H. Richter (New
York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998); Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and
Women (New York: Routledge, 1991).
20. Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” 1518.

108 David J. Phillips

Suppressing Grief
T H E P O L I T I C S O F “ M CC A R T H Y ” - ER A T E S T I M O N I E S

The Chinese character [han] shows a heart and it shows a head that’s Margaret
turned away. Morganroth Gullette
—Philip Gourevich, New Yorker, 8 September 2003

A sweeping movement toward acknowledging state crimes against citizens

has been one of the most striking signs of recent political statesman-
ship and broad-based efforts for social justice after the innumerable civil
devastations of the twentieth century. In Argentina, the unofficial story
in all its harrowing detail became the official story. Elsewhere, “follow-
ing Australia’s official apology to Aborigines delivered by Paul Keating,
Clinton made amends to Native Hawaiians, ex-PM Murayama apologized
for Japanese war crimes, [and] Tony Blair expiated on behalf of the Irish
potato famine.”1 All these national stories have their own specificity, but
one element is common to all. In any process of national reconciliation,
fi rst-person testimonies from the victims are crucial.
Testimonies usually appear early in the process. Peru’s Truth and
Reconciliation Commission read seventeen thousand testimonies before
issuing a report in August 2003 about the twenty-year-long genocide of
tribal peoples. 2 To teach the ignorant and construct their new feelings may
require that there be a body of testimony, continuously produced over time,
and visible as a whole, internationally if possible. “Holocaust testimony”
is one such grouping. That title unites Primo Levi and Shanghai Ghetto
(2003), making a collective of Jewish victims in death and in exile, from
the fi rst generation on. A body of testimony becomes visible, typically,
through novels, plays, fi lms, and revisionist histories, sometimes pro-
duced by victims and sometimes by sympathetic nonvictims, who together
recharacterize the collective, contextualize their stories, and enlarge the
audience for them. Sometimes this becomes a political movement.
Everything starts with a change of heart toward the victims and a
change of vision—from seeing them as “enemies of the people” (or not
seeing them at all) to believing that their sufferings were terrible and
unjust, and thus that these victims are collectively innocent. The process
leads to reintegrating those who had been othered (ANC members, black
and white; other Left revolutionaries; Quiché Indians) back into the

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 Margaret Morganroth
A change in national family. The legendary Truth and Reconciliation Commission of
South Africa revised history by asking for oral testimonies of perpetrators
historical memory willing to admit complicity. There and in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador,
Guatemala, testimonies have also been followed by some general, public
would provide change of judgment about the high-level perpetrators, from admiration to
condemnation. Even without apologies from a complicit government, some
an opportunity
degree of redress may occur: the label of “human rights violators,” social
shame and loss of power (as with Chile’s Pinochet), attempted extradition,
to teach the
trials, convictions, prison sentences.
history of dissent, Andrew Ross calls this “far-flung political style” apologitis because
the symptoms are “empathy without mourning, and atonement without
of the American liability.”3 But the state apology, however pro forma, seems to be a sine qua
non for other snowballing forms of ethical and political vindication.
Lefts, more In the United States, only a few years after the Vietnam War ended,
President Jimmy Carter amnestied the conscientious objectors who had
evenhandedly. shortly before been stigmatized as “draft dodgers.” President Bill Clin-
ton, forty years after the internment of Japanese Americans in World
War II, apologized to them and offered some restitution. There are many
absences in the short list of American apologies, including slavery and the
extermination of native peoples. Another striking absence is any official
acknowledgment of the damage done during the 1940s and 1950s by the
“Red scare” to the innumerable people who suffered “McCarthy”-era
repression. No president, even since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has
striven to make amends to them. No government agency has been deputed
to ask for their testimonies. There is no national archive hurriedly collect-
ing statements while the aged primary informants are still alive and while
their midlife offspring are eager to see justice done for them.
Redress at this beleaguered site of memory would have significant
political consequences for the nation as a whole. It would provide a chance
to admit that our state, too, can misuse power, to affi rm the values central
to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and to make sure violations do
not shrink our freedoms—at a time when the foundations of liberty are
once again under attack, now in a “war” against Islamic terrorism. An apol-
ogy could be a springboard for the dominant media to revise their version
of history—which is the fi rst stage of any new mainstream understandings.
A change in historical memory would provide an opportunity to teach the
history of dissent, of the American Lefts, more evenhandedly.
There is another urgent issue, of healing psychic wounds before it is
too late. In the United States, the elderly victims who are still alive have
not been waiting for an apology because they do not expect it. Many who
identified once as Communists refuse to say they were, out of fear of pro-
voking the heavy opprobrium constructed a half century ago and still kept

110 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

alive today.4 When Carl Bernstein started studying his parents’ political
pasts, his mother said, “‘If you center on this I think it’s going to shatter my
life again,’ ” and he “could see her face was trembling.”5 Or they think no
one would be interested: Old Left, old hat. An apology would be welcome
either way. It would ease the suppressed grief.
A Korean acquaintance of mine calls this han: it is suffering that can-
not speak fully because the atmosphere is not nearly receptive enough for
it to be fully heard. Why can we in the United States not release this han
and achieve whatever else might follow?

Major historical investigations have concluded that red-baiting from Tru-

man on was politically motivated, led by elites who exaggerated the risks
of communism, and right-wingers who still do.6 The Supreme Court in
Yates v. United States (1957) ruled that the government had failed to prove
that either the Communist Party as an entity or the convicted individually
had sought to incite any persons to engage in or prepare for overthrowing
the government; this ruling fi nally ended prosecutions under the Smith
Act of 1940.7 Even given the highest estimate, only a tiny percentage
of the 50,000 wartime Communist Party members sought information
for the USSR, an ally of the United States; over 49,700 did not. 8 In the
postwar era, the number of party members was so reduced that even
the FBI did not consider the Communist Party a threat. It is generally
agreed that the era of the “witch hunts” and the FBI’s Security Index
was a shameful period and compares with the Palmer Raids as the worst
repression of the twentieth century in this country. In no democracy in
Europe, says the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, did governments use
the Cold War to turn against their own citizens.9 (“Who could imagine a
House of Commons un-British Activities Committee?” asks the daughter
of deportees.)10 Nor did other Western democracies drive their commu-
nist parties out of existence. One dictionary defi nition of McCarthyism is
“indiscriminate allegations” and “unsubstantiated charges.”11
But it is still a long way from espousing anti-McCarthyism or anti-
McCarranism to listening to the people who were attacked. In the 1950s,
exoneration demanded recanting your “subversive” loyalty publicly. Some
did it, to the government, to employers, or in print. But most did not think
they were subversive. These are the still unforgiven. They are treated
monolithically, as duplicitous, hostile, and powerful, with unaccountable
activities, motives, aims. It’s as if HUAC—the House Un-American Activi-
ties Committee—still rules many American minds.
Some later progressives—influenced by the civil rights, anti-Vietnam,
and anti–Contra war movements, or by the many new historians of the
Left—have softened toward the victims. But the population at large does

Suppressing Grief 111

not know how to defend them. A Communist writer who was on the black-
list for twelve years now says to college students, “‘I was part of it. . . .
I lived through this.’ Well, it’s a revelation [to them].”12 Amnesia, hard-
heartedness, and defamation come from a refusal to look harder at the
state apparatuses that fomented nationalist hysteria, mischaracterized
the victims, violated their civil liberties, and constructed the widespread
cowardice that allowed the purges to spread so far. Right-wing writers still
heighten the myth of the internal menace out of Cold War triumphalism
or to support current goals. But liberals wary of state power also turn their
backs on this group of fellow Americans. Many who were young in the 1950s
imbibed from anticommunist belligerency lifelong habits—passionate
contempt for “Commies,” misinformation, and rhetorical twists from
which they have not recovered. Some, harboring old resentments, do not
wish to recover from their haunted close-mindedness about the victims.
But when we want a civil truce and important educational and political
benefits, not every “truth” needs to be rehashed without its context; not
every grievance needs to be aired as if it were still fresh.
What is still lacking in the United States to make national reconcili-
ation possible? The easiest way to foreclose this inquiry is to say that this
country needs a regime change before the evils of our version of the Cold
War can really die. In Argentina, detentions for those who oversaw the
killings were unthinkable until 2003, “when Argentina’s dark past seemed
irretrievably buried under the amnesty laws and a host of presidential par-
dons.” But a new president, Nestor Kirchner, wanted to end the amnesty,
and in August 2003 the Congress annulled those laws.13 A president of the
United States could step out ahead of the mainstream and lead, if she or he
were, say, a prolabor Democrat with a big majority, an internationalist with
an ethical urge to right past wrongs, a reader of history and auto/biography.
How would such a person use the testimonies? How would a kitchen cabinet
of cultural critics and political and autobiography theorists present them
to her, and to the American audience she would then address? I raise more
new questions than I can answer here, but it is certainly useful, fi fty years
after the events—with so much rich material in hand and perhaps, sadly,
not much more to come—to pose them.
An American would scarcely know from the mainstream press or
the “God-that-failed” histories or network TV that a sizable body of
testimonies by those on the American Left and their now-adult offspring
who shared their experiences from 1947 to 1960 amounts to a consider-
able bibliography. We lack a single document with the international fame
of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia, which by itself
constructed a native Guatemalan collective and revalorized its members.
What we possess are fascinating and humanizing stories, in an enormous

112 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

range of voices, and some sympathetic fictionalizations (from Arthur The party’s
Miller’s play The Crucible to novels by E. L. Doctorow and Robert Coover
to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America). The moral and political qualities passions—like the
of the victims, the tones of their narratives, and evidence from some of
the hundreds of thousands who actually had a living relationship to the Scottsboro case,
Communist Party of the United States may come as quite a shock to North
American readers, even to progressives and cultural critics. The degree of anti-lynching
one’s surprise can be used as a marker of how deeply anticommunist bias
legislation, the
has burrowed into our associations and shaped our “knowledge.”
The testimonies refer to countless victims who were innocent of any- Spanish Civil
thing we would now consider a crime. The purges of “the disloyal” radiated
out from the government through two administrations, Harry Truman’s War—had once
and Dwight Eisenhower’s, hitting all levels of the movements revolving
around the Communist Party. This was a broad spectrum, as the cultural been nearly
critic Michael E. Brown describes it, from “activists who formed the party,
those of various backgrounds and persuasions who joined it in preference inevitable causes
to other political options, those of varying degrees of commitment who
worked within and around party organizations, [to] the greater number of for moral agents
people—whether officially members or not—whose experiences of agency,
and analytic
moral urgency, and politics were influenced by it.”14 Many labor leaders
and noncommunist radicals were targeted. “Almost all New Dealers were
minds across all
attacked by the Right,” observed Alger Hiss, who died protesting his
innocence of the charges.15 If you read Griffi n Fariello’s comprehensive class levels.
collection, Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition, an Oral History,
it is clear that the party’s passions—like the Scottsboro case, anti-lynching
legislation, the Spanish Civil War—had once been nearly inevitable causes
for moral agents and analytic minds across all class levels.
Apolitical people all across the country were also caught up in what
the historian David Caute called the Great Fear. Everyone was “suspect.”
The government’s coercive loyalty oaths, unjust arrests, prison sentences,
denaturalizations, deportations, suspension of passports, FBI or “Red
Squad” harassment, job loss, and forced career change, led to dreadful con-
sequences in civil life—employment related, psychological, and political.
One and a half million union members were subjected to the loyalty-oath
process, as were government employees at all levels down to the cities—as
many as one in five working Americans.16 One small study suggests that
working-class people suffered more job losses.17 Millions—73 percent: a
sign of a desperately demoralized country—anticipated informing on their
neighbors.18 People who protested fi rings were themselves fi red. The par-
ents who stood beside their accused adult offspring, and the children who
endured their parents’ fates, also need to be counted among the victims.
Orthodox anticommunist writers still ignore such experiences. They

Suppressing Grief 113

ignore the testimonies of the government perpetrators who repented:
lawyers, administrators, ex-FBI informants. They implicitly deny the
innocence of the political prisoners and all the other radicals by restricting
their focus to anticommunist recanters or to the few remaining contro-
versial “cases”—like that of Julius Rosenberg—that bind the CPUSA to
the external enemy selected by Truman and the Right after ending the
Soviet-American alliance that won World War II. They still focus on spies.
The right-wing’s “over-reliance on the experiences of the disaffected” as
well as its terrorizing “Better dead than Red” rhetoric have led to neglect
of the anguish of millions, delegitimized their voices, and distorted the
record of the activists’ grassroots activities on their native soil.19
The 1970s saw a stream of testimonial literature, some of it published
by mainstream presses. Resistant victims as varied as Dalton Trumbo,
Al Richmond, and Cedric Belfrage (respectively, an inactive Communist
Party member who had been the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood
until being blacklisted, the editor of a Communist Party labor journal,
and a British noncommunist radical writer and translator) wrote books
in 1972 and 1973. By the late 1970s, with Nixon and the Republicans
repudiated and Carter on the way in, it seemed safer to write aggressively
about one’s experience. The best-known book was once Lillian Hellman’s
Scoundrel Time (1976), which attacked liberals for not fighting back hard
enough as well as “Trumanism” for starting it all. 20 Now the best-known
books are probably two daughters’ accounts—Vivian Gornick’s thematic
weavings of oral histories, The Romance of American Communism (1977),
and Kim Chernin’s In My Mother’s House (1983)—and one son’s memoir,
Carl Bernstein’s Loyalties (1989). In 1976 Professor Paul Buhle found a
home for the Oral History of the American Left (OHAL) at the Tamiment
Library at New York University: it includes many accounts about the 1950s
and 1960s. After 1989 the fall of the USSR made another, apparently even
safer opening. A small spurt of life writings was published, mostly by adult
offspring, as in the collection Red Diapers, or by better known victims, as
in Fariello’s Red Scare. A man whom Gornick quoted pseudonymously in
1977 published four volumes of autobiography in his own name—Carl
Marzani—in the 1990s. 21 The unexpurgated letters of the Rosenbergs
were published in 1995 by Garland, a trade press.


“Only two” people were judicially executed by the U.S. government. 22

All the branches collaborated: the Supreme Court failed to intervene,
Eisenhower failed to grant clemency; the executive branches provided

114 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

a background of administrative persecutions; the legislative branch of When people
government, through HUAC, fanned the hysterical publicity about dirty
and godless Commies. Ethel Rosenberg was innocent even in the eyes of are exposed to
her prosecutors, who cynically held her life hostage to force her husband,
Julius, to confess. 23 Her brother lied about her to save his own life. Tony
heightened death
Kushner in Angels in America gave Ethel a big purse and a big soul. She
anxiety, social
curses Roy Cohn, the red-baiting lawyer who indefatigably hounded so
many people like her, but she fi nally says kaddish for him when he dies psychologists
of AIDS in a hospital bed. In 1993–94, Kushner can imagine such a
reconciliation, but only after a victim’s bitter grief and pain have been show, they react
publically shouted out and the persecutor dies. Angels in America, the
famous play that redeems both Commies and faggots, is widely produced. by treating those
It makes Ethel older than in life—matronly, solid, squared off on her feet,
an angelic exemplar visiting from the afterlife. She was in 1953 a young constructed as
mother of boys aged five and nine, Robby and Michael. What the Rosen-
bergs’ letters indicate about their probity, even the CIA confi rmed. People enemies especially
“of the sort of the Rosenbergs can be swayed by duty where they cannot
be swayed by considerations of self-interest.”24
Julius Rosenberg may or may not have been guilty of giving the Soviet
Union (in 1944 still an ally) his brother-in-law’s worthless sketch of a lens
mold for the bomb. 25 Civil libertarians now consider the evidence contami-
nated and fl imsy. With the Department of Justice currently preparing for
treason trials, it is worth remembering the widening circles of legal abuse
that accompanied the run-up to the executions: suborning perjury, pay-
ing informers, hiding evidence from defense lawyers, raising bail levels
arbitrarily high, evading due process through administrative measures,
expanding defi nitions of wrongdoing through guilt by association, guilt by
membership, guilt by silence, guilt by Fifth Amendment use, guilt by teach-
ing (or reading) Marxism, amid hectic screams of “disloyalty.”26 When
people are exposed to heightened death anxiety, social psychologists show,
they react by treating those constructed as enemies especially harshly. 27
The bomb-hype heightened American death anxiety.
The electrocution of both Ethel and Julius in 1953, the culmination of
reaction to the alleged Red scare, is recorded in many testimonies as an act
of “state terror” and intimidation—“an American version of totalitarian-
ism.”28 Yet ten thousand people came to their funeral, their granddaugh-
ter Ivy Meeropol told me. 29 One of the “Red Diaper babies” remembers
sobbing for hours. “The next day the New York papers dwelt lovingly on
every detail of the executions, including the fact that wisps of smoke came
out of Ethel’s head after the switch was pulled.”30 It was not incidental that
the two executed were Jewish. The CIA, crediting the same link of Jews to
“Bolshevism” that had guided the Nazis, offered commutation, according

Suppressing Grief 115

to the historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, if the Rosenbergs would appeal to
Jews in all countries to abandon socialist movements. 31 Jew-baiting and
baiting of “nigger-lovers” were allied to red-baiting in the United States,
and not just in mobs. In New York City in the 1940s, a board of education
purge “resulted in the dismissal of hardly any but Jewish teachers”: “some
five hundred,” says Sally Belfrage in Un-American Activities: A Memoir of
the Fifties. 32 Jewish anticommunists had something extra to prove.
Children felt, in the words of Dorothy Zellner, that “we could actu-
ally be charged with something fantastic that we never did and ‘fry in the
electric chair.’ ”33 Rachel Fast Ben-Avi, daughter of the novelist Howard
Fast, wrote that “there was no reason to believe that what was happening
to [Robby and Michael’s] parents could not happen to mine.”34 Stephanie
Allen, whose father was arrested under the Smith Act, was “frantic” that
her “parents would be killed” but never spoke to them about it. 35
The children had their share of pain through their parents’ arrests,
convictions, jailings, losses of jobs and savings, deportations, HUAC
subpoenas, and the suicides and divorces that followed the stress. 36 The
FBI or police “Red Squads” often arrested their targets in the middle of
the night, waking the children and alerting the neighbors. Kim Chernin’s
best friend chose the day after Kim’s mother was arrested to tell the kids at
camp that “we weren’t really cousins.” Ilana Singer vomited on the floor of
her classroom when one child said it was “The Reds. The Jews. The Com-
mies” who “dropped Russian bombs.”37 Children were tormented simply
because their families were denounced by the newspapers as commies.
Chris Trumbo, son of the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, was thrown into the
junior high school furnace by fellow students. 38 Even children whose par-
ents were in no way active in the movement, but simply sympathized with
its values, or knew families who had been scarred, were intimidated.
If children were traumatized, adults were estimating how far legal
repression would go. Even before 1953 some Communists rationally
believed that “concentration camps” would be the next government step
against the Left. In 1949, federal trials under the Smith Act had put
many leaders of the party out of action, and their defense was absorbing
funds that would otherwise have gone into activism and recruitment.
The McCarran-Walter Act had a section about incarcerating masses of
suspected “dangerous persons” in any national emergency. Seven camps
from World War II were “dusted off,” and lists were started of those who
might fi ll them. 39 The Security Index, like the other federal lists, was so
arbitrary that Sally Belfrage found someone who said he could get her
into a less unpleasant camp in Arizona instead of the one she was slated
for—not for her own politics but because her parents had been deported.40
Diana Anhalt’s parents, like many who had watched Germany decay under

116 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Hitler, were “fi rmly convinced that it was simply a matter of time before
the United States became another Nazi Germany”; they moved to Mexico
in 1950.41 To Dalton Trumbo, even though he had served his prison time,
it seemed prudent to leave the country—as it did to many others. Two
thousand functionaries selected by the party went underground, which was
an isolating, and terrible, experience.42 (Some people must have named
names to HUAC out of fear of being sent to the camps: the writer Roy
Huggins did.) 43 The Rosenbergs’ executions convinced more people that
America was turning “fascist.” No one could tell how long the repression
from the top would last. And even when it appeared to begin to end—with
Supreme Court decisions undoing some of the most illegal government
actions—the punishing losses dragged on for decades. People who lost
jobs, income, status, community respect, their sense of security, not to
mention their party, could never be made whole.
The fi rst questions for cultural and political historians are, was there
“enough” suffering, has it been adequately described, and is it well enough
known? The second ones are, was the collective vision that inspired the
victims a vision that Americans might once again appreciate? Are the
victims’ voices convincing? In what ways does anticommunism still frame
such questions, to delegitimate the experiences of the victims and prevent
our hearing them?


People in the movements “didn’t think we were traitors; we thought we

were actually patriots,” making America a better place for the marginal-
ized.44 As a group backed into a bitter corner, the victims come out of the
1950s looking better than the persecutors. As Lillian Hellman said, to a
storm of abuse, they did less harm. The testimonies show how much harm
the authorities did—those who invented the security oaths and expanded
them (Truman and his attorney general, Eisenhower and his), and estab-
lished the indexes and investigations (J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthy, Cohn,
Nixon); those in the FBI who threatened to put people’s mothers and sons
in concentration camps; those who ran the kangaroo courts and admin-
istrative hearings and set up speaker bans for Fifth Amendment plead-
ers; those who made laws delegitimating the party and those who had
ever belonged to it years before, bankrupted the party’s adult-education
schools, denied passports, and bloated an ideologized FBI so much that
it had agents available to monitor Carl Bernstein’s mother’s poker game
until 1968.45 Then, when the victims were vilified as a collective, their
employers fi red them individually . . . but perhaps this list should stop

Suppressing Grief 117

Whatever the here, on the principle enunciated earlier, that to end bitterness not every
truth needs to be retold. Not every perpetrator needs to be cited.
eclectic ideologies The Left made vast substantive contributions, especially to racial inte-
gration and to the American labor movement. Communists, in Gornick’s
and rhetorics words, “fought for the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, worker compen-
sation, health and welfare insurance. And for one glorious moment—dur-
whose passions
ing the brief life of the CIO—they brought genuine worker politics to the
American labor movement.”46 Robbie Bridges, son of a much-hounded
ignited the
labor leader, writes, “Probably the most important thing I remember my
children’s dreams father talking about is to have the security of a job for life, and his goal was
to see that people had that.”47 “Some of the most courageous attempts at
around those interracial political activism in American history involved black and white
Communists . . . particularly those who participated in the organization
countless kitchen of unions in the Deep South,” Randall Kennedy has noted.48 The party
had a good record in the African American community. After the novelist
tables, in practice Julian Mayfield left the Communist Party, he recalled that “on the Left
the young Negro writer found a haven and encouragement that existed
most adults nowhere else for him.”49 “Most black people seemed to have a greater
suspicion of McCarthyism than did whites,” Steve Nelson recalls of his
were reformers.
years in Pittsburgh.50
Reading enough interviews—especially Gornick’s in The Romance
of American Communism, which begins with an homage to her family’s
kitchen-table debates—we can see how fervently the party educated and
inspired people, gave them ideas and “the idea of ideas,” access to col-
lective experiences of high and popular culture, friendships, respect,
solidarity, “wholeness,” passionate missions, and—as all political parties
must do51—resources, coordination, and discipline for those missions, as
well as explanations of current events, the analytic tools for understand-
ing the systems they lived in. Carl Hirsch, asked in an OHAL interview
about his twenty years in the party, responds as others did. “Yes, I feel
pride in being a staunch and devoted person to a cause which I still believe
was right.”52
Whatever the eclectic ideologies and rhetorics whose passions ignited
the children’s dreams around those countless kitchen tables, in practice
most adults were reformers: teachers in worker’s schools, public schools,
or universities; labor organizers, union reps, journalists, librarians, antira-
cists, profeminists, antiracist and prolabor writers. Steve Nelson, a mem-
ber of the party’s National Committee, called it “this little Communist
movement that was in bread-and-butter kinds of issues.”53 “Just like the
neighborhood Democratic Party would have operated—only we always
got there fi rst,” Carl Marzani grinned, about his work on the Lower East
Side.54 Even the socialist Irving Howe, “to be fair,” gives the Communist

118 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Party credit up to a point for being “a party like other parties.”55 If an army
runs on its belly, an activist movement runs on its ditto machines. “The
hard dirty work in the office is done by them,” Lillian Hellman said to
Henry Wallace when he ran for president in the fateful election of 1948.56
An eighty-nine-year-old woman who still wishes to remain anonymous
told me, “Comrade was a term of high respect. ‘He’s a comrade’ told the
whole story. You didn’t have to say, ‘He believes in what we believe in.’”
Marge Frantz spoke for many when she recalled, “There’s nothing like
being actively engaged in the life of what’s happening in your time. . . . it
wasn’t a trivial life, you know. . . . It did feel like a very useful worthwhile
It is now possible on the basis of the testimonies to evaluate the goals,
rhetoric, and activities of American Communist Party members without
having foreign gulags dragged in to stop discussion. If the rank and fi le had
known about the show trials and been critical of the show trials, they could
have had no more influence on the USSR than dissident Democrats had
on the Truman Doctrine. There were “premature” anti-Stalinists among
Communist Party members. If they admired Stalin—and he is mentioned
very rarely, although interviewers were not necessarily unsympathetic—it
was as a symbol of what the Soviet Union had achieved since its revolution
that America could emulate: raising the condition of the working class,
valuing women, welcoming African Americans. But when ex-Communist
professors testified that membership in the party did not require giving
up intellectual life or lying, no one believed them.58 A section organizer
who became a potter said in the seventies, “I never felt myself a tool of
the CP. On the contrary, the CP was my tool, I was the living purpose to
which the joining of form and content was put.”59 A woman interviewed in
1979 for the fi lm Seeing Red observed that after Khrushchev’s disclosures
“we were thinking as adults, we just didn’t say yes to everything or deny
everything.” Of people who left then, when a less dogmatic party might
have been resurgent, Rose Krysak said, “They took this sad incident in the
history [of international communism] and forgot one thing, even Stalin
built the revolution. . . . if you use this as a basis for being in or out you are
really losing sight of the main objective of the Communist movement,” by
which she meant, the American scene.60
“A revolutionary tradition may be politically moderate,” Eric
Hobsbawm observes. A willingness to idealize “revolution” does not nec-
essarily indicate an extremist program.61 Junius Scales, a party leader, said
he had never heard anyone advocating violence, adding wryly, “That shows
what great theoreticians we were—nobody had even thought about the road
to socialism.”62 No one collected guns. So scant was evidence of illegality
that laws had to be changed or bent to get convictions. Even those who

Suppressing Grief 119

haven’t read Hobsbawm, Caute, Michael E. Brown, Ellen Schrecker, and
the other new historians may fi nd the charge of “advocacy to overthrow”
sinister. David Freidman, a “proud” member of the NYC Teachers Union,
laughs when asked about “subversion.” “Well, there wasn’t talk about
overthrowing the government. There was talk chiefly about changing the
Board of Education. [Laughter.] Overthrowing the Board of Education.”63
One FBI special agent who had broken into homes to steal lists of names
later declared, “I can’t think of anything we uncovered during those ten
years that was worthwhile in terms of national security.”64
Many would have liked to admit that they were or had once been
Communists. This is what some people say they should all have done, as
if Americans in the 1950s could have acted like the rebels in Spartacus,
who one after another bravely rose up in front of the military authorities
to declare, “I am Spartacus!” The fi lm was a fantasy for an unheroic
time, written under a pseudonym by Dalton Trumbo. By a catch-22, if
you answered the accusers about your own past you waived your right to
privacy and “could not refuse to name other people, thus subjecting them
in turn to the same public exposure and penalties.”65 If you did say you
were a Communist, you could be convicted of perjury for not naming
every other one you knew.
It is striking how many middle-aged children of the affl icted radicals
still admire both their parents and their political legacies. It is even sur-
prising. Given the misery infl icted on their childhoods or adolescences,
the adult offspring could have turned on their parents rather than the state
apparatus. Ethel was portrayed as a bad mother, to murderous effect. J.
Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, who knew she was innocent, decided to
support the death sentence only because an FBI report represented her as a
cold-hearted mother.66 In 2003 when one of the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael
Meeropol, published a book about his childhood, a reviewer in the Nation
niggled away: why didn’t “the couple” save Ethel, after the Eisenhower
Justice Department demanded she choose between her life and turning on
her husband? 67 Ethel had answered long before: “These unctuous saviors,
these odious swine, are actually proposing to erect a terrifying sepulchre
in which I shall live without living and die without dying!”68
Some Red-Diaper babies whose childhoods were unhappy remain
angry at their parents—a few because they forget that neglectful or hostile
parenting is not a Left monopoly. Some are upset that their parents did
not tell them they were Communists, forgetting that the terror was not
created by their parents. Others learned lessons about political resistance
that every generation needs. Stephanie Allen, who had been so frightened
she became “a quintessential conformist” in her teens, concluded, “I was
lucky to be a red diaper baby.”69 Anna Kaplan wrote, “I am exceptionally

120 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

proud of my parents. I wish everyone could understand what people like
them have done for our country. . . . I could never have their courage, com-
mitment, strength and belief, which keep them fighting to make things at
least a little better.” 70 Al Lannon loved his father’s “tales of revolutionary
heroism” on the waterfront and in racially mixed union meetings in the
South.71 Dick Levins said, “Some principles had long been a part of my
being, such as not crossing a picket line, not telling racist jokes, and not
giving names to the enemy.” 72
Rachel Fast Ben-Avi concludes,“But I believe still—and I am glad I
do—that the ideal of an integrated community, of common aims, shared
wealth, of a socialist society, continues to be valid. Had I, by magic, the
option to relive my life in a family of which the government of those days
would have approved, I would refuse it.” 73

Freed Speech

Letters written at the time, and life stories told twenty or forty years
later, often use a rhetoric shared by members of the party and the move-
ments. It was a mixture of humanistic universalism; religion (the Bible,
especially Exodus); patriotic and Marxist metaphors; pulp fiction; folk,
black, and popular music; journalese and “high” style, as nurtured in
Popular Front circles. The cultural critic David Thorburn described the
rhetoric of the Rosenbergs’ letters as mingling some of these strands.74
Paul Robeson’s line “This is America to me!” was to many their ideal-
istic anthem. Insofar as they shared it, they sound now like members of
an extended family. The language was not highly theoretical, but ordi-
nary people used the concepts of class and race and gender in ways that
were meaningful to them. Using such concepts, many thought proudly of
themselves as “intellectuals.” The language was informed by a belief in
self-improvement and progress for “the masses,” including themselves.
The more one reads the philosophy of these activists in their own words,
the more it looks like the American dream democratized. It was a com-
fortable, emotionally appealing rhetoric, and the victims did not forget
it. Those who later felt free to speak claimed it again. Some of their adult
offspring—like Levins and Ben-Avi—share it.
Whenever we try to treat them as a collective verbally, however, we
must warn ourselves that “Communists” were treated in the 1950s and
after, and sometimes today, as uniformly brainwashed and congenital
liars. Alfred Kazin, writing in 1978, mocked “souped-up patriotism”
but sneered that “the Rosenbergs in the death house wrote the crudest
Party slogans to each other in the form of personal letters.” 75 Taking the

Suppressing Grief 121

Fifth was considered tantamount to lying. One informer, who had lied
to HUAC about the internal danger posed by the Communist Party, still
said later about the Hollywood Ten that he was “appalled by their lack of
candor because they all pretended to be Jeffersonian democrats, and they
weren’t.” 76 If the testimonies are elegies to the comradely life, they are
called lies; but if they are diatribes about the failures of the party, they
are proofs. It was also or especially the “petty-bourgeois” nature of Left
cultural tastes, Andrew Ross argues, that drove 1950s liberal “intellectu-
als” into contemptuous repudiation of Communists’ “corrupt” rhetoric.77
Atomized by 1950s formalism and individualism, some also (I suspect)
envied the unifying, unironic, warm vernaculars of socialist ideals, idealist
rhetorics that anticommunism put forever beyond their reach.
No critic steeped in recent auto/biography theory, alert to historical
contingency, wary of all truth claims, would be caught libeling an entire
body of witnesses, or ignoring the degrees of stress to which the speech
of the victims was originally subject, or the degrees of liberty they felt
thereafter. In a postmodern era of sampling and fusion, mongrelization
is no longer a priori distasteful, tasteless, or corrupt. These are historical
advantages that make it possible actually to hear these testimonies, not
exactly as spoken of course, but at least shorn of some Cold War distortions.
Merely to treat these people as native informants with distinct points of
view, and as no more than normally subject to rules of discourse—to let
them be human again, as I do here—is to lift a weighty repression.

One curious relevant fact about the published testimonies is that many
were written by people who were children in the 1950s, speaking on behalf
of their tainted parents. They wrote not to appropriate their parent’s
voices but as witnesses to the suffering or to the legacy, and because the
dwindling of fear took so long that often their parents had died.
But the children are not an issue in this country. They were not
Commies and Fifth Amendment pleaders. Their loyalty to their parents,
although moderated occasionally by ambivalence or chilled by Cold War
intensity, does not necessarily rehabilitate the members of the movements,
or a fortiori, the members of the party. The children shared a reflex of
their parent’s terror, but most were removed from the worst by the buf-
fer their parents provided. They were too young. They remember other
preoccupations suited to their years, like 1950s dating. Fine witnesses to
the troubles and value of their political inheritance, they cannot convey
the experiences of the generation that bore the brunt.
There are not enough vital fi rsthand published testimonies by the
adults. This is another catch-22 in this history of continual impediments
to speech. Communist Party leaders wrote memoirs: Dorothy Healey, Gil

122 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Green, Steve Nelson. Trumbo’s career was made whole and he became a
celebrity, like Arthur Miller or Lillian Hellman. They could write. But the
rank and fi le did not produce enough life writing. When they did, their
memoirs often went into quiet repositories like the Tamiment, where most
are untranscribed. The reasons for this neglect are almost too obvious
to bear stating. Who wanted early on to read the stories of the despised
and condemned? Most continued to be afraid to announce they had been
Communists. Their immediate need was to support their families, often
in unfamiliar lines of work. Few had been writers beforehand, and some
had scarcely been readers. Once they had been collectively represented as
liars, who would fi nd them credible?
By the time Paul Buhle, the fi lmmakers, and the other oral histori-
ans found them, history had been so cruel, and most were old enough or
enough time had passed, that some energy had been spent. Gornick did
fi nd people who were vehement about their cause as well as articulate. She
herself had shrieked in 1956 that Stalin’s terrors were carried out “in the
name of socialism!” 78 She looked hard for “passion”—it is her theme—and
she surrounded their talk with her own highly charged prose.
But many adults who told their stories decades later held back in ways
that might act as dilutions for readers. In their prison letters, Ethel and
Julius remind each other to be dignified and unmoved in public. Decades
later, the resignation of those who lost jobs, life time, trust in the system,
can be too calm, too matter-of-fact. Dredging up their victimization, or
even their resistance, was too painful. They describe their daily work lives
(which were often quite heroic even before the government shattered
them) plainly and modestly. Undeceived about history, their calm might
also derive from their knowledge that worse had happened elsewhere—in
Spain, in the death camps. But their stoicism may also be related to their
sense of being listened to without belief or kindness—not by their inter-
viewers but by those beyond the brick wall of made-in-America bias. They
were suffocated if not silenced, understanding too well that they had been
lightning rods. It was not what they had done that brought down the bolts.
Trumbo’s theory was “people really don’t like solemn arguments about
‘Gee, how you have injured me.’” 79 But Americans ought to know their
collective injuries well enough to be able to recount them.
Theirs are the unforgettable moments. They were closer to the events
than the children; they suffered the painful emotions of responsibility for
family survival; their sense of injustice was more complete; their political
understandings were better attuned and more authoritative. About their
children’s experiences they can be more compelling than the children. Few,
reading Trumbo’s scathing 1956 letter to his daughter’s school, could stop
themselves from turning their face toward him to share his indignation.

Suppressing Grief 123

I defy anyone Ed Harris read this unforgettably in an off-Broadway production of the
two-man show Trumbo, written by Chris Trumbo’s son in 2003.
to read Ethel’s
At the beginning of the 1955–56 school term we entrusted to your care a
sweet, strained happy, healthy, comparatively well-adjusted and demonstrably intelligent child
[of ten] who loved school, adored her teachers, and enjoyed the friendship of
eloquent voice her small circle of contemporaries. Eight months later you have returned to
us a spiritually devastated human being. . . .
in its context Small childish conspiracies are directed against her—patterned in secret
after the conspiracies of the parents—and she is quietly and incessantly
without the persecuted and boycotted and shunned as long as the schoolday lasts. Her
one remaining friend is called “traitor” by the other children. . . .
welling up of This slow murder of the mind and heart and spirit of a young child is
the proud outcome of those patriotic meetings among a few parents in the
the heart that Annandale School under the sponsorship of the PTA and the Bluebirds [Girl
Scouts]. 80
comes from
Here is an excerpt from Ethel’s letter suggesting to Julius what words
the recognition they might say to their sons about electrocution.

of enormous Of course it’s not easy to know about the death penalty and not worry about
it sometimes, but let’s look at it this way. We know that a car could strike us
careful love in and kill us, but that doesn’t dispose us to spend every minute being fearful
about cars. You see, we are the very same people we ever were, except that
the presence our physical selves are housed under a different roof from yours. Of course,
we feel badly that we are separated from you but we also know that we are not
of profound guilty and that an injustice has been done to us by people who solved their
own problems by lying about us. It’s all right to feel anyway you like about
injustice, the them, so long as your feelings don’t give you pain and make you unhappy.

condition of She added, to her husband directly, “If we can face the thought of our
intended execution without terror, then so will they.” 81 Ethel knew her
Antigone before letters were being read, and probably knew her mothering was being
judged (although not how dreadfully much the verdict would matter). But
no mother who was insensitive could have imagined her sons’ terror or
worked so hard to invent a solution. I defy anyone to read Ethel’s sweet,
strained eloquent voice in its context without the welling up of the heart
that comes from the recognition of enormous careful love in the presence
of profound injustice, the condition of Antigone before Creon.

There has been no large-scale movement outside government toward

awarding the victims vindication or apologies or reparations. (Is it resi-
dues of decades of knee-jerk red-baiting, strengthened in the 1990s after
the USSR abandoned communism; shame, the weakness of the Lefts, or

124 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Figure 1. Paul Robeson stamp from
the Black Heritage Series. © 2004,
U.S. Postal Service.

their being distracted by so many other contemporary causes?) On the

little scale, things happen only when a constituency forms and agitates.
After a long campaign, a stamp of Paul Robeson, that great bass voice of
Popular Front humanism and integration, recently appeared.
Only in 1981 did some fi red teachers receive an apology from the City
College board of trustees, and even in the apology their fi ring was blamed
on their refusal to testify publicly. 82 The New York Times fi red a copy editor
who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment, denied that this was their motive,
and never offered restitution. 83 The demise of the Hollywood blacklist was
“unwritten, unproclaimed”: some people waited decades. 84 The movie
critic J. Hoberman notes that “ninety percent of those who had been driven
from the movie industry never returned.” 85 In the 1990s the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave a lifetime achievement award to
Elia Kazan, whom many had never forgiven for having named names to
HUAC. TV images of stars refusing to applaud him were greeted with
puzzlement by a populace that does not know the old scores. Even tiny
efforts at justice encounter opposition. When Ethel Rosenberg’s image—on
a poster with those of other American women, commemorating National
Women’s Month—was hung in the Department of Justice, in one office
they took it down, in another someone covered it up. 86 The FBI kept its
fi les on more than a million “un-Americans” for decades. 87

Suppressing Grief 125

Although This is one culture war that did not get vocalized. It was not yelled out,
and it is not being debated. Class issues are muted, even in academe, and
McCarthyism the CPUSA is a charged nexus where class, the power of labor, peaceful
internationalism before “globalization,” and political dissent met. This
became a was once a heroic intersection. Now it’s nearly hush-hush. The purges
restricted scholarly inquiry, as Ellen Schrecker demonstrates in No Ivory
national byword
Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. Perhaps it is time to overthrow
these repressions, too.
for undemocratic
Americans lost a great deal as citizens because by the late 1950s,
politics, it is not progressives were broken and disunited by the purges, particularly in the
labor movement and the school systems. Especially in an era where reform
widely enough groups and labor unions can now be called “special interests,” we need
the energy, the initiative, the organization, the hopeful utopian vision,
accepted as a and warm-spirited collectivism that communism and other cohesive Left
parties at their best once provided.
warning against Finally, witnesses believe that the state terror that began in 1947 nar-
rowed the entire spectrum of political liberty in America. 88 The tilt to the
current threats right limited the options of presidents: Kennedy said that if he had tried
to pull out of Vietnam, “we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare
like the Patriot
on our hands.” 89 The country’s incomprehension and indifference toward
Act . . . We in the the victims accompanies a continuous mainstream unwillingness and lack
of preparation to criticize the Cold War, the right-wing backlash against
United States are the New Deal, the legal weakening of the labor unions and affi rmative
action, and the reduction of civil liberties in the name of “security.” You
the more have to read the testimonies to know in your nerve endings how effectively
repression can operate within a “democratic” society. Although McCarthy-
endangered for ism became a national byword for undemocratic politics, it is not widely
enough accepted as a warning against current threats like the Patriot Act,
this failure. the roundups and detentions of people “suspected” of terrorism without
due process, the expansion of the death penalty. We in the United States
are the more endangered for this failure. Our government’s current restric-
tions on due process harm the innocent and the not-guilty-as-charged in
irreparable ways. The international human rights community watches in
dismay as state power, escalating, takes its familiar tragic course.

126 Margaret Morganroth Gullette


This essay is dedicated to Mike Brown; to Paul Buhle and others whose inter-
views made it possible; to historiographers like Ellen Schrecker who provided
the missing record; to the brave progressives of earlier generations, especially the
Communists; and to my son’s generation, which should have been taught national
reconciliation in school. My thanks to Sara Gruen, my scholar-partner at the
Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, in the fall of 2003, who
helped with research and read this with a fi ne editor’s eye. Norah Chase and Alix
Kates Shulman offered important comments.

1. Andrew Ross, Real Love: In Pursuit of Cultural Justice (New York: New
York University Press, 1998), 194.
2. Jude Webber, “Peru Doubles Estimate of Death Toll Stemming from Vio-
lent Decades,” Boston Globe, 29 August 2003.
3. Ross, Real Love, 194–95.
4. Telephone communication, 2003, from a woman of seventy-nine years who
was a housewife during the era, but whose husband lost his job as a union leader.
She wishes to remain anonymous. On still being penalized for “continuing to hold
the same philosophical outlook,” see Ben Gray, Oral History of the American Left
(OHAL), Tamiment Library, New York University, Series IV, 2-3.
5. Carl Bernstein, Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1989), 69.
6. On the new historiography, see Michael E. Brown, Randy Martin, Frank
Rosengarten, and George Snedeker, eds., preface to New Studies in the Politics and
Culture of U.S. Communism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993), 7–13. On
the relations between the party and the much larger “dynamic social, cultural
and political movement that challenged the status quo and served as the primary
conduit for a socialist critique of U.S. society,” see Ellen Schrecker, “McCarthy-
ism and the Decline of American Communism, 1945–1960,” in Brown et al., New
Studies, 123–40. See page 125 for the “populist” versus “elite” interpretation of
the origins of the red-baiting era. On current means of keeping red-baiting alive,
see Ellen Schrecker, ed., Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History after the
Fall of Communism (New York: New Press, 2004).
7. Telford Taylor, foreword to Cause at Heart: A Former Communist Remem-
bers, by Junius Irving Scales and Richard Nickson (Athens: University of Georgia
Press, 1987), xvi.
8. Maurice Isserman and Ellen Schrecker, “‘Papers of a Dangerous Ten-
dency’: From Major Andre’s Boot to the VENONA Files,” in Schrecker, Cold
War Triumphalism, 159.
9. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991
(New York: Vintage, 1994), 236. David Caute says that the Palmer raids and
deportations of 1917–20 were worse, but “the second repression was the more
profoundly corrupting, the more corrosive of habits of tolerance and fair play”
(Caute, The Great Fear [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978], 20). Gary Wills
contrasts Palmer’s “small force of federal marshals” to the vaster post–World War
II FBI, in the introduction to Scoundrel Time, by Lillian Hellman (Boston: Little
Brown, 1976), 17.

Suppressing Grief 127

10. Sally Belfrage, Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties (New York:
HarperCollins, 1994), 247.
11. The dictionary that Griffi n Fariello cites in Red Scare: Memories of the
American Inquisition, an Oral History (New York: Norton, 1995), 28, is Merriam-
Webster’s Collegiate.
12. Frank Tarloff, in Fariello, Red Scare, 326.
13. Reed Lindsay, “Taking on the Past, Argentina Repeals Amnesty,” Boston
Globe, 22 August 2003. The laws had been in effect since 1986–87.
14. Michael E. Brown, “Introduction: The History of the History of U.S.
Communism,” in Brown et al., New Studies, 17.
15. Alger Hiss, in Fariello, Red Scare, 146.
16. Fariello, Red Scare, 380. David Cole says that “as many of one in five
working Americans were subjected to the loyalty review process in one way or
another” (Cole, “The New McCarthyism: Repeating History in the War on Ter-
rorism,” Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review 38:1 [2003]: part D).
17. Seamus E. Kearney interviewed fourteen adults for Defensive Strategies
of Red Diaper Babies during the McCarthy Era (MA thesis, Harvard University,
18. Fariello notes that the famous survey was done by Samuel Stouffer of
Harvard (Red Scare, 41).
19. Brown, “Introduction,” 16; on the rhetoric of the orthodox historians, and
the disservice they do to history, see pages 6–21.
20. Gary Wills said the era should have been named (“genetically”) “Tru-
manism,” since Truman instituted the loyalty oaths (Scoundrel Time, 21).
21. Carl Marzani, The Education of a Reluctant Radical, 4 vols. (New York:
Topical, 1992–95). Gornick presumably offered everyone pseudonyms as late as
the 1970s.
22. “Only two” satirizes the tendency of historians of Communism, even the
“new” historians, to construct locutions or comparisons in which what readers
are meant to be surprised by is not the high number of punishments successfully
infl icted by the government during this period, but the lowness of the number.
“Only 253 aliens were officially deported . . . between 1946 and 1966” and “only
28 of the 145 party leaders indicted under the Smith Act actually served prison
sentences,” writes Schrecker (“McCarthyism,” 131). “Only 13 political denatural-
ization actions succeeded between 1945–56,” says Caute (Great Fear, 227). Even
if the point is the weakness of the government’s case, or the effectiveness of the
victims’ lawyers, there could be another way of phrasing it.
23. Ellen Schrecker is quoted in Irene Sege, “Bittersweet Remembrance,”
saying, “She [Ethel] was killed because the government wanted to pressure her
husband to confess” (Boston Globe, 19 June 2003).
24. Blanche Wiesen Cook, “The Rosenbergs and the Crime of the Century,”
in Secret Agents, ed. Marjorie Garber and Judith L. Walkowitz (New York: Rout-
ledge, 1995), 25.
25. On the uselessness of the sketch, the government agreed soon after the
trial. The general in charge of Los Alamos said early on that the data “was of
minor value. I would never say that publically” (Michael Meeropol, ed., The
Rosenberg Letters: A Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel
Rosenberg [New York: Garland, 1994], lx–lxi, xxx).

128 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

26. Cole, “New McCarthyism”; Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthy-
ism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
27. In this experiment, judges reminded of their own death set an average
bond [for an alleged prostitute] of $455, while other judges not so reminded set it
at $50 (Jeff Greenberg, Jeff Schimel, and Andy Mertens, “Ageism: Denying the
Face of the Future,” in Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons, ed.
Todd D. Nelson [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002], 35).
28. David Wellman, “Mistaken Identities,” in Red Diapers, ed. Judy Kaplan
and Linn Shapiro (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 174–75.
29. Ivy Meeropol, conversation in Boston after a showing of her fi lm, Heir to
an Execution: A Granddaughter’s Story, 6 June 2004.
30. Dorothy M. Zellner, “Proletaria and Me,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red
Diapers, 87.
31. Cook, “Rosenbergs and the Crime of the Century,” 25.
32. Belfrage, Un-American Activities, 175.
33. Zellner, “Proletaria and Me,” 86.
34. Rachel Fast Ben-Avi, “A Memoir,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red Diapers,
35. Stephanie Allen, “When Life Was a Party,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red
Diapers, 117–18.
36. Kearney, Defensive Strategies of Red Diaper Babies, especially 28, 40, 44,
45, 62.
37. Kim Chernin, “From In My Mother’s House,” in Kaplan and Shapiro,
Red Diapers, 164; Ilana Girard Singer, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” in Kaplan and
Shapiro, Red Diapers, 196.
38. Dalton Trumbo, in Fariello, Red Scare, 66.
39. Fariello, Red Scare, 25. Cole gives the details of the Justice Department’s
program and congressional action to fund the detention centers in “The New
McCarthyism,” part C, “Emergency Administrative Detention.”
40. Belfrage, Un-American Activities.
41. Diana Anhalt, “Resuscitating Corpses: Memories of Political Exile in
Mexico,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red Diapers, 177.
42. The figure of two thousand comes from Vivian Gornick, The Romance of
American Communism (New York: Basic, 1977), 96. She includes some painful tes-
timonies of life underground. For others who went into hiding or left the country
voluntarily, see Kaplan and Shapiro, Red Diapers, 60, 132, 177.
43. Huggins, quoted in Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Viking,
1980), 260, 262.
44. Quoted in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Tender Comrades: A Back-
story of the Hollywood Blacklist (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 120.
45. Dorothy Healey reports on these threats in Fariello, Red Scare, 94, 224.
She was on the Security Index. On Bernstein’s mother’s poker game, see Loyalties,
32. Gary Wills calls the FBI “bloated and ideologized” (Scoundrel Time, 17).
46. Gornick, Romance of American Communism, 146.
47. Bridges, in Fariello, Red Scare, 61.
48. Randall Kennedy, “Contrasting Fates of Repression,” in Garber and
Walkowitz, Secret Agents, 271.
49. Quoted in Alan Wald, “When Black Writers Were on the Left,” Socialism
and Democracy 17 (2003): 246.

Suppressing Grief 129

50. Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett, Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical
(Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), 315.
51. The point about the roles of political parties in modern mass politics is
from Eric Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries (New York: New American Library, 1973),
52. Hirsch, OHAL Series 4, 24.
53. Nelson, in Fariello, Red Scare, 212.
54. Quoted in Gornick, Romance of American Communism, 120. Gornick gave
all her people pseudonyms. “Eric Lanzetti” is probably Carl Marzani, who pub-
lished his autobiographies in the 1990s.
55. Irving Howe, Socialism and America (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jova-
novich, 1985), 95, 99.
56. Hellman, Scoundrel Time, 121.
57. Quoted in Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with
Documents (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s, 1994), 104.
58. Jerry Frug, “McCarthyism and Critical Legal Studies,” Harvard Civil
Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review 22 (1987): 675, citing Schrecker’s No Ivory
59. Quoted in Gornick, Romance of American Communism, 197.
60. Interview with Rose Krysak, OHAL, Series 4, transcripts of Seeing Red,
61. Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men (New York: Anchor, 1967), 440.
62. Junius Scales, in Fariello, Red Scare, 228.
63. Interview with David Freidman, OHAL, Series 4, transcripts of Seeing
Red, 9. The spelling of his name may be a transcription error.
64. M. Wesley Swearinger, in Fariello, Red Scare, 97.
65. Belfrage, Un-American Activities, 130.
66. Joyce Antler, “A Bond of Sisterhood,” in Garber and Walkowitz, Secret
Agents, 206n25, 203–7. See also in the same volume, Ashe, 217–18, and Meeropol,
67. Philip Weiss, “Secrets and Lies,” Nation, 14 July 2003. Weiss even asks
(page 30) why Meeropol does not forgive his uncle (who changed his testimony
to incriminate his sister, Ethel).
68. Quoted in David Thorburn, “The Rosenberg Letters,” in Garber and
Walkowitz, Secret Agents, 180.
69. Allen, “When Life Was a Party.”
70. Anna Kaplan, “Born Underground,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red Diapers,
71. Albert Vetere Lannon, “Commiebastid,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red
Diapers, 73.
72. Dick Levins, “Touch Red,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red Diapers, 263.
73. Rachel Fast Ben-Avi, “A Memoir,” in Kaplan and Shapiro, Red Diapers,
74. Thorburn, “Rosenberg Letters,” 179.
75. Alfred Kazin, New York Jew (New York: Vintage, 1978), 285, 291. He
was echoing the critic Robert Warshow, writing in the 1950s. Both were reading a
corrupt text. Warshow suspected that it had been distorted by the fi rst editors.
76. Roy Huggins, quoted in Navasky, Naming Names, 262.
77. Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York:
Routledge, 1989), 29, 30–37.

130 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

78. Gornick, Romance of American Communism, 11.
79. Quoted or paraphrased by Chris Trumbo in Fariello, Red Scare, 65.
80. Dalton Trumbo, Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942–62
(New York: Evans, 1970), 338–39.
81. Meeropol, Rosenberg Letters, 174, 176. The reference to “people who solved
their own problems by lying about us” is to Ethel’s brother David Greenberg and
his wife.
82. Stephen Leberstein, “Purging the Profs: The Rapp Coudert Committee
in New York, 1940–1942,” in Brown et al., New Studies, 119.
83. Barnet, in Fariello, Red Scare, 361.
84. Helen Manfull, preface to Trumbo, Additional Dialogue, 16.
85. J. Hoberman, “Hollywood Blacklist,” Lincoln Center Theater Review,
spring/summer 2003, 335.
86. Antler, “Bond of Sisterhood,” 212.
87. Belfrage, Un-American Activities, 247.
88. See, for example, Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in
America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998), 412–13.
89. Quoted in Jonathan Mirksy, “Wartime Lies,” New York Review of Books,
9 October 2003, 46.

Suppressing Grief 131

Copying Kill Bill

Holding a pirated VCD copy of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (dir. Quentin Tarantino, Laikwan Pang
2003) that he found on a Beijing street, U.S. Commerce Secretary Don
Evans solemnly warned the Chinese government in his Beijing press
conference: “We have been patient but our patience is wearing thin.”1
Evans was on the mission to coerce the Chinese government to further
open its markets for American products and services; this economic mis-
sion was a crucial item in George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, and
Evans chose to attract media’s attention and solicit the American people’s
identification by picking up on a pirated Hollywood fi lm as the ultimate
symbol of China’s disrespect of fair trade in general and the country’s
robbery of American wealth specifically. The VCD copy, according to
Evans, was found all over Beijing, yet the fi lm had begun its fi rst run in
movie theaters in the United States just two weeks before and was not
available in U.S. stores in video or DVD format. Evans told members of
the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing that “it didn’t take long.
In the last twenty-four hours, I was able to purchase a CD on the streets
of Beijing.”2 As Evans had arrived in Beijing only the afternoon before,
his assertion simply implies that hitting the streets of the capital to locate
a bootlegged version of a recent big-hit Hollywood fi lm was the fi rst, and
probably the most important, task for this high-profi le China visit. With
a pirated fi lm in hand, Evans could praise American creativity, criticize
protectionism, defend globalization, celebrate market liberalization, and
curse political authoritarianism all at the same time. The bootlegged Kill
Bill VCD effectively condensed a basket of capitalist ideology into one
sublime object.
Behind this sublime object is the American interest and power gov-
erning the current copyright discourse. As Ngai-Ling Sum demonstrates,
“New narratives such as the ‘copyright story’ and new data such as ‘piracy
statistics’ enable the self and the others [of the United States] to be rede-
fi ned. Once classified as ‘copyright partners’ or ‘copyright enemies’ (i.e.,
pirates), countries then either join the ranks of ‘most-favored nations’ or
are placed on the U.S. ‘Watch List.’”3 While Hollywood—as revealed in
Kill Bill, which I discuss below—is itself a major pirate of global trends
and tropes, it is always the accuser against other countries for violating

Social Text 83, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press.
Hollywood works, as it forges a national cinema through the construction
of its enemies.
Film scholars have repeatedly stressed the difficulties of conceptual-
izing the structure and practice of national cinema because of the trans-
national nature of today’s cinema—in terms of fi nancing, production, and
reception.4 Although widely used, the concept of national cinema is often
more a convenient hypothesis than a real practice of fi lmmaking and fi lm
viewing.5 An uncritical use of national cinema is also often accused of being
ignorant of “nation” as an illusive and oppressive concept.6 There is, how-
ever, still a legitimate academic use of national cinema: as a hypothetical
model against Hollywood.7 Hollywood, therefore, is always the opposite of
national cinema, both in terms of its own transnational nature and its hege-
monic position condemned as the enemy of all national cinemas. But rela-
tively few have discussed if Hollywood can be considered a “national” cin-
ema. Focusing on Kill Bill, I want to complicate the national-transnational
dynamics of Hollywood on two dimensions: its transnational textual
appropriation and its global distribution, both of which are protected and
complicated by the U.S-centric copyright discourse. To situate the global
status of Hollywood textually and contextually, I am interested in exploring
how Kill Bill is understood as “copy” on the levels of both representation
and industrial product; I also want to analyze how the copyright discourse,
although a handy and powerful tool for Hollywood to reinforce its global
interests, always fails to fully control the global cinemascape precisely
because a fi lm is not only an industrial product but also a complex system
of representation.

Copyrighting Hollywood

Scholars have reminded us that Hollywood’s hegemony is maintained

by many industrial mechanisms that regulate its transnational markets,
capitals, and labors. Most of its revenue comes from its international mar-
kets, which continue to be fed back to the cinematic apparatus to mold
the global taste according to a fantasized American standard. The media
conglomeration process begun in 1985 also made all the major studios
transnational. 8 There has been an exodus of production from Los Ange-
les to anglophone countries with lower production costs.9 But Holly-
wood’s “transnationality” describes only its investment and production;
the brand name continues to be American. In other words, Hollywood’s
“transnationality,” which traverses both its production and its market,
only reinforces the American control. As Toby Miller and others in
Global Hollywood summarize the contradiction between labor and control:

134 Laikwan Pang

“There are highly-developed efficiencies available from a skilled working
class in places that nevertheless continue to import what is made on ‘their’
territory—but never under their control.”10
A major player sustaining the order of this transnational control is
the copyright discourse. The underlying logic of the universal application
of copyright is its indifference to the nationalities of the products and
parties involved, yet both Hollywood as a cultural product and copyright
as a global political discourse are fi lled with national interests. While
Americans are bringing legal actions against everybody for copyright
infringements, almost no producers outside the United States fi le lawsuits
against the American studios for related matters. In an interview I asked
Lawrence Ka Hee Wong, director of fi lm-physical production of Shaw
Brothers, about the “Shaw Scope Wide Screen” title card that appeared
in Kill Bill: Vol. 1.11 Wong disclosed that Tarantino’s Super Cool ManChu
production company did contact Shaw for the title card. For similar cases
Shaw would need to watch the fi lm before it made the decision; but for
the case of Kill Bill, Shaw was so honored by this credit that it released
the copyright without watching the fi lm beforehand. In fact, as Wong
revealed, Shaw originally wanted Tarantino’s production company to put
the credits in words instead of indirectly through the Wide Screen title
card. However, Super Cool ManChu refused the request based on some
alleged artistic concerns, and Shaw happily conceded.
Secretary Evans’s arrogance and Wong’s humbleness reveal one
interesting feature in the present copyright discourse governing the fi lm
industry: America’s dominant position versus the rest of the world. This
copyright discourse has a strong national tag: people believe that the
United States is the leader of the copyright discourse and thus should be
held up as the standard to which all other countries’ copyright protection
should aspire. Unlike the situation in Hollywood, the increasing global
popularity of Hong Kong cinema has not led Hong Kong’s major studios,
such as Shaw, to seek more copyright of their works. To my surprise,
Lawrence Wong revealed that Shaw never seriously investigates if the
copyright of its works is being encroached on, particularly by Hollywood’s
productions. Hollywood, according to Wong, is a trustworthy enterprise, as
shown in some previous cases when Hollywood producers properly sought
copyright permissions from Shaw.
It does not mean that Shaw has no copyright concepts. In fact, Wong
complained that the copyright legal protection in Hong Kong is very weak,
so Shaw registers the copyrights of its fi lms not in Hong Kong but in the
United States. Wong believes that things related to copyright “always”
work properly in the States. According to Wong, the only legal copyright
case Shaw has ever launched took place in 1971, when its major rival

Copying Kill Bill 135

The United States Golden Harvest brought Wang Yu and the Japanese star Shintaro Katsu
together to make the fi lm The Blind Swordsman Meets His Equal (Shin
is both the leader Zatôichi: Yabure! Tojin-ken; Dubidao dazhan mangxia) (dir. Kimiyoshi
Yasuda). Shaw fi led a suit against Golden Harvest’s production, saying
of world cinema that it infringed on Shaw’s earlier box-office hit One-Armed Swordsman
(Dubidao) (dir. Zhang Che, 1967), in which the title role is also played
and the owner of
by Wang Yu. According to Wong, this is the only legal case Shaw has
ever pursued involving copyright matters. The irony is that the image of
global copyright,
the one-armed swordsman is so frequently seen in Kill Bill that it almost
not only the becomes a parody, particularly in the case of the character Sofie, whose
arms are brutally chopped away, a violent act that symbolizes the desire of
copyright of The Bride (Beatrice Kiddo, or Black Mamba) to engineer the castration of
Bill.12 Arguably, Tarantino is consciously using and stealing the image and
products but also the symbolization of the one-armed swordsman for his own fi lm, which
to Shaw should be as “guilty” as Golden Harvest’s borrowing was thirty
the discourse of years ago. But, of course, the reference to Shaw fi lms in Kill Bill is read as
an honor instead of an infringement.
copyright itself. The underlying assumption is that Hollywood productions are superior
to the local ones both in terms of creativity and in the legal sense—only
Hong Kong plagiarizes Hollywood, and never vice versa. The United States
is both the leader of world cinema and the owner of global copyright, not
only the copyright of products but also the discourse of copyright itself.
As copyright discourse becomes an American diplomatic tool, the United
States as a nation and Hollywood as a culture industry composed mainly of
transnational corporations are confl ated into one single monolithic power
that defi nes what copyright is. Therefore the current copyright discourse
circulating in commercial fi lm industries is highly conscious of nationality,
but only in one direction, with American corporations accusing people
of other countries of infringing copyright. Under the protection of the
globally applicable yet U.S.-centric copyright discourse, the United States
is always the victim and, ironically, is legitimated to ask for revenge (similar
to The Bride in Kill Bill).
However, although today’s major cultural conglomerates effectively
manipulate copyright for their own interest, the ability of the legal discourse
to regulate the order of world cinema is less powerful than what Evans
would like it to be. A fi lm is not only a commodity but also a complex system
of cultural representation, in which cultural exchanges are so complex
that today’s copyright discourse can never clearly differentiate between
copyright infringement and cultural appropriations, as clearly shown in
Kill Bill. One interesting example that demonstrates the complexity and
contradictions of this “copyrighting” discourse of Hollywood is again the
“Shaw Scope Wide Screen” title card seen in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which as

136 Laikwan Pang

far as I know is included in versions for all regional markets. It is clearly
an indication of piracy; or, more correctly, it is against the trademark law.
But in this case, Tarantino’s piracy becomes an act of honor, because
the title card not only is a trademark but also calls attention to a specific
representation politics. The card differentiates those Shaw fans, like
Tarantino himself, against those, probably the majority of its viewers
who are teenagers in the West, who do not know Shaw fi lms. And the fi lm
would be read very differently by those viewers who recognize the Shaw
title card and those who do not. From Tarantino to Wong and the fans, the
title card is a secret code that marks a network of community, something
the copyright discourse never addresses or is equipped to understand. In
the following, I elaborate on the complexity of Hollywood as a national
cinema by focusing precisely on these two levels of cultural circulation in
Kill Bill: the legal copyright discourse defi ning and protecting the fi lm’s
commodity status, as well as its representation politics allowing it to be
embraced by viewers all over the world.

Idea Copying versus Product Copying

To understand the complicity between Hollywood and the copyright dis-

course serving it, I fi rst examine some of the fundamental principles of the
current copyright discourse. The present scope of intellectual properties
includes patents, trademarks, trade secrets, and copyright. While the fi rst
three protect business interests and can more easily be conceptualized within
legal discourse, copyright is ambiguous, as it aims to provide incentive to
create and distribute creative works, and therefore concerns the complex cul-
tural domain. A major foundation of today’s copyright discourse is the “idea-
expression” dichotomy, which upholds the universal right to freely access and
recycle ideas but prevents anyone from using creative expressions without the
consent of the copyright holders. An assumption behind this universal right
to access ideas is the limited number of ideas existing, so that everyone should
have access to them in order to continue to create new expressions, whose pos-
sibilities are infinite. Ideas are considered the taproot of all creativity; restrict-
ing them to the ownership of a few people harms the well-being of human civ-
ilization in general. But expressions are linked to creativity, which should be
protected. However, this idea-expression separation cannot be easily differ-
entiated, and it has created countless debates inside and outside courtrooms.
As the copyright legal expert William S. Stone claims, the differentiation
between idea and expression is riddled with ambiguities: “Many a court
has formulated an all-embracing theory, only to see it discarded by the next

Copying Kill Bill 137

Despite their legal complexity, many copyright-related issues about
commercial fi lmmaking could also be comprehended by translating this
idea-expression dichotomy to the differentiation between idea copying and
product copying. In the case of Kill Bill, for example, all the ideas being
appropriated, such as the graphic violence and action designs, in general
fall outside legal protection, and Hollywood, in this case, can freely use
ideas of other cinematic traditions without worrying about being sued.
Plagiarism, straightly speaking, is an ethical issue, not a legal one, as long
as it concerns the infringement of idea instead of expression.14 On the other
hand, piracy is direct product copying, which suggests no ambiguities in
the idea-expression dichotomy. Pirates are clearly parasitic to the existing
creative products and processes, as they introduce almost nothing new to
the product, with exceptions I discuss in the last section of this article.
Hollywood might always incorporate foreign ideas, which, however, are
rendered into new expressions, whose reproduction and distribution rights
are subsequently fully protected by copyright laws. The Hollywood pro-
ducers, while continuing to benefit from new ideas of other cinemas, have
all the legal and commercial rights they need to stop all kinds of piracy,
from video/disc to the Web.
The two poles of the idea-expression foundation of copyright dis-
course can be further linked to the practice of Hollywood fi lmmaking in
its basic production and distribution industrial structure: that the copy-
right discourse allows the producers to borrow ideas of other cinematic
traditions on the production levels while it strictly prohibits unauthorized
distributors (pirates) to make and sell the products. This logic makes
much sense in view of the economy of today’s culture industry, as most of
the investment goes into production rather than distribution, because of
high up-front costs and the relatively low cost of duplication. “[Copyright
protected] works all have in common what economists call a ‘public goods
aspect’ to them. Creating these works involves a good deal of money, time
and effort (sometimes called the ‘cost of expression’). Once created, how-
ever, the cost of reproducing the work is so low that additional users can
be added at a negligible or even zero cost.”15
Hollywood itself is exploiting this fi nancially uneven production-
distribution system, as the major studios are increasingly relying on smaller
production houses to make the movies more cheaply, while the major stu-
dios still directly control the distribution arms. As is widely known, among
the three major sectors of the movie industry—production, distribution,
and exhibition—Hollywood’s most profitable component is the distribu-
tion, specifically the global distribution. While independent producers
are responsible for the production of more fi lms than major Hollywood
studios, the majors are the only organizations that have a global network

138 Laikwan Pang

for the distribution of a movie, so that the small production houses must
collaborate with the major studios.16 Distribution, whether legal or illegal,
is where the profit is made in the movie business. Because of the weight of
profit in distribution, copyright law naturally developed around that area.
However, while both the Hollywood major distributors and the pirates
engage in the same relatively low-cost section of fi lmmaking—the distri-
bution—the current copyright is designed to protect the interests of the
Hollywood majors against the pirates. Combined with the government’s
painstaking diplomatic efforts, major Hollywood studios invest lavishly
in setting up various copyright enterprises, including the colossal Motion
Picture Association of America (MPAA), to chase after pirates, coerce
other countries to comply with copyright principles and policy, prove
infringement, and sanction copyright violators.
The originally nationality-blinded “idea-expression” principle ends
up fitting into and strengthening the present global wealth hierarchy, thus
legitimizing Hollywood, as a national cinema, to continue appropriating
and thereby reaping the benefits of any new ideas from other cinemas,
while piracy—product-expression copying—is criminalized, as most obvi-
ously shown in the gesture of Evans equating American interests with Kill
Bill. However, would there have been any difference if the disc Evans held
was a piece of computer software with an American brand rather than
a Hollywood fi lm? To Evans and the political ideology he represents, a
pirated fi lm and a pirated computer program produce the same political
signification: an American product being violated by another country. But
as a fi lm, Kill Bill is culturally more complex than a piece of computer soft-
ware, in the way that it is not only a commodity circulated transnationally
but also a system of representation itself composed of many transnational
“information flows.”
An example may help illustrate the point: in 1990 Hong Kong received
9.8 percent of New York’s total Federal Express exports, showing the
strong tie between the two global cities in the production and exchange of
higher order information.17 Sociologists have insistently pointed out that
today’s global economy is organized around command and control centers
coordinating and innovating the intertwined activities of fi rms, which,
according to Manuel Castells, can all be reduced to knowledge generation
and information flows.18 The global cities, of which Hong Kong is certainly
one, play the key role in facilitating transnational flows of knowledge and
information, which constitute the bedrock of the new global economy.19
Using this analogy, Kill Bill can be seen as transnational on two levels: that
the fi lm itself is one of these Federal Express parcels (as products) circu-
lating between different areas yet is also a creative combination of many
of these parcels (as ideas). Kill Bill is a uniquely rich text: not only does it

Copying Kill Bill 139

present itself as a hyperpluralistic fi lm with so many origins and sources
of influence that a clear remapping of these influences is impossible and
meaningless, but it could also be seen as a metacinematic text that self-
reflexively comments on the “appropriating” mechanism of Hollywood.
To understand the system of transnational circulation of Hollywood fi lms,
we cannot just read the fi lm as an inert commodity being thrown around
the world, we also need to examine the fi lm text itself, which reflects and
manipulates many cultural exchanges simultaneously. It is, I argue, on the
level of representation that copyright becomes the least pertinent, although
copyright rules precisely cover representations.

The Eternal Problem of Hollywood

The United States has become such a strong cultural power partly because
it was a pirate nation in the nineteenth century. Lawrence Lessig reminds
his American readers that “our outrage at China notwithstanding, we
should remember that before 1891, the copyrights of foreigners were not
protected in the United States. We were born a pirate nation.”20 Such
active pirating practices were particularly important to the development
of Hollywood in the beginning of the twentieth century, allowing it to
become the largest fi lm factory in the world. As Siva Vaidhyanathan dem-
onstrates, Hollywood transformed from copyright-poor to copyright-rich
during the twentieth century, as it shifted from its free and easy adapta-
tion of works from copyright-rich literary authors to become in itself a
global enterprise highly protective of its own works. 21 The thick copyright
protection the U.S. government is seeking globally does not mean that the
American culture industry need not “consult” the ideas of others. Quite
the contrary, Hollywood has always actively appropriated both ideas and
expressions of other cinematic traditions. As is well known, the U.S. fi lm
industry has always imported cultural workers from around the world for
their creative ideas, and it also usurps ideas directly from other cinematic
traditions. 22 The rapid and effective appropriation of other cinematic
traditions into its own might be, ironically, one major defi ning feature of
Hollywood as a national cinema.
As such a prolific culture industry producing hundreds of feature-
length fi lms annually, it is clear that Hollywood cannot afford the doctrine
of “originality.” Alan Williams identifies an eternal Hollywood problem:
“Where to get the basic narratives for the huge number of fi lms to be
made each year?”23 Kill Bill, consciously or not, foregrounds this eternal
Hollywood problem by stating almost explicitly the fi lm sources that it
borrows. In fact, few viewers would miss the “postmodernist” style of Kill

140 Laikwan Pang

Bill, which freely takes and parodies François Truffaut’s fi lm The Bride
Wore Black, blaxploitation fi lms, spaghetti westerns, Japanese samurai,
and, of course, Hong Kong action movies. Kill Bill is frank about this web
of “intertextuality,” as shown in the opening titles—one to Shaw Brothers
and one to Kinji Fukasaku—and the numerous pilfered soundtrack cues
clearly directed to the Japanese and Chinese fi lm traditions to which the
fi lm “pays homage.”
As many audiences would also notice, Bruce Lee is almost the god of
the fi lm, as seen in Uma Thurman’s yellow jumpsuit; the “House of Blue
Leaves” sequence, which clearly was modeled after the ending scene of
Fist of Fury (Jingwumen, dir. Luo Wei, 1972); the mask of the Crazy 88
team, which resembles that of Bruce Lee in Green Hornet; and the character
Bill, played by David Carradine, who starred in the U.S. television series
Kung Fu (1972–75) as Kwai Chang Caine, a series allegedly based on a
concept by Bruce Lee. Tarantino is honest about the influence of Hong
Kong movies on him. He admits in an interview about the fi nal “House
of Blue Leaves” sequence ending Volume 1 that

I didn’t write it as a stand-alone action scene. It was just like the whole rest
of the script. I was kinda working my way through it, you know. But when
I didn’t have a middle section, what I would do is I’d think of something I’d
seen in a cool Kung Fu movie. A cool moment that Samo Hung did in that
movie or Yu Wang did in that movie and let that be the space in between.
Then over the course of a year I’d constantly rewrite it and rewrite it until all
those things I’d take from other movies were gone and it was all fi lled with
original stuff, so that’s how I did that. 24

If Tarantino is a distinct cult fi gure representing American cinematic

creativity, this confession tells us partly how Hollywood creativity operates.
Although Tarantino claims his authorship by asserting his “rewriting”
process, the fi lm itself betrays that Tarantino has introduced relatively little
new to the sequence. Originality, according to this interview, is nothing
but free appropriation and transformation, which are retouched to the
point that viewers can no longer identify the originals. But an interesting
statement Kill Bill made, in relation to Tarantino’s comment on the fi lm,
is that we do see the originals everywhere in Kill Bill. As we all know,
the fi lm is choreographed by “Master” Yuen Wo Ping, whose work on
The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon drastically redefi ned the
fi lming of human actions in Hollywood. But Yuen, who himself is also
highly influenced by Japanese samurai fi lms and Hollywood westerns,
also choreographed many Hong Kong action fi lms, the fi lms to which Kill
Bill pays tribute and which it copies. Although in Kill Bill, particularly in
Volume 1, many of the actions are supposed to be Japanese samurai fighting

Copying Kill Bill 141

instead of Hong Kong kung fu, the actions are almost all identical to ones
seen in Yuen’s earlier productions. While Yuen remakes his own works,
Kill Bill is a Hollywood remake of Hong Kong fi lms, which themselves
remade Japanese and Hollywood fi lms: it becomes difficult to differentiate
between homage, parody, or simple knockoffs.
Transnational borrowing also helps facilitate Hollywood’s global
receptions. As many scholars have demonstrated, Hollywood’s cultural
imperialism is built on an effective appropriation or copying of transnational
ideas. 25 The mythologized American nationality portrayed in Hollywood
fi lms is made possible through a narrative structure that tends to produce
plural meanings to suit different viewers, encouraging diverse populations
to read them as though they are indigenous. These narratives have meaning
to so many different cultures because they allow viewers in those cultures to
project their own values, archetypes, and tropes into the fi lms. Instead of
debauching a unified national identity, such diversification of meanings
holds a fantasized Americanness together.
Hollywood cannot but continue to copy ideas and expressions from
other cinemas in order to maintain its annual output and global domination.
However, while Hollywood actively appropriates and benefits from foreign
cinematic creations or production environments, the American people watch
fewer and fewer foreign fi lms. David Desser illustrates a new cinephilic
culture beginning in the 1980s when video stores sprang up around the
world, and when new fi lm thugs, like Tarantino himself, watched the many
foreign fi lms that in the end turned him and others into a new generation
of fi lmmakers. 26 Tarantino admits that he is heavily influenced by Hong
Kong martial arts movies of Angela Mao and Li Hanxiang, both in terms of
themes, like female revenge, and fi lm style, like the bird’s-eye view, which
can both be found in Kill Bill. 27 Desser rightly points out that new carriers,
including videos and later DVDs, and the new Web culture helped shape
a new generation of cinephilists who are able to watch foreign fi lms rather
systematically. But in contrast to this cinephilia culture, the American
people in general are watching fewer foreign movies, at least in terms of
theatrical attendance. In the mid-1970s, foreign fi lms accounted for 10
percent of box-office receipts. Two decades later, the number had fallen to
0.5 percent. 28 As Peter Wollen concluded about Hollywood’s global reign,
“American dominance . . . [is] harmful not simply to everyone else in the
global market but also, above all, to America itself.”29
Tarantino is defi nitely one of those self-selected die-hard fans of Asian
cinema, and it took him a lot of effort in studying and enjoying many
Asian movies to come up with fi lms like Kill Bill. 30 But the new cinephilia
Desser describes, to which Tarantino belongs, remains the pursuit of a
small population. Most American viewers watching Tarantino’s fi lms know

142 Laikwan Pang

little about Asian cinemas in general. Or what they have is a generic image
of Asian cinema, composed of speed, violence, and exoticism, for which
Hollywood is largely responsible.
If Kill Bill, or Hollywood in general, benefits from its free appropriation
of foreign cinematic practices, a major problem that results is a cultural
confl ation among the different cinemas and cultures that it appropriates.
People are attracted to Kill Bill by its diffused Asianness, in which the
Japanese and Chinese fi lmic traditions merge into an undistinguished
whole, although the hilarious Master Pai Mei in Volume 2 does remind
viewers of the racism in Hong Kong cinema against the Japanese. The fi lm
is clearly too self-reflexive for us to believe that Tarantino is so confused
by the two distinct cinematic cultures to misread one as the other. Instead,
working along the Generation X mentality, everything is there to be
mocked, including both Hollywood itself and the Asian cinemas to which
the fi lm supposedly pays tribute.
As a result, neither the Japanese nor the Hong Kong cinemas being
credited in Kill Bill remained unified. The climactic Japanese restaurant
“House of Blue Leaves” scene in Volume 1 was fi lmed in Beijing.31 According
to Tarantino, there are three main advantages of this location: “The Beijing
team of master Woo Ping, the Crazy 88; a vividness and invigoration of
Chinese cinema that Tarantino aspires to; and shooting in the Chinese
way, i.e., lame concept of scheduling.”32 Clearly, Tarantino is attracted to
the Hong Kong way of fi lmmaking, from the skilled labor (Yuen Wo Ping
and his crews) to daily logistics (the lame scheduling). But the distinct
Hong Kong fl avors correspond not only to the production logic behind
the scene but also to the general tone of the fi lm. The architecture of this
Japanese restaurant is so un-Japanese (despite the few Japanese icons such
as flower arrangements) that it resembles less a Japanese restaurant than
the traditional Chinese teahouse or motel (kezhan) so often seen in Shaw
costume pictures, with flying bodies freely tossed away from the second
floor to the foyer. Deliberate or not, the fi lm is full of such Japanese-Chinese
confl ation. It inserts a “Shaw Scope” title card in the fi lm’s beginning,
while the fi lm is supposed to be an homage to Kinji Fukasaku. Lucy Liu,
who is a Chinese American, portrays O-Ren Ishii (Cottonmouth), queen
of the Tokyo underworld. Combining Japanese animation (anime) and
the Hong Kong style of kung fu, Kill Bill can be seen as distinguishably
American, as it is neither Japanese nor Hong Kong. As James Steintrager
claims, for the cult phenomenon of Hong Kong cinema in the United
States, “We are led to infer that the fan’s biggest crime is really that he does
not care for the hermeneutic task of understanding the other at all.”33
However, I am not condemning this plagiaristic, or parasitic, practice of
Tarantino, in the same way that Steintrager reminds us not to use cultural

Copying Kill Bill 143

criticism to legitimize a “right” kind of spectatorship against the “wrong”
kinds.34 It is unproductive and ignorant to hold onto individual cinematic
traditions as discrete and independent, as we all know that they, like all
national cinemas in the world, mutually influence each other constantly.
If Kill Bill plagiarizes Hong Kong cinema, Hong Kong cinema has often
plagiarized Hollywood and other cinemas. Plagiarism is not only an eternal
problem of Hollywood but also an eternal problem of cinema as a culture
industry, which always works hard to maintain the pseudo-individualization
of its indeed very standardized products. Kill Bill is unique largely because
it highlights instead of conceals such acts of plagiarism.
While the climactic fi ghting scene in the Japanese restaurant is
distinctly Hong Kong, the Shaw kung fu style developed in the 1960s and
1970s was highly indebted to Japanese cinema. The two most distinct Hong
Kong cinematic entities Kill Bill refers to are Shaw Brothers and Bruce
Lee, which in their own ways are connected to Japan. 35 The 1970s Shaw
Brothers Tarantino pays homage to was a quintessential dream factory,
which produced a steady output of formulaic fi lms in the most efficient
and effective way. If it is famous for Hollywood to recruit foreign talents
to support its empire, Shaw ran the same way during its peak. The studio
was engaged in elaborate cooperation with Japanese studios, fi lmmakers,
and talents beginning in the 1950s, and the recruits included masters
like Mizoguchi Kenji, who directed Princess Yang Kwei Fei in 1955, and
some less famous but highly talented Japanese directors, such as Inoue
Umetsugu, to station in Hong Kong to produce standardized generic
works. 36 In fact, it was the Japanese cinematographer Nishimoto Tadashi
who patented the Shaw Scope Wide Screen process, 37 whose title card was
shown in the beginning of Volume 1. The several rapid zoom ins on Pai Mei
in Volume 2 so clearly calling viewers’ attentions to Shaw fi lms was also
likely a technique Zhang Che and his generation of Hong Kong fi lmmakers
learned from Japanese costume epics (Jidaigeki) on fi lm and in television
dramas. 38 Li Hanxiang’s famous “bird’s-eye fi ghting shot” that fascinates
Tarantino, who reproduced it in Kill Bill, can also be found in Japanese
cinema as early as 1943 in Akira Kurosawa’s fi rst fi lm, Sanshiro Sugata.
On the other hand, the fi lms of Bruce Lee also have a strong Japanese
dimension. As I have mentioned earlier, the “House of Blue Leaves” sequence
is modeled after the ending scene of Fist of Fury, in which the space—
shifting through the Japanese sliding doors—gives both Thurman and Lee
different layers of spatial and emotional dimensions. We must notice that
while Fist of Fury preaches an anti-Japanese sentiment, the fi lm appropriates
a lot of Japanese cinematic stylistics, particularly from the samurai fi lms,
partly reflecting the practice of Hong Kong cinema at that time. Bruce Lee
himself, of whom Uma Thurman’s yellow jumpsuit and Asics Tiger shoes

144 Laikwan Pang

unmistakably remind us, also incorporated Japanese martial arts into his
Jeet Kune Do. The yellow jumpsuit allegedly represents no specific style of
martial arts, but it gives the wearing subject the freedom and power to adapt
to any form of fighting, which might also accurately describe Hollywood
as a national cinema. In other words, Thurman’s gender-ambiguous Lee
look could be seen as the sublimed cultural symbol of “having no style
as style.” Since Hong Kong cinema always freely appropriates ideas and
expressions from other cinematic or cultural traditions, the sources that
Kill Bill plagiarizes are not “original” as such. When advertising Volume
1 in London, Tarantino explained to British reporters his favored style
of movie making: “I like movies about people who break rules, who are
mavericks.”39 The yellow jumpsuit may represent precisely such an attitude
of rule breaking. But what are the rules to break? In what ways can cultural
appropriation with such elaborate intertextuality be seen as rule breaking, or
rule abiding? Or is the question “who is copying whom” still a meaningful
one in today’s global culture industry, which has to be fed by the rapid
recycling of ideas and expressions?
Notwithstanding its diverse sources of appropriation, Kill Bill, however,
is not a metatextual celebration of Hong Kong and Japanese cinema; the
fi lms being appropriated are as honored as defamed. I must emphasize
here that such a “dialogic” system of mutual borrowing is not necessarily
egalitarian and receptive, as literary critics such as Mikhail Bakhtin would
suggest.40 Instead, violence is often involved in every act of appropriation
and alternation, particularly in commercial cinema. According to Thomas
Leitch, remakes in the end always deny their originals. “Although remakes
by defi nition base an important part of their appeal on the demonstrated
ability of a preexisting story to attract an audience, they are often
competing with the very fi lms they invoke.”41 According to Leitch, the
fundamental rhetorical problem of remakes is to mediate between two
apparently irreconcilable claims: that the remake is just like its model, yet
that it is better. Leitch calls this paradox disavowal: the combination of
acknowledgment and repudiation in a single ambivalent gesture.42
If Kill Bill is a remake paying homage to the Asian fi lms it alludes to, it
is also an update and a transcultural rewrite of Asian cinema for serving and
entertaining a new generation of American and global audience members.
The remake, therefore, implicitly criticizes the original as outmoded,
which in this case would mean that the white woman Uma Thurman is
more relevant to today’s fi lm viewers than the Asian male Bruce Lee. In
other words, by so stylistically calling attention to Bruce Lee, as shown in
the highlighting of his yellow jumpsuit, Tarantino is also calling attention
to Bruce Lee’s datedness. It is only through Tarantino’s remake, or parody,
that Bruce Lee can still be “fun.” As Leitch comments, many of Hollywood’s

Copying Kill Bill 145

remakes of foreign fi lms are imperialistic, as the goal of the remake “is to
translate not a language but a culture.”43 The Hollywood remake tries to
tame the uncompromising, difficult, and ultimately unresponsive elements
of the original fi lms to the demands of American consumers. In the case of
Kill Bill, despite the same jumpsuit, Thurman is purged of the animalistic
nature of Bruce Lee: she kills because her child is killed, while the narcissist
Lee kills often for the sake of self-performance and self-mythologization.44
Although in Volume 2 Bill reminds The Bride that she is obsessed with
killing, at the end she happily recedes to the mother role she has so much
desired. In the fi nal scene of Fist of Fury, Lee hops into the camera, posing
a direct confrontation with the viewers; in contrast, Thurman smiles gently
and romantically at the ends of both volumes, a gesture that tames all the
previous anger she shows in the fi lms.45
Therefore the kind of transnational cinematic appropriation shown in
Kill Bill is more than a cobweb of intertextuality that few contemporary
cultural productions could avoid; it also reveals necessary blending of
cultural specificities in the mutual copying of ideas in today’s commercial
cinema, on which Hollywood as a (trans)national cinema is based. Holly-
wood cinema constantly borrows elements from other national cinemas,
but at the same time the cultural identities of these details are deliberately
confused and diffused. These foreign influences, which themselves are not
culturally pure to start with, are either concealed by Hollywood packaging
or highlighted as cultural gimmicks, which are put back in the market to
be consumed by viewers all over the world.

Piracy and Its Demystification of

Hollywood’s (Trans)Nationality

If the eternal problem of Hollywood, as Alan Williams claims, is to fi nd

new fi lm expressions, copyright also becomes its eternal problem, as
copyright supposedly prevents people’s free appropriation of cultural
creativities. The biggest irony, of course, is that the current copyright
discourse ends up protecting Hollywood but not protecting the sources
it appropriates. Despite the extremely complex politics of transcultural
appropriations in Kill Bill, Secretary Evans is able to resort to the total-
izing discourse of copyright to forge the fi lm as a national product. Seeing
piracy as an economic crime, the American movie industry is determined
to annihilate it as a production and distribution system outside the control
of the U.S.-centric cinema order.
We can go back to the pirated disc of Kill Bill that Evans held in his
hand to discuss why movie piracy is so threatening to Hollywood. I also

146 Laikwan Pang

picked up a pirated DVD version of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in an obscure shop-
ping mall in Hong Kong, which might reveal partly how this Hollywood
(trans)national identity works. The visual quality of the DVD was quite
satisfactory, and its prompt availability indicated that the version was taken
from a screener copy, leaked out during the postproduction process.46
Despite the good visual and audio quality of the pirated disc that very
much resembles official copies, one major element defi ning the unique
pirated-Hollywood-movie-watching experience is the ridiculous subtitles.
While the pirates try to invest as little as they can in their businesses, they
are the distributors of these pirated fi lms and have to assume one major
duty: dubbing or subtitling. The screener copies that serve as the master
version usually do not provide subtitles yet. So the subtitles in the pirated
copies are interesting on the grounds that, fi rst, they are the most obvious
components the pirates add on the product, and, second, they demonstrate
how people outside the United States understand Hollywood fi lms.
Predictably, we run into translations of very low quality in pirated
fi lms. The results are sometimes incredible, with subtitles suggesting little
of, or sometimes meanings opposite to, the real dialogues, thereby subvert-
ing the meanings of the story. One interesting mistranslation I found in my
pirated Kill Bill DVD is in the scene of the kitchen of Vernita Green (Cop-
perhead), when the two fi ghting women are taking a break after Green’s
daughter comes back home from school. The dialogue between the two is
as follows (copied from the subtitles of the official DVD version):

Green: “You bitch, I need to know if you will gonna starting more shit around
my baby girl.”
The Bride: “You can relax for now, I’m not going to murder you in front of
your child, ok?”
Green: “I guess you are more rational than Bill led me to believe you are
capable of.”
The Bride: “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness that I lack, not

But the subtitles of the pirated version translate the dialogue as follows:

Green: “You bitch, never want to hurt my daughter.”

The Bride: “Can we have a chat? I won’t hurt your child.”
Green: “I can’t believe you have such a temper.”
The Bride: “That’s my way, passion; not nationality.”47

This set of subtitles, as clearly shown, corresponds little to the real dia-
logues, and even suggests incorrect information, as The Bride originally
says she does not have any passion, while the subtitles of the pirated ver-

Copying Kill Bill 147

This beautiful sion suggest otherwise. These kinds of subtitling mistakes are everywhere
in pirated movies, sometimes to the extent that the story line becomes
American lady has incomprehensible. But the most astonishing mistake in this clip is the
term “nationality” replacing “rationality.” The viewers do know that
been too violent The Bride is an American, and the nationality she refers to would be her
American identity. So she is really saying: “Yes, I am a rude person, in
to comply with
spite of my American nationality, which is supposed to make me other-
wise.” Not grasping the dialogue, the interpreter has to rely on his or her
the stereotypical
prior cultural assumptions—the American people, at least seemingly, are
Chinese reading not rude—to make sense of the scene. In the fi lm, this beautiful American
lady has been too violent to comply with the stereotypical Chinese read-
of the American ing of the American people, for which Hollywood is partly responsible.
This subtitle translation demonstrates that no matter how much Kill Bill
people. . . . No incorporates features of other cinematic traditions to become a global
product, the American tag is always in its global receptions.
matter how There is another subtitle mistake in the pirated Kill Bill. In the end-
ing scene of the “House of Blue Leaves” sequence, The Bride is engaged
much Kill Bill in the fi nal fi ght with O-Ren Ishii in the snowy backyard. Ishii hits The
Bride in her back, and The Bride is seriously wounded and dying. Ishii
says, “Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with samurai sword. You may not
features of be able to fi ght like a samurai; but you are going to die like a samurai.” But
the subtitle says: “Like the sun-rising flesh blood, your attack is just like the
other cinematic blazing sun of the summer; because that’s your style.” Unlike the earlier
section, in this scene The Bride’s ethnicity/nationality is repressed instead
traditions to of highlighted in the pirated version. The effect is very different: while the
original line presents itself as a self-reflexive metacriticism of the fi lm, or of
become a global Hollywood in general, the pirated version maintains a poetic general tone,
highlighting not the individuality of The Bride but the general cultural
product, the feelings of samurai–kung fu cinema: the “your style” mentioned here can
refer to the general style of samurai fi lms. So that while the earlier set of
American tag
translation mistakes highlights the concealed American identity of the
fi lm, this second set of mistakes evades its cultural identity.
is always in its
But these two sets of subtitling mistakes reveal a common logic of
global receptions. the cultural reception of Hollywood cinema in general—the extremely
diversified local readings. Subtitling is in fact a critical component in the
global circulation of fi lms, specifically in the context of Hollywood being
“properly” received globally. Notwithstanding the increasing weight of
spectacles, the story line of a Hollywood fi lm is still largely conveyed
through dialogue, which is spoken most of the time in English. Proper and
effective translation seems to be intrinsic to Hollywood’s global regime,
which, however, is the only feature that piracy cannot directly copy. At
times when the translator/viewer fails to grasp the exact dialogue, he or

148 Laikwan Pang

she adds in his or her own interpretation to complete the meanings. In the
fi rst set of mistakes shown above, the translator adds in his or her readings
of American femaleness; in the second case, while the translator misses
the wittiness, or the specific auteur mark, of Tarantino, he or she substi-
tutes for it a general cultural feeling of Japanese–Hong Kong swordplay.
In both cases, the translator relies on his or her own imagination to reach
the missing meanings of the American product. These subtitling mistakes
reveal that diversified readings are always at work in the receptions of Hol-
lywood fi lms. Such diversified local readings are defi nitely not allowed to
be manifested in the official version.
However, no matter how important such diversified local readings are
for Hollywood fi lms to access different markets, they are not allowed to
be manifested in the official versions. Translations of the dialogues are
standardized around the world, and distributors would generally not allow
regional markets to include their own taste and values to alter the original
dialogues. The “creative” subtitling of pirated movies reveals a nightmare
of Hollywood’s global marketing, whose main task, among others, is to
efface the diversified transnational receptions by forging the unity of the
product, so that its major story line and dialogues are the same globally.48
This homogenizing effect is fabricated not only in Hollywood productions
but also in international fi lms whose distribution rights major Hollywood
studios acquired. Miramax, for example, both sells American fi lms in other
countries and buys the copyrights of foreign fi lms for the U.S. market, very
much overseeing and engineering the entire global fi lm flow. While the
Hollywood distributors seldom alter their American fi lms to be screened
in different parts of the world, they always alter the foreign fi lms they
purchase in order to cater to the American market. There has been a Web
petition appealing to Disney, which owns Miramax and Dimension Films,
to cease altering Hong Kong fi lms that they distribute, particularly in their
irresponsible editing. As the petition’s statement claims, “The movies
often have footage removed by Disney because they consider it objection-
able (violence, drug use, etc.), because it contains Chinese/Asian cultural
and/or political references which North American viewers may not fully
understand, or (most often) simply because they want to make the movie
shorter and/or change its pacing.”49 In fact, Disney claims exclusive distri-
bution rights for many Asian fi lms not only in the United States but also
in many parts of the world, thus deciding how these Asian fi lms should
be watched worldwide.50 A major rationale behind the alterations done to
the original fi lms to be shown internationally is the comprehension ability
of the American audience, so that the world is watching the Hong Kong
fi lms in the versions supposedly most comfortable for American viewers.
Pirated fi lms might be able to escape this total Hollywood control,

Copying Kill Bill 149

so that global viewers could resort to pirated Hong Kong fi lms to bypass
the mediation of U.S. distributors. However, we cannot consider piracy
subversive at all. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the cultural meanings of
movie piracy are precisely not its implications of (anti-)capitalist will and
discipline but its dissemination and disorder. Movie piracy can be seen as
the largest crime collectively committed by the people against the authority
of both the state and the capital. But this piracy by no means creates a
self-empowerment of the people. Piracy demonstrates a lack of authorship,
and a lack of authority, rules, and discipline.51 Producing and watching
pirated movies must not be romanticized as guerrilla warfare against media
conglomerates; the pirating industry itself maintains many other forms of
exploitations. But pirated fi lms might be one of the few cultural products
that demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the U.S.-centric global media order.
Hollywood constantly copies ideas and expressions of others as its own,
forging a national identity composed of transnational influences. The
copyright discourse, which is the major guardian protecting Hollywood’s
global hegemony, chooses to be blind to this cultural traffic and violence;
fi lm is seen as just a commodity instead of a system of representation.
The complex politics of representations, not surprisingly, resurfaces
where copyright fails—pirated fi lms reveal the underlying transnational
components the Hollywood fi lm tries to incorporate, tame, and cover up.
The fl awed subtitles help us see through a national myth, the myth that
Hollywood fi lms are global because they are national.


An earlier version of this article was presented at “Hong Kong/Hollywood at the

Borders: Alternative Perspectives, Alternative Cinemas,” a conference at the Uni-
versity of Hong Kong in April 2004. I thank Gina Marchetti for her kind invita-
tion to the conference.

1. Don Evans, speech, American Chamber of Commerce, Beijing, 28 October

2003. Quoted in Chow Chung-yan, “China Will Take More Imports from U.S.,”
South China Morning Post, 29 October 2003.
2. Ibid.
3. Ngai-Ling Sum, “Informational Capitalism and U.S. Economic Hegemony:
Resistance and Adaptations in East Asia,” Critical Asian Studies 35 (2003): 378.
4. For some relevant data, see Mark Balnaves, James Donald, and Stephanie
Hemelryk Donald, The Global Media Atlas (London: British Film Institute, 2001),
5. Andrew Higson argues that national cinema can be a real practice, but only
on the policy level, in the areas of censorship, state funding, and local economics.

150 Laikwan Pang

See Andrew Higson, “The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema,” in Cinema
and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie (New York: Routledge, 2000),
6. Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film
Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 206–19.
7. See, for example, Stephen Crofts, “Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s,”
Quarterly Review of Film and Video 14, no. 3 (1993): 49–55; Ana M. López,
“Facing up to Hollywood,” in Reinventing Film Studies, ed. Christine Gledhill and
Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000), 419–37; and Chris Berry, “If China
Can Say No, Can China Make Movies; or, Do Movies Make China? Rethinking
National Cinema and National Agency,” boundary 2 25, no. 3 (1998): 129–50.
8. Douglas Gomery, “Hollywood as Industry,” in American Cinema and
Hollywood: Critical Approaches, ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (London:
Oxford University Press, 2000), 25.
9. Aida Hozic, Hollywood World: Space, Power, and Fantasy in the American
Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 116.
10. Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell, Global
Hollywood (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 63.
11. Lawrence Ka Hee Wong, telephone interview with the author, 17
December 2003. This particular title card, together with its famous jingle, was
the trademark of Shaw Brothers production in the 1970s.
12. In the American version of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, only one of Sofie’s arms is
chopped away, while both of her arms are lost in the fi lm’s Asian version.
13. William S. Stone, The Copyright Book: A Practical Guide (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 1993), 14.
14. Siva Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual
Property and How It Threatens Creativity (New York: New York University Press,
2001), 33; Paul Goldstein, Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celesial
Jukebox (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 8.
15. William M. Landes, “Copyright,” in A Handbook of Cultural Economics,
ed. Ruth Towse (Cheltenham, UK: Elgar, 2003), 132.
16. Philip McCalman, “Foreign Direct Investment and Intellectual Property
Rights: Evidence from Hollywood’s Global Distribution of Movies and Videos,”
Journal of International Economics 62 (2004): 111.
17. Ronald L. Mitchelson and James O. Wheeler, “The Flow of Information
in a Global Economy: The Role of the American Urban System in 1990,” Annals
of the Association of American Geographers 84 (1994): 99.
18. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Maldan, MA: Blackwell,
1996), 409.
19. Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1991).
20. Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Con-
nected World (New York: Random House, 2001), 106.
21. Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs, 82.
22. See Frederick Wasser, “Is Hollywood America? The Transnationaliza-
tion of the American Film Industry,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12
(1995): 423–37.
23. Alan Williams, “The Raven and the Nanny: The Remake as Crosscul-

Copying Kill Bill 151

tural Encounter,” in Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, ed. Jennifer
Forrest and Leonard R. Koos (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002),
24. Matthew Turner, “Kill Bill Interview: With Quentin Tarantino and Uma
Thurman,” (accessed 1 May
25. See, for example, M. Mehdi Semati and Patty J. Sotirin, “Hollywood’s
Transnational Appeal: Hegemony and Democratic Potential?” Journal of Popular
Film and Television 26, no. 4 (1999): 176–89; Wasser, “Is Hollywood America?”;
Scott Robert Olson, Global Media and the Competitive Advantage of Narrative Trans-
parency (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999).
26. David Desser, “Hong Kong Film and the New Cinephilia,” in Hong Kong
Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema, ed. Meaghan Morris,
Siu-leung Li, and Stephen Ching-kiu Chan (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University
Press, forthcoming).
27. Turner, “Kill Bill Interview.”
28. Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Poli-
tics in Dubious Times (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 38.
29. Peter Wollen, “Tinsel and Realism,” in Hollywood and Europe: Economics,
Culture, National Identity, 1945–1995, ed. G. Nowell-Smith and S. Ricci (London:
British Film Institute, 1998), 134.
30. There have been many new Web sites set up and numerous dialogues
surging on the Web tracing the intertextual cobweb of Kill Bill, demonstrating the
specific kind of appeal of the fi lm to the cinephilia Desser describes.
31. The ending titles of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 clearly state: “Produced with assis-
tance of China Film Co-Production Corporation.”
32. Turner, “Kill Bill Interview.”
33. James A. Steintrager, “An Unworthy Subject: Slaughter, Cannibalism, and
Postcoloniality,” in Masculinities and Hong Kong Cinema, ed. Laikwan Pang and
Day Kit-mui Wong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, forthcoming).
34. Ibid.
35. Bruce Lee did not make any fi lms with Shaw Brothers; he is the Golden
Harvest prodigy, although Golden Harvest’s boss Raymond Chow had been pro-
duction manager of Shaw, which shows the unbreakable links between the two
36. Darrell W. Davis and Emilie Yeh Yueh-yu, “Inoue at Shaws: The Well-
spring of Youth,” in The Shaw Screen: A Preliminary Study, ed. Wong Ain-ling
(Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2003), 255–71.
37. Ibid., 259.
38. These zoom-in shots are also frequently seen in spaghetti westerns, but
the Hong Kong fi lmmakers more likely pilfered it from the Japanese source, as
the new 1970s Hong Kong action fi lms are in general very much indebted to the
influence of Japanese cinema and television. Thanks to Darrell Davis for the
39. “Tarantino Defends Kill Bill Violence,”
ment/fi lm/3157596.stm (accessed 1 May 2004).
40. For the concept of dialogic, see, for example, Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dia-
logic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and
Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

152 Laikwan Pang

41. Thomas Leitch, “Twice-Told Tales: Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the
Remake,” in Forrest and Koos, Dead Ringers, 44.
42. Ibid., 53.
43. Ibid., 56.
44. See David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of
Entertainment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 53.
45. This fi nal scene of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 can be compared with that of Alien.
See Barbara Creed, “Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine,” in Alien Zone: Cultural
Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, ed. Annette Kuhn (London:
Verso, 1990), 128–41.
46. For a more elaborate discussion about the technologies involved in the
making of pirated VCDs or DVDs, see Laikwan Pang, “Mediating the Ethics
of Technology: Hollywood and Movie Piracy,” Culture, Theory, and Critique 45
(2004): 19–32.
47. The subtitles in the pirated DVD have both English and Chinese versions,
and this quotation is the English one, on which the Chinese ones are based.
48. Of course, there are always exceptions, which sometimes are more pro-
motional gimmicks than real considerations of cultural differences; for example,
the Asian version of Kill Bill is advertised as being more violent than the Western
49. “Appeal to Miramax: Web Alliance for the Respectful Treatment of Asian
Cinema,” (accessed 1 May 2004).
50. In fact, Disney sometimes purchases the distribution rights to certain
fi lms for parts of the world with no intention to show the fi lms there, to create a
situation where there is less competition for Disney’s own productions.
51. Laikwan Pang, “Piracy/Privacy: The Despair of Cinema and Collectivity
in China,” boundary 2 31, no. 3 (2004): 116.

Copying Kill Bill 153