Typification and Surveillance

From the slave daguerreotypes to MySpace, from technologies of typification to technologies of surveillance, there is a desire to capture and maintain power over the other. Typification can be understood as pigeonholing or turning individuals into "types" using certain qualities. Surveillance is more self-explanatory and refers to the constant observance or tracking of an individual or group.  Using photography, documentation, video, technologies, or other media, infrastructures of power and individuals are able to typify and survey the other as a means of power and control. Typification and surveillance often lead to a tautological relationship between marginalization and forces behind ongoing systematic discrimination.

Slave Daguerreotype "The North American Indian"

One of the solid foundations of typification can be found with physiognomy, the pseudo-science of using appearance to judge personality. Physiognomy has often been used as justification for racism, classism, ethnicity, and mental illness. By attributing physical features (such as blackness or a disheveled appearance) to violence, laziness, or depravity, one can easily master and understand the supposed other. Many of the first photographs of POC were in the name of physiognomy, or with the goal of typifying racialized subjects. In 1850, Louis Agassiz produced a series of 15 silver daguerreotypes that featured seven (primarily) nude female and male slaves. Agassiz asserted these daguerreotypes were produced for “scientific” purposes to “analyze the physical differences between European whites and African blacks”, but also for implicit political purposes, to: “prove the superiority of the white race” (Wallis 1996, 102). Similarly to Agassiz, Edward S. Curtis’ infamous The North American Indian depicts different Native American tribes from 1907 to 1930 in order to document and study them. Because Curtis believes Native Americans are going “extinct”, and with these photographs, physiognomic research can be done on them after they have “vanished” (Wakeham 2008). In their documentation and capturing of blacks and Native Americans, both Agassiz and Curtis are typifying and also surveying black and Native American bodies, cultures, and features.

Criminal I.D. Card

One of the most notorious forms of surveillance, the criminal I.D. card, is also deeply rooted in a history of typification. Criminal I.D. cards were invented by Alphonse Bertillon in 1883 and used to track criminals using their physical attributes. Bertillon’s system of documentation marked the beginning of photography and surveillance in law. Criminals would have their head measurements (shape formations of their eyes, eyebrows, mouth, ears, individual markings, etc.), body measurements (individual markings such as scars or tattoos), mug shots, and personalities recorded and used for physiognomy. With a criminal’s measurements and photographs, these I.D. cards were eventually were used to define and explain criminality. In turn, criminals with certain attributes were typified and more commonly detained. This primarily meant the targeting of marginalized people, particularly non-white, mentally ill, and impoverished individuals. Since these people were the most common suspects, they in turn, were also the most common criminals. (This tautological typification of criminality is still seen on a mass scale to this day.) While these documents and measurements typified criminals, they also were a means of surveillance. In a single year, Bertillon used these I.D. cards to successfully identify 241 multiple offenders (Brook 2010; Tagg 1988).

With this new system of heavy documentation and photographing, the Alien Order Act 17 of 1920 was passed. The Alien Order Act, Section 3 equipped police officers with the power of photographing any alien. The photograph requirements and camera were not standardized at the time, though they did require the alien’s full face to be exposed, and her or his head had to be uncovered (Tagg 1988). This meant immigrants were documented within the law, and made them much easier targets of typification and surveillance.

The Wagner Act

Despite this heavy state surveillance (and typification) of marginalized individuals, ironically they are often neglected by the state regarding other matters. For instance, the Wagner Act of 1935 included many policies and findings, but essentially prevented any protection for non-white workers. People of color were locked out of jobs with higher pay, any union benefits (such as medical care), job security, and full employment. In clear juxtaposition against the government’s unflinching control over nonwhites, this meant they were suddenly untouchable by the government in the workplace. These typified workers were subject to the harsh brutality and violence of unmediated corporations and companies. This led to a natural “filtering” of workers; class and economic success became a clearer indication of racial types and vice versa (“74TH CONGRESS” 1935).

Polaroid ID-2 Polaroid ID-2

This dynamic relationship between corporation and government, with regard to the typified, surveilled body, is highly evident with the case of the Polaroid ID-2. The Polaroid ID-2 was introduced in 1966 and was a full color passport system, able to immediately produce a laminated I.D. that is nearly impossible to forge (“Polaroid”). Unlike other passport cameras of the time, it provided a boost button that would boost the flash function. Unfortunately, these Polaroid cameras were used to take South African dompas, or passbooks. The passbook was the most crucial mechanism used for monitoring, incarcerating, and abusing black South Africans; they supported and structured the entire surveillance system of the apartheid regime. In 1970, employees began boycotting Polaroid arguing the ID-2 system helped “imprison a black South African every 60 second” (Bonanos 2013). Polaroid claimed only 20% of the film they sold in South Africa ended up being used for passports and according to Polaroid in 191, only 65 systems were sold before sales were stopped, and none of those systems were sold to government agencies. However, the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement countered that sales were still going through indirect channels. Polaroid continued lying from 1971 to 1978, claiming that they had ceased supplying materials to the regime, when in fact there was an elaborate shell game which allowed them to sell through a third party (Caulfield 2015).

In fact, this relationship between Polaroid and the South African government is potentially even more sinister. First, an African American Polaroid employee, Caroline Hunter, explains how she came about the information that Polaroid had been working with the South African government: “one day [my husband and I] discovered an ID badge with a mockup of a black guy that we knew from Polaroid saying ‘Union of South Africa Department of the Mines […] Polaroid was in South Africa and that they’d been there for quite some time, since 1938, and that they were actually the producers of the notorious passbook photographs” (Caulfield 2015). Hunter thus clarifies that Polaroid had known the entire time that the South African apartheid regime had been using Polaroid—simply by finding this badge in the Polaroid studio. Furthermore, many contemporary artists and historians have asserted that the ID-2 camera was developed as a technology for South Africa’s needs. Black skin absorbs 42% more light, and the ID-2’s special boost button boosts flash to exactly 42%. In short, this technology, produced by a private company, was made to typify and survey black bodies for the South African government (Bonanos 2013; Caulfield 2015).

Myspace Founded

Finally, modern technology has often been lauded for allowing certain marginalized communities to finally have a medium of representation. Some of the first mainstream social media platforms were blogging websites like Livejournal (1999), which provided a “community”, “friends”, and their own “posts” (Moellenberndt 2013, 1). These words alone provided marginalized individuals with a sense of community, or a place of belonging. Later, with the advent of MySpace in 2006, one of the largest social media platforms to gain traction, there was a newer, larger space for community and friendship. Furthermore, these social networking platforms and online communities allowed for people to produce their own narrative voice (Uszkalo and Harkness 2012). In fact, with the birth of the selfie, profile picture, and profile page, people were allowed to "typify" themselves. They controlled their own images in public, and surveillance was of their self-produced online personas.

Myspace Founded Myspace Founded

Unfortunately, even with this mode of self representation, people began distinguishing themselves from certain communities via typification. From 2005 to 2009, the selfie, also known as the “MySpace pic” was described as a: “amateurish, flash-blinded self-portrait, often taken in front of a bathroom mirror. Self-portraits shot with cell phones” (Losse 2013). These selfies were always rooted in their “MySpace”-ness and became a sign of cheap, bad taste. Unsurprisingly, MySpace soon faced competition from Facebook. While Facebook had a “highbrow aura” and was seen as “mature, mainstream, safe, and clean”, MySpace was “hyper-sexual, bling-bling, ghetto, unsafe”; soon there was a clear ethnic and socio-economical differentiation between the two (Leurs 2015, 182). In fact, MySpace users were more likely to be black or Hispanic women, whereas Facebook users were men with college degrees. This shift from MySpace to Facebook is analogues of the white flight of the 1960s, where white American families shifted from city centers to suburbs. Thus, even in the digital era, there seem to be certain racially/economically/culturally designated spaces (Leurs 2015).

Thus, MySpace and Facebook are two of the more recent examples of typification and surveillance. Via self-typification, and thus self-documentation for surveillance, marginalized people (particularly lower class, black and Hispanic women) were once again designated as such via realms of space. From the digital white flight to physiognomy, there has always been an evident attempt to enclose, capture, and isolate the other. Surveillance and typification make the other tangible, and through this, easier to target. Eventually this targeting creates limitations and stereotypes that justify and maintain the structures of marginalization.

Typification and Surveillance