• Dark Matters takes up blackness, as metaphor and as lived materiality, and applies it to an understanding of surveillance” (7);


  • “racializing surveillance”: “signals those moments when enactments of surveillance reify boundaries, borders, and bodies along racial lines, and where the outcome is often discriminatory treatment of those who are negatively racialized by such surveillance” (16).
  • “dark souveillance”: “to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight” (21).


0. Introduction

  • Browne begins with an absence: her inability to FOIA info from the CIA on Franz Fanon, juxtaposed against Fanon’s brief notes in The Wretched of the Earth on CCTV as “control by quantification” (6).
  • Dark Matters suggests that an understanding of the ontological conditions of blackness is integral to developing a general theory of surveillance and, in particular, racializing surveillance—when enactments of surveillance reify boundaries along racial lines, thereby reifying race, and where the outcome of this is often discriminatory and violent treatment” (8).
  • Surveillance as a project that has a deeper history than digital technology, a deep time (an in a way a media archaeology): “Put another way, rather than seeing surveillance as something inaugurated by new technologies, such as automated facial recognition or unmanned autonomous vehicles (or drones), to see it as ongoing is to insist that we factor in how racism and antiblackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order” (8–9).
  • Surveying the field of contemporary surveillance studies: disinterested in dystopian mega-surveillance and more in the nuanced and varying ways surveillance operates in different spaces and construes space as such (13–14); Emergence of “the new surveillance” w/ 10 characteristics (briefly):
    1. unimpeded by physical space
    2. new dimensions of shareability in digital tech.
    3. undetectable
    4. w/o consent
    5. about prevention and risk mgmt
    6. less labor intensive
    7. involves more self-surveillance (wearables)
    8. presumption of guilt
    9. more interiorized to the body
    10. so intense that it is unclear if it has true strategic value (14–15)
  • “Today’s seeing eye is white” (17): data is marked racially in unseen ways (compare to Noble).

1. Notes on Surveillance Studies (Panopticon / Slave Ship)

  • Section on census shares useful ground w/ Appadurai: “Census enumeration is a means through which a state manages its residents by way of formalized categories that fix individuals within a certain time and a particular space, making the census a technology that renders a population legible in racializing as well as gendering ways” (56).

2. The Making of the Book of Negroes

  • This chapter bears more directly on questions of technology, incl. “the technology of printed text, namely runaway notices and identity documents” that surveilled the runaway slave (67).
  • “At the time of the British evacuation, the circulation of printed text allowed for a certain “simultaneous consumption” of newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves by a public that was assumed to be white and who by consuming at once the black subject, imagined as unfree, produced the readers of such advertisements as part of the ‘imaginary community’ of surveillance: the eyes and ears of face- to-face watching, observing, and regulating” (71–72).
  • “The ledger, in its accounting for humans as commodity in the enterprise of racial slavery, according to Saidiya Hartman, ‘introduces another death through its shorthand’” (75). Compare also to my work w/ the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database and how the database reproduces these aesthetics.
  • Lantern laws as perverse wearables: “We can think of the lantern as a prosthesis made mandatory after dark, a technology that made it possible for the black body to be constantly illuminated from dusk to dawn, made knowable, locatable, and contained within the city. The black body, technologically enhanced by way of a simple device made for a visual surplus where technology met surveillance, made the business of tea a white enterprise and encoded white supremacy, as well as black luminosity, in law” (79).

3. Biometric Technology

  • “Biometric information technology, or biometrics, in its simplest form, is a means of body measurement that is put to use to allow the body, or parts and pieces and performances of the human body, to function as identification” (91); “Put differently, this chapter examines branding not only as a material practice of hot irons on skin, but as a racializing act, where the one-drop rule was a technology of branding blackness that maintained the enslaved body as black” (92).
  • Commodity kitsch of branding irons and cartes de visite on eBay (103–06). “Auctionism.”
  • “I suggest here that we come to think of the concept of digital epidermalization when we consider what happens when certain bodies are rendered as digitized code, or at least when attempts are made to render some bodies as digitized code” (109).
  • Biometric technologies depend on a “prototypical whiteness” against which is measured racialized qualities (110); Biometrics R&D developing new technologies of capture reinforce old racial pseudo-science (111); on iris-scanning: “The distribution of this spectrum’s 256 shades of gray is made possible only through the unambiguous black-white binary; the contrapuntal extremes that anchor the spectrum, leaving the unmeasurable dark matter clustered at one end” (114).
  • “How do we understand the body once it is made into data?” (114): “There is a notion that these technologies are infallible and objective and have a mathematical precision, without error or bias on the part of the computer programmers who calibrate the search parameters of these machines or on the part of those who read these templates to make decisions” (115); calling for a “critical biometric consciousness” (after Thacker) (115).

4. Security Theater at the Airport

[ . . . ]

Archive and Impact

  • Browne is a sociologist trained at the University of Toronto (where Katharine McKittrick teaches). Dark Matters is a work of sociology and Black studies; in the opening pages she tips her hand to Fanon, McKittrick, Wynter, Hall, Hill Collins, and many of the other foundational names in contemporary critical race theory. This is a book that builds a distinctly Black lineage of critical theory, that takes seriously the notion of a “Wynterian” approach as much as White theorists would say “Foucauldian.”
  • Method: “black diasporic, archival, historical, and contemporary study that locates blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and enacted” (9). This is a deeply historicist project, one that engages the work of extending a putatively contemporary act (surveillance) well back into the archive.