Simone Browne Explores Surveillance through the History of Slavery

From slave ships to airports, from the middle passage to post-9/11, from abolitionist handbills to multimedia art installations, Simone Browne weaved together a multi-faceted exploration of surveillance through space, time, and form in her presentation, “Black.Life.Forms.”

On May 14, the UC Davis Cultural Studies Graduate Group hosted Browne, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology with affiliation in African and African Diaspora Studies at University of Texas, Austin, as part of its Colloquium Series.

“Black.Life.Forms.” touched on many aspects of Browne’s book project, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness forthcoming from Duke University Press, which examines surveillance with a focus on slavery, biometric information technology, airports, borders, and creative texts.

Javier Arbona, a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in American Studies at UC Davis, gave a rich introduction to Browne that highlighted why her wholly original scholarship best captures new kinds of thinking and theorizing in surveillance studies. Arbona explained that Browne’s work offers an ambitious model for the Militarization Studies research cluster at UC Davis, which is undergoing a reconceptualization to better address the themes of policing and surveillance.

Browne began her talk by re-theorizing the panopticon, a type of institutional architecture developed by 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham and theorized by Michel Foucault. The panopticon allows one unseen observer a centralized, 360-degree view with which to surveil a group, who – never aware when they are being watched – behave always as if they are.

Noting an over-reliance on the panopticon in surveillance studies, Browne began not with Bentham’s conceptualization of it, but with his 1785 ocean trip to Constantinople where he noted casually that there were “18 young negresses (slaves) under the hatches.”


“Somewhere in the formation of the panopticon there were eighteen young negresses under the hatches,” Browne said. “What if we took ‘under the hatches’ as a place to reconceptualize power?”

Complicating a reading of panopticism through the archive of slavery, Browne showed that the “historical formation of surveillance is not outside the historical formation of slavery,” through a critical look at the slave ship: a “modern seagoing prison,” a form of “slow motion death,” and a compelling object with which to shape the future of surveillance studies.

Building on Steven Mann’s concept of sousveillance, or “watching from below,” Browne elaborated her concept of “dark sousveillance,” which “plots imaginaries that are oppositional, hopeful for another way of being.” Dark sousveillance is “black epistemologies of contending with anti-black surveillance,” and might look like negro spirituals that sing of escape routes, abolitionist handbills that warn about slave catchers in disguise, or the “freedom practices” of slaves.

Browne then offered an analysis of biometric technologies and airport security screenings using historical and contemporary examples to link surveillance studies to black diaspora studies. Browne ended her talk with a call for “critical biometric consciousness,” which entails:

  • informed public debate about biometric data
  • accountability by the state and private sector,
  • historicizing the link between contemporary biometric technology and historical antecedents, and
  • advocating for the intellectual property rights of people’s own biometric data.

Spurred by the innovative work of scholars like Simone Browne, the field of surveillance studies is poised to experience major growth. For faculty and students here at UC Davis, the revitalized Militarization Research Cluster and the 2015-2016 Mellon Sawyer Seminar on “Surveillance Democracies?” co-led by Kriss Ravetto Biagioli, Associate Professor of Cinema and Technocultural Studies, and Anupam Chander, Professor of Law, are sure to put UC Davis at the forefront of that movement.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies