Dark Sousveillance

Dark Sousveillance
Cover art by John Jennings for Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack

This entry is under construction, a more complete entry will be available in Spring 2023.

*Please note that I have marked all quoted material in bold font below. This is to ensure that, whether citing the concept of 'dark sousveillance'  or the other related concepts presented below, attributions are correctly made. In other words, if it appears in quotation marks (and in bold print) please cite the scholar and video rather than this Un-Textbook entry. Thank you!

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

What is "Dark Sousveillance"?

As Dr. Simone Browne explains in the video below, the term dark sousveillance is meant to "cue [her] extension of Steve Mann's concept" of sousveillance, understood as "the inverse of surveillance, ... the tactic of appropriating tools of social controllers, and resituating these tools in a disorienting manner." (Browne 4:14) The term is also used to "situate the strategies employed  during the fight or flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of under-sight." (Browne 4:44) In the public talk at the CUNY Digital Praxis Seminar, Browne elaborates this thesis in three gestures:

  • First, "Branding Blackness,"
  • Second, "Digital Epidermalization,"
  • And finally, "Branding Biometrics"

Each of the section header below reflect these transitions in the presentation, which can also be viewed in the YouTube video below.  

On December 9, 2013 "Dark Sousveillance: Race, Surveillance, and Resistance" was hosted at the Graduate Center, CUNY by the Digital Praxis Seminar and the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative.

Dark sousveillance describes an "archive of surveillance and slavery" which often "goes missing from surveillance studies." (Browne 5:36) One example that Browne offers in her book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, is the reliance of surveillance studies on the model of the panopticon as 'the' model for the making-visible of carceral subjects  – as well as for the modes of surveillance culture that predominate today. In other words, surveillance studies as an area of inquiry has upheld the notion that we are 'all' subjected to a panoptic architecture and subjectivity insofar as we are 'all' under surveillance and encouraged to surveil. However, as Browne argues, a more fitting model would be the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the detailed diagrams used to force kidnapped Africans into white servitude in the Americas:  

“Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788.” Illustration. 1788. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division Washington, D.C.

In other words, rather than a model of surveillance that assumes that 'all' people are equally subjected to carceral forms of surveillance, Browne attends to the disproportionate and targeted forms of watching that seek to police Black people, especially though not exclusively in the United States. Given surveillance studies' connection to the ways that watchfulness, hiddenness, secrecy, and observation are mobilized, America's history of anti-Blackness, racial policing, and slavery is a pivotal and constitutive part of how surveillance technologies continue to be developed today, even though these new technologies are typically presented by their developers in an optimistic or utopic frame, disavowing their relationship to the longstanding precedent of racist watching-as-social control in the United States. Dark sousveillance might be understood as the 'look-back' from the 'bottom-up' as it has materialized across historical and contemporary instances, and stresses the link between its past and present forms.

Dark sousveillance describes the ways that tools of social control in plantation surveillance and beyond were appropriated, repurposed, co-opted, and also challenged to facilitate escape. (Browne 4:45-4:57)

Browne also offers the following examples of dark sousveillance as historical examples of the "absented presence of Blackness":

The "absented presence of Blackness" lingers on in contemporary systems of police and social surveillance. On the one hand, these systems disproportionately, invisibly, and explicitly targets Black people while on the other, accounts of this kind of repressive watching and its history are omitted from established surveillance scholarship:  "Blackness is often absent from what is theorized and who is cited while it's ever-present, for example, in the subjection of Black motorists to a disproportionate number of stops, stop and frisk, the use of closed-circuit television as a kind of urban renewal tool or urban renewal project, ... mass incarceration, and the various exclusions and other matters where Blackness meets surveillance and then reveals the ongoing racisms of unfinished emancipation."  (Browne, 5:45-6:45) For example:

"What can a realization of the conditions of Blackness, the historical, the present, and also the historical present help social theorists to understand about our contemporary conditions of surveillance?" (7:05-7:15)

Dark sousveillance is a framework for understanding surveillance and the resistance to it whose methods are deeply informed by Black feminist thought, critical race theory, and abolitionist scholarship, including (for instance) the work of Angela Davis, Joy James, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Hortense Spillers. It also draws upon the anti-colonialist tradition inaugurated by Frantz Fanon, who coins the term "epidermalization," by extending his description of the practices that made colonized people visible in colonized Algeria by drawing attention to and stigmatizing their outward appearance.

"To more clearly draw the links between contemporary biometric information technology and trans-Atlantic slavery, I trace the archive of trans-Atlantic slavery, mainly runaway notices, written accounts, a carte de visite. And so understanding Dark Sousveillance as a framework for trying to think about surveillance can allow us to question how certain surveillance technologies instituted during slavery to track Blackness as property – you can think here of slave patrols, slave passes, branding, runaway notices – how these technologies anticipate the contemporary surveillance of the racial body. (9:40-10:20)

Branding Blackness

Branding is both "a form of identification" and "a form of corporal punishment," in the sense of applying physically scarring and painfully disabling marks to a person's body as a symbol of property ownership, punitive action, and visible proof of their subjugation. (Browne 9:00) This term, therefore, bridges and extends the conventional idea that slavery-based surveillance is "something of a Southern project" that occurred on plantations to "urban domestic slavery," which describes the anti-Black surveillance practices that extend to places like New York City or city centers that allegedly eschewed plantation-era racism (Browne 9:30-9:40).

"Branding was not only a mass corporate and crown exercise of registration of people by way of corporal markers but an exercise that sought to categorize people, deemed who was most fit to labor unfreely, that being the good and the sound and distinguishing those from others who are literally imprinted with the mark of the sovereign, think about the mark of the Dutch or British crown imprinted." (Browne 13:14-13:38)

A key connection between "branding" as used in American practices of human enslavement and as it is commonly used today is commodification. This kind of commodification assigns value to a person by dehumanizing them, reducing them to the status of an object by categorizing their lives, bodies, and labor according to their presumed productivity and the potential value that could be forcibly extracted from them.  (Browne 13:51) Productivity was not measured only in terms of work but also in terms of reproductive labor, making branding into a gendering and disabling act. "A certain discretionary concern was taken with women. In this large plain turned factor, bodies were made disabled and those named contagion or defective in their limbs, eyes, or teeth were rejected." (Browne 14:06-14:19)

In her talk, Browne describes the branding practices of the Dutch West India Company and the alphanumerical system that they employed to categorize people upon arrival to islands like Curacao and Barbados. "For instance, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Barbados in the Caribbean branded the word "SOCIETY" on the chest of the people it enslaved in 1732." (Browne 16:12-16:25). However, these branding acts did not necessarily abate counter-practices or resistance to enslavement.

For example, Browne describes the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, an English planter and slave owner in 18th-century Jamaica, paying specific attention to the life of an enslaved woman named Akuba. "Akuba was purchased by Thistlewood in 1761 and branded on her right shoulder with his brand mark, which is a TT in an inverted triangle. During the over 13 years that she was enslaved in Jamaica, Akuba escaped captivity numerous times, and each time she was recaptured, she was flogged, tortured. One time she escaped wearing a collar. One time she was branded on her forehead for punishment after an escape and five days after that branding she ran away. Thistlewood wrote in his diary, 'Akuba wanting this morning.' So in defiance of the brand, Akuba escaped again and again and made her own way. Eventually, she was sold from Thistlewood for forty pounds and transported out of Jamaica to Georgia. So Akuba running away despite the TT that branded her skin reveals the limits of these acts of dehumanization. Akuba disrupts the practice of branding as punishment, accounting a pre-emptive strike at marking the already hyper-visible body as identifiable outside of the plantation and other spaces of enslavement." (Browne 16:32-18:12) In other words, the practice of branding reveals both the regularity of cruel and dehumanizing acts – like the "traumatic head injury" of the TT (Browne 20:25) perpetrated against people forced into American slavery, often for purposes of punishment and to render those bodies visible as commodities, the property of a specific owner. However, the case of Akuba also demonstrates the limit of this practice as she escaped again and again, being undeterred to the point that additional brandings did not add to her hyper-visibility but marked her resistance to it.  

Although branding during slavery was a practice of racializing surveillance that sought to deny the black body to be multiply experienced, the idea that everybody would be marked 'SOCIETY' on their chest, running away, black escape, and numerous other counter-practices suggest that this dehumanization was not achieved on an effective level and that those branded were still ungovernable under the brand or in spite of it.  (Browne 19:01-19:27)

Artifacts from slave auctions, such as images of enslaved peoples and torture devices, still circulate as commodities, sometimes even auctioned on sites like eBay. (Browne 21:00) In other words, the commodification of enslaved humans and the means of their enslavement did simply 'end' at some distant point in history, but also continues today with the circulation of these technologies of making-visible. Here too, Browne draws attention to practices of questioning and resistance to this continued commodification in the form of performance art by "conceptual and digital artists Mendi and Keith Obadike's Blackness for Sale. This piece of digital art is from 2001 and it saw Keith Obadike auction his blackness on eBay as a way to disrupt the trade in slave memorabilia on the Internet and the commodification of blackness more generally. So his auction was scheduled to last for ten days but was deemed 'inappropriate' by eBay, and only after four days, it was removed from the website. The auction garnered 12 bids overall, the highest coming in at $152.50. So there's no image of Keith Obadike on this particular site. It's his blackness that is described as an heirloom. Instead, potential buyers are provided with a list of benefits and warnings regarding Obadike's blackness, like: 'the seller does not recommend that this blackness be used while making intellectual claims.'  Or, 'the seller does not recommend that this blackness be used while voting in the United States or Florida.' So Mendi and Keith Obadike's project is one of black counter-framing where the institutionalizing, institutionalized, and everyday surveillance and negation of Black life is satirized, as a way to highlight the ways in which the kind of structural embeddedness of, and pervasive nature of anti-Blackness. And so this is an anti-racist counter-framing, providing what you can call a counter systems analysis of the ways that racism, white hostility, and discrimination operate structurally and interpersonally." (Browne 22:00-23:34)  

Ultimately, the "branding" of Blackness is both a documented historical practice associated with human subjugation and torture. It also implicates a series of resistant and artistic practices that challenge this form of anti-Black commodification and property ownership both by devaluing the value accorded to the 'brand' as well as by putting the act of commodification on display as one that is not only dehumanizing but one which is exposed for the racism it engenders.

Digital Epidermalization

Digital epidermalization bridges past practices of identificatory 'branding' with more contemporary biometric technologies. By "biometrics" Browne means "the idea that the body will reveal the truth about the subject, despite the subject's claim." (Browne 26:09-26:15) It also refers specifically to the making-recognizable of the living body as a codified form of data. "Biometric technology is the measuring of the living body. With biometrics, the body, or more increasingly performances of the body or parts and pieces of the body are mathematically coded as data, making for so-called 'unique templates' and then put to use for verification or identification purposes." (Browne 24:21-24:38)

  • Verification: "Are you the rightful holder of this passport, or driver's license, where your biometric is encoded?" (Browne 24:45)
  • Identification: "Who are you in a face in the crowd?" (Browne 24:59)

Examples of "popular biometric technologies include physiological features like iris and retinal scans, hand geometry, fingerprint templates, facial recognition, vascular patterns, and increasingly, DNA. And you also have behavioral traits: voice analysis, pen stroke and keystroke, how you type, gait recognition." (Browne 25:10-25:32) The concept of epidermalization is attributed to Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, which offers a psychological and decolonial study of racializing and racist practices in the French colonial context of Africa and the Caribbean. In his work, he takes issue with the individualizing approach of Sigmund Freud by suggesting that psychological effects derive from social circumstances and that the internalization of colonial oppression is also an epidermalization, which renders melanated skin pigmentation as the outward sign of inwardly experienced colonial oppression.  

The analysis that I am undertaking is psychological. In spite of this it is apparent to me that the effective dis-alienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process – primarily, economic – subsequently, the internalization – or, better, the epidermalization – of this inferiority. (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 13)

Browne defines "epidermalization" as "the imposition of race upon the skin." (30:30) By extension, Browne's concept of digital epidermalization describes the way "that biometrics research and development continues to rely on certain practices of ... prototypical whiteness, as well as prototypical maleness, prototypical able-bodiedness, prototypical youth-ness as well,  that this speaks to the ways in which biometric information technologies are sometimes inscribed in racializing schemas that see certain bodies privileged, or at least whiteness might be privileged or lightness in some of these enroll measurements and enrollment processes." (Browne 26:31-27:05) This racializing schema is evident, for instance, in the way that these technologies coded all people of African descent as "male," such that "black women became, presumably they were read as 'male' most of the time, and Asian men were read as female most of the time, with this particular [2010] study." (Browne 28:00-28:36) Such technologies "mirrored earlier pseudoscientific racist and sexist discourse that sought to define racial categories and gender categories in order to regulate these artificial boundaries that could never be fully maintained." (Browne, 28:40-28:50)

The biometric surveillance technologies that perpetuate racial epidermalization include "iris scanners, fingerprint scans, and facial recognition technology." (10:35-10:40) On the one hand, such technologies are examples of racial epidermalization because they make Black bodies and skin pigmentation 'invisible' – that is, are designed primarily if not exclusively to recognize white skin pigmentation. This is what Browne calls "prototypical whiteness" or "the making of some bodies and not others as problematic in biometric technology and its practices." (10:49-10:57) While Browne cites the example of HP Computers' facial recognition system that cannot track melanated faces, there are other examples as well, such as the "racist soap dispensers" shown in the videos below:

Viral video of a "racist soap dispenser."
Another viral video of a "racist soap dispenser," filmed at DragonCon in Atlanta, GA in 2015.

A consequence of these epidermalizing technologies is that certain raced and gendered bodies are more susceptible to the "failure to enroll," (Browne 30:05-33:20) that is, that the biometric technologies designed to verify or identify them will be unable to do so, and therefore will improperly recognize them by categorizing these bodies incorrectly or are simply unable to recognize them. Due to the prototypical whiteness of these biometric technologies, for instance, Black, Asian, and transgender bodies are more likely to be incorrectly identified and therefore subjected to intensified or secondary forms of verification/identification because of their non-conformity with a technological schema that is presumed to be universal. Ultimately, it is not the body who 'fails to enroll' so much as the technology that 'fails to recognize' – and necessarily so, given the social constructedness of the gendered and racial categories that are sought out.

"Mama, see the Negro! I'm frightened!" Frightened! Frightened! Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible. I could no longer laugh, because I already know there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity . . . Then, assailed at various points, the corporal schema crumbled its place taken by a racial epidermal schema. . . It was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person ... l was responsible for my race, for my ancestors. (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 112)

Branding Biometrics

"Popular representations or popular cultural representations of biometric technology and surveillance are one of the ways in which these technologies get sold and rationalized (or branded) to the public." (11:55-12:05)

The concept of digital epidermalization challenges "the notions that these technologies are infallible, that they're objective, and that they are based on mathematical precision without error or bias on the part of the computer programmers who calibrate the search of these machines, or on the part of those who read these templates to make decisions." (Browne 33:36-33:51) These assumptions are reinforced by the popular cultural representations of surveillance technology, specifically films and television which represent surveillance accurately capturing Black faces and bodies, such as Men in Black (1997) Enemy of the State (1998), and I, Robot (2004).

Seeing how surveillance technology is displayed, discussed, and depicted through Smith's films is very important for understanding the various ways that contemporary surveillance technologies from CCTV to drones to facial recognition technology get marketed to the public through popular entertainment. So this you could think about as kind of like our popular biometric consciousness or our popular consciousness around surveillance technologies. Enemy of the State, his film from 1998, is a panoply of surveillance. The film's plot revolves around Smith's character getting caught up in an NSA, with the NSA, in an assassination plot and then legislation that would increase domestic spying capabilities that is as one character puts it, "not the first step to the surveillance society, it is the surveillance society."
Throughout the film, Smith's character, and by extension us as the viewing audience, are given a primer on pre-9/11 surveillance technologies and their histories and also their capabilities.  Surveillance is wielded in a very conspiratorial manner against Will Smith's character in this film. There's facial recognition technology, fingerprint scanning technology, GPS, databases, CCTV, beacon transmitters, satellite imagery. There's even black helicopters that circle around him. So in Enemy of the State, surveillance technologies operate by way of product placement really, in this kind of 'brand integration,' to use industry terms, the film's viewers come to understand surveillance.
By the end of the film, the lead characters turn the tables on the NSA, and I guess he was like pre-Snowden. They become the ones who watch the watchers. What this move seemingly tells us is that when placed in the 'right hands,' surveillance technologies lose their negative valance and it need not be feared or cause for worry. And, of course, these 'right hands' are gendered in a particular way in this film. So popular cultural representations of surveillance are some of the ways in which the public comes to understand these technologies, and how we come to see biometric technologies as necessary, as a necessary security measure even for getting on our laptops or our phones, and how they get rationalized and sold to the general public. You could call this a, as I said, critical biometric consciousness, and as a pitchman, it doesn't get much better than Will Smith, who was named one of the highest-paid actors by Forbes in 2008.
He is often the star of, as I mentioned, many blockbuster films where the audience is often subject to his heroic exploits, particularly when his films become on syndicated networks every weekend. So there are lessons about the surveillance technologies and practices are regularly broadcasted with Smith in a starring role. He's often seen saving America and by extension, the planet from alien others, whether it's Independence Day, or I Am Legend, Hancock, Wild Wild West. Interestingly, when he was promoting I, Robot in 2004, he was in Germany and he was asked by the German press about the effects of 9/11:
"If you grew up as a black man in America, you have a very different view of the world than white Americans. We blacks live with a constant feeling of malaise and if you're attacked by a racist cop now, or wounded or attacked by terrorists, excuse me, it makes no difference. In the 60s, blacks were constantly the target of terrorist attacks, and while it was civil terrorism, but terrorism is terrorism. We are accustomed to being attacked. As for a permanent alert, a defensive attitude with which one lives anyway has not changed since. No, not for me personally, as to my everyday life, the tragedy of September 11th changed nothing. I live anyway always 100% alert. I was not even nervous, anxious, or cautious after 9/11."
What Will Smith is articulating there is the racial terror imposed on black life in America by an overseeing surveillance apparatus that was in effect on September 10th, 2001, and long before that, and he's giving us a bit of black counter-framing as well too. (Browne 34:05-38:40)

Browne concludes by calling for critical biometric consciousness, consisting of "informed public debate," "accountability by the state and the private sector," "the recognition that access to and ownership of the intellectual property generated by biometric data is a human right," and the "acknowledgment of the connection between biometric information technology, the conflict minerals used to produce them, and the historical antecedents of this kind of resource extraction." (Browne 38:56) This kind of consciousness must also "contend with the way that branding was a form of punishment and racial profiling, the idea of every body marked 'SOCIETY' or 'F' for 'fugitive'. Perhaps that 'F' stands for freedom and 'R' rather than standing for 'runaway' could stand for revolt, so a critical repurposing of that." (Browne 40:22-40:38)

Concluding slide from Dr. Simone Browne's 2013 talk "Dark Sousveillance: Race, Surveillance, and Resistance" hosted by the Graduate Center, CUNY by the Digital Praxis Seminar and the CUNY DIgital Humanities Initiative. 

Branding, in other words, offers an extended history of biometric technologies that have marked bodies as property, subjected them to disproportionate and unequal visibility, and how this connects to present-day terminologies and practices associated with biometric technologies. Branding offers an entry-point to the concept of "dark sousveillance" because of the way it implicates the graphic and biological markings that are used for purposes of verification, punishment, and identification as well as the ways that those people marked by these technologies have sought and succeeded in turning the gaze back upon the watcher. "Current biometric technologies, of course, and slave branding are not one and the same. However, when we think about our contemporary moment, when suspect citizens, trusted travelers, refugee claimants, incarcerated people, welfare recipients, and others are having their bodies informationalized by way of biometric surveillance, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes without consent or awareness, or sometimes with coerced consent, and then stored in large-scale automated databases, some of these databases owned by the state and some owned by private interest, my suggestion here is that we must question the historically present workings of branding and racializing surveillance, particularly in regard to biometric technology for critical rethinking of punishment, torture, and moments of contact where there are increasingly technological borders. (Browne 41:25-42:10)

** sections below are intended for a future version of this class. I ran out of time in Spring 2022! The videos below are excellent and informative, and have direct tie-ins with "dark sousveillance." Prospective (future) topics include afrofuturism and civic tech. **


Dr. Andre Brock's "On Race and Technoculture." Presented during Microsoft Research's "Race and Technology" Lecture Series on October 27, 2021.
  • "Critical Technocultural Discourse"
  • "Effects of Online Racism on Black Folk"
  • "Afrofuturism"

Civic Tech

Elizabeth Adams: The Path to Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology in Minneapolis

To Cite This Page

  • This entry is little more than a summary of the research and speeches assembled above. Please note that you should cite the above scholars' work directly if you are consulting the videos or any material that appears on this page in quotation marks. Be sure to check your attributions! If you need assistance citing YouTube videos, please consult the following sites: MLA, APA, Chicago.
  • Atilla Hallsby (2022), "Dark Sousveillance" in The UnTextbook of Rhetorical Theory: The Rhetoric of Secrecy and Surveillance. https://the-un-textbook.ghost.io/secrecy-and-surveillance-dark-sousveillance/. Last Accessed (Day Month Year).