“To divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index, record everything in sight (and out of sight); to make out of every observable detail a generalization and out of every generalization an immutable law about the Oriental culture […] are the features of Orientalist projection.”
“The mathematical efficiency of the biometric state brings with it possibilities for storing and processing data, and for generating feedback about the behaviour of individuals that was simply unmanageable in a paper bureaucracy. This brings us much closer to the all-knowing cybernetic state that Norbert Wiener predicted long ago, and it gives a chilling edge to Habermas’ worries about the steering effects of the ‘technicizing of the lifeworld’. How this all works in practice remains to be seen, but it is, I think, fair to say that both Wiener and Habermas would be surprised that this technologically precocious state is taking form outside of the developed West.”
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its goal to achieve biometric identity dominance through activities that link “an enemy combatant or similar national-security threat to […] previously used identities and past activities”, turned the city of Fallujah into “Camp Fallujah”: a testing ground for biometric applications.
In 2007, Journalist Noah Shachtmann described this situation in his Iraq Diary: Fallujahs’s Biometric Gates:
“The Marines have walled off Fallujah, and closed the city’s roads to traffic. The only way in is to have a badge. And the only way to get a badge is to have Marines snap your picture, scan your irises, and take all ten of your fingerprints. Only then can you get into the city. […] Putting the system in place can be… well, tedious doesn’t even begin to describe it. One Iraqi after another walks into this converted schoolhouse, ringed with sandbags and razor wire. One Iraqi after another is asked their name, their tribe, and told to put their fingers on the glowing green scanner.”
This essay looks at the evolution of biometric techniques for identification and control by connecting the historical emergence of biometric fingerprinting in the Colonial and Industrial Age with today’s “war on terror” by using Fallujah as a recent case. Biometrics claims that the key to a person’s identity is not her incommensurable, unique, and individual character traits, but rather the tactile presence of her body in the world, as Allan Sekula writes.
The twisted and yet standardized ways that biometrics recognize bodily presences, is the topic of this text. Biometrics purports to ask: Are you who you say you are? Yet, for Iraqis suspected to be connected to terrorist networks, this sounds more like: You are whatever I say you are.
In reading together the recent case of Fallujah and the historic socioeconomic conditions of the birth of modern fingerprinting in the Victorian Age, this text shows how biometrics were created through the construction of suspicious and risky subjects. In doing so, it dismantles the narrative of neutral technology that just “reads” from the “natural” body as it “is”.
Additionally, it proposes that the construction of a suspect population today is entangled with the formation of a surplus population: Iraqi citizens were used to test and improve biometrics and extract data. This situation is part of a hidden history of experimentation, dispossession, and accumulation that will be addressed in this text.
While ideas of white supremacy and the violent invention of race as a category organised western belief systems, beauty standards, and colonial capital, this text looks at how marginalized bodies were used as “material capital” to build the biometric apparatus. This essay examines how fingerprints, facial features and irises were accumulated, classified, and rearranged into new identities, mirroring the division of labour so central for the rise of the Industrial Age.
It examines how individuals were, from the perspective of the western eyes, objectified into suspicious subjects, dehumanised, and stripped of agency, history, and intelligence in order to become biometric data points in the emerging grids of state, military, and corporate intelligence, although resistance to these procedures was widespread throughout history. In asking who the producers of biometric apparatuses are, it provokes to take into account the accumulated social labour and collective intelligence that was involved in the process.
Read more online here