Looking and Rending Identity

by zunguzungu

I actually wrote and posted this in June 2008, but I’m re-posting it (with a couple minor edits), just because.

In the bad old days, people like J. Edgar Hoover had an extraordinary inclination to conflate black agitation with communism. But while the state department and the FBI were never really sure if they were harassing people like Paul Robeson or W.E.B. DuBois because they were black radicals or because they were sympathetic to a Marxist explanation of history, they also didn’t lose much sleep over the distinction. Hoover’s project of surveillance and blackmail against MLK was, as he understood it, a specifically cold war campaign — he never got over being tapped to lead the FBI while Dulles got the newly formed CIA — and even though all the data they collected showed that King was not at all sympathetic to secular communism, and had no real connections to foreign groups outside the United States, they persisted in seeing the spectre of incipient communism everywhere they looked.

The easiest explanation is that people like Hoover were simplistic tools, sufficiently warped by cold war ideology that when they saw someone like Robeson, DuBois, or King dare to question the American way, they could only parse the data in manichaean terms: not American, therefore communist. That might be it; that shoe might fit. But maybe they also saw communism everywhere they looked not because they were bad lookers, but because of what they understood looking itself to signify, precisely because they were very good at looking. In other words, I wonder how much of what they saw was not a product of what they were obsessively looking for, but a byproduct of how “looking” was being conceptually understood by them: as with torture, while surveillance is supposed to be a mode of detecting crimes, in practice it can very quickly shade into evidence of a crime. If those guys incarcerated at Guantanemo Bay were innocent, then why were they picked up in the first place? If MLK was innocent, after all, why were the FBI bugging his hotel rooms? With torture, once the line has been crossed, the person being tortured has to incriminate himself or the torture cannot conclude (since the torturer will have difficulty admitting that the subject proved himself under torture to be innocent) and the fact of having been tortured, in practice, becomes a proof of guilt. And perhaps something very similar with FBI surveillance?

There’s a fine hair I’m trying to split here, the difference between seeing what you’re looking for because, say, you’re so obsessively looking for it (a fault in your seeing), and producing what you’re looking for precisely because of how your sight functions is quite a fine distinction. But the difference is in where we locate the origin of the perniciousness seen: is it a malfunction in the way things are seen (Hoover’s inability to properly judge the data because he was such a cold war freak) or a kind of perceptive function whose rationality is unimpeachable, however grotesque? There is nothing illogical, per se, about the reasoning that detained Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects can never be released into the world: despite having been wrongly arrested in the first place, they have become guilty by the very process of having been interrogated, tortured, and rendered. It is not, in this sense, so much a having been convicted of anything as having been interpellated into an identity. And while the theoretical distinction might be fine but significant, the practical distinction may not exist at all. Is there a practical difference between being interpellated as a criminal type and having been convicted of a crime? How many accused pedophiles would you trust your children with? Would you allow an accused terrorist on an airplane? We know how the “stereotypical American,” that son of a bitch, would answer those questions.

Anyway, I started thinking about MLK and Hoover not because of Guantanamo, but because of something someone I met in a cafe recently told me about how “natives” understand tourist photography in parts of Indonesia. She said that when she was taking pictures of things and people, she was very careful–being a sensitive and liberal academic researcher–to ask people’s permissions first. She didn’t want to exploit them by taking their picture without their understanding of what was involved, didn’t want to “prey” on them with her camera. But she said that they (I think it was in Java? can’t recall now) didn’t see it as an exploitation at all; for them, it was a demonstration of their own power, their own charisma, that someone would come across the ocean to take pictures of them. For them, the power relationship was reversed: whereas she presumed that taking a picture placed her in the position of power, they presumed the opposite, that the fact of being photographed was a sign of the the photographee’s power.

As real anthropology, of course, the “snapshot” I’ve just given is most likely misleading and certainly inadequate. One of the most persistant fictions within anthropological literature is the idea that “natives” can have one set of beliefs while “the West” has another, a fiction because anthropologists only study “natives” who are already well acquainted with the “West” (and have often figured out their nativeness by long engagement with Westerners), because neither category holds up under scrutiny, and because it expresses so clearly something we would like to believe, usually without reference to whether there is actual evidence or not.

But the distinction being drawn there, a conceptual distinction whether or not it’s a distinction in practice, does raise an important question for me: do we conceptualize looking as an invasive and aggressive act because of its long imbrication, as practice, within the arsenal of police work? Within the practices of labor discipline? Within the exertion of authority to produce socially normal behavior? After all, looking at someone isn’t necessarily a hostile or aggressive act; it’s a passive form information gathering, and — one could think — easily ignorable. Yet I can recall quite clearly the disquieting feeling of being stared at by rows of strangers in Tanzania, an irrational feeling of a latent threat I had no idea how to deal with. To be the center of attention; why should that be threatening? After all, maybe they were merely paying tribute to my awesome power and charisma. Where did I get that expectation, that reaction? Do you have it too? What do you become when you look into someone else’s life?

The point I’m making, laboriously, is simply that the manner in which “the West” conceptualizes “seeing” (at least in situations of power imbalance) is so often already as a kind of violence, or at least a threat of violence (and let us not forget that, legally, “assault” merely signifies the threat of physical battery). And the fact that it doesn’t have to be should make us think about the consequences of the fact that it is. Maybe it was the very fact of having surveilled MLK, of having subjected him to the disciplinary apparatus of the FBI, that made it so clear to Hoover that he was a communist. Having looked at him, how could he subsequently become un-policed? Like with someone you’ve already started to torture, you can’t stop halfway through and decide you’ve made a mistake without some serious psychic consequences. Conversely, how, having once accused someone and set the wheels of surveillance in motion, could someone like Hoover step back and undo that act of interpellation? One cannot, in the logic of red-baiting, undo a smear, and they didn’t tend to do so.