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Countering Inverse Surveillance: The Borrowed Kettle Alibi

A too-narrow focus on surveillance runs the danger of isolating it from the broader context of power and social relations on which it relies. This decon- textualization is misleading because it can treat surveillance itself as a form of power—a tool that, in and of itself, can empower the bearer of the monitoring gaze. Hence the attribution of subversive power to inverse surveillance. As Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman put it, before adding their own qualifications, “The social aspect of self-empowerment suggests that sousveillance is an act of liberation, of staking our public territory, and a leveling of the surveillance playing field.”29 Similarly, Laura Huey, Kevin Walby, and Aaron Doyle note that “when the activities of Cop Watch groups are conceptualized as sousveillance, counter-monitoring from below using video recording equipment appears to be progressive and leveling of surveillance hierarchies.”30 But absent expectations of and mechanisms for accountability, the ability to watch—to merely watch— can also be a form of helplessness. Thus any account of the political potential of inverse surveillance must take into account at least two sets of counterstrategies on the part of authorities. The first undermines mechanisms of accountability and the second thwarts expectations of accountability. Attempts to preempt organized forms of countersurveillance might be considered to fall into the former category insofar as they bypass laws and expectations regarding the right of citizens to monitor activities that take place in public spaces. In this regard, the ability of authorities to devise pretexts (homeland security, invented accusations of barricaded hostages) for preemptively detaining activists and confiscating their equipment circumvents established legal regimes of public accountability. These pretexts are legitimated, at least in the United States, by right-leaning, post-9/11 rhetoric that assumes a tradeoff between security and civil liberties. According to such accounts, protecting the “homeland” means submitting to increasingly aggressive forms of policing and security measures—the type that were used to detain members of the Glass Bead Collective and confiscate their equipment. In this regard, we might invert the activist slogan: power preempts the ability to speak truth to it. To the extent that it is the very authorities who are being monitored that have the discretion to enforce or thwart the rules that guarantee the right to monitor, power and monitoring are not symmetrical or coequal forces.

A second counter-countersurveillance strategy entails undermining expectations of accountability. Consider examples of Bush-era legislation such as the USA Patriot Act, which exempts measures taken in its name from the Freedom of Information Act—that is, from public accountability. In this instance, it is the threat of terrorism that is used to gain acceptance for diminished expectations of accountability—a trend that was an integral part of the Bush administration’s style of corporate executive governance. The threat of terror is mobilized to reduce expectations of accountability, which in turn helps legitimate changes to existing accountability mechanisms. The attempt to get the public to view the threat of terror as one that justifies a tradeoff between security and civil liberties licenses more aggressive forms of preemptive policing.

But there is another, equally insidious aspect to the challenge of expectations of accountability: the undermining of what might be called the evidence-based form of argument on which narratives of inverse surveillance rely. This is a strategy abetted by the multiplication and amplification of narratives facilitated by the Internet and is perhaps epitomized by the public relations tactics of the postmodern Right: flood the zone with counternarratives of all kinds, heightening cynicism and denying the possibility of rationally discriminating between them. As one example of how this strategy works, Bruno Latour points to a press account of the Republican response in the United States to the threat of global warming: “Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that ‘the scientific debate is closing against us.’ His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete. ‘Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,’ he writes, ‘their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.’”31 This is a generalizable strategy for dealing with counternarratives and critique: challenge the critique and respond not with attempts to reinforce the dominant narrative but rather with a flood of information that demobilizes the ability to choose. By multiplying the narratives—and in particular those narratives that cast uncertainty on one another—the goal is to highlight the absence of any “objective” standard for arbitrating between them. The signature move is the conflation of the insight that all knowledge is characterized by bias with the assertion that such knowledge is wholly reducible to bias. As Joshua Micah Marshall puts it, in a description of the tactics of the political Right, at the heart of such a strategy “is the belief that . . . ideology isn’t just the prism through which we see the world, or a pervasive tilt in the way a person understands a given set of facts. Ideology is really all there is.”32

Thus for example, while the Abu Ghraib photographs gave the lie to the claim that the United States does not torture, the struggle continues over the narrative of responsibility: was this the act of a few undisciplined soldiers run amok or the direct result of policy promulgated at the highest level of government? It is telling that the contemporary response of Republican authorities to evidence that appears to contradict their dominant narratives is not to dispute the facts but to multiply the accounts of their significance to the point of uncertainty and confusion. This might be described, following Slavoj Zizek’s invocation of Sigmund Freud, as the “borrowed kettle” alibi of power. The term refers to the multiplication of contradictory narratives refuting apparent facts: confronted with the fact that the kettle he borrowed was returned with a hole in it, the person accused of breaking it responds with several mutually contradictory excuses: “There was already a hole when I borrowed it; the hole wasn’t there when I returned it; I didn’t even borrow the kettle.”33

Such is the familiar response of the Right to evidence of global warming: “Global warming is a hoax trumped up by those who hate industry; global warming does exist, but it is an inevitable part of a natural cycle independent of human activity; global warming is taking place, for whatever reason, but it may be actually be good for us: extending growing seasons, creating new shipping routes, and so on.” The strategy here is to sow sufficient confusion to neutralize a challenge to the dominant narrative. It is a strategy predicated on the notion that the existence of counternarratives is not in itself a threat to the authority of the dominant narrative. At the same time, sowing confusion can have the politically demobilizing effect of fostering a generalized skepticism that undermines recourse to narrative itself, thereby undermining attempts to challenge power with counternarratives of truth.

The borrowed kettle strategy relates to inverse surveillance insofar as it calls into question the context of seemingly straightforward video evidence, pointing out that every account is perspectival: every shot necessarily leaves something out of the frame. Thus the response to video evidence of police abuse is to argue that something left out by the camera justified violent action or to call into question the motives of those collecting the video as a means of distracting attention from its content. The conservative goal of what might be described as the postmodern Right is to undermine the efficacy of an oppositional strategy that relies on crafting a clear counternarrative to power. This is a strategy directly addressed to (undermining) the potential of interactive media technologies and one that turns them to its own ends.

All of which is not to discount the potential of inverse surveillance or sous- veillance but rather to highlight the ways it is caught up in existing power relations, triggering the various responses available to authorities who retain control over the legitimate use of force. At the same time, it is worth noting the advantages afforded to activists by practices of distributed or crowd-sourced monitoring and the availability of the Internet as a means of circulating the results of this monitoring. As Vlad Teichberg, a member of the Glass Bead Collective, observed, the Internet not only serves as an alternative news and information source but also, critically, provides a way of attracting the attention of the mainstream media: “In our experience, mainstream media is an integral part of the process, and in fact the only way to reach mass appeal is to somehow co-opt the mainstream media to report the information that we are trying to get out. Internet and viral stuff becomes very important because it creates cultural objects the media just can’t ignore—if one succeeds in making something go truly viral.”34

Neither the mainstream media nor the authorities have the resources to provide the kind of collective documentation that can be assembled not only from video activists but, increasingly, from the hundreds or thousands of citizens with digital cameras and mobile phones at public events. It is precisely this glut of monitoring resources that Teichberg sees as a defense against police counterstrategies: “What’s working against the ability of the state to control this is the spread of availability of cameras . . . So in the end this becomes a situation of whack-a-mole for them.”35 There aren’t enough cops to confiscate all the cameras. Because documentation of the action is both decentralized and synoptic (the many watching the few) in a sense invoked by Thomas Mathiesen, it achieves the amplification effect associated with the panopticon, but through different means.36 To the extent that police understand they are the targets of surveillance, they find themselves among the few at the center of the action to which the cameras of the many may turn at any time. As there is no central location from which such monitoring occurs, it cannot be shut down, blocked, or evaded in advance. At the same time, there is no guarantee that individual acts of abuse will be caught on tape—escape from the monitoring gaze is possible. But any act might be captured and promptly distributed to millions online. As Teichberg points out, preempting activist monitoring does not eliminate countersurveillance. Some of the most high-profile examples of police abuse caught on video—such as the 2009 New Year’s Day shooting of a 22-year-old man by a transit policeman in Berkeley, California—have been the result of bystanders with mobile phones. Moreover, attempts to interfere with the coverage of police action by journalists and activists may only attract the lenses of the public.

The default antidote to strategies of preemption, then, becomes more monitoring. Mann, Nolan, and Wellman warn of a spiral of surveillance that, in the end, leaves power relations unchanged: “Universal surveillance/sousveillance may, in the end, only serve the ends of the existing dominant power structure . . . by fostering broad accessibility of monitoring and ubiquitous data collection.”37 This warning should be read, I think, not so much as an argument against the monitoring of authorities—a bedrock principle of democratic governance—as a concern about the disappearance of inframonitored spaces— spaces that fall below the threshold of monitoring—altogether. The concern is not over the disappearance of those spaces that allow the police to bend or break the rules but rather with those that allow activists to challenge and subvert them. It is hard not to read such a warning as a call to leave the monitoring in the hands of authorities. Perhaps the more salient concern, in an era of “monitoring glut,” is access to and control over the resources for making sense of distributed information collection: sorting through it, discerning patterns, and putting these to use. The question of control over such resources reintroduces the issue of asymmetry in the monitoring relationship: on the one hand, distributed forms of monitoring for holding targeted authorities up for scrutiny; on the other, comprehensive forms of data mining monopolized by state and commercial authorities to discern patterns, target suspects, and preempt dissent. The progressive potential of monitoring as a political tool may hang in the balance between these two strategies.

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