From Identity to Profile: Superpanopticism, Race as Technology, and hopefully some clarification for my transnational feminism class
For the past two weeks, my transnational feminism class has been working our way through Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this text, and I think many of felt things got more complicated, not more clear, the more we worked. So, to help bring what I hope is at least a modicum of clarity to our discussions, I decided to post a section from my manuscript-in-progress which directly deals with Puar’s concept of “profile” and its relation to superpanopticism/biopolitical administration.
I want to again emphasize that this a work in progress. 🙂
Superpanopticism is not interested in individual subjects as such, but in populations, in aggregates. Without much of an investment in individualized and individuated subjects, superpanopticism has little use for identities—it does not need to make inferences about the qualities and capacities of subjects, which is how social identities work. Rather, superpanopticism needs to survey, monitor, and adjust averages across a population or a group. Its profilingstrategies use race, gender, and sexuality as technologies. Specifically, these technologies distribute state and “institutional support,” doling out resources so that averages can be maintained and aleatory, statistically deviant “events” can be minimized. Those fitting some profiles are incited to live, and others, who fit different profiles, are left to die. Puar thus develops a concept of “the profile” as a superpanoptic alternative to juridical and disciplinary/panoptic notions of “identity.” In this section, I will explain Puar’s concept of “profile” by comparing it to Falguni Sheth’s concept of race-as-technology. I will then connect the prfile to Puar’s notion of “assemblage” in order to show how Puar develops her case for the need to theorize beyond the visual.
Reflective of their shared debt to (and criticism of) Foucault, Puar’s conception of race is similar in many ways to philosopher Falguni Sheth’s. Sheth argues that race is not (just) a “what”—an identity—but (more importantly) a “how”—a technology. As Sheth explains, in shifting the question from what race is to what it does,
race is no longer descriptive, but causal: it facilitates and produces certain relationships between individuals, between groups, and between political subjects and sovereign power. The function of race, then, is similar to the function of technology: Technology, commonly considered as equipment, facilitates the production of certain ‘goods’…race becomes an instrument that produces certain political and social outcomes that are needed to cohere society” (Sheth, 22).
As a technology, race (or gender, or sexuality) is more than a property of bodies; it is a system for organizing society. For example, the popularization of the automobile significantly shaped post-WWII urban development in the United States. The car made certain kinds of relationships among individuals and groups easier to establish and maintain. It also encouraged the use of the driver’s license as a near mandatory form of individual identification, and encourages specific relationships between individuals and the state. As a technology like the car, race encourages and discourages certain kinds of relationships among individuals and groups, and among individuals, groups, and the state. Race is used to dole out exposure to environmental hazards, likelihood (and severity) of encounters with law enforcement, reproductive autonomy, even perceived queerness. To perform this distributive function, race can’t be tethered to human bodies—it needs to be perceived in non-human things, like locations, clothing, musical styles, or, as I have argued elsewhere, even dog breeds. Thus, as Puar argues, “the terms of whiteness,” for example, “cannot remain solely in the realm of racial identification or phenotype” (200). Like Sheth, Puar thinks that race is not just a visible, substantive property of bodies. “Race and sex,” Puar argues, “are to be increasingly thought outside the parameters of identity, as assemblages, as events” (211). Something happens in and/or through an event (even in the most general, least technical sense of the term).As an assemblage or event, race has a function, it does something.According to Puar, race and sex can, accomplish, among other ends, “render bodies transparent or opaque, secure or insecure, risky or at risk, risk-enabled or risk-disabled, the living or the dead” (160). In other words, Puar thinks race and sex are, to use Sheth’s words “instruments that produce certain political and social outcomes that are needed to cohere society.” I will return to the idea of assemblage later in this section. For now, it’s sufficient to note that Puar and Sheth eschew the visible-social-identity model in favor of the technology model.
Puar argues that superpanopticism favors one technological medium—the profile. It is helpful, if perhaps a bit blunt, to contrast profiles with images. Social identities follow the representational logic of images: a sign refers to some signified content. One’s race or gender can symbolize one’s cognitive capacities, sexual appetitiveness, or even taste in music. Profiles, on the other hand, summarize or systematize relations among data; in this respect, a profile is more like a mathematical equation than a picture. As Puar explains, “the profile, as a type of composite, also works…as a mechanism of information collection and analysis that tabulates marketing information, demographics, consumer habits, computer usage, etc.” (192). Profiles bring together many strongly and loosely-related “facts” or bits of information. Unlike images, which re-present content, profiles show relationships among more-or-less disparate data points. So, while identities use surface/depthlogics to ground inferences about the “inner content” of a person in his or her visible appearance, profiles use network logics to describe a person’s position in relation to others. “The profile establishes the individual as imbricated in manifold populations” (Puar 162). Profiles are accounts of the form or structure of relationships, which can be measured “in terms of speed, pace, repetition, and informational flows” (Puar 201). Thus, “what is at stake” in profiling “is the repetition and relay of ubiquitous images,” which are formal, structural factors, “not their symbolic or representational meaning” (Puar 201). Profiles use relationships among bits of information (e.g., how frequently one visits a website, how much and how often one buys a particular product) to gauge individuals’ situation in relation to others, and relations among various groups.
Instruments for measuring, analyzing, and calculating information, profiles do not use visible body features like phenotype or gendered bodily comportment. Thus, Puar argues that we “profile” people not through surveillance, but through the monitoring of our “sense of” or “feel for” a person (or, more informally, their “vibe”). “A patrolling of affect changes the terms of ‘what kind of person’ would be a terrorist or smuggler, recognizing that the terrorist…could look like anyone and do just like everyone else, but might seem something else” (197). This “seeming” is an assessment not of identity or actions, but of one’s “fit” with a particular profile. Puar describes this assessment as a “see[ing] through” the body (199). Profiling is not a visual assessment of what the body’s outward appearance means or represents. With profiling, “the visual is expanded through a certain kind of transparency, not only by looking at the body, but by looking through it” (199). So, Puar argues that profiling and panopticism operate literally beyond the visual—they “expand” the visual beyond its traditional, representational mode. To “see” the body is to use its visible appearance as an outward sign or symbol of its inner content. To “see through” the body is to remix or re-order the body and its constituent parts. As a “surveillance event,” profiling “is a rematerialization of the body, a slaying of the body across multiple registers that adumbrates the terms of intimacy, intensity, and interiority” (199). The profile need only adumbrate or hint at interiority, because it is more interested in the relations among parts than in what these parts are or what they mean. This emphasis on relations among parts is why profiles remix rather than represent. As in music production, profiling remixes by cutting and reordering parts: “the subject is divided up into subhuman particles of knowledge that nevertheless exceed the boundaries of the body, yet it is also multiply splayed through, across, and between intersecting and overlapping populations” (Puar 12). Profiles describe the relations among individuals as members of defined groups—be they members of a specific race, or consumers of a specific brand of commodity. In fact, profiling tracks membership in either group—race or brand-affiliation—in terms of the other. “The profile disperses control through circuits catching multiple interpenetrating sites of anxiety” (198). So, as a technology, profiles are used to monitor and maintain population-wide averages, and to predict and preempt deviant events. They work on and through relationships, whereas identities work on and through visible body appearance.
Profiling may be a technology of surveillance, but it is not one that uses sight, at least in any standard sense of the term. Traditionally, vision perceives images, appearances, and representations—a subject perceives an object. Puar argues that superpanopticism follows a different “economy of sight,” one without either “subjects” or “objects.” Instead, we have “assemblage[s] of subindividual capacities” that are “visualized” in the way that data is visualized in a new media environment. The point is not to see objects, but relationships among types of info.
Here’s a word cloud of this blog made using the web app “Wordle”:
 Puar’s discussion of torture is clear evidence of her “technological” conception of race, gender, and sexuality. Speaking not about femininity, but about “the force of feminizing,” Puar attributes the following effects to this force: “stripping away,” “faggotizing,” “robbing,” “fortification,” “rescripting,” “regendering,” and “interplay” with technologies of “racial, imperial, and economic matrices of power” (100).
 “This shift forces us to ask not only what terrorist corporealities mean or signify, but more insistently, what do they do?” (Puar, 204; emphasis mine).