It’s tempting to think of surveillance as a purely technological problem. New imaging devices flood public spaces, recorded conversations find their way onto government databases, and new software makes the analysis of massive amounts of raw information possible. To focus on this aspect of surveillance, however, neglects its far more disturbing implications. Surveillance is more than technology: it represents a way of managing populations, creating identities, and claiming the future.

In much of her writing, scholar Jasbir Puar has sought to unravel the dense and tangled challenges posed by surveillance. Responding, in part, to the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, Puar examines how surveillance enables the state to create ideal subjects, subjects who discipline themselves and watch others. Surveillance does not simply monitor, it enforces certain behaviors and certain identities, thereby excluding others.

As part of our series on religion and surveillance, Cosmologics spoke with Puar about her work, government monitoring in America, and the future of surveillance.

Lewis West for Cosmologics


Cosmologics: Key to much of your work is that surveillance is not simply a tool to maintain “security,” but is far more productive. Could you expand on this, and especially on its relevance to the formation of various identities in America?

Jasbir Puar: Much of my work on surveillance has focused on technologies of surveillance as not only responsive and thus repressive, but also as pre-emptive and thus productive. And many of these forms of surveillance appear in neo-liberal models of security, model-minority racialization, proper modes of masculine and feminine gender conformity, educational mandates, and patriotic citizenship. This interest follows from Michel Foucault’s basic insight regarding “regimes of security” and how they operate in control societies through an anticipatory temporality: in other words, controlling so that one does not have to repress. Regimes of security also entail corralling greater numbers of populations into a collective project of surveillance.

We have seen, and continue to see, many examples of this post September 11th. The If You See Something, Say Something campaign on NYC public transit interpellates the general public into service of the “greater good”; the NSEERS list impelled pre-emptive repatriation (and sometimes migration to a country of origin that one had never been to) to South Asia and the Middle East; the Turban Is Not a Hat campaign sought to educate Americans about the differences between Muslims and Sikhs by regulating the distinctions between headwear, turbans, headscarves. Surveillance is not just about who the state is watching, but about multiple circuits of collective surveillance: it’s not just about the act of seeing or noticing or screening (bodies/identities), but also about acts of collecting, curating, and tabulating data and affect. Surveillance doesn’t just modulate between inner/outer or public/private, but rather upholds the fantasy that these discrete realms exist, while working quite insidiously through networks of gaze, data, and more. Even with forms of direct policing such as Stop and Frisk, the temporality of surveilling is not just reactive, but also preemptive and increasingly, predictive.

In surveillance studies, the notion of the “superpanoptic” supplements the panoptic. The latter is a system through which the subject internalizes the gaze of surveillance and the behavior of a docile body; the Superpanopticon, however, supplements and sometimes precedes the Panopticon. It is a system through which data forms and announces the body, producing a data body that may well show up before an actual body. After 9/11, the meme “Flying While Brown” emerged in response to airport policies regarding Arab or Muslim-looking passengers and as a correlate to “Driving While Black.” Flyers in U.S. with great compliance started throwing out their expensive toiletries and, since the “shoe bomber” incident, taking off their shoes without reflection, a comment on the smooth inhabitation of new surveillance tactics.


This kind of connective analysis links various kinds of figures that emerge as targets of explicit surveillance to the on-going systems of surveillance that bubble underneath.


More recently, Global Entry, TSA Pre√, and other pay-as-you-go securitization programs allow you to pay for your status as a non-security risk or terrorist threat. I’m very interested in these forms of pay-as-you-go surveillance systems that neutralize you as a security risk. I think they allow for new fissures in the informational superpanoptic to develop, as people like myself, who have traveled, for example, to Pakistan, Lebanon, and Palestine, have nonetheless paid to be certified as non-risky travelers. The data body, composed of information, of qualitative and quantitative metrics, supersedes the physical body. The data body does not replace the physical body, but cuts in front of it, thus allowing a scrambling of class, race, and nation in particular.

Cosmologics: Writers have noted a shift in American surveillance after September 11th which in part refocused police efforts on religious minorities. Could you speak a little more to this shift, and perhaps place it within a wider trajectory of surveillance in America?

Jasbir Puar: Much of the work in Terrorist Assemblages mapped out the dissolution of public/private divides that have in the past animated feminist scholarship regarding the state and state intrusion into the “private.” This private, as women of color and transnational feminists have pointed out, has never quite existed given the level of state bureaucratic and administrative presence in the households of immigrants and people of color. One interest of mine is connecting the securitization upsurge that occurred after 9/11 with the formation of Homeland Security to both earlier and more recent discourses of security that revolve around the “home,” and in particular the home as something private, national, and safe. So before the War on Terror we had the War on Drugs: this rationalized policing in the name of safe homes, in Black communities in particular. The War on Drugs no doubt provided a domestic blueprint for the foreign deployment enacted after September 11th. This is one connective point to 9/11.

Another connective tissue to 9/11 is the financial crisis of 2008, which was not a break from the securitization of the home and homeland, but a manifestation of one of its tactical failures, that of securing the home economically. I think 2008 marks the end of the “post 9/11” moment and re-complicates the “Muslim terrorist” as the predominate target of surveillance technologies and discourses. Surveillance happens—obliquely, but it happens—through the instrument of the sub-prime mortgage, whereby once again the security and safety of the home is determined through the surveillance of those subjects deemed financially suspect. In this case, predominantly Black and Latino populations were subject to foreclosures. Surveillance and securitization economies work through a sort of monetization of ontology—certain bodies are intrinsically risky investments via a circular logic of precarity whereby these bodies are set up as unable to take on risk in the very system that produces them as risky.

This kind of connective analysis links various kinds of figures that emerge as targets of explicit surveillance—in the case of 9/11, a religious figure, the fundamentalist terrorist—to the on-going systems of surveillance that bubble underneath. One analysis that I offer in Terrorist Assemblages is the irony of the decriminalization of sodomy in the Lawrence decision of 2004, a ruling that pivoted around the privatization of anal (and thus homosexual) sex within the sanctity of the privately-owned home. This was at a time when Homeland Security was requiring registration of men from Muslim countries, infiltrating mosques, enacting home deportations—just generally disrupting and halting the construction of any kind of private home. One interpretation, then, of who exactly the Lawrence decision protects is: not so much the lesbian or gay or homosexual or queer subject, but rather one whose private home has no reason to be suspected and is not suspicious. The construction of “intimacy,” as it is anchored in the private, becomes instrumentalized within the calculus of biopolitics, a measure of one’s worth to the state.


The “democratization” of surveillance through networks of control demands we pay even greater attention to the uneven distribution of disciplining, punishment, and pleasure.


Cosmologics: What frameworks have you found the most compelling for understanding the experience of surveillance in ways more sensitive to lived reality, especially given the many ways we ourselves participate in surveillance?

Jasbir Puar: I have always been bemused about the debates regarding social media and privacy. Outrage over the intrusion of privacy practices on Facebook and Twitter erupt with regularity. But rather than merely expressing discomfort and nostalgia about a long-gone protected realm of the private, these debates also obfuscate an uncomfortable truth: that Facebook taps into our inner-stalker, taps into the pleasures we revel in by surveilling others and by living out our own “privates” in public. There is a kind of affective, technonationalist embrace of surveillance.

So I think there is a conversation yet to be had about pleasure and surveillance in relation to governmentality, policing, and biopolitics. This pleasure is both afforded and sublimated in the directive to surveil on behalf of patriotism, the War on Terror, and “America.” Given the ubiquity of surveillance in our everyday lives—we think nothing of pulling out cell phones to capture on video any number of events that may unexpectedly unfold in front of us, from car accidents to incidents of police brutality to weather phenomena to gang rapes—it then is hardly a stretch for a university administration (in this case, Rutgers University) to present the possibility of installing cameras in classrooms as a protective measure and as the natural course of the normalization of surveillance.

Of course, the inhabitation of such pleasures is uneven and linked to the differential effects of surveillance upon different bodies and communities. So the questions in front of us toggle between “who is being surveilled, and based on the assumption of what political/dissident/deviant qualities?” to “is everyone being surveilled, and if so, what is done with the surveillance? How are the lines drawn between pleasure and punishment?” The “democratization” of surveillance through networks of control demands we pay even greater attention to the uneven distribution of disciplining, punishment, and pleasure.


Gaza will be purportedly be uninhabitable by year 2020—according to whose metric, and by which predictive, prehensive algorithms?


Cosmologics: How do you understand surveillance as having changed recently, and what do you see as the challenges it will pose in the future?

Jasbir Puar: One tendency I have also been tracking is the move from responsive to pre-emptive to “prehensive” securitization. The prehensive is a way of thinking about calculations of risk and the functioning of surveillance that considers more than how surveillance potentially pre-empts unwanted outcomes through the disciplining of some as a warning to all, and through the recruitment of the general populace in the task of watching. Rather the prehensive is about making the present look exactly the way it needs to in order to guarantee a very specific and singular outcome in the future.

I am most interested in how this works in Gaza—how mathematical algorithms are deployed to fix calorie intake, water supplies, and electric currents, among other infrastructural elements—to create an asphixatory regime of control, in which the Palestinians can breathe and not breathe according to the desires of the Occupier/Israel. This to me seems to be yet another manifestation of surveillance which is indebted to Foucault’s regimes of security, but which also mutates it. It is not just an attempt to eliminate unwanted entities through a paternalistic discourse of protectionism, but an actual predictive economy that is much more deliberate in its targeting. Gaza will be purportedly be uninhabitable by year 2020—according to whose metric, and by which predictive, prehensive algorithms? How is this inevitability procured? The prehensive is about putting into place a set of predictive facts-on-the-ground, in the terms of the language of risk, which extends itself to a projected “apocalypse.” This set of constructed “facts” then lends itself easily to the representation of Gaza as a “natural” disaster likely to happen. This kind of surveillance, in the name not only of securitization but also of controlling the future, is one, I believe, with which we will increasingly have to grapple.

Jasbir K. Puar is Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She received her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California at Berkeley in 1999 and an M.A. from the University of York, England, in Women’s Studies in 1993. Puar is the author of Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, which won the 2007 Cultural Studies Book Award from the Association for Asian American Studies. She has written for many publications within and beyond the academy, and her forthcoming monograph, Affective Politics: States of Debility and Capacity, takes up questions of disability in the context of theories of bodily assemblages that trouble intersectional identity frames.

Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.


Image from Flickr via Thomas Hawk


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