Synopsis of keynote address, TASA Conference 2015

Written by Itty Abraham, Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS, Singapore:

It’s pretty obvious that technological change affects society, but how it does so is not always clear. In the keynote address I gave at the last TASA Conference (Cairns, 2015), I tried to show how, even as the world appears to become more and more virtual, our most material condition, namely our bodies, are being constantly reframed to be at the centre of these shifting technopolitical relations. In my lecture, I explored this problematic to show how the material body has, over time, become an irrefutable form of evidence for judicial courts, even at the cost of civil liberties, and how the same techniques are now deployed by massive databases to draw into question what we mean by ‘society’.

I began with the colonial courts and their judicially expressed scepticism at the veracity of native testimony. Of course race was at the heart of this problem, because British colonial officers could never quite be convinced that their ideas of what it meant to tell the ‘whole truth’ translated well across racial boundaries. (And, it should be said, they were probably correct, but not for the reasons that they imagined). Even before we get to truth-telling, however, the courts had to establish the identity of the persons in front of them, not always an easy task. Among the many methods used to identify habitual criminals was the tattoo: a technique used in many jurisdictions around the world for this purpose. The history of the fingerprint also dates from this period, the second half of the 19th century. A colonial administrator, the story goes, was surprised at the number of Indians collecting government pensions who were well over 100 years old. He started taking their fingerprints and in due course the number of fraudulent claims dropped substantially. However, it took a while for this now-ubiquitous technique to catch on, mostly because of the logistical issues associated with taking and retrieving fingerprints in a timely way. Eventually, the problem was solved by a team of Calcutta Police sleuths, and their method became the global standard when it was adopted by Scotland Yard. This is also a compelling account of early globalisation, in this case consequential flows of knowledge moving from South to North, a vector that can be seen more often than one realises in the age of imperialism. Anyway, this was the turning point in the equation of the body as irrefutable proof.

I then turned to discuss a recent Indian Supreme Court case (2010), which gave a very mixed opinion on the question of self-incrimination. To be more specific, the court found fault with the widespread use of techniques such as brain scans, polygraphs, and so-called truth serums by the Indian police, but agreed that evidence gathered by these means were admissible in court if the accused chose to be subjected to these techniques voluntarily. What is common about these techniques is that they claim to bypass the conscious mind, thus offering, it is assumed, a glimpse into an ‘embodied’ and hence superior truth. Indeed, the Indian police would go so far as to claim that these tools were humane advances, insofar as they would reduce the extent of ‘third degree’ methods of law enforcement rampant across the country. ‘Voluntary’, however, loses all meaning when the whole point of the exercise is to bypass the conscious mind. It is impossible to understand this rather contradictory decision unless we are reminded of the long history of the body as a more reliable source of evidence: more reliable, that is, than the always dissembling (even when postcolonial) native.

The next jump was to biopolitics, the mode of power through which, according to Foucault, the state seeks to ensure and preserve its long-term survival by ensuring the wellbeing and reproduction of the population. The emergence of biopolitics is closely tied to social statistics: the state develops techniques that help it know the socio-economic condition of the population, the most obvious method being the census. Populations have been counted in India for a long time, thanks to rapacious rulers that needed to know what their resources – human and otherwise – were. A number of biopolitical techniques have been employed in India, from the ration card to the census, but the most ambitious project ever attempted is the Aadhaar project, now about five years old. Aadhaar seeks to give every resident of India a unique identity number and identity card validated by biometrics including fingerprints and a retinal scan. The tremendous expense of Aadhaar is justified in terms of welfare of the neediest. The purpose of the card is to bypass the middlemen who seek to extract primitive rents from those who can least afford them. In a country that does not have an official identity card, the Aadhaar project raises a number of critical political issues ranging from national security to privacy. Controversies over Aadhaar include its putative ability to link state databases that have traditionally been kept apart, as well as the question of whether it should also collect data on citizenship. At the heart of the project, however, lies the body and its now well-proven ability to affirm that it is who it says it is, confirmed by the intercession of forensic technologies.

Aadhaar and other biopolitical projects like it produce massive databases. Whatever use or misuse they may be put to, these databases are validated in the end by reference to the material bodies indexed within them. Entries in the database are no longer complete bodies but rather material fragments: retinal scans, fingerprints, blood work, DNA markers. The image of the social body that emerges from adding up individual entries in the database is a summation of these fragments, mediated by the algorithmic interface used to extract it. As a result, political invocations of ‘society’ do not mean what they once did, but rather reference an apparatus joining discrete body parts, state institutions, and new technologies: relevant publics are those social bodies interpellated by this technopolitical apparatus at any particular moment. I am still thinking through the implications of what is, to me, a rather grim and dystopic present: the implications for what we mean by politics and for what we mean by the social.

TASA gave me the rare opportunity to reflect aloud on these concerns, for which I am thankful, and to get lots of useful and critical feedback from those stalwarts attending a session that cruelly began at 9 in the morning after a wonderful conference dinner the night before, for which I am in awe.

Share Button