Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present

Publication Type:

Book

Source:

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.288 (2014)

ISBN:

1107077842

URL:

http://www.amazon.com/Biometric-State-Politics-Identification-Surveillance-ebook/dp/B00N4PM4CK/

Abstract:

Biometric identification and registration systems are being proposed by governments and businesses across the world. Surprisingly they are under most rapid, and systematic, development in countries in Africa and Asia. In this groundbreaking book Keith Breckenridge traces how the origins of the systems being developed in places like India, Mexico, Nigeria and Ghana can be found in a century-long history of biometric government in South Africa, with the South African experience of centralized fingerprint identification unparalleled in its chronological depth and demographic scope. He shows how empire, and particularly the triangular relationship between India, the Witwatersrand and Britain, established the special South African obsession with biometric government, and shaped the international politics that developed around it for the length of the twentieth century. He also examines the political effects of biometric registration systems, revealing their consequences for the basic workings of the institutions of democracy and authoritarianism.

Law and personhood

The assembling of a new set of South African and global citizenships has taken on new urgency and a new plurality twenty years after the supposed advent of freedom. Categories make persons and persons make categories, as Jones and Dlamini have recently pointed out. In the South African constitutional text – where the phrase ‘categories of persons’ is written – race is but one of sixteen categories on the formal list. Indeed, the effort of desegregating publics now takes place without the freshness of new symbols and with potentially merely symbolic institutions. In the public sphere, some responses harken back to earlier times – either to times of forward-thinking, to times of social-making, or even to times of separating. Other responses rest in a consumptive present or appear as mere promised rhetorical bridges into the future. In this project WISER will examine the new questions that scholars in the law and the humanities are posing themselves. What are the complex fashions in which bounded enclaves and social categories are fraying and unravelling or reforming? How, if at all, are persons remaking themselves as citizens? At the same time that these questions pose themselves, new fields of play are emerging with the changing audiences of the fashion shops and the sports terrains as well as the changing forms and formats of affluence and the new middle class. The very concept of a person as well as their categorical boundaries may shift with the movement of blood, organs, and self-awareness.

Digital Humanities

Over the last two decades African humanities scholarship has been powerfully moved by an interest in real and figurative archives in shaping the politics of knowledge. This curiousity about the power of official and private archives in setting the limits of what can be known has coincided with a global change in the forms and qualities of texts that last occurred in the 16th century. The rapid expansion of the Internet, and the proliferation of digital textual forms and repositories that it fosters, presents difficult questions about the project of Humanities scholarship which is so closely bound to the form of the printed book. But it also offers compelling opportunities to reconsider and reorganise the work of private and public archives, and their effects. In the wake of collapses in state-support for academic libraries and book publishing there are real opportunities for African scholarship in the new forms of access, distribution and curatorship that are supported by the Internet. But – when many universities on the continent have no reliable electricity supply – the digital revolution is itself potentially a source of new kinds of intellectual exclusion that must be addressed pragmatically and with cunning. In this theme WISER will mobilize the emerging tools of the digital humanities to investigate, and rework, the deep politics and effects of the inherited archive, of official record keeping, the form of the book and visual cultures.

African Futures

As major transformations unfold, our understanding of Africa, its past, its future and its relation to the world seems to be caught between two contending paradigms. The first is shaped by the discourse of crisis and disaster, emergency and survival. The second is future-oriented. It is preoccupied with Africa’s shifting position within the global economy and its apparent rise, the material and virtual flows and the infrastructures that connect Africa to its diasporas and the broader world, and to the social and aesthetic experiences of its inhabitants. This project will take stock of the contending discourses on African futures. It aims at drawing together in robust conversation a broad range of parallel debates currently going on in areas as diverse as literature, science-fiction, music and digital technologies, economics, futures markets, demography and public health, environmental studies, arts, design and fashion. It will also tease out the theoretical and practical implications of these discourses and the extent to which Afro-futurism could be read against similar trends elsewhere, in China, India, Russia and Brazil in particular.

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