Imperial biometric laboratory

Thursday, 4 October, 2012 - 14:15

Presented by : 


Please note the unusual time for this seminar.

I have three main aims for this introduction: to identify and explain the main ideas that run through this book, to highlight the key arguments and to explain why the South African history of biometric government is internationally important and distinctive. In a little more detail, this is a book about a society that has been profoundly shaped by the global project of biometric registration. I want to spend some time explaining the meaning and politics of the idea of biometrics, to show that the desire for mimetic power has been a constant motivation behind the effort to make biometric government work, and to explain why it is that this has only been possible in the societies of the former European empires. I also want to elaborate on some of the key characteristics of the biometric state, especially those which mark it off as an important departure from the very long history of documentary state building. The three major explanatory arguments – which help to account for both the general history of biometric government around the world and its specific form in South Africa - that run through the book are: first, that the key agents in the emergence of biometric government in the early 20th century were important members of the global reform movement of Progressivism; second, that biometrics was first developed, and remained focused throughout its history, on escaping the political indeterminacy of writing; and, thirdly, that the interest in biometric registration was both a necessary cause and the result of the very limited infrastructure of government that developed in the empire. My final object is to sketch out the history that encourages me to claim that 20th century South Africa has served as an imperial biometric laboratory.

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