Modern Languages Associations, Seattle, January 2020
Facial recognition software (FRS) is a symptom of Foucault’s notion of “governmentality,” wherein the State deploys tactics of power, like FRS, as a means to ensure its own self-preservation (102). Giorgio Agamben argues that “by applying these [tactics] to the citizen, or rather, to the human being as such, the State is applying a technological apparatus that was invented for a dangerous class of persons. The State…has made the citizen into the suspect par excellence, to the point that humanity itself has become a dangerous class.” (202); this is supported by the the Centre on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law titled “The Perpetual Line-Up” which states that nearly 1 in every 2 U.S. citizens are already in a facial database (Garvie et al, para. 3) and that the most consistent victims of its over- and misapplication are intersectionally-disadvantaged populations. It is clear that the production and processing of portraiture aimed at datafying a population, often under the guise of “objective science” and “public health,” is a practice that most often assumes that population must be controlled and monitored in order to enact governmentality. I will support these claims with a close reading of photos from the NIST Special Database 18 Mugshot Identification Database (1997) through the lens of portraiture; this examination will be further grounded in the 19th century practices of phrenology, physiognomy, eugenics and signaletics and put in combination with Joy Buolowini’s concept of the “coded gaze” as part of her Gender Shades project.
Agamben, Giorgio. “No to Bio-Political Tattooing.” Communication and Critical/Cultural
Studies Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2008, pp. 201-202.
Buolamwini, Joy. “Incoding – In the Beginning” Medium. https://medium.com/mit-media-lab/
incoding-in-the-beginning-4e2a5c51a45d. May 16 2016. Accessed Oct 15, 2018.
Buolamwini, Joy and Timnit Gebru. “Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in
Commercial Gender Classification” Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and
Transparency. Proceedings of Machine Learning Research 81:1–15, 2018
Foucault, Michel. “Governmentality” The Foucault Effect. Ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon,
Peter Miller. University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Garvie, Clare, Alvaro M. Bedoya and Jonathan Frankle. “The Perpetual Line-Up”