Sousveillance Pageant

Emily Abendroth's SOUSVEILLANCE PAGEANT is a hybrid work that coasts restlessly between the categories of poetry, novel, and nonfiction essay. The text's primary figure, whose name is also Sousveillance Pageant, functions not only as an individual character but as an unruly and deviant guiding principle, who desperately longs to be guided by others in turn. If surveillance describes that which watches from above (be it the state, the police, a financial institution, or a private data tracker), then sousveillance describes that which watches from below (fixing an unflinching but also quixotic and wandering eye upon the nature of power and its mechanisms). This book asks: what are those forms of recognition or ways of being seen that we as humans cannot live without, and what are those forms of recognition or ways of being seen that we cannot possibly live with (or which make life unsurvivable)? One inimitable encounter and discomfiting event after another push the Pageant to consider what constitutes security or safety, under what conditions, and for whom. In the words of historian Dan Berger, "SOUSVEILLANCE PAGEANT is our abolitionist avatar, our determined alter ego marshalling collective wisdom against the punitive surveillance state with an ingenuity all her own. Follow her rebellious spirit."

 

The selection included here comes from the book's second-to-last section, titled "A Biometric Drubbing.

from A Biometric Drubbing

symbol of an eye with a line beneath it

To repeat Audre Lorde: “we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.”
        A form of recognition that would honor our
        complexities; that would give picture to our unique
        dexterities, weaknesses, and rigidities; holding us
        accountable for each, in the belief that we might also
        transform them.
                                                                   But not this visibility.

Not the crisp march of hidden cameras and multiplying spywares arising at every corner and wearing away at the verifiability of one’s edges. Not this copious documentation and ceaseless registration which is aimed always at scrutiny and which operates with an unflagging presumption of permanent guilt or criminality.

Indeed, this may be a singular kind of visibility under which we cannot actually survive.
                                  A live wire of surplus optical powerlessness.

 

 

Sousveillance Pageant decides that it’s time for a shower. As the warm water runs across her body, she recollects a comment made by the imprisoned writer and activist David “Dawud” Lee, one which she had encountered in an article during that feral period of agonized searching. In it, Lee – who is serving a Death By Incarceration sentence in Pennsylvania – endeavors to complicate the assertion of another formerly incarcerated writer, Sheri Dwight, who proclaims, “Prison did not do what it thought it was going to do to me. I won.”

To which Lee responds: “In my opinion Sheri Dwight is referring to the attempts of the prison system to break her will and her successful defense of her spirit and mind. She won by not allowing the system to force conformity in her thinking, thus causing counter-productive actions on her behalf. This system has a way of making people think that the oppression being issued to them is deserved, and that there are no other ways of creating solutions in our communities. Nevertheless, I do not view my situation as a winning situation. You cannot take decades out of my life, and then I turn around and view this as a win. Even though they have not destroyed my spirit, mind, or body, I still have not won.”

I still am on the run.
We still are out of the running.

We still all too often find ourselves both lunging toward and torn open by the question: If survival means ongoing livingness in the face of attempted fatality, can we automatically equate non-fatalities with thriving? Is that too easy or too high-minded?

Is it self-conniving even?

How often is a circumstance that is short of defeat, nonetheless still brutally short of victory?

                                I.e.      It was short of war, but how short?
                                            It was short of violence, but how short?
                                            It was short of disappearance, but how?

Where is the room for disavowal or rebuttal or doubt when we, as a public, observe that an event has resulted in another’s unemployment or detention or social exile or early onset dementia or environmental auto-immune crisis, but not, we say, in violence.
                                                    As if these weren’t forms of violence.

 

The treacherously fine line that benignly proposes to separate reasonable suspicion from selective persecution, or persuasive pressure from coercive blackmail, or essential cost-saving measures from racist neglect,

or,                   
           or,                   
                      or…

Freshly towel-dried and just prior to falling asleep for the night, Sousveillance Pageant scrawls into the palm-sized journal that permanently occupies her night-side table.

To Whom It Does Not Concern, she begins.          

This is where the whole lot of our florid sports metaphors and morbid battle analogies will inevitably fail us, just as they always have, although they are not entirely without instruction.

Again and again, we reject the outright sarcophagus but not its overall hypothesis of a near-death framework for living. We contest only the most extreme edges of the human chalk outlines on our sidewalks, but not the arrestable status that so many individuals acquire simply by ceasing or refusing to remain still for outlining.

Our models of future water-treading, of the indelible and anticipatory scissoring of limbs through liquid, shall have to come in part from so many past and present moments in which we are prohibitively drenched, doused, or submerged, perhaps without warning, and yet not quite drowning.

Moments when we neither control our movements outright
nor experience our agency as utterly overthrown.

Sort of like how we’re not categorically helpless, Sousveillance thinks,
          but nor, by mere virtue of that fact,
          are we a great help either.

 

Sousveillance Pageant puts down her pen. She palpates the thin membrane of skin that spans the bridge between her thumb and index finger. She considers the deep history and alternative legacies of those who have forbidden any misleading sanitation of their own stories and who make no promises of glib forgiveness.

     “I may get better,” sings Parchman Blues singer Mattie Mae
     Thomas,“but I won’t get well.”

    And I certainly won’t be offering to you whatever few
    fruits of my own elusive health I manage to suture.

 

In addition to the mandatory, ten-module, online Title IX “Legal Liability” training that Sousveillance’s worksite now requires of every active employee, this year the company’s CEO has also introduced an obligatory package of health care plan incentives which he has proclaimed will reduce insurance costs to employees in reward for so-called “health positive” behaviors. In reality, most of the plan’s elements are actually aimed at increasing costs to employees should they engage in so-called “health negative” behaviors,
         or should they simply refuse to report how they behave.

On the first day of this new “health reward” system’s implementation, Sousveillance Pageant found her mind repeatedly returning to a story that Signal-to-Noise had told her, years ago, about Zucotti Park and the arrests of protesters there during the police’s multiple attempted evictions of its Occupy Wall Street encampment. Signal-to-Noise had been visiting New York during one of those long weekends and while not caught up in the sweeps herself, she had formed part of the jail support team for those who had. That Saturday and Sunday, when arrestees would call into the volunteer legal help hotline, for at least six hours out of every day, the person whose voice they reached was Signal-to-Noise.

A startling number of the calls that Signal had received that weekend were about iris scans. It seemed some arrestees were discovering that they could be held in jail longer if they did not agree to submit to the procedure. Similarly, they and others were finding that their bail could be raised or lowered depending on whether or not they permitted the NYPD to ID them in this way.

     Concede to let your eyes be tracked and you could hack
     your way out of enclosure more rapidly and more cheaply.

Legally speaking, submitting to the scan was “optional,” and yet there was no question that one’s granting of permission was being used as a measure to set bail and prison time. In other words, as Signal had explained, there were costs for opting out and rewards for opting in. And all this biometric data was being gathered even though the people from whom the cops were gathering it had, by in large, not yet been charged or convicted of a crime.

Signal’s job as a volunteer legal aide was to simply relay all that she knew of the situation: to practice full disclosure. What that disclosure amounted to was this:
       Folks had a legal right to refuse to have their irises
       scanned and if they refused the pro bono legal team
       would support them in asserting that right; however, as
       individuals, they would also likely be penalized/suffer 
       for that assertion, even if only temporarily. It was up to
       them to decide if they could afford that penalty/suffering
       at that time.

Just like it was up to every expecting mother to decide if she could afford to pay more for a stroller in order to keep Amazon or Walmart from knowing that she was pregnant. Or up to every diabetic to refuse the prescription rewards program that made insulin cheaper but broadcast your condition to hundreds of sugar-free food and dialysis equipment producers. You could opt out, and there could be real material and psychic gains connected to that decision, but it was also possible that it could be a penologically and financially expensive route.

Sousveillance’s employer’s latest maneuvers were attached to a national corporate initiative called Go365 that subjects workers across the country to exorbitant monthly fees if these individuals do not consent to defray the costs by wearing a FitBit or another equivalent piece of equipment on a daily basis, uploading their weekly “steps” onto a private provider’s database, along with invasive measurements of their bust, waist, hips, and Body Mass Index. Sensitive medical information regarding preventative tests like pap smears, mammograms, and colonoscopies must be submitted to a different, but also for-profit, third party venue.

For the record, Sousveillance Pageant did does ardently want to be healthier; she even wrote those exact words (“get healthier”) down in her journal as a personal life goal several months before this new “wellness initiative” was introduced to her office cubicle. 

     But she doesn’t want to do it for the sake of her employers. 
              To the contrary, her preference would lie in sharing
               less of her bodily self with them, not more.

When Sousveillance Pageant rises from slumber the following morning, she finds that her dream life has surprised her with an unanticipated gift. She quickly lifts away the patterned duvet and stretches out her legs, full of gusto to christen her newest move.

The Pageant mentally reviews her options as far as monikers go and ultimately chooses to dub the maneuver: “Apples and Oranges and Plant Voice and Fog Face, Oh My.”

 “Oh My.”

She slides into a sports bra and puts on her shorts and jogging shoes.

Lifting onto her tiptoes, she reaches for the cordless drill which her great uncle JoJo, the auger worker, had willed to her upon his passing (along with a host of other more ancient and non-electric carpentry tools).

She lowers the drill from the highest closet shelf and checks to see that its battery is fully charged. Next, she deploys a razor to slice off several pieces of green electrical tape from a small roll of adhesive that rests on top of her dresser. She uses the adhesive to mate her FitBit bracelet with the drill bit, propping the tool upright between two aluminum bookends. Then, Sousveillance tapes down the drill’s trigger as well, in order to keep the instrument permanently in the “ON” position without having to use her finger.

The FitBit spins and spins and spins.
         It self-administers its own digital recording,
                 racking up at least a shopping cart worth of
                 medical savings
                        to supplement Sous’s paltry wages.

And as it spins, Sousveillance Pageant leaves the apartment and sets out on the lengthiest run across the city that she has been on in a very, very long time. It is so lengthy that she could have easily just worn her surveillant bracelet for it, and might have even earned more “credits,” since the drill’s small battery dies well before she returns.

To the Pageant’s mind, however, the two actions aren’t interchangeable.      
                                                            Or shouldn’t be.

Because for today at least, Sousveillance’s run isn’t her company’s for the having.
       Its direction is “away from” and not “towards.”
       Or certainly not towards the orbits of a
       compensatory corporate reward.

Her leggy stride won’t abide the portended viability of meager pay-outs. For this one forward-striving moment, the Pageant’s health is all her own.

It’s for her to determine with whom she wants to share it.

Sousveillance Pageant can’t, as of yet, quite “aunt” anything to life, not even herself,
                                                                                    but she’s learning.

Barreling past a sandy vacant lot that rests between the abandoned
scaffoldings of two half-developed condo complexes,
     Sousveillance hears the Belding’s ground squirrels calling.

 

     Their volume is shocking.

 

 

Notes:

1. David “Dawud” Lee’s responses to Sheri Dwight are excerpted with permission from his answer to a discussion question for the correspondence course “Reentry: History, Strategy, and Transformation” of the Philadelphia-based Address This! Project. For more information on this project see: booksthoughbars.org/addressthis

2. The lines “Again and again, we reject the outright sarcophagus but not its overall hypothesis of a near-death framework for living. We contest only the most extreme edges of the human chalk outlines on our sidewalks, but not the arrestable status that so many individuals acquire simply by ceasing or refusing to remain still for outlining” were originally generated as part of a writing exercise devised in conversation with the question and observation which opens Fred Moten and Stephano Harney’s essay “Michael Brown.” Moten and Stephano’s lines read: “How can we survive genocide? We can only address this question by studying how we have survived genocide.” The passage continues: “In the interest of imagining what exists, there is an image of Michael Brown we must refuse in favor of another image we don’t have. One is a lie, the other unavailable. If we refuse to show the image of a lonely body, of the outline of the space that body simultaneously took and left, we do so in order to imagine jurisgenerative black social life walking down the middle of the street – for a minute, but only for a minute, unpoliced, another city gathers, dancing. We know it’s there, and here, and real; we know that what we can’t have happens all the time.” Published in Boundary 2, Volume 42, Issue 4, Duke University Press: November 2015.

3. The information about the police department’s pressuring of arrested protesters to submit to retina scans is documented in the article “Protestors Say NYPD Detains Them Longer If They Don’t Get Iris Scans” by John Del Signore, The Gothamist, February 13, 2012.
http://gothamist.com/2012/02/13/protesters_say_nypd-is-detaining-th.php Del Signore’s article begins: “People who refused to let cops photograph their irises after getting arrested during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations say the NYPD has held them in custody for much longer than other protesters. Activist Samantha Wilson tells the Times that when she was being booked in December, she refused to cooperate with the controversial iris scan, which the NYPD began implementing in 2010. Wilson says the cop told her, "It’s not really optional. It’ll take you longer to get out of here if you don’t do it." And apparently he wasn't bluffing—Wilson wasn't released from Central Booking for 36 hours.”

4. The national initiative Go365 is not a flight of fancy. A proposed employee health policy change that looked more or less identical to this was one of the causes for the West Virginia teachers’ strike in March of 2018. After nine consecutive days, and with some 34,000 teachers (primarily women) on strike, an agreement was reached in which the teacher’s union won all five of their primary demands, including a freeze on health care costs and a repeal of the proposed incentives-driven insurance model. See: “When Women Organize, We Win: Lessons from the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike” by Kate Doyle Griffiths, Truthout, March 7, 2018.
https://truthout.org/articles/when-women-organize-we-win-lessons-from-the-west-virginia-teachers-strike/

5. New York artists Surya Mattu and Tega Brain have proposed this (i.e. attaching your FitBit to a drill) and many other tricks for “gaming” a FitBit. See their site unfitbits.com for a host of examples. Or refer to an article that appeared in the International Business Times about their work titled Unfitbits: How To Trick Your Fitbit Into Thinking You're Working Out But You're Not By Kif Leswing, May 13, 2015.