Surveillance: From Barbed Wire to the Invisible Prison

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets
To conceal.

Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”

Ubiquitous means being or existing everywhere at once. A novel word for a commonplace idea. We now accept the idea that surveillance is ubiquitous, even though we commonly, and romantically, associate it with the world of stealth and spying, as in popular novels and movies of the James Bond or Jason Bourne variety.

Its reach is much broader than that.

I posted on CIA, surveillance and paranoia the day before the revelation that “contract” employees at the State Department accessed the passport files of Barack Obama and other presidential candidates. “Contracting” of course means “outsourcing,” which means the likes of Blackwater and Halliburton and its subsidiaries, the client states of administration officials and lobbyists. The State Department claims it was simply innocent curiosity – before they’ve even investigated. And little chance we’ll see the results of the investigation soon. It is essentially the same claim made on behalf of the Patriot Act. Communication surveillance is directed at terrorists; honest Americans have nothing to fear. I don’t “fear” anything, but I have no illusions. If information is there to mine, the roving political operatives in either party will mine and exploit it for political purposes.

Surveillance is pervasive. I recently ran the 2008 Portland Shamrock Run and a few days later received an email with a photo of me captured mid-race (and laboring mightily) that I can purchase for a fee. I can’t reproduce the photo here without violating intellectual property laws (as if I’d want that hunkered huffer-puffer figured-forth in this space). I assume the photographer was able to identify me by the timing chip I wore on my ankle. I don’t recall that I gave race officials permission to use me commercially in this way, but I imagine it is there somewhere in the entry form fine print. This is likely as “innocent” as surveillance gets. Cameras are everywhere and we now have the capability if not the political will or federal funding to create virtual borders. It is not, finally, that we are being tracked. It is that we are now effectively captive to technology and the paranoid will to use it in order to maintain political order.

That was brought home to me in a book about the history of barbed wire in the settling of the American West. In “Barbed Wire: A Political History” (The New Press, 2002), Olivier Razac argues that barbed wire is used “to define space and to establish territorial boundaries,” and does so at a low level of technology: two iron wires wound around a series of beveled barbs. “In a century of technological advancements, when a computer’s power becomes laughable in ten year’s time, when obsolete objects pile up in the junkyards of modernity, barbed wire has remained almost unchanged since its inception.” In the vernacular of Razac’s postmodernism, barbed wire has been the most simple and efficient technological development for the political management of space.

But Razac argues that its symbolic content has changed. He lays groundwork for his argument using three examples from the last 150 years: Native American dispossession, the butchery of modern war, and Nazi extermination. Traditional fence materials, wood and stone, were not available in the American West. Patented in 1874 by Illinois farmer J.F. Glidden, barbed wire was absolutely crucial in the agrarian conquest of the West. Barbed wire protected crops at the same time that it disrupted the natural migration of the great buffalo herds and the Native Americans who followed them.

Ironically, barbed wire also helped dismantle an egalitarian vision of the West because it eliminated the free range that had been used by cowboys for a brief period in the 19th century. In “Man Without a Star” Kirk Douglas plays Dempset Rae, a cowboy whose body is scarred by the “devil’s rope.” Barbed wire shortened the horizon. “Before, it was all open, as far as the eye could see, as far as a man could ride or drive his herd. There was nothing to stop him, no obstacles.”

Barbed wire was used as part of the defensive strategies developed for trench warfare in World War I. Defensive positions were fortified by barbed wire networks, “artificial bramble,” which were efficient and easy to install. As a symbol barbed wire evoked “the monstrous sublimity of the forces of destruction liberated by modern war.” Nazis used barbed wire in death camps of the Holocaust. Barbed wire was the “central element of the camp’s architecture,” used to establish the perimeters, and, within the camps, barbed wire was braided with branches to hide the gas chambers. Barbed wire showed the “absolute and undisputed tyranny” of Nazi power and became the symbol of “extreme captivity” and political violence.

To protect land, to defend against intrusion, to incarcerate – on one level these uses are neutral. And yet Razac shows that barbed wire reveals how power occupies space. Barbed wire is “a tool of extreme polarization,” illustrating “the dynamic of radical exclusion, encouraging “an animalizing propaganda” in which Native Americans, the enemy soldiers and Jews could be regarded as beasts or vermin.

But is it still “the foremost technology for managing space”?

There are barbed wire frontiers around the world. Razac cites examples in Morocco, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Chechnya, the border between Mexico and the United States, and “holding camps for prisoners in the world’s small wars.” (Inexplicably, published in the wake of September 11, 2001, the book contains a photograph of Taliban prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo but does not mention the war in Afghanistan in the text.)

But more and more the boundaries that are still defined by barbed wire are largely symbolic. The historic uses of barbed wire – to enclose, to defend against intrusion, to incarcerate – are now aided if not displaced by other technologies. Electronic gates detect invisible dangers around military barracks, prisons, factories and schools. Razac says that power is now more “furtive,” using “light, waves, and invisible vibrations.” Camera surveillance systems, particularly state-of-the-art digitalized ones, provide computerized and instantaneous identification of at-risk people or undesirables – “recognition of behavioral abnormalities, atypical dress, or particular ethnic origins,” as Razac so neatly summarizes it.

Surveillance is ubiquitous. But power is “furtive”? And the paranoids are on which side of the fence, camera, computer terminal?