Staring From Across The Room (Mobile Viscosities)

Negotiating race, sexuality, language, decency, class, and the right to the beach, these very different bodies commingling on the beach cannot but perform constant face-work—facework with their entire bodies.
Arun Saldanha, Psychedelic White

Disabling, oppressive, dark, and cramped surroundings are more liberatory than moving about under the gaze of Dr. Flint who threatens her “at every turn.” Importantly, she claims that in the garret she is not enslaved and that her loophole of retreat is a retreat to emancipation.
Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds

I look back at my notes from Simone Browne’s talk from this week, at her piecing together an archive of blackness and surveillance. She’s trying to find ways to be more complex and contradictory, to do more than announce that surveillance technologies are racist (ie. “it’s a structural problem”) as if that’s not an obvious position to take. Browne instead asks about sousveillance as self-defence, of encrypting the body, of valuing human life as more than infrastructure. She asks what happens when surveillance is transformed into a kind of caregiving and caretaking. What gets erased in our attempts at comprehension or comprehensiveness?

When Arun Saldanha describes the visual economy of Nine Bar, Primrose, and the beach, he points us not only to the constant surveillance and “face-work” done by liberation-seeking whites to stabilize a racial hierarchy, but also to the way that face-work involves the whole body. A field of constant visibility co-productive with a grid of categorization. The shadow cast over a Deleuzian optimism. When Saldanha asks what a white body can do, he answers by posing whiteness in its sheer overpowering visibility – a visibility that enables not only a thick social and spatial viscosity where whites stick together, but also a determined set of intimacies. I watch to watch with you to watch with them to watch you watching me. Or: I move to watch with you to move with them to watch you moving me. Or, again: I watch to move with you to watch with them to move you watching me. I watch to move you or move with you. I move as (or because) you’re watching me.

Manning’s dance floor is also Saldanha’s: a set of relational exchanges driven by a visual economy. Except what Saldanha spies in the shifting and supposedly liberatory white psychedelic spaces of Goa is a diagram or abstract machine that consistently reproduces segregated intimacies. Some combination of surveillance and touch shape the intimacies of our shared spaces as we cooperate together to include and exclude, to enable and eliminate. But how do we peel apart where the mobile attachments of experiment bleed into the institutions of the couple form, the family, etc.?

Surveillance, of course, shifts with racialization and, as a white man, the dialectic of visibility and invisibility pitches and shifts in the ways Saldanha identifies. The visibility of whiteness not only enables powerful spatial viscosities, but also grants a kind of anonymity. What’s clear is that cutting across the dynamics of racialization is a dialectic of visibility and obscurity. Neither being seen or not being seen is automatically good or bad. Instead, the visual economies that shape space as it emerges also shape our intimacies as we cooperate to put one another in place. Katherine McKittrick identifies this dialectic in her reading of Harriett Jacobs. Linda Brent, finding a paradoxical sense of freedom garretting herself in her grandmother’s attic.

McKittrick rightly insists that “[t]he question of [Brent’s] geographic freedom is wrapped up in the racial, sexual, and bodily constraints before and during her retreat to the attic” (40) – a field of articulatory pressures that put Brent in place in a way determined by her “see-able body scale.” Brent takes up the bodylessness of the geographic eye, able to see everything, but only by taking herself out of the grasp of the streetscape and the antiblack weather that organizes it.

Freedom is a tough thing to define in its relativity, but could it be a key to thinking more about the relationship not only between tact and touch, but to think through a similar analogical relationship between surveillance and the refusal of surveillance (or is it the refusal to surveil). If tact is tied to touch in a complicated way, what is similarly tied to surveillance? Spying through her peephole, Brent finds a freedom from surveillance even as she finds a freedom to surveil, but only by positioning herself “across” (rather than inside/outside) slavery – a strange kind of spectral immanence.

In their desire to transcend, Saldanha’s psychedelic freaks can only produce a sticky material immanence across the field of Goa that expels non-white participants (or transforms their facializing categories to account for race in a tokenizing way), finding a freedom to be surveilled (as long as there’s no pictures) that creates a different kind of white supremacist weather, but one no less based on a combination of visual economy and material rhythm.