Peripheral Vision: Politics, Technology, and Surveillance

Many years ago, while conducting research in a small coastal community, I was walking the docks. A bird caught my attention, or rather, not so much the bird, but rather what the bird was perched on—a CCTV. It was a camera that appeared to be watching the skyline. Walking up to the bird, I looked around at the relatively deserted landscape and wondered what the old camera was meant to watch poised dozens of feet in the air—it’s gaze apparently fixed on the horizon. I assumed no one was watching me except the bird. For a moment it struck me strange, but as I walked away I realized in this context, on this abandoned dock, the camera was doing some work.

Catarina Frois’ book, Peripheral Vision: Politics, Technology, and Surveillance takes the reader on a much needed journey into the social milieu of CCTVs as they permeate public spaces in Portugal. In so doing, she joins a larger group of researchers and theorists whose work focuses on surveillance. Yet in some ways she also moves away from this literature as she turns readers’ attention to the laws and policy practices surrounding the introduction of these surveillance practices. In so doing, she crafts a book that would be of interest to those working in the areas of political and legal anthropology alongside the anthropology of bureaucracy and policy.  By the end, readers realize that the phenomenon of surveillance is as much about the state as it is about urban management. Most importantly, Frois reminds the reader that context matters as she delivers the story of surveillance through the history of Portugal and its struggle for modernity.

From the opening pages, her book is unapologetically about Portugal. In so doing, she reminds the reader of the ongoing challenges in the academy of researchers who see their work, their language, and their geography as peripheral—hence the multi-fold potential of her title that speaks not only of those things outside the camera’s view but also of those things that slip to the periphery in scholarship. She argues the research on surveillance and security does not resonate in Portugal because the Portuguese historical context is different than other more well-researched countries. Places like Portugal, that only first saw CCTVs in public spaces in 2005, are experiencing a different phenomena than that of the UK where there is an estimated 1 camera for every 11 people in Britain. This is not the experience of Portugal and to understand that experience, she argues, scholars need to better understand the history and context of the area.

In her chapter on the history of Portugal, readers are reminded about the particular. One need only read her section on the sentiment of pessimism in Portugal to see that she does not turn to history to valorize the nation and celebrate the state but rather as a marker, as a reminder, that questions of surveillance collide with concerns about democracy and fears of dictatorship. Concurrently, one must understand the dictatorship because that part of Portugal’s history was characterized by a total rejection of modernity.

Frois frames Portugal as a place in which state-making is happening through classroom technologies, transportation, and surveillance. All the while the landscape is haunted by the dictatorship. Portugal is described as an awkward nation in some regards, aware of its past—stigmatized by it. Portugal is embracing technology as a means to overcome its own shadow and, its own perception of being backwards. CCTVs are but one means of achieving some semblance of modernity.

The book stands out for its contextual work because the story of CCTVs in Portugal is not a story similar to the UK. The interior chapters take painful steps to outline the processes, laws, bureaucracies and material practices associated to running the CCTVs, which makes the book a unique contribution to research on surveillance and security. Chapter 2 offers a cluster of case studies that trace out the lineage of cameras in particular locations, and the processes of getting these cameras approved (or rejected). Like most scholars thinking about surveillance and security, Frois comments on the Portuguese perceptions of safety and crime, public fear and the politics, and how these perceptions shape projects of control and surveillance. Because it provides a peripheral case study, this book would be a good addition for classes (undergraduate or graduate) on the anthropology of Europe, the state, and bureaucracies. For those of us who work on the anthropology of policing and security it is a great book to consider using. However, the price of the hardcover book (at this time) could be a barrier for students, hopefully a more affordable softcover is on the horizon.

Catarina Frois offers a short book and one in which she takes clear aim at understanding the contexts of surveillance in Portugal. Based on a five-year study (2005-2010), she has written a book that mixes law, policy, history, and material practices.  There are a few surprises in the book— but I will leave those for the reader to find.

In the opening chapters, Frois introduces a recursive theme of fragility as it relates to democracy and modernity. If there is a fault in the book, it is that perhaps I was hoping Frois would return to the early themes of modernity and fragility in her conclusion. But readers often read a book imagining what to expect and as they turn the page, the author takes them on a different journey. In reading Peripheral Vision, I expected another book about surveillance and the threat of panopticism, but instead I was greeted by a book about Portugal and a reminder about how stories that seem familiar—CCTVs in public spheres—can nevertheless be as strange as the CCTV I found many years ago on that dock.

Michelle Stewart, University of Regina

Frois, Catarina. Peripheral Vision: Politics, Technology, and Surveillance. Berghahn, 2013. Read more at Berghahn Press.

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