SCOS Talk on “Secret organizers: The ‘spectrogenic’ process of profiling and the effects of ‘ghostly demarcations’”

Right after the EGOS Colloquium in Edinburgh I had the opportunity to give a talk at the “Ghosts Conference York”, which is part of the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism (SCOS).  The following provides a short summary of my talk on “Secret organizers: The ‘spectrogenic’ process of profiling and the effects of ‘ghostly demarcations’”.

Profiles’ are important technologies of organizing that are used in a multiplicity of contexts: customer-profiling, profiling for employment screening, credit-scoring, criminal investigations, immigration policy, health-care management, forensic biometrics, etc. Profiles organize perception and seeing and they are important media in (algorithmic) decision-making. They are ‘used to make decisions, sometimes even without human intervention’ (Hildebrandt, 2008: 18). All profiles are abstractions. In the process of profiling images of the person are created for the purpose of diagnosis or prediction. In the process of profiling ‘complex personhood’ (Gordon, 1997) is reduced to a finite number of traits, indicators, etc. Created models or figures may be fictions but these fictions are operationally effective, as they shape and intervene in the world. In the paper profiles are theorized as ‘ghosts’ that are produced in a ‘spectrogenic process’ (Derrida, 1994). The spectrogenic process describes the process of abstraction, in which (a) thoughts, ideas, data etc. are ‘torn loose’ from the ‘living body’ and integrated in a more abstract or ‘artifactual body’ and (b) the return of the abstraction (ghost) to the world of real life events in the process of ‘application’ where it ‘haunts’ those with whom profiles are associated.

Profiles are not descriptive but performative. They generate a frame for decision makers, produce the ‘evidence’ to which decision-makers can refer to, they instruct decision-makers on what to see (and what to ignore) and they ‘act back on those with whom data are associated, informing us who we are, what we should desire or hope for, including who we should become.’ (Lyon, 2014: 7) ‘Application’ is the process in which profiles perform their work of informing or shaping decision making in various places. In the process of application, profiles travel through time and space with expected and unexpected effects. As ghosts they are not bound by time and space. They can be created now but return later, they can be produced here, but return elsewhere. In Derrida’s words, application is a process, which has a ‘totally spectral structure,’ and generates something unpredictable in ‘contexts which nobody can master in advance’ (Derrida, 1995: 28). When abstractions circulate and are materialized (i.e. when the profiles are ‘applied’) they have powerful effects. Profiles – regardless whether we are talking about traditional (disciplinary) or data-driven profiling, based on pattern recognition, mining of data, etc. – are discriminatory technologies that work as ‘social sorting’. As such, they become ‘ghostly demarcations’ (Sprinker, 1999), when the ethics and politics inherent is this process is rendered invisible. The inherently ethical and political process of sorting in/out appears as the effect of a (neutral) technical operation that is removed and out of sight rather than the outcome of ethical-political decisions.

Profiling increasingly creates an „invisible visibility,“ that is associated with what Derrida has called the “visor effect”: we do not see who looks at us, we are observed and increasingly denied the possibility to understand, question, or challenge how, why, when, by whom we are observed and evaluated by what criteria. The emerging arrangement of multiple profiles and “profiling machines” creates specific forms of visibility of subjects and modifies the “play of light and darkness” which Foucault has related to the transparency ideal embodied in the panopticon. The hierarchical and fixing panoptic gaze which oversees the field from above, is replaced by a multiplicity of gazes, coming from a multiplicity of observing agencies, which in addition are movable, and continuously changing their position. This is the condition emerging from multiple profiling machines, in which subjects appear in the light of various and changing search lights. Each of these searchlights constitutes subjects as ‘persons of interest’ for specific purposes. This affects the process of subjectification and has far-reaching ethical-political consequences that need to be discussed and problematized.

References (selection)

  • Gordon, A. (1997). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Hildebrandt, M. (2008). Defining Profiling: A New Type of Knowledge. In M. Hildebrandt & S. Gutwirth (Eds.), Profiling European Citizens (pp. 17-45). Berlin: Springer + Business Media B.V.
  • Lyon, D. (2014). Surveillance, Snowden, and Big Data: Capacities, consequences, critique. Big Data & Society, July-December, 1-13.
  • Derrida, J. (1994). Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. New York, London: Routledge.
  • Derrida, J. (2000). As if I were dead. An Interview with Jacques Derrida/Als ob ich tot wäre. Ein Interview mit Jacques Derrida. Wien: Turia + Kant.
    Sprinker, M. (Ed.). Ghostly Demarcations. London: Verso. Media B.V.

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