This article interrogates artist Hasan Elahi’s claim that an increased supply of a surveillance commodity will decrease its demand, a premise that led to his web-based artwork Tracking Transience. As a form of “artveillance,” the website archives thousands of images documenting Elahi’s daily movements, which he began recording in an effort to subvert government surveillance. Taking seriously the idea that information should be treated as a commodity, this article uses Marxist theory to articulate how surveillance data fit within the broader information economy. Drawing from Thomas Keenan’s rhetorical reading of Marx, it argues that surveillance enacts the figurative trope of catachresis. Just as the commodity is an abstraction of the labor that went into its making, surveillance data is an abstraction of the subject being surveilled. The information commodity supplants the subject, who becomes a ghostly remainder that haunts the data archive. This maneuver then makes it possible to treat certain individuals, often those marked as racial outsiders, as nonsubjects who can be acted upon outside of the law. This process is visualized by the Tracking Transience website, which is analyzed within this Marxist framework.
Research Article|September 01 2017
The Surveillance Commodity, Unequal Exchange, and the (In)Visible Subject in Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience
Social Text (2017) 35 (3 (132)): 1-16.