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Cyber-Ethnographies, Mobilities, & Visual Cultures: Profiling Simone Browne

Cyber-Ethnographies, Mobilities, & Visual Cultures: Profiling Simone Browne

I had the opportunity to interview Simone Browne, a member of the Steering Committee at HASTAC. Professor Browne is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, joining in 2007. She is also affiliated with the Department of African & African Diaspora Studies, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies (WCAAAS), and the Center for Women's & Gender Studies at UT-Austin. She completed her PhD at the University of Toronto.

Professor Browne's book-length manuscript in preparation, Dark Matters: Surveillance and Black Mobilities examines surveillance with a focus on biometric information technology, airports and borders, slavery, mobile communication, black mobilities and creative texts. Her article "Everybody's Got a Little Light Under the Sun: Black luminosity and the visual culture of surveillance" leads off the most recent issue of Cultural Studies and is available here.

A vibrant presence within UT-Austin's intellectual community, Professor Browne's work pushes the disciplinary contours of sociology, black studies, and gender studies. We talked about what inspires her research and the location of technologies within shifting political, academic, and social practices.

What aspect of your current work means the most to you and why?

Cases like that of Jakadrien Turner make the links to my current work on surveillance and black mobilities plain. I first heard about the case of Jakadrien Turner – the 15-year old African-American girl who was “deported” by ICE last spring to Colombia – through Twitter. That a US born teenager with reportedly little Spanish language skills was believed to be a Colombian citizen and rendered through the courts and the removal process is baffling, but in our times of extraordinary rendition, hospital deportations, and the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, among other measures, it must also lead us to ask about the institutional mechanisms that the state and private actors make use of to allow for such a situation: fingerprints, immigration law, banishment, sexism, racism.

Turner’s grandmother was able to find her through Facebook, and I find that to be a very important aspect of this case: the agential potential that social network sites allow for.


What makes you interested in the digital or interdisciplinary aspect of your field(s)? How did you get involved with HASTAC?

Just looking at my Twitter timeline shows me the possibilities of the digital and interdisciplinary projects for sociology, black studies and beyond (@alondra, @tmcphers @tanyagolashboza, @JessieNYC, @hystericalblackness, @lnakamur,@JoeFeagin and even @kanyewest’s tweets).


How do you see your field at large changing?

Sociology “at large” is contending with social networking sites, gaming, mobile technologies and communications, not only for the “data sets” that these new technologies are producing, but also for what such connectivity can tell us about social life. For example, my undergraduate students conduct cyber-ethnographies in Second Life asking questions about identity formation, the body, sexualities, and access.

Wangechi Mutu's "Adult Female Sexual Organ" (2005)

Wangechi Mutu's "Adult Female Sexual Organ" (2005)


If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?

That’s a tough question, I could name about twenty people right now. Right now, I really like Nicholas Mirzoeff’s (@nickmirzoeff) The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality and the work he is doing with others around the Occupy movement. Right to Look has, I think, made a really important intervention in theorizing surveillance in plantation economies and what Mirzoeff calls ‘oversight’ and ‘revolutionary realism’. A dream collaboration would be to think through some of these concepts with him, making links to biometric technology, airports, CCTV and other surveillance practices. It would also be pretty neat to collaborate with visual artist Wangechi Mutu around some of the media coverage of black women who have been detained at airports, removed from airplanes, or subject to searches beyond the standard x-ray: for instance Laura Adiele who had her hair inspected by a TSA agent or Malinda Knowles who was removed from a plane on the suspicion that she was not wearing any undergarments. She was, incidentally. Mutu has said that “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”

I would probably just hold the adhesive in that collaboration, but I still think it would be neat.


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