Informatic Opacity

Informatic Opacity


In Posthuman Glossary, eds. Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, Bloomsbury Academic.

The Posthuman Glossary

As early as the 1970s, Caribbean philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant theorized opacity as an anti-imperial modality of relation and existence. His evocative demand that ‘we clamor for the right to opacity for everyone’ refuses a logic of total transparency and rationality, disrupting the transformation of subjects into categorizable objects of Western knowledge (Glissant 1999: 194). Opacity, Glissant tells us, concerns ‘that which protects the Diverse’, that is, the minoritarian (ibid. 62). Although his writings often evade an engagement with technology—or are overtly technophobic—newfound urgencies arise to consider Glissant’s philosophy of opacity within the context of technics in the early 21st century. Whether innovations in Big Data, secret data sweeps of governmental surveillance, or the growing popularity of the Quantified Self, the world’s people are increasingly reduced to aggregates of parsable data. Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker have described this era as one of ‘universal standards of identification’ (Galloway, Thacker 2007: 131). Technologies such as biometrics, GPS, RFID, data-mining algorithms, collaborative filters, DNA, and genomics become operational through global protocols that aim to solve ‘today’s crises of locatability and identification,’ for governments, militaries, corporations, and individuals alike (ibid).  These identification technologies gain ascendence in a time of neoliberalism, Empire, and control, which subsumes identity and difference into its logic of governance. As such, we bear witness to the continued erasure of embodiment and the coterminous proliferation of what Critical Art Ensemble labels the ‘data body’ (Critical Art Ensemble 2003). Donna Haraway once articulated this problematic as ‘the informatics of domination,’ the coming communications networks of control that translate ‘the world into a problem of coding’ (Haraway 1991: 161/164); a biometric template to police national borders, an instant credit check to determine economic viability, a gene to determine sexual orientation. Amongst teeming transnational flows of information, Haraway is careful to remind us that, ‘People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque’ (ibid. 153). This eradication of opaque excess by informatic standardization Glissant might call transparency. As an Enlightenment principle of universalism, transparency, for Glissant, claims to make a person fully intelligible and interpretable, and thus, is a barbarism, as it destroys the opacity of another.