Commodifying Terrorism

Body, Surveillance and the Everyday

How to Cite

Ibrahim, Y. (2007). Commodifying Terrorism: Body, Surveillance and the Everyday. M/C Journal, 10(3).
Vol. 10 No. 3 (2007): 'complex'
Published 2007-06-01


Figure 1

The counter-Terrorism advertising campaign of London’s Metropolitan Police commodifies some everyday items such as mobile phones, computers, passports and credit cards as having the potential to sustain terrorist activities. The process of ascribing cultural values and symbolic meanings to some everyday technical gadgets objectifies and situates Terrorism into the everyday life. The police, in urging people to look out for ‘the unusual’ in their normal day-to-day lives, juxtapose the everyday with the unusual, where day-to-day consumption, routines and flows of human activity can seemingly house insidious and atavistic elements. This again is reiterated in the Met police press release:

Terrorists live within our communities making their plans whilst doing everything they can to blend in, and trying not to raise suspicions about their activities. (MPA Website)

The commodification of Terrorism through uncommon and everyday objects situates Terrorism as a phenomenon which occupies a liminal space within the everyday. It resides, breathes and co-exists within the taken-for-granted routines and objects of ‘the everyday’ where it has the potential to explode and disrupt without warning. Since 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings Terrorism has been narrated through the disruption of mobility, whether in mid-air or in the deep recesses of the Underground. The resonant thread of disruption to human mobility evokes a powerful meta-narrative where acts of Terrorism can halt human agency amidst the backdrop of the metropolis, which is often a metaphor for speed and accelerated activities. If globalisation and the interconnected nature of the world are understood through discourses of risk, Terrorism bears the same footprint in urban spaces of modernity, narrating the vulnerability of the human condition in an inter-linked world where ideological struggles and resistance are manifested through inexplicable violence and destruction of lives, where the everyday is suspended to embrace the unexpected. As a consequence ambient fear “saturates the social spaces of everyday life” (Hubbard 2).

The commodification of Terrorism through everyday items of consumption inevitably creates an intertextuality with real and media events, which constantly corrode the security of the metropolis. Paddy Scannell alludes to a doubling of place in our mediated world where “public events now occur simultaneously in two different places; the place of the event itself and that in which it is watched and heard. The media then vacillates between the two sites and creates experiences of simultaneity, liveness and immediacy” (qtd. in Moores 22). The doubling of place through media constructs a pervasive environment of risk and fear. Mark Danner (qtd. in Bauman 106) points out that the most powerful weapon of the 9/11 terrorists was that innocuous and “most American of technological creations: the television set” which provided a global platform to constantly replay and remember the dreadful scenes of the day, enabling the terrorist to appear invincible and to narrate fear as ubiquitous and omnipresent.

Philip Abrams argues that ‘big events’ (such as 9/11 and 7/7) do make a difference in the social world for such events function as a transformative device between the past and future, forcing society to alter or transform its perspectives. David Altheide points out that since September 11 and the ensuing war on terror, a new discourse of Terrorism has emerged as a way of expressing how the world has changed and defining a state of constant alert through a media logic and format that shapes the nature of discourse itself. Consequently, the intensity and centralisation of surveillance in Western countries increased dramatically, placing the emphasis on expanding the forms of the already existing range of surveillance processes and practices that circumscribe and help shape our social existence (Lyon, Terrorism 2).

Normalisation of Surveillance

The role of technologies, particularly information and communication technologies (ICTs), and other infrastructures to unevenly distribute access to the goods and services necessary for modern life, while facilitating data collection on and control of the public, are significant characteristics of modernity (Reiman; Graham and Marvin; Monahan). The embedding of technological surveillance into spaces and infrastructures not only augment social control but also redefine data as a form of capital which can be shared between public and private sectors (Gandy, Data Mining; O’Harrow; Monahan). The scale, complexity and limitations of omnipresent and omnipotent surveillance, nevertheless, offer room for both subversion as well as new forms of domination and oppression (Marx).

In surveillance studies, Foucault’s analysis is often heavily employed to explain lines of continuity and change between earlier forms of surveillance and data assemblage and contemporary forms in the shape of closed-circuit television (CCTV) and other surveillance modes (Dee). It establishes the need to discern patterns of power and normalisation and the subliminal or obvious cultural codes and categories that emerge through these arrangements (Fopp; Lyon, Electronic; Norris and Armstrong).

In their study of CCTV surveillance, Norris and Armstrong (cf. in Dee) point out that when added to the daily minutiae of surveillance, CCTV cameras in public spaces, along with other camera surveillance in work places, capture human beings on a database constantly. The normalisation of surveillance, particularly with reference to CCTV, the popularisation of surveillance through television formats such as ‘Big Brother’ (Dee), and the expansion of online platforms to publish private images, has created a contradictory, complex and contested nature of spatial and power relationships in society. The UK, for example, has the most developed system of both urban and public space cameras in the world and this growth of camera surveillance and, as Lyon (Surveillance) points out, this has been achieved with very little, if any, public debate as to their benefits or otherwise. There may now be as many as 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain (cf. Lyon, Surveillance). That is one for every fourteen people and a person can be captured on over 300 cameras every day. An estimated £500m of public money has been invested in CCTV infrastructure over the last decade but, according to a Home Office study, CCTV schemes that have been assessed had little overall effect on crime levels (Wood and Ball).

In spatial terms, these statistics reiterate Foucault’s emphasis on the power economy of the unseen gaze. Michel Foucault in analysing the links between power, information and surveillance inspired by Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon, indicated that it is possible to sanction or reward an individual through the act of surveillance without their knowledge (155). It is this unseen and unknown gaze of surveillance that is fundamental to the exercise of power. The design and arrangement of buildings can be engineered so that the “surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action” (Foucault 201).

Lyon (Terrorism), in tracing the trajectory of surveillance studies, points out that much of surveillance literature has focused on understanding it as a centralised bureaucratic relationship between the powerful and the governed. Invisible forms of surveillance have also been viewed as a class weapon in some societies. With the advancements in and proliferation of surveillance technologies as well as convergence with other technologies, Lyon argues that it is no longer feasible to view surveillance as a linear or centralised process. In our contemporary globalised world, there is a need to reconcile the dialectical strands that mediate surveillance as a process. In acknowledging this, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have constructed surveillance as a rhizome that defies linearity to appropriate a more convoluted and malleable form where the coding of bodies and data can be enmeshed to produce intricate power relationships and hierarchies within societies. Latour draws on the notion of assemblage by propounding that data is amalgamated from scattered centres of calculation where these can range from state and commercial institutions to scientific laboratories which scrutinise data to conceive governance and control strategies. Both the Latourian and Deleuzian ideas of surveillance highlight the disparate arrays of people, technologies and organisations that become connected to make “surveillance assemblages” in contrast to the static, unidirectional Panopticon metaphor (Ball, “Organization” 93). In a similar vein, Gandy (Panoptic) infers that it is misleading to assume that surveillance in practice is as complete and totalising as the Panoptic ideal type would have us believe.

Co-optation of Millions

The Metropolitan Police’s counter-Terrorism strategy seeks to co-opt millions where the corporeal body can complement the landscape of technological surveillance that already co-exists within modernity. In its press release, the role of civilian bodies in ensuring security of the city is stressed;

Keeping Londoners safe from Terrorism is not a job solely for governments, security services or police. If we are to make London the safest major city in the world, we must mobilise against Terrorism not only the resources of the state, but also the active support of the millions of people who live and work in the capita. (MPA Website).

Surveillance is increasingly simulated through the millions of corporeal entities where seeing in advance is the goal even before technology records and codes these images (William). Bodies understand and code risk and images through the cultural narratives which circulate in society. Compared to CCTV technology images, which require cultural and political interpretations and interventions, bodies as surveillance organisms implicitly code other bodies and activities. The travel bag in the Metropolitan Police poster reinforces the images of the 7/7 bombers and the renewed attempts to bomb the London Underground on the 21st of July. It reiterates the CCTV footage revealing images of the bombers wearing rucksacks. The image of the rucksack both embodies the everyday as well as the potential for evil in everyday objects. It also inevitably reproduces the cultural biases and prejudices where the rucksack is subliminally associated with a specific type of body. The rucksack in these terms is a laden image which symbolically captures the context and culture of risk discourses in society.

The co-optation of the population as a surveillance entity also recasts new forms of social responsibility within the democratic polity, where privacy is increasingly mediated by the greater need to monitor, trace and record the activities of one another. Nikolas Rose, in discussing the increasing ‘responsibilisation’ of individuals in modern societies, describes the process in which the individual accepts responsibility for personal actions across a wide range of fields of social and economic activity as in the choice of diet, savings and pension arrangements, health care decisions and choices, home security measures and personal investment choices (qtd. in Dee). While surveillance in individualistic terms is often viewed as a threat to privacy, Rose argues that the state of ‘advanced liberalism’ within modernity and post-modernity requires considerable degrees of self-governance, regulation and surveillance whereby the individual is constructed both as a ‘new citizen’ and a key site of self management. By co-opting and recasting the role of the citizen in the age of Terrorism, the citizen to a degree accepts responsibility for both surveillance and security.

In our sociological imagination the body is constructed both as lived as well as a social object. Erving Goffman uses the word ‘umwelt’ to stress that human embodiment is central to the constitution of the social world. Goffman defines ‘umwelt’ as “the region around an individual from which signs of alarm can come” and employs it to capture how people as social actors perceive and manage their settings when interacting in public places (252). Goffman’s ‘umwelt’ can be traced to Immanuel Kant’s idea that it is the a priori categories of space and time that make it possible for a subject to perceive a world (Umiker-Sebeok; qtd. in Ball, “Organization”). Anthony Giddens adapted the term Umwelt to refer to “a phenomenal world with which the individual is routinely ‘in touch’ in respect of potential dangers and alarms which then formed a core of (accomplished) normalcy with which individuals and groups surround themselves” (244). Benjamin Smith, in considering the body as an integral component of the link between our consciousness and our material world, observes that the body is continuously inscribed by culture. These inscriptions, he argues, encompass a wide range of cultural practices and will imply knowledge of a variety of social constructs. The inscribing of the body will produce cultural meanings as well as create forms of subjectivity while locating and situating the body within a cultural matrix (Smith). Drawing on Derrida’s work, Pugliese employs the term ‘Somatechnics’ to conceptualise the body as a culturally intelligible construct and to address the techniques in and through which the body is formed and transformed (qtd. in Osuri). These techniques can encompass signification systems such as race and gender and equally technologies which mediate our sense of reality. These technologies of thinking, seeing, hearing, signifying, visualising and positioning produce the very conditions for the cultural intelligibility of the body (Osuri). The body is then continuously inscribed and interpreted through mediated signifying systems.

Similarly, Hayles, while not intending to impose a Cartesian dichotomy between the physical body and its cognitive presence, contends that the use and interactions with technology incorporate the body as a material entity but it also equally inscribes it by marking, recording and tracing its actions in various terrains. According to Gayatri Spivak (qtd. in Ball, “Organization”) new habits and experiences are embedded into the corporeal entity which then mediates its reactions and responses to the social world. This means one’s body is not completely one’s own and the presence of ideological forces or influences then inscribe the body with meanings, codes and cultural values.

In our modern condition, the body and data are intimately and intricately bound. Outside the home, it is difficult for the body to avoid entering into relationships that produce electronic personal data (Stalder). According to Felix Stalder our physical bodies are shadowed by a ‘data body’ which follows the physical body of the consuming citizen and sometimes precedes it by constructing the individual through data (12). Before we arrive somewhere, we have already been measured and classified. Thus, upon arrival, the citizen will be treated according to the criteria ‘connected with the profile that represents us’ (Gandy, Panoptic; William). Following September 11, Lyon (Terrorism) reveals that surveillance data from a myriad of sources, such as supermarkets, motels, traffic control points, credit card transactions records and so on, was used to trace the activities of terrorists in the days and hours before their attacks, confirming that the body leaves data traces and trails. Surveillance works by abstracting bodies from places and splitting them into flows to be reassembled as virtual data-doubles, and in the process can replicate hierarchies and centralise power (Lyon, Terrorism).

Mike Dee points out that the nature of surveillance taking place in modern societies is complex and far-reaching and in many ways insidious as surveillance needs to be situated within the broadest context of everyday human acts whether it is shopping with loyalty cards or paying utility bills. Physical vulnerability of the body becomes more complex in the time-space distanciated surveillance systems to which the body has become increasingly exposed. As such, each transaction – whether it be a phone call, credit card transaction, or Internet search – leaves a ‘data trail’ linkable to an individual person or place.

Haggerty and Ericson, drawing from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage, describe the convergence and spread of data-gathering systems between different social domains and multiple levels (qtd. in Hier). They argue that the target of the generic ‘surveillance assemblage’ is the human body, which is broken into a series of data flows on which surveillance process is based. The thrust of the focus is the data individuals can yield and the categories to which they can contribute. These are then reapplied to the body. In this sense, surveillance is rhizomatic for it is diverse and connected to an underlying, invisible infrastructure which concerns interconnected technologies in multiple contexts (Ball, “Elements”).

The co-opted body in the schema of counter-Terrorism enters a power arrangement where it constitutes both the unseen gaze as well as the data that will be implicated and captured in this arrangement. It is capable of producing surveillance data for those in power while creating new data through its transactions and movements in its everyday life. The body is unequivocally constructed through this data and is also entrapped by it in terms of representation and categorisation. The corporeal body is therefore part of the machinery of surveillance while being vulnerable to its discriminatory powers of categorisation and victimisation. As Hannah Arendt (qtd. in Bauman 91) had warned, “we terrestrial creatures bidding for cosmic significance will shortly be unable to comprehend and articulate the things we are capable of doing” Arendt’s caution conveys the complexity, vulnerability as well as the complicity of the human condition in the surveillance society. Equally it exemplifies how the corporeal body can be co-opted as a surveillance entity sustaining a new ‘banality’ (Arendt) in the machinery of surveillance.

Social Consequences of Surveillance

Lyon (Terrorism) observed that the events of 9/11 and 7/7 in the UK have inevitably become a prism through which aspects of social structure and processes may be viewed. This prism helps to illuminate the already existing vast range of surveillance practices and processes that touch everyday life in so-called information societies. As Lyon (Terrorism) points out surveillance is always ambiguous and can encompass genuine benefits and plausible rationales as well as palpable disadvantages. There are elements of representation to consider in terms of how surveillance technologies can re-present data that are collected at source or gathered from another technological medium, and these representations bring different meanings and enable different interpretations of life and surveillance (Ball, “Elements”).

As such surveillance needs to be viewed in a number of ways: practice, knowledge and protection from threat. As data can be manipulated and interpreted according to cultural values and norms it reflects the inevitability of power relations to forge its identity in a surveillance society. In this sense, Ball (“Elements”) concludes surveillance practices capture and create different versions of life as lived by surveilled subjects. She refers to actors within the surveilled domain as ‘intermediaries’, where meaning is inscribed, where technologies re-present information, where power/resistance operates, and where networks are bound together to sometimes distort as well as reiterate patterns of hegemony (“Elements” 93).

While surveillance is often connected with technology, it does not however determine nor decide how we code or employ our data. New technologies rarely enter passive environments of total inequality for they become enmeshed in complex pre-existing power and value systems (Marx). With surveillance there is an emphasis on the classificatory powers in our contemporary world “as persons and groups are often risk-profiled in the commercial sphere which rates their social contributions and sorts them into systems” (Lyon, Terrorism 2). Lyon (Terrorism) contends that the surveillance society is one that is organised and structured using surveillance-based techniques recorded by technologies, on behalf of the organisations and governments that structure our society. This information is then sorted, sifted and categorised and used as a basis for decisions which affect our life chances (Wood and Ball). The emergence of pervasive, automated and discriminatory mechanisms for risk profiling and social categorising constitute a significant mechanism for reproducing and reinforcing social, economic and cultural divisions in information societies. Such automated categorisation, Lyon (Terrorism) warns, has consequences for everyone especially in face of the new anti-terror measures enacted after September 11. In tandem with this, Bauman points out that

a few suicidal murderers on the loose will be quite enough to recycle thousands of innocents into the “usual suspects”. In no time, a few iniquitous individual choices will be reprocessed into the attributes of a “category”; a category easily recognisable by, for instance, a suspiciously dark skin or a suspiciously bulky rucksack* *the kind of object which CCTV cameras are designed to note and passers-by are told to be vigilant about. And passers-by are keen to oblige. Since the terrorist atrocities on the London Underground, the volume of incidents classified as “racist attacks” rose sharply around the country. (122; emphasis added)

Bauman, drawing on Lyon, asserts that the understandable desire for security combined with the pressure to adopt different kind of systems “will create a culture of control that will colonise more areas of life with or without the consent of the citizen” (123). This means that the inhabitants of the urban space whether a citizen, worker or consumer who has no terrorist ambitions whatsoever will discover that their opportunities are more circumscribed by the subject positions or categories which are imposed on them. Bauman cautions that for some these categories may be extremely prejudicial, restricting them from consumer choices because of credit ratings, or more insidiously, relegating them to second-class status because of their colour or ethnic background (124). Joseph Pugliese, in linking visual regimes of racial profiling and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in the aftermath of 7/7 bombings in London, suggests that the discursive relations of power and visuality are inextricably bound. Pugliese argues that racial profiling creates a regime of visuality which fundamentally inscribes our physiology of perceptions with stereotypical images. He applies this analogy to Menzes running down the platform in which the retina transforms him into the “hallucinogenic figure of an Asian Terrorist” (Pugliese 8).

With globalisation and the proliferation of ICTs, borders and boundaries are no longer sacrosanct and as such risks are managed by enacting ‘smart borders’ through new technologies, with huge databases behind the scenes processing information about individuals and their journeys through the profiling of body parts with, for example, iris scans (Wood and Ball 31). Such body profiling technologies are used to create watch lists of dangerous passengers or identity groups who might be of greater ‘risk’. The body in a surveillance society can be dissected into parts and profiled and coded through technology. These disparate codings of body parts can be assembled (or selectively omitted) to construct and represent whole bodies in our information society to ascertain risk. The selection and circulation of knowledge will also determine who gets slotted into the various categories that a surveillance society creates.


When the corporeal body is subsumed into a web of surveillance it often raises questions about the deterministic nature of technology. The question is a long-standing one in our modern consciousness. We are apprehensive about according technology too much power and yet it is implicated in the contemporary power relationships where it is suspended amidst human motive, agency and anxiety. The emergence of surveillance societies, the co-optation of bodies in surveillance schemas, as well as the construction of the body through data in everyday transactions, conveys both the vulnerabilities of the human condition as well as its complicity in maintaining the power arrangements in society. Bauman, in citing Jacques Ellul and Hannah Arendt, points out that we suffer a ‘moral lag’ in so far as technology and society are concerned, for often we ruminate on the consequences of our actions and motives only as afterthoughts without realising at this point of existence that the “actions we take are most commonly prompted by the resources (including technology) at our disposal” (91).

Author Biography

Yasmin Ibrahim