Introduction

The Power and Productivity of Vigilance Regimes

in Conflict and Society
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Ana Ivasiuc Maynooth University, Ireland

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Eveline Dürr Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany Eveline.Duerr@lmu.de

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Catherine Whittaker Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany Whittaker@em.uni-frankfurt.de

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Abstract

This introduction to the special section charts the ways in which the concept of vigilance has been loosely conceptualized at the intersection between security, surveillance, and border studies. It rethinks vigilance through the conceptual lens of vigilance regimes, as well as through the productivity of watchfulness in different contexts. Vigilance is conceptualized as an assemblage of moral ideas, belonging, increased attention, and social practice, located in certain sociopolitical contexts, concrete spaces, and technologies. Regimes of vigilance are defined as complex assemblages of practices and discourses that mobilize alertness for specific goals, which are embedded in particular materialities of watchfulness, and which in turn have effects on social practice and processes of subjectivation. This introduction calls for greater analytic attention toward the agency that vigilance produces, and seeks to define vigilance and the regimes that it constitutes, offering a productive lens for the study of socially mobilized alertness.

Vigilance is a highly productive yet understudied concept. Mobilized prevalently in research on security and surveillance, the concept has received little theoretical attention in a consistent manner. Some have signaled a certain taken-for-grantedness of alertness in anthropology that needs unpacking and lacks a cross-cultural comparison (Wolf-Meyer 2013). With this special section on vigilance, we want to bring into the spotlight a concept that helps understand conflict and conflictuality on the one hand, and dynamics of power and various forms of securitization on the other. We are, furthermore, innovatively advancing its theorization through ethnographically grounded studies.

The concept of vigilance can be understood as the mobilization of attention to the advent of potential threats and that which is required from the community of citizens to thwart the dangers that threaten their lives and ways of being. When called upon by governments, vigilance is a resource (Codaccioni 2021) that can be mobilized for political goals and harnessed for protection. Surveillance entails and relies on vigilance, yet surveillance studies have also devoted too little conceptual attention to the ways in which vigilance is implicated in surveillant technologies and in everyday life.

The recurrent calls for the vigilance of citizens to identify and denounce threats in various contexts rests on the assumption that dangers look, smell, sound, and feel the same to everyone who is called upon to be vigilant. Yet, while the call for public vigilance inherently constructs a community of a vigilant “us,” others are simultaneously constituted as the object of vigilance, albeit in blurry and tacit ways that mask a process of social sorting (Lyon 2003), and the boundary-making dynamics that sort between those deemed safe and those anxiogenic others considered unsafe. Such taken-for-grantedness masks the workings of power behind the call for vigilance and demands our theoretical attention in times of a heightened “watchful politics” (Amoore 2007: 218). Since the emergence of the security paradigm globally and heightened conflictualities around terrorist threat and nativist anxieties around the so-called “migration crisis,” vigilance appears to cohere in political projects that have distinct exclusionary and conservative qualities. That is, however, not to say that vigilance cannot be mobilized to counter precisely those political projects that aim to exclude certain groups, as Catherine Whittaker and Eveline Dürr's contribution to this special section attests. We are interested in how vigilance is mobilized across the spectrum of political and social projects in which it is implicated.

This introduction to the special section analyzes the power of vigilance to be productive in the often-conflictual contexts in which it is called upon. Vigilance refers to the mobilization of individual attentiveness to goals often set by others, and at any rate negotiated according to socially constructed criteria and in settings imbued with power in particular ways (Brendecke 2018). Invested with vernacular notions of threat, as well as ideas of that which needs protection, vigilance becomes productive of imaginaries and social practices that aim to retouch boundaries between categories. This is particularly the case in those places where categories tend to become blurred for the subjects who are called upon to perform vigilance. Mary Douglas (1991) famously conceptualized the liminal objects and subjects that do not conform entirely to preconceived categories as risky and dangerous ones that command the vigilance of others and are often subjected to protracted forms of surveillance and social control, if not outright repression, expulsion, or extermination. However, she also argued that religions sometimes worship such impure, dangerous objects because of their power to reset the system. Therefore, heightened attention is not always motivated by negative sentiments but is also central to encounters with the sacred.

We argue that what Arndt Brendecke and Paola Molino (2018) call “cultures of vigilance,” or, alternatively, what Vanessa Codaccioni (2021) coins “vigilance society,” are phenomena best understood through ethnographically grounded, cross-cultural comparisons such as the ones included in this special section. We emphasize hence the variable, culturally, and socially determined character of the ways in which vigilance is mobilized toward particular goals and of the objects of watchfulness across various contexts. Yet we also aim at grasping mechanisms and processes that show similarities and overlaps, as well as the effects of the mobilization of alertness. We believe that the articles gathered in this special section offer rich, empirically informed insights into the ways in which we can theorize vigilance from an anthropological perspective.

We attempt a conceptualization of vigilance within what we call “regimes of vigilance”: sets of discourses and practices in which vigilance is implicated and in which it is productive of materialities, visualities, and cognitive and affective subjectivities, structuring social practices in specific ways.1 Thus, we chart the power and productiveness of vigilance along the axes of visuality, materiality, and subjectivity—encompassing rationality, affectivity, but also morality. We draw on the contributors’ research on practices of vigilance around border and boundary-making in various contexts to exemplify the regimes of vigilance at play and the ways in which vigilance is highly productive.

Regimes of Vigilance

We define vigilance as a form of watchfulness that is motivated by specific values and obligations and that at the same time produces concrete measures, practices, actions, and discourses aiming to protect and defend culturally bounded and socially negotiated values. Vigilance is thus an assemblage of moral ideas, belonging, increased attention, and social practice, which is located in certain sociopolitical contexts, concrete spaces, and technologies and is both made possible and shaped by these. Often understood as the duty of a “good citizen,” vigilance not only determines everyday boundary-making practices but also shapes the material culture, the aesthetic nature, and the affective texture of a given spatial context, as well as the rationalities and moralities invested in it. Vigilance sheds light on competing moral norms, shifting power configurations, and representations of past, present, and future temporalities, often evoking images of an idealized past contrasting future dystopias. It entails not only awareness, various forms of agency, and the social organization needed to counter potential, actual, or imagined threats, but also the active construction of that against which one must summon it. Analyzing patterns of how vigilance is mobilized exposes the ways in which power and its holders function to protect the social order, but also how the less powerful negotiate boundaries of belonging and counteract oppressive power.

Gesturing toward the centrality of visuality in vigilance, we borrow from the term scopic regime (Jay 1988; see also Feldman 1997) to define regimes of vigilance as assemblages of practices and discourses that center on the mobilization of watchfulness to particular—often political—means, through hints and clues negotiated and read as signifiers of danger, embedded in specific materialities and mediated sensorially. Vigilance regimes produced by powerful forces entail agendas of (in)visibilization, representation, and interpretation that are lodged within complex moralities and affectivities. The powerholders within such regimes and the visualities they promote prescribe the ways in which the world must be read, lived, and sensed, and the ways in which life, moral worlds, or the social order at large must be protected. Regimes of vigilance lay claims of truth regarding what is dangerous and who or what must be protected, construct specific objects of danger, and prescribe the ways in which information gained through the mobilization of sustained attention must be relayed to the social or political bodies availing themselves of the function of protection.

In this sense, acknowledging the complex intertwining between power and knowledge in producing regimes of vigilance, we also echo the Foucauldian concept of “regime of truth” (Foucault [1978] 1995) as a complex and shifting system comprising discourses on what is—and what is not—true, mechanisms to differentiate between truths and untruths, techniques and procedures for the obtention of truth, and the allocation of status to those who are able to utter statements on truth. Techniques and procedures, often embodied in laws and policies, come into play to mobilize one's alertness. Sometimes sustained by technologies, such procedures generate vigilant ways of being and the circulation of particular representations of danger. Thus, technologies of vigilance are technologies of governmentality in the Foucauldian sense, situated at the intersection between technologies of domination and the self (Emerson 2018). The call for vigilance obfuscates and confirms hierarchies of power by naturalizing certain people as dangerous. In a time of heightened insecurity, citizens posing as watchful defenders accrue symbolic and political capital by performing particular kinds of vigilant agency (Ivasiuc 2019). Last but not least, the mobilization for vigilance produces profit for those who capitalize on collective or individual anxieties, commercializing different kinds of products as solutions for sustaining or enhancing human alertness through technological means and thwarting danger (Doyle et al. 2012; Ghertner et al. 2020; Leander 2010; Loader 1999).

Regimes of vigilance with competing claims can be coterminous, and there are often ambiguities, ambivalences, and contradictions in any single regime of vigilance. But regimes of vigilance go beyond the representational realm: they also encompass specific materialities—in the form of objects that convey messages such as signs and posters, tools, and a diverse range of infrastructures—and implicate technologies of surveillance that are produced within certain rationalities.

The concept of regimes of vigilance constitutes an analytical device for grasping vigilance in its relationality and to understand it in the complex ways in which it functions in connection with particular regimes of truth and the material infrastructures and social practices that they produce. The concept also helps to make sense of how vigilance affects, often ambivalently, the social worlds in which it works. In conflict-ridden settings, the concept of regimes of vigilance allows us to articulate constructions of danger, the materialities and visualities of vigilance produced, and the subjectivities and power configurations that the mobilization of alertness generates in a specific setting. In this way, this concept sheds light on the dynamic construction of conflict and the political, affective, and moral stakes at play.

While certain regimes of vigilance—such as the complex deployment of watchfulness around airports and borders—rely more heavily on surveillance technologies and give way to intricate human-nonhuman assemblages, others are more vested in multidimensional representations of threat and risk. Such representations entail complex cognitive, affective, and moral rationalities revolving around the protection of communities of belonging. Recently, for example, a particular regime of vigilance arose around the global COVID-19 pandemic. Differently articulated according to vernacular contexts and far from being a universal, unambiguous assemblage, this regime of vigilance relies on specific materialities (e.g., masks, disinfecting stations, testing and vaccination facilities or barriers regulating flows in the public space) and signaletics of risk (e.g., stickers and signs indicating the distance to be maintained between people), but also on technologies (e.g., government-mandated apps for tracing and measuring the risk of contagion, digital vaccination certificates and the infrastructures to obtain them, or official websites presenting information around the evolution of cases in visually complex ways). This regime of vigilance prescribes social practices (e.g., social contact between extended family members) grounded in complex rationalities, affectivities, and moralities; consider, in this sense, the discourses that shunned visits to elderly or sick members of families invoking the responsibility to protect precarious lives.

The COVID-19 regime of vigilance also entailed profound social and political consequences. These include the restructuring of public space, the movement of people locally and globally, or the reconfiguration of crime, for example, through a decrease of burglaries and the ensuing displacement of urban vigilance. It brought about the reorganization of children's schooling and of adults’ work, as well as of the socialities around these. Further, it helped constitute conspiracy narratives that fed resistance toward pandemic-related government measures that sometimes entailed violent riots. Such conspiracy theories around the pandemic have also constructed new areas of vigilance or rearticulated old and new fears and moral panics. Since the advent of the pandemic, alertness has been mobilized through the complex regime of vigilance described above. This example shows how the concept of regime of vigilance is a heuristic device to grasp how vigilance operates in the wider shifts in social life.

The Centrality of Visuality in Vigilance

Seeing has historically emerged as the “sovereign sense” (Mitchell 2005: 265). In “ocularcentric” cultures (Classen 1993; Howes 1991), vigilance also tends to rely heavily on seeing as primary sense mediating conceptualizations of threat. To be watchful, at any rate, means to watch. To watch over oneself and one another, to scan the environment for any potential threats: sight is central to watchfulness, and “security-making is itself predicated on visibility” (Iusionyte and Goldstein 2016: 5). This centrality requires theoretical attention to forms of visuality and visibility, as well as to strategies of (in)visibilization that are inherent in manifestations of vigilance or, conversely, in attempts to thwart unwelcome forms of attention toward oneself. Perceptions and representations of danger do not only reflect forms of visual vigilance; they also actively produce practices of seeing. Just like “seeing surveillantly” comes to be socialized as a particular “way of seeing, a way of being” (Finn 2012), vigilance constitutes itself as a way of seeing centered on representations and clues of threat, and a way of being that is attentive to the potentiality of threat. “Vigilant visualities” (Amoore 2007) socialize the gaze, “enskilling” (Grasseni 2009) the vision of the watchers to decipher and construe certain clues as threats commanding vigilant agency. A now famous motto used in campaigns against terrorism threats incites for vigilance evoking the primacy of sight: “If you see something, say something.” In a subversive art project, the slogan was parodied into “If you fear something, you'll see something,” hinting at how ways of seeing are socialized before the act of seeing, are grounded in shared affectivities, and in turn acquire their own productive agency in multiplying representations and imaginaries of threat that accrue fear (Emerson 2018; Fernandez 2010; see also Larsen and Piché 2009). The anti-terrorist campaign has notoriously fueled racist, anti-Muslim paranoia in post-9/11 United States and elsewhere, notably where “Islamic terrorism” became an object of governmental concern and public debate.

Representations and imaginations of threat are socially shared and circulated rather than individually defined. The act of seeing, then, is not simply a biological fact mediated through the sense of sight, but a culturally constructed, socially negotiated, and often highly political practice involving complex social categorizations of what and who is (un)safe, and the accompanying codes of interpretation that construct such categories. Yet there is nothing about vigilance, or about the objects of vigilance, that is self-explanatory, uncontested, or “natural”: what is seen as risky depends on socially constructed properties of people, objects, or situations “out of place,” hence dangerous, to reinvigorate Douglas's (1991) classification. What makes vigilance so seductive and effective as a governance tool is precisely that it presents itself as more universal and common-sensical than it actually is.

With our focus on the productivity and agency of vigilance, we aim at going beyond a representational analysis of vigilant ways of seeing. Rather, we interrogate how vigilance produces and institutionalizes essentialistic ways of categorizing subjects and practices as well as maintaining the social order through “securitarian visualities” (Ivasiuc 2019: 235) in which social hierarchies are constructed in terms of who is considered safe, who is not, who and what is deemed worthy of protection, and who carries out acts of protection for the public benefit. The contributions to the special section are replete with representations and visualizations of threat that command watchfulness. Urmi Bhattacharyya's article, for instance, is built precisely around the analysis of visualities that are mobilized to maintain the social division between the Banjara in Rajasthan, India, and the mainstream population. The regime of vigilance encompasses, in this case, representations of social marginality that single out the Banjara as dangerous outcasts and subject them to regulatory forms of control. The regime of vigilance around the Banjara is grounded in colonial crime laws that have essentialized representations of criminality perpetuating them to our days. Legal apparatuses, hence, can be an important constitutive element of regimes of vigilance, prescribing the people and practices that must be subjected to watchfulness, as well as exclusions and penalties for particular practices such as begging in the case of the Roma in Italy (Ivasiuc 2020a). In the case of the Roma and the Banjara, the regime of vigilance functions on grounds of racializing—and racist—representations like the deviant nomadic or the criminal “Gypsy” Other, driving home the point that racial constructions are mobilized to legitimate social hierarchies and the exclusion of particular groups in the “racially saturated field of visibility” (Butler 1993). Surveillance studies have long shown how practices of surveillance mediated by visuality are racially differentiated (Browne 2015; Fiske 1998). Vigilance, here, contributes to the maintenance of social divisions grounded in racializing conceptions that construe and visualize the less privileged as a dangerous and inferior Other.

Not only race, class, and ethnic divisions but also gender participates in the articulation of regimes of vigilance. In Europe, for instance, in the wake of the so-called “migration crisis,” the discursive construction of white European women as vulnerable to criminal migrants has set in motion the reemergence of forms of informal policing bordering on vigilantism (Ivasiuc, this issue; Bust-Bartels 2019). In her contribution, Kristina Ilieva shows how the figure of the “refugee hunter” articulates specific forms of masculinity represented as defenders of the nation—often feminized in representations of national threat. The regime of vigilance that emerged at the Bulgarian-Turkish border entails practices of border patrolling and refugee repression and abuse that circulate and reproduce imaginaries of dangerous transgression while calling for vigilance toward the potentialities of state secrecy and betrayal regarding “the truth” on the danger that migration, and refugees in particular, purportedly represent for the nation. Hints seen on the bodies of those singled out as refugees, such as skin rashes or wounds, are the object of vigilance against contagious disease and are incorporated into larger representations of danger and transgression that command a vigilante-like alertness.

The invisibility of the expected threat commands perpetual vigilance to a much greater extent than what is immediately visible to the watchful gaze. In his study of negative potentiality in contexts of conflict and uncertainty, Henrik Vigh (2011) sheds light on the workings of insecurity in the anticipation of threats and its effects on social action. He unpacks how “shadow worlds of actors and factors that may be out of sight and beyond our immediate senses” (2011: 93) determine social action in anticipation. The pervasive experience of negative potentialities leads to a social hypervigilance entailing constant awareness and preparedness in unpredictable and fast-shifting configurations of conflict. Not knowing what will happen in the immediate future prompts the continuous plotting of escape strategies. Hypervigilance, Vigh notes, leads to the creation of a hyper-signified world, in which everything is a potential sign of danger and the smallest details about a person must be read in a vigilant manner. Here, the local knowledge of such signifiers of danger orients people in their social encounters and embodied demeanors with the aim of surviving a violence thought to be always on the verge of potentially happening, and determines people to focus their energies on deciphering the visible clues of trouble in their environments.

The visual overdetermination of vigilance does not mean, however, that other senses are not mobilized to interpret hints of danger. While we do emphasize the centrality of sight in the regimes of vigilance that we discuss in the special section, we also maintain a critical perspective on this ocularcentrism, and we recognize the bias it produces toward the visual. A consideration of how different senses participate in the interpretation and deciphering of danger opens the way toward conceptualizing the sensoriality of vigilance in different cultural contexts, and how people mobilize alertness to “sense” dangers beyond the sovereign sense of sight.

Materialities of Vigilance

A large body of literature at the intersection of surveillance, critical security, and science and technology studies has devoted attention to the ways in which technologies and infrastructures of detection operate to aid human vigilance and supplement it where human sensory capabilities are perceived to potentially fail (Ericson and Haggerty 2006; Franko et al. 2009; Klimburg-Witjes et al. 2021; Molotch 2012; Suchman et al. 2017; Walters 2014; Weber and Kämpf 2020). Objects are integral to the way in which security threats are imagined, constituted, and governed (Aradau et al. 2015; Walters 2014). Particular spaces and objects—such as borders and the materialities that they encompass—are circumscribed into practices of vigilance to a larger extent than others. These are focal points where negotiations take place around issues of not only social and moral boundary-making but also of governance, sovereignty, power, resource distribution, and control. Changing immigration policies, for example, have inspired the establishment and strengthening of physical boundaries in interaction with innovations in technologies and practices of vigilance, as well as the transformation of citizenship rights. Surveillance cameras have multiplied in the urban space as a purported solution for issues related to urban crime and insecurity, and while their apparition was often met with resistance and concerns regarding privacy and the creeping of authoritarianism under the form of surveillance, they have become part and parcel of many urban landscapes and increasingly garnered popular support (Doyle et al. 2012; Frois 2013). Such “infrastructures of vigilance,” which we define as material contraptions and assemblages conceived with the aim of automating human vigilance for the purpose of sorting and governing populations within given social orders, are machineries that combine human and nonhuman agency in ways that often blur responsibilities and the effects of technological features or human action. Technologies are recurrently presented as neutral and objective machines, but their vigilance is modulated by human conceptions of danger embedded, for example, in facial expressions or behavior deemed “abnormal” (Maguire 2014); those of Black and brown people are more readily identified as suspect than those of white persons scanned (Browne 2015).

If race is an effective factor of discrimination and social sorting, then so is class. In a study of biometric registration in India's aadhaar system, it emerged that biometric technologies discriminate Indian manual workers whose callous fingerprints become unreadable to the machine (Jacobsen and Rao 2018). Technology, then, aids in keeping the social order intact by excluding from digital infrastructures of governmental support those already socially marginalized. Torin Monahan (2010) conceptualizes marginalizing surveillance as the production of structures and subjectivities of social marginality through the application of surveillance apparatuses (see also Monahan 2017); in a similar fashion, marginalizing vigilance works toward reproducing conditions of marginality through the application of those social criteria that constitute particular subjects as suspect and thus undesirable.

Technologies also work toward producing new “objects of vigilance” (Taylor and Velkova 2021: 296) in the form of breaches or irregularities in the materiality of environments, pointing again to the productivity of notions of out-of-placeness or incompleteness as signifiers of danger (Douglas 1991), as well as to the aesthetic qualities of (in)security (Ghertner et al. 2020). Like the ever-shifting airport security policies show (Maguire and Westbrook 2021), regimes of vigilance continuously infuse mundane and innocuous objects with newly found dangerous potentialities, such as bottles of water or shoes: risk has the power of agglutinating multiple objects previously categorically unrelated, coupling them with significations that stretch far beyond their initial utility.

Inasmuch as space has material dimensions, it also deserves conceptual attention regarding the ways in which it is subjected to vigilance. With the emergence of anti-immigrationism in Europe and the US from the 1990s onward (Anderson 2013; Huysmans 2006), discourses in which the national space is constructed as a home to be protected against outsiders began to resurface: this kind of domopolitics (Walters 2004) prescribes watchfulness over who transgresses the national border, and conflates migration and criminality, constructing the figure of the “crimmigrant” Other (Franko 2011) as a social and moral threat to the nation. But watchfulness also operates in more concrete spaces such as the neighborhood, where neighborhood watch and patrols have multiplied over the last decade. In this bounded space, material clues of insecurity such as foreign license plates, particular kinds of vans, or simply material urban blight like waste in unauthorized spaces command the vigilance of local security entrepreneurs in vigilante-like fashion (Ivasiuc 2015, 2019). Vigilance over space thus rests on specific materialities that are context-dependent and socially negotiated (Ivasiuc 2020b). In urban contexts, one is immediately reminded of the productivity of the “broken windows” theory in pointing to the materiality of insecurity and the imbrication between the material and cognitive signifiers of crime and the potential of danger—even though the theory's cultural decontextualization of notions of orderliness and propriety, and thus its inherent conceptual weakness, have been critically pointed out (Harcourt 2001). Urban architectures of security have emerged in the material landscape, amounting to forms of “security aesthetics” (Coaffee et al. 2009; Ghertner et al. 2020) that intersect human attentiveness and channel it through material hints in built-up environments. “Securityscapes” (Low and Maguire 2019) that command vigilance encompass a spatial and a material dimension that intersect (in)security affect and imagination in productive ways.

However, objects do not only signify things like danger or risk; they also carry agentive qualities. Consider, for instance, how a forgotten suitcase in a metro station has come to require that alert observers take action. Beyond the realm of the cognitive and imaginary, however, vigilance also rests on the production of supporting materialities and infrastructures, such as biometric databases, algorithmic technologies, and surveillance apparatuses. Technology can be programmed to be more or less vigilant according to different, and at times, competing, needs. For instance, Perle Møhl (2019: 126), in a study of the Copenhagen airport security machinery, shows how in order to ensure better flows of passengers, the airport management “can just turn down the machine's vigilance with a click of the mouse.” The border guards praise themselves for the fact that while machines are manipulable and their vigilance can be decreased, theirs, in turn, cannot. The imbrication of human and machine alertness produces vigilant assemblages that can be modulated according to particular needs such as the extraction of profit from travelers or the management of passenger flows at the border.

Power and Subjectivity

In the early 1990s, Gilles Deleuze (1992) wrote about the emergence of a “society of control.” In contrast to the disciplinary prewar society, in the “society of control,” everyday control is at once more hidden and more pervasive because of its capillarization through the minds and bodies of individuals rather than its visible concentration in state institutions tasked with maintaining social order. In the contemporary security paradigm, citizens are called upon to participate in maintaining public order by means of a quasi-perpetual state of vigilance. To be vigilant today is to be a good citizen: the call for citizen vigilance prompts the scanning of objects, people, and situations, with the aim of identifying potential risks and dangers and alerting state institutions responsible for protection. In a neoliberal fashion, the responsibility for protection has been imparted onto citizens as “participatory security” or “participatory policing” (Larsson 2016), and even what could perhaps be termed “participatory war-making,” as in the case of the United States, where citizens are deputized in the state's “war on terror” policies (Amoore and De Goede 2008; Vaughan-Williams 2008). Through such policies and their deployment in the realms of the everyday, “vigilant subjecthood” is produced at the intersection of power, knowledge, and self. The urge to exert attentiveness with the aim of countering terrorist threats is in itself a technology of vigilance “that collapse[s] self-government into political government” (Emerson 2018: 285).

The state figures as a crucial force that mobilizes present-day forms of vigilance. These become productive in multiple ways. Several studies place the state—and implicitly, the power that it embodies and enacts (or not)—at the center of their analysis. Vigilance is a function of power in that power is often fragile, so threats must be anticipated and thwarted constantly. In the process of channeling vigilance by representing and signaling danger through signs and posters deployed in the urban environment of Bogotá, for example, as Austin Zeidermann (2020) shows, the relationship between a patriarchal state and its vulnerable—feminized and infantilized citizens—is reproduced and reinforced visually, materially, and conceptually. When related to the state, vigilance invokes conceptions of citizenship in its various articulations. The “good,” “active,” or “concerned” citizens place their watchfulness in service of the state and, in its perceived absence, of a legitimate “community,” either urban or national; citizenization practices produce worthy citizens while keeping illegitimate ones at bay. The articulation between security and citizenship is a well-established object of study (Guillaume and Huysmans 2013; Lewis, this issue), but practices of vigilance can deepen our understanding of the production of subject positions between belonging and nonbelonging at different scales. For instance, one such subject position—the neoliberal, neurotic citizen (Fournier 2014; Isin 2004)—tends to be articulated in prominent ways around practices of vigilance, in which the citizen becomes a “soldier in a state of perpetual vigilance” (Hay and Andrejevic 2006: 341).

We mentioned how vigilance is accrued in particular spaces such as borders and symbolic boundaries; these are also created through diverse forms of social exclusion and embodied by migrants, other phenotypical “strangers,” or simply those deemed to not fit into a particular space, such as the urban poor, the refugee, or minoritized, racialized, or colonized subjects like the migrant, the Banjara, the Latin@, or the “illegitimate” applicant for citizenship. Such constructions of deservingness and legitimacy are imbued with moral conceptions; simultaneously, vigilance is mobilized precisely to protect the community from potentially disruptive moral outsiders who might threaten the status quo. Yet at the same time, those upon whose bodies the lines of citizenship and belonging are drawn must be vigilant to adapt to changing circumstances and come to inhabit certain subject positions to avert the danger of repression and potential violence. Additionally, these border bodies are inscribed within material and aesthetic assemblages that possess agency in themselves: visual and material clues of nonbelonging activate vigilance as a mode of bordering and rebordering bodies, and as a way to produce forms of (im)mobility within border spaces. In the process, notions of risk, security, danger, and protection are produced anew.

Watchfulness belongs to an assemblage of practices of social control mobilized to maintain the intactness of categories and hierarchies. Accordingly, practices and discourses of attentiveness surface in times of acute social turmoil that threatens existing social orders, and often the call for vigilance masks the conservative intent of keeping things as they are, and of averting the risks that come with shifting orders. Such risks are often construed as threatening dystopias on future temporalities that must be prevented at all costs. For instance, the examination of security laws from a historical perspective uncovers the evolution and shifting of practices considered a threat to the existing social order (Ivasiuc 2020a). While the vigilance of the state or of the more powerful tends to reify categories and the boundaries that produce them, forms of counter-vigilance contest certain boundaries and power configurations while reinforcing more subtle or nascent others, or produce new boundaries in a process that attempts to remake borders and trouble the status quo. Vigilance, then, acquires the power to produce new social orders, to restructure both difference and sameness, and to remake communities of thought and practice around redefined values. Governmentalities of vigilance seep through subjectivities, creating subjects through which control over people, bodies, objects, norms, and spaces is enhanced. As different social boundaries reflect and support certain forms of identity politics, vigilance is a powerful force in both reproducing social hierarchies and contesting these. Good—and vigilant—citizens from wealthy social strata draw material and immaterial boundaries between those perceived as a danger on the one hand, and “righteous” and “rightful” citizens on the other.

But those who are watched also mobilize forms of watchfulness. The way in which migrants and supposed strangers present themselves and behave in public spaces in order to avoid suspicion can tell us a great deal about how power works. It disciplines subjects and forecloses potentialities of coming together in solidarity in order to contest power hierarchies and coloniality. The “dangerous Other” is often the racialized “Other,” the illegalized migrant, the colonized and minoritized subject, who may equally mobilize vigilance against the violence that is exerted on them and even turn their vigilance into forms of collective, distinctively anti-colonial resistance that shapes new political subjectivities. Interrogating such mobilizations of vigilance contributes to subverting and decolonizing prevailing conceptualizations of vigilance that center too prominently on the specific forms of vigilance dictated by governments and ruling groups. Here, we argue that forms of counter-vigilance, or ways in which those who are watched in turn mobilize alertness for protective goals, are part and parcel of the conceptualization of regimes of vigilance. Vigilance, as the faculty of being attuned to one's social position in the world and to how that position may put one at risk, then becomes a coping strategy (Munyikwa 2019; see also Hines et al. 2018).

By focusing on the productivity of watchfulness in various assemblages, we wish to overcome the tendency of a simplistic, binary conceptualization of vigilance “from above” and “from below.” However appealing it would be to differentiate between practices enacted by those in power versus those groups that are often the object of vigilance, we argue that such clear-cut boundaries do not do justice to the complexity of the dynamics at play when vigilance is mobilized in power-imbued contexts. One telling example in this sense is the distinction between state and nonstate actors deploying vigilance: while the state, traditionally tasked with the monopoly of protection, calls upon the vigilance of citizens to avert risks such as terrorism or crime, the latter enact forms of vigilance accompanied by discourses that tend to undermine the state's monopoly of protection, thus delegitimizing it while responding to its call for vigilance.

While continuously present and manifested in societies, vigilance seems to be called upon with greater insistence during times of perceived crisis. In the wake of attacks framed as terrorist ones and the post-9/11 “war on terror,” governments appealed insistently to the watchfulness of their citizens to protect not only their physical bodies but also the values that the body politic was constructed to signify—notably “democracy,” “freedom,” and an essentialized “way of life.” The pandemic of 2020, to name but the most recent dramatic shift, enhanced the culture of vigilance that had already begun to creep into the everyday (Larsson 2016). It enabled the policing of bodies, distances, and postures by peers, as well as the unprecedented collection of data regarding contacts and spatial movement. Alertness pervaded social life in all its dimensions, from one's own body, its distance from other bodies, and attentiveness toward prescribed rules, to an awareness of others’ management of their own bodies and “social distancing.” Concerns for relentless vigilance produced technologies of surveillance on a magnitude once unthinkable. The call for vigilance against the ravages of an unknown virus, moreover, produced a greater social acceptance of intrusive surveillance technologies, while adding new lengths to the reach of state power in our everyday and extending its “governmentalities of watchfulness” (Goldstein 2010) in a capillary fashion. But such regimes of vigilance became contested in the politics of resistance to government-imposed rules, and we saw new forms of civilian attentiveness emerge. People were called upon to be on guard against government overreach, the potential of misuse that the new surveillance infrastructures entailed, or corporate opportunism. The unjust effects of public health policies in relation to class and racial identity called for the accrued vigilance of activist formations, too.

However, the call for vigilance and the practices that have surfaced around the mobilization of alertness are not only embodied in spectacular instances following dramatic events. They transpire from mundane practices that William G. Staples (2014) calls “meticulous rituals of power”: the inconspicuous ways in which bodies and practices are subjected to surveillance and human life is shaped, manipulated, and controlled in all realms, from the individual use of digital technologies to the highly contestable use of proctorial software in education, or to practices of surveillance in the workplace that are designed to discipline workers into hyperproductive subjects at the service of capitalist profit-making. One question that demands a rich empirical texture concerns the regimes of vigilance that sustain capitalism as a sociopolitical and economic order. With eyes on this question, Shoshana Zuboff (2019) paid attention to the intersection between surveillance and capitalism. By showing how human attention is increasingly monetized by means of digital technologies, Zuboff outlines an important subject for future research.

Introducing the Special Section

In this special section, we interrogate the productiveness of vigilance in ethnographically informed case studies spanning a great regional breadth ranging from Eastern and Western Europe to South Asia to North America. By focusing on the dimensions of vigilance around border areas—both material, such as state borders, and symbolic, such as citizenship and belonging—we chart how both the watchers and the watched deploy practices of vigilance with various productive outcomes. Our contributors reflect on what vigilance produces in terms of bodies, spaces, subjectivities, materialities, and visualities, to interrogate the ways in which certain people are produced as watchful and others as suspect subjects. The authors assembled in this section think through the fault lines that vigilance produces in the social fabric and chart the kinds of conflict that it manufactures. Moreover, the articles in this section examine how vigilant technologies, practices, and discourses structure power and command the distribution of resources, and what role gender but also race and class/caste lines play. Together, the contributions of this special section emphasize the productivity of vigilance in various kinds of material and symbolic worlds.

Urmi Bhattacharyya's article analyzes how the Banjara in India's Rajasthan are reproduced as racialized and essentialized Others by means of an arsenal of epistemic and visual productions that emphasize their out-of-placeness, embodied in the figure of the nomad. The author takes vigilance to be the practice and politics of visuality that effects the classification of bodies and identities through particular ways of representing them in dominant discourses and state laws and shows how vigilance produces social imaginaries and conditions of epistemic injustice.

Kristina Ilieva's contribution focuses on vigilante formations at the Bulgarian border with Turkey and how they interpret EU's “migration crisis” as ordinary yet “active” citizens. The author analyzes how the performance of vigilante practices produces gendered and national identities in the figure of the masculinized protector (the “refugee hunter”) and the feminized, national victim. Through such practices, she argues, the triangular relationship between the state, the “active citizen,” and the immigrant Other is configured in an ambivalent way. The vigilant “active citizen” works not only against or “in the absence” of the state but also with, and for, the state. Here, we see a complex regime of vigilance articulated not only through representations of terrorist and criminal danger, disease, and invasion of national territory but also through practices applied in the border space and around the refugee center that reproduce gendered identities and elevate vigilance, and vigilante-like action, as a patriotic act of defense.

Ana Ivasiuc analyzes another vigilant(e) formation comparatively by examining how Italian and German neighborhood patrols produce a discourse that delegitimizes the state and portrays it as incapable of protecting its citizens. Her article examines how practices of vigilance manifested in informal policing are simultaneously and ambivalently state-(un)making practices. In response, state institutions discourage this threatening vigilance. Instead, they advocate for less threatening forms of alertness, such as neighborhood watch programs, which eventually strengthen state control. The ensuing regime of vigilance is replete with contradictions and ambivalences, as the state mobilizes the vigilance of its citizens as a resource that in turn can become threatening to its own legitimacy.

In her article, Rachel Lewis uses her ethnographic data on the UK citizenship ceremony to examine the navigation of anxiety and (in)security, and the vigilance this produces, enables, and justifies. She looks at how vigilant practices perform and discursively realize the legitimacy of the state and the good citizen-candidate while articulating and excluding those deemed illegitimate. The citizenship ritual articulates linguistic and symbolic performances that draw and secure the boundaries of the community of legitimate citizens. Simultaneously, vigilant practices stabilize and reify the state's authority over the citizen-subject. The regime of vigilance that we can glean from this contribution entails anxious affectivities around citizenship, and in particular around the liminal stage at which subjects become British citizens through intricate rituals. The bureaucratic apparatus, with its materialities of documents and procedures, is part of the regime of vigilance mobilized around the deservingness of British citizenship.

Corina Tulbure examines how the practices of state-created “civic patrols” and their constant spatial vigilance in the name of convivencia (togetherness) enforces the removal of homeless illegalized immigrants from particular urban spaces of Barcelona. Using the concept of “departheid” (Kalir 2019), she argues that the departheid regime instituted and enacted by the civic patrols leads to the removal of unwanted homeless migrants while shaping a racialized and gentrified city. The regime of vigilance on which the civic patrols rest comprises representations about legitimate and illegitimate presence in the urban space grounded in a vague but naturalized notion of convivencia but also organizational arrangements across several institutions and the expectations of the citizenry regarding state institutions, as well as a form of domopolitics that is both racialized and classed.

Finally, Catherine Whittaker and Eveline Dürr's intervention analyzes Latin@s and Chican@s’ vigilance and struggle for a decolonized future, as a form of resistance against the White settler state in San Diego, California. The authors show how state vigilance reproduces coloniality through the over-policing of Latin@ bodies and how being recognized as Latin@ in the US borderlands necessitates developing vigilance against exclusionary violence as a way of navigating the world. In times of heightened vulnerability to both White supremacist violence and the pandemic, Latin@s’ participation in protests and practices of resistance through staying alert (trucha) inform anti-colonial struggles grounded in self-protection and an ethics of communal care. By focusing on Latin@s’ experiences, the article contributes to expanding and decolonizing conceptualizations of vigilance. In this contribution, the regime of vigilance encompasses the mobilization of alertness by those discriminated against as a countermeasure to the repression that Latin@s are subjected to.

With this special section on vigilance, our hope is to initiate a much-needed theoretical conversation on vigilance. We demonstrate not only how attention to vigilance invites “paradigmatic connections” (Vigh 2011) between ways in which alertness is mobilized in culturally bound contexts, but also how conceptualizations of vigilance can be expanded to respond to the urgent question of how to understand in nuanced ways the various forms in which vigilance plays out in the contemporary security paradigm.

Acknowledgments

Ana Ivasiuc's work has been made possible through a grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation's special program “Security, Society, Space” for the project “The Rise of Informal Policing in Europe: Security, Space, State.” Eveline Dürr and Catherine Whittaker are grateful to the Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1369 “Cultures of Vigilance” at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), funded by the German Research Foundation, for supporting this special issue. We thank the CRC for many inspiring discussions, in particular on the theorization of vigilance. We are particularly grateful for the editorial assistance provided by Nicky Beaven.

Note

1

“Regimes of vigilance” was first used by Sebastian Larsson (2016) without a specific definition or conceptual unpacking in an article analyzing participatory policing and the reporting of suspicious activities in the UK following the multiplication of calls for the vigilance of citizens.

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Contributor Notes

ANA IVASIUC is Lecturer in the Anthropology of Crime and Security at Maynooth University. She has conducted postdoctoral research at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen within the Collaborative Research Center “Dynamics of Security: Forms of Securitization in Historical Perspective,” focusing on the securitization of the Roma in Rome through an ethnography of formal and informal policing. Her most recent research is the project “The Rise of Informal Policing in Europe: Security, Space, State,” funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation's special program “Security, Society, State.”

EVELINE DÜRR is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU). Previously, she was an associate professor at the Auckland University of Technology and received her doctoral degree and venia legendi from the University of Freiburg. Her research projects include urban anthropology, spatiality, human-environmental relations, tourism, mobilities, and globalization, and they consider the historical trajectories and power imbalances that have formed present conditions. Currently, she cochairs the Collaborative Research Center “Cultures of Vigilance” and chairs the Urban Environments Initiative at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU. Email: Eveline.Duerr@lmu.de

CATHERINE WHITTAKER is Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Goethe University Frankfurt. During work on this special issue, she was a visiting scholar at the University of California San Diego, where she was continuing the research she began as a postdoctoral scholar working with Eveline Dürr at the Collaborative Research Center “Cultures of Vigilance” at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Her research focuses on structures of violence, with a particular focus on gender, racism, and coloniality, in Central Mexico and Southern California. Recent publications include “Felt Power: Can Mexican Indigenous Women Finally Be Powerful?” (Feminist Anthropology, 2020). Email: Whittaker@em.uni-frankfurt.de

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Advances in Research

  • Amoore, Louise. 2007. “Vigilant Visualities: The Watchful Politics of the War on Terror.” Security Dialogue 38 (2): 21532. https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010607078526.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Amoore, Louise, and Marieke de Goede, eds. 2008. Risk and the War on Terror. New York: Routledge.

  • Anderson, Bridget. 2013. Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Aradau, Claudia, Martin Coward, Eva Herschinger, Owen D. Thomas, and Nadine Voelkner. 2015. “Discourse/Materiality.” In Critical Security Methods: New Frameworks for Analysis, ed. Claudia Aradau, Jef Huysmans, Andrew Neal, and Nadine Voelkner, 5784. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brendecke, Arndt. 2018. “Attention and Vigilance as Subjects of Historiography: An Introductory Essay.” Storia della Storiografia 74 (2): 1727. https://doi.org/10.19272/201811502002.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brendecke, Arndt and Paola Molino, eds. 2018. “The History and Cultures of Vigilance. Historicizing the Role of Private Attention in Society.” Special issue, Storia della Storiografia 74 (2).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Bust-Bartels, Nina. 2019. “Im Dienste der Sicherheit? Bürgerwehren in Deutschland” [In the service of security? Bürgerwehren in Germany]. PhD diss., Philipps University Marburg.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Butler, Judith. 1993. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia.” In Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, ed. Robert Gooding-Williams, 1522. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Classen, Constance. 1993. Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures. London: Routledge.

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