Pickup and Profiling: A Note on Aesthetics

A while ago I briefly mentioned the relationship of sign equivalence that exists between the sports uniform and the human epidermis in a pickup basketball game of shirts and skins. This equivalence exists despite the fact that many pickup basketball games are multi-racial and colours on the skin team feature pigmentations of multiple hue, while those that play on the shirts team are wearing a panoply of colours, patterns and cuts of fabric. Yet it is almost never a problem to identify one's teammates and opponents in these games. This is because the identification is not so much a visual identification with colour, as exists in the more rigidly binary league structure of the game, but rather with texture and its play with light that gives the flesh a luminescence different from that of fabric. Further, there is a tactile contouring facilitated with vision that identifies the shape of the naked athletic body as distinct from the clothed one.

In Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Brian Massumi offers us a more in-depth means of thinking through this sensory identification:

The separation of the visual field must in some way coexist with its interconnection with other sense fields. Although "coexist" is the wrong word. "Co-attract" is better. In actuality, the senses cofunction. But for that to be possible, there must be virtual purity of each sense separately, as well as a virtuality governing its cofunctioning with the others: differentiation and integration go together. You can't have one without the other.

A simple example. We can see texture. You don't have to touch velvet to know that it is soft, or a rock to know that it is hard. Presented with a substance you have never seen before, you can anticipate its texture. Of course, this ability to see new tactile qualities depends on past touchings of other textures and movements providing continuous visual-tactile feedback. You have to know texture in general already before you can see a specifically new texture. But that doesn't change the fact that once you can generallly see texture, you see a texture directly, with only your eyes, without reaching (p. 157).

In military affairs, once the uniform of modern warfare cedes to the non-uniform of fourth-generation warfare (4GW) skin again becomes a signifier, but this time colour returns to makes its presence felt. At a surface level, biased human relations identify brown skin, for example, as potential threat and increases the level of "security" at the various checkpoints that ensure the integrity of the flux (customs checks, airline terminals, stadium gates).

Automated tracking and facial scanning programs, though perhaps blind to the same ethnic biases, also use the colour of skin as a signifier and catalyst for action, albeit in a slightly different fashion. The pigmentation is converted, pixel by pixel, to a grid of numerical colour coordinates, the whole of which are plotted and compared to databases of comparable profile information. In contrast to the human security checkpoints described above, the sensory modality of the facial scanning programs is far more haptic, with the eye of the camera merging with the tactile qualities of the database and the frisson of texture as the data file in question (profiled individual) resonates with the data files stored in the security archive (known criminals or "persons of interest").

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