AO: Not discussed in depth.
AO: There is little information on specifically which archives Breckenridge used or his sources of data. He has a very thorough bibliography but does not distinguish between primary and secondary information.
AO: Breckenridge notes that, contrary to widely held belief, it is an effort to escape the limits of the old paper state – of slow, susceptible or unreliable bureaucratic processing, of forgery, deception and translation in the preparation of documents – that lies at the core of the effort to develop biometric identification technologies. (“And this political imperative – to sweep away the slow and messy and unreliable paper-based systems of government – remains a key part of the appeal of these systems.”) (16) He notes that scholars (Wiener, Habermas) would be surprised that this kind of technosurveillance state developed outside of the “developed West” and in some of the poorest countries in the world (16).
AO: Breckenridge notes that whereas identification in almost every other society has emerged from the demands of local government, in South Africa it can be undertaken only by a single, central government agency and only by means of fingerprinting. This biometric centralisation he argues is globally distinctive and has been in place for half a century, and it affects almost every aspect of institutional life in South Africa – from banking to vehicle licensing. (19).
AO: Breckenridge notes that: “Government in Africa, which scholars have variously described as a gatekeeper state, as decentralised despotism and as hegemony on a shoestring, has been defined much more by the absence of information than its presence.” (25)
AO: Breckenridge notes that technologies of biometric registration are now seen as the most promising remedy for bureaucratic incapacity on the African continent. He is interested in how processes of identification working together make up an infrastructure of citizenship – a set of slowly emerging rules, standards and networks of communication – which give any state distinctive cen- tres and a distinctive political character.
AO: Breckenridge argues that a biometric state is “a state that is organised around technologies and architectures of identification that are very different – and which function politically very differently – from the older forms of written identification that have produced the modern state.” (8)
AO: the science of biometric identification and registration systems. He notes that biometrics can best be described as the “identification of people by machines” (12).
AO: Identifying a growing global isolation of South African historical writing due to what he sees as a view that South African history is completely distinct and unique, Breckenridge argues that the peculiarity of the South African history is derived from its connections with the wider imperial world, and that those linkages provide the basis for very interesting and productive comparisons.
AO: He avoids the two major debates that have framed the problem space - the politics of Afrikaner Nationalism and Marxist studies of the ideological and institutional effects of mining-driven capitalism - instead focusing on “local effects of globally staged debates in the science and technology of biometrics in accounting for the Apartheid state, and its immediate aftermath” (ix).
AO: Breckenrige looks at notions of the “state” (philosophical, anthropological, STS) and of “biometrics” in order to argue for a new disctinctive kind of state (biometric state) that rquires new ways of thinking about bureocratic power.
AO: cites Foucault’s state power
AO: Notes that there is rich body of work looking at how experts fashioned new forms and structures of power as they sought new kinds of knowledge on the African continent (and that the studies show the severe geographical and financial limits of the colonial state’s power.) (5)
AO: instead of widely used general explanations of state-building as a product of governmentality and rationalisation offered by Foucault and Weber, Breckenridge points to the history of progressivism, and to its distinctively unconstrained role in the making of the South African state after 1900 as an explanation for why South African biometric government is so centralized (26).
AO: Breckenridge is interested in empire and how the triangular relationship between India, the Witwatersrand and Britain established the special South African obsession with biometric government.
AO: Breckenridge notes the mutual co-construction of South Africa and the world: “the ways in which the world made South Africa, in particular how the global fingerprinting project created a distinctive state in this country. On the other, it examines how the events and ideologies produced by the very local (and often obscure, antipodean) struggles of this history around biometric identification fashioned a global politics.” (1)
AO: He builds on Cooper to note that the state in Africa was built to control trade and that has changed little in the postcolonial era.
AO: Breckenridge notes the close relationship between India and SA: Biometric government was first developed in India, brought to South Africa by officials of the Indian Colonial Service in 1900, where it was quickly put to use against the Indians in the Transvaal. “It was Gandhi’s international protests against fingerprint registration in South Africa that prompted the development of his anti-colonial political philosophy.” (19)
AO: Breckenridge appears animated by questions related to Africa’s role in global (intellectual) history. In 2015’s “Biometric State”, he asks: “Why does South African history matter?” and in 2018 paper he is interested in what happened to theories about African capitalism. He argues that there are important lessons to learn from a study of South African history that others must be wary of, esp. with regards to a system of racist bureaucracy (which has traveled to other societies on the Atlantic basin).
AO: Breckenridge argues that “a cultural understanding of the state – one which works well for the sprawling bureaucracies of India or France – is problematic on the African continent” because the state has largely survived in Africa by standing at the intersection of the colonial territory and the outside world and is largely charactertized by a lack of information and lack of ability to track the individual body or understand the dynamics of the social body (citing Cooper) (6)
AO: Breckenridge has a strong meta analysis and frames his own project in the gaps between the existing dominant explanations about South African history. He draws on historical material to argue that South Africa is the strongest example of a centralized biometric state, surprising considering its place in the “global South.” He has little in way of explanation of his own data practices and does not use an ecological perspective in his analysis.