Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

the cybernetic cop: robocop and the future of policing

ESSAY

text by JACKIE WANG
artwork by XAVIER VEILHAN

excerpt from carceral capitalism, published by semiotext(e), 2018, intervention series 21.

I grew up with a little brother who had a RoboCop toy, and we would sit around taking turns touching the chest plate button that would activate actuated electronic speech. The RoboCop toy had three phrases: “Drugs are trouble,” “Drop it!” and “Your move, creep.” For the toy RoboCop, criminals were the enemy, but we were implicated; we were the “you,” the addressees, the potential targets. We were the creeps of “your move, creep,” — it was we, the ones holding the toy, and not the Omni Consumer Products corporation, who used agent Murphy’s half-dead body as raw material for the creation of a cyborg cop designed to clean up the streets and pave the way for commerce and development in a lawless, dystopic Detroit.

Little cop in the toy box.

This toy RoboCop seemed to be saying,

Everyone is a potential enemy.

Don’t do drugs, kids, don’t do that shit.

As a youth, I never did any drugs. Was it the RoboCop inside my head that stopped me from doing drugs? I can still hear the mantra that emanated from the voice box in his chest: Drugs are trouble.

This was the RoboCop of the early 1990s, not 1987. The first RoboCop came out the year before I was born. The RoboCop of yesteryear was at war with his creators. Sure, criminals too were to be dealt with; without the criminal, there is no cop. But the criminals were a red herring. Ultimately, they were merely the lackeys of the suited businessmen.

RoboCop’s pursuit of the truth of his origin laid bare a technocratic capitalist conspiracy.

RoboCop — naive, quixotic in his belief that the role of the police is to protect the citizenry — represents a certain idea of the police that circulates as a public fact. When RoboCop was programmed, his three primary directives were to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. The fourth classified directive: No fucking with your creator.

He was a dutiful cop, but as he becomes more human, he learns that the nature of policing has changed such that it has lost its moral legitimacy.
Private interests have taken over the police department. The men at the OCP megacorporation repeatedly make reference to the future of law enforcement: previously unprofitable public sectors such as prisons and law enforcement are actually just untapped markets.

What is the future of law enforcement?
What is the future of law enforcement?
A technological experiment in cyborg policing
Half man, half machine
Skin and circuitry
A recombinant assemblage
Of soft and hard police technologies.

He’s equipped with artillery such as a 9mm handgun and a Cobra Assault Cannon, but also a data spike that lets him download information from the police database and rapidly compare these records with the information he’s gathered.

What is the future of law enforcement?
RoboCop is it. It is the place where the violence and coercion of prisons and police meet soft counterinsurgency. On the one hand, the militarization of the police. On the other, cybernetic forms of control. The old Detroit of RoboCop, devastated by the effects of Reaganomics, becomes the corporation’s testing ground for technologies of war. Nowadays, data mining and predictive analytics work alongside these instruments of brute force.

What I wanted to do was look beneath the hood of what we call policing — to look beyond spectacles of police violence, images from Ferguson of police in full riot gear hurling tear gas canisters from armored tanks. What I wanted to understand was the everyday incursion of policing into our lives and how technology regulates us, sometimes without our knowing. I wanted to attend to the intrusive-unseen against the backdrop of dystopic cinematic projections of what policing could become. Because the future of law enforcement is now.

But do we not sense it all around us?
Do we not feel through our sensoria that something is off?
When I hold my iPhone in my hand for too long,
I can almost feel a cancer growing inside it.

Does passing CCTV cameras mutate your psyche?

Do you hear the surveillance camera whisper,
Your body is not your body,
your body is a point on a grid,
a thing to be tracked
or pacified
or captured
or flagged
or targeted for commercial purposes.

RoboCop is not the cybernetic cop par excellence, though he embodies this transition to techno policing. The cybernetic cop has no face. Today we might call the cybernetic cop CompStat — it lives in linked databases. It spreads out over the map as electromagnetic radiation, atmosphere, signals. It is inhaled. It moves through me. It puts me to sleep before I know I am tired. It captures me in a moment I never prepared for. When I look up into the surveillance camera at CVS, I notice that my bangs are out of place. I fix my hair as though the monitor is a mirror and I’m not on display.

I disintegrate and am sent in pieces
as information to a server.
But where am I?
Dismembered,
scattered around the world,
folded,
tucked
away
in a dusty
airless
archive.

In “The Cybernetic Hypothesis,” Tiqqun writes about how it might mean to become a glitch:

I fabricate the real, I break things down, and break myself down by breaking it all down. This is the source of all acts of sabotage. What my act represents at this moment doesn’t exist for the device breaking down with me. Neither 0 nor 1, I am the absolute outsider/third party. My orgasm surpasses devices/my joy infuriates them. Second gesture: I do not respond to the human or mechanical feedback loops that attempt to encircle me/figure me out; like Bartleby, I’d “prefer not to.” I keep my distance, I don’t enter into the space of the flows, I don’t plug in, I stick around. I wield my passivity as a force against the devices. Neither 0 nor 1, I am absolute nothingness. Firstly: I cum perversely. Secondly: I hold back. Beyond. Before. Short Circuiting and Unplugging. In the two cases the feedback does not take place and a line of flight begins to be drawn. An external line of flight on the one hand that seems to spread outwards from me; an internal line of flight that brings me back to myself. All forms of interference/fog come from these two gestures, external and internal lines of flight, sabotage and retreat, the search for forms of struggle and for the assumption of different forms-of-life (from Tiqqun, The Cybernetic Hypothesis, Tiqqun 2, 2001).

END

 

This essay is an adaptation of a multimedia performance originally conceived for the L.A. Film forum’s Cinema Cabaret (curated by Konrad Steiner). It was also performed at MoMA PS1 at “The Return of Schizo-Culture” on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Semiotext(e).

[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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