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Social camouflage: functions, logic, paradoxes

Pages 228-249 | Published online: 24 Aug 2016


Camouflage is usually understood as a type of deceitful communication strategy in the animal and human domains. In this piece, we invite scholars to consider how the phenomenon of camouflage, while certainly grounded in antagonism and selection, might exceed its strategic meaning. Using the case of undercover agents movies, we attempt to flesh out the inner logic of camouflage and the type of social-existential situations it gives shape to. Exploring the mundane practical problem of ‘infiltration’ into a social group or social milieu, the article zooms in onto the experience of camouflage and highlights its relatedness to and distinction from imitation. Camouflage is here used not as an overarching interpretive category, rather as an instance that reveals something about the problems inherent in the constitution of inter-subjective life. The article seeks to contribute to a theoretical development in the study of social logic and social teleology, stressing the curious entanglement of deliberate strategic action and irrational desire that contradistinguishes what could be called the ‘aberrant conjunction’ of the camoufleur and its target. Camouflage, we conclude, is not only about make-believe but also, crucially, about desiring and learning to desire.


The authors wish to thank the Editor and two anonymous reviewers for their critically constructive and inspiring comments. In particular, it is the merit of one reviewer having brought the work of Goffman to our attention. Only thanks to such a critique could we become fully aware of how essential the Canadian theorist is to our current social-theoretical exploration of camouflage. We also benefited greatly from comments from and discussion with Kristian Bondo Hansen and Paolo Costa.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors

Andrea Mubi Brighenti is sociologist and ethnographer with a focus on spatial phenomena and urban cultures.

Alessandro Castelli is freelance writer and essayist with an interest in social theory.


Andrea Mubi Brighenti http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7498-9857


1. Incidentally, let us remark that becoming-monstrous includes, but is not limited to, aposematic coloration.

2. In his 1960 essay, the same author abjured and revised this idea, denying that visual disappearance can be correlative of a desire to die on the part of the animal.

3. See also the notion of ‘resistance’ discussed in Brighenti (Citation2011).

4. There might be instances in which the infiltrator comes from the same type of culture he spies on; however, this fact is not so essential given that, in any case, spying requires a breaking away from the unreflective attitude towards one’s culture. We shall return to this point below, analysing the importance of nonchalance, fluency and ‘being at ease’ in camouflage.

5. For a notable literary rendition, one can refer for instance to Emmanuel Carrère’s L’adversaire [The Adversary], reconstructing the story of Jean-Claude Romand, a French murderer and impostor who pretended to be a medical doctor for 18 years before killing his family when he was about to be exposed.

6. The issue regarding ‘overt’ versus ‘covert’ participant observation is widely discussed in ethnographic research, for both its methodological value and its ethical implications. See, for example, Hilbert (Citation1980).

7. Brighenti (Citation2010a) has explored visibility as inherently a threshold-like phenomenon.

8. Incidentally, Tarde seems to have been perfectly aware of this fact when, laying out his treaty on the laws of imitation, reserved about 50 pages to logical laws, and more than 200 pages to what he called ‘extra-logical influences’.

9. In contemporary theoretical biology, Kleisner and Markog (Citation2005) have introduced the notion of ‘semetic rings’ to explain the functioning of mimicry. In this idea, the centrality of surfaces joins the primacy of a circular procedure (which, with all due qualifications, might be called ‘hermeneutical’).

10. A veritable axiom in topology is, precisely, that the ‘boundary of the boundary’ is an empty set. Engaging the boundary is also essential in territoriology (Brighenti Citation2010b).

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