The absurd reactions to “Trump performs banal Presidential ritual” all my colleagues here have commented on has reminded me that I meant to link to Jason Kuznicki’s smart article last week, riffing on Scott’s Seeing Like a State, authoritarianism and legibility:
In his landmark book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott described states as being better able to see some parts of the societies they governed, and less able to see other parts. Thus states can control some things more easily than others.
This unevenness of vision is a problem, as states came to realize. Soon they began taking steps to make the people and places they governed easier to survey – and thus to control. States’ efforts to measure us have produced many familiar parts of the modern world. Scott writes:
The permanent patronym, which most Westerners have come to take for granted, is in fact a comparatively new phenomenon. The invention of permanent inherited patronyms was, along with the standardization of weights and measures, uniform legal codes, and the cadastral land tenure survey, a vital technique in modern statecraft. It was, in nearly every case, a state project designed to allow officials to identify unambiguously the majority of its citizens. The armature of the modern state: tithe and tax rolls, property rolls, conscription lists, censuses, deeds, birth, marriage and death certificates recognized in law were inconceivable without some means of fixing an individual’s identity and linking him or her to a kin group. The permanent patronym was, in effect, the now long superseded precursor to modern photo-ID cards, passports, fingerprints, personal identification numbers, fingerprints, iris scans, and, finally DNA typing.
My suggestion here is to flip Scott’s script: Populations also judge states by metrics that are legible—to populations. Populations can see some things better than others, and they judge states according to their own uneven vision. This remains true, and may even become more true, in the ages of mass and social media.
It should be no surprise that states have begun to respond. They have begun to hide the things that matter, and to make more legible the things that are popularly associated with democracy, but that do not matter very much.
The media, of course, is a, if not the, crucial mechanism by which some aspects of the state become legible. I’d say from the inauguration through last night, media coverage of the Trump administration has probably exceeded my low expectations. (Some of this is perhaps an artifact of the jarring effect of administration’s belligerent and abusive treatment of journalists, and of course all these juicy leaks falling in their lap probably helps too.) The current moment is a reminder of how fleeting that could be.