The Limits of Legibility

“I am all eyes
I am all ears
I am the wall
And I’m watching you fall
Because faith is mine!”

Ghost “Faith” Prequelle

We Satanists don’t much like anyone watching us, keeping tabs, and threatening punishment, whether the secular state or a moralizing Big God. By their own admission and in the words of High Priest Peter H. Gilmore, the Church of Satan’s desire to remain a shadowy, mysterious “custard that can’t be nailed to the wall” and thus to avoid anything that can be rightly characterized as “Satanic community” springs essentially from this same aversion, aided and abetted by possible fears of potential anti-Satanic persecution. Satanism represents a firm break from delayed-return religiosity in its keen dislike of and disregard for watchers policing individuals’ moves.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I recently listened to political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott’s 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. I have since also recently begun listening to Scott’s 1998 book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. In both books, the author spends a good deal of time and space discussing the concept of legibility, by which he means the ability of an organized system of governance, as in a modern state, to read, interpret, catalog, and control the outputs of human capital. In Against the Grain, Scott writes:

“History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (‘Banana republics’ don’t qualify!) My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing. On suitable soil wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects. In contrast the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years. If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dig up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported. If we were evaluating crops from the perspective of the premodern ‘tax man,’ the major grains (above all, irrigated rice) would be among the most preferred, and roots and tubers among the least preferred. 

The ‘aboveground’ simultaneous ripening of cereal grains has the inestimable advantage of being legible and assessable by the state tax collectors.” 

    This idea of legibility pervades life in the Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic (whether nominal or actual) world. However, with the rise of fitness trackers, apps that monitor our use of mobile devices, journals that encourage the planning of our days down to thirty-minute increments so as to facilitate achieving (and tracking!) our goals, and the like, legibility is not just for state apparatuses anymore. Legibility is being written (pardon the pun) into our every waking moment. Even, in the form of sleep trackers, into our dreamtime as well! And, in these newest incarnations, legibility is far from the concrete expression of governmental over-reach into our personal lives; we have begun to enact it upon ourselves.

This drive to make the world legible, though, actually interferes with individual lives and personal autonomy in the same way as behavioral economist Dan Ariely details how arbitrary external sources of value like money and market norms interfere with social norms and prosocial behavior. In an experiment involving Starburst candies on offer at varying price points, including for free, Ariely and colleagues found that, while a decrease in price to free resulted in larger numbers of individuals taking up the offer, the number of candies taken per person actually dropped compared to when the Starbursts cost just one cent a piece. With a monetary amount set for each candy, even one as negligible as a penny, each individual partaking of the offer took on average three and a half candies. With the “price” set to free, however, each person took on average just 1.1 candies. Ariely and his fellow researchers concluded that the introduction of monetary amounts, even minute ones, caused a substitution of market norms for social norms in the takers’ minds, as each sought to maximize their personal cost-to-benefit ratio. When the candies were free, social norms took over, and each person taking candy acted with regard to prosocial concerns like not taking more than their fair share. “…[W]hen price is not part of the exchange, we become less selfish maximizers and start caring more about the welfare of others” (p. 109).  

Legibility functions in much the same way as market norms (indeed legibility is a key ingredient in such norms), interfering with the ability of individuals to lead their individual lives without undue scrutiny and attempted control. As the character of the Mayor in the USA show Falling Water complains in episode 2 of season 2: “You know what I feel like: an actress playing the part of a mayor. Can never be real because I’m always under this microscope.” To which the character of Woody Hammond responds: “Well there’s no microscope watching you now. What do you want to do?” When under the microscope of legibility, our choices cease being as completely our own as they might otherwise be.    

Let me give you another concrete example of how legibility interferes with individuals leading their individual lives—a personal one from my own life…or rather that of my youngest daughter. When she was born in the hospital, legibility and its enactment within that institutional setting impacted our burgeoning little family in two chief ways.

First, our newborn lost a little more weight in the first days than doctors and medical staff would have preferred. Of course they track the weight and other vital statistics of newborns in the hospital, and for good reason! But just watch what unjustified lengths all that justified concern for legibility lead to. 

As a result of this putative deficiency of nourishment shown through the constant monitoring and tracking of our youngest baby’s initial progress in life, a nursing and lactation specialist turned up unrequested (by us, at any rate) at my wife’s hospital room to consult with us. Never mind that this was our second child, so we were already aware of the way babies often don’t seem to get enough sustenance from the colostrum mothers produce in the early days just prior to and after giving birth. The consultant suggested that perhaps something was physically wrong with our baby, preventing her from getting a secure latch onto my wife’s breasts. She actually advised us to clip our newest daughter’s frenulum—that small fold of mucus membrane running from the floor of the mouth to the midline of the underside of the tongue—thereby giving her greater freedom of movement with her tongue and permitting her to place it in the right position over the lower gum to allow for successful breastfeeding. 

The medical condition whereby a baby is “tongue-tied” due to a overly tight and binding frenulum goes under the technical name of ankyloglossia and can prove serious if not treated. But again, we had already had one baby who also lost a fraction of her bodyweight in the days just after birth before my wife’s breastmilk really began flowing instead of colostrum. We knew to expect this “complication” and were not overly worried about its implications. That is, we were not particularly concerned with this aspect of the legibility arising from our youngest one’s birth, and that’s because we were not the ones enacting it. We just wanted to let mother and child bond, breastfeed, and recuperate before getting quickly on our way back home. 

If you’ve never had a child of your own, you might not “get” why and how the suggestion to go cutting on your newborn can cause a parent to go a tad crazy. But, especially in light of our experience with our firstborn, crazy is precisely how this consultant’s suggestion struck me. Not to mention the fact that, if we chose the surgical intervention, that would be a choice and set of consequences our daughter would have live with for quite literally the entirety of her life. Just writing that sentence gives me the heebie-jeebies. Naturally, we declined her intervention. Naturally, she resisted our resolve on this point. Naturally, we would not, and did not, budge.

The other, more serious way in which legibility impacted our second daughter’s hospital stay following her birth emerged from the fact that blood tests from a heel prick revealed lower levels of iron in her blood than medical staff wanted to see. As a result, they refused to discharge her and my wife until they could get a test to show the “right” amount of iron. They returned our baby to us and asked my wife to breastfeed her some more before attempting another assay. After the second heel prick revealed little-to-no change in the iron levels, they held our daughter somewhere apart from us, pleading the need to wait and perform follow-up screenings to determine whether something serious was the matter with her. So my wife and I waited, at this point coming on ten o’clock or so at night, for multiple hours while our daughter was held hell knows where and all we could do was watch the idiot squawk box and the awful show Hoarders that was on. 

Around midnight, I had had enough. I summoned a member of the nursing staff to ask where our baby was and what was happening with her. At first, they tried deflecting our concern and inquiries. After a bit of this treatment, my already minimal patience broke completely, and I demanded either to see a doctor who could explain precisely what their issue was and how we could resolve it immediately or, more preferably, simply to have our baby daughter returned to our waiting arms so that we could flee our medical purgatory post haste. “Bring me my baby: we’re leaving!” I might have yelled. 

When they finally capitulated, our daughter came back to us with trickles of blood dried up on her little, multiply pricked heel. Again, if you’ve never had a child of your own, you probably can’t imagine how much madness that sight can summon up in a parent. But instead of handing her off to my wife so that I could rampage Incredible-Hulk style through the natal ward, we just wrapped our daughter up tight and fled the god-awful sterile confines of our room with its babbling, bullshit TV shows and went home, where the little one immediately flourished, growing heavier and healthier, as we knew she would. When we got into the see our pediatrician for the first time with the newborn, he expressed shock and surprise that the hospital had made such a big deal over the iron tests. Was their concern with the legibility of the tests principally for our daughter’s wellbeing or rather with their own immunity from legal action should something truly terrible have proven to be wrong and they either didn’t catch it or simply let it walk out the door with us and our baby?  

Legibility proves a problem because it replaces concern for people qua people with concern for the data surrounding people and their presence and activities within the world. Legibility rears its ugly head in every interaction with the government or legal personnel, when we go to the doctor, when we matriculate in school, when we come to and cross those entirely arbitrary and physically invisible lines called borders drawn haphazard over the earth’s surface by far-away entities whose every concern is with containing and holding distinct what individuals and nature itself would have spread beyond bounds.  

When you ask someone for their papers or registration or whatever other form of legibility is foremost on your mind at the moment, you come to see them as a document to be produced or statistics and census data to be supplied rather than as real, flesh-and-blood human beings. When people defy legibility—as so many denizens of non-Western, non-industrialized societies do, people who can’t produce a birth certificate and may not even clearly know the date of their birth or, as a result, their own true age with any high degree of official accuracy—they find themselves in legibility limbo: clearly existent as people, as attested by their physical presence on the earth, but unable to provide a proper accounting for their existence and, thus, either treated as voids to be papered over by the writs of legibility or, perhaps more often, simply ignored as being of no account, in both literal and metaphorical senses. 

Reports to the effect that the Trump administration intends to narrowly define gender as an immutable function of the biology of the genitalia people are born with such that “‘transgender’ could be defined out of existence” and that the President will issue an unconstitutional executive order ending the tradition of so-called “birthright citizenship” defined by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution represent attempts to wield to concept of legibility as a weapon in order to deny the legitimacy and rights of disfavored individuals. The same is true for the slew of GOP attacks on voting rights all over the nation, particularly in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp both oversees the voting system and is a candidate in the state’s gubernatorial race, and North Dakota, where strict voter ID laws require residents to have a residential address in order to obtain a valid ID but many rural Native Americans use post office address boxes instead to get their mail. Just as you can write people into official existence and full enfranchisement through the functions of legibility, you can also use it to officially erase them.     

Look, I know that legibility isn’t going anywhere as a concept or practice of our modern, delayed-return, data-driven world. To some extent, we have to make our peace with it. But we should also probably remain aware and wary of its downside and possible abuses. When Plato’s Socrates invoked his maieutics metaphor to describe ideas like children we’ve birthed and those arising from written documents like sickly, weak children who cannot stick up for or defend themselves but those arising from person-to-person, face-to-face dialogue like strong, healthy kids who can react and adapt as need arises in context, he was on to the essential danger inherent in the practice of legibility. Learning is best and most natural when undertaken as part of a personal and in-person relationship where both parties can assert and question and reformulate and grow, together. Legibility in the form of books and the administrative book-keeping of modern education can interfere with that process to its detriment.

People aren’t papers, and the choices we make in life aren’t mere numbers in a database, though they may be able to be expressed as such. Satan doesn’t just represent vital existence in contradistinction to “spiritual pipe dreams,” but to the legible bean-counting of our own administrative apparatuses and impulses to document as well. These, too, have the power and propensity to act so as to restrain the vitality of our existence for our brief stints on this earth. I for one wish to live vitally, and often that means living illegibly, not just unreadable, but joyfully, insouciantly unreading as well. 

The best memories in our family time together these days are usually the ones least likely to find me staring at the screen of my digital camera, frantically attempting to document the delicious moments slipping away before my very eyes, or desperately tapping out a new social media status in the hopes that as many someones as possible read me and, even better, make their own marks on top of mine, leave their own texts for me to read in turn, affirming the beauty of the very experience I’m missing out on by taking the time to indulge legibility. 

4 thoughts on “The Limits of Legibility

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