Sunday, 4 October 2009

IdentiNet Conference, day two

Here's the second part of my notes from the IdentiNet conference in Oxford last weekend.

Khaled Fahmy gave an interesting talk about population, governmentality and individual identity in nineteenth century Egypt. He argued that the impetus for individual identification was the army, attempting to account for the population of Egypt for conscription. Borrowing Simon Cole's terminology from the previous day, the poster criminal was the deserter. He drew upon Foucault's work on governmentality (although mainly upon the single governmentality lecture, rather than the broader lecture series published as Security, Territory, Population). Earlier Egyption forms of identification, mandated by the Ottoman empire were mainly focussed upon identifying the dead in order to uphold sharia in terms of inheritance. This was latter transformed from a pecuniary investigation to something closer to what we might consider a post mortem. Khaled identified this as a symbold of the tranformation of the nature of the problem of population. The figure of Mehmed Ali Pasha loomed large in this account, as he attempted to put together his own power base independent from the Ottoman Empire. As part of this, a census was conducted in 1848 which essentially used force to hold village heads accountable (in contract) for the accuracy of information provided. There was also coercion of midwives, surgeons etc to keep this database updated. Khaled tied this account of governmentality with the aspect of care of population through an extensive public health system, and medical schools (primarily intended to produce military physicians). Khaled attempted to tie together a permanent militarisation of Egyptian society with the birth of modern Egypt and it's structures of government. Khaled has kindly sent me the full copy of his paper, because I'm really quite interested in reading it in depth given that I drew upon governmentality (although largely filtered through Mitchell Dean) for some of the theoretical core of my thesis.

Simon Szreter gave a highly reflexive talk, in which he spoke about wrestling with ways of thinking about motivations for the introduction of Parish registers in England. He posed two questions, firstly, why the introduction, and secondly, why such registers succeed or fail. He was critical of the generally accepted idea, from historian Geoffry Elton, that is an motivation is stated by government, then it must be false (the 'Paxman principle'). Szreter gave Thomas Cromwell's stated motivation for the introduction (solving inheritance and other civil disputes), and contrasted it against Elton's belief that it was largely for tax purposes. This was then compared with colonial Englishmen in New England who set up similar registers on their own account, suggesting some level of social need the register was meeting (or inertia). However, these did not sustain for any length of time, a fact Szreter attributes to the non-existence of Poor Law welfare models in New England, which the register has become core to maintaining. It is interesting to think about state motivations, because a state (even early modern) is made up of multiple elements, it is feasible to believe that it has multiple motivations for any given act it takes. Therefore, the mistake that might be made here is an attempt to identify one single motivations - this does seem to be a common model of thought used by historians in isolating the state out from society, and assuming it to be homogeneous - it's motivations are higly likely to be overdetermined.

The final panel of the conference focused upon the advent and spread of house numbering practices, something I'd never even thought of before, and a symbol of the use of this conference in destabilising simple accounts of contemporary vs historical surveillance. House numbers are taken for granted, and have a multiplicity of uses both for individuals (where am I going? please send that letter to me, etc) and for the state (the suspect lives at number 9). The panelists, Vincent Denis, Karl Jakob Krogness and Anton Tantner spoke about house numbering in 19th century France, household registration schemes in Japan and house numbering in Europe respectively. House numbering again seems to have a military dimension, at least in France following on from previous temporary chalk numbers on houses to assist with military billeting, then being pulled in to everyday bureaucratic procedures (this is something we can see happening today with technologies such as GPS, initially military, now spreading out across a wide range of social activities). Krogness' talk showed how the choices made about an identification system (in this case focussing upon the household rather than the individual) can have massive social implications (although presumably, the choice is in some sense determined by existing social norms). In this case, heads of households became 'the terminal bureaucrat'. Tantner showed the range of alternate ways of numbering houses, which could easily seem trainspotterish, but, shows how even simple 'technologies' such as this are in some sense chosen, not on the basis of scientific merit, but for social reasons. He ended with a vignette of a social movement in Germany, that set up office in a shipping container in a public park. This movement gave this container a house and street number, inserting itself into bureaucratic mechanisms - it is unofficial, but it still gets post delivered to it. This shows how systems and structures can be contested and exploited regardless of their creators intention. I really wanted to hear if anybody could draw any connections between house addresses and email/IP addresses today.

I found the conference useful for the following reasons
  1. expanding historical knowledge of identification practices
  2. showing the contested nature of such processes, their resistances and their subversions
  3. showing that such practices arise for multiple reasons, often in responses to some social need (or perception of a social need) or governmental problem.
  4. making me think about the relationship between writing and policing.
  5. countering the technological domination of this field.

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