Sunday, May 21, 2017

All you know about them is what they say of themselves

From Miss Marple and the Problem of Modern Identity by Alan Jacobs. A lot of insights into the nature of identity, privacy, knowledge, progress, and productivity.

Physical movement from one place to another is a progenitor of expanded knowledge and knowledge is a predicate to productivity. But with movement comes uncertainty as to identity. Not only does the new community want to know who you are but so does the state. The more transparency there is, the greater the certainty we can have as to what we are dealing with and therefore the greater the productivity. But that transparency and certainty comes at the price of lost privacy.

As we shift ourselves from the physical world to the digital world, where, on the internet, "No ones knows you are a dog", the historical problems of identity multiply and the balance of interests between individuals and the state are in terrific flux. We want our certainty of identities in order to fuel the security and productivity of our lives and yet we want our privacy as well and we don't want the government to intrude too much.

It is a time of change and potential but also great anxiety as we sense tectonic forces at work but with no clarity as to the nature, direction or destination of those forces.

One of Agatha Christie’s more famous mysteries is A Murder Is Announced. A Miss Marple story published in 1950, the novel partakes fully in the anxious and pinched mood of postwar “austerity Britain.” Christie typically writes efficiently and briskly, with much give-and-take dialogue presented in short paragraphs, so the passage I’m about to cite is an unusual one: it’s essentially a monologue by Jane Marple, who is talking to a policeman who has expressed concern for her well-being — a murderer is on the loose — and would prefer her not to “snoop around.”
“But I’m afraid,” she said, “that we old women always do snoop. It would be very odd and much more noticeable if I didn’t. Questions about mutual friends in different parts of the world and whether they remember so and so, and do they remember who it was that Lady Somebody’s daughter married? All that helps, doesn’t it?”

“Helps?” said the Inspector, rather stupidly.

“Helps to find out if people are who they say they are,” said Miss Marple.
This is a story in which several characters are not — or may not be — who they say they are. So when Miss Marple continues by asking the policeman, “Because that’s what’s worrying you, isn’t it?” she puts her finger on the precise problem.

She then — and this is key — goes on to explain why the problem of identity is a particularly significant one for them, situated in their particular time and place:
“And that’s really the particular way the world has changed since the war. Take this place, Chipping Cleghorn, for instance. It’s very much like St. Mary Mead where I live. Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was. The Bantrys in the big house — and the Hartnells and the Price Ridleys and the Weatherbys ... They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment or served in the same ship as someone there already. If anybody new — really new — really a stranger — came, well, they stuck out — everybody wondered about them and didn’t rest till they found out.”
And Miss Marple’s conclusion: “But it’s not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.
Smallness, locality, insularity and stability are powerful agents keeping the question of identity at bay. We know you because we have always known you. There are no strangers.

But sometime after the transition from hunting/gathering to permanent settlements, the question of the stranger entered the social equation. With roads, then steam engines and then internal combustion engines, the question of identity amplified. Places that were insular became connected. Communities of known people became crowds of strangers.

How do we know you?

Back to Jacobs:
But the essential point that we can discern from this brief look at A Murder Is Announced is that identity documents play a double role in the social changes that Miss Marple describes. On the one hand, they are a response to those changes: as MacLean, Landry, and Ward comment, the “profound shift [that] occurred in the balance between the urban and rural populations of England” between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries had “particular consequences for the making of social identities.” One of those was that people had to turn to official documents to compensate for a lack of direct, personal acquaintance. On the other hand, as Inspector Craddock reflects, they contribute to those changes: “partly because of” the rise of identity cards, which are so easily forged, “the subtler links that had held together English social rural life had fallen apart.”


What makes Miss Marple distinctively insightful, and useful to the police, is her ability to transfer her minute observations of “the subtler links” that once held society together to a context in which those links have broken. The same small traits of speech and action that once would have instructed her in social belonging now enable her to discern social displacement. The same attentiveness that enabled her to interpret a social photograph now enables her to interpret its negative. The police can consult their records, can obtain files from their counterparts in Switzerland, but as servants of an administrative and bureaucratic regime they have no training in or understanding of the social cues Miss Marple has mastered.
Which is a lesson we are relearning. It is easy to slip into the anonymity and structure of the digital world - but the digital world only exists at the sufferance of the social world. If you are not a master of the subtler links of sociability, of person-to-person interaction, digital mastery only takes you to a lonely basement.

Jacobs introduces James C. Scott's insight about "legibility"(from Scott's Seeing Like A State, well worth reading, in fact it should be mandatory in understanding the evolving relationship between the individual and the state):
It is not easy to see — though I think it is necessary to see — how many of the technologies of modernity, from filing systems to postal systems, from photography to fingerprint analysis, have arisen in the service of making us “legible” to the state. We are all legible people now, and most of us see no alternative; thus the quests by so many to have their own sense of identity — who or what they “identify as” — be officially recognized by the state. If the state cannot read us — “legible” is from the Latin legere, “to read” — do we exist at all?

Further, the state’s distinctive ways of reading us are easily extended to private organizations, and especially commercial enterprises: consider how many financial transactions require the provision of one’s Social Security number as a means of establishing unique identity in ways that mere names cannot. The larger the enterprise, the more its ways of seeing resemble those of governing bodies — and the closer it works with those bodies, though sometimes not close enough to suit governmental agencies, who demand “back doors” into customer data gathered by private companies. Thus Facebook, the largest social media company in the world, today demands that its users employ their “authentic identity,” as confirmed by a government-issued ID or by forms of nongovernmental ID that are themselves usually only obtainable with a government-issued ID. Facebook is trying to link its users’ identities as closely as possible with the ratification provided by the state.
The challenge is, of course, that the more legible we are, serving the legitimate and advantageous purposes of reducing uncertainty, increasing security, increasing productivity, the more we are also striping away our privacy. It is useful to be known but we also wish to have the right to be unknown.
Even Miss Marple puts her exceptional acuity in the service of this state-sponsored model of identity: she offers her local, personal, intuitive knowledge to supplement the deficiencies of police work, to fill in the gaps in official documentation, to bring people’s self-proclamations into line with governmental records. To “find out if people are who they say they are” is to set self-description against what the state sees, what the state reads.

This is what happens when the social structures — family, community, church — that were once key to the establishment of identity fade into insignificance, supplanted by the power of the modern nation-state. Miss Marple may seem to speak on behalf of those older, humbler sources of meaning, but in fact she quite coldbloodedly acknowledges their disappearance. “But it’s not like that any more.... And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” The task of the amateur detective is to bring “what they say of themselves” into line with what the state says of them; that is all. Because there is no alternative.
Jacobs concludes:
Thus we conclude one chapter — the most recent to date — of a story that begins in the early modern period with the transfer of large numbers of people from Europe’s countryside to its cities. Social mobility is preceded by literal mobility: people who can walk or ride from one place to another. Economic and technological changes (starting with the building of roads) enabled that movement, then accelerated in order to accommodate it; this in turn has made further such movement more attractive, more inevitable. Supplemental technologies of writing, record-keeping, and administrative organization (including regular naming practices and travel documentation) have also arisen in order to keep track of all the movement and to prevent descent into social chaos. The result is the world we live in, a world in which we all must ask — in a tone and for a purpose quite alien to those of the person who coined this phrase — “Who is my neighbor?”
I focus on a different question. How can we obtain all the value and benefits of legibility while preserving some necessary modicum of control over our privacy. We want to know who are our neighbors but we don't want our neighbor to know us without our consent. We want legibility to be unidirectional. We want to know others but not for others to know us. At least, not without our approval.

Is there a solution to the desire for seeing and being simultaneously unseen? I have no ready idea but that question will occupy us for a generation or more.

As a final note, reading Jacobs' essay suggests another and different idea to me. I have long ascribed the pernicious evil of Identity Politics to postmodernism and its attendant intellectual fads of post-war Europe: critical theory, critical race theory, gender theory, deconstructionism, post-colonial theory, etc. And I still think that is by-and-large true. Identity Politics is simply a noxious by-product of corrupted ideologies.

Jacobs' essay, though, opens up the possibility that perhaps postmodernism was a manifestation of, or a more formal articulation of an underlying and unseen wave of change. Post-World War II has seen immense migrations of people - from country to city; from lower class to upper class; from religiosity to secularism; from country to country. All of us now live in a sea of strangers.

Postmodernism postulates the existence of the all-powerful privilege of the male patriarchy, of white privilege, Christian dominance, class privilege etc. But all the whites and males and Christians, and even the upper class are looking around trying to figure why they haven't been given access to this secretive privilege. These privileges don't exist, at least not in the way postulated by ideologues. What postmodernism and critical theory are conjuring are not any real worlds of power and privilege. What they are conjuring are myths in an environment where we are all strangers to one another.

Those who are marginal in terms of educational achievement or race or ethnicity or religion or class or orientation, can imagine themselves as being the victim of some great conspiracy of exclusion and hidden privilege. What they fail to see is that everyone is adrift among strangers. There is no fixity of advantage. All is contingent and uncertain.

My guess, having read Jacobs, is that Identity Politics is a phenomenon that is attired in the words and ideology of postmodernism but that perhaps its shape is a product of that underlying conflict between legibility and privacy. There are no safe places and insular communities anymore. We are all adrift on a sea of change and of communities to which we are only lightly attached. It is unsurprising that the capable are still anxious and that the marginal are frightened. For the marginal there is the soothing pablum of postmodernism and Identity Politics but those are just products of the real disconnect. The real disconnect is that there is no place to call home.

No comments:

Post a Comment