TOTW: Legibility

  • Posted on: 19 February 2018
  • By: thecollective

One of the major problems that anarchists wrestle with is what James C. Scott terms “legibility” - that is, “the state's arrange the population in ways that simplif[y] the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion”. For Scott, this attempt at simplification includes large-scale centrally planned projects like relocating peasants and developing the streets of Paris to prevent rioting as well as standardized measurements and the encouragement of crop systems that lend themselves more easily to being taxed. Through force, the state acts to shape society into something simpler and thus more easily catalogued and controlled. His argument follows that illegibility has acted in history as a barrier to state projects - crops that can be concealed in the ground and harvested irregularly, streets that aren’t easily mappable, and the lack of written records all impede state attempts at control.

Anarchists attempts at illegibility have taken a variety of forms - practices which are usually called security culture that counter the state’s attempt at preventing rebellion; disconnecting from platforms like Facebook and Google products that render us and our relationships more visible and mappable; resistance to identity politics that make people more easily classifiable by the state and capital; temporary, off-the-books projects, and more. Yet it’s also the case that most of us live in a context in which we have been made far more legible than any other point in history, mapped through social security numbers, social media posts, and consumption habits.

Is legibility a concern to you? How do you see it being resisted, effectively and ineffectively? Is it even avoidable, and to what extent?



This is a great topic and one that I think anarchists should think about a lot.
I just finished reading Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, which argues, among other things, that various forms of resistance are developed and encouraged in spaces that are out of the view of institutions of power. It was written in 1992 and his historical examples come from his field work in Burma, and the US experience of slavery, so quite different from our present techno-dystopia, but still interesting. Are there internet sites that are conducive to the development of hidden transcripts, and to what extent are they surveilled by our enemies?
One example of an anarchist strategy that contributes to illegibility is the refusal of demands and leaders. One important historical strategy of the state is to channel revolt into something it can negotiate with and co-opt / destroy. There are an abundance of examples of states and their security forces basically appointing a leader within a leaderless protest movement / revolt, or elevating a wannabe leader. Anarchists have done well when they have successfully avoided these maneuvers.

I love all of Scott's books that I've read, and I'm interested to hear what people think of this topic.

>Are there internet sites that are conducive to the development of hidden transcripts, and to what extent are they surveilled by our enemies?

The chans, and the deep web. Yes, they're surveilled, but users are anonymous. And some of the deep web sites, nobody knows exist except the handful of users.

Also, encrypted instant messaging and encrypted chatrooms. These are straight hidden transcript spaces. The state can't see in unless it hacks the encryption, plants an informant, or blackmails/turns a user.

So that fascist tool Invictus now tries to recuperate Kaczinski...

I don't believe this leviathan stands as strong as one might think and the speed it moves is likely untenable and much sooner than later it's gonna falter. I see a lot of denial out there right now and real impossibility. It seems that big cracks will likely appear sooner than later. I could be wrong but, I hope not.

Hate to break it to you: the Leviathan is people. Masses of gullible people... herding and working towards not a place in Heaven, but like dogs would, after their promised sausages held over their heads by a bunch of symbols manipulators. We're really following a complicated bunch of illusions and decoys, that are profitable to the new priest classes of democracy.

Big cracks will not rip open by themselves, and the resilience of the workers of this system will patch them quick. Coz threy got families to feed, you know, and lifestyles to maintain.

The hardest work is to open these cracks where there's intense pressure or the shell is the weakest. If you wanna change anything, think of what parts of its nervous system they depend upon the most to reproduce their non-lives, one day after another, and how it can be fucked.

The state has basically outsourced/crowdsourced norm-setting and policing to the hive-mind. A very clever strategy in the 2000s. Create incentives which make it easy to envision oneself within the state-centric victim-role and to crybully others. It didn't start with idpol, it started with quality-of-life policing and the anti-social behaviour agenda. And online platforms designed so people are easy to see, easy to ban or report, and arranged in networks prone to police one another. These days, the state can often respond to a wave of moral panic within a week or less (since existing laws are broad and can be repurposed rather than rewritten). This rewards the panics and stops them ever getting to the point of anti-systemic critique. Of course, the crowdsourced morality only has social effectiveness past a certain point if the state repressive apparatus chooses to act on it. And it can get out of hand from the state's point of view. Online lynch mobs and so on. But mostly, it works well for the state. Catching fugitives, recruiting free informers, keeping its finger on the pulse of public opinion. Keeping moral panics going without constant effort on the part of the state, with just occasional nudging and signal-boosting from the media. Kaizen in the sphere of morals. Among other things, it's made people much readier to call the police, much more horizontally intolerant of one another, and more prone to moralised ways of seeing. It's also basically disempowered the ethical critique of capitalism which was common in the 1990s. Corporate social responsibility for example. The moment a head of steam builds up around corporate abuses, the hivemind warns the state and the state modifies the regime slightly. It might be losing control now though, because everyone's playing the game and they're divided into mutually antagonistic micro-communities (e.g. idpol vs alt-right). So, every moral panic is met by a counter-panic. Even so, the battle between the two groups for state concessions still deflects any possible critique of the system, and the state can still use the online reaction to measure the relative strength of different forces.

1- It isn't the State who did this. It's people, more precisely crowds of people, acting together like invisible organs, in a climate of intense social insecurity that went to the micro level, where the individual has become the ultimate scapegoat and pariah. Working in a student union made me realize how the ideological lines between reactionary Right and progressive Left have dissolved, but not toward antipolitics... on the contrary towards a democratic unification of power and capital. That was my opinion, expressed here several times, that progressive liberalism has amalgamated itself with Right-wing traditional tendencies. I mean the Right-wing faction of that union are flaming homo douchebags who're full into power accumulation and serving the Party. THIS is the shit that's been corroding everything on the Left since the anti-globalization era, and especially the neoliberal Fedbook takeover of grassroots politics. Like on Fedbook, people of the Leviathan are being made into the enemies of themselves, as they become estranged from themselves. Identity politics (Left and Right, progressive like regressive) are the produce of a mass IDENTITY CRISIS.

ID pols are indeed creating an interesting situation where the proles become unredeemably divided and pitted against each other, in the real world outside of the faculty.

2- The current ipdols are based on paper-thin theory on social categories inculcated by a brain-warping yet edgy social media hipster culture. Liberal LGBTQ, POC politics and feminism have become ways not to subvert domination and its order, but on the contrary for some dangerous whitewashing, which could or could not turn into an interesting development in full social nihilism, but most likely not... more like a totalitarian consolidation.

3- When all is just about reforming your living and working environment (i.e. the household and workplace politics), and you've taken any analysis of deeper, "higher" social hierarchies and capital out of the picture (basically today's meaning of liberalism), then you're pretty sure big capital will forever run the shit show of society; the priest class will remain unchallenged. Is that so important?

4- Infecting the Leviathan with cultural toxic assets may be the only way to weaken the leviathan, and bring it to a halt... which may be the ultimate goal of any active (not activist) anarchism. I've been through 4 major student strikes, two of them being of huge proportions and power-shifting, but let's face it: none have succeeded mass society to a HALT. They on the other hand have fed the superficially-reformed system with fresh new blood to exploit as human crops. Occupy even less achieved the projected strategy of social arrest. Anarcho-squatting is still a thing in some parts of the world, but no matter how cool and important it is to contempo anarchism, I don't see it becoming a major power in (against) society.

So... becoming a social media programmer or game designer or big budget films director the solution? Hums... I think I'm getting too old for this. Obviously, we only got time to think about our own lives and personal/interpersonal lived experience. But what's life worth if you only live at nose range, at the receiving end of the unseen social relationship? Won't it make you greater and dignified by turning it over, into some grand struggle against an impossible foe?

What's life worth, outside of a struggle for life? Being a consumer slug isn't quite fun...

5- I want an online reading group on Bolo'bolo... Prolly could create it?

uh… Fauve? The State IS a crowd of people … we use abstractions to save time when we talk. (shout out to emile!)

Okay, maybe a few crowds, organized through the same institutions, and you know the rest.

Also I hope that "flaming homos" isn't felt like insulting to actual homo readers. Was just an example from a daily-life observation on IP politics being used to reify the same old fucking regime.

it's chill ...

How dare you! I shall be reporting you to the Politburo and have you shipped off to the salt mines!

In an acute manner there’s two ways to do it, either the vital proles that Dupont talks about OR adolescent students. In your case you are backing horses who have already become adults. It’s the secondary education body of humanity that’s the great untried. If they were to have their own May 1968 societal order would be in BIG trouble. That should be something that anarchists and anarchs should affect towards.

The post Florida shooting story is interesting in that kids that age can spontaneously make some noise, what I want to see is what happens when the education complex loses control which is not the case in Parkland.

Dude, shut up already... We all know that you're into young boys. I don't see much wrong with that as far as consent goes, but like... I don't wanna know!

Han Byung-Chul writes a lot about digital transparency and how it has lead to a Psychopolitics worse than biopolitics. He hates social media and the cult of the neoliberal self. I recommend his very short book Psychopolitics for a reading on what digital legibility means with regards to a self imposed Panopticon and the loss of the Other as we all look for Sameness to be cultivated but with “diversity” of identities. Very convenient for all the marketing making use of metadata.

i like the topic, i HATE the terminology. legibility? doesn't work for me in this context.

i am incomprehensible
i am uncontrollable
i am illegible?

Language has always been an important part of the state-making project. This is one of the reasons that Scott borrows/subverts the language of certain state makers. In order for subject peoples to be governable they must be civilized and this requires that they speak a civilized language. Hence the emphasis in residential schools to teach English and take away the languages of Native Americans in Canada and the US. Scott saw similar patterns all over Burma and SE Asia. Similar patterns have existed for urban underclasses, including reaction against patois and slang (Alice Becker-Ho does a great job with this in The Essence of Jargon: Argot & the Dangerous Classes). Legibility is also applied to reading maps. Paris was reshaped to make it legible to ruling classes, streets were widened to allow for easy access to the military and neighborhoods were made more regular to allow easier access to police, tax collectors, etc. Rural features that make maps illegible include uncooperative / rebellious residents (and historically this was often related to different dialects or languages), mountains, swamps, islands, remoteness; anything that makes an area opaque to the state center.
Anyway, I think that is why Scott uses the term and I think it has usefulness, but you may not.

Has anyone noticed the way the Zapatistas have disappeared from the global media? They're still there, and maybe stronger today. But, they stay relatively safe by staying invisible, avoiding coverage. There's a recent article in the Guardian where they allowed a few questions to be asked. But mostly, they keep it all as secret as possible. It's a strategy straight out of Hakim Bey. The same thing is found in Graeber's work on Madagascar. Who knows how many of these sites exist? I have occasionally heard of free parties and festivals going on underground in Britain. They aren't being repressed because the state doesn't know about them. Just occasionally, Vice or the Guardian find one and run a story. But mostly, they're invisible.

Today, I'm seeing four main strategies emerging. First, people are abandoning (or never opting into) social media and Web 2.0. The strongest form of this is the off-grid movement. This is a lot bigger than people realise – hundreds of thousands in the US by some estimates. Weaker forms are even more common – people living marginally within less-regulated areas and avoiding having traceable identities. There are millions of undocumented migrants living this way in America. It's also how most career criminals operate. See McKenzie, “Getting By”, the chapter on the “missing men”. To reduce police attention, men involved in crime avoid having a fixed address, a doctor, benefits, or state registration. They live with relatives or partners, often between several addresses, and rely on the relatives or partners to supply any medicines they need. Second, people are staying connected but using increasingly sophisticated encryption and other technologies to reduce surveillance. This is a huge trend on various scales since Snowden. It's taken a blow in anarchist circles since Anonymous got largely broken up. But technologies keep improving, and mostly, the state is losing. Hundreds of thousands use drug marketplaces – including long-term sellers dating back to the original Silk Road – and are never caught. There has just been a case in Britain of a man jailed for abusing children on an industrial scale, and posting about it on the deep web. Police have been looking for him for five years, and at one point there were 100 police on his case, across several countries. They only caught him when they managed to identify one of his victims offline. Cybercrime has moved to Russia, where local users operating internationally are pretty much safe for now. The third strategy is the hikikomori strategy – people who stay inside, stay in one place, rarely or never go out. They live on the internet and rely on the anonymity techniques discussed in point 2. The fact that they're not out in public reduces all the threat surfaces except the virtual one; and a more extreme version would involve disconnecting from the web as well. Finally, there's people who embrace visibility and seek to manipulate it. This is particularly common in idpol and the alt-right. The fact that they're so visible in plain sight, but blend in with a large, mutually protective crowd, renders them somewhat safe – and hard to separate between the truly dangerous and the largely innocuous. The spree-killer who posts threats on social media before they act is missed because there's so many people posting non-actionable threats on social media, and too many complaints and warnings for the state to filter. The trick here is to blur the meanings of discourse to such a point that one's permanent visibility does not render one legible, but rather, renders legible a set of signifiers prone to constant emptying of meaning.

Legibility to the state is limited by its reliance on external appearances, quantification, and existing, already-observed patterns. It cannot see what's going on in the inner life (e.g. motivation), and its generalisations are clumsy. This is, historically, what's created the gap between “the map” and “the territory”. Technologies are now more precise in creating a growing pool of data and images, but this evidence is meaningless without being processed and interpreted – a duplicate simulation of most of the territory does not perform the same role as a map. Since there's too much data for humans to handle, algorithms are brought into play. But algorithms aren't very good at spotting complex patterns, at least at this stage. There's an excellent article I'm having trouble finding again – called something like “Drones have Blindspots Too”. I think this is great in countering the paranoia which the state (probably deliberately) induces through surveillance. In many ways, the biggest danger is not that the algorithms will actually catch anarchists doing illegal stuff, but that they are broad, clumsy, and leave lots of blind spots. They miss real dangers, but they also generate dozens, hundreds, thousands of false positives for each real finding. And with uncontrolled police powers, broadly defined laws, and gullibility (or malice) of judges and juries, profiles become self-fulfilling prophecies. The person “fitting the profile” will be framed, or accused on flimsy evidence, and wrongly convicted. And this will feel back into the profiling mechanism, making it more “robust”. For people who are known anarchists, or part of visible subcultures, this is an extremely dangerous situation. Being someone profiled as “a risk” for planting bombs or sabotage or rioting may be as bad as actually doing it and getting caught. And someone who does something in a way that's never been done before will never be caught by an algorithm. At most they'll stand out as eccentric – and often, not even that. Legibility only extends as far as existing patterns. It's constantly vulnerable to unexpected tactics and escalations.

Still, it's important not to be too pessimistic. New technologies both increase and reduce legibility. Surveillance drones make it a lot harder for off-grid communities to survive simply through distance. CCTV and face recognition allow real-time profiling and pre-emptive repression. A lot of the cracks and fissures which anarchists used in the 1960s-1990s have been reduced or closed. Legal squatting, dole autonomy, hoppable trains, unfenced sites to park a van on. Repression is often enough to finish off a dwindling movement. But where the social force driving the movement is still active, it adapts to the new terrain, eventually flowing around the blockages. We are seeing this now with counter-terrorism, and immigration, and spree killings. The system thought it had fixed these in the mid-2000s, with securitised borders and public spaces, deterrent measures, and profiling. Around 2010 they were pretty pleased with themselves. Immigration to Europe was way down. There hadn't been any more 9/11s and most people planning big attacks in major cities were caught before they could act (assuming they were real plots and not frame-ups). But the “problems” are now worse than the mid-2000s, or the 1990s – because the causal factors have become worse, and actors have adapted. Terrorists use guns, knives, cars, and act alone – so the old ways of catching them through network mapping and tracking precursors, or infiltrating cells, no longer work. Since the Snowden revelations, more people use encryption. The FBI is afraid that the internet is “going dark”. Anti-laundering measures have simply fuelled the growth of cryptocurrency. Crackdowns on drug imports have led to increased local production, often in remote or abandoned locations. In the Syrian crisis, the push factors simply became so strong that the borders no longer worked. If the system survives, I'm expecting to see a lot more counter-technologies with anarchist uses in the near future. 3D printing, autonomous robots (think robotic tree-spiking), EMPs, DNA editing, fingerprint editing, realistic prosthetic masks indistinguishable from real faces. Already the deepfakes app can be used to alter images from crime scenes. In the short term, this will be used to frame people – but once people become aware of the problem, it will make CCTV evidence far less reliable.

Tactical innovation is also important. And here, the contradictions of idpol are most apparent – celebrating “transgression” and “disruption” while in fact running very predictable scripts. These scripts are often the ones which disrupted capitalism in the 1960s-70s. But today, we need to find ways to disrupt scripts which are prevalent today. For example, lockdowns are more vulnerable than they seem. What would be the fallout if a half-dozen peace protesters turn up during a lockdown, protesting militarisation of public space – making sure the media and social media are watching the whole time? Either the police would tolerate the protest, or they would attack viciously – and either way, it's a PR disaster. And all it would take is a handful of fearless people. Or, ahead of a big political trial relying on CCTV evidence, an anarchist quietly releases a believable deepfake implicating a top pig or politician in some kind of crime. After about a week, we out ourselves – and justify it on the grounds that we're showing that CCTV evidence can't be trusted. We need more of this kind of thing!

Who remembers the acronym SWIM from 90s forums?

Always hated social media, not even that I'm very clever, just instinctively avoided it, partly cause I was one of those broke-as-fuck petty crooks you already mentioned @critic, though not a very good one. Anyway SWIM would have walked right in to a doxxing and/or harassment situation with the fash. I got played so hard … one of them basically took off his fashy uniform, walked the long way around the block and started chatting me up.

Only thing was I don't exist online anyway! Ha! Up the luddites!

so that they can publish your writings as pamphlets or something?

@critic's analysis is razor sharp but I doubt anyone outside this echo chamber could make much sense of it hahah

We do, it's just that we're so burnt-out from reading wall-texts over the years that the punchline or meme is the preferred style of writing

Having done an "internship" (irony-quotes cuz I don't give fucks about padding a resume, but I would've definitely done the internship out of misguided solidarity/mutual aid/self-interest) at LBC, they'll probably do it.

@critic, your notion of off-the-grid tendencies is kinda right, tho you realize it requires one to have quite good social skills in order to go around and be hosted at people's places... sleeping with housewives in the morning (lol)... hopping in a freight train with a crowd who can stand you.

But if this guy doesn't look like the dudes of the bands this crowd listens to, or is too old to get laid with any of them (in their view), or whatever other BS identifier for segregation, then good luck hanging out in homeless shelters with the nasty old bois. And yeah... I went through this.

Thus my point about gangs and crowds dominating all social relationships, due to their offering of tangible life forms to the "friends". Of course insular gimmicks are not the taste of people in all contexts, even in NA. Tight-ass political fanaticism is mostly a manifestation of the super-developed Eastern of U.S./Canada. It's just really horrible to be alone in these over-civilized cities... So the fake "community" of the crowds and cliques are attracting the derelict like blow lies to poos and carrion. Symbolic!

This is Tiqqun's incomprehension of the community... Yes we (most people) are after some fake community, "any community"... And I guess once we get in the in-crowd we feel hot and imperious, and see this community as "the world" as a whole. But this drive is due to the fact that people unconsciously are living in conditions of forced isolation. The Leftists can't stop calling it "individualism", but it's really intense collectvism, where the derelicts become the new Wretched of the Earth. That was my point. Not everyone blends in easily into subcultures which gets them places where to stay and survive outside the grid.

"blow flies"...

As usual Fauve … WHOHURTYOU?!

Myself, in great parts... But most people in their social games are highly problematic. Dunno whether more or less than I am tho.

And, well, let's hope that beyond your redirecting back at my own personmal issues, you're able to dispassionately consider my argument.

I just think you seem to perceive way more in-group, out-group drama than is probably actually going on. You give people too much credit, it's Hanlon's razor yo.

& Alice Becker-Ho's Essence of Jargon

Both address this subject with lucidity..

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