The Trouble with the View from Above

State naming practices and local, customary naming practices are strikingly different. Each set of practices is designed to make the human and physical landscape legible, by sharply identifying a unique individual, a household, or a singular geographic feature. Yet they are each devised by very distinct agents for whom the purposes of identification are radically different. Purely local, customary practices, as we shall see, achieve a level of precision and clarity—often with impressive economy—perfectly suited to the needs of knowledgeable locals. State naming practices are, by contrast, constructed to guide an official “stranger” in unambiguously identifying persons and places, not just in a single locality, but in many localities using standardized administrative techniques.

To follow the progress of state-making is, among other things, to trace the elaboration and application of novel systems which name and classify places, roads, people, and, above all, property. These state projects of legibility overlay, and often supersede, local practices. Where local practices persist, they are typically relevant to a narrower and narrower range of interaction within the confines of a face-to-face community.

A contrast between local names for roads and state names for roads will help illustrate the two variants of legibility. There is, for example, a small road joining the towns of Durham and Guilford in the U.S. state of Connecticut. Those who live in Durham call this road (among themselves) the “Guilford Road,” presumably because it informs the inhabitants of Durham exactly where they’ll get to if they travel it. The same road, at its Guilford terminus, is called, the “Durham Road” because it tells the inhabitants of Guilford where the road will lead them. One imagines that at some liminal midpoint, the road hovers between these two identities. Such names work perfectly well; they each encode valuable local knowledge, namely what is perhaps the most important fact one might want to know about a road. That the same road has two names, depending on one’s location, demonstrates the situational, contingent nature of local naming practices. Informal, “folk” naming practices not only produce the anomaly of a road with two or more names; they also produce many different roads with the same name. Thus, the nearby towns of Killingworth, Haddam, Madison, and Meriden each have roads leading to Durham, each of which the inhabitants locally call the “Durham Road.”

Now imagine the insuperable problems that this locally effective folk system would pose to an outsider requiring unambiguous identifications for each road. Let’s imagine, for example, that you have been in an automobile accident on the road between Durham and Guilford and are in danger of bleeding to death. You call 911 and tell them you need an ambulance and, when they ask your location, you tell them that you are on the Durham Road. The ambulance dispatcher would then have to ask, “Which Durham Road?” It is, thus, no surprise that the road between Durham and Guilford is re-incarnated on all state maps and designations as “Route 77”: a scheme whereby each state road is assigned a unique number in a potentially infinite series. There can now be no ambiguity about the road on which you are bleeding. Each micro-segment of that route, moreover, is identified by means of telephone pole serial numbers, milestones, and township boundaries. The naming practices of the state require a synoptic view, a standardized scheme of identification generating mutually exclusive and exhaustive designations.

All vernacular place names, personal names, and names of roads or rivers encode important knowledge. Some of that knowledge is a thumbnail history; for example Maiden Lane denotes the lane where five spinster sisters once lived, while Cider Hill Road is the road up the hill where the Cider Mill and orchard once stood. At one time, when the name became fixed, it was probably the most relevant and useful name for local inhabitants. Other names refer to geographical features: Mica Ridge Road, Bare Rock Road, Ball Brook Road. The sum of roads and place names in a small place, in fact, amounts to something of a local geography and history if one knows the stories, features, episodes, and family enterprises encoded within them.

For officials who require a radically different form of order, such local knowledge, however quaint, is illegible. It privileges particular knowledge over synoptic, standardized knowledge. In the case of colonial rule, when the conquerors speak an entirely different language, the unintelligibility of the vernacular landscape is a nearly insurmountable obstacle to effective rule. Renaming much of the landscape therefore is an essential step of imperial rule. This explains why the British Ordinance Survey of Ireland in the 1830s recorded and rendered many local Gaelic place names (e.g., Bun na hAbhann, Gaelic for “mouth of the river”) in a form (Burnfoot) more easily understood by the rulers.

Vernacular Communities as Illegible to Outsiders

It is both striking and important to recognize how relatively little the pre-modern state actually knew about the society over which it presided. State officials had only the most tenuous idea of the population under their jurisdiction, its movements, its real property, wealth, crop yields, and so forth. Their degree of ignorance was directly proportional to the fragmentation of their sources of information. Local currencies and local measures of capacity (e.g., the bushel) and length (the ell, the rod, the toise) were likely to vary from place to place and with the nature of the transacting parties. The opacity of local society was, of course, actively maintained by local elites as one effective means of resistance to intrusions from above.

Having little synoptic, aggregate intelligence about the manpower and resources available to it, officials were apt either to overreach in their exactions, touching off flight or revolt, or to fail to mobilize the resources that were, in fact, available. To follow the process of state-making, then, is to follow the conquest of illegibility. The account of this conquest — an achievement won against stiff resistance — could take many forms, for example: the creation of the cadastral survey and uniform property registers, the invention and imposition of the meter, national censuses and currencies, and the development of uniform legal codes.

Given the variability of vernacular naming practices, the early modern state found it difficult even to identify particular individuals within a community without local cooperation. A banal example from a mediocre film, Witness, will illustrate the problem. In this film Harrison Ford plays a detective trying to track down a young boy who, he believes, witnessed a murder in bus station. The boy, he learns, comes from an Amish family. He arrives in the area with only a name and turns to that classical instrument of modern police work, the telephone directory. What is a telephone directory, after all, but an alphabetical listing of names, addresses, along with the unique number assigned to them, which serves in turn as the means of contacting them. But the Amish do not use phones, and he is stymied. He knows the last name (patronym) of the boy, but, it turns out that, as a relatively closed community, many Amish share common last names (e.g. Hoover, Boop). Again he is at an impasse. The success of his investigation, and the love interest in the film, turns on his enlisting the cooperation of the boy’s mother (played by Kelly McGillis). The point is that when confronted with an illegible, vernacular community such as the Amish, an outsider, and by extension the state, can only navigate with the help of a “local tracker” willing to share his or her knowledge. Having no other independent, reliable compass, the outsider is liable to be manipulated by that local tracker.

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.

Until at least the fourteenth century, the great majority of Europeans did not have permanent patronyms. An individual’s name was typically his given name, which normally would suffice for local, vernacular. If something else were required, a second local designation was added indicating (in the English case), say, occupation (smith, miller, baker), geographical location (edgewood, hill), the father’s given name (in Jewish and Middle Eastern practice preceded by “ben” “ibn” “bin” or in the Celtic case preceded by “O’”, “Mc”, “Ap” or, as in the French case, simply appended, as hypothetically with Victor (son of) Hugo) or a personal characteristic (strong, short, doolittle, fair, newcomb). These secondary designations, however, were not permanent surnames, they did not generally survive their bearers.

The acquisition of last names is, in fact, an exceptionally sensitive measure of the growing reach of the state. The census [or catasto] of the Florentine state in 1427 was an audacious (and failed) attempt to rationalize the administration of revenue and manpower resources by recording the names, wealth, residences, land-holdings, and ages of the city-state’s inhabitants. At the time, virtually the only Tuscan family names were those of a handful of great families [e.g., Strozzi] whose kin, including affines, adopted the name as a way of claiming the backing of a powerful corporate group. The vast majority were identified reasonably unambiguously by the registrars, but not by personal patronyms. They might list their father and grandfather (e.g., Luigi, son of Paulo, son of Giovanni) or they might add a nickname, a profession, or a personal characteristic. It is reasonably clear that what we are witnessing, in the catasto exercise, are the first stages of an administrative crystallization of personal surnames. And the geography of this crystallization traced, almost perfectly, the administrative presence of the Florentine state. While one-third of the households in the city declared a second name, the proportion dropped to one-fifth in secondary towns, and then to a low of one-tenth in the countryside. The small, tightly knit vernacular world had no need for a “proper name”: such names were, for all practical purposes, official names confined to administrative life. Many of the inhabitants of the poorest and most remote areas of Tuscany — those with the least contact with officialdom — only acquired family names in the seventeenth century. Nor were fifteenth-century Tuscans in much doubt about the purpose of the exercise; its failure was largely due to their foot-dragging and resistance. As the case of Florence illustrates, the naming project, like the standardization of measurements and cadastral surveys, was very much a purposeful state mission.

Western state-making in the seventeenth and eighteenth imposed permanent patronyms as a condition of citizenship. It became well nigh universal with the exception of Iceland which, for folkloric reasons in most cases, mandates the old Norse system (i.e. Magnus Ericson, Katrin Jónsdóttir). The telephone directory there lists subscribers by given name and occupation. Nations such as Iran, Turkey, and Thailand that have imposed permanent patronym as a state project in the twentieth century have until comparatively recently organized the phonebook alphabetically by given name. The imposition of permanent, anglicized patronyms on indigenous peoples of North America coincided, in the United States, with the issuance of property deeds connected to efforts to seizing the bulk of tribal lands, and in Canada among the Inuit, with interventions by the welfare and health bureaucracies. Both episodes make for a reading that is filled with equal parts of hilarity and melancholy.[1] Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and much of the Middle East have not adopted permanent patronyms but now have moved to more modern technologies of personal identification.

Legibility and Power

The quest for legibility, when joined to state power, is not merely an “observation.” By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, it has the capacity the change the world it observes. The window and door tax established in France under the Directory and abolished only in 1917 is a striking case in point. Its originator must have reasoned that the number of windows and doors in a dwelling was almost perfectly proportionate to the dwelling’s size. Thus a tax assessor need only walk around the house counting the windows and doors to estimate its size. As a simple expedient, it was a brilliant stroke, but not without consequences. Peasant dwellings were subsequently designed or renovated with the formula in mind so as to have as few apertures as possible! While the fiscal losses could be recouped by raising the tax per opening, the effects on the long term health of the rural population lasted for than a century.

The window and door tax illustrates something else about “state optics”; they achieve their formidable power of resolution by a kind of tunnel vision that brings into sharp focus a single aspect of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality. This very simplification makes the phenomenon at the center of the field of vision more legible and hence more susceptible to careful measurement and calculation. Combined with similar observations, an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality is achieved, making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control and manipulation.

The Invention of Scientific Forestry

I found this process strikingly evident in the invention of scientific forestry in 18th-century Prussia and Saxony. An abbreviated account of forest “science” can serve both as a model for processes of state-simplification as well as the advantages and disadvantages it entails.[2] The lens, as it were, for this simplification was “cameral science”: the efforts to rationalize the revenue of the princely states. To that end, the forests were reconceptualized as streams of salable commodities, above all so many thousands of board feet of timber and so many cords of wood fetching a certain price. The crown’s interest we resolved through its fiscal lens into a single number representing the revenue yield that might be extracted annually from the domainal forests. The truly heroic simplification involved here is most evident in what was left out of this utilitarian and minimalist conception of the forest. Missing were all those trees, bushes, and plants holding little or no potential for crown revenue. Missing as well were all those parts of trees, even revenue-bearing trees, which might have been of great use to the population but whose value could not easily be converted into fiscal receipts. Here I have in mind foliage and its uses as fodder and thatch, fruits and nuts as food for people, domestic animals, and game. Twigs and branches as bedding, fence posts, hop poles, and kindling; bark and roots for making medicines and for tanning; sap for resins, and so forth.

From a naturalist’s perspective, nearly everything was missing from the state’s narrow frame of reference. Gone was the vast majority of flora: grasses, flowers, lichens, mosses, mushrooms, shrubs, and vines, Gone too, were reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and innumerable species of insects. Gone were most species of fauna, except for the large game integral to the aristocratic hunt.

The utilitarian state could, quite literally, not see the real existing forest for the (commercial) trees. New techniques of measurement were developed. Representative samples of the forest were designated; five classes of tree size (Normalbaüme) were specified, the timber yield of each was estimated using the cone-volume principles of solid geometry, and a complete census of a representative section was carried out to determine the distribution of trees by size class. This knowledge, coupled with careful assumptions about rates of growth made possible the tables from which the scientific forester devised a plan of extraction based on what was assumed to be the maximum sustainable yield.

It is, however, the next logical step in German scientific forestry that commands our attention. That step was to attempt to create through careful seeding, planting and cutting, a redesigned forest that was easier to count, manipulate, measure, and assess. Thus was born the modern, “production” forest: a mono-cropped (Norway spruce or Scotch pine), same-age, timber-farm planted in straight rows. The very uniformity of the forest vastly simplified its management and exploitation. Forestry crews could follow a few simple rules for clearing the underbrush, trimming and fertilizing; the mature trees of comparable girth and length could be felled into the alleys and marketed as homogeneous units to logging contractors and timber merchants. For nearly a century, during which German scientific forestry as a codified discipline became the world standard, the “production forest” was a resounding success in terms of steady yields at low cost.

Redesigning the forest as a “one-commodity machine,” however, had, in the long run, catastrophic consequences for forest health and production. The mono-cropped, same-age forest was far more vulnerable to disease, blight, and storm damage. Its simplicity and formal order, together with the elimination of underbrush, deadfalls and litter dramatically reduced the diversity of the flora, insect, mammal, and bird populations so essential to soil building processes. Once the soil capital deposited by the old-growth forest had been depleted, the new forest entered a period of steep decline in growth and production. The term “Waldsterben” entered the vocabulary of modern forestry science and led, in turn, to huge outlays for fertilizers, rodenticides, fungicides and insecticides as well as efforts to artificially reintroduce birds, insects and mammals that had disappeared. By redesigning the complex and poorly understood ecology of the old-growth forest as a veritable wood-fiber farm and bracketing everything else, scientific forestry had destroyed a vernacular forest and a host of ecological processes that came back to haunt it.


The example of scientific forestry is meant here as a signal and cautionary example of the dangers of the forms of simplification typical of states and large bureaucratic organizations. In Seeing Like a State, I developed several examples in considerable detail: the imposition of uniform land tenure and cadastral surveys on vernacular forms of land tenure; the imposition of uniform legal codes on vernacular customs, the replacement of dialects with a national language, the design (or redesign) of abstractly planned cities (e.g. Brasilia) compared to “vernacular” unplanned towns, the forced resettlement of peasants and pastoralists in poor countries compared to “vernacular” movement and settlement, agricultural collectivization compared with small-holder mixed farming, and, finally, the difference between praxis or vernacular knowledge on the one hand and epistemic knowledge on the other. The emphasis, throughout, is on the processes whereby hierarchical organizations, of which the most striking example is the state, create legible social and natural landscapes in the interest of revenue, control, and management.

Intervention in society (or nature) for whatever purpose (e.g. delivering welfare benefits to those with particular disability or keeping watch on political enemies) requires creating the mapping or optics necessary to legibility. In Seeing Like a State, and as a student of politics, I concentrate on state-making and government. Nevertheless, as I endeavor to make clear, large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state, with the difference that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. The profit motive compels a level of simplification and tunnel vision that, if anything, is more heroic that the early scientific forest of Germany. In this respect, the conclusions I draw from the failures of modern social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.


[1] “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States: The Case of the Permanent Family Surname.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44(1) January 2002, pp.4-44.

[2] In abbreviating, of course, I simplify as well.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Promiscuous, Productive Ideas by Donald J. Boudreaux

    Donald J. Boudreaux considers the upside of widely legible information. While local knowledge and local resistance strategies may be lost, the ability of entrepreneurs to collaborate with one another over long distances expands. Ideas translate more easily and can more easily encounter other ideas, leading to innovation. Although some libertarians may find it uncomfortable, the rise of the modern state with its standardization procedures may have sped the process along, helping the Industrial Revolution to take place. Boudreaux cites the Social Security number as a threatening-but-useful example of state-based legibility co-opted for commercial purposes.

  • Seeing Like a Movie Mogul by Timothy B. Lee

    Timothy B. Lee notes that many aspects of information technology policy are deeply implicated in the process of “seeing like a state.” Despite their rhetoric of private property, patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property can act largely as transfers of wealth from ordinary people (be they peasants or consumers of digital media) to those who are most closely aligned to the state. This is a deeply illiberal result and one that libertarians should be especially wary of.

  • Perhaps. And Sometimes. by J. Bradford DeLong

    Brad DeLong sees both strengths and weaknesses in the state’s ability to survey civil society. With the help of an extended example from late Roman times, he argues that states can offer no protection against local disorder when they cannot see the localities and peoples they propose to protect.

    Yet a legible civil society is also prey to the state’s own “fits of ideological terror, or even clumsy thumb-fingeredness,” he argues, suggesting that legibility may be orthogonal to liberty. Ultimately, a state that fosters a robust civil society, while contenting itself with simply watching its growth, may be best of all, even if it is unlikely.

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