Logic of the Legible World

The numbers on my door.

James C. Scott, who teaches at Yale and whose works I read extensively in my Masters program, writes about the “legibility” of societies, by which he means the government’s ability to locate and measure all of the territory and population over which it is sovereign. In his conception, as I remember it several months on, the process of rendering a society legible involves dividing and defining space, time and population subcategories (through tools like censuses and maps, about which Benedict Anderson has written most influentially, and also through cadastral surveys and orderly urban and agricultural planning) and the purpose is to give the state “panoptic” control over its sovereign possessions. It also helps with the levying of taxes.

Kazakhstan is arguably the least legible society I’ve ever lived in. This isn’t saying too much, since I have lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, New York and Cambridge, England. These are hardly the “wilds.” However, it was nonetheless surprising to me because part of the Soviet high-modernist project (Scott’s phrase here) was precisely to render society into a unified, productive machine, which of course required that all of society be legible. By way of example, unemployment in the Soviet Union was referred to as “parasitism.” (The term also extended, mind you, to artists who were not officially employed as such full-time.) As a corollary to the USSR’s super-legibility, the Soviets were also fanatical note-takers and filers. Soviet archives are treasure-troves.

Kazakh appears to me to be “illegible” in little, perhaps insignificant ways. Take, for example, that I live in apartment 85 not on the 8th floor of a building of 39 independent apartments. Friends of mine in another building live in apartment 46, which is on the 3rd floor: across the hall and up one floor from apartment 45. The street number system is also inconsistent: although most streets use the “American” numbering system (odd numbered lots are on one side of the street, evens on the other, and both sets increase as you move in one direction), at least one street uses the London system (numbers increase going up one side of the street, cross to the other side at the end and then continue to rise as one returns to the start). Needless to say, finding anything in the winter can be excruciating.

These foibles of management, as I’ve taken to thinking of them, seemingly penetrate into all spheres: excess employees with no work to do; the impossibility of printing anything unless you have access to a relatively upscale office; restaurants advertising food they don’t have or running out of tea when too many customers appear; whole computer networks at institutions so riddled with viruses that it is inadvisable to transfer any files off the system. In May 2011, when I first came to Kazakhstan, there were new street signs designed for pedestrians at intersections. Those were removed in the summer such that by the fall of 2011, the only street signs are again those for cars, which are positioned such as to often be hard for pedestrians to read. Why would the city take down perfectly useful signs?!

Of course, some of these problems result from deficits of resources and funding, but many are simply inefficiencies that no one cares to resolve. I suspect (and here regular readers can hear the sound of familiar hooves approaching) that many of my perceived inefficiencies date from the Soviet era, when efficiency was never paramount, and that the system has perpetuated these for its own reasons. It is, I imagine, easier to be corrupt or to hide in Almaty than in Chicago. These quirks are, however, unmistakably a source of Almaty’s charm – as long as you don’t have anywhere to be in a hurry.

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3 comments
  1. The “American” numbering system you mention is supposed to have been invented by Napoleon. When you compared that system of numbering side-by-side with the English boustrophedon system, it made me wonder if the UK didn’t adopt the latter method just to spite the French and confuse their tourists, as the former is at least American in the sense that it is better. USA! USA!

  2. We used to call it the French numbering system, but now it is the Freedom Numbering System. Anyway, Clark, where do you learn this stuff?

  3. kazaknomad said:

    I have no hard data to back up this assertion but I suspect the confusion of street names and addresses is intentional and purposeful in the former Soviet Union. Why make things easy to be found where you live when in the Soviet’s dark past you might have gotten a knock on your door at 2:00 a.m. with a “Black Crow” waiting to take you away as an “Enemy of the People?”

    Also, you didn’t want your neighbors to know that you had a nicer place than they did. So nothing in the entryways of apartment complexes appeared clean or nice (even doors with missing numbers) in order to fit the outside appearance that your home is just as run down. I think there is a reason for this supposed “inefficiency” which can make us Americans fume or get frustrated when we are trying to find someone’s place for the first time…or second and third time.

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