Measuring the mobile body

Article by Laura Jung: “…While nation states have been collecting data on citizens for the purposes of taxation and military recruitment for centuries, its indexing, organization in databases and classification for particular governmental purposes – such as controlling the mobility of ‘undesirable’ populations – is a nineteenth-century invention. The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault describes how, in the context of growing urbanization and industrialization, states became increasingly preoccupied with the question of ‘circulation’. Persons and goods, as well as pathogens, circulated further than they had in the early modern period. While states didn’t seek to suppress or control these movements entirely, they sought means to increase what was seen as ‘positive’ circulation and minimize ‘negative’ circulation. They deployed the novel tools of a positivist social science for this purpose: statistical approaches were used in the field of demography to track and regulate phenomena such as births, accidents, illness and deaths. The emerging managerial nation state addressed the problem of circulation by developing a very particular toolkit amassing detailed information about the population and developing standardized methods of storage and analysis.

One particularly vexing problem was the circulation of known criminals. In the nineteenth century, it was widely believed that if a person offended once, they would offend again. However, the systems available for criminal identification were woefully inadequate to the task.

As criminologist Simon Cole explains, identifying an unknown person requires a ‘truly unique body mark’. Yet before the advent of modern systems of identification, there were only two ways to do this: branding or personal recognition. While branding had been widely used in Europe and North America on convicts, prisoners and enslaved people, evolving ideas around criminality and punishment largely led to the abolition of physical marking in the early nineteenth century. The criminal record was established in its place: a written document cataloguing the convict’s name and a written description of their person, including identifying marks and scars…(More)”.

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