It was only with the rise of the modern state, toward the end of the Middle Ages, that governments began to take an interest in regulating the lives of individuals. The modern centralized state was confronted with the problem of opacity, and became preoccupied with, in James Scott’s language, an attempt to make society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Although the state has always had such concerns to a greater or lesser extent, it was only the modern state—at least since Roman times that actually sought to touch individuals in their daily lives.
Legibility is a condition of manipulation. Any substantial state intervention in society to vaccinate a population, produce goods, mobilize labor, tax people and their property, conduct literacy campaigns, conscript soldiers, enforce sanitation standards, catch criminals, start universal schooling—requires the invention of units that are visible.
Whatever the units being manipulated, they must be organized in a manner that permits them to be identified, observed, recorded, counted, aggregated, and monitored. The degree of knowledge required would have to be roughly commensurate with the depth of the intervention. In other words, one might say that the greater the manipulation envisaged, the greater the legibility required
to effect it. It was precisely this phenomenon, which had reached full tide by the middle of the nineteenth century,
that Proudhon had in mind when he declared –
“To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about….To be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected.”