Discover more from Other Feminisms
Hiding in overlooked spaces
I’ve been tremendously enjoying the book reviews from, and the recent review of James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed seemed like it had particular relevance to Other Feminisms.
[Scott] describes legibility as a central problem in statecraft—the larger the state, the more effort it must put into being able to standardize its people so that they can be “seen” by the state apparatus. Legibility is why states assign last names to people who previously lacked them or addresses to locations that were described solely by reference to local landmarks.
Scott is suspicious of projects to render people and places legible, finding that they often oversimplify and flatten natural relationships. A planned, gridded forest may suffer soil collapse due to the lack of complementary plants which were treated as irrelevant weeds. Scott recommends cultivating a degree of illegibility, in order to remain more independent of state programs and oversight.
Unchosen illegibility, however, means being overlooked. Women are not more free because they are less thought of.
In that Plough essay, and in this substack, I’m frequently interested in how women try to make ourselves legible. Sometimes that means demanding new “official” categories that fit us better. Often it means making the kind of Procrustean bargain that Scott describes, where we cut away everything that doesn’t fit in order to reshape ourselves to fit the narrow, official normal.
Mr. Psmith is interesting in people who went the other directions—deliberately moving from civilization to “barbarism” (in the eyes of the civilized at least).
Scott (and Mr. Psmith) are interested in what attracts people to “barbarism.” The common story is of a gradual assimilation or melding into cosmopolitanism but, in many times and places, people drifted across the line of civilized/legible vs barbarous/anarchic in both directions depending on circumstances. As Mr. Psmith glosses:
The boundary between “civilized” and “savage” was a great deal more porous, and the flow a great deal more bi-directional than we might realize. Like a single substance in two phases, now boiling, now condensing, changing back and forth in response to changes in the temperature.
So why then is it that hill people the world over have so much in common? Scott argues pretty convincingly that something like convergent cultural evolution for ungovernability is at work — that is, the qualities we stereotypically associate with backwards and barbarous peoples are precisely the traits that make one difficult to administer and tax. Some examples of this are very obvious to see — for instance physical dispersal in difficult terrain makes it harder to be surveilled, measured, or conscripted. Scott also talks a lot about the crops that hill people like to grow, and how the world over they tend to be either crops that are amenable to swiddening and don’t require irrigation, or things like tubers that mature underground and can be harvested at irregular times. Both patterns make it easy to lie about how much food you’ve planted and where, hence difficult for others to tax or control you.
That last graf certainly made me think of every discussion about how hard it is to fit women’s work / caregiving into any calculation of GDP.
Of course, it doesn’t feel like you’re getting away with something when you cook dinner or change a diaper in the way it might when you head out to your still or your tuber patch.
But I think there’s an interesting question here about what’s the best thing to angle for, when you find yourself (intentionally or not) in a less legible part of our society.
The question puts me in mind of Helen Andrew’s singular essay on the anti-suffragists. I’m quite happy to have my vote, and to be partially named for Susan B. Anthony, but I appreciated Andrews looking more closely at what good anti-suffragist women thought was imperiled by the vote:
The bright dividing line between politics and home life would vanish. In practice the “separate spheres” remained separate for a little while longer, but both spheres would now be political. Lloyd George once said that woman’s suffrage became inevitable “from the moment the Legislature began to interfere in the home, to interfere with the health of the people, with the education of their children and their upbringing.” The dynamic also runs in the other direction: In order to attract women, parties had to put forward policies that appealed to women’s interests, which brought the state deeper into the home, which brought women deeper into partisan politics.
If I were to put her and Psmith into conversation on this topic, I’d want to know what mix of the good and bad parts of barbarous illegibility they think women have now.
Much of women’s work/caregiving work is illegible and uncounted without it feeling exactly like the hidden surplus accrues to us. Perhaps the greatest benefit to me is having a rival interest that holds me back from temptations to take on totalizing jobs.
There may be limited economic surveillance of parenting, but it seems that, even more than the state coming into the home; social media brings a thousand eyes and judgements and offers too many people to judge yourself against.
It feels like there’s both a feeling of not being seen, but also too much being on display, removing the pleasure of being an idiṓtēs—a private, and thus barbarous, person.