Identity

We live in a world awash in identities and identity politics.  It is hardly surprising that we think art can enact, create, and modify individual and collective identities.  In this constellation we subject this idea to historical scrutiny and theoretical analysis.  We investigate the role of art in the formation and imagination of polities and communities, and how these cross-cut with notions of race, class, gender, religion, nationality, and ethnicity.

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Identity

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    The Act of Identification: Bertillon and Chinese Exclusion

    Last week’s break-through led us to begin researching the use of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 to 1943.  Whereas prisons and police departments used the Bertillon system to identify criminals, the United States government used the Bertillon system from approximately 1903 to 1906 to identify those Chinese immigrants who were allowed in the United States because they met certain sets of requirements, while excluding all others.

    The use of the Bertillon system of identification to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act was short-lived, but was the result of twenty years of increasingly stricter immigration polices. After 1882, the any Chinese laborer who was already in the United States was banned from obtaining citizenship and needed to obtain a certificate to leave and re-enter the country.  Furthermore, Chinese members of the groups still permitted entry, such as students and wealthy travelers, were required to obtain certificates verifying their status and their access to enter the United States.  After 1902, the regulations were stiffened, and all Chinese residents in the United States were required to obtain a certificate of residency or risk deportation.  Shortly thereafter, around 1903, the Bertillon system was briefly implemented.  These regulations also burgeoned an extensive human smuggling and document forgery industry.

    Therefore, for potential immigrants, having, creating, or purchasing the "correct" identity was key; identification was the avenue to immigration.  Paperwork was the basis of entry and exclusion.  As the certificates of residency attest, "laborer" did not refer to an occupation but rather was a statement of fact that enabled thinly veiled racial exclusion.  In one such certificate from 1900, a baby-laborer's occupation is listed simply as "infant."  Thus, the language of exclusion was bound-up in the identification requirements, which evolved as the twentieth century approached.

    In 1882, when the law was first enacted, it was required that the Collector of Customs board all departing vessels carrying Chinese laborers to foreign ports, and "on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall by entered into the registry books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks or peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the customs house."  Likewise, every every Chinese person who was not a laborer and who was therefore allowed to enter the United States need to be "identified" by the Chinese government in an official certificate, translated into English.  The certificate stated "the right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title, official rank if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China" and required the applicant’s “proper signature.”  In 1884, “individual, family, and tribal name in full” were added to both methods of identification.  By 1888, the identification certificates for the eligible classes, “Chinese officials, teachers, students, merchants or travelers for pleasure or curiosity” were required to include “a full description of the person, of his age, height, and general physical features.” 

    Notably, between 1884 and 1888, fifteen years before the implementation of the Bertillon system for Chinese Exclusion, identification requirements changed from “peculiarities” to “general features.”  What does this shift mean for the nature of identification? The initial focus on “peculiarities” marks the person by his or her difference.  In this case, that difference is what permits the person to be identified as one with special rights and priveledges.  The later turn towards “general features” suggests that instead of individual marks of uniqueness, the entire body much be subjected to the systematization of the identification process.  Eventually, this will lead to the implementation of the Bertillon system.

    Furthermore, the shared use of the Bertillon system on criminals as well as immigrants created problematic parallels.  Those who received identification cards using the Bertillon system were permitted into American society, while the prisoner identification cards were meant to keep repeat offenders out.  In the case the prisoners, the act of measuring renders the prisoner into a permanent piece of metadata.  The goal, in an extreme interpretation, is to identify the person as a criminal and remove that criminal from society, made invisible behind a prison cell.  For the immigrants, the metadata is instead a tenuous guarantee to remain visible in the United States, yet also a reminder of the invisibility of the uncountable, unwanted potential Chinese immigrants banned from admission to the country.

    Thus, the act of subjugation to the system and judgment under the schematization of numbers was a humiliation.  "Lan Qiche…noted how his country people were measured 'as if they were criminals.' Like many others he found this 'an insult to our nation's dignity.'" (Parenti, The Soft Cage).  The question here lies in the nature of the insult of the Bertillon system.  What was commonly known of the Bertillon system and how was it received?  The shame of the Bertillon system was folded into a deeper institutional insult, revealed in language of exclusion of the law and its appeals.  "The exclusion of paupers, criminals, and persons afflicted with incurable diseases, for which statutes have been passed, is only an application of the same power to particular classes of persons, whose presence is deemed injurious or a source of danger to the country.  As applied to them, there has never been any question as to the power to exclude them.  The power is constantly exercised; its existence is in solved in the right of self-preservation…"

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
  • National Soldier Lot, Allegheny Cemetery

     

    Actual decomposing bodies

    I am gearing up to do a DH project which has some interesting parallels with Decomposing Bodies, the Bertillon project about which Jen and others have been posting.

    My project will analyze the federal soldiers lot at Allegheny Cemetery, which, it turns out, is part of the national soldier cemetery system initially established during the U.S. Civil War.  This was the first time in the modern world that a nation-state assumed responsibility for its war dead and established a national system for burying and protecting its dead soldiers.  To my knowledge no national cemetery in the U.S. has been systematically studied – not as an archive of bodies in any case. 

    The soldier lot in Allegheny Cemetery was first established during the Civil War as a local initiative and then federalized in 1875.  It’s a hybrid – an interesting intersection of local and national space/authority.  The graves are laid out on flat ground in a neat grid, with nearly identical white headstones, around an allegorical monument to the Union in the center.  The strong impression of uniformity and unity around a common cause contrasts starkly with the family plots on the hillside nearby, which are individualized and laid out in deliberately irregular patterns.

    But this landscape of unity in death is deeply misleading.  The tidy national “plot” or storyline overrides the local plots – the messy, often heartbreaking stories of the individual men (and one woman) whose bodies migrated to this small patch of ground.  My preliminary spot research is suggesting that many, if not most, of the soldiers who were buried here died in local camps or hospitals or soldier homes and ended up in this lot because they had nowhere else to go.  Of course the project will help confirm or revise this hypothesis, but it’s safe to say that in the process of tracking these soldiers in life and death we will be tracking an often tragic history of displacement, in both its physical and metaphysical dimensions.

    So what does this have to do with Bertillon cards?  The Bertillon cards were a system for attaching metadata (measurements) to photographs (of faces).  The instrumental purpose of the metadata was to organize the photographs into retrievable files, but in a larger sense the metadata and image worked reciprocally to create a unique personal identity.  Similarly the headstones in the soldier lot attach metadata to the graves – the metadata being a number, a name, and a regiment (if known).  The headstone points to the grave, just as the measurements pointed to the face. Headstone and grave work reciprocally to perpetuate a unique identity after death; if one or the other is removed, the person is lost.  In both the soldier lot and the Bertillon card collection, the constructed identity is drastically reductive, with the person’s life shrunk to a narrowly defined set of data collected or manufactured by the apparatus of the state.  A major difference between the two systems is the visibility of the body: the body materializes in the head shot on the Bertillon card, while the body quite literally disappears into the grave.  The headstone is a “card” of sorts but by necessity must also serve as an image, a sign that combines contiguity (at the “head” of the body) and substitution (the upright stone “standing in” for the upright person and for the portal through which the person must pass). 

    In this open-air archive of unseen bodies, the headstone is essential but remarkably fragile.  Witness the nearby veterans lot, created under the auspices of the Union veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic, where the once upright headstones have been pushed flat into the ground and their metadata have become unreadable.  Identity is perpetuated in the soldier lot only because the headstones have been replaced and reinstalled several times, made to look original by the intaglio style that mimics the first federal stones.

    If the data are robust enough, I hope to track the bodies, graves, and headstones – and illuminate how and why they have come to intersect in this peculiarly liminal space, poised between death and life, the national and the local, the abstract and the concrete.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Current Projects
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    Bertillon Identities: Who are they?

    Recording data set after data set of prisoner identification cards, a curious abstraction occurs.  The brain seeks the numbers, driving the input process of thirty or fourtly files in a digitized sequence and distilling the final phyiscal traces of these men into an endless chain of data.  The numbers are cold, firm, but not completely infallible (How did his arm get THAT much smaller between 1902 and 1906?)  The computer asks for the data, but the card itself tells another story.  The man himself looks back through the photograph.  He is typically of European or African descent, and almost always relavtively young.  Sometimes he is an immigrant.  The youngest in the batch, claiming to be 16, is a baby-faced adolescent.  The oldest, not more than 35, appears haggard beyond his years.   He represents a cross-section of rural life in early twenthieth-century Ohio, often listing "farmer" in addition to another profession.   He is also labeled by his crime: larceny, horsetheivery, forgery, manslaughter, and so on.  The photograph, in the case of the Bertillon identification cards, is the criminal's one limited space of autonomy.  Many of the men stare blankly ahead with a hard stare; they look straight into the camera and defiantly reveal nothing of themselves.  Others, especially the younger boys, cannot hide their fear and confusion.  One teenager, imprisoned for throwing rocks at cars, stares out on the verge of tears.  Another set subtly smirk at the camera, their eyes dancing with private amusement.  A cocky teamster cracks a smile, and seemingly mocks the camera, the Bertillon process, the ever-diligent R.U. Hastings who has just taken his measurements, and, perhaps, even the twenth-first century researcher who still finds these cards relevant.  

    The photographs reveal a humantity not capable of being described, contained, or limited by the numerical system of measurement and cataloging.  The sublte reactions intueted from the photographs are subjective, they can never be known.  But the human side of the Bertillon process could become an increasingly interesting question.  Recent research into the use of the Bertillon system with the Chinese Exclusion Act tenatively reveals that subjects found the process humiliating because they were treated like criminals.  This begs several questions: How well were the criminal identification cards known to the broader population?  What were the societal implications of submitting the such a system? And, pertaining to the subjectivity of the men in the photographs, how does the limited autonomy of the photograph reveal the identity of the man behind the numbers?

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Decomposing Bodies
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    Getting Started with "Digital:" A View from Three Others

    I am asked many questions on a weekly basis about what it takes to start using digital methods in the humanities. I enjoy answering the questions, but often feel frustrated by my inability to convey precisely what is needed. In many ways, "doing DH" is something you can hear about, but you sort of also have to experience it to understand--just like writing an essay changes how you view your topic, so goes using the analytic power of digital computing. Brian Croxall recently wrote a post in which he expresses similar excitement and misgivings and also gave links to two other excellent posts on the subject. So, here they are, in easy clicking order for you:

    Brian Croxall, "'Help, I Want to Do DH!'" http://www.briancroxall.net/2014/09/25/help-i-want-to-do-dh/

    Lisa Spiro, "Getting Started in Digital Humanities," http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/getting-started-in-digital-humanities-by-lisa-spiro/

    Paige Morgan, "How to Get a Digital Humanities Project off the Ground," http://www.paigemorgan.net/how-to-get-a-digital-humanities-project-off-the-ground/

    I'll edit this post over time, should I run across more...

    Categories: 
    • Identity
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
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    New forum to discuss constellations event 2016

    For those of you who weren't at the Agency meeting on Sept 28, we decided that we would take up the challenge offered by Barbara to help create a "signature" event for the Constellations to be held in Spring 2016.  The basic goal of the event is to bring national/international attention to our constellations model here and to forge possible collaborations with scholars and others outside our university.  We are clear that we don't want to do the standard keynote + conference panels, and that instead we want to put into practice what we are preaching here -- new models of collaboration and research practice, pedagogical innovation, and public engagement.  Barbara's initial idea was to build on the question posed by Gretchen, WHAAM (why history of art and architecture matters).  Some good discussion of this idea pro and con took place at the meeting.  If I can offer my takeaway from that discussion, it was this: while we do need to make our work matter to people outside our subfield, discipline, and instittution, we also need to give those external constituencies some good reason to join us.  

    I have set up a forum to brainstorm and discuss this event.  Go to forums in the navigation bar up above and you will find it listed.  Only constellations registrants can see the forum for now. 

    Categories: 
    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Environment
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
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    Computational Identity

    The fantastic scholar David Berry recently drew attention to a number of issues surrounding facial recognition and the impact of remote sensing in public. While working on Decomposing Bodies, and thinking about article's such as this, I have begun to start addressing a concept forming in my head called, "computational identity." The art project of ANTI-SURVEILLANCE FEMINIST POET HAIR & MAKEUP PARTY is particularly important in this vein. Please do check out both Prescott's post and the work of the group.

    Categories: 
    • Identity
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
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    In the first year the NEH was in existence...

    ...FIVE of the grants went to projects incorporating computing. ("The digital humanities community responded to NEH’s call for grants, resulting in the Endowment funding at least five digital humanities projects during its first full year of operation.") For more information, please do see Meredith Hindley's fascinating article, "The Rise of the Machines" at the NEH's own site, http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/julyaugust/feature/the-rise-the-machines.

    Categories: 
    • Temporalities
    • Identity
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
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    What do you value about studying the humanities?

    Our colleagues over at 4humanities.org have brought our attention to an "idea comparison" engine that they have set up to talk about what the value of studying the humanities might be. You can visit the survey here: http://www.allourideas.org/4humanities. It presents you with a series of dyads, allowing you to pick between different options...including "I can't decide." You may also add your own thoughts. A peek at the results is also revealing...

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  • American Correctional Association, Proceedings of the Annual Congress of the National Prison Association of the United States (Shaw Brothers: Pittsburgh, 1900).

     

    Debriefing and Looking Forward!

    The Decomposing Bodies research team reconvened in the VMW yesterday, reinvigorated by their February 5th colloquium, and excited to discuss next steps for the project. Upon concluding their colloquium, "Producing Collaborative Work in the Humanities: The Case of Decomposing Bodies," various faculty members in attendance proposed interesting linkages to other areas of research. For example, to the fields of forensic medicine and forensic anthropology.

    R.W. McClaughry, pictured above, is credited with introducing the Bertillon system to the United States in 1887. At the time, he was the Warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet. He later became the Warden of the United States Penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For more information about the Bertillon system, visit the National Law Enforcement Museum's webpage: Bertillon System of Criminal Idenitifcation.

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