I've spent a fair amount of wordspace discussing topics related to augmented reality, especially how the current digital wave of augmentation can be informed by analyzing the impact of textual augmentation in the pre-digital era. As someone who studies Russian history, I find investigating the question of how textual practices altered perceptions of reality especially interesting. The tsarist government, over the three hundred years of its rule, held a fascination with documentation that rivaled any Western European power. And just like Western Europe, tsarist authorities recognized the power documenting subjects of the realm could bring to their grander designs of glory and empire. However, unlike the powers of Western Europe, one problem that chronically plagued tsarist ambitions was lack of available manpower. If Russian authorities wanted to build a foucauldian gaze of panoptic power, they had to make compromises in order to do so. Eugene Avrutin's Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia describes the effects of this compromise by analyzing Imperial efforts to document Jewish identity. His work sheds light on how we might better understand the interplay between textual dualist conceptions of identity and the augmented reality those conceptions measured up against.
"While Jews could be easily identified visually as a collective group or defined in legal terms, authorities found it much more challenging to document Jews as individuals," writes Avrutin, as he later identifies three factors that contributed to this problem. First, building " a legal-administrative order capable of accommodating the empire's remarkable juridicial distinctions and confessional diversity", second "the ordering of clear and distinct cultural boundaries between Jews and non-Jews" and third "containment of Jews in their permanent places of residence." During the first half of the 19th century, Russian authorities found it increasingly difficult to accurately document a population under once satisfactory categories of social estate and religious belief. By turning away from census records towards passports, city censuses, and metrical books in the second half of the 19th century, the ruling regime began to rely more heavily on ethnic conceptions of identity for categorizing and policing diverse subjects. Passports were handy for regulating internal movement of populations. In contrast with empire-wide census efforts, city censuses were far easier to carry out and contained very valuable information on the inhabitants of urban centers. According to Avruitn, it was use of the metrical books that constituted a novel method in documenting the legal status of a subject.
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Metrical books recorded the births, baptisms, marriages and deaths that occurred in a community and their maintenance fell to clergymen who acted as an intermediary between state and subject. Since 1722, when Peter the Great issued his first statute on registering vital events, clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church kept records of their confessional community, but it wasn't until 1835 that Jewish 'crown rabbis' also found themselves in charge of performing the same tasks. Avrutin states that, "the recording of vital events allowed the state to recognize the population not only as a religious community but as individuals with distinct civil identities." This approach, using functionaries of religious faiths as proxies for civil servants in record-keeping tasks, possessed several advantages in the eyes of Russian authorities. Not only did the state find a way to augment its often meager presence amongst diverse populations across the empire, but it also felt that the information it received from religious authorities was more 'accurate' and complete than otherwise could be attained from trained civil servants. Unlike census records, which collected data primarily for tax use and military conscription quotas, metrical books delineated identity by acting as a record of an individuals denomination, legal status, ethnic origin and place of residence. Yet the regime also knew how fickle and prone to error record keeping could be, particularly with the Jewish community in the matter of transliterating Hebrew names to Russian or when rabbis recorded different names for birth and death records.
Over the course of five chapters, Avrutin makes a very compelling analysis come to life with several examples drawn from the multitude of records and archives surveyed. The footnotes alone are worth reading, as they bring the somewhat narrow focus of the work (Jewish populations) into line with the larger backdrop of imperial record keeping practices across the empire. As a work of Imperial Russian History, I give Jews and the Imperial State high marks. Instead of performing a more standard review, I would like to spend the remainder of this post exploring a theme I mentioned above- the interplay between textual dualism and augmented reality. While never using such terms, Avrutin nevertheless provides intriguing examples that demonstrate how these modes of perceiving reality clashed and modified the terms by which the Imperial Russian state understood the meaning of identity.
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Take this observation by Avrutin on the metrical books in the chapter 'Making Jews Legible':
As a fundamental marker of identity, the document (a metrical book entry) followed individuals as they changed place of residence, marital status, and even religious denomination. The document's civic importance- as the most important tool by which the state obtained knowledge of its population- ensured that officials took much time in enforcing proper registration while continuing to devise new administrative methods to improve record-keeping practices.
By placing so much importance upon an interpretation of reality as espoused by the document, a textual construction of identity, the Imperial Russian government essentially cultivated a textual dualist position with regards to individual identification. The individual and the gaze the state held on that individual became separated under this interpretation of reality. When the two differed, as could be the case if a rabbi transliterated a Hebrew name into Russian or if an individual used a Russified version of a Hebrew name in everyday life, then the individual in question would find themselves in an asynchronous conflict between the reality of the lived identity and the identity recorded in the book. This could prove advantageous, as when Jews resisted being conscripted into the Imperial Army on claims of confused identity, or it could prove a hindrance, as when Jews sought to prove to Imperial authorities that their sons who died in infancy could not fulfill the call for conscription. There was also the issue of gendered imbalance found in the metrical books, as many crown rabbis did not usually attend a females naming ceremony- the designated time when registration of births occurred. Avrutin notes that omission of birth registration of females led not only to difficulties for said females as they grew up and began to interact with the social and legal system of the empire, but also to a statistical myth that among Jewish communities a gendered imbalance skewed towards males existed. Again, the textual dualist conception of reality found in the metrical books, the primary conduit for the state to exercise its documentary gaze, often encountered asynchronous contradictions when individuals operating in an augmented reality conception of reality (which could be said to contain both oral and textual knowledge) disputed the record at hand.
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However, as is often the case with documentary power, a record can be amended thus ameliorating asynchronous conflict between the lived reality of the individual and document that purports to know vital characteristics of the individual. But true to its absolutist form, the Russian government placed severe restrictions on making changes to recorded events in the Jewish metrical books. To correct a mistake, crown rabbis were forced to submit petitions in order to receive an exemption and be allowed to amend the records. Even if interested Jewish parties sought to correct the official record through legal efforts, Avrutin states that the courts would rule that they did not have the legal authority to mandate a change in the official record (as that would be the prerogative of the absolutist central government, embodied in the tsar). "For the imperial government, a change in the document- however small or inconsequential it may have appeared- undermined the integrity of the entire record-keeping system'" This insight by Avrutin describes the Russian authorities proclivity to inject absolutist content into the documents used to identify and surveil the population. While the imperial regime desired to harness the power of individual documentation, inability to consistently maintain a disciplinary apparatus (like those produced in Western Europe and examined by Foucault in his analysis of power) forced authorities to adopt a conception of reality based on stable (to them) textual dualist notions over a more chaotic (for them) augmented reality conception. This limited the Russian governments ability to integrate religious and cultural differences into its own sense of imperial identity. As the individual and the gaze held on that individual through documentary power increasingly diverged, the asynchronous conflicts between textual dualist identity and augmented reality identity grew to greater and greater proportions.
While Avrutin's work looks only at a particular group within the multi-ethnic Russian empire, the Jews, it does a superb job of examining how "knowledge-based technologies" impacted the conception of identity at both the individual and panoptic-authoritative level. I believe that further examination of Imperial Russian use of these 'knowledge-based technologies' could benefit from using a conceptual framework that puts central the conflict between textual dualism and augmented reality in establishing the veracity of the individual.