Who are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe

Natalie Zemon Davis writes:

One of the many strengths of Groebner’s book is its undermining of a linear account of the history of identification and surveillance. His story is not one of small beginnings and aspirations that grow steadily over the centuries as bureaucracies and technologies become more effective, geographical mobility increases, and nation-states emerge and tighten their borders. Rather, he sees the process of gathering information and creating identity papers as moving in waves, changing its political co-ordinates, conceptual categories and techniques in different contexts. And his associated story – of the ignoring or falsifying of identity papers, of people moving constructively or treacherously in their own fashion – is there from the beginning too. The dual process continues today, as Groebner suggests in a final chapter: fingerprint scanners can apparently be fooled by reproductions made with sellotape and gelatin. Who Are You? helps us understand better the crosscurrents of trust and suspicion, safety and surveillance, independence and control on our own crowded borders and highways.

(LRB 18 October 2007)

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