I celebrated this fact an ocean away from where I was born. Osaka is about 9 hours by plane from Seattle - longer, in fact, because there are no direct flights. My usual path, however, takes me in the opposite direction on a 13-hour flight to France where I have lived for nearly 20 years and have a house and all the other things that a fortunate person my age may have accumulated over the years.
With all this coming and going, to-ing and fro-ing, three "vexed institutions" - The United States, France and Japan - have set their bureaucraties to making me, in the words of James C. Scott, "legible".
What does that mean? It means that for a state to fulfill its functions people must be defined in particular ways in order for the state to provide certain services and to tax and maintain public order. Whether this is nefarious or benevolent depends both on the nature of the states(s) involved and on the temperament and perceptions of the individual concerned.
I was born in a hospital near but not in the city of Seattle in the state of Washington in the United States of America. A Certificate of Live Birth certifying this fact and giving the names of my parents was filed with the local authorities. This was the first and perhaps the most important document for all the nation-states I have encountered in my life - this bit of paper stating that I was born in this place to these parents. And by the laws of the United States in the year 1965 this paper establishes that I am a citizen of the United States by jus soli.
Which, if one examines the history of the place where I was born, was not a given. In the 19th century this area was not part of the United States of America. European countries claimed the part of the world where I was born: Spain, Russia and Great Britain, These claims were disconcerting (and deadly) to the tribes and peoples who already inhabited this land:
"Since – in the beginning – Congress paid little attention to the small settlements, they followed the example of earlier pioneer communities and made their own government. On July 5, 1843 in an old barn belonging to one of the missions, the settlers of the Willamette Valley by a vote of 52 to 50 drafted a constitution “for the purposes of mutual protection and to secure peace and prosperity among ourselves … until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us” (Boorstin, 244)."Imagine how it might have been otherwise. What if Great Britain had not ceded the territory to the US? I might have been born a British/Canadian citizen and not American at all. And had I been born a generation or two before the US extended jurisdiction to this area, I would not have a birth certificate at all - only (perhaps) a family bible or a certificate of baptism.
In 1965 American authority over this region had been firmly established, but my birth was documented not by the US federal government but by the local government, King County. For as long as I have lived outside the country obtaining a birth certificate has meant applying to them, and not to the US embassy or any other federal authority.
Over the years the information that certificate of live birth has changed and this has to do with the shifting boundaries of local authority. In 1965 Iwas born in an area outside of Seattle that was an "unincorporated" area which mean that it was not attached to the city of Seattle or any other city in the area. So in the past 20 years or so different copies of my birth certificate give different places of birth. For a time it was "Seattle" and now it is simply "King County".
This has posed an interesting problem for my legal status outside the United States. How can I have been born in Seattle according to one set of birth certificates and then in King County in others? To understand why that change was made one would have to know the changing history of what is (even in the Seattle area) a pretty insignificant part of the world of little concern to the US government and of no concern at all to the French.
But one must be made legible, right? The solution of the US federal government on my passport and of the French authorities on my Carte de resident has been to drop any mention of city or county and to simply put "Washington" as my place of birth - a solution that leads to many misunderstandings because the "Washington" that most people in and outside of the US know is the capital city, Washington, D.C.
James C. Scott sees "legibility as a central problem in statecraft." In premodern times, he says, states were blind when it came to their subjects. Clear borders and jurisdiction, family names and social security numbers, places of birth and established places of residence with addresses are relatively recent and were created by men (and women) to manage other men and did not "successfully represent the actual activity of the society..."
States are still blind in so many ways. Their information is limited and is nothing more than simplified slices of how societies function. Even today states cannot capture all the economic activity in their own territories in order to tax it or control their borders to their own citizens' satisfaction. Cigarette smuggling is rampant in France. In the US there are still many many areas where someone can live "off the grid" or slip out of the country into Canada or Mexico.
Almost everywhere in the world where states demand documents, those documents can be forged. I predict that one result of the US State Department's decision to charge over 2,000 USD for a US Certificate of Loss of Nationality will be the rise of an industry that will offer good copies for a reasonable price. In short, all of the established ways of making people "legible" are problematic within a national territory and break down even more in the face of human migration in and out of different areas of authority.
A lot in there to vex various nation-states. Or at least to make them a bit anxious. What might these states do to make their citizens at home and abroad more "legible"? What would be their motives for doing so? Security is probably the most compelling reason. But another is, to put it very crudely, resource extraction (taxes). How might these citizens abroad react to a distant state's assertion of sovereignty? How might diasporas and citizens living in other jurisdictions react to such an attempt? Avoidance, most likely - the time-honored "weapon of the weak" used by emigrants everywhere from peasants to computer programmers.
All things I'll be thinking about for whatever time I have remaining.
Looking forward to it.