The Sovereign’s Data: Ritual, Archival, Digital

In the wake of Edward Snowden's leak of NSA secrets,  surveillance, privacy and the nature of information have dominated headlines. Thesigers has been toying with the notion of "sovereign data" for a while, and the atmosphere is clearly ripe for a more focused exploration of its meaning. We asked leading scholars to engage critically with the concept. In this second essay in a series, Josef Ansorge discusses the sovereign's appetite for data and the tools used to "identify and sort" human populations.


by Josef Teboho Ansorge

The sovereign hungers for data. Authority demands information-generating processes to understand the social order and act on it. The sovereign desires a reliable process to identify and sort our visceral, constantly reproducing, dying, and migrating mass of humanity into stable legally constructed categories and socially meaningful gradations. Depending on the level of intricacy—as well as preferred amount of control and legibility—different constructions are possible.The basic and preferred categories are citizen, subject, criminal, enemy, and foreigner. Engaged in this continuous labor, the sovereign regularly encounters serious problems of the ontological and epistemological variety. What is there to know? How do I know it? While the functional categories, techniques, processes, organizing principles, and regulative ideals of these identifying and sorting practices changed historically, their underlying animating inquiry has always remained the same: Who the hell are all these people?

Throughout different ages societies developed and deployed distinctive procedural solutions and technical assemblages to answering this transhistoric and transcultural question of the sovereign. The rush of responses can be structured into three different modalities, organized around rituals, archives, and digital tools. Using such instruments a variety of substantive answers could be generated and the mass of humanity consistently identified and sorted into categories. Occasionally this led to some striking similarities. For instance, the popular quadripartite classificatory schema of priests, warriors, merchants, and peasants was present in Hindu, Buddhist and Persian law. In some societies, such as our own, the longue durée story is one of political authority gradually monopolizing the identification and sorting of individuals. Here, priests, administrators, and judges—or their functional equivalents—authorized by a centralized power would be the ones to help determine who you were, what purposes you would serve, what resources you would access, whether you were socially sanctioned to procreate, whether you could migrate, whether you were going to be punished, how you would be punished, and so on.

Frequently these identifying and sorting practices were shrouded in mystery; indeed, sometimes they achieved heightened authority and legitimacy precisely because they were obscured and hidden. They functioned because the population was led to assume, whether erroneously or correctly, that the sovereign had great secret powers and higher forms of knowledge, regardless of whether these stemmed from accumulated resources, cultural awareness and technocratic expertise or a privileged intimacy with the spirit realm. It is hard to second-guess the sovereign when you don’t know what the sovereign knows—when all you know is that the sovereign knows everything. These are the kind of beliefs that generate deep order and obedience to a prevailing structure of political authority.


NSA’s Rabbit Hole

In May 2013 Edward Snowden disturbed a variant of this order when he revealed the most updated processes of the National Security Agency (NSA). Years of Hollywood movies had prepared the global public for a coming hyper-informed state, yet there was still surprised, halting outrage when the lavish dimensions of the collecting efforts were broadcast. Despite the disclosures it remains difficult to fully appreciate the industrial (and thereby also banal) scale of our ongoing information collection processes. When the storage capacity of facilities is measured in the yottabytes[1] it means nothing less than that every day entire libraries worth of information are being captured and sifted. Were we to only focus on this fact—the gross (in both senses of the word) amount of data circulated and processed—this Sisyphean technological feat would have to be celebrated as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

But there was no celebration, only cognitive dissonance. An unspoken social contract exists in our modern, digital age: The sovereign may look at and collect as much as it can find, as long as it only uses the information to protect and prosecute—not persecute—and as long as it does so competently. Apparently we are fine with our privacy being invaded so long as everybody else’s is also invaded and the invasion is done in a professional, detached manner. After all, we feel no shame in front of a database. Snowden’s public presence disrupted and made it difficult to maintain this belief. His pasty, sullen face suddenly brought into focus an inherent frailty and fallibility of the sovereign’s sorting and identifying mechanism. If they could make such patent mistakes in their hiring, contracting, and internal control—what kind of hidden blunders were they committing with our information? For now the gaze had shifted from admiring the quasi-omnipotent technical assemblages to considering the tired and highly imperfect bureaucrats manipulating the dials, in some cases to spy on their love interests.[2]

With the human, all too human, desires and imperfections of the operators looming in our field of vision the privacy-invading nature of state activities achieved a momentary salience. This is because, in the Anglo-American tradition, our sentiments about privacy are constructed around the ideas of a peeping tom, nudity and embarrassment. It is easy for this legal and political tradition to see and understand privacy-violation when the surveillance is personified and exercised by an identifiable individual. It follows that we know how to respond to corrupted surveillance—the use of the public surveillance apparatus to satisfy personal urges. Snowden’s disclosure helped draw attention to the humans surveilling society, which in turn raised the consciousness of privacy violations. But most of all Snowden’s campaign of revelations confirmed the sovereign’s insatiable appetite for information—a craving triggered by the falsely simplistic, yet ultimately disordering, question: Who are the terrorists?

In offering answers to this question the NSA decided to follow the Google / Borges[3] paradigm all the way to the bottom of the rabbit hole: Get all of the data -> store it all permanently -> make it all available to the user. The problem — and this is a persistent, acute and deep one not remedied but exacerbated by more information — is that the connection of constructed category to human individual permits many different possibilities and permutations. Indeed, quite frequently, fine distinctions between the significant categories are arbitrary and subject to more or less violent fluctuations in interpretation, dependent on fluid intellectual fashions and innovations in information technology. Put differently, because the categories of “criminal” and “terrorist” are founded on social interaction and not physical reality any technical means of identifying them is necessarily built on shifting sands. Technical solutions to political and social problems are therefore attractive because they represent a depoliticized resolution, but ultimately fail to deliver what their purveyors promise because there is no such thing. There is no depoliticized resolution. This of course only leads to a search for more technical solutions.



What is new and what is old about this problem? How might we contextualize this current moment into a long history? How does ritual fulfill these identifying and sorting functions? First off, an obvious but necessary caveat: Dividing past practices of identification and sorting into three categories (ritual, archival, digital) is more of a heuristic device and ideal type than a historical reality. However, this sub-categorization and clustering still lends itself to a rough periodization, since each mode provides different strategies for some of the same difficulties of human governance: centralization, circulation, and collective action. The shared problem of how to maintain, understand, and control a population unifies disparate historical examples and modalities of identification and sorting. What differentiates them is that they each exhibit distinctive strategies for the storage, retention, control and communication of information to achieve this end.

Consider a ritual. Hierarchic and classificatory distinctions do the heavy lifting of identifying and sorting processes. They can be grounded in a ritual order, just as much as they can be anchored in a bureaucracy or a bill of rights. The convenient thing about the ritual mode is that it does not require mass literacy to function. Think of ritual as ‘prescribed formal behaviour for occasions not given over to technological routine’.[4] In all societies ritual signifies and symbolizes the transition of individuals from one social category to another. As anthropology has taught us, ritual is a rehearsed performance that does crucial social labor. It thereby helps sort and identify an undifferentiated mass of humanity into finite categories. Initiation rituals mark the transition from youth to adulthood coronation rituals symbolize the establishment of a king’s reign, warrior rituals identify members of the fighting class and so on. By doing so, rituals process and generate information. Many rituals go hand in hand with a public symbol signifying that the person now has a different status: a wedding ring, a tribal mark, a papal tiara, a uniform, and so on. Such signifiers and practices abound. Indeed, the history of human innovation is marked by a wealth of ritual invention and innovation. One key to understanding them for our purposes is to emphasize the identifying and sorting work they do for the sovereign.

The Aztec empire (1325–1521) featured such a vast array of rituals that it required functional differentiation: ‘it was not possible for a single minister to attend to all’ ... ‘The nation had a special official for each activity, small though it were.’[5] Between sun rituals, harvest rituals, and sacrificial rituals, the system was so complex that it needed specialized knowledges and a division of labour to administer. A particular class of operators—Aztec Snowdens—was required and empowered to administer all of these tasks. A framework of laws and taboos was put in place. Amongst its various taboos it was forbidden for the subjects to lay their eyes on the emperor.[6] It is obvious why such an injunction is useful in a society organized around the belief that the emperor is divine. The taboo here does three things: it indicates divinity, constructs the experience of divinity through repeated use, and hinders the discovery of a non-divine emperor. It is therefore both means and ends, cause and effect. It helps regulate and protect the political order.

Reflect on how the need for identifying and sorting individuals manifested in visual markers of identity. For instance, Inca officials bore titles and regalia that corresponded to how many men they could muster, in stark contrast to the aristocratic titles in the Europe of the time, which usually indicated a control of territory. This practice can also be discovered in the history of Southeast Asia in general, and in particular the area now called Thailand. The proliferation of visual markers of identity comes to its most radical expression in the mutilation or tattooing of a population. For Lewis Mumford, ‘body decoration was an effort to establish a human identity’ without which ‘all other acts and labours would be performed in vain.’[7] For our purpose tattoos, as well as regalia and special clothing, can be read as a political technology responding to the problems of mobile populations and illegibility. It functions by making visible surfaces of the human body represent and correspond to political categories, it acts as a visual index of human categorization, and it has the potential to result in a highly legible order. This practice of individual identification would serve the Aztecs poorly when facing Spaniards on the battlefield. Generals could easily be picked out of the crowd by their dress. Near the end of the military confrontation a high-ranking Aztec leader, Cuauhtemoc, is only captured ‘because he tries to escape in a boat richly decorated with royal emblems’.[8]



Some of the oldest forms of writing humanity possesses are accounting lists. It is humbling to consider that the invention of the written form, and all that it entails philosophically and politically, was intimately wedded to the mundane concerns about who owes whom how much livestock. In contrast to the ritual mode, archival modes dominate in written societies and are primarily characterised by the information technology of the book or ledger. With the growth of literacy in a society, novel avenues for the centralized control and homogenization of human actions are opened; the archival written form lends itself to a whole new art of legibility and domination. In 16th century Europe, the development of the printing press enabled the mass production of the technological artefact of the book, which had previously required painstaking individual labours to generate, thereby radically multiplying archival forms of data retention and communication. In the 19th century, managing this material and cognitive mountain of growing information in libraries, in turn, became one of the drivers for the development of index card systems. This was a breakthrough technology for the activist state, enabling innovative forms of identification and sorting. It was also a precursor to the modern database.

Like any complex iterative process involving many participants, both printing and library management tend towards a strict rationalization and standardization. Ideally every page in a book should be the same size, all of the letters should be in a single script, and all cards in a library filing cabinet must have the information on them organized in an identical fashion. The thoroughly regimented card catalogue radically improved information organization and retention for all of the important institutions of modernity: prison, police, hospital, university, government, military and the border. In fact, it is hard to imagine the modern technocratic state existing without it. Implementing a national ID or passport system, for instance, would entail great difficulty without the physical and intellectual apparatus of the card catalogue.

If maps help to legitimate territorial authority and a binary model of land ownership, and censuses and statistics provide ‘intelligence’ of foreign lands as well as measure and evaluate ‘suspicious’ parts of the population, then passports enable states to control the migration of humans and identify individuals to an unprecedented degree. Passports standardize political subjectivity into a global ontopological system; grafting ontology onto topography, it expresses being and identity in a territorial schema. Out of all of the archival forms, the passport, and the border sites it is evaluated at, are the most frequent manifestations of state power in a modern individual’s life. Just as time and space were standardized, and territorial authority and simple land ownership was legitimated, the passport contributes to a specific construction of the world and self.

The daring escape of a political leader or general in disguise is a recurring motif in both literature and history. In revolutionary France in 1791, engaging a tactic entirely opposite to that of Cuauhtemoc, Louis XVI managed to flee, for a little while. By travelling in a party he ‘absconded for Varennes disguised as a valet’. He managed to get away with this because ‘passports for the nobility typically included a number of persons listed by their function but without further description’.[9] The fact that the king had gotten to Varennes acted as a catalyst for a new regime of identification. Fearing a reactionary émigré invasion, the French revolutionary government began to change the administrative practices, legislation, and archival form of the passport. Now a passport could only be assigned to an individual; the modern identification regime was born.

Contrast the different regimes of identification Cuauhtemoc, Louis XVI, and Edward Snowden sought, and still seek, to move in and one cannot fail to be struck by the previously unimaginable level of centralized control now present in our system. Techniques of identification and sorting transformed from external displays of clothing, regalia, and tattoos; to artifacts persons carried with them, such as passports, IDs, letters of entry; to a system of identification where the body itself is the source of information expressed in fingerprints and other biometrics. Perhaps most remarkable about this trajectory is that the sovereign’s identifying and sorting practices are gradually disassociated from those of the wider public. A public scene in the ritual mode would not have been much more legible to the sovereign than to a common person. The same cannot be said for the digital mode, where an extreme unevenness of legibility exists between the subjects and the sovereign’s operators. Today we don’t primarily carry our identity outside our clothing or in our pockets anymore, we are now already known, just the way we are. Although how we are known and what we mean to the sovereign is becoming more and more of a mystery.



This brings us to our totalitarian digital present, where state organs capture practically all of our machine-mediated communication. How did this Stasi-fantasy manifest in a system that imagines itself as anti-totalitarian? Somebody will have to tell that story one day. For now, recall that the great communist vs. capitalist ideological debate of the 20th century could be, and frequently was, reduced down to the question of whether the political control of society should extend to a control of its economic parameters, a control of the market. Behind the normative debates—with the two camps drawing on discourses of freedom and equality respectively—there was always a feasibility assessment. Could this even be done? For one economist, whose capitalist defence remains extremely popular with neo-liberals the world over, it was not possible. In 1945 Hayek confidently wrote that ‘the “data” from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society “given” to a single mind which could work out the implications and can never be so given.’[10] Here it was agreed that the knowledge apparatus of the state had, in the form of the market, met its match. Now, what is it about the modern national security state, that it ignores its own previous truisms on the impossibility of centralized knowledge and regulation? Why should the sovereign, whom we cannot trust to set the right price of butter, be in a privileged position to determine how threatening each individual on earth is?

An important lesson lies in the past for us. When we look at previous societies and solutions to the sovereign’s persistent question—Who the hell are all these people?—only proto-romantics and neo-traditionalists think that their processes or categories were correct. Instead most of us recognize the social significance of these practices and how they helped to shape society. In short, we understand that identifying and sorting practices played crucial constitutive functions. As an analog, when reading the legal traditions regulating the complexities of slavery purchase and maintenance, we don’t think that this regime was a neutral representation of social norms, but much rather that it did important work in shaping subjectivities and legitimating a slave society. We need to do the same with our present moment to better appreciate the costs of the status quo. Let us learn to gaze upon our time as something strange and terrifying, yet, ultimately, incapable of completely sorting and identifying human life.

There is always a remainder, a liminal character that does not belong to any devised category. This character is obscure or appears anomalous but, it must be emphasized, only does so because the sovereign’s schema or taxonomy has no place for them. Automated processes confronted with a liminal character inevitably freeze up and make mistakes, requiring the exercise of human discretion and moments of political decision. When too much is demanded of the sovereign’s automated sorting and identifying machine, governing practices as a whole are in danger of appearing incoherent and illegitimate. The central challenge for the sovereign in our digital era is to maintain this element of discretion and decision, while having the brunt of identifying and sorting tasks, as a form of political labor,undertaken by automated processes – before which the human subject feels no shame and on which it places no blame. This balance becomes difficult, verging on the impossible, in a time of accelerating computing power and perpetual innovation of the technical means for identifying and sorting. Ultimately, the sovereign hungers for data. But what it really needs is stability.


About the author: Josef Teboho Ansorge is a J.D. candidate at Yale University. He earned his PhD from Cambridge University, where he researched the role of databases and digital power in international relations. He has published work on the subject in Millenium, the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, the Review of International Studies, the Journal of Cultural Economy, and elsewhere.

About Thesigers: Thesiger & Company (‘Thesigers’) is a London-based research and advisory firm, providing a wide range of services to clients whose interests and activities demand in-depth knowledge of emerging and frontier markets. Current Intelligence is Thesigers’ quarterly bulletin of current affairs, published online and in print. Registered office: 27 Old Gloucester Street, London, WC1N 3AX, England. Company registered in England and Wales.  Company registration number: 07234402. VAT number: GB 135658985. Email:

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[1] 1 yottabyte is 1000000000000000000000000 bytes or 1 trillion terabytes or 1 quadrillion gigabytes. An academic research library is in the range of 2 terabytes.

[2] Siobhan Gorman, "NSA Officers Spy on Love Interests," The Wall Street Journal, 23 August 2013.

[3] “In time … the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” Jorge Luis Borges, "On Exactitude in Science," in Collected Fictions (London: The Penguin Press, 1999), 325.

[4] Victor Witter Turner, The Forest of Symbols; Aspects of Ndembu Ritual  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 19.

[5] Durán quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other  (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 67.

[6] Todorov, The Conquest of America, 71.

[7] Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine  (New York: Harcourt, 1967), 111.

[8] Todorov, The Conquest of America, 89.

[9] John C. Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 25-26.

[10] Emphasis added. F.A. Hayek, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," The American Economic Review 35:4 (1945), 519.