Seeing Like a State

Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

I can see why James C. Scott’s book has been such a generative work, even if there’s a lot that could be quibbled with—namely, the way states use illegibility and uncertainty just as productively, the no less important political effects of “failure,” and he could’ve delved more deeply into a discussion of scientific science itself. After summarizing some key points, I want to come back to this last point on knowledge by conjugating it with David Turnbull’s book Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers.

Scott shows how legibility and simplification (including standardization) are the primary means that states have used in trying to successfully manage—to whatever ends—societies and environments. Legibility is a, perhaps the, central means of statecraft in Scott’s view, particularly in relation to state aims of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. But he also considers these projects within a much broader set of state-mediated endeavors and rationalities: health, production, symbolism, aesthetics, urban development, as well as social and environmental organization more broadly.

What all these projects and endeavors have in common is what he terms a “high-modern ideology,” which invested complete faith in the large-scale, comprehensive planning of human settlement and production (broadly conceived), including the natural environment. High-modernism drew heavily on science, but Scott claims it was not strictly “scientific”—at least in the sense of denying its own empirically evident failures.

The first section opens the discussion of legibility and simplification by examining how society, space, and the environment have been objects making-legible, using examples of scientific forestry or the introduction of last names and standardized measurement. Surnames helped identify and locate individuals for reasons of conscription and taxation; clear, exclusive delineation of otherwise messy property arrangements played the same role, not only for managing production, but also for taxation. Neat rows of trees in scientific forestry allowed states to clearly measure and management large-scale production of wood, while the introduction of standardized measurement allowed the wood to be uniformly traded and rationalized. What Scott notes is that all such projects are largely doomed to fail.

Although he admits that such high-modernist schemes can be used toward more positive or more negative ends, he criticizes their attempt to simplify what are utterly un-simplifiable phenomena (individuals, societies, space, and nature), thereby excluding or trying to stamp out the particulars of knowledge, know-how, and complexity-diversity that make such systems “work” in all their motley glory. Besides the already cited examples, Scott also makes the same arguments about the following cases: Le Corbusier’s gigantitis of total planning, the city of Brasília, the revolutionary ideology of Lenin, mass agrarian planning in Russia (collectivization) and Tanzania (villagization), simplifying nature as/for commodity production. “In sum, the legibility of society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build” (5).

In the last chapter he introduces the classical Greek word metis to describe what such projects are unable to harness and why they are destined to fail. As Scott describes it, Metis could be defined as a local situated knowledge gained by the iterative and experimental engagement of practice—a practical knowledge about particular social and natural assemblages. “Broadly understood, metis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to constantly changing natural and human environment” (313).

On this last point of metis, I was struck by how much of the book, especially the latter chapters, is about the politics of knowledge, raising question quite similar to those that surfaced in David Turnbull’s Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers. Putting it in Turnbull’s terms, states and their high-modernist projects and planners deny the motley production of knowledge and of constitution of the socio-biophysical world. Moreover, these projects do not and cannot account for the inherent turbulence that makes up our social and biological environments. Still, what distinguishes Scott from Turnbull, is that the latter would claim that “western scientific knowledge” is produced locally and in the same way as metis, out of a motley knowledge space. Scott, on the other hand, seems to put metis and science into qualitatively and procedurally distinct categories.

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