Monday, October 25, 2010

Trees and other anarchists

James C. Scott. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. 1998.

The basic ideas of Seeing Like a State may be expressed in two of Scott’s favorite examples. The first, used to introduce the themes of the book, is that of scientific forestry. This is basically the practice of treating a forest like a specialized kind of farm. Rather than allowing the trees to propagate in their own way in the context of a whole ecosystem, managed timber production planted the trees in rows, and systematically cleared out underbrush and fallen deadwood. This had the effect of enormously increasing both the efficiency with which the wood was harvested and, at least as important, the predictability of production. Yet it turned out that this radical simplification of the forest was simply not sustainable. 70-80 years after the practice was first introduced, the growth rate of the trees had drastically fallen. The lesson is, for Scott, clear. The simplified point of view of the state (although this also applies to other organizations with simplified incentives, such as capitalist corporations) lead to the simplification of the environment, with catastrophic results. This is itself a simplified example, and the great bulk of Scott’s book is given over to other examples of the same phenomenon: planned cities, agriculture, economy, revolution.

The second example, almost more of an anecdote, receives less attention, but is perhaps yet more revealing of Scott’s basic worldview. It is the so-called grève du zèle, or the work-to-rule strike. In such a strike, the workers do not explicitly stop working, but they rather scrupulously follow every rule and regulation, and do precisely, exclusively, the work assigned to them in their job description. In even the most ‘scientific’ and Taylorized factory, Scott says, this has the result of drastically reducing or even entirely halting production. The point here is that even in those cases in which scientific simplification appears to have had the greatest success, it in fact requires for its survival the support of what Scott calls mētis. Or, as he puts it, rationalization is always parasitic on mētis, cunning, skill, the art of muddling through, which is practical, experiential, rigorously ‘empirical,’ and neither transparent nor democratic (as rationality strives to be).

Scott’s book is a litany of catastrophes visited upon humankind by ‘high modernist’ planning, which is essentially the drive to simplify and to codify. One of Scott’s suggestive points is that ‘high modernism’ has a strong aesthetic component, so that it is apparently unable to make the rather elementary distinction between visual and other forms of order. Thus a cityscape, from a ‘high modernist’ point of view is orderly only if it appears planned, if functions are distinguished from one another, if all the units are the same (Jane Jacobs is Scott’s reference point here). The explanations he gives for why governments and certain other forms of organizations ‘prefer’ or tend toward transparent, conceptually simple and standardized solutions, makes good sense. Why this should manifest in such a strong visual aesthetic is not so clear. Scott would probably want to argue that this drive for visually manifest order at every level is an iteration or effect of the completely practical need for agents of the state to literally see the people from whom they need to extract taxes (or who might be plotting violence, or practicing the wrong religion…). What I question is really the relation between this practical need and, for instance, Le Courbusier, who even Scott would admit is an easy target. Surely a great deal of explanation must come between the aesthetic canonization of this sort of order, and the practical need for it? This seems like a more vexed question—although, arguably, also a less important one—than that of the institutional conditions under which a bureaucracy comes to be driven by incentives that are literally counter to those of the human beings over which it rules.

Also problematic is the epistemological status of mētis. Doubtless, Scott would not want to take a very firm stand on this. It just is. Scott might point especially to the example of the doctor who is able to diagnose a disease intuitively. This intuitive capacity itself cannot be codified, but through careful study the particular cues in the patient that the doctor unconsciously used were isolated, and therefore could be codified and taught. One interesting characteristic of Scott’s position here is the inversion of what I think of (perhaps incorrectly) as the Habermasian evaluations of kinds of reason. Mētis, for Scott, is pure instrumentality. It is always intimately connected to getting things done in the chaos of the world. It is empirical and practical. And, despite Scott’s prudent cautionary notes, he certainly believes it should be more highly valued than it is. The reason of state (not Scott’s phrase—he would say the vision of the state), is conceptual and rationalistic. It is not really empirical, since it tends to shape reality to itself, rather than the other way around. Its goal in this sense, is not practical, but solipsistic. Its universalistic impulse is the opposite of critical, and if it is democratic, it is in the worst possible sense. The main epistemological point here is that the movement of the world as a whole cannot be ‘mapped’ by science (hence the invocation of Borges at the beginning of the chapter on mētis). From this derives the main political lesson of the book as a whole: the state naturally strives to simplify and to codify, this is indeed its function; very bad things can happen when civil society is weakened to the point that the state is able to do this in an unrestrained fashion.

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