Tuesday, February 1, 2011

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State several excerpts

(Cross-posted from Commonplace)

Updated with one I forgot to include originally: To this point, I have been making a rather straightforward, even banal point about the simplification, abstraction, and standardization that are necessary for state officials' observations of the circumstances of some or all of the population. But I want to make a further claim, one analogous to that made for scientific forestry: the modern state, through its officials, attempts with varying success to create a terrain and a population with precisely those standardized characteristics that will be easiest to monitor, count, assess, and manage. The utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of observations.
pages 81-82

The image of coordination and authority aspired to here recalls that of mass exercises--thousands of bodies moving in perfect unison according to a meticulously rehearsed script. When such coordination is achieved, the spectacle may have several effects. The demonstration of mass coordination, its designers hope, will awe spectators and participants with its display of powerful cohesion. The awe is enhanced by the fact that, as in the Taylorist factory, only someone outside and above the display can fully appreciate it as a totality; the individual participants at ground level are small molecules within an organism whose brain is elsewhere. The image of a nation that might operate along these lines is enormously flattering to elites at the apex--and, of course, demeaning to a population whose role they thus reduce to that of ciphers. Beyond impressing observers, such displays may, in the short run at least, constitute a reassuring self-hypnosis which serves to reinforce the moral purpose and self-confidence of the elites.
page 254

A great many nations, some of them former colonies, have built entirely new capitals rather than compromise with an urban past that their leaders were determined to transcend; one thinks of Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey, Belize, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Malawi, and Tanzania.120
120. One political advantage of a new capital is precisely that it does not belong to any existing community. Founding a new capital avoids certain delicate, if not explosive, choices that would otherwise have to be made. By the same logic, English became the national language of India because it was the only widely spoken language that did not belong exclusively to any particular traditional community. It did belong, however, to India's English-speaking intelligentsia, which was enormously privileged when its "dialect" became the national language. The United States and Australia, with no urban past to transcend, created planned capitals that represented a vision of progress and order and that were, not incidentally, in stark contrast to indigenous settlement practices.
page 259, note on page 413

It is worth emphasizing the degree to which oral cultures, as opposed to written cultures, may avoid the rigidity of orthodoxy. Because an oral culture has no textual reference point for marking deviations, traditions currently in circulation vary with the speaker, the audience, and local needs. Having no yardstick like a sacred text to measure the degree of drift from its Ur-tradition, such a culture can change greatly over time and simultaneously think of itself as remaining faithful to tradition.
page 332


BDR said...

I can provide a name/password to an e-book version of Seeing Like a State. You can either go to (WARNING! BLOGWHORING! WARNING!) my place by clicking the BDR and then sending me an email or you can (yes?) email Ethan. I've just sent him the name/password and the location to use them.

Ethan said...

I endorse, nay, recommend emailing either BDR or me (herrissyvoo@gmail.com, bring it on spammers) for this. Incredibly worth reading.

Quin said...

As I read the quote from page 254, I don't know why, but the very first thing that popped into my mind wasn't any kind of political rally or glitzy gala, but that YouTube video of the 1500 Philippine prison inmates dancing to "Thriller". I just noticed that the choreographer is the son of Cebu province's former governor and brother of the current one. His belief that through mandatory, rigidly synchronized mass dance routines, he can "turn dregs into human beings" is indeed flattering to the elites at the apex and demeaning to-- well, pretty much to the rest of the human race.

Thanks for some thought provoking excerpts, Ethan.

Peter Ward said...

Fascist conformity may well be what the state dreams of--but history suggests the model is unstable. Democratic capitalism--giving people the illusion that they are acting of their own free will and therefore any suffering the results of one's own mistakes--has endured much longer.

And anyway, conflating superficial conformity with obedience seems to foolish way to rule.


A great many nations, some of them former colonies, have built entirely new capitals rather than compromise with an urban past that their leaders were determined to transcend; one thinks of Brazil, Pakistan...

I'm not sure urban planning has to do with a determination to "transcend" the past so much as the inevitable result of integration in the global market.


Finally, a general note: I find Critical Theory--or cultural studies, or whatever this is--frankly suspect. There seems to be an effort to efface (or at least significantly downplay) important if not crucial political or economic factors. E.g., it's not because India remains tethered to Britain that English is spoken, it's because the "dialect" is divorced from any traditions--and the fact that India exists at all is of course do to imperialism; that such disparate cultures, a massive geographical area and numerous languages should be bound in one state in the first place looks absurd from any other perspective.

Richard said...

Hey, Peter, it's anthropology--it is decidedly not critical theory. This book in particular is in many ways a summary book, following on decades of research and other books and case studies. And, of course, these are merely very short excerpts from a 400+ page book. Scott is not at all trying to "efface" political or economic factors. You should read him.

Ethan said...

Quin, good point. I had forgotten about that dance routine. It creeped me out when everyone was all into it, but it didn't actually occur to me to look into it any further. I didn't know the stuff you mention about the choreographer, but now that I do it really isn't all that surprising. Thanks.

Peter, Richard's right. Scott's case is more complex than you're assuming it is. Honestly I think some of your objections are answered directly in the quotes I posted, and all the rest of them are discussed in the book. If you'd like, email me as discussed in the first two comments on this post.