book-reviews

Seeing Like A State

by James C. Scott

Rating: ★★★★

Certainly an insightful discussion of a particular point. The map is not the territory, and attempting to treat the territory as if it really were the map will lead to disconnects which can be extraordinarily painful. Scott approaches this largely from a background in the study of agriculture, referring to cadastral land surveys in France and Russia, Soviet collectivisation, and ujamaa villages in Tanzania. As relief that broadens his point, he talks also of urban planning, and the case of Brasilia and other high-modernist cities.

His historical examples were great and entertaining, but I sometimes felt a bit cheated, and that he was leaving aside specific details which could make these stories more engrossing and edifying. I think also that his attempts at bridging analogies and examples led to a certain rather repetitive tone. To a degree this is necessary, as Scott is clearly trying to avoid being pinned as saying something he isn't -- he's not a fan of 'traditional culture', he's not entirely pessimistic about the benefits of abstraction, etc. -- but it was still a little dull to see the same overarching point delivered without very much in the way of local flavour from the example.

Perhaps as a result of this, I found the earliest chapters on pre/post-Revolutionary France to be some of the most interesting material, as it seemed to present a greater wealth of interesting detail as well as most of his thesis. The account of urban planning was also memorable for its tour of a subject I know little about, whereas the chapters on Russia were less fresh in content, and the Tanzanian section seemed largely to repeat the same analysis, with what seemed to be a weak justification for its additional inclusion.

So far as the central message, I feel mostly convinced. I have a newly strengthened appreciation for the power of legibility and how it enables the slow but relentless creep of the state. I do wonder if Scott isn't a bit too fond of interpreting evidence such that local, small-scale production is economically feasible. I wonder if defending such practices on moral grounds alone seemed insufficient.