04 January 2018

Review: Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

Read October 2013
Acquired November 2013
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed
by James C. Scott

I don't know how I found this book. I wish I remember where I saw it cited, in such a way that I was inspired to read it, because it's one of those books that's affected my thinking-- not just as a scholar, but as a person. Like the best works of nonfiction, it gave me a powerful concept that provided not only answers but new questions. If you pay attention to these kinds of things, you'll know that I'm interested in what it means to "see like a scientist" (a wording I adopted after reading this book) in Victorian literature: I study how scientists are literally depicted as seeing the world differently than other people. Key examples include Swithin St. Cleeve of Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower (1882), who can see the horrific depths of space but not that the love of the woman standing in the room with him; Tertius Lydate of George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72), who can see cellular arrangements but is blind to social ones; and Tom Thurnall of Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago (1857), who knows everything about a person he observes but the goodness below the surface.

Yet there was this subset of Victorian scientist novels from the 1890s featuring future war. Or perhaps this subset of Victorian future was novels from the 1890s featuring scientists. And somehow there was a relationship between science, revolution, apocalypse, and utopia, and it wasn't just that you need a scientist to invent the air-ship that you're going to use to bomb your enemies into oblivion (though it helps). Don't get me wrong, I had some ideas of my own about how the scientist serves as an authorizing figure, but Scott's monograph was helpful in articulating them. Scott's whole deal is that the state maps things, makes models, and sometimes even goes up in an airplane to look at them, because doing this makes those things legible: "[b]y virtue of its great distance, an aerial view resolved what might have seemed ground-level confusion into an apparent vaster order and symmetry" (58).

So that's why these 1890s proto-sci-fi novels are all about air-ships, because they allow the protagonists to see the world in a distanced way, which makes it easier for them to use their weapons to remake the world. They have the perspective that Scott calls "Authoritarian High Modernism," which consists of three things: "aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society" (88), "a sweeping, rational engineering of all aspects of social life" and "unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs" (88-9), and a "civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans" (89). All of these things converge in the 1890s air-ship novel, where would-be revolutionaries use air-ships to bombard the world into submission, thereby creating a utopia.

I should add that Scott's book is called "Seeing Like a State," but in Victorian fiction it's usually would-be states that are the authoritarian high modernists. Though most of Scott's work focuses on authoritarian high modernism as a tool of contemporary statecraft, he does cite one revolutionary group that derived its authority from a detached, scientific perspective: during the early days of the Russian Revolution, Lenin considered the "vanguard party" of the Revolution "an executive elite whose grasp of history and dialectical materialism allows it to devise the correct 'war aims' of the class struggle. Its authority is based on its scientific intelligence" (151). Revolutionaries and statists of the twentieth century share authoritarian high modernism, as do those on the right and the left.

I said earlier that air-ships are in these novels I study because they "allow the protagonists to see the world in a distanced way," which enables remaking it. But causality when it comes to technology and epistemology is rarely one-way, so maybe the reason these novels are all about remaking the world is because the air-ship had been invented (in fiction, if not fact). It's important to point that for Scott, distance is often a metaphor: looking at a map is a form of distance. So it is too in these turn-of-the-century novels, because sometimes you have an air-ship, but sometimes you just have a sociologist, who views society from a distance by turning it into tables of data and equations, not (necessarily) maps. Scientific sight gives you both Authoritarian High Modernism's "aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society" and "a sweeping, rational engineering for all aspects of social life." I guess the air-ship and its dynamite cannons is what makes society unable to resist you.

But seriously this plot was everywhere in the 1890s: Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890), Mr. Dick's James Ingleton (1893), E. Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist (1893), George Griffith's Angel of the Revolution (1893), T. Mullett Ellis's Zalma (1895), Louis Tracy's The Final War (1897), Simon Newcomb's His Wisdom the Defender (1900). You couldn't move for all the authoritarian high modernists in early sf; Scott's real ones had plenty of fictional antecedents. A common them of these novels is destroying the world in order to save it, causing massive violence to the old society in order to build a new one from scratch, and reading Scott turns up real analogues to even this; he recounts how the architect Le Corbusier "warned against the temptations to reform.… Instead, he insisted, we must take a 'blank piece of paper,' a 'clean tablecloth,' and start new calculations from zero" (117). Of course, the clean break required to reshape a national or global society is much larger than that required to prevent urban traffic congestion by several orders of magnitude, and it requires violence.

It hasn't just helped my scholarship, though; it's enhanced my perception of the world we live in. I have a beauracrat's heart; I love rules that make things systematized and legible. But Scott's book serves as a reminder that the categories were made for man, not man for the categories. We need to be wary of what mapping hides, and of what knowledges are discarded because they don't seem objective enough to us, and of what things will be destroyed because we don't perceive them. (As a college professor, you might imagine I particularly contemplate this when undergoing the depressing task of reading my evaluations at the end of the semester.)

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