High-Level Thoughts

A phenomenal, interesting look at how governments and the desire to govern shape human life. Only a 9 because it is dense and slow and not a particularly fun book to read.

Summary Notes

The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to “translate” what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.

Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.

Thus a state cadastral map created to designate taxable property-holders does not merely describe a system of land tenure; it creates such a system through its ability to give its categories the force of law.

it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I aim, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.

I shall argue that the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements. All four are necessary for a full-fledged disaster.

  1. The first element is the administrative ordering of nature and society—the transformative state simplifications described above.
  2. The second element is what I call a high-modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.
  3. The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being… The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation.
  4. A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.

War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation.

In sum, the legibility of a 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.

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order.

I am, however, making a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how.

Throughout the book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability.

large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay.

1 Nature and Space

Once we have seen how simplification, legibility, and manipulation operate in forest management, we can then explore how the modern state applies a similar lens to urban planning, rural settlement, land administration, and agriculture.

In state “fiscal forestry,” however, the actual tree with its vast number of possible uses was replaced by an abstract tree representing a volume of lumber or firewood.

Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis, and it is not at all surprising that the abstractions of state officials should have reflected the paramount fiscal interests of their employer.

the new forestry science was a subdiscipline of what was called cameral science, an effort to reduce the fiscal management of a kingdom to scientific principles that would allow systematic planning.

The great simplification of the forest into a “one-commodity machine” was precisely the step that allowed German forestry science to become a rigorous technical and commercial discipline that could be codified and taught. A condition of its rigor was that it severely bracketed, or assumed to be constant, all variables except those bearing directly on the yield of the selected species and on the cost of growing and extracting them. As we shall see with urban planning, revolutionary theory, collectivization, and rural resettlement, a whole world lying “outside the brackets” returned to haunt this technical vision.

As pioneers in scientific forestry, the Germans also became pioneers in recognizing and attempting to remedy many of its undesirable consequences. To this end, they invented the science of what they called “forest hygiene.”

“restoration forestry” attempted with mixed results to create a virtual ecology, while denying its chief sustaining condition: diversity.

The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value.

Most early measures were human in scale. One sees this logic at work in such surviving expressions as a “stone’s throw” or “within earshot” for distances and a “cartload,” a “basketful,” or a “handful” for volume.

Thus an Ethiopian response to a query about how much salt is required for a dish might be “Half as much as to cook a chicken.”

Virtually everywhere in early modern Europe were endless micropolitics about how baskets might be adjusted through wear, bulging, tricks of weaving, moisture, the thickness of the rim, and so on. In some areas the local standards for the bushel and other units of measurement were kept in metallic form and placed in the care of a trusted official or else literally carved into the stone of a church or the town hall.

No effective central monitoring or controlled comparisons were possible without standard, fixed units of measurement.

Officials and physiocrats alike were convinced that uniform measures were the precondition for creating a national market and promoting rational economic action.

“As mathematics was the language of science, so would the metric system be the language of commerce and industry,” serving to unify and transform French society.

Just as the scientific forester needed an inventory of trees to realize the commercial potential of the forest, so the fiscal reformer needed a detailed inventory of landownership to realize the maximum, sustainable revenue yield.

The state’s case against communal forms of land tenure, however, was based on the correct observation that it was fiscally illegible and hence fiscally less productive. Rather than trying, like the hapless Lalouette, to bring the map into line with reality, the historical resolution has generally been for the state to impose a property system in line with its fiscal grid.

The door-and-window tax established in France under the Directory and abolished only in 1917 is a striking case in point… As a simple, workable formula, it was a brilliant stroke, but it was not without consequences. Peasant dwellings were subsequently designed or renovated with the formula in mind so as to have as few openings as possible.

The state’s increasing concern with productivity, health, sanitation, education, transportation, mineral resources, grain production, and investment was less an abandonment of the older objectives of statecraft than a broadening and deepening of what those objectives entailed in the modern world.

2 Cities, People, and Language

ask if an outsider would have needed a local guide (a native tracker) in order to find her way successfully. If the answer is yes, then the community or terrain in question enjoys at least a small measure of insulation from outside intrusion.

Illegibility, then, has been and remains a reliable resource for political autonomy.

Other things being equal, the city laid out according to a simple, repetitive logic will be easiest to administer and to police.

Until at least the fourteenth century, the great majority of Europeans did not have permanent patronymics. An individual’s name was typically his given name, which might well suffice for local identification. If something more were required, a second designation could be added, indicating his occupation (in the English case, smith, baker), his geographical location (hill, edgewood), his father s given name, or a personal characteristic (short, strong). These secondary designations were not permanent surnames; they did not survive their bearers, unless by chance, say, a baker’s son went into the same trade and was called by the same second designation.

Family names in early fifteenth-century Tuscany were confined to a very few powerful, property-owning lineages (such as the Strozzi). For such lineages, a surname was a way of achieving social recognition as a “corporate group,” and kin and affines adopted the name as a way of claiming the backing of an influential lineage.

William Robertson’s male son might be called Thomas Williamson (son of William), while Thomas’s son, in turn, might be called Henry Thompson (Thomas’s son).

A great many northern European surnames, though now permanent, still bear, like a fly caught in amber, particles that echo their antique purpose of designating who a man’s father was (Fitz–, O’–, –sen, –son, –s, Mac–, –vich).

Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849, to take on permanent Hispanic surnames.

In practice, each town was given a number of pages from the alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames beginning with the same letter.

Tracking property ownership and inheritance, collecting taxes, maintaining court records, performing police work, conscripting soldiers, and controlling epidemics were all made immeasurably easier by the clarity of full names and, increasingly, fixed addresses.

The creation of birth and death certificates, more specific addresses (that is, more specific than something like “John–on–the–hill”), identity cards, passports, social security numbers, photographs, fingerprints, and, most recently, DNA profiles have superseded the rather crude instrument of the permanent surname.

A society that is relatively opaque to the state is thereby insulated from some forms of finely tuned state interventions, both welcomed (universal vaccinations) and resented (personal income taxes).

Most obviously, state simplifications are observations of only those aspects of social life that are of official interest. They are interested, utilitarian facts. Second, they are also nearly always written (verbal or numerical) documentary facts. Third, they are typically static facts. Fourth, most stylized state facts are also aggregate facts. Aggregate facts may be impersonal (the density of transportation networks) or simply a collection of facts about individuals (employment rates, literacy rates, residence patterns). Finally, for most purposes, state officials need to group citizens in ways that permit them to make a collective assessment. Facts that can be aggregated and presented as averages or distributions must therefore be standardized facts.

3 Authoritarian High Modernism

The state has no monopoly on utilitarian simplifications. What the state does at least aspire to, though, is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level. “High modernism” seems an appropriate term for this aspiration.

The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.

The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.

The ideology of high modernism provides, as it were, the desire; the modern state provides the means of acting on that desire; and the incapacitated civil society provides the leveled terrain on which to build (dis)utopias.

there is no denying that much of the massive, state-enforced social engineering of the twentieth century has been the work of progressive, often revolutionary elites.

it is typically progressives who have come to power with a comprehensive critique of existing society and a popular mandate (at least initially) to transform it.

High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity.

The idea that one of the central purposes of the state was the improvement of all the members of society—their health, skills and education, longevity, productivity, morals, and family life—was quite novel.

Although any ideology with a large altar dedicated to progress is bound to privilege the future, high modernism carries this to great lengths. The past is an impediment, a history that must be transcended; the present is the platform for launching plans for a better future.

virtually every high-modernist intervention was undertaken in the name of and with the support of citizens seeking help and protection, and, second, that we are all beneficiaries, in countless ways, of these various high-modernist schemes.

For many specialists, a narrow and materialist “productivism” treated human labor as a mechanical system which could be decomposed into energy transfers, motion, and the physics of work.

The world war was the high-water mark for the political influence of engineers and planners. Having seen what could be accomplished in extremis, they imagined what they could achieve if the identical energy and planning were devoted to popular welfare rather than mass destruction.

the potential obstacles to high-modernist planning, the particular barrier posed by liberal democratic ideas and institutions deserves emphasis. Three factors seem decisive.

  1. The first is the existence and belief in a private sphere of activity in which the state and its agencies may not legitimately interfere… Much of the work of Michel Foucault was an attempt to map these incursions into health, sexuality, mental illness, vagrancy, or sanitation and the strategies behind them. Nevertheless, the idea of a private realm has served to limit the ambitions of many high modernists, through either their own political values or their healthy respect for the political storm that such incursions would provoke.
  2. The second, closely related factor is the private sector in liberal political economy. As Foucault put it: unlike absolutism and mercantilism, “political economy announces the unknowability for the sovereign of the totality of economic processes and, as a consequence, the impossibility of an economic sovereignty.”
  3. The third and by far most important barrier to thoroughgoing high-modernist schemes has been the existence of working, representative institutions through which a resistant society could make its influence felt.

high-modernist schemes in liberal democratic settings must accommodate themselves sufficiently to local opinion in order to avoid being undone at the polls.

4: The High-Modernist City: An Experiment and a Critique

by 1980, 75 percent of the population of Brasília lived in settlements that had never been anticipated, while the planned city had reached less than half of its projected population of 557,000.

there is no necessary correspondence between the tidy look of geometric order on one hand and systems that effectively meet daily needs on the other.

Most complex systems, on the contrary, do not display a surface regularity; their order must be sought at a deeper level.

The leaves dropping from the trees in the autumn, the interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a rabbit, the city desk of a newspaper, all appear to be chaos if they are seen without comprehension. Once they are seen as systems of order, they actually look different.”

Jacobs was a “functionalist,” a word whose use was banned in Le Corbusier’s studio. She asked, What function does this structure serve, and how well does it serve it? The “order” of a thing is determined by the purpose it serves, not by a purely aesthetic view of its surface order.

Where Le Corbusier began with formal, architectural order from above, Jacobs begins with informal, social order from below.

That a district have mixed primary uses, Jacobs suggests, is the most vital factor. Streets and blocks should be short in order to avoid creating long barriers to pedestrians and commerce. Buildings should ideally be of greatly varying age and condition, thereby making possible different rental terms and the varied uses that accompany them. Each of these conditions, not surprisingly, violates one or more of the working assumptions of orthodox urban planners of the day: single-use districts, long streets, and architectural uniformity.

Like the diverse old-growth forest, a richly differentiated neighborhood with many kinds of shops, entertainment centers, services, housing options, and public spaces is, virtually by definition, a more resilient and durable neighborhood.

5 The Revolutionary Party: A Plan and a Diagnosis

Those who fought in “The Russian Revolution” discovered this fact about themselves only later, when the revolution was an accomplished fact. In the same way, none of the historical participants in, say, World War I or the Battle of the Bulge, not to mention the Reformation or the Renaissance, knew at the time that they were participating in anything that could be so summarily described.

And because things do turn out in a certain way after all, with certain patterns or causes that are clear in retrospect, it is not surprising that the outcome should sometimes seem inevitable. Everyone forgets that it might all have turned out quite differently.

For Lenin, the totality was exclusively in the hands of the vanguard party, which had a virtual monopoly of knowledge. He imagined an all-seeing center— an eye in the sky, as it were—which formed the basis for strictly hierarchical operations in which the proletariat became mere foot soldiers or pawns.

For Luxemburg, the party might well be more farsighted than the workers, but it would nevertheless be constantly surprised and taught new lessons by those whom it presumed to lead.

She believed that the “flood” of the mass strike could not be predicted or controlled; its course could not be much affected by professional revolutionists, although they could, as Lenin actually did, ride that flood to power.

To nevertheless intervene and dissect the workers’ movement was to kill it, just as carving up the city along strict functional lines produced a lifeless, taxidermist’s city.

Put positively, the way the trip is made matters at least as much as the destination. Put negatively, a vanguard party can achieve its revolutionary results in ways that defeat its central purpose.

Most states, to speak broadly, are “younger” than the societies that they purport to administer. States therefore confront patterns of settlement, social relations, and production, not to mention a natural environment, that have evolved largely independent of state plans. The result is typically a diversity, complexity, and unrepeatability of social forms that are relatively opaque to the state, often purposely so.

The implicit goal was to create a fixed, concentrated population that officials in charge of the management of isolated populations could see and instruct when touring the district. Meratus immobility was the precondition of state supervision and development, whereas much of the identity of the Meratus as a people depended on “unhampered mobility.”

It was easier to monitor and tax large, publicly-owned businesses than to do so for a vast swarm of small growers who were here today and gone tomorrow and whose landholdings, production, and profits were illegible to the state.

6 Soviet Collectivization, Capitalist Dreams

Model aircraft built to scale and wind tunnels are essential steps in the design of new airplanes. But when the two are confused—when, say, the general mistakes the parade ground for the battlefield itself—the consequences are potentially disastrous.

It was the specific context of this specific farm that defeated them. The farm, unlike the plan, was not a hypothecated, generic, abstract farm but an unpredictable, complex, and particular farm, with its own unique combination of soils, social structure, administrative culture, weather, political strictures, machinery, roads, and the work skills and habits of its employees. As we shall see, it resembled Brasília in being the kind of failure typical of ambitious high-modernist schemes for which local knowledge, practice, and context are considered irrelevant or at best an annoyance to be circumvented.

First, having taken from the peasants both their (relative) independence and autonomy as well as their land and grain, the state created a class of essentially unfree laborers who responded with all the forms of foot-dragging and resistance practiced by unfree laborers everywhere.

Second, the unitary administrative structure and imperatives of central planning created a clumsy machine that was utterly unresponsive to local knowledge or to local conditions.

Finally, the Leninist political structure of the Soviet Union gave agriculture officials little or no incentive to adapt to, or negotiate with, its rural subjects.

High-modernist ideologies embody a doctrinal preference for certain social arrangements. Authoritarian high-modernist states, on the other hand, take the next step. They attempt, and often succeed, in imposing those preferences on their population. Most of the preferences can be deduced from the criteria of legibility, appropriation, and centralization of control. To the degree that the institutional arrangements can be readily monitored and directed from the center and can be easily taxed (in the broadest sense of taxation), then they are likely to be promoted.

centralized high-modernist solutions can be the most efficient, equitable, and satisfactory for many tasks. Space exploration, the planning of transportation networks, flood control, airplane manufacturing, and other endeavors may require huge organizations minutely coordinated by a few experts… On the other hand, these methods seem singularly maladroit at such tasks as putting a really good meal on the table or performing surgery.

Another way in which wheat production is different from raspberry production is that the growing of wheat involves a modest number of routines that, because the grain is robust, allow some slack or play. The crop will take some abuse. Raspberry growers, because successful cultivation of their crop is complex and the fruit is delicate, must be adaptive, nimble, and exceptionally attentive. Successful raspberry growing requires, in other words, a substantial stock of local knowledge and experience. These distinctions will prove germane to the Tanzanian example, to which we now turn, and later to our understanding of local knowledge.

7 Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania: Aesthetics and Miniaturization

The ujamaa village campaign in Tanzania from 1973 to 1976 was a massive attempt to permanently settle most of the country’s population in villages, of which the layouts, housing designs, and local economies were planned, partly or wholly, by officials of the central government.

Authoritarian social engineering is apt to display the full range of standard bureaucratic pathologies. The transformations it wishes to effect cannot generally be brought about without applying force or without treating nature and human subjects as if they were functions in a few administrative routines. Far from being regrettable anomalies, these behavioral by-products are inherent in high-modernist campaigns of this kind.

Communal ties, relations with kin and affines, networks of reciprocity and cooperation, local charity and dependence had been the principal means by which villagers had managed to survive periods of food shortage in the past. Stripped of these social resources by indiscriminate deportations, often separated from their immediate family and forbidden to leave, the settlers in the camps were far more vulnerable to starvation than they had been in their home regions.

In their perfect legibility and sameness, these villages would be ideal, substitutable bricks in an edifice of state planning. Whether they would function was another matter.

It is far easier for would-be reformers to change the formal structure of an institution than to change its practices. Redesigning the lines and boxes in an organizational chart is simpler than changing how that organization in fact operates. Changing the rules and regulations is simpler than eliciting behavior that conforms to them. Redesigning the physical layout of a village is simpler than transforming its social and productive life. For obvious reasons, political elites—particularly authoritarian high-modernist elites—typically begin with changes in the formal structure and rules. Such legal and statutory changes are the most accessible and the easiest to rearrange.

Anyone who has worked in a formal organization—even a small one strictly governed by detailed rules—knows that handbooks and written guidelines fail utterly in explaining how the institution goes successfully about its work.

To the degree that authorities insist on replacing this ineffably complex web of activity with formal rules and regulations, they are certain to disrupt the web in ways that they cannot possibly foresee.

This point is most frequently made by such proponents of laissez-faire as Friedrich Hayek, who are fond of pointing out that a command economy, however sophisticated and legible, cannot begin to replace the myriad, rapid, mutual adjustments of functioning markets and the price system.

It is possible, of course, to build a new city or a new village, but it will be a “thin” or “shallow” city, and its residents will have to begin (perhaps from known repertoires) to make it work in spite of the rules.

Yet it is also perfectly obvious why Esperanto, which lacked a powerful state to enforce its adoption, failed to replace the existing vernaculars or dialects of Europe. (As social linguists are fond of saying, “A national language is a dialect with an army”) It was an exceptionally thin language, without any of the resonances, connotations, ready metaphors, literature, oral history, idioms, and traditions of practical use that any socially embedded language already had.

Just as the architectural drawing, the model, and the map are ways of dealing with a larger reality that is not easily grasped or manageable in its entirety, the miniaturization of high-modernist development offers a visually complete example of what the future looks like.

Just as substantive goals, the achievement of which are hard to measure, may be supplanted by thin, notional statistics—the number of villages formed, the number of acres plowed—so may they also be supplanted by microenvironments of modernist order.

The planned city, the planned village, and the planned language (not to mention the command economy) are, we have emphasized, likely to be thin cities, villages, and languages. They are thin in the sense that they cannot reasonably plan for anything more than a few schematic aspects of the inexhaustibly complex activities that characterize “thick” cities and villages.

One all-but-guaranteed consequence of such thin planning is that the planned institution generates an unofficial reality—a “dark twin”—that arises to perform many of the various needs that the planned institution fails to fulfill.

Nearly every new, exemplary capital city has, as the inevitable accompaniment of its official structures, given rise to another, far more “disorderly” and complex city that makes the official city work—that is virtually a condition of its existence.

The most rigidly planned economies tend to be accompanied by large “underground, ‘gray,’ informal,” economies that supply, in a thousand ways, what the formal economy fails to supply.

8 Taming Nature: An Agriculture of Legibility and Simplicity

“Machines are not made to harvest crops,” noted two proponents of phytoengineering. “In reality, crops must be designed to be harvested by machine.” Having been adapted to the cultivated field, the crop was now adapted to mechanization. The “machine-friendly” crop was bred to incorporate a series of characteristics that made it easier to harvest it mechanically. Among the most important of these characteristics were resilience, a concentrated fruit set, uniformity of plant size and architecture, uniformity of fruit shape and size, dwarfing (in the case of tree crops especially), and fruits that easily break away from the plant.

diversity is the enemy of epidemics. In a field with many species of plants, only a few individuals are likely to be susceptible to a given pathogen, and they are likely to be widely scattered. The mathematical logic of the epidemic is broken.

Like the formal order of the planned section of Brasília or collectivized agriculture, modern, simplified, and standardized agriculture depends for its existence on a “dark twin” of informal practices and experience on which it is, ultimately, parasitic.

Polyculture, like the tropical forest itself, plays an important role in protecting thin soils from the erosive effects of wind, rain, and sunlight.

The city desk of a newspaper, a rabbit’s intestines, or the interior of an aircraft engine may certainly look messy, but each one reflects, sometimes brilliantly, an order related to the function it performs. In such instances the apparent surface disarray obscures a more profound logic.

The diversity and complexity that cause systems of flora to become more durable and resilient work, at another level apparently, to cause human communities to become more nimble and satisfactory.

shifting cultivation is an exceptionally complex and hence quite illegible form of agriculture from the perspective of a sovereign state and its extension agents. The fields themselves are “fugitive,” going in and out of cultivation at irregular intervals—hardly promising material for a cadastral map.

Registering or monitoring such populations, let alone turning them into easily assessable taxpayers, is a Sisyphean task.

“The proper test for any practice was whether it worked in the environment concerned, not whether it looked ‘advanced’ or ‘backward.’ Testing requires carefully controlled input-output trials. If ‘shallow’ cultivation on ‘partially cleared’ land gives better returns relative to the inputs expended than rival systems, and these results can be sustained over time, then the technique is a good one, irrespective of whether it was invented yesterday or a thousand years ago.”

Rather than not knowing any better, as was often assumed, most shifting cultivators were familiar with a range of cropping techniques among which they selected with care.

A procedure that blends a purely chemical nutrient perspective with soil classification grids and that leaves the particular field far behind is a recipe for ineffectiveness or even disaster.

This attempt at total control is an invitation to disorder. And the rule seems to be that the more rigid and exclusive is the specialist’s boundary, and the stricter the control within it, the more disorder rages around it.

Within its field of vision, the model was successful; DDT did kill mosquitos and dramatically reduced the incidence of endemic malaria and other diseases. It also had, as we slowly became aware, devastating ecological effects, as residues were absorbed by organisms all along the food chain, of which humans are of course also a part.

Just as the buzzing complexity and plasticity of customary land tenure practices cannot be satisfactorily represented in the straitjacket of modern freehold property law, so the complex motives and goals of cultivators and the land they farm cannot be effectively portrayed by the standardizations of scientific agriculture. The schematic representations so important for experimental work can and have produced important new knowledge, which, suitably adapted, has been incorporated into most agricultural routines. But such abstractions, again like those of freehold tenure, are powerful misrepresentations that usually circle back to influence reality. They operate, at a minimum, to generate research and findings most applicable to farms that meet the description of their schematization: large, monocropped, mechanized, commercial farms producing solely for the market.

Rarely have agricultural specialists asked themselves, as did the Russian S. P Fridolin well before the revolution, whether they might not be working from the wrong angle: “He realized that his work was actually harming the peasants. Instead of learning what local conditions were and then making agricultural practice fit these conditions better, he had been trying to ‘improve’ local practice so that it would conform to abstract standards.”

An explicit set of rules will take you further when the situation is cut-and-dried. The more static and one-dimensional the stereotype, the less the need for creative interpretation and adaptation.

The logical companion to a complete faith in a quasi-industrial model of highmodernist agriculture was an often explicit contempt for the practices of actual cultivators and what might be learned from them. Whereas a scientific spirit would have counseled skepticism and dispassionate inquiry into these practices, modern agriculture as a blind faith preached scorn and summary dismissal.

he is rather disdainful of agricultural specialists who “do not have to take their own advice”—that is, who have never had to see their own crop through from planting to harvest.

9 Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Mētis

In a work-to rule action (the French call it grève du zèle), employees begin doing their jobs by meticulously observing every one of the rules and regulations and performing only the duties stated in their job descriptions. The result, fully intended in this case, is that the work grinds to a halt, or at least to a snail’s pace.

working strictly by the book is necessarily less productive than working with initiative.

They were told by Squanto, according to one legend (Chief Massasoit, according to another), to plant corn when the oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear.

Broadly understood, mētis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment.

If your life depended on your ship coming through rough weather, you would surely prefer a successful captain with long experience to, say, a brilliant physicist who had analyzed the natural laws of sailing but who had never actually sailed a vessel.

Although there are rules of thumb that can be and are taught, each fire or accident is unique, and half the battle is knowing which rules of thumb to apply in which order and when to throw the book away and improvise.

Mētis is most applicable to broadly similar but never precisely identical situations requiring a quick and practiced adaptation that becomes almost second nature to the practitioner.

In a sense, mētis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote.

a knowledge of the rules of speech by themselves is compatible with a complete inability to speak intelligible sentences. The assertion that the rules of grammar are derivative of the practice of actual speech is nearer to the truth.

any formula that excludes or suppresses the experience, knowledge, and adaptability of mētis risks incoherence and failure; learning to speak coherent sentences involves far more than merely learning the rules of grammar.

Technical knowledge, or techne, could be expressed precisely and comprehensively in the form of hard-and-fast rules (not rules of thumb), principles, and propositions.

Where mētis is contextual and particular, techne is universal. In the logic of mathematics, ten multiplied by ten equals one hundred everywhere and forever;

The rules of techne are the specification of how knowledge is to be codified, expressed, and verified, once it has been discovered. No rules of techne or episteme can explain scientific invention and insight.

A recurrent theme of Western philosophy and science, including social science, has been the attempt to reformulate systems of knowledge in order to bracket uncertainty and thereby permit the kind of logical deductive rigor possessed by Euclidean geometry.

Socrates deliberately refrained from writing down his teachings, because he believed that the activity of philosophy belonged more to mētis than to episteme or techne.

Socrates evidently believed that the interaction between teacher and students that we now call the Socratic method, and not the resulting text, is philosophy.

the bricolage of practical knowledge has often produced complex techniques—such as polycropping and soil-building strategies—that work admirably but that science has not (yet?) understood.

Westerners knew that certain foods consumed in the early spring, such as rhubarb, could relieve the symptoms of wintertime scurvy, without knowing anything about Vitamin C. The mold from certain breads was used to stem infections long before the isolation of penicillin. According to Anil Gupta, roughly three-quarters of the modern pharmacopoeia are derivatives of traditionally known medicines.

By at least the sixteenth century, the technique of variolation was widely practiced in India, the Middle East, Europe, and China. The practice consisted of using human smallpox matter, scratched into the skin or inhaled, which gave the recipient a mild, rarely fatal case of smallpox.

Jenner’s discovery of vaccination using cowpox matter was therefore not entirely novel. A young girl had told him that she was protected against smallpox because she had already had cowpox. Jenner, following this lead, inoculated his own children with cowpox matter and observed that they showed no reaction to a subsequent smallpox vaccination.

Mētis knowledge is often so implicit and automatic that its bearer is at a loss to explain it.

Chinese recipes, it has always amused me, often contain the following instruction: “Heat the oil until it is almost smoking.” The recipes assume that the cook has made enough mistakes to know what oil looks like just before it begins smoking.

The typical structure of artisanal production was often an impediment to efficiency. But it was nearly always an obstacle to capitalist profits.

Given its national or international market, what the corporation requires is absolute, guaranteed uniformity of product and a stable supply.

As we saw in the case of scientific forestry, this is not merely a question of inventing measures that accurately reflect the facts on the ground and that can be conveyed to administrators. It is, above all, a question of changing the environment so that it is more standardized to begin with.

What has proved to be truly dangerous to us and to our environment, I think, is the combination of the universalist pretensions of epistemic knowledge and authoritarian social engineering.

10 Conclusion

How rare it is to encounter advice about the future which begins from a premise of incomplete knowledge.

Take small steps. In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move.

Favor reversibility. Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.

Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen.

Plan on human inventiveness. Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to improve on the design.

What is perhaps most striking about high-modernist schemes, despite their quite genuine egalitarian and often socialist impulses, is how little confidence they repose in the skills, intelligence, and experience of ordinary people.

Many modern cities, and not just those in the Third World, function and survive by virtue of slums and squatter settlements whose residents provide essential services.

Visitors can stand in awe, gazing on an image that through photographs and sculpture has become a virtual icon for the War in the Pacific, but they receive its message rather than completing it.

Common law, as an institution, owes its longevity to the fact that it is not a final codification of legal rules, but rather a set of procedures for continually adapting some broad principles to novel circumstances.

Finally, that most characteristic of human institutions, language, is the best model: a structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers.

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.