Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State
United States of America: 1998
It is helpful to imagine two different maps of activity. In the case of a planned urban neighborhood, the first map consists of a representation of the streets and buildings, tracing the routes that the planners have provided for the movements between the workplaces and residences, the delivery of goods, access to shopping, and so on. The second map consists of tracings, as in a time-lapse photograph, of all the unplanned movements—pushing a baby carriage, window shopping, strolling, going to see a friend, playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, walking the dog, watching the passing scene, taking shortcuts between work and home, and so on. This second map, far more complex than the first, reveals very different patterns of circulation.
The older the neighborhood, the more likely that the second map will have nearly superseded the first, in roughly the same way that planned, suburban Levittowns have, after fifty years, become thoroughly different setting from what their designers envisioned.
If our inquiry has taught us anything, it is that the first map, taken alone, is misrepresentative and indeed nonsustainable. A same-age, monocropped forest with all the debris cleared is in the long run an ecological disaster. No Taylorist factory can sustain production without the unplanned improvisations of an experienced workforce. Planned Brasilia is, in a thousand ways, underwritten by unplanned Brasilia. Without at least some of the diversity identified by Jacobs, a stripped-down public housing project (like Pruitt-Igoe in Saint Louis or Cabrini Green in Chicago) will fail its residents. Even for the limited purposes of a myopic plan—commercial timber, factory output the one-dimensional map will simply not do. As with industrial agriculture and its dependency on landraces, the first map is possible only because of processes lying outside its parameters, which it ignores at its peril.
Our inquiry has also taught us that such maps of legibility and control, especially when they are backed by an authoritarian state, do partly succeed in shaping the natural and social environment after their image. To the degree that such thin maps do manage to impress themselves on social life, what kind of people do they foster? Here I would argue that just as the monocropped, same-age forest represents an impoverished and unsustainable ecosystem, so the high-modernist urban complex represents an impoverished and unsustainable social system.
Human resistance to the more severe forms of social straitjacketing prevents monotonic schemes of centralized rationality from every being realized. Had they been realized in their austere forms, they would have represented a very bleak human prospect. One of Le Corbusier’s plans, for example, called for the segregation of factory workers and their families in barracks along the major transportation arteries. It was a theoretically efficient solution to transportation and production problems. If it had been imposed, the result would have been a dispiriting environment of regimented work and residence without any of the animation of town life. This plan had all the charm of a Taylorist scheme where, using a comparable logic, the efficient organization of work was achieved by confining the workers’ movements to a few repetitive gestures. The cookie-cutter design principles behind the layout of the Soviet collective farm, the ujamaa village, or the Ethiopian resettlement betray the same narrowness of vision. They were designed, above all, to facilitate the central administration of production and the control of public life.