The (Il)legibility of Smoke

(Some more thoughts on two books I talked about in this post.)

James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State and David Stradling’s Smokestacks and Progressives, while tackling related topics, could not be more dissimilar in approach. Scott’s book is a sprawling history of a type of phenomenon—an account of different iterations of a problem that covers multiple continents and the entire modern era, using a strong theoretical base to tie seemingly unrelated events. Stradling, on the other hand, limits his scope, limiting his book to popular smoke abatement movements in the US between the 1890s and 1940s. Stradling’s book is virtually absent of any underlying theoretical base—his book is primarily a chronicle of the periodic and seemingly unrelated interruptions, upsets, and setbacks that the movement suffered over that time. Despite their widely divergent approaches and subject matter, the two books can be seen as working quite well in dialogue, each book shedding light on what may be perceived as deficiencies of the other.
   

Stradling’s book is an excellent chronicle of events, thoroughly researched, and gives the reader a good understanding of the history of the argument for the abatement of coal smoke. The question he often ignores, however, is why—why do the leaders of the movement for smoke abatement change over time, from progressive women’s organizations to public health experts to engineers? Why was the movement, in all its various forms, ultimately so unsuccessful—unable to abate coal smoke right up to the time that coal lost dominance and primacy as a source of fuel? Why were certain popular movements for abatement at least initially successful, while others were so quickly struck down by courts and local governments? Why were cities willing to manage sewage and drinking water, but unwilling to see smoke similarly, as a health concern that needed to be managed by governmental works and interventions? Where any answer to these questions can be found in Stradling’s account, they are singular, contingent, and local. Stradling demurs from proposing any great unifying themes that connect these events, or to give a systemic logic to it all.

This is where the strong theoretical basis of Seeing Like a State becomes a very useful tool in deepening one’s reading of Stradling. One of the key concepts in Scott’s book is that of “legibility.” As the needs and duties of the state become larger and more complex, the state necessarily begins rationalizing. The subject, the land, and the state’s resources all must be structured and reordered according to some rational method. In doing this, the state must put primacy on some things, and ignore others. Simplifications are born. The next logical step is to transform reality to more closely conform to the cartographic/statistical simplification, in order to better measure and increase efficiency. In examples from early scientific forestry to the reordering of land use within villages, Scott demonstrates that this pattern is reiterated as the modern nation state is born. Early scientific forestry purged the forests of elements that were not seen in terms of economic value, preferring single-crop forests where the trees were lined up like soldiers, and robbing the environment of necessary biodiversity. Land tenure patterns were completely reordered in order to make them more easily comprehensible from great distances—ensuring more accurate tax collections, perhaps, but also removing localized patterns that tended to be more diverse, productive, and sensitive to the local terrain.   

This is the process of the state rendering the illegible legible. Illegible groups, institutions, and patterns are localized, contingent, and lack uniformity, and are thus confounding to modern statecraft, which requires a large economy. The process of rendering legible—of simplifying, ordering, and making uniform—allows the state to rationally tax, assess, and predict its assets and its subjects. It is this process that is the essence of “seeing like a state.”

Of course, it’s not just states that see in this manner. In fact, Scott’s Yale colleague John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History, has noted that the process of simplification, rationalization, and rendering legible is actually quite close to the work of Historians. More to the point, any large organization or corporation must do essentially the same work in order to maximize profit or efficacy. In the era that Stradling is analyzing, the great industrial oligopolies of the time certainly sought to rationalize and make uniform the resources within their domain, including their employees. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s notion of Scientific Management is quite similar to early Scientific Forestry as Scott describes it. The movements of the bodies of workers, like the forests of eighteenth century Germany, were seen as unnecessarily complex and therefore wasteful. Taylorism was an attempt to rationalize the process of production, to simplify it. The worker was the subject of the corporation, almost as much as he was the subject of the state. And the gaze of both sought legibility.
   

We can see, then, that there were multiple “states” viewing the problem of coal smoke. While they have different and sometimes competing interests, they were united in a modality of seeing, in their inability to comprehend multifaceted complexity and preference for the legible. The problem of coal smoke in the progressive era into the 1940s, however, was multifaceted and complex. The propensity of the progressive women’s groups who began the campaign for smoke abatement to intermix health, ecology, economic cost, and quality of life concerns in their rhetoric, while it probably came closest to the complex truth of the issue, likely only served to undermine their arguments. Likewise, while it is always hard to put hard numbers to environmental health concerns, the disagreements among the medical community as to the effects of smoke on health, positive or negative, undercut the arguments of medical “experts” who took up the issue. In a particularly unfortunate irony, the discovery of the bacterial origin of tuberculosis seems to have been a blow to this movement that sought goals that would have only contributed to overall respiratory health. 

Looking at the issue of coal smoke like a state—or like a corporation—the maneuvers made to counter and set back the smoke abatement movement were quite rational. Discounting the unquantifiable (illegible) moral and quality of life issues, and setting aside the still-debated public health concerns, smoke abatement didn’t seem to warrant the same type of radical intervention as the issues of sewage or potable water had not long before. The economic cost of the “smoke tax” on cities with high levels of coal smoke in no way matched the economic benefit brought by coal-based industry. Legislation enabling cities to regulate emissions and fine the worst polluters allowed for the potential of an offset of sorts to the (legible) cost of over-pollution. Likewise, the gradualist approach toward decreased emissions—and thus increased efficiency—made the most economic sense, as it led to eventual improvement and greater productivity without overburdening industry with regulation to a degree that it would harm the overall economy. As Scott repeatedly illustrates, the simplifications implicit to the process of rendering activities and processes legible often leads to lacunae in comprehending those activities—omissions that can cause changes in problem-solving strategies, and horrible miscalculations.

If Scott’s book can be used to provide a richer theoretical understanding of the events Stradling describes, what can Smokestacks and Progressives tell us about Seeing Like a State? Briefly, I think that there are three main insights that can be made about Scott from reading Stradling.

First, as I discussed before, you don’t have to be a state to “see like” one. Scott limits his discussion to the modern nation-state. While this suits the purposes of the book well, the insight into the manner in which the leaders of large, complex institutions render complex events legible can certainly be applied to corporate management. In Stradling we see the state frequently siding with corporations, even allowing corporate-appointed overseers to police corporate activities. There is an ontological symmetry at work here. The economic mode of perception that favors legibility and rationality is at work in both the state and corporate interests.

This leads directly to the second issue raised: one of the four conditions Scott contends are present in all the worst examples of state-sponsored social engineering is the inability of civil society to resist such plans. Stradling’s account of a popular movement repeatedly thwarted by state and corporate interests brings to mind a rather harrowing question: in our current state of late capitalism, with the multiple and multivalent forces of the state and corporations both “seeing like states,” as it were, is there any hope for civil society to actually force change when necessary? Do we possess the ability to resist social engineering that has the power and money of both state and corporate interests behind them? Stradling’s agents, the proponents of smoke abatement, don’t offer much hope. But it begs the question.

Finally, and on a similar note, as we watch the futile struggle of the smoke abatement activists, one must ask about the efficacy of the sort of “metis” that Scott celebrates in confronting the state, which is incapable of such fluid, contingent modes of knowledge. While the progressive women’s groups rhetoric proved ineffective, it was so in part because it reflected the sort of complex reality that the rationalist mode of seeing preferred by the state and the corporate interests. We watch the movement’s proponents snake, parry, and dodge—practicing a discursive metis, as it were. Ultimately, however, this constant movement only resulted in a repeated reframing of the discourse into terms that more and more closely resembled that of the state—and even still, it was ultimately not effective. Once the ontology inherent to “seeing like a state” reaches a sort of critical mass, are contingent, complex modalities of knowledge simply outmoded and ineffective?

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The (Il)legibility of Smoke

(Some more thoughts on two books I talked about in this post.)

James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State and David Stradling’s Smokestacks and Progressives, while tackling related topics, could not be more dissimilar in approach. Scott’s book is a sprawling history of a type of phenomenon—an account of different iterations of a problem that covers multiple continents and the entire modern era, using a strong theoretical base to tie seemingly unrelated events. Stradling, on the other hand, limits his scope, limiting his book to popular smoke abatement movements in the US between the 1890s and 1940s. Stradling’s book is virtually absent of any underlying theoretical base—his book is primarily a chronicle of the periodic and seemingly unrelated interruptions, upsets, and setbacks that the movement suffered over that time. Despite their widely divergent approaches and subject matter, the two books can be seen as working quite well in dialogue, each book shedding light on what may be perceived as deficiencies of the other.
   

Stradling’s book is an excellent chronicle of events, thoroughly researched, and gives the reader a good understanding of the history of the argument for the abatement of coal smoke. The question he often ignores, however, is why—why do the leaders of the movement for smoke abatement change over time, from progressive women’s organizations to public health experts to engineers? Why was the movement, in all its various forms, ultimately so unsuccessful—unable to abate coal smoke right up to the time that coal lost dominance and primacy as a source of fuel? Why were certain popular movements for abatement at least initially successful, while others were so quickly struck down by courts and local governments? Why were cities willing to manage sewage and drinking water, but unwilling to see smoke similarly, as a health concern that needed to be managed by governmental works and interventions? Where any answer to these questions can be found in Stradling’s account, they are singular, contingent, and local. Stradling demurs from proposing any great unifying themes that connect these events, or to give a systemic logic to it all.

This is where the strong theoretical basis of Seeing Like a State becomes a very useful tool in deepening one’s reading of Stradling. One of the key concepts in Scott’s book is that of “legibility.” As the needs and duties of the state become larger and more complex, the state necessarily begins rationalizing. The subject, the land, and the state’s resources all must be structured and reordered according to some rational method. In doing this, the state must put primacy on some things, and ignore others. Simplifications are born. The next logical step is to transform reality to more closely conform to the cartographic/statistical simplification, in order to better measure and increase efficiency. In examples from early scientific forestry to the reordering of land use within villages, Scott demonstrates that this pattern is reiterated as the modern nation state is born. Early scientific forestry purged the forests of elements that were not seen in terms of economic value, preferring single-crop forests where the trees were lined up like soldiers, and robbing the environment of necessary biodiversity. Land tenure patterns were completely reordered in order to make them more easily comprehensible from great distances—ensuring more accurate tax collections, perhaps, but also removing localized patterns that tended to be more diverse, productive, and sensitive to the local terrain.   

This is the process of the state rendering the illegible legible. Illegible groups, institutions, and patterns are localized, contingent, and lack uniformity, and are thus confounding to modern statecraft, which requires a large economy. The process of rendering legible—of simplifying, ordering, and making uniform—allows the state to rationally tax, assess, and predict its assets and its subjects. It is this process that is the essence of “seeing like a state.”

Of course, it’s not just states that see in this manner. In fact, Scott’s Yale colleague John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History, has noted that the process of simplification, rationalization, and rendering legible is actually quite close to the work of Historians. More to the point, any large organization or corporation must do essentially the same work in order to maximize profit or efficacy. In the era that Stradling is analyzing, the great industrial oligopolies of the time certainly sought to rationalize and make uniform the resources within their domain, including their employees. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s notion of Scientific Management is quite similar to early Scientific Forestry as Scott describes it. The movements of the bodies of workers, like the forests of eighteenth century Germany, were seen as unnecessarily complex and therefore wasteful. Taylorism was an attempt to rationalize the process of production, to simplify it. The worker was the subject of the corporation, almost as much as he was the subject of the state. And the gaze of both sought legibility.
   

We can see, then, that there were multiple “states” viewing the problem of coal smoke. While they have different and sometimes competing interests, they were united in a modality of seeing, in their inability to comprehend multifaceted complexity and preference for the legible. The problem of coal smoke in the progressive era into the 1940s, however, was multifaceted and complex. The propensity of the progressive women’s groups who began the campaign for smoke abatement to intermix health, ecology, economic cost, and quality of life concerns in their rhetoric, while it probably came closest to the complex truth of the issue, likely only served to undermine their arguments. Likewise, while it is always hard to put hard numbers to environmental health concerns, the disagreements among the medical community as to the effects of smoke on health, positive or negative, undercut the arguments of medical “experts” who took up the issue. In a particularly unfortunate irony, the discovery of the bacterial origin of tuberculosis seems to have been a blow to this movement that sought goals that would have only contributed to overall respiratory health. 

Looking at the issue of coal smoke like a state—or like a corporation—the maneuvers made to counter and set back the smoke abatement movement were quite rational. Discounting the unquantifiable (illegible) moral and quality of life issues, and setting aside the still-debated public health concerns, smoke abatement didn’t seem to warrant the same type of radical intervention as the issues of sewage or potable water had not long before. The economic cost of the “smoke tax” on cities with high levels of coal smoke in no way matched the economic benefit brought by coal-based industry. Legislation enabling cities to regulate emissions and fine the worst polluters allowed for the potential of an offset of sorts to the (legible) cost of over-pollution. Likewise, the gradualist approach toward decreased emissions—and thus increased efficiency—made the most economic sense, as it led to eventual improvement and greater productivity without overburdening industry with regulation to a degree that it would harm the overall economy. As Scott repeatedly illustrates, the simplifications implicit to the process of rendering activities and processes legible often leads to lacunae in comprehending those activities—omissions that can cause changes in problem-solving strategies, and horrible miscalculations.

If Scott’s book can be used to provide a richer theoretical understanding of the events Stradling describes, what can Smokestacks and Progressives tell us about Seeing Like a State? Briefly, I think that there are three main insights that can be made about Scott from reading Stradling.

First, as I discussed before, you don’t have to be a state to “see like” one. Scott limits his discussion to the modern nation-state. While this suits the purposes of the book well, the insight into the manner in which the leaders of large, complex institutions render complex events legible can certainly be applied to corporate management. In Stradling we see the state frequently siding with corporations, even allowing corporate-appointed overseers to police corporate activities. There is an ontological symmetry at work here. The economic mode of perception that favors legibility and rationality is at work in both the state and corporate interests.

This leads directly to the second issue raised: one of the four conditions Scott contends are present in all the worst examples of state-sponsored social engineering is the inability of civil society to resist such plans. Stradling’s account of a popular movement repeatedly thwarted by state and corporate interests brings to mind a rather harrowing question: in our current state of late capitalism, with the multiple and multivalent forces of the state and corporations both “seeing like states,” as it were, is there any hope for civil society to actually force change when necessary? Do we possess the ability to resist social engineering that has the power and money of both state and corporate interests behind them? Stradling’s agents, the proponents of smoke abatement, don’t offer much hope. But it begs the question.

Finally, and on a similar note, as we watch the futile struggle of the smoke abatement activists, one must ask about the efficacy of the sort of “metis” that Scott celebrates in confronting the state, which is incapable of such fluid, contingent modes of knowledge. While the progressive women’s groups rhetoric proved ineffective, it was so in part because it reflected the sort of complex reality that the rationalist mode of seeing preferred by the state and the corporate interests. We watch the movement’s proponents snake, parry, and dodge—practicing a discursive metis, as it were. Ultimately, however, this constant movement only resulted in a repeated reframing of the discourse into terms that more and more closely resembled that of the state—and even still, it was ultimately not effective. Once the ontology inherent to “seeing like a state” reaches a sort of critical mass, are contingent, complex modalities of knowledge simply outmoded and ineffective?

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