Interview with James C. Scott at Masters of Intervention IV

This seasons’ Masters of Intervention series culminated in the last lecture hosted by Yale sterling professor James C. Scott.  The lecture focused on his recent research on the hill people of Zomia in South East Asia. Scott presented the argument that the practice of living dispersed and mobilised, which historically was all coded as being barbaric and uncivilized, is in fact a conscious, political choice to distance people from the state. He believes, for example, that in relation to what he calls ‘escape agriculture’ and ‘escape social structures’ many people purposely moved away from literate texts to oral traditions and non text because it was more plastic and more flexible. You can view the lecture in full length right here.

James Scott at Masters of Intervention IV

Since our own research is mostly focused on issues in the city, Partizan Publiks’ finest Joost Janmaat and Christian Ernsten made use of the opportunity to pulse James  C. Scott on several urban issues as well. Here are some excerpts of the interview taken right before the lecture. The full account will be published in Volume Issue 21.

In Seeing like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999), Yale Professor James C. Scott analysed the attempts of central governments to force legibility on their subjects through standardization. As a result, he argued, local knowledge, metis, was lost. Scott argues that in order for schemes to improve the human condition to succeed, they must take into account local conditions and vernacular knowledge. The critical gravity of his writing in conjuction with the extremely convincing failure of the highmodernist schemes in Brasilia, the Bijlmer or the Soviet Union made Scott by default into an expert of the failures of urban standardization. His current research focuses on the Zomia, stateless hill peoples in South East Asia. In the light of this study, we raised the question, is there a viable alternative for standardization and systematic control for running a society? Is it possible to life together with a group larger than two, without all the mean tricks as described in Seeing like a state?

James C. Scott: There was an experiment, a social movement pattern in Bangkok, very small scale, which used standard materials. They took squatters who lived nearby in a neighbourhood. They would persuade the city to give them a small plot of land for 6 – 10 families. These families would then design their own complex assisted by people with architectural knowledge, AND they would build it themselves. They would be given material, within a budget, but the squatters would actually build it themselves. Interestingly, they would not know who was getting what part of the house until it was all done, and then they drew lots. It was collective property, and it had common spaces. In the end, the materials were standard and mass-produced, but they had a great deal of freedom in designing their own house. The objective of this project was that at the end of this process, they had a community that worked on it for a year or two, which had a public space that they defended. It was a way of building a kind of urban political base. By the end they had a community that new how to organize their work. What I would ask to any urban building: what kind of people does it create in the process?

Secondly, every people have a kind of vernacular architecture that they have powerful traditions of association and affection for. I was in Berlin for a year and an architectural historian took me to a kind of Bauhaus Siedlung, which was built in the thirties in Bauhaus style. The national-socialist had, in competition with Bauhaus, build a row of working class houses across the park. The Bauhaus building was a block – they had figured out how many square feet people needed, the water and the playground. Yet, tt was as if these people had no taste, no tradition, and no preferences. The building was functional in a beautiful way. The Nazi houses though had fake chimneys! They had all the references to what home, Heimat and a house meant to Germans, and of course they preferred that.

Thus, the second question I would have about new styles of urban housing is what relationship it has to the vernacular traditions and the people that do the building. The objection I have to housing project as part of the high modernist urban planning schemes is that the appreciation of buildings as a sculpture takes precedence. Yet, nobody ever experiences the city like that, except when you are in a helicopter.

Joost Janmaat: As Le Corbusier said: ‘My designs are best appreciated from afar’.

JS: That’s right. I’m sure there’s software available right now, with which one can take someone through a ground level experience, as people move, in order to experience the speed of movement and change from a ground level on.

Christian Ernsten: Let’s go back to your own research, the hill people living in Zomia. What could architects in terms of ‘designing for the masses’, in terms of standardization learn from the hill people? You described in your article1 that there are people, although they are living thousands of kilometres away from each other, there are still similarities in how they organize themselves and their communities. Are there patterns or cultural structures, which are in a way foundational for the way these peoples organize their communities?

JS: It’s interesting, I haven’t thought about this relationship. Let me first go back to your earlier question, just something in passing.. It would be interesting for me to know what the planners of the Bijlmer were looking at. Were they looking at all this high-rise, as pieces of urban sculpture? It must have been looking very nice. It would be interesting to recapture that as kind of ‘proces verbal’. What did these people imagine? Why did they like it? Who were they? That would by a good way to understand what went wrong.

Back to the question about a pattern in hill people settlements: the question of permanent housing doesn’t even rise. They are not exactly nomads; they don’t live in tents. On the other hand, one of the reasons why you don’t have much of archaeological remains of traditional South East Asian houses is that houses were all build with perishable materials, which disappear after hundred years completely. Almost all of the hill communities are organized in a way in which at certain periods, when things are safe, when trade is important, they would accumulate at large villages. Yet, if there is military pressure, tax pressure or insecurity people would disperse. The thing that impresses you about this pattern of living is that how tremendously variable and impermanent it is, because it has to be able to respond to changes in the environment. Not just to the natural environment but also changes in the political environment. The lesson we can learn is that the hills are sort of an extreme example of a variable environment in which the nature of the community has to change in order to take account of changes in the environment.

I would argue that even in modern organized societies and cities, we don’t know how families are going to be formed, what patterns are we going to live in, what kind of economic activity there will be, where we will work and how tastes might change in the future. Therefore, I think we ought to built environments that are as plastic and as flexible, and open to multi use and redesign as we possibly can, out of respect of the hopes, desires, objectives and plans f the people who are finally using it.

JJ: Is that what you see with the hill people of South East Asia as well?  According to you, living on the plateau is characterized by instability, marginality, locality and egalitarianism. You stated somewhere that your interest in not in the living of the hill people and societies per se, but in it’s non-state history, in it’s history not defined by the state as the all- defining social system.

JS: In the western context when we’re discussing residences, we imply walls, which create our privacy. Once you get to a sedentary permanent settlement in the South East Asian context you have to think walls that are hung with textiles, which create a sort of privacy for each family, the minimal version of what we have here.

The interesting thing about the settlements of the Zomia communities is that, historically, they’ve always had roofs, but maybe only one or two walls. It’s like living in an apartment building in which half the walls are made of glass. I recall the traditional Dutch living room in small towns were you’re supposed to see the family reading the bible. Everyone is under surveillance by his or her neighbours. This applies also to the traditional hill dwellings. They were both, temporary, and open to the collective inspection of everybody. If you wanted privacy you went off by yourself. They were intensely egalitarian communities. There was a kind of collective pressure, a public opinion about what and not to do, what was appropriate behaviour and so on. I think that a modern citizen of the US or Holland would find that to be very intrusive. In fact the hill peoples find it very difficult as well. That’s one of the reasons why they disperse for parts of the year.

CE: The Soviet of ideal of communal living as encapsulated in the early design of housing block also left little room for privacy.

JS: Do you know Richard Stites? He has written this wonderful book about the five years after the Bolshevik revolution, it’s called Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vison and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. The book describes all the experiments of new forms of living, social arrangements, family and so on. Some of these forms survived. It describes all the little things you want to know like where the public space of the arrangement is being located, where your door is going to be, what the kitchen is going to look like. It lays out how a standardized idea of how life should be lived was created. This may have been suitable for some people, but it is the imposition of some kind of social vision on architecture and it constrains the choices that can be made.

Talja Blokland-Potters told me regarding housing after the Second World War in the Netherlands, that Dutch planners purposively designed the kitchen to be tiny, in order to avoid the peasant, rural style of living, with the kitchen as the centre of the house. People were forced into the living room, in order to behave like middle class bourgeois people. In a way they designed out peasant traditions by making the kitchen to small to live in, except for the cook of course. I think that’s not right, imposing your will on how other people should live. Coming back to mass planning and building, a lot depends on the question of who gets to design these buildings and spaces and on the question: how are they designed. One thing we all know now is the more complicated mixed use you have, the better. Yet, for the planners single use is so much easier to design, but we know that people are not happy there.

CE: Regarding living values as a directive for planning: around which values did the hill people organize their communities? Is there a central hierarchy around which communal life is formed?

JS: For most hill people it is not from a central hierarchy, there are deep traditions about what life and space should look like. In most places the design of a house is a kind of template for the design of society and authority, it’s an expression of deeply embedded social relations.

Let’s imagine we’re walking in the hills and we come to a village. The fact is that this place we call village, is a location where a certain number of people have found it temporarily convenient for them to assemble there for certain purposes. We may come back to the same location next year and there’ll be no village at all. Or, we may be coming back the next year and there’ll still be a village but with eighty percent different people or the village would have moved five miles because of sickness or quarrels. It would be hard to exaggerate the temporariness and co-residence of these villages. Even families break up frequently. Some of these groups are so egalitarian that the most important legends they have, are legends about killing headmen who are becoming too authoritarian. Their sense of autonomy is extremely powerful, even within families.

In terms of design principles there are for instance posts, which represent the ancestors. Also, the housing style has a lot of ritual space in it that has to do with kinship and traditions. Let’s say we belong to the same ethnic group (Katchin) and we come to a Katchin village. Then we would roughly know how the houses are laid out and how the village is organised. This comes from, if you like, a collective tradition of these people. A tradtion which is very different from that of the Microrayon or the Roman Military Camp or other sorts of imperial forms.

JJ: In reference to your interest in non-state spaces, your research could also have been done all over the world in places, which have become non-state places. Places that have fallen off the map due to no state control, places that Manuel Castells would call ‘dark holes, or the dark places of the information society. Does the fact that these places are non-state again, provoke any of the alternative social behaviour as you encountered it in the highlands of Zomia?

JS: As a reference to your question, there is this great book called Magnet Mountain from Stephen Kotkin, about ‘ghost towns’ and lawlessness under the regime of Stalin. It just happens that these non-state areas I researched in South East Asia are in the mountains. I could have just as easily, if we take physical terrain, studied slums or mangrove coasts or even your country. Or in the Netherlands, which was a non-state space once, which we called a ‘negative mountain zone’ beneath sea level, a place that holds the state at bay. Secondly, I like to point to the fact that non-state spaces are not just physical phenomena but also social creations. If you are a guerrilla in the mountains, you accentuate your non-state places by blowing up bridges, falling trees over the road, you try to make the terrain less accessible, while the government wants to increase accessibility. The same is true for parts of cities where the police don’t dare to go, where it’s dangerous, where there’s no state imposed order.

It seems to me that there are many of these urban non-state zones, that are in fact being ruled, but they are ruled by acts of violence and terror in which nobody has any citizenship rights.

JJ: Last time you were in Amsterdam, you described yourself as an‘anarchist sheep herder’. The next question is referring to the anarchist part of this title. In Seeing like a State the anarchist part was not as strongly developed as your elaboration on how systematic control can influence society. I would frame your recent research probably as ‘Seeing like a non state’, looking from the bottom up. We are waiting for a sequel of your 1999 book in which the anarchist society is revealed. Is there a viable alternative to standardization and systematic control in running a society?

JS: I understand how you see this book as a sort of mirror image of the last book. What I think is novel and controversial and interesting about this book, is that it takes all those things that the great kingdoms of China and South East Asia considered to be as uncivilised and barbaric. The book creates an account of them as political choices that have been made over the past millennium to distance people from the state. In reference to what I call ‘escape agriculture’ and ‘escape social structures’, I believe that many people purposely moved away from literate texts to ‘oral traditions’ and non-text because it was more plastic and flexible, and it was no longer useful for them. The same is true for the lowland religions. Living dispersed and mobilised was coded as being barbaric, as being not smart enough to figure out civilization. My argument is that what looked like primitive is in fact a history of cultural rejection.

Coming back to your question. I think a complex society has to work with standardization, one kind or another. The question is rather of what kinds of standardizations, how they are devised, how flexible they are, that matters. The functional revolution I’m referring to in Seeing like a State, which principles still apply, created the standardized citizen. There were no longer gilds and artisans, each of them with different statuses. There are, if you like, the great standardizations that protect us against the excesses of high modernism. I’m mainly talking about the standardization of the idea of universal democratic citizenship. It’s our only weapon in a complex society against the rule of specialists and experts.

The only way in which we can tame or push back autocratic planning regimes is with one of the complicated standardizations, our collective rights as democratic citizens. On the one hand I regard that as a useful standardization, but it’s also troubled like all standardizations. The moment after you had universal democratic citzenship, you also had the states direct access to the individual body and universal conscription, universal mobilisation for war. That never happened before. It’s ironic that if we want to push back on the people who want to micro organize our lives, one of the major wappons we have is universal democratic citizenship. This is the great paradox with which we live.

1. See also: James C. Scott, ‘Stilled to silence at 500 metres: making sense of historical change in Southeast Asia’, IIAS newsletter 49 (2008) 12-13.

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