The Aestheticising Vice

Paul Seabright

  • Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
    Yale, 464 pp, £25.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 300 07016 0

In the Languedoc there is a vineyard that teaches us an important lesson about textbook learning and its application to the world. In the early Seventies it was bought by a wealthy couple, who consulted professors Emile Peynaud and Henri Enjalbert, the world’s leading academic oenologist and oenological geologist respectively. Between them these men convinced the couple that their new vineyard had a theoretically ideal microclimate for wine-making. When planted with theoretically ideal vines whose fruits would be processed in the optimal way according to the up-to-date science of oenology, this vineyard had the potential to produce wine to match the great first growths of Bordeaux. The received wisdom that great wine was the product of an inscrutable (and untransferable) tradition was quite mistaken, the professors said: it could be done with hard work and a fanatical attention to detail. The couple, who had no experience of wine-making but much faith in professorial expertise, took a deep breath and went ahead.

If life were reliably like novels, their experiment would have been a disaster. In fact Aimé and Véronique Guibert have met with a success so unsullied that it would make a stupefying novel (it has already been the subject of a comatogenic work of non-fiction). The first vintage they declared (in 1978) was described by Gault Millau as ‘Château Lafite du Languedoc’; others have been praised to the heights by the likes of Hugh Johnson and Robert Parker. The wine is now on the list at the Tour d’Argent and the 1986 vintage retails at the vineyard for £65 a bottle. The sole shadow on the lives of these millionaires is cast by the odd hailstorm.

No one to whom I have begun recounting the story believes it will end well. Most people are extremely unwilling to grant that faith in textbook knowledge should ever be crowned with success. We have a very strong narrative bias against such stories. It is a bias we forget once our children fall sick or we have to travel in an aeroplane, but so long as we are in storytelling mode we simply deny that systematic textbook reasoning can make headway against whimsy and serendipity. Apart from anything else, it is deeply unfair that it should.

In Seeing like a State, James Scott is definitely in storytelling mode, though he seems unaware of the narrative biases that result. (It makes me curious to know what he’s like when he travels by air, which as an anthropologist he must do quite often.) He has two kinds of story to tell in this book, one of them interesting and one of them, well, not; but to compound the confusion he tells them as though they were one. The first kind of story is the more faithful to his subtitle, since it tells us that the reason certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (my emphasis) has been a fixation with aesthetic (and specifically visual) simplicity. It is a compelling account.

A metaphor for this failure is the growth of the science of forestry in 18th-century Germany. Scientific forestry began as an attempt to map the forests so that their owners could know what lay in them. It was an enterprise inspired partly by the ideals of Linnaeus, mostly by the urge for profit, but it soon turned into a different kind of undertaking altogether. The forests that were first mapped were complex, visually anarchic eco-systems. They were great forests, but they didn’t make great maps. They were also messy to exploit commercially. The lesson was learned, and over time more and more forests were uprooted and replanted, in neat linear patterns so as to make them easier to map (and to fell). In the process they lost some of the qualities that had made them great forests – resistance to certain diseases, for example. But in the process they also made more money for the state, at least in the short term. Ecological problems began to appear later on, though Scott is infuriatingly (and characteristically) coy as to whether these problems meant that Germany would have been better off without scientific forestry at all.

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