Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What does the Central African state see?

Yesterday while reading dossiers at the Tribunal in Ndele I noticed how a single name might have many spellings over the course of a file. Similarly, in no case was a person sure of his or her age. The clerk wrote “Around 1967” or “around 1991” instead. This made me think of James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998). What, I wondered, does the Central African state see, if its practices are so unstandardized?

Scott argues that the state engages in necessary tactics of simplification in order to keep track of and “arrange the population” so as to facilitate “taxation, conscription, and the prevention of rebellion” (2). Standardizing names, and making sure each citizen has a last name, is one such tactic of simplification. Scott refers to these simplification arrangements as the state’s (always-immanent, never achieved) “project of legibility.” Needing to make sense of and tabulate sprawling areas and peoples, the state must render them legible through the matrices it prescribes. Central to Scott’s understanding is that these simplifications do not merely reflect reality: the state imposes its simplifications, and they transform reality and re-make it following the state’s optical capacities.

Scott relates the history of scientific forestry as a metaphor for these projects of legibility. Birds, animals, insects, lichens, bushes, berries: the forest houses them all. People use the forest in a number of ways as well, whether for collecting firewood, hunting, or gathering food. But as wood became a commodity in late eighteenth century Prussia and Saxony, the management of the forest came to be increasingly narrowly defined in terms of the quantity of salable wood it could produce. “Nature” became “natural resources” and the only element of the forests to which surveyors paid attention was the possibility of extracting those resources. Thus a tree-filled area became measured only in terms of the quantity of board-length it could yield. As the foresters refined their task, they planted scientific forests they believed would optimize production. These forests contained only species prized for their construction-worthy wood, like the Norway spruce. They didn’t realize that the strength of a forest comes from the diversity of life it contains. Decomposing leaves and a range of plant life contribute to the health of the soil; without these, the scientific forests quickly failed.

(Pushing Scott’s metaphor a bit further than he does: if the vitality and strength of the forest lies in its diversity, the same could be said of society. Emile Durkheim argued as much by showing how increasing interdependence through specialization creates more tightly-woven communities. In contrast, exclusionary nationalism easily twins with statecraft, because both seek to homogenize an impossibly complicated social field. In the end, though, this homogenizing, purifying impulse weakens the society.)

Turning from the metaphor to the practical lenses the state develops in order to “see” its population and territory, Scott delineates a range of processes. The imposition of a state language, the imposition of surnames, the creation of standardized land tenure systems, the regulation of traffic, and city planning all serve to organize people and space in ways that will facilitate the needs of the central state (long-distance trade and taxation, for instance) but undermine rich and complicated local systems of organization. People may resist and subvert the state's imperatives, and illegibility (living in a neighborhood navigable only by a local, for instance), allows for a degree of political autonomy. But by and large the state's project of legibility proves hegemonic, in Scott's view, because the centralized state's quest to dominate by accounting for all aspects of its citizens' lives grows ever more detailed.

What, then, is going on in CAR? A friend who works at a health clinic here (and who lives closer to the population than any other ex-pat – in Bangui she has taken in 30 street children) recently told some stories. Many people come in and don't know their children's names. A person might barely know her own – particularly the last name. Age? “Well, he stretches one arm over his head to touch the ear on the opposite side, so that means he's about 4.”

Or take the example of hunting: it's forbidden in this area, because all the land has been consecrated to national parks. But bush meat is available in all the markets, and most people (even people charged with enforcement) explain that the total interdiction is too harsh – people need to eat, and they like to eat wild animals.

As I tried to follow the different ways the name “Atim” was spelled (Atim, Time) I found myself wondering if the Central African state engages in any projects of legibility at all. In terms of the population, the state here doesn't do much. The NGOs are much more effective at gathering and standardizing statistics about the people they serve, even though they miss a lot of salient information that might help them understand how and why things are the way they are.

In terms of other state imperatives that Scott outlines, the CAR state appears absent, too. It does nothing for long-distance trade and travel besides impose roadblocks and fees (arguably impeding these processes more than anything else). It has an impressive capacity to demand rents, but it does not collect taxes in any kind of standardized or all-encompassing way. (There is a tax code, and the tax collector here does seem to follow it to the extent he can. But that covers only the more-formalized sector of the economy.)

Still, describing the state here as weak, or describing it in terms of the things it does not do, is not very useful. For despite its apparent “lacks” the state here is pretty powerful. But its power lies less in the rational-bureaucratic mode of operating that Weber believed the state to incarnate, but rather leans more heavily on a “magical” mode of operating. (And this brings me back, yet again, to Veena Das.) For instance, when I asked why witches sentenced to prison time don't just use their powers to escape, the court official told me that they don't because they understand that if they try to escape they will fall ill and die.

I'm not satisfied with this word “magical,” but I'm having trouble replacing it. I would like to somehow encompass how the state here can be both the source of so many problems and yet simultaneously held out as the great hope and problem-solver by many people. People's orientation to the state has more of what a secular Western observer such as myself would label a religious character than anything else.

Before I left, one of my dissertation committee members encouraged me to ask the question “What is the state in...?” filling in with different countries. What is the state in Norway? What is the state in CAR? Not sure yet, but I'm glad he suggested this line of thought because it's been at the forefront of my mind here.


  1. Are you familiar with Christian Lund's work what he calls on "twilight states"? Someone pointed me to his stuff when I was at a similiar place in my research and it was very helpful. There's an issue of Development & Change dedicated to the topic.

  2. "Twilight institutions," not "states."

  3. This is fascinating, Louisa. Especially the anecdote about imprisoned witches - such deep implications for how people yearn to mentally construct systematic order amid apparent disorder. Can't wait to read more!
    - Alexis

  4. This is fascinating. I'm actually studying a very similar phenomenon in one of my classes, except talking more about the Congo. Have you read Pierre Englebert's "The Enduring Authority of Weak States"? Englebert talks about the same phenomenon - how people see the state as continuing to exist, despite the state being completely collapsed and failing to provide any services. People have an almost magical belief that the state will come through...some day.

  5. This is really interesting writing. I read Richard Dowden's book on Africa recently (Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles), and he talks of the Congolese experience of having a 'Congo-shaped hole' where the state should be. I'm inclined to disagree; your exposition of the magical state is more convincing. Its not that no state exists, but that states don't grow on trees, they evolve and are born through historical forces. Just because a state isn't of Nordic levels of competency doesn't mean it isn't a state.

    And after all, magic is not anathema to science, it is the root of scientific enquiry (all of the early scientists pratised alchemy and the like) so magical institutions are (probably) at the beginning of the road to a Weberian bureaucracy.