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Political Optics and the Occlusion

of Intimate Knowledge
ABSTRACT In Seeing Like a State (1998), James Scott provides a comprehensive understanding of the optics of state power. He
also shows how the bureaucratic logic of high-modernist ofcial planning occludes the social and cultural worlds both of marginalized
citizenries and of the bureaucrats themselves, and accurately pinpoints the pernicious reductionism that has accompanied the modernist
states self-proclaimed cult of efciency. As in his earlier work, however, Scott overgeneralizes the idea of resistance; he also, and
concomitantly, underestimates bureaucrats complicity with local populations and the consequent modication of bureaucratic schemes
(including the construction of national heritage) in actual practice. These absences reect a relative lack of ethnographic specicity
in the analysis as well as a partially uncritical endorsement of the master narrative of Western history. [Keywords: state, bureaucracy,
modernism, complicity, heritage]
ernism, Seeing Like a State (1998), encompasses an enor-
mous range of ideas, from the analysis of state action to
the role of intimacy within the constraining formality of
high modernism. In devising my title, I sought to articulate
in appropriately embodied and sensuous form the works
pervasive sense of restraint deeddoggedly nonlinear ar-
guments bursting to escape the technical limits of a books
ineluctably linear format; personal and social experience
chang in the seemingly heedless (but also all-seeing) grip
of bureaucratic regulation while also nding in it openings
for a complicity as secretive as it is well-known; and bureau-
crats themselves tweaking the system by following its rules
to mischievous excess. In the thoroughly tangible sense of-
fered by its principled nonconformism, the book models
the style of argument laid out in its pages.
Scott dismembers what, in a different context,
Johannes Fabian (1983:105109) has recognized as the vi-
sualist bias in high modernism. Fabians concern was with
anthropology itself. Scott instead tackles the larger context
of nation-building and governance. Both, however, address
the political optics and aesthetics of regimentation, ratio-
nalization, and control. Their focus resonates with exist-
ing anthropological critiques of universalist claims for ra-
tionality (Tambiah 1990), the modernism of the planned
state and its entailment in the emergence of social science
(Rabinow 1989), and the symbolic manipulation of bureau-
cratic logic (Handelman 1990; Herzfeld 1992a). Because
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 107, Issue 3, pp. 369376, ISSN 0002-7294, electronic ISSN 1548-1433. C
2005 by the American Anthropological
Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California
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Scott is particularly concerned with issues of urban form,
however, his approach allows us to address more speci-
cally the states revamping of social relationships as sim-
plistic categories of conformists and marginals and its spa-
tial mapping of these categories onto urban space. As the
state attempts to take over social relationships, it also re-
casts them as reections of an underlying essence revealed
through visual realization. This is a shift from an indexi-
cal (relational) to an iconic (representational) understand-
ing of human experience; it corresponds exactly to what
Gellner (1983:37) perspicaciously identied as the replace-
ment of the social by an emphasis on presumed cultural
afnities. It permits a form of semiotic management that
retrospectively recasts essentialist claims of commonality
as always-already in place (Herzfeld 1997:28). Perhaps its
most obvious manifestation is the denialnotoriously ex-
emplied by Margaret Thatchers reiterated attacks on the
very notion of societythat a nation consists of anything
more thangroups of people, duly classied according to this
same iconicity principle and consigned to appropriate quar-
ters on the ground. Scotts reading of state visualism nicely
captures the relevant dynamic.
It also works productively against the security fence
erected by so many modernist scholars, surprisingly includ-
ing practice theorists such as Anthony Giddens (e.g., 1992),
between tradition and modernity. This self-serving bi-
narism of the industrialized world has been elegantly at-
tacked on the grounds both of its rhetorical plasticity
370 American Anthropologist Vol. 107, No. 3 September 2005
(Argyrou 1996; Sutton 1994) and of its hierarchical implica-
tions (Gupta 1998); that such critiques have yet to achieve
the impact on public awareness that they deserve may it-
self be a fair indication of the success with which high
modernism has consigned certain places (such as Greece
and rural India) to the dustbin of geography, much as it
has already designated tradition the ofcial receptacle of
the detritus of history. Such places are simply consigned
to a vaguely dened past, a conceptual territory that by
denition signals exclusion from modernity. The past, no
less than the present, can be regimented according to the
spatial requirements of a visualist mode of classication.
When, for example, we discover that even historic con-
servation, allegedly a faithful reproduction of the past, is
committed to the production of open vistas and functional
detachment and compartmentalization (see, e.g., Yalouri
2001:152154), we begin to appreciate the importance of
Scotts iconoclastic study for understanding the mass pro-
duction of global history.
Indeed, it is a pity that Scott did not addressbut Seeing
Like a State is already lengthythe reconguration of the
material past as an increasingly globalized idiom of her-
itage, behind which lurks an expedient agenda of polit-
ical control through temporal as well as spatial marginal-
ization. When in Thailand municipal authorities announce
that they will evict signicant segments of the underclasses
of the old dynastic city of Bangkok and turn its central av-
enue into the Champs Elys ees of Asia, they are managing
history in a distinctly monochromatic mode. They are also,
far from coincidentally (and whether consciously or not),
invoking the repressive antecedent of Baron Haussmanns
reconguration of Parisan aesthetic coup that, as Scott
reminds us, facilitated military control over a potentially
restive capital.
Scott celebrates the riotous nonconformism that ul-
timately subverts these efforts at total control. A persis-
tent difculty with Scotts argument nevertheless remains
that of imagining how the weak exercise effective agency
against such heavy odds. The problem is not a new one
in his work: as before (see Scott 1985), we are offered
claims of resistance without attention to intentionality or
effect. Agency, as many authors have noted (e.g., Abu-
Lughod 1990; Reed-Danahay 1993), remains opaque. Al-
though Scotts real achievement has been to recognize the
basic attempt to achieve agency in the face of overween-
ing power, the potential failures of that processnot to
speak of the uncouthness associated with various forms
of resentmentmight actually have the opposite effect to
that intended by Scott or by the actors he describes. The
diamond-in-the-rough image of those labeled by the pow-
erful as traditional can serve the purpose of locking the
peasant or artisan into irremediable subordination within
what I have calledthe global hierarchy of valuethe over-
whelming cultural consequence of colonialismand its after-
math (Herzfeld 2004). State managers of tradition may gild
the iron cage that encloses these hapless representatives of
an antiquated mode of life; but escape is all but impossible.
Instead, the designation of artisans and others as tradi-
tional becomes the basis for denying them practical and
symbolic access to the modernity that state functionaries at
all levels construe as the highest good. Such is the contempt
that Scott (e.g., 1998:303) says high modernists mete out to
tradition and the practical knowledge that is associated
with it.
Most anthropologists (and I certainly include myself)
would probably share Scotts nostalgic preference for em-
bodied and practical knowledge over the arid reduction-
ism of bureaucratic logic. Merely because this perspective
smacks of romantic self-delusion and a reaching for some
preliterate and precapitalist Eden, it is not necessarily, ipso
facto, wrong. With Scott, we can recognize that the state
practices its own, highly motivated forms of nostalgia, his-
toric recollection, and expropriation of cultural capital. Rec-
ognizing the embodied messiness of muddling throughis it-
self anattempt at conceptual resistance against these moves.
At the same time, acknowledging such attempts at secur-
ing agency through claims to represent traditional (real)
culture provides a cogent answer to ofcial arguments that
local populations are refashioning their pasts to suit their
convenience; they are, after all, only doing what the state
has taught them so well by example.
Some of the changes wrought by state agency do not
concern tradition so much as a streamlined notion of
heritage. Ofcial commemoration, for example, shares
with many naming practices the perpetuation of a particu-
lar identity, but it purportedly does so onbehalf of the entire
body politic. Such moves are hard to challenge because of
the risk of being charged with disloyalty, and because, as
Scott shows in his discussion of modernist town planning,
the grid that they clamp on social life is highly pervasive
and systematic. The naming of streets and monuments is a
key element in this process.
States often appear to use local idioms of naming but
convert their underlying logic for their own ends. Many
states take over naming systems along with the kinship im-
plications in which they are embedded,
a move that ts
the familial metaphors with which state authorities seek
both to engage and to control citizens affections. In the
same way, the commemorative naming of streets illustrates
the shift from indexical relations to iconic homogenization
through the spatialized construction of a collective, heroic
ancestry. We can trace such changes through cartography
or in such revealing documents as contracts for the sale of
houses and land. In these, the arrival of a formal state struc-
ture inthe Europeanmode signals the end of locations iden-
tied in terms of the contingency of who happens to be a
neighbor at the time of sale; instead, it yields to the doc-
umentary obsessionsattempts to make society legible
at the expense of reducing its ever changing characteris-
tics to the merest shadow of their experiential realitythat
Scott (1998:7683) perceptively identies as one of the ma-
jor expressions of modernist management. Scott has accu-
rately pinpointed an important conuence, that of changes
in naming practices with changes in mapping techniques
Herzfeld Political Optics 371
(Scott 1998:6471); in both, he demonstrates the states sys-
tematic and coordinated invasion of both these key spaces
of social identity.
His argument reveals, but does not address, the entail-
ment of such regularization in the self-stereotyping of the
West. In one respect, as we shall see, the argument even
partially seems to reproduce that image. But there are more
pressing reasons to rectify the lacuna, because the tight rela-
tionship between an ideology of collective selfhood and the
reign of universalistic rationalism protects both from criti-
cal inspection; feware bold enough to challenge the criteria
by which they are judged rational, because the very act of
posing such a challenge exposes them to the charge of irra-
tionality. Some national cultures, of which Greece offers an
instructive illustration, have a very large stake in preserving
the sense of this connection.
Thus, ofcial Greek historiography portrays a land res-
cued by the Western powers from intolerable suffering and
cultural deprivation under Ottoman rule. Not only did in-
dependence permit the rebirth of a people that in fact
had never hitherto been enshrined in a single nation-state,
but it also required the implementation of a bureaucratic
logic that reected this return to philosophical and concep-
tual origins. The continuing inefciency and nepotism of
state bureaucrats could be attributed to the lingering poison
of Ottoman inuence, while the Greek authorities adopted
and internalized the notion that Western rationalityin
this case, embodied in a bureaucracy of largely German in-
spiration and managerial formwas rightfully their own
heritage. Especially in matters of record keeping and ac-
counting, they were, therefore, especially enthusiastic in
rejecting the informal but efcient approximations that
the Ottoman authorities had accepted for centuries, re-
gardless of how poorly the new documentary idioms re-
ected the reality on the ground. Indeed, the fact that tax
would often be calculated on the assumption that the par-
ties were declaring only half of the true value of the goods
transferredan assumption in which the parties naturally
enoughconcurreddemonstrates the complicity of bureau-
crats with their clients as well as the practical compatibility
of a precise idiomof documentation with some deliberately
very imprecise forms of nancial agreement.
In the Cretan coastal town of Rethemnosmore re-
cently the site of one of Greeces most ambitious experi-
ments in the historic conservation of domestic architecture
and the scene of an ongoing contest about what propor-
tions of Venetian (Western) and Ottoman (Oriental)
elements should perdurewe can track these antecedent
shifts in formal administrative technique from Ottoman
hands to those of a Western-orientated Greek elite. They
betray little of what actually happened, but they do serve
to illustrate a radical shift in administrative style, one that
is tightly linked to the exaltation of Western models. Oral
agreements, for example, once the basis of many property
transfers, lost any legal validity they might once have had,
the sworn oath being displaced by the signed afdavit; but
even written contracts were insufcient if they failed to ren-
der locations in time and space according to the absolute
criteria of genealogy, chronology, and cadastral records, in-
stead of the relativities of registered names, generation, and
neighborhood. These changes accompany a shift towardthe
(referential) naming of streets and numbering of plots and
houses (see Herzfeld 1999).
Similarly, in another country deeply enmeshed in the
emulation of a West from which it wishes nonetheless to
distance itself in key respects, the Thai authorities, in pursu-
ing their goals of rationalizing the oldcity center of Bangkok
as a virtual theme park, use the absence of written docu-
mentation as a key argument to deny control of contested
spaces to householders convinced, for their part, that long-
standing and widely shared memory gives them moral ti-
tle to their properties. This example, like the Greek one,
shows that the administrative recongurations of which
Scott writes so incisively are caught up, perhaps to a much
greater extent than he indicates in Seeing Like a State, in the
ongoing tussle over the denition of appropriate practice
between radically orientalist and no less radically occiden-
talist models. The irony is that in both cases the ostensible
goal of the historic conservation efforts is to showcase and
maintain a specically national heritage.
Historic conservationframes the dynamics of the states
cultural politics with particular clarity. Because administra-
tors largely saw their task as civilizing the natives (or peas-
ants), and because leaders often imitated Western models
of civilization as a means of consolidating their own in-
ternal authority and external access (see esp. Thongchai
2000), they invested a great deal of effort in trying to es-
tablish a mythological lien on the very notion of the West
itselfGreece as its putative ancestor, Thailand as a country
that demanded and at least nominally received acceptance
on equal terms. The practices of architectural conservators
inevitably reect such preoccupations. The emphasis they
place on a unitary national past masks radical changes, sug-
gesting that the present order is rooted in an eternal his-
tory. Yet the changes in question are precisely those that
were necessary for the centralization of control. Their pro-
ponents have every interest in not only dismissing con-
tingent claims as insubstantial but also denying the con-
tingency of their own position. In todays Bangkok, the
Haussmannesque inspiration for ostensibly local forms
of monumentalization promises to have just the effects that
Scott notes for such projects: a disguising of persistent prob-
lems (1998:62), along with the marginalization of evicted
citizens who then bid fair to become a breeding ground
for precisely the kind of revolution the authorities thought
they were nipping in the bud (1998:63).
These are not accidental moves. Even if we reject such
teleological explanations for social structure at large, as in-
deed we should, there is plenty of documentary evidence to
showhowstate leaders actively construct their own teleolo-
gies and represent themas faits accomplis (see, e.g., Kapferer
1988; Malarney 1996). Scott accurately pinpoints modern
statecraft as largely a project of internal colonization
marked by the imperial presumptions of the civilizing
372 American Anthropologist Vol. 107, No. 3 September 2005
mission (1998:82); I suggest that the point has particular
salience in those countries, of which Greece and Thailand
are exemplary, in which a self-styled love of independence
and an ofcial historiography that proclaims independence
of Western colonialism themselves foster precisely such in-
ternal reproductions of global colonialism. Scotts book has
the further merit of demonstrating the multiple levels of
agency that enable this process to occur; he documents, in
exhaustively comparative detail, the increasingly self-aware
implementation of state teleologies by functionaries with
interests to protect. Whether these interests are those of
the citizenry at large is a very different question, and Scott,
rightly in my view, argues that they are not.
Scott disarms much of the criticism that could be di-
rected at his work by refusing to disallowmodernist projects
as such, insisting only that they be responsive to larger con-
ceptual and social contexts. These contexts are complexes
of larger interests, including those of the weaker segments
of the population. He sees in modernist planning a beset-
ting faith (Scott 1998:253254), in the same sense that I
call bureaucratic logic a cosmology (Herzfeld 1992a). That
perspective carries the correct further implication that the
state cannot function, even on its own terms, in the absence
of the socially embedded practical knowledge that the high-
modernist project so disparages. This is perhaps the point of
closest convergence between Scotts and my respective un-
derstandings of the state. I have argued elsewhere (Herzfeld
1997, 2005) at length, moreover, that the state itself could
not subsist but for the dirty secrets that provide the basis of
lived social experience, an observation about the cultural
logic of nation-state ontologies that corresponds to Scotts
(1998:261) more directly practical point that ne modernist
projects such as planned capital cities could not function
without the very denizens whose messiness the authorities
try to hide. The goal is to keep those unruly citizens out of
sight, perhaps out of mind, but never out of control. Total
control would bring collapse, and so the risk of rebellion by
the dangerous classes remains ever present, serving in the
eyes of the state to justify ever tighter means of bureaucratic
rationalization and repression.
In this view of matters, it follows that ofcial denials
that these dirty secrets exist are themselves as disingenu-
ous as they are necessary; they are the other side of the
pragmatic complicity that Scott describes. Scott argues that
the state has needed this other . . . in order to rhetorically
present itself as the antidote to backwardness (1998:331).
This formulation, although fundamentally on target, could
easily be misconstrued as unnecessarily functionalist or tele-
ological. Instead, or at least more usefully, it suggests that
high modernists do a great deal more thinking than their
productions of always-already-perfect projects are meant to
reveal. As I argue below, this has implications for the pro-
duction of nationalist histories, themselves as much a mod-
ernist project as the equally reied notions of heritage and
In any event, it is clear that the state might not be
able to command the same degree of loyalty if it com-
pletely suppressed these familiar aspects of social life; peo-
ples loyalty to the state demands the maintenance of a zone
of familiar ease, even if this violates ofcial cultural and
moral canons. Dominic Boyer (2000) has even intimated
that the collapse of the German Democratic Republic may
have been facilitated by precisely the absence (or, rather, the
suppression) of this illicit familiarity. Scott (see 1998:203,
207, 221222, 261, 352) shows how, time and again, the
state and its agencies have been saved from the conse-
quences of their monochromatic vision by the capacity of
ordinary people to patch up, muddle through, and simply
copewhat Deborah Reed-Danahays (1996) French village
informants, fed up with the impositions of state logic, call
d ebrouillardise (a term that can be almost literally rendered
as getting through the fog). What Scott perhaps misses
is the eagerness and ability of state ofcials, in whom he
is arguably too ready to attribute self-protection as the pri-
mary and generalizable motive, to connive at minor infrac-
tions. Yet many bureaucrats muddle along withtheir clients,
with whom they often share either a common culture or at
least, as in the case of the Gypsy traders described by Yulian
Konstantinov (1996) for the BulgarianTurkish frontier,
common economic interests and areas of social interaction.
Even under a dictatorial regime, such as the 1967
74 military dictatorship in Greece, complicity of this kind
serves to demarcate areas of bearable life and to undermine
the impulse to resist. The colonels may not have under-
stood this basic pointtheir repressive attitude to beards,
miniskirts, and lewd jokes showed as muchbut their own
inefciency in this regard appears to have saved them for
a time. Had they not embarked on a foolish confrontation
with Turkey over Cyprus, and had they not engaged in in-
cessant internal bickering, they might, indeed, have mud-
dled through for a great deal longer than they actually did.
But their own venality probably saved them from an even
earlier humiliation than the asco that eventually did lead
to their downfall seven and a half painful years after their
initial power grab. The tangled skeins of complicity will oc-
cupy historians for many years to come, even though the
majority of them will probably never see the light of day
at least as long as they successfully morph into similarly
interested accommodations with the colonels democratic
successors. As the transitions of Czarist to Soviet and now
capitalist Russia demonstrate, power relations long survive
particular ideologies of governance.
From these observations, three principal areas of my
residual disquiet with the presentation of Scotts argument
emerge: (1) the absence of an ethnographic sensibility to-
ward the state functionaries equivalent to that accorded
peasants and other manual workers; (2) a consequent fail-
ure to explain how so many local projects within high-
modernist states survive and even ourish (although there
are hints that Scott views a vaguely conceived democracy
as the answer); and (3) the implications of Scotts turn to
a classical Greek concept to describe the elusive forms of
practical knowledge. The last of these might seem minor;
in fact, as I propose to argue, it is indicative of a besetting
Herzfeld Political Optics 373
problem in which we all nd ourselves enmeshed, and to
which the peculiar arts of academic resistance should now
be more forcibly directed.
Let me take up these points in turn. The rst issue con-
cerns the surprisingly monochromatic treatment of bureau-
crats in Seeing Like a State. Treating bureaucrats in this way is
a familiar device; indeed, in some sense it signals a form of
conceptual resistance, a narrower but perhaps more demon-
strable rendition of Scotts original sense of resistance in gen-
eral. The conceptual problemresembles that associated with
the notion of reference in linguistic analysis. If we shift
to a use or action understanding of meaning, we do not re-
ject reference as such; instead, we recast it as itself a form
of social practice. In the same way, if we see bureaucrats
as all-too-human agents, we do not ignore or reject their
besetting normativity but, instead, understand the latter as
a practicea form of practical essentialism, behind which
skilled operators can act in accordance with specic per-
sonal interests. Such a vision is broader than the usual con-
vention of treating all bureaucrats as corrupt or unimagina-
tive. It allows for the recognition of those bureaucratsand
they are numerouswho viewthemselves as servants of the
people and who make every effort to mitigate the harshness
of laws that are not always sensitive to local particularities. It
also accommodates certain other bureaucrats, those whose
actions are more in keeping with the conventional stereo-
type, who manipulate the rules to achieve selsh ends or
to avoid any form of unnecessary labor. But the important
point is that in this perspective we can view both kinds of
bureaucrats as agents exercising choice in varying degrees
of self-awareness and for a wide range of ends.
The point deserves elaboration, especially as it has so
often been misunderstood (e.g., Beidelman 1995). Bureau-
crats use the literalness and simplication of ofcial direc-
tives for instrumental ends that may diverge signicantly
from those envisaged by their framers. Some do so because
they believe that the system treats their clients unfairly;
others simply play the system for their own ends. This has
nothing to do with motivation or moral judgment of bu-
reaucrats as a class, except insofar as it enables us to identify
the specic effects of specic actions. Speaking contingently
of our own era, it does have a great deal to do with audit
cultures (see Strathern 2000; cf. Scott 1998:100), the rise
of which only exacerbates the problem by providing ever
more comprehensive means of disguising personal actions
behind a pose of accountability.
What the framers of high modernism might conceptu-
alize as corruption or venality sometimes also works to help
clients trapped by the unimaginative and socially irrelevant
formulations of the high modernists. To accept that corrup-
tion in this sense can benet individual actors may also,
and not incidentally, entrap them in a hegemonic structure
of the type that, for example, conservative politicians in
Greece today have invested a great deal of energy in preserv-
ing even as they claim to dismantle it. A perhaps extreme
(but therefore highly revealing) example is the repeated as-
sault in the Greek parliament on institutionalized animal
theft and way in which politicians have baptized the chil-
dren of the most prominent thieves in order to lock in their
votes and those of their often numerous agnates. It is pre-
cisely those who are mostly widely suspected of using their
inuence to get sheep thieves out of jail, however, who de-
clare themselves opposed to the practicea circumstance
that occasions much hilarity on the part of the thieves
themselves, who understand fully why such declarations
are politically necessary and legally meaningless. These un-
ruly citizens enjoy bonds of real sympathy with the power
brokers, who, they understand perfectly well, are far from
saintly; they probably suspect, too, that this arrangement
locks them out of the modernist project. They certainly
know that the politicians willingness to engage in a mutu-
ally protable arrangement at the expense of the modernist
project of the state is what makes an otherwise marginal
social existence relatively bearable within that state. That,
in short, is the deal that they largely nd themselves con-
strained to accept. Scotts rather abstract representation of
the state, in which the only visible actors are sometimes
either strong leaders such as V. I. Lenin and Julius Nyerere
or eccentric ideologues such as the architect Le Corbusier,
leaves out the common cultural matrix of such forms of col-
lusion, which in some cases may stretch to the very top of
the political pyramid but incorporates many intermediaries
as well.
This collusion is also the basis of my point about the
persistence of projects that do not accord with the logic of
the high-modernist state. In Scotts account, which in this
respect may be liable to some of the criticisms already ad-
dressed to his treatment of resistance, the heroic farmer or
artisan continues to work away at a multiple set of crops in
a productively messy environment, ultimately saving the
state (or at least the workers own family) from total col-
lapse and destitution.
Doubtless there is some truth to this
portrait, just as there is surely a good deal of truth to the ac-
cusation that kulaks, as the Soviet state pejoratively labeled
relatively prosperous or independent peasants, not infre-
quently used their entrepreneurial skills at the expense of
their neighbors.
When the argument is applied to the attempt to pre-
serve ethnic identity in the face of government attempts
to impose homogeneous nationality, one version of the
legibility demanded by the nation-state in Scotts read-
ing, we see that the pressure to conform can produce its
own co-optations of the same essentialist logic. Thus, self-
constituted minorities redene themselves in remarkably
statist terms; this, as Jean Jackson (1995) has noted, may
be their only recourse against state violence. They may also
reproduce similar violence against their neighbors. Some-
times such violence is further bolstered by the enthusiasm
of dominant powers for the convenience of such ethnic re-
ductionism, as happened in Bosnia and Kosovo. But rather
than seeing these developments in either heroic or (as so
often happens in the media) demonic terms, as the prod-
ucts of either a latter-day rendition of the noble savage as
a freedom ghter or as a genetically determined atavism,
374 American Anthropologist Vol. 107, No. 3 September 2005
we would do far better to see the emergence of minority
identitieseven beleaguered onesas a product of that cul-
tural commonality that state actors share with their client
subjects. That we often fail to see that commonality is a
mark of the states hegemonic success in promulgating a
conceptual separation between science and folk, high
religion and superstition or popular religion (Stewart
1989), and rationality and muddle. This is a struggle over
the denition of order; and order is, paradoxically in terms
of its own rhetoric, never xed but always negotiated by so-
cial actors whose own identity may oscillate between that
of state functionaries and that of ordinary folks.
In this context, I am not persuaded that the poorly
dened notion of democracy (Scott 1998:89) adequately
protects the high-modernist project from its worst abuses.
Indeed, some commentators (e.g., Connors 2003, on Thai-
land) view the project of democracy itself as a tool of hege-
mony. The recent invocations of democracy and liberty
in the service of goals that seem anything but democratic
produce reactions that perhaps indicate that the strategy
is wearing rather thin; it nevertheless remains pervasive at
many levels.
Finally, and as an illustration of the degree to which we
remain enmeshed in precisely the messiness of the dynamic
Scott has done so much to expose, his own invocation of a
classical Greek pedigreeeven a tricksterish onefor unof-
cial, practical, embodied knowledge suggests how deeply
an already existing hierarchy of cultural value overdeter-
mines our choices of argumentation styles. Why this re-
course to high antiquity? Inasmuch as Scott is assuredly
no purveyor of Eurocentric dogma, his reproduction of it
here is all the more compelling a piece of ethnographic ev-
idence for its persistent power. Could Scott himself here be
exemplifying the effects of hegemony? It certainly seems as
though, like so many others, he has inadvertently bought
into the Wests master narrative about the importance of
ancient Greece, with its corollary in the political and cul-
tural irrelevance of the modern land. Even quite recently,
scholars of modern Greek culture have sometimes translit-
erated the modern language using the conventions derived
from its phonologically very different precursor.
The occlusion of the modern Greeks is particularly sug-
gestive here because, if there is one feature that they claim
for themselves with pride, it is precisely the ability to mud-
dle through, and to slide under all sorts of barriers set up
by authority. They would have provided far more detailed
grist to Scotts mill than what is left in the Wests account
of their alleged ancestors. Whether as sheep thieves treat-
ing visiting policeman to a meal of the stolen meat that
was to have constituted the evidence against these mis-
creants, or as Karagiozis shadow theater puppets using the
pretensions of the powerful to gain short-term advantages
(Danforth 1976), or even as self-styled traditionalists pre-
senting themselves as diamonds in the rough in order to
squeeze some money out of smoothly capitalistic clients,
Greeks often portray themselves as doing precisely what
Scott attributes to the ancient forebears wished on them
by their Western patrons. There is a deep historical irony
in this move. It is precisely the antiofcial modality known
as poniria (cunning) that condemns the bearers of tra-
ditional ways of being to marginality within a state al-
ready treated as marginalbecause it is ancientwithin
the larger ambit of geopolitical dynamics (Herzfeld 2004).
In the sense of social cunning, poniria is the modern
equivalent of m etis (Scott 1998:177). It is not opposed in
the same way to tekhni, the modern variant of the ancient
techn e, and indeed may be the very basis on which tekhni
is acquired. There is a large ethnographic literature about
it, dating back to the beginning of serious ethnographic
research in postWorld War II Greece. Ironically, however,
Scott has chosen, guided by two incontestably wise classi-
cists, to revert instead to the master narrative of Western
emergence, a narrative that is also invoked as the lineage
of that same scientistic rationalism against which he in-
veighs with such well-documented precision. Odysseus was
a trickster; but at least he was a classical trickster, whereas
his latter-day equivalent, the shadow-theater antihero
Karagiozis, is virtually a Turk (and indeed occidentalizing
Greeks tried for long to hellenize himthrougha literal trans-
lation of his Turkish name as Mavromatis [black-eyed] or
get rid of him altogether).
Scott is no doubt relying on the fact that most of his
readers will have heard of Odysseus, few of Karagiozis. But
this, I suggest, is an assumption the effects of which should
be the target of some deliberate academic resistance. We live
in an age when most Western scholars can no longer read
ancient Greek in the original (and are often surprised to nd
that their immediate predecessors frequently could). The
loss of classical knowledge, however, has simply driven the
underlying assumptions further underground rather than
uprooting themaltogether. Indeed, by reducing the ancient
heritage to a few easily regurgitated pieties that today have
virtually no capacity to evoke specic ancient texts or ar-
tifacts, the reduced-resolution image of the classical past
arguably sustains attitudes of Western cultural hegemony
all the more effectively. In the absence of specic knowl-
edge of the long tussle between Christianity and its Hellenic
(pagan) precursors, for example, it all too easily harmo-
nizes with the anti-Islamic, crusading rhetoric of Western
high modernism. In the United States it feeds neoconserva-
tive performances of deep religiosity; in Europe it sustains
certain highly placed ofcials overtly Christian-inspired
reluctance to countenance rejection by supposedly secu-
lar nation-statesnotably Frances rejection of attempts by
Turkey and Bosnia, both largely Islamic countries albeit
with secular constitutions, to enter the European Union.
If readers feel that they have no idea who Karagiozis is, that
response is at least more honest than, in most cases, think-
ing that they do know something about Odysseus. And if
Westerners indeed do not knowabout Karagiozis, what does
this say about their continuing refusal to countenance the
presence of an Islamic Turkish presence in Europe? The
Herzfeld Political Optics 375
present age demonstrates all too well how effectively the
systematic recycling of ignorance secures acquiescence in
a particular cultural hegemony worldwide. When Western-
ers still read the classical authors, they were at least also
schooled in an idiom of criticisma word that seems to
have acquired pejorative overtones even in signicant seg-
ments of the academic world.
It would be easy to belabor the point and thus to fall
into the hegemonic trap that it represents: defensiveness as
a mark of cultural defeat always-already achieved. I have
no desire to do that, and in any case Scott deserves an
argument that focuses more explicitly on what he has to
say about the state. But it is important to show that mod-
ernist rationalism rests on assumptions no less symbolic or
cosmological, and no less embedded in ideologically moti-
vated stories of cultural origins, than what it opposes. This
issue is necessarily epistemological as much as it is political.
Thus, the kind of knowledge that Scott designates as typi-
cal of m etis is not only found throughout the world, but
is also, as Akhil Gupta (1998) has so cogently argued, com-
patible with what we usually regard as scientic knowledge,
itself easily categorized (if we are to maintain the classiciz-
ing idiom) as techn e. To oppose m etis to rational planning
is to subscribe to the radical binarism of folk and scientic
knowledge (Gupta 1998), or folk and ecclesiastical religion
(Stewart 1989)to make the point all the more forcefully
through an ironic juxtaposition. Such binarisms themselves
arise from hegemonic assumptions of a now-global order.
We should instead, I suggest, treat the processes of episte-
mological simplication that Scott describes so accurately
(and with a wonderful reection of Geertzian rhetoric) as
thin (Scott 1998:256257, 309 ff.), in terms that tren-
chantly dissolve the binary opposition between expert
and indigene, reference and use, or indeed literal-
ity and metaphor. (As Gupta shows, even to speak of
hybrid or mixed systems is implicitly to accept the underly-
ing mutual exclusivity of the binary rhetoric.) In this sense,
we can indeed accept the fusion of Odysseus and Karagiozis
in a single imagenot as a legitimating genealogy rooted
in an ofcially respectable past, but as a reminder, doubt-
less infuriating to the high modernists, of the persistence of
subversive disorder in human life.
For all their protestations to the contrary, bureaucrats
are themselves usually implicated in that disorder. Citi-
zens, including bureaucrats, are part of the state; inasmuch
as it is a historical product, the state is, as Scott is the
rst to recognize, incurably messy. It is only a hegemonic
discourse that isolates a picturesquely disordered tradition
within some implausibly tidy modernity and then exiles
it to the margins. To overcome the nostalgic overtones in
Scotts tendency to reify traditional forms of knowledge,
we must thus also insist on keeping the other part of his ar-
gument rmly in sight: his refusal of modernitys claims
to some kind of extracultural status, which has its own
contingent, cultural underpinnings in a long-hegemonic,
Western-derived way of thinking. The exponents of
globalization hide the contingency of its hierarchical ar-
rangements of value, but these are easily spotted through
attention to their specic, local histories. Tanzanian villa-
gization, for example, was promoted by leaders who were
more consumers of a high-modernist faith that had orig-
inated elsewhere much earlier than they were producers
(Scott 1998:247).
Scott has certainly recognizedalthough perhaps too
schematically, even given his frank acknowledgment of the
books already considerable sizethe cultural values of ac-
tors exercising local knowledge, and the importance of see-
ing science and scientic planning as themselves socially
embedded practices (1998:320, 327). But he has not paid
enough attention, I suggest (oddly for the coiner of hidden
transcripts [Scott 1990]), to the specic cultural and social
circumstances of the bureaucratic brokers who, whether for
reasons of self-interest or empathy with both sides, protect
the institutions of the high-modern state and the sensibili-
ties of its most vulnerable citizens fromthe consequences of
an outright clash. These brokers do not always performsuch
a benign role; sometimes they even foment confrontation.
In either case their presence, their own poniriatheir own
m etis in Scotts chosen termsdeserves careful analysis in
its own right.
The reason for this should be clear. Brokers are engaged
in an active process of negotiation. If anyone knows how
to work to rule (to take Scotts [1998:256, 310311] sug-
gestive demonstration of workers Karagiozis-like ability to
understand and manipulate their circumstances to creative
ends), it is surely those busy bureaucrats whose professional
life seems to be all about rules. They can bring everything
to a standstill, and their insistence that they are following
rules reproduces, mocks, and simultaneously frustrates their
masters desires, which are thereby revealed as perhaps also
not entirely as consistent with the rule of law (or the laws
of rule) as the rhetoric would seem to imply.
Disclaimers to the contrary, these modernist managers
of tradition have their own forms of social competence for
muddling through and adapting to circumstance. In many
societies, there is a close cultural correspondence between
that kind of knowledge and the local knowledge of the
most dispossessed segments of the population. While Scott
is, in fact, careful to pay his respects to certain kinds of for-
mal, experimental, and scientic knowledge, one key value
of his insight lies especially in his recognition that the lab-
oratory and the planning ofce are also social contexts.
But I would urge that we now pursue still further the path
that Scott has laid out for us. This means doing two things.
It means inserting a critical ethnographic eye in more in-
teractions between bureaucrats and both their clients and
their legislative masters. And it means talking about the
local knowledgethe intellectual traditions and the
poniriaof those cunning planners and scientists who have
managed to persuade so many citizens of so many coun-
tries to honor them for their visiona suggestively op-
tical form of praise that reinstates the fallacy of misplaced
376 American Anthropologist Vol. 107, No. 3 September 2005
concreteness at the very heart of a falsely construed dream
of pure abstraction.
MICHAEL HERZFELD Department of Anthropology, Harvard
University, Cambridge, MA 02138
1. This is aninstance of iconicity inits technical sense (see Herzfeld
1997:5658). As I have argued elsewhere (Herzfeld 1992b), anthro-
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tional characteristics of their central themes.
2. Here, I would emphasize the patrilineal bias more fully than he
does (but cf. Scott 1998:114).
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