…der Verstand ist nicht nur einseitig, sondern es ist sein wesentliches Geschäft, die Welt einseitig zu machen, eine große und bewunderungswürdige Arbeit, denn nur die Einseitigkeit formiert und reißt das Besondere aus dem unorganischen Schleim des Ganzen. – Marx
“…Understanding is not only one-sided, but it is its essential business to make the world one-sided, a great and marvelous labor, because only one-sidedness forms and rips the particular out of the inorganic slime of the whole.”
James C. Scott begins Seeing Like the State with an emblematic story, a parable of one-sidedness, concerning the rise of scientific forestry. That rise occurred in the late eighteenth century, when the Prussian state intervened in the assessment, preservation, and reproduction of forest properties, all in order to create a more efficient natural resource. The German forestry service cleared out many features of the ‘old’ chaotic forests – the ‘weed’ species, the unnecessary ground cover, the poaching birds, animals and humans. Fire, too, is a poacher, and must be prevented. Even age forests – much more useful for lumber, much less volatile in terms of calculating yield – were groomed in their place. The description of the forest consisting of the same species, standing in disciplined ranks, row on row of trees, is eerily like the disciplined classroom or jail described in Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir. However, Scott considers this not so much a regime of the vision as the reading eye – the eyeball attached to understanding. This, in Scott’s terms, is what it means to make the woods – that place of darkness and gloom in which Little Red Riding Hoods encounter deceitful wolves – into a place of legibility.
Unfortunately, what happened over a century was that this monoculture produced row upon row of vulnerable, sickly trees. After the first, healthy generation had used up the ‘accumulated capital’ of soil nutrients laid down by hundreds of years of undisciplined forest growth and death, the next generation of trees were excessively prone to insect and fungal infestation, wind damage, and starved, splintery and miserable growth – at least in human terms, where it was all dollar signs and lumber.
In the nineteenth century, however, the German service had been seen as a model, and was adopted by the forestry service in the U.S. and the British service in India. The British even imported a German forester to make sense of India’s tree growth. To chase Mowgli out of the jungle, and put the stamp of the one-sided on what grew and creeped there. But in the twentieth century, where the forestry rules had been followed, the result was Waldsterben – forest death. Even now, that ominous poacher, the forest fire, is stalking the drought stricken forests of the American West – which are being eaten up, at any rate, by a boring beetle whose larva now survive the winters in the Rockies, thanks to the fact that the winter have not been as cold for the past thirty years. One side is flipping to the other side.
“The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in
order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razorsharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that
interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it.”
In a note, Scott glancingly references Karl Marx’s five articles about the changing forest laws instituted by the provincial government based in Cologne. Mehring crediting those article with a great advance in Marx’s life – he claimed that in them, for the first time, Marx attempts a class analysis.
I want to take a break from the artificial paradise of drugs. The next five or six posts will be about trees.