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Pre Literate People and The Art of Not Being Governed

English Language Learner / English as a Secon Language


The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. By James C. Scott. 2009. Yale University Press.
464 pages. ISBN: 978-0300152289 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Arle Lommel, Indiana University

The cover of The Art of Not Being Governed emphasizes the word Not, setting it in a different color than the rest of the title. This choice helps set the frame for James C. Scott's fascinating examination of the ways in which the various peoples of upland Southeast Asia (a region of disconnected mountainous areas he calls "Zomia") have actively resisted the encroachment of states and state power and the development of state-like structures in their own social groups. The people he considers are not merely ungoverned, they are actively NOT governed. While the title proclaims the book "an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia," this is not a tract on the Western concept of political anarchy, but rather a discovery of the ways in which non-state spaces actively resist state power, how states have depended on non-state spaces, and the ways in which states and non-states mutually construct each other.
In some sense Scott's work can be seen as a book-length exegesis on Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma (although it is certainly more than that and adds considerable scholarly information produced since Leach's time) and readers of Leach will find that Scott draws out many themes implicit in Leach's work and sets them in clearer light. Even if Scott claims that his insights are not particularly original, this is one work in which the juxtaposition of materials and encyclopedic breadth, coupled with a close attention to details of history, technology, and geography create something that goes beyond any of its sources. Scott provides us with a systematic framework for considering the ways in which people deploy terrain, farming techniques, religion, narrative, and economics itic between the state and spaces outside the realm of the state.
The historic padi states (and indeed many of the current political states) of Southeast Asia do not come off as terribly attractive in Scott's work. They are founded on slave and corve labor, on large-scale war and taking entire populations captive, and on onerous taxes. They are places of disease and backbreaking labor, of conformity and orthodoxy, of constant risk and occasional reward. By contrast, Scott depicts highland societies that provide greater reward to the individual, freedom from grand corve projects, and healthier environments, where people are less likely to be rounded up in slave drives or otherwise co-opted into oppressive projects.
His examination focuses in part on the importance of swiddening and of crop choices in making spaces not worth the while for states to engage with while simultaneously enabling people to avoid the appropriation of their labor. For example, root crops can be left in the ground until needed and are easy to conceal from armies, thus making them ideal for nomadic people intent on avoiding military expeditions; so, hill people tend to cultivate root crops and trade for rice. Much of Scott's work relies on the concept of "friction," ways in which activities are made more or less difficult. Thus "friction of terrain" refers to the ways in which mountainous areas slow down transit and limit the ability of states to project power uphill into surrounding areas. He provides a thorough explanation of the ways in which various types of friction come together to limit the effective size of state power (rather than the nominal size of claimed sovereignty, which was often much grander than a state's real ability to project power). Traditionally hills and mountains have provided the greatest barriers and upland areas accordingly have become zones of resistance to state power.
Scott, however, is careful to note that in South America the great states formed in the mountains because that was where arable land was available and hence any sort of simplistic geographical determinism must be avoided. Indeed, while his work might at first glance appear to espouse a sort of geographical determinism, what he is in fact arguing is that people actively utilize geography to serve their ends and that some sorts of terrain are more suitable than others for certain uses. As a result the work is one that recognizes and celebrates human agency and the ability of people to adapt and thrive in various locations.
He also makes a fundamental argument that we must reject notions of cultural evolution that see civilization as arising from a directional aggregation of people and power into larger units. When we do so, he maintains, we are buying into the mythology of civilization. In fact, people move back and forth between civilization and "barbarism" all the time in order to suit their particular needs. Many "barbarians" in fact have readily moved back and forth between the categories as needed for centuries, sometimes appearing as padi cultivators and sometimes as swiddeners. Most of the "tribes" (a political concept that facilitates exerting control over groups of people) are genetically similar to their lowland neighbors because they have absorbed so many refugees from the states over the centuries.
His examination of the role of heterodox religious figures from the non-state mountains is particularly interesting. There are many parallels well outside of his chosen area, and he explores millenarianism in ways that resonate well with historical examination of frontier religion in the Americas and even in examining more recent events such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms standoff with the followers of David Koresh in Waco, Texas. In his exploration, millenarianism emerges as yet another strategy for resisting state governance: the padi states deployed hierarchical religions that reinforced notions of intrinsic order and stability, while mountain societies tended to emphasize charismatic religious movements that prophesied the overturning of the present order. This discussion is among the most fascinating in the book and comes the closest to letting readers get a sense of the role of specific individuals in this framework.
In keeping with this last point, The Art of Not Being Governed is not primarily a folkloristic text.
There is no close analysis of individual texts, no in-depth examination of traditional beliefs or customs, and no real ethnographic description of any single group. It is more clearly in the fields of agrarian studies, political science, and sociology. That being said, however, the book raises serious and disconcerting questions about the scholarly enterprise of folklore studies. Although some folklorists would subscribe to a position that says that we are to describe culture, more often than not we become either covert or overt activists on behalf of "underprivileged" or "underserved" populations. But if we ask ourselves in what sense these terms are applied, it is clear that they come from a perspective in which the state is viewed as the proper frame of reference and activity.
Even if we only describe culture, we are describing it from a specific standpoint in which ethnography (the "writing" of people) is normative. We often engage in activities like recording/codifying mythology and tales into written text and encourage our "native informants" to do likewise. In so doing we make texts appropriable to scholars and to communities, but at the same time we record particular versions and fix those texts in ways that represent particular interests. Scott details ways in which non-literacy, however, is an active strategy to avoid the formation of state-like structures and control by states. Rather than seeing people without writing as pre-literate on an evolutionary scale, he encourages us to see people as deliberately placing themselves outside the scope of literacy and argues that this choice gives people considerable freedom to modify their tales as needed to support the influx of new people, movement to new areas of residence, or changing alliances. In this environment, the preservationist instinct of folklorists may actually work to undermine the very qualities we aspire to preserve from the ravages of time, qualities that were designed to allow memory and customs to be obliterated and thus to serve a malleable vision of history.
Similarly, when we encourage people to make use of state resources or to accept state funds for cultural activities, we reinforce the notion that the people we are serving are in fact in need of service from the state. Given that many of these groups have had a string of bad experiences with the state and its agents, we should not be surprised that there is often resistance (either open or hidden) to engagement with the state, and possibly even suspicion concerning the motivation of scholars in documenting their culture. While we may mean well, many stateless people have learned to beware the good intentions of outsiders. We may not say we want to "civilize" people, yet historically our actions have often gone hand in glove with the civilizers (think of the role of scholars in Whisnant's All That Is Native and Fine in remaking Appalachian hill culture) and those who wish to extend state power into "backwards" or lawless areas.
The Art of Not Being Governed is very clear and cogent, but does tend to be a bit repetitive at times because some concepts are introduced repeatedly in various chapters. Whether this repetition is a weakness or not, however, depends on how the volume is read: the individual chapters can easily stand on their own for use in instruction where students might be asked to read part of the book and readers of the entire book may simply skip some short sections when they realize that they cover previously addressed topics. At the risk of being too picayune, I should also note that I suspect that the order of the chapters may have been shuffled late in the composition process without necessary editorial oversight: in a number of cases terms are introduced early on in the book but defined much later than their first occurrence. For example, the term "acephalous" ("headless") is used as a key term throughout much of the book but it is not fully defined until page 208. While this example is not terribly disruptive (a scholarly reader would either know the term or quickly discover the meaning), similar small editorial issues do make the text seem a little disjointed at times. I do not fault the author for this problem (which is really quite minor in any event) since the editors of a volume such as this one do need to be careful when performing large-scale editing to make sure the ramifications of their actions are anticipated.
The Art of Not Being Governed deserves to become a central text for folklorists looking at the relationship of the state to "marginalized" people. It provides a theoretical basis for examining the agency of such people, rather than seeing them as the remnants of primitive populations. It also raises questions that we should address, even if the answers Scott suggests may be uncomfortable for our activist impulse. While Scott did not set out to engage the issue of the scholar's role in working with stateless (or state-resisting) peoples, his framework is broad enough to suggest fruitful ways of considering not only our objects of study but ourselves as well. ---------
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