[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman, who offer individual takes on some issues raised by James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale U P, 2009). Kerim’s previous post on the book is here. This post is by Leif.]
James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is an interesting read. If anthropology-readers are used to embarrassment regarding the gaze on tribal peoples, then here is a license to guilt-free gawking: These weren’t tribals but rather freedom-seeking secessionists from the lowlands. There were no real ethnic others, the book suggests. Instead, linguistic and cultural diversity and the profusion of ethnic labels are just markers of state-evading strategies. In my view this is all rather problematic, in that clueless western readers (people ignorant of, say, particular histories, cultures, societies, languages, peoples, or politics in Southeast Asia) are invited to feast on the identities and politics of the Southeast Asian hinterlands without any involvement.
The effect bears some resemblance to the fickle fascination with Indians of the Brazilian Amazon as natural allies of the rainforest, that evaporated once the noble Other was seen as somehow too modern. Scott draws explicitly on the work of Pierre Clastres regarding the Guayaki and other Indians of Latin America, that the Indians had run away from the state and hierarchy and all that. Clastres had been a student of Levi-Strauss, and his early tribalist work was deeply fatalistic regarding the looming disappearance of all indigenous peoples. Clastres’ shift in focus, from pre-contact- to ex-contact peoples does not remove the assumed purity of the tribal slot but instead relocates its source. The tribals aren’t pure because of their cultural- or other essence, but because they ran away from the source of all pollution (the state, with its inequality, taxation, sedentary lifestyles, and other contaminants).
If this holds, then it suggests that we have successfully abandoned the “savage slot” without changing much of anything. We can still gawk at peoples in the tribal zone, as long as we call attention to the “monster slot” of the state (or capitalism, or development discourse, and so on). I will not blame Scott for this tendency. Rather, I suggest that all of the western anthropology about mainland Southeast Asia had uncritically recycled colonial- and Asian nationalist projects of racial divides and stages of civilization. What the Zomians of Scott’s book share is twentieth century discrimination, of being denied sameness, relatedness, and/or equality in the modern states of Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They were brought together, analytically and descriptively, in various classificatory projects that denied them diversity, specificity, and any need for political negotiation: These were ethnic types, distinct from national society. The anti-defamation-effort of Scott’s analysis, to show that these were not traditional tribals but instead clever freedom-seekers, has a similar effect: These are not particular people in specific circumstances but the shadows of characters in a western academic drama about freedom and history.
Much twentieth century western anthropology was in the search for tribal peoples, and the credibility of researchers was partly based on their ethnic specialization (one scholar each for the Hmong, Lahu, Lisu, Mien, Lamet, Mnong Gar, Kachin, and so on). The structuring of research and expertise contributed to the notion of ethnic distinctness, similar to what went on regarding the Indian communities of the Amazon. Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma leaves the impression of people making strategic choices among rival “esteem systems” – stratified Shan, egalitarian Kachin (gumlao) and hierarchic Kachin (gumsa). This is one source for Scott’s ‘radical constructionist’ case for ethnogenesis. The areal or regional focus of Scott’s book is the best defense against the traps of tribalist specialization (the search to define the expression of Mien ways, say, and the general dismissal of their diversity, entanglements with various others, and of their historical specificity). But the regional focus arrives at predetermined conclusions: States are oppressive; sedentary agriculture invites hierarchic social organization; the only defense is voluntary assemblies of like-minded freedom seekers in the nooks and crannies outside the state’s reach.
Scott does not offer his readers the “same old” shadow puppet of traditional tribals. He denies the relevance of language, ritual, social entanglements such as kinship, or strategies of livelihood, beyond how these situate people within the binary of freedom and subjugation. The anthropologists that Scott draws on were interested in various ethnic and cultural others. Their notion of history and identity assumed destruction or dissolution with “contact,” so much of the ethnographic work was distrustful of any process of national integration or political negotiation. This bias in the ethnographic record is entrenched through the notion that the highland peoples were running away from the state – no matter how much Scott argues against tribalist expectations. That is, the sources contain ontological and epistemological elements that can be unwittingly reproduced for as long as scholars and others assume that Southeast Asian highland peoples are a particular social type.
The case for strategies of state-avoidance assumes a historical break soon after the Second World War. This replicates how tribal anthropology had assumed tradition (and adaptation to the environment) that came to an end by the 1950s or ‘60s. These distinct analytical approaches agree on the authenticity of the past and on modernity as a force of homogenization and loss. This may be compelling to an audience that has no personal stake in the social situation, but implies to the highland people that they were all doing some great stuff until the 1950s, which we appreciate, but that it’s all been over for a long time.
But what is the historical predicament of hinterland peoples in mainland Southeast Asia? Since the 1950s, many became engulfed in war and related conflict. In Burma, it was ethnicized civil war, while in Laos and Vietnam it was national conflict that was blown out of proportion by US involvement after French colonial authorities had left. In both Laos and Vietnam, highland peoples were recruited to fight, for the leftist nationalists as much as for their US-supported rivals. If the story came to an end by 1950, we can enjoy the spectacle of Southeast Asian history and ethnology in ways that brush aside the realities and repercussions of those wars. It is a little bit spooky to be left with a post-Cold-War image of pre-Cold-War freedom fighters, and no sign of weapons, war, or of the specifics of the Cold War context in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, or Burma.
If I did not feel implicated in the fashioning of this imagery then I could position myself somehow against Scott’s case. But I think that we are all in trouble, and that it is reasonable to aim for different ethnologies and politics. What does it suggest about the world of academics and their audiences that we easily imagine an essential tension between the state and the people, that this tension sets history and society in motion, and that we are keener on identifying with virtue than on undoing the conflict?