[This month Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman are guest blogging about James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. This post is by Masao Imamura.]
James Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia [hereafter Anarchist History] presents a tragedy of hill tribes, who were “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities.” These upland anarchists were “over the course of two millennia … fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare” (ix). Living away from the state, they governed themselves—until they were defeated by the state. Reading Anarchist History is to mourn the death of tribal peoples as victims of the state and civilization.
Scott tells us that this tragedy of tribal peoples concerns all of us because it is in fact a story of humankind: “Not so very long ago … such self-governing peoples were the great majority of humankind” (ix). The tribal life represents the quality of autonomy and freedom that we humans once enjoyed. The hill anarchists were the last band of humans who fought valiantly against the state, the great villain, under whose rule we all live. Today, after this defeat, we live in “an era in which virtually the entire globe is ‘administered space’ and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant. … there can be not a shred of doubt” (324-325).
According to Scott, things have gone tremendously wrong since the rise of the state a few thousand years ago. The quality of human life has qualitatively declined drastically. Scott’s anarchist tragedy reveals intense yearning for a bygone era, in which humans were fundamentally better and stronger. This longing is strikingly Nietzschean. The German philosopher longed for the time in which humans were noble and glorious, and he despaired how humans have become hopelessly mediocre and comfortable. Reading the Anarchist History, I am often reminded of Nietzsche, who wrote: “Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live.” For the Scottian anarchist cries: “Oh, those Zomians! They knew how to live. The frontier peoples—they knew how to be free.” (Sanjay Subrahmanya identifies Pierre Clastre as the chief inspiration to Scott in writing Anarchist History, and he detects “Clastres’s Nietzscheanism.”)
Leif Jonsson attributes Scott’s anarchist imaginary to another source, the Turnerian narrative of the American frontier. Scott’s narration of the enclosure of “nonstate space” indeed resonates with the well-known historical narrative of the American West. According to Larry Kutchen, the retrospective narration of the American frontier has been profoundly melancholic, anchored in unquenchable longing for a bygone era of freedom. Such melancholy has persisted throughout the history of frontier studies from Frederick Turner’s famous thesis to contemporary scholarship including Richard White’s Middle Ground. (White’s work is indeed mentioned in the Anarchist History as a source of inspiration.)
Drawing insights from Anne Anlin Cheng’s Melancholy of Race, Kutchen analyzes how the historical narrative retrospectively reopens and then recloses the frontier, and how this historical narration resuscitates native Americans “as serviceable ghosts” and reburies them. The ghosts do remind us of the horrible betrayal committed at the birth of the nation—how certain peoples were excluded at the very founding of the democratic nation. This is a painful, nightmarish reminder. How do we go on from this nightmare? We manage and go on, Cheng tells us, by narrating stories that resuscitate those have been dead, restore their honor and dignity, and rebury them. Our incessant consumptions of these narrations are a sign of melancholia, which consists the cycle of facing and overcoming the guilt. Kutchen warns us that the melancholic historiography of frontier “incur[s] the risk not only of predetermining what we recover from the past but also of indulging in an entirely retrospective radicalism” (164).
If this diagnosis, provided by Kutchen and Cheng, sounds at all plausible, then it raises a series of questions to those of us who read and reread Scott’s historical narrative of hill tribes. With Scott, the context is not the American history; it is the history of the entire human civilization. Perhaps more than any other text, Anarchist History reveals to us how melancholically we narrate human history, how we retrospectively dramatize the course of human civilization, what radicalism we endeavor to rescue from the past, and what lessons we want tribal peoples and frontiers to tell us today.
Are hill tribes dead? If so, how do we mourn their death? How should we bury them? Or are the dead tribes our imaginary ghosts? If so, how do those ghosts serve us?