Melancholy of Tribe?

[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?

6 thoughts on “Melancholy of Tribe?

  1. Why, I wonder, are these discussions so introverted, so obsessively concerned with whether Scott is Nietzschean, Turnerian, melancholy, etc., and saying so little about the hill tribes themselves. I keep waiting for the classical anthropological move so eloquently described by Mary Douglas as “not in Bongo-Bongo,” in which ethnographic data are used to critique theory derived from Western philosophy or social thought. I hear a lot of talk about a book and author’s intentions and how they might fight into long-standing debates in Western social thought. When do we get to hear something about the people whose lives the book is purportedly about?

  2. John,
    The tongue in cheek response to your question is to point to Howard Miner’s classic ethnography on the Nacirema.

    I suspect that the longer answer has to do with the inherent western bias of the ethnographic craft. It is a process invented by westerners for westerners. Sure, other people adapt it, but it still assumes an academic perch of some sort, and academic traditions.

    Do you know of a rough way of looking at other cultures from either a classical Japanese or classical Chinese tradition that would roughly be called “ethnographic.” Eisel over on the other thread was implying that there were such traditions in Laos, I believe.


  3. It’s uncanny (cf. ‘melancholy’) how much this post actually resonates with Rex’s most recent one on Diamond. I would say that a certain kind of melancholy inhabits most anthropological narratives, in which the representation of the ‘other’ is allegorically also read as a representation of what ‘we’ have lost (or what ‘we’ are also guilty of destroying). Of course, this wouldn’t be my idea, as Clifford made it very cogently as far back as 1986, and Raymond Williams made a similar argument regarding ‘pastoral’ representations of the countryside even further back (but cf. Sahlins on modern history and its ‘tristes tropes’). John worries that this is a reflexive rabbit hole (again, hi Rex), though I think at least being conscious of the way that representations of the edenic or the anarchic fit within our meta-narrative conventions is a good idea.

  4. Strong, I agree completely about the importance of being conscious of the ways that representations of the edenic or the anarchic shape our meta-narrative conventions. I also think that Rex has scored a palpable hit with his remarks about passports. Our of curiosity I did a Google search for “passports history of”. The top hit was Wikipedia, which has this to say:

    One of the earliest known references to paperwork that served the role of a passport is found in the Hebrew Bible. In the biblical verse, Nehemiah 2:7-9, attributed to 450 BC, it is believed that Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes I of Persia, asked leave to travel to Judea; the king granted leave and gave him a letter “to the governors beyond the river” requesting safe passage for him as he travelled through their lands.
    In the medieval Islamic Caliphate, a form of passport was used in the form of a bara’a, a receipt for taxes paid. Only citizens who paid their zakah (for Muslims) or jizya (for Dhimmis) taxes were permitted to travel to different regions of the Caliphate, thus the bara’a receipt was a “traveller’s basic passport.”[1]
    It is considered unlikely that the term “passport” is derived from sea ports, but rather from a medieval document that was required to pass through the gate ( or “porte”) of a city wall or to pass through a territory.[2][3] In medieval Europe, such documents were issued to travellers by local authorities, and generally contained a list of towns and cities into which a document holder was permitted to pass. On the whole, documents were not required for travel to sea ports, which were considered open trading points, but documents were required to travel inland from sea ports.
    King Henry V of England is credited with having invented what some consider the first true passport, notwithstanding the earlier examples cited, as a means of helping his subjects prove who they were in foreign lands.[4]
    The rapid expansion of rail travel and wealth in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century led to a unique dissolution of the passport system for thirty odd years before WWI. The speed of trains, as well as the numbers of passengers that crossed many borders, made enforcement of passport laws difficult. The general reaction was the relaxation of passport requirements.[5] In the later part of the nineteenth century and up to World War I, passports were not required, on the whole, for travel within Europe, and crossing a border was a relatively straightforward procedure. Consequently, comparatively few people held passports. The Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire maintained passport requirements for international travel, in addition to an internal passport system to control travel within their borders. Most countries issued passports but countries that demanded travelers have a passport were considered backwards.[citation needed]
    Early passports included a description of the passport holder. Photographs began to be attached to passports in the early decades of the twentieth century, when photography became widespread.
    During World War I, European governments introduced border passport requirements for security reasons (to keep out spies) and to control the emigration of citizens with useful skills, retaining potential manpower. These controls remained in place after the war, and became standard procedure, though not without controversy. British tourists of the 1920s complained, especially about attached photographs and physical descriptions, which they considered led to a “nasty dehumanisation”.[6]
    In 1920, the League of Nations held a conference on passports and through tickets. Passport guidelines and a general booklet design resulted from the conference,[7] which was followed up by conferences in 1926[8] and 1927.[citation needed]
    The United Nations held a travel conference in 1963, but passport guidelines did not result from it. Passport standardisation came about in 1980, under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

    None of this fits any simple-minded theory of increased freedom of movement associated with progress, unless, of course, progress came to a grinding halt around the time of World War I.

  5. [Q:] “Why, I wonder, are these discussions so introverted, so obsessively concerned with whether Scott is Nietzschean, Turnerian, melancholy, etc., and saying so little about the hill tribes themselves.”

    [A:] Because nobody is an expert in these hill-tribes, and everyone imagines that they’re an expert in Nietzsche.

    It is a peculiar coincidence that this article contrasts the situation in Zomia to the situation of the indigenous people of North America… I may be the only person to have worked on the languages of both (resulting in, e.g., the world’s only article on the historical connection between the writing systems used amongst the modern Cree and in Southeast Asia: ) …although my work on pretty much all of those languages and peoples was cut (dramatically) short.

    There is a great deal that is fundamentally wrong with Scott’s work, and I don’t think that any of it is really being dealt with in these articles. Among other things, there is a world of difference between the phrase “hill tribes” and “hill anarchists”. I do not think that any ethnographer who had actually lived amongst any of the (so-called) hill-people would characterize their societies as “anarchist”; they’re strictly hierarchical and conformist in almost every way, and were themselves deeply involved in slave-raiding (and the slave economy) up until the day before yesterday (i.e., they do not see themselves as historical victims of “state societies” that had invented slavery, as a thing hitherto unknown in the hills –nor did the state invent the opium trade, I might add).

    However, it is true that each of these cultures has tended to fault the others for their minor differences in “freedoms” (i.e., customs of any kind, really); thus the dating-and-marriage practices of the Akha raise eyebrows amongst everyone other than the Akha, and, likewise, the dating-and-marriage practices of the Hmong raise eyebrows among everyone except the Hmong, and so on. Also, routinely, you hear that the next village down the river-valley practices fearsome black-magic –but when you get to that village, you are told that they don’t have powerful black magic there, but it is instead on the other side of the hill (etc. etc.) and so on. These are the trivial profundities of fieldwork, but theorists who have not lived in the field (and care nothing for hard facts) have no appreciation of it. However, none of these societies consider themselves “anarchist”, nor really evaluate one-another in those terms: tribal authoritarianism is very tight, and the scope of personal freedom is nearly nil. Yes, you can find a few desultory comments from British Empire administrators about tribal people to the contrary (about the then-feared Wa especially) but these cannot even be taken as seriously as British prejudicial statements against the Irish (whom, at least, they had seen eye-to-eye for centuries, unlike the Wa).

    Obviously, it is much easier to offer vague generalizations about Nietzsche than it is to deal with any of the facts (historical, contemporary, linguistic, or otherwise).

    There is one thing (and one thing only) that the peoples of Zomia have in common with the indigenous peoples of North America: their languages are now going extinct, and shockingly few anthropologists care enough to lift a finger, one way or another, about it.

  6. The premise of Scott’s argument presents the history of the hill tribes in opposition to and evasion from the lowland states. Running from the state, they attempted to avoid “slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare,” but were ultimately caught, so to speak, and appropriated by the state. This post queries as to how we should most appropriately recognize and mourn the tragedy of the loss of anarchy by these hill tribes. I would argue that this is the wrong question to be asking. While I acknowledge that incorporation of the highlands by the state creates a myriad of problems for those being incorporated, I believe Scott fails to address the benefits that accompany this “defeat.”

    Is the State truly as bad as Scott claims? What about all the beneficial institutions that governments provide their people, particularly in a modernized twenty-first century world? With integration into the state comes the possibilities of health care, education, roads, security, etc.

    Additionally, must the loss of anarchy equate with the loss of self? Scott goes so far as to argue that since the rise of the state and the decline of anarchy even the quality of life has plummeted. I would argue that at least some sense of community and heritage that ethnic minorities have cultivated for thousands and thousands of years can still be maintained even when they are incorporated into the state.

    Overall, I would argue that Scott’s claims fail to examine both sides of the argument. His arguments paint the highland-dwelling hill tribes in an ultimately good light, while the state remains always evil. And it’s not that simple

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