Review of The Art of Not Being Governed

James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009; co-published by NUS Press, Singapore, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 442; figs., maps, notes, glossary, index.

In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau asked provocatively, “What progress could be made by mankind, while dispersed in the woods among other animals?” (Rousseau, p. 36).  Although Rousseau posed this rhetorical question to contrast his view of the natural state of humankind with the more negative views of Thomas Hobbes and others, the question also aptly frames the latest book from the prolific James C. Scott. Through a synthesis of secondary literature accented by decades of fieldwork, Scott upsets, in a way that Rousseau’s skepticism failed to do, the grand narrative of civilization and human progress. The upland region of Southeast Asia and southern China that Scott, drawing on the path-breaking work of Willem van Schendel (2001), labels “Zomia,” provides the setting for this reexamination.  The history of this region needs a re-assessment such as Scott’s.  And, while The Art of Not Being Governed makes an important contribution to the larger field of uplands studies (and not only the study of the Southeast Asian uplands), its merits lie ultimately in the questions that it raises and the trenchant skepticism with which it will leave the careful reader. In many ways, Scott encourages his reader to “[b]elieve that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic” (Michel Foucault, from the “Introduction” to Deleuze and Guattari, pp. xii-xiv).

Scott introduces the concept/zone of Zomia to his readers with a critique of the historiography of Southeast Asia. The reality that scholarly work on Zomia is “fragmented” (p. 16) results from the zone’s existence as a “region of refuge.” Following the call for “autonomous histories” sounded by John Smail five decades ago, historians of Southeast Asia have tended to make the existence of the state a central assumption in their work (p. 26). Scott’s chief concern in this volume is, in contrast, with the upland phenomenon of the “cultural refusal of lowland patterns” (p. 19), patterns that include the formation of and life in states. Intertwined with this emphasis on state avoidance, Scott also proposes to explicate the “logic and dynamics behind the creation of State spaces in Southeast Asia” (p. 39), thus furthering a conversation that, in recent years, has included Tony Day’s Fluid Iron.

Following an introduction, eight and a half chapters of The Art of Note Being Governed offer a wide-ranging and eclectic treatment of the role of state evasion in the history of Southeast Asia’s uplands.

Chapter Two, “State Spaces: Zones of Governance and Appropriation,” argues that the cultivation of wet rice and the regulation of irrigation systems formed the foundation of state-building projects (“the Padi-State”) in Southeast Asia (pp. 42-43, 56). By employing the term “appropriation,” Scott constructs an image of the state as an extractive entity. Rather than a totalizing formation around which the margins orbit, Scott’s appropriating state reaches in from a distance.  In Burma, measuring this distance with maps, as expressions of administrative capacity, often involved estimations of travel times rather than indications of physical distance (p. 48). Although Scott does not note it, descriptive geographies and gazetteers, a genre common to China and Vietnam, employed travel-time estimates and measured distances when describing state spaces. At least such text dates from the as late as the end of 1890s, a fact that might speak to the persistence of patterns which Scott describes as “precolonial” (p. 19).

Chapter Three, “Concerning Manpower and Grain: Slavery and Irrigated Rice,” develops Scott’s theme of the extractive state while elaborating on the historical importance of manpower to Southeast Asian states.   Provocatively, he relates the coercive aspects of Southeast Asian states to the equally coercive classical antiquity of “the West” (p. 71). This chapter also includes a concise discussion of shifting cultivation, a topic that drives much of the rest of the book. Scott convincingly charts the history of shifting cultivation (also known as swidden or, pejoratively, as “slash-and-burn” agriculture) as a long-term enemy of the state.  He cites examples from Tang China and nineteenth-century Nguyen Vietnam (pp. 77-78). Echoing the claims of Victor Lieberman, Charles Keyes, and others, Scott substantiates the notion that ethnic identity is often a matter of choice.  For Scott, moreover, the choice is a fundamentally political one, a decision to opt out of legible agricultural activity (p. 84).

The fourth chapter of The Art of Not Being Governed, “Civilization and the Unruly,” offers a thought-provoking and potentially incendiary commentary on the ways in which state formations create, indeed depend upon, “barbarian” frontiers (p. 99). Specific administrative markers denoted “hilliness,” such as the Sino-Vietnamese term Man (p. 100). But these terms reflected more than just the perspectives of states; they were also “markers for levels of civilization” (p. 104). Scott discusses the development of these markers clearly and concisely. The history of such terminology awaits further, more detailed, research.  But future investigations of civilizational markers will greatly benefit from Scott’s analysis. In this sense, he has provided an opening for work yet to be written. Drawing on the work of Stevan Harrell, Scott also traces the distinction between “raw” and “cooked” barbarians in Chinese history and the historical importance of the concept of “barbarian” to the “standard civilizational narrative” of parts of Southeast Asia, including Siam, Burma, and the Malay world (pp. 120, 116). In the case of the Yao (Dao in Vietnamese, also known as Mien in Thailand and elsewhere), Scott reminds his readers, following the work of Fei Xiaotong and Ralph Litzinger, that an administrative label became an ethnonym. The term Yao, for example, originally referred indicated the relatively light corvée obligations of those to whom it was applied (p.121). Scott also connects Wang Yangming, a sixteenth-century Chinese scholar-official who expounded a philosophy unifying action and knowledge and who disagreed with followers of Zhu Xi, to the “civilizing mission” in the Chinese tradition.  He thus suggests a potentially fruitful line of inquiry into the relationship between Wang Yangming’s political career and his far more well-known contributions to Chinese philosophical discourse (p. 116). The possibility of a conceptual connection between Wang’s insistence upon the cultivation of innate virtue and the projection of virtue through the mechanism of a civilizing mission deserves exploration.

Chapter Five, “Keeping the State at a Distance: The Peopling of the Hills,” places the peoples of Zomia into a broad comparative context. Rather than a symptom of political immaturity or just plain rebelliousness, what is from the administrative perspective instability was most often a survival tactic for Zomians. Scott notes similarities between inhabitants of upland Southeast Asia and some peoples of the Americas (p. 132). Herold Wiens and Sir James George Scott (“Shway Yoe”) figure prominently in this chapter (pp. 137 ff.).  And The Art of Not Being Governed offers a potential corollary to Charles Tilly’s comments about state formation: “states make wars and wars make states” becomes “states makes wars and wars – massively – make migrants” (p. 146). Further pursuing the comparative aspects of displacement and refuge, Scott discusses the “state-resistant space” of the Pegu Yoma in Burma as well as the swamps and marshes of Virginia, North Carolina, and Mesopotamia (pp. 169-171).

Chapter Six concerns the agricultural practices of Zomians. Within the appropriation-resistant uplands, people practiced “escape agriculture” (pp. 178-187). Scott contrasts his own positive appraisal of escape agriculturalists with the “civilizational narrative” of Vico, which he labels “an index of diminishing autonomy and freedom” (p. 191). Shifting cultivation, rather than a primitive form of agriculture practiced in the uplands, was a fundamentally political choice (pp. 194-195). Scott’s argument contributes to a more general reappraisal of swidden practices by anthropologists such as Celia Lowe and geographers such as Jean Michaud. The adoption of those practices often followed the flight of communities previously established in the lowlands who chose to resist the “friction of appropriation” (pp. 198-199) by relocating to uplands. Many of these communities came to cultivate crops were well suited to shifting cultivation and state evasion. Scott provides a valuable table of these “escape crops” (pp. 199-207). In the appropriation-resistant uplands, these “anarchic peoples” (p. 212) resisted the further erosion of their autonomy and freedom at the hands of the state.

Between Chapters Six and Seven, Scott devotes seventeen pages to the discussion of “Orality, Writing, and Texts” (pp. 221-238). This mini-chapter, enumerated as “6.5,” sets out to disrupt the conventional picture of literacy in much the same way that the previous chapters upset  conventional notions of agriculture, state formation, and civilization.  Just as in the rest of the book, Scott here poses compelling questions, though in very truncated form. Citing the work of von Gesau on the Akha, Scott reminds his readers that “postliterate” might best describe the general traditions of writing and orality among the peoples of Zomia (pp. 220-221).  He quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss, who remarked that writing “seems rather to favor the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind” (p. 228). “Oral traditions,” Scott states in reference to the work of the path-breaking Africanist Jan Vansina, “are to written traditions more or less what swidden agriculture is to irrigated wet-rice agriculture or what small, dispersed kin groups are to settled, concentrated societies. They are the ‘jellyfish,’ shape-shifting, pliable form of custom, history, and law” (p. 230). Scott elaborates on oral tradition with an episode form his own fieldwork in the “Burmese Shan States,” which involved the story of a famous PaO leader named U Aung Tha. The oral traditions surrounding the story of U Aung Tha, in Scott’s analysis, transmit a highly detailed tale of the PaO leader murdered in 1948 while avoiding the rigidity and exposure of textual documentation (p. 231). 

The final part of 6.5, “The Advantage of Not Having a History,” focuses on one such “’jellyfish’ culture,” the Lisu (p. 235). The “historylessness” (p. 235) of the Lisu serves a tactical purpose similar to swidden agriculture: the avoidance of rigidity and the assurance of “virtually limitless” possibilities (p. 235).  This “Lisu forgetting,” an idea that Scott draws from the work of Hjorleifur Jonsson, both allows members of the group to survive in constantly changing conditions and “curtail[s] the possibilities of collective resistance” (p. 235). “How much history a people have, far from indicating their low stage of evolution, is always an active choice, one that positions them vis-à-vis their powerful text-based neighbors” (p. 237). What Scott offers in this brief discussion is a reassessment of textually oriented, documentary-dependent “historical research,” while engaging in a critique of understandings of history and historicity tied to particular approaches to historical research. In 6.5, Scott connects the concerns of Vansina, Gesau, and Jonsson to the theoretical perspectives of Eric Wolf and others skeptical of the grand Hegelian historical narrative.

The seventh chapter of The Art of Not Being Governed, “Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case,” concerns the frustration of administrators and the related “absorptive capacity” of uplands groups (p. 241). Beginning with the example of the British in Burma, Scott shows how census officials were constantly encountering an “apparent mess” when attempting to categorize communities and populations (p. 240).  As Scott reminds us, this mess was not a new phenomenon, nor one exclusively related to the state.  The Miao had long been a doppelganger for Han administration, and “Karen,” as a label, represented a project largely of self-identification.  In fact, echoing the work of Dru Gladney, Scott notes that “Han,” as an identity, is perhaps “the most successful, long-term, state-based ingathering of all time” (pp. 245-246). Scott offers two examples that typify the plasticity of such labels. He examination both of the muang, a political formation of Tai-speakers and their allies that covered much of the Zomia region at one point, and of the Zhuang, a Tai-speaking ethnic group in the People’s Republic of China that “plays Han,” illustrates the messiness of labels and identities (pp. 246-247, 249). This very messiness, Scott notes, resulted from the openness of hill groups.  It was only reinforced by the attempted “Linnean classification of peoples” that accompanied colonial projects in upland Southeast Asia (pp. 253).

Scott’s final chapter, “Prophets of Renewal,” presents several interesting examples of rebellion among the various peoples of Zomia.  Rather than a dispiriting list of failed revolts against the state, Scott sees “an audacious poaching of the lowland ideological structure,” expressed through the “millenarian fervor” of rebellious Zomians (p. 322). Scott covers many of the major, “lowland” religious traditions that became modes of expression for revolt in the uplands. This chapter illustrates the usefulness of valley traditions for the uplands and, perhaps most significantly, moves discussion of rebellion away from mere matters of “administrative concern” (Guha, p. 3).

This book stands as a work of synthesis and intervention for scholars of Southeast Asia (and beyond) across all disciplines. Scott upsets the quaint notions of civilization, agriculture, and ethnicity that linger in the academic and intellectual consciousness. For this insight, The Art of Not Being Governed should be read by all scholars with an interest in uplands areas, whether within or outside Southeast Asia. Although this book contains some quaint notions of its own, such as a division between premodern and modern that seems to depend largely on the arrival European colonial rule (pp. 19, 96, 253), the idea that state centralization in Southeast Asia was “modeled” on the “West” (p. 253), and the consistency of “Han administration” even under Manchu rule (1644-1911), the appearance of these notions is a testament to the book’s potential to incite discussion and further research.

The Art of Not Being Governed opens with a quotation from Pierre Clastres, whose work speaks directly both to the themes of Scott’s excellent study of Zomians and to the road ahead for Zomia studies: “It is said that the history of peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle. It might be said with at least as much truthfulness, that the history of peoples without history is a history of their struggle against the state.” This insight from Clastres, who also argued against sedentary agriculture as the natural telos of human activity (Clastres, p. 85), represents the key that James C. Scott has used to open up all that lies between the covers of his latest book. As streams of researchers pour forth to consider the histories of Zomians, The Art of Not Being Governed should provide them with an indispensible conceptual language.  As with a shipyard, a “sure mark of influence would be how many ships were launched from its dock” (Guha, p. ix).

Bradley C. Davis

Eastern Washington University

Works Cited

Clastres, Pierre. Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books, 1987.

Day, Tony.  Fluid Iron: State Formation in Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix.  Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. With and Introduction by Michel Foucault.  Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, trans. New York: Viking, 1977.

Guha, Ranajit. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. With a Forward by James C. Scott.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. G. D. H. Cole, trans. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2008.

van Schendel, Willem.  “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Southeast Asia from the Fringes.”  Paper prepared for work-shop on “Locating Southeast Asia: Genealogies, Concepts, Comparisons and Prospects,” Amsterdam, March 2001.

About Bradley C. Davis, Guest Contributor