THE ART OF NOT BEING GOVERNED: ORALITY, WRITING, AND TEXTS

Abstract


The article presents a fragment of the book by J. Scott devoted to Zomia - an expanse of 2.5 million square kilometers containing about one hundred million minority peoples of truly bewil-dering ethnic and linguistic variety; what makes it interesting is its ecological variety as well as its relation to states. Zomia is the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples until recently have not been fully incorporated into nation-states. Its days are numbered. Not so very long ago, however, such self-go-verning peoples were the great majority of humankind. Today, they are seen from the valley kingdoms as “our living ancestors,” “what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civiliza-tion.” On the contrary, hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the val-leys - slavery, conscription, taxes, corvee labor, epidemics, and warfare. Virtually everything about these people’s livelihoods, social organization, ideologies, and (more controversially) even their largely oral cul-tures, can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arm’s length. Their physical disper-sion in rugged terrain, their mobility, their cropping practices, their kinship structure, their pliable ethnic identities, and their devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders effectively serve to avoid incorporation into states and to prevent states from springing up among them. Most of the peoples dwelling in the massif seem to have assembled a comprehensive cultural portfolio of techniques for evading state incorporation while availing themselves of the economic and cultural opportunities its proximity presented. Their broad reper-toires of languages and ethnic affiliations, their capacity for prophetic reinvention, their short and/or oral genealogies, and their talent for fragmentation all form elements in their formidable travel kit.

J Scott

james.scott@yale.edu
Yale University Box 208209, New Haven, CT 06520-8206

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