Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, I: Stateless Topographies and Illegibilities of Resistance

So I promised that I'd talk about polo and bicycles. (Also fox hunting and the King's Cup Aero Race). How about this: aspirational sport fashions come and go. Looking at them might be an interesting way of doing a landscape reception study. 

Now what's really crawled into my brain this week and won't let go until I've talked about it:

From Anarchyandchaos: "Longing for the end times since  I  hit puberty."
Let's see how long that image stays up.  Thanks to taking a transfer to a new store to keep my current (very new and very nice) employment status, I've been spending a great deal of time on busses and a main transit spur line not-to-be-named in the interest of giving my employer some plausible deniability in case I'm ever inclined to rant about the grocery business here,* and that means spending a lot of time trapped with the book you see here. It's brilliant, stimulating, rambling, repetitive, annoying and frustrating. And boy, does it make you think about other things than the people you'll see so much less now that you're working at some not-to-be-named place in the inner suburbs.

So what's the story here? For better or worse, we have a set of nation-building chronicles that lead us to a complex constellation of as many as 50 Southeast Asian theater/mandala/padi states spread throughout the region in about 1600, speckled on bottom lands spread through the Indosinian orogeny. Today, we have the modern nations that these texts serve to historicise, which have filled out the map Southeast Asia in the blocks of solid colour, as the modern nation state paradigm does. Taking the approach of the maps to the recorded political geography of 1600, and you can produce the same kind of map, although you'll need more crayons.

In that sense, we have a history of the uplands. Get the right map, and we'll be able to determine if any arbitrary place in Southeast Asia is part of Pagan, Lan Xang, Annam, Ngoenyang, or choose your own exotic ASEAN name. Just look at the colour key.

  Which is, of course, completely unhelpful. Whether you prefer to talk about the "raw" barbarians, forest Mleccha, or even Appalachian hillbillies, chances are you're going to gesturing in the direction of non-state spaces. Western observers entered Southeast Asia in the Nineteenth Century and promptly discovered an indigenous non-state space in the highlands. Amateur ethnography gave way to state funded political anthropology just after the middle of the last century for various reasons (mood music), part of a full-blown commitment to the stability of the Southeast Asian state that had the usual results. Burmese authorities, meanwhile, proved that it wasn't necessary to be colonised to end up in a guerilla/civil war in the highlands. With a little more detachment from external bogeymen and grand ideological commitments, area scholars proposed a new conceptual label for upland Southeast Asia. It is the Zomia, and by definition it is non-state space, at least until recently.

What we've done here is create a conceptual region by cutting it off from the history that used to constitute it. And, of course, that's a fine thing for political anthropologists to do, because there are lots of questions that, say, development agencies might want to put to the upland that don't require a commitment to what the region looked like in 1200AD. All the same, you might want to ask how these regions got the way they are, at which point you're writing the history of a region without history. Which, again, is hardly an impossible thing to do. I've read some great histories-without-history, and I have a good sense of what to look for: tour-de-force archaeology and gentle criticism of ancient (and Nineteenth Century) cosmogenic historical fantasy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)).

Well, that's not what you get here. What you get here is a rambling, repetitive case for writing such a history of Zomia, maybe, one day, when the archaeology is in. In the mean time, one can gesture in the direction of what such a history might one day look like. And if the rambling is the bad part, this is very definitely the good part.

If you don't have time to make the jump, here's an excellent summary by an old friend of the blog:

Now with extra ads for Rihanna's latest! Because we all need more irony in our life. Am I being ironic or serious? I can't even tell any more. (Because the Simpsons clip isn't on Youtube any more.)

Scott's point, as often as it gets lost in the elephant grass, is that there is a topography of state access. It's not the elevations that matter, but the "friction of distance." If the armies of the state can't get at you where you are, you have the luxury of not participating in the state. The hill countries are Scott's subject, but he keeps wandering off into swamps, littorals, steppes and deserts in search of his point. Which is too bad, because as long as he sticks to his area of focus, he makes an overwhelming case for his argument. I'm absolutely here to be persuaded that we can talk about Vikings the same way, but Scott can't wave to a dozen anthropological case studies of Viking bands, even though apparently people are lining up to volunteer.**

The question, of course, is why people would want to escape state participation. Scott lays out an argument about how the constellation of lowland padi states impose undue burdens on their population. He talks about taxes, conscription, and exploitation, and also about the ecological limits of the power of the state, noting that premodern agricultural states can't exploit the GDP of the populace so much as the "State Accessible Product." Hence, "padi state:" these are states built on wet-rice agriculture in the low countries because rice crops are easy to access and tax. They are "legible" to the state. This, of course, requires that the rice-growing population be "legible" to the state. One must be able to count them, assess them, and, sometimes, dispose of their labour through conscription, again. It is also important to impose religious conformity on them, even if Scott somewhat loses his footing in explaining why. Saying (frequently) that Theravada Buddhism is a would-be universal religion is not doing the work.

Scott also argues, intermittently, that the shifting swidden agriculture practiced in the uplands isn't necessarily less productive than padi agriculture. It is, rather, less legible to the state. At the same time, it isn't clear that this is important, because while a land tax levied in rice is vital to the padi state, so are the revenues accruing from long distance trade in hill/jungle luxuries. What he does make clear is that, in his view, upland swidden agriculture offers a reasonable alternative to lowland padi agriculture. We get very close to a social contract analysis in which people come down to participate in the state when conditions are good, and flee into the highlands when the extractive demands of the state become excessive. By which I mean that he says that a lot, talking about the padi state as a "self-liquidating" enterprise, and then he wanders off to talk about the alleged nutritional and public health deficits of the padi state some more.

Leave that aside: take this contract analysis seriously. Populations flow in and out of the state: at the core of Scott's argument is a radical claim about the nature of these populations. The one thing that nationalist historians and old chronicles can agree on is that populations obediently range themselves under ethnic banners. Tai, Burmans, Shan, and others descend from the north in great migratory waves fleeing the Chinese state. Each in turn clears the bottom lands of the preceding people, who, obediently following the banners of national identity, flee into the uplands to dispossess others in turn, so that eventually we have a topographic archaeology, with the most ancient indigenes on the tops of the mountains and the most recent empire-builders at the bottom.

The empire-builders are appalled by this flight. The whole point of padi statebuilding is to make a better life for all by ingathering, civilising, and providing prosperity in which population can flourish. Those who resist this process in the hills do so because they are barbarian, and perverse. They need to be hauled out of their refuges and civilised by slavers.

Scott sometimes seems to be arguing this general thesis in all seriousness. It's just that he's on the side of the upland barbarians. So it is a good thing that he reminds us (and himself) that it is radically incorrect.  The hill peoples are not "always there." The hill communities of today are the lowland communities of yesterday, and vice versa. The padi state, in its upward arc, brings population in from the hills and everywhere else. It may label them as barbarian slaves to begin with, but the barbarian slaves of yesterday are the citizens of tomorrow, having fabricated new ethno-national and religious genealogies in order to participate in the state. And, again, the day after tomorrow, they will flee into the hills to escape the collapsing state, and in the process embrace new "barbarian" upland identities. He gets very close to a radically ecological picture of upland ethnology. "Tribes" are defined by the microenvriomental niche, not by ancient migrations of related peoples, each speaking their own special language.  A side hill in Burma, a side hill in southern Vietnam; both will be inhabited by "related" tribes, but the relationship is not genealogical, but rather one of shared toolkits.

In this argument, microenvironment is sometimes essential to escaping "legibility." Other times, well, meh. Scott toys with the idea that tax evasion is a form of flight, but since he attaches it to elites rather than commons, there's only so far he can go with that. Which is odd given that Scott's earliest work on Vietnamese peasants revealed that they would sometimes do just exactly this: flee the state/tax/market nexus into a system of patronage relations with local magnates who could hide them from taxation in return for their loyalty. The limits to this strategy are defined, however, by the crop. If you grow rice, the rice can be seized. The only protection from that is the mountains, because there rice is not grown.

Two questions,  then:

First, why are the mountains available? Why are the paddy lands available? This is a huge problem, especially when one of Scott's examples, northern Luzon, seems to have been empty of people at the beginning of the Colonial period. Southeast Asia is lightly populated. This is not what we expect to find in a Malthusian model. Rather, it's what I was getting at last time when I talked about how historians of technology need to explain why history is so long. Did the technologies needed to maximise the population of Southeast Asia exist in 1500? If so, why is the region so empty? If not, if we are talking about peanuts and maize, why did the process of expansion into the mountains take four centuries and counting?

Scott's argument points in the direction of human demographic inertia. The padi states rose and fell to the extent that they could ingather, confine, and coerce a scarce labour force. There are only so many people around. Paradoxically, that implies (I think) that human  populations are demographically robust. All that mismanagement didn't depopulate the peninsula, given the growth in number and wealth of the padi states, it didn't even hold back population expansion.

Second, what happens when we apply this model to the fall of the Roman Empire? What if the barbarians that pressed on the Roman Empire are actually Romans become illegible? I've played with this model of barbarian as Roman undergoing ethnogenesis. It's a classic argument against the idea of largescale population transfers during the Volkerwanderung, and it will do for the Vikings as well.

The difference here is that my last experiment tried to take seriously Chris Wickham's understanding that the fall of Empire involved significant depopulation, but Roman demographic historian Walter Scheidel hits Scott's note perfectly when he argues vehemently, even angrily, that the ancient (and more recent) voices upon which we rely for our evidence of depopulation are propagandists. (I think here: I'll point to this paper, anyway, because Debating Roman Demography is not available in preview form at Google Books, and I assume that anyone who is interested enough to click through in an attempt to test my claim is interested enough in the subject to not roast me in the flames if I turn out to be wrong about the polemic in question being there, as opposed to the book they can't read online.)

Scheidel asks for a cultural history of this trope; Scott may just have given one. Scott gives an answer. Apologists for the padi state --for any state--  pretend that legibility is not a concern. If the census takers can't find as many people in a place as they used to find, it must be because of a secular decline in population, not in the state's loss of charisma or coercive power.

So what if Rome is a padi state, with wheat, oil, and wine replacing rice? The story of Rome's rise through the steady ingathering of slaves, and then of its slow decline, with the constant planting of capture barbarians on "deserted lands" sounds exactly like the story of a Southeast Asian padi state. We're missing only an understanding of what a topography of resistance might look like in a Roman context.

The advantage of a vertical topography of resistance is that it allows us to apply Scott's thesis to the Roman Empire taking only internal state-evading refuges into account. The Appenines, Calabria, Arcadia, the Rif, the Basque county, Snowdonia,  the Vaudois, the Forest Cantons; and for that matter the Fens, Camargue, Pontine Marshes and Nieusiedler See  lie within the Roman frontiers. Yet it is romantic in the extreme to assume that the Roman state could have been brought down by flight into a few refuges.  In spite of Scott's easy parallels, it is hard to see the European highlands working in the same way as the Southeast Asian. Transmigrant husbandry, as far as I know, is a European, not Southeast Asian phenomena.

That is, if we ignore the Roman Empire's actual frontiers. And that provokes one hell of a question. What if the Roman Empire's population problem are a problem of people escaping into nonstate regions? We have all the ingredients: a region without history, practicing mobile swidden farming, resisting imperial religion, language, literacy, family names, cadastral survey. We have the same mysterious decoupling of ethnonyms from identifiable populations. We have a story of the state's relationship with the barbarians that we know to be false by observation in the Southeast Asian case. For all that the barbarians did come down to raid, we know that the state's wars with the highlands were more normally intrusive and aimed at ingathering fugitive populations.

Now, Roman armies certainly went out and "rescued" captive populations. Can we take it further? Are the "invading" barbarians actually fleeing Romans?  Is the late Roman state self-liquidating?   

*Boy howdy, don't get me started. The fingers are itching to --argh, why doesn't Frito-Lay just fire its board now? How can it make sense to market two identical premium chip brands in the same space. You get how this will necessarily lead to increased out of stocks and shrink, right?-- See? I've got to stop now....
**Sheesh. Still, I've already linked to the Ballad of the Green Beret, so consider that the heteronormative alt-text. What? Ballad wasn't supposed to be homoerotic? Whatever. Mmm... Heteronormative fantasies. What reading Scott on the bus distracts me from.


  1. 'Are the "invading" barbarians actually fleeing Romans? Is the late Roman state self-liquidating?'

    Which might, amongst other things, go some way to explaining the non-existence of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain - they were mainly composed of Brits returning from overseas jaunts.

    Tying in with ethnic identification as driven by shared behavior, and not the other way round.

    The returning Brits would of course have met up with their relatives who were a mixture of the previously disregarded and the minority previously well-regarded.

    Would this have any validity?

  2. Scott's arsenal of techniques of the art of not being governed include heresy, the adoption of a non-dominant language, the abandonment of family names, and of literacy.

    The problem of what happened in Britain between 410, the canonical but probably false date for the retreat of the legions and the arrival of Augustine in 597 (or possibly Bede writing in c. 730) is the replacement of a population of "British" with a population of "Anglo-Saxons."

    The scare quotes demand a phenomological approach. Tall tales of ancient migrations are out: change in religion; language; naming conventions; and the disappearance of evidence for literacy are in. These are things we know happened.

    This could have happened by population replacement, but the logistic implausibility invites alternatives. Having cherry picked diagnostic changes that fit Scott's schema at the head of this comment, it will surprise no-one that I'm currently attracted to the idea of an ethnogenesis of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity in situ.

    That being said, if it happened much later than 410, it presumably wasn't in response to Roman government, but rather the rise of what later came to be the kingdoms of the Heptarchy, aka "sub-Roman successor states."

  3. Yes, and I wouldn't disagree with what you say - Anglo-Saxonism being mainly/totally/partly indigenous undergirded with some recent speculations that there were Germanic languages being spoken in parts of England long before their claimed post-Roman import.

    What caught my eye was the idea that influences from abroad could have been carried back from the 'barbarian' regions by Brits who had relations with those areas in some ways, and the possibility that the claimed Anglo-Saxons were just Brits - some possibly returning from abroad with new tech/ideas, forming a political party and starting a civil war.

  4. The argument for a long-running collapse of Roman Britain is well buttressed by evidence that Roman British towns were fortified much earlier than towns on the continent, and the decline of Roman towns, again at least half a century before analogous trends in Roman Gaul.

    Given these, people have been trying to diagnose the troubles of the diocese from what evidence we have for a long time. What was the "Great Barbarian Conspiracy?" How extensive was British Pelagianism? Did the troops who supported the late British usurpers return to the island? When Carausius presents as corrupting the anti-piracy effort during the (alleged) Third Century Crisis, is this indicative of the kind of collaboration between (Saxon) pirates and pirate-hunters known from later periods?

    And, of course, there are the hoards, my favourite bit of evidence, since they might indicate demonetarisation, hence a problem with the way that the central government was conducting the commanding heights of the economy.

    So follow this speculation a bit further. What would we expect to see if the Roman state economy collapses? The grand historical pattern is for two British economic spheres, one turning to the North Sea, the other to the Atlantic. The Atlantic periphery remained Romanised, and the Tintagel excavations indicate a continuing Mediterranean connection. What do we expect to see on the North Sea littoral? An economic and cultural convergence of the two coasts.

    Anglo-Saxonism. Also, a herring and trail oil (cod?) trade. Again, though we have the fifth century gap. As far as we know, de-urbanisation, the diminution of class distinctions, and a decline of interregional trade and labour specialisation, per the disappearance of Roman-style mass produced pottery, although this might also indicate the rise of a barrel-based logistic.

    Maybe it's all about barrels provoking a massive economic and cultural transformations? It's crazy, but not necessarily crazier than the consequences of the ongoing shipping container revolution.