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The Mystery of Zomia
December 13, 2009 8:10 PM   Subscribe

"In the lawless mountain realms of Asia, a Yale professor finds a case against civilization"
Zomia is a rugged swath of Asia that for 2,000 years has remained culturally aloof from the traditional centers of power and the pull of empires. Its inhabitants, Asia’s “hill people,” have earned a reputation for egalitarianism, insurrection, and independence. Up until the second half of the 20th century, many of the societies there remained nonliterate and supported themselves through trade, smuggling, and Iron-Age practices like slash-and-burn agriculture... In Zomia’s small societies, with their simple technologies, anti-authoritarian tendencies, and oral cultures, Scott sees not a world forgotten by civilization, but one that has been deliberately constructed to keep the state at arm’s length.
posted by andoatnp (82 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool, James Scott has a new book; Seeing Like a State was excellent.
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:21 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Good job James Scott, now the Zomia are going to wake up to a bunch of anarcho-punk kids and Burning Man lifers wanting to join in.
posted by griphus at 8:25 PM on December 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Women invented civilization.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:26 PM on December 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


My wife was born dead and revived. I had horrific allergies that might've been life-threatening in a previous time. My daughter was delivered via emergency C-section when she, so help me, got stuck. She was just a wee bit too late to meet her great-great-grandmother who did get to see other members of the fourth generation of her progeny.

This evening, I had a hot shower, read a great book and had a pizza delivered. Seriously big fan of civilization here.
posted by codswallop at 8:31 PM on December 13, 2009 [68 favorites]


Just don't let Zomians near your meat cleavers and you'll be fine.
posted by dgaicun at 8:43 PM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I find it uncomfortable that Westerners have given a name to a region that's never been named by the inhabitants. In fact, as far as I can tell, none of the people living in this area have thought of it as a single whole. It's all a bit too colonialist for me.
posted by Kattullus at 8:47 PM on December 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


This report on the Afghan army helps explain why these people might be enjoying life so much.
posted by delmoi at 8:47 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, um. Yale prof projects Zerzan TAZ* onto The Lost World, or maybe newspaper feature writer does that to Yale prof's ideas. So.... um.

*except that in this narrative it's not temporary

**not that taz
posted by mwhybark at 8:51 PM on December 13, 2009


Though never seeing itself as a country apart

So take that, Ben Anderson's imagined literate national community. Even if you don't think of yourself as a cohesive whole, there are social geographers who'll come and Zomianise you for you.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:59 PM on December 13, 2009


Downside: no tenure.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:00 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Woooaaaa, Scott's approach is deeply problematic in my opinion, crazy cherry-picking going on there. Ironically for a dude championing mountainous woods, he can't see the forest for the trees.

Scott is romanticising and extrapolating something pretty simple: What most 'hill tribes' - or more accurately, remote minorities of all descriptions - do have in common is persecution and theft by a centralised, typically better armed majority. But push for any more detail and his vision collapses under local histories, context and culture.

Trying to paint the 'hill-tribes' as one cohesive group demonstrates how embedded his 'low-lander' perspective is - they certainly don't see themselves as all the same.

Sadly, grand theories of blah are a little too common when someone wades into a discipline they're not familiar with - Scott should have listened more to the anthropologists instead of his parsing all in sight through the pol sci lense of conflict - and I say this as a pol sci major. He seems - at least in that interview - quite ignorant of the people he is alleging to champion.
posted by smoke at 9:08 PM on December 13, 2009 [14 favorites]


though never seeing itself as a country apart

I thought it would be a specific focus on some interesting little enclave somewhere, but they are talking about the whole Tibetan Plateau and any mountains or hills vaguely close to it.

Hill people tend to be a little backwards, and keep to themselves! News at eleven.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:09 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


In Zomia’s small societies, with their simple technologies, anti-authoritarian tendencies, and oral cultures...

Sounds like teabaggers to me.
posted by grounded at 9:12 PM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have issues about why this is supposedly so important. The article (I don't know whether this is in his work or not) seems to play loose with "state" and "civilization". It's hard to deny that they're closely linked in the modern view, but it's possible for the latter to exist without the former, at least to some extent. That anybody might reject one or both is well known, and he doesn't need to travel outside the Western world to find plenty of proof for it. Anarchism and primitivism have been around for hundreds of years.

However, his main claim seems to be that not only can you reject them, but you can make it work, and here's proof civilization/the state doesn't have to win like everywhere else. But then, what kind of a claim is that? Especially when tied so close to geography? He's not able to say that they're better cultures, just that the pre-modern state found it hard to control them. If he wants to discuss how geography affects the development of political society, then I'm all for it, and I'm sure there's lots of good work already out there.
posted by Sova at 9:12 PM on December 13, 2009


Clean, potable water comes into my house, out of my taps at the temperature of my choosing. Sewage goes out, to be processed in a plant so well that the water outflow from those sewage plants is cleaner than the lakes and rivers it pours into. I can drive, very nearly unobstructed (except for other taxpayers who are likewise enjoying this privilege) on smooth roads for hundreds of miles, from city to city.

And should I get stranded on that road, or get into trouble in that city, then all I have to do is make a phone call and if twenty trained professionals riding thirty million dollars of specialized equipement will come rolling over the horizon to my aid in minutes.

Why would anyone want to keep you at arm's length, State? Come here and have a big ol' hug. I know we have our differences, and you should stop reading my emails, but I know that when I'm having a really bad day you won't forget me, and I love you for it.
posted by mhoye at 9:16 PM on December 13, 2009 [16 favorites]


Woooaaaa, Scott's approach is deeply problematic in my opinion, crazy cherry-picking going on there. Ironically for a dude championing mountainous woods, he can't see the forest for the trees.

In the article he certainly seems to welcome strident debate (though whether this is true depends on academic sausage-making most of us aren't privy to). I think it's important to entertain the idea that people who aren't fully integrated into the state should be understood as more than victims of circumstance.
posted by mobunited at 9:17 PM on December 13, 2009


I owe not only my existence but the fact that I can walk to medical procedures performed at the time of my birth, as I had twisted legs and developed some kind of horrible fever. So, uh, fuck primitivism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:22 PM on December 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


I prefer civilization's Culture of Law versus the alternative: Culture of Honor. I trust the state to protect my interests (usually), I don't have to start a blood feud or walk around prickling my hair at every minor slight to reputation.
posted by stbalbach at 9:42 PM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I read that Mobunited, but what's the point of debate when your thesis is so obviously flawed that a wikipedia article can prove you wrong?

I quote: "Yet, the history of the 'Miao' cannot be equated with the history of the Hmong. Although the term 'Miao' is used today by the Chinese government to denote a group of linguistically and culturally related people (including the Hmong, Hmu, Kho Xiong, and A Hmao), it has been used inconsistently in the past. Throughout the written history of China, it was applied to a variety of peoples considered to be marginal to Han society, including many who are unrelated to contemporary Hmong/Mong people.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that Scott falls for exactly the same trap the Han dynasties did: he defines his groups by what they aren't not what they are. I'm prepared to accept that the article may not be the best vehicle for his views, but frankly from here it looks like the same noble savage bullshit we've been seeing for centuries.
posted by smoke at 9:44 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why would anyone want to keep you at arm's length, State?

You're at the upper, exploiting end of the equation. Scott's argument is for those at the lower, exploited end:
Zomia’s history, Scott argues, is a rejection of the mighty lowland states that are seen as defining Asia. He calls Zomia a “shatter zone,” a place where people go to escape the raw deal that complex civilization historically has been for those at the bottom: the coerced labor and conscription into military service, the taxation for wars and pharaonic building projects, the epidemic diseases that came with intensive agriculture and animal husbandry.
Sure, civilization's great for us at the top of the pyramid; for those at the bottom, not so much.
posted by scalefree at 9:44 PM on December 13, 2009 [15 favorites]


Well, in purely historical terms any argument about primitivism's a canard.
What the pre-modern states of the region were offering wasn't exactly the full set of services and infrastructure of a north European welfare state or even somewhere relatively backward like the US (arf). Off the top of my head, you'd have got the supposed absence of disorder and violence (which didn't stop endemic clan warfare in south China quite apart from your run-of-the-mill banditry), maybe an irrigation project and perhaps a bit of famine relief from the national system of granaries. The infrastructure you or your forbears would have built yourself in a system of corvee labour (and who knew when you'd be summoned for similar or military service again?) and smaller-scale local solutions or the move to swidden would have obviated the need for that, plus of course you were exempt from the taxation by which the state captured surplus. Medical care from a local herbalist would be about on a par with what the emperor got in the palace. So basically if being up in the hills was sufficient defence against regular military incursion from the more powerful, you're probably a net winner in simply rational terms, setting aside the 'freebird' arguments.
posted by Abiezer at 9:50 PM on December 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


That article reeks of "Noble Savage" mythology.

Before I take it seriously, I'd like to know the child mortality rate of those noble savages.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:51 PM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


I enjoyed the article, I'm always interested in new and interesting outsider type perspectives. Complaints seem to be a) he's reading too much into this, and b) civilization totally rules. To the first I'd say, so what? Imagination is sadly lacking these days, which is why civilization is actually only just good enough and not much more. Which pwns point b).

The problem with being too civilized is you cannot allow that changes are always necessary, major improvements can me made, and there is much to learn from ways of life that are so-called backwards.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 9:59 PM on December 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Indeed, Abiezer, but Scott also posits (at least in regards to Viet/Thai/Lao hill tribes, which are the only group I have a passing familiarity with) an element of free choice that rarely existed. These groups have been, until recently and in some cases still, hounded and pursued by governments in question; assimilating wasn't necessarily an option.

Racism is the elephant in this room, and I don't know why Scott hasn't confronted it in the interview - whether it's genuine ignorance, an uncomfortable rebuttal, or (given how he views hill tribes as a monolithic entity) simply that he honestly sees all Asians as the same. I don't know. Either way, a five second history lesson should have disabused him of the notion.
posted by smoke at 10:00 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Very fair points, smoke. I'm vaguely aware of arguments about migrations to the margins in Chinese history, which I know a bit better, which fit his point about choice but as you say that's hardly the top and bottom of the story for the various diverse cultures in this geographical region (plus I know next to bugger all about the peoples you mention so in no opinion to comment there).
posted by Abiezer at 10:06 PM on December 13, 2009


'position to comment' I should say.
posted by Abiezer at 10:07 PM on December 13, 2009


"Civilization" is one of those niggling little words which skirts close to being meaningless. (It's sort of like "culture," except that I can more confidently say that the word "culture" generally is meaningless, or at least that people think they're referring to a real thing when they use it when really they're not at all.) In that article, "civilization" seems to mean, first and foremost, the modern arrangement of states and democratic regimes. It seems to have an overtone of "technologically advanced," but I don't think that's central to the point; so those here saying "I like civilization, because I like modern medicine, et cetera" might not have a valid point against Scott's thesis, which on my reading seems to have a lot more to do with the organization of political systems.

And honestly the word seems a bit dangerous in these contexts; it's far too easy to use "civilization" as a word that means something like "what we've got" without realizing it, and to deride "civilization" in a blanket way without thinking about particulars. I'm a little conflicted about this because I believe we really should spend a lot more time criticizing our society and thinking about ways in which other societies might do things differently.

I'd like to read this book, anyhow. Sounds interesting, and I have to say I think I agree with a lot of what the author seems to say. But I don't know if he's put his finger on the difficulties; it may just be the reviewer's language getting in the way, but I don't think it's the "complexity" of larger states that gets in the way of justice within them necessarily. All states are complex when seen from within - even anarchist communes have endless political complexities that they deal with. Nor, I think, does simple antiauthoritarianism alone lead to any kind of stable culture. When considering this stuff, the first text I go back to is still the first few pages of Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, where he lays out the foundations of the then-modern Athenian city-state; as he describes, people started to stay in one place, become traders and merchants, specialize their occupations, and form political confederacies because it was convenient to do so. That convenience wasn't trivial; this way of life must have been a real boon, and the fact that you could stay in one place for years on end without having to travel, starve, endure theft and piracy, or otherwise face the world alone was a real value, and the fact that your mother died while at sea or your father was killed by pirates had to be a keen motivation to settle down and accept whatever compromises you had to in order to find a more stable and amenable life. Thucydides indicates (as only he so brilliantly can) that, although they had very real reasons when they were made, those compromises led to all kinds of problems of complexity, and those people who chose a life which was easier and more cosmopolitan (generally, the Athenians) had an equal, if very different, set of problems when compared with those who stubbornly chose a more rugged subsistence in the faith that such a life was more beneficial to human beings (generally, the Lacedaemonians.)

I don't know if that apposition really holds here, though I can say that I think one thing's certainly true; huge nation-states the size of the US make very little sense in this or any time except in very, very particular circumstances. The ancients generally held that city-states were the standard unit of national identity, not merely because they hadn't seen larger nations (they certainly had) but because it's hard to see how laws and customs can have real meaning beyond the bounds of a single city, where everybody is at least potentially acquainted with everybody else.
posted by koeselitz at 10:17 PM on December 13, 2009 [9 favorites]


me: “... any kind of stable culture.”

Argh! Curse you, ironical gods of linguistic criticism!

posted by koeselitz at 10:22 PM on December 13, 2009


I haven't read this book, and I'm only a 50-75% fan of his previous work, but those saying Scott doesn't know his history or doesn't appreciate local culture are well off-base. He's practically an anthropologist (in fact he has a joint appointment at Yale) and has been doing ethnography in Southeast Asia since the 1970s (most famously in Weapons of the Weak and Domination and the Arts of Resistance.

Like I said, I haven't read his latest book--but my guess is that he's pretty clued up on the history and ethnography of the area he's talking about. And at 464 pages, it sounds like he certainly wasn't under any pressure from his editors (if he had any) to leave anything out.

Those who like this brand of anthropological anarchism should check out David Graeber's free book Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Interesting stuff.
posted by col_pogo at 10:32 PM on December 13, 2009 [8 favorites]


There are hill people "culturally aloof from the traditional centers of power" in the US too. The ones in northern Georgia even had a popular book and movie made about them!
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:38 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know if that apposition really holds here, though I can say that I think one thing's certainly true; huge nation-states the size of the US make very little sense in this or any time except in very, very particular circumstances. The ancients generally held that city-states were the standard unit of national identity, not merely because they hadn't seen larger nations (they certainly had) but because it's hard to see how laws and customs can have real meaning beyond the bounds of a single city, where everybody is at least potentially acquainted with everybody else.

This meshes well with a realization I had a few years ago, that the primary purpose of political civilization is to overcome the limits of our neocortex and extend our collective Dunbar number. Once you see it that way the rest of it becomes a math problem. Which type of system has the highest information-carrying power balanced with the greatest resilience against the greatest number of attacks?

A disconnected, localized collection of systems ala Zomia rates pretty high on the resilience scale but low on the information-carrying one. What tips the balance in their favor is their geographic advantage; an impenetrable mountain wilderness can keep out all but the most persistent invader.
posted by scalefree at 10:59 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


an impenetrable mountain wilderness can keep out all but the most persistent invader.

Like, say, Afghanistan.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:11 PM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


When it comes to finding political utopias in past societies, my favourite is this study of ancient Anatolia, which argues:
The social revolution of the year 7200 B.C. is the hour of the birth of neolithic communism. An egalitarian, classless society arises in which women and men are equal, a society which rapidly spreads over the whole of Anatolia and almost simultaneously over the Balcans and which endures for 3000 years
It's based a pretty plausible reading of the archaeology of Çatalhöyük, inter alia. So you get all the mod cons of urban living such as they were at the time, no patriarchy or inequality and the absence of war. Apparently the choice of channels on the local cable provider was shit though.
posted by Abiezer at 11:27 PM on December 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Seems to me the major problem is that the geographical and cultural concept of Zomia is completely pulled out of his ass. There really isn't much else to say.
posted by afu at 11:31 PM on December 13, 2009


Google Ron Zomia!
posted by orthogonality at 11:43 PM on December 13, 2009


If it were called Zombia, I'd consider it a military concern.
posted by HotPants at 11:53 PM on December 13, 2009


Abiezer: Thanks for the interesting tidbit on Çatalhöyük. I didn't know about that particular utopia. As an aside, anyone interested should look at the the excavation's website, which as far as I know (uh, not very far, to be honest) is unprecedented for an archaeological dig in terms of its depth and breadth of content (journal entries, object databases, artistic illustrations, videos, etc).

afu, smoke, and others dismissing Scott based on this article: I know this is the internet and you all don't claim to be experts and it's fun to be wildly expansive and dismissive, but some of your remarks are ridiculous.

You simply can't judge Scott's thesis based on this interview--his book, as I pointed out above, is rather long, as is Scott's experience in Southeast Asia. Is "Zomia" a cohesive cultural and political entity recognized (or "imagined," as the Andersonian upthread would have it) by its inhabitants? No. Is it a region with certain commonalities about which one might make a provocative historical and political argument? Sounds like it to me.

At least three of Scott's monographs (the two I mentioned above and the excellent Seeing Like a State) have been hugely influential works of social science. To write him off as a racist, ignorant "Noble Savage" theorist on the basis of a single newspaper interview is premature and uncharitable.

Even if Scott's wrong about "Zomia"--which he may well be--I'm all for people shaking up the lazy and misguided habit of using modern nation-states as our primary--or only--unit of analysis.

(To top it off, it tells you right there on the first page of the article that if anyone pulled "Zomia" out of his ass, it was historian Willem van Schendel.)
posted by col_pogo at 12:04 AM on December 14, 2009 [10 favorites]


I read that Mobunited, but what's the point of debate when your thesis is so obviously flawed that a wikipedia article can prove you wrong?

I don't think it really can, since the wikipedia article is really speaking about culture and kinship roots and not the broad survey in the post. It reads to me like the guy is entering with a slightly outrageous and probably necessary proposal. Since part of his model is that these groups belong to lots of little polities, he's obviously not ignoring that. The ifs, ands and buts are going to be something explored in academic work, not a popular press article.

The defense of civilization as the root of all technology in this thread is interesting and slightly ridiculous. Contemporary technology also owes itself to the systematic exploitation of slaves, then an underclass whose worst elements create the equivalency of slavery, but people are hardly storming the ramparts to defend *that.* The fascinating thing if, of course, that Zomia is basically an arbitrary geographical category filled with people who aren't interested in helping us civilized types support an industrial infrastructure, whether it's to make lifesaving equipment or get us cheap Nikes. (Some of them will sell us drugs, though.) This doesn't mean they aren't interested in getting these things themselves, but the refusal to submit to us in the way that best suits our interests is pretty subversive.
posted by mobunited at 12:08 AM on December 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


This is reminding me of something I read about mountain and hill dwelling groups in Africa, whose societies were often very different from lowland ones in part because they tended to be formed by people fleeing slavery. I wish I could remember it more clearly because there's obviously some sort of tie-in.

col_pogo, I am fully prepared to believe that Scott is being over-simplified by an eager journo, and I'll be trotting down to the library to check him out in due course.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:39 AM on December 14, 2009


At least three of Scott's monographs (the two I mentioned above and the excellent Seeing Like a State) have been hugely influential works of social science.
Favourited your above as I hadn't recognised his name until you linked to that review of Weapons of the Weak. That has, as you say, alongside his The Moral Economy of the Peasant been enormously influential in historical debates that some of the work I do (translating arguments by cleverer people than myself, hence the memory lapse) touches on.
posted by Abiezer at 12:49 AM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Reading the comments here, I was expecting I'd read the article to find that Scott had become a dedicated anarcho-primitivist or something. Going by the article, that is not at all the case, though I suppose the "case against civilization" headline makes it sound like he's arguing something more extreme than he is. But according to the article, Scott says that "there's much that the modern welfare state offers that makes our lives demonstrably better." That is, needless to say, not exactly the sort of hardcore anti-civilization viewpoint it seems like a lot of people think he's arguing.

I'm more or less an anarchist myself, (not a primitivist, though) so I'm perhaps more sympathetic to Scott's thesis than many would be, but even so, I'm rather surprised by the vehemence of the negative reaction to it here. I won't try to defend the specifics of it as I haven't read the book and I can't say what the quality of it is, but I don't have the impression that most of those dismissing it here have, either. I don't dismiss the positive aspects of it, but there's a great deal about our Western, first-world way of life which entails horrendous exploitation of those who are, as scalefree puts it, at the bottom of the pyramid, and as well, there is nothing environmentally sustainable about it. I don't have any answers for what the best response to that is, but it being the case, it seems to me that it's hardly an outrageous thing to consider the possibility that the modern nation-state and our current civilization might not, in fact, be the best of all possible outcomes.

Furthermore, I well understand the dangers of the noble savage-type thinking Scott is being accused of here, but it seems like people start crying "noble savage myth" as soon as anyone even suggests that there might be anything valuable or worth learning from in a non-Western and/or pre-industrial culture, that there might have been certain things they did better than us. One doesn't have to be a believer in the noble savage myth to acknowledge the possibility of that, and it seems to me that dismissing that possibility out of hand smacks of the noble savage myth's nastier flipside- the view of such cultures (and by extension, the people of them) as being simply savage, sans nobility. Needless to say, that is no improvement on idealizing such cultures as noble savages, and I would say it's worse. It certainly is an outlook that has had terrible consequences for those so viewed, both historically and in the present day.
posted by a louis wain cat at 12:58 AM on December 14, 2009 [12 favorites]


The Noble Savage lives on!
posted by Afroblanco at 1:06 AM on December 14, 2009


Amen to that, a louis wain cat. You really should check out that Graeber book if you haven't already. Judging by your comment, I think you'd find his views quite stimulating.

And thanks for filling me in on that fourth hugely influential Scott work, Abiezer. I had a feeling I was missing something out.
posted by col_pogo at 1:11 AM on December 14, 2009


col_pogo, I'm happy to admit the book may well contain material and arguments the interview doesn't - as I say in my first comment. :)

But, we've got the interview here, not the book, and - from the interview - it's a shitty argument.

Scott does have tremendous experience, both in the area in general and in academia. And I'm definitely interested in reading the book. I would say however, that he's a guy who has spent forty-odd years writing about discourses of power, legitimacy and oppression. It's natural for him to view the world through those discourses and he certainly has valuable things to say about them. But these discourses are not the only ones that shape hill tribes - not even necessarily the prime ones - and to argue that all tribes interact with these discourses, are shaped by them etc. in the same way seems an awfully long bow to draw to me - particularly when it seems to come with the exclusion of the other, many discourses that hill tribes engage with, discourses that don't necessarily jibe with a grand unified theory (and why would they? Who would argue that China is the same as Vietnam is the same as Nepal?).

From the interview, Scott isn't just ignoring national borders with his thesis; he's ignoring cultural ones just as surely, and it makes me leery.
posted by smoke at 1:33 AM on December 14, 2009


For those interested, a review (from an anthropologist, with some experience of highland tribes, though from PNG, which is a different ball game) of the book is here.
posted by smoke at 2:11 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


afu, smoke, and others dismissing Scott based on this article: I know this is the internet and you all don't claim to be experts and it's fun to be wildly expansive and dismissive, but some of your remarks are ridiculous.

Scott making up the name Zomia is ridiculous. It might not be fair, but I can't really take him seriously because of it.
posted by afu at 2:27 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Afu, you clearly haven't read the article, or the comments in this post:

The historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam coined the name Zomia in 2002, as a way of challenging the continent’s traditional geographical boundaries.
posted by smoke at 2:31 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I reviewed the draft of Scott's book last spring. It's an extension of his previous book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant. In that book he demonstrated--quite conclusively, for anyone who has doubts about his current thesis-- that the state is useless in much of Southeast Asia, especially in Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. We see those areas as states with borders on a map, but their own inhabitants see them first and foremost as self-sustaining villages, and the "state", who usually pop up on their land in the form of hired thugs, is not much different from a group of armed rebels or local robbers.

In this book Scott extrapolates that a "political" map of Southeast Asia would actually have a big blotch, which he calls Zomia, on it. He is not saying that they reject the bounty of civilization which you guys are so smugly expressing your love for, or that they have political allegiance to something besides their own villages. Rather, Zomia represents shared cultural values of rejecting state influence. Now, some fair criticisms have been made about that above, but it's also completely untrue to say that he doesn't know what he's talking about, and if you haven't read his books it's also quite unfair.

This thread is being read entirely the wrong way. I'd encourage everyone to use this case study to explain what Scott is specifically talking about: India recently sent some military in to deal with Naxalite "Maoist rebels" in the hills. Newsweek claimed, reporting on this, that they are retaking the Indian "heartland" which had been under "rebel" control for some time. But with the benefit of Zomia we can see that this has nothing to do with Communism, or rebellion. Like other Zomian regions, the Naxalite "red corridor" has low literacy, many un"civilized" tribes, and traditional subsistence forestry. What had actually happened was that post-independence a strange new band of thugs appeared in the hills and attempted to wrestle some Zomians into submission, punishing families who employed swathing, forcibly settling them in agriculture-style villages they did not know how to survive in, and so forth. The Zomians saw this as a threat to their livelihoods and responded by mustering up a local army to get the foreigners to go away, which was then deemed "Maoism", but is actually scarcely different from similar armies in neighboring Burma. By discarding our state-centric view we can see that Newsweek's article on the subject was mostly inaccurate.
posted by shii at 2:41 AM on December 14, 2009 [24 favorites]


Fair enough, smoke (and thanks for the Joel Robbins review!). Scott does have a tendency to over-simplify (much like a state ho ho ho political-anthropology-in-joke) and your concerns are entirely understandable. I was just trying to inform everyone--in my dramatic and overwrought way--that Scott is a Professional At This Sort Of Thing and probably knows what he's doing, especially with regard to Noble Savagery, etc.

All that said, if the book turns out to be a mess, empirically, he certainly wouldn't be the first anthropologist ostensibly steeped in local history and-culture to follow a delightful theory far too far down the garden path. Or to stop doing fieldwork in his 30s and write something in his 60s that's theoretically attractive but woefully out of date.
posted by col_pogo at 2:46 AM on December 14, 2009


Thanks for the inside scoop, shii. Not sure why everyone has to use this case study to explain Scott when you've done so quite handily, though.
posted by col_pogo at 2:48 AM on December 14, 2009


No worries col_pogo; I suspect we're in agreement more than disagreement here - and you were certainly right to take me up on pigeonholing him as a political science. All this discussion has done is really make me very keen to get my hands on a copy! (Also to talk with my bro-in-law who just finished a phd on hill tribes in Papua New Guinea).

You might be interested also in reading some discussion of his last book at a blog called Crooked Timber (warning; they're all economists, so there's some, uh, interesting ways of viewing Scott's arguments [the market, the whole market and nothing but the market] and some of the comments get pretty abstruse).
posted by smoke at 2:59 AM on December 14, 2009


Zomia is next door to Zembla.
posted by johnny novak at 3:14 AM on December 14, 2009


Thanks, smoke. Crooked Timber's discussion is great. Farrell is actually a political scientist (and the blog's other authors include sociologists, philosophers, literary critics, stock brokers, and one or two others, so as a whole they're pretty balanced)--but DeLong's review does skew things pretty heavily towards a discussion of the market. Which is fine, as I (and at least one other distinguished critic) think that markets--or at least corporations--are a big part of what's missing from Seeing Like a State.

Just one final caveat and I'll let someone else get a word in: I didn't mean to suggest that Scott actually stopped doing fieldwork in his 30s--I have no idea whether he did or no. Sounds like shii might, though.
posted by col_pogo at 3:18 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


May we not say that, in a sense, all Scott is doing is pointing out that the choices societies make are not cost free? Yes, something like a modern state seems to be an essential pre-requisite for things like large-scale urban centers. Where there is not something like an empire, there are no metropolises.

But as soon as society moves in that direction, you have a situation where a small subset of men (and it's pretty exclusively men) rule over the rest of us. Most of Western political philosophy--and I think much of Eastern, though I could be wrong there--is essentially some combination of either instructions for those men, or an attempt to make sure the right sort of men end up at the top. The benefits of a persistent ruling class are that it makes possible long-scale infrastructural investments. The costs include:

- No workable egalitarianism, because it's manifestly obvious that some rule and others don't, regardless of how the few are selected.

- No persistent oral tradition, as the state resists transactions which cannot be monitored.

- Minimization of local culture, because you can't make a world-class state out of a fractious and disorganized plurality (see Austria-Hungary).

You pays your money, you takes your choice. I think the reason that we statists find non-state alternatives so unsettling is that those who rule are generally indisposed to suggestions that they ought not to rule, and the reduction in physical misery has been so vast that even those who do not rule have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. A lot of the people posting here would be dead without the benefits of statehood. I'm one of them. But recognizing the costs and benefits of large-scale historical choices is a task worth undertaking, particularly as a lot of people on the Blue are pretty taken with some of the things that the state seems to preclude.
posted by valkyryn at 4:03 AM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


The model of society which prevails is not the only workable model of society. The dichotomy between the severe dysfunction of civilization as it is and the severe dysfunction of "Zomia" is false and pernicious.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:20 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Afu, you clearly haven't read the article, or the comments in this post:

The historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam coined the name Zomia in 2002, as a way of challenging the continent’s traditional geographical boundaries.


I was wrong, he pulled it out of someone else's ass. I'm sorry the name Zomia stinks of focus grouped exoticism designed to sell more books. If any body can explain why Zomia is a better name for the region than "the highlands of SE Asia" please do.

India recently sent some military in to deal with Naxalite "Maoist rebels" in the hills. Newsweek claimed, reporting on this, that they are retaking the Indian "heartland" which had been under "rebel" control for some time. But with the benefit of Zomia we can see that this has nothing to do with Communism, or rebellion. Like other Zomian regions, the Naxalite "red corridor" has low literacy, many un"civilized" tribes, and traditional subsistence forestry. What had actually happened was that post-independence a strange new band of thugs appeared in the hills and attempted to wrestle some Zomians into submission, punishing families who employed swathing, forcibly settling them in agriculture-style villages they did not know how to survive in, and so forth. The Zomians saw this as a threat to their livelihoods and responded by mustering up a local army to get the foreigners to go away, which was then deemed "Maoism", but is actually scarcely different from similar armies in neighboring Burma. By discarding our state-centric view we can see that Newsweek's article on the subject was mostly inaccurate.

This is ridiculous. the Naxalites are are only "Zomian" in the minds of a few western academics, but explicitly refer to themselves as "Maoist". Denying that indigenous people have the ability to have political autonomy is at the heart of imperialism, but I'm sure you've read your Said.
posted by afu at 5:52 AM on December 14, 2009


You can do anything at Zomia, anything at all. The only limit is yourself.
posted by pravit at 5:56 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


My wife was born dead and revived. I had horrific allergies that might've been life-threatening in a previous time. My daughter was delivered via emergency C-section when she, so help me, got stuck. She was just a wee bit too late to meet her great-great-grandmother who did get to see other members of the fourth generation of her progeny.

Allergies and pelvis not wide enough to give birth are just but two medical conditions strongly tied to civilization.

Though it's a little outdated, I'd suggest people take a look at Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. I learned from it that many diseases that I was previously thankful for civilization saving me from are likely caused by modern life and that we still have much to learn. Namely, that modern 1st world humans are still suffering from symptoms of malnutrition.

While I will continue to live in the modern world, I'm thankful that the lessons I've learned about food from "uncivilized" cultures will be able to bless my future children with fewer allergies, straighter teeth, and better bone structure in general.
posted by melissam at 7:30 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's what I tell my students: we live in the best time (= now) and place (=developed world) in world history by several orders of magnitude. I'll stick by that.

As for living the "stateless" life, I'm sure it's great in a world without states. But that world doesn't exist.
posted by MarshallPoe at 7:40 AM on December 14, 2009


No matter if you're living in the mountains, you still gotta serve somebody.
posted by storybored at 7:57 AM on December 14, 2009


stretching from the Vietnamese highlands up into the Tibetan plateau and as far west as Afghanistan
The fact that a significant fraction of the supposedly independent "Zomia" is the Tibetan plateau, whose inhabitants have been subjugated by "civilized" lowlanders in Beijing, makes it difficult to take even the basic premise of this concept seriously.
posted by aught at 8:15 AM on December 14, 2009


My wife was born dead and revived. I had horrific allergies that might've been life-threatening in a previous time. My daughter was delivered via emergency C-section when she, so help me, got stuck. She was just a wee bit too late to meet her great-great-grandmother who did get to see other members of the fourth generation of her progeny.

This evening, I had a hot shower, read a great book and had a pizza delivered. Seriously big fan of civilization here.


DUDE IF THE NATIVE AMERICANS HADNT BEEN WIPED OUT I PROBABLY WOULDNT BE ALIVE OR AT LEAST LIVING HERE SO YAY CIVILIZATION™.

But seriously, stop this black and white thinking. Unless of course you're mocking him by doing the exact kind of thinking he's doing. Associating awesome medicine solely with civilization makes no more sense than associating genocide with civilization. Civilization is just a complex society, end of story. Don't read so much into it. Jesus.
posted by symbollocks at 8:29 AM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Being a long-time reader of James C. Scott, I’m absolutely flabbergasted at the tone of the responses to this article. More than that, though, I’m fascinated by this train wreck of truthiness on display, equal parts PZ Myers and Sarah Palin.

PZ Myers’ concept of the Courtier’s Reply and the proper response to it is pretty simple: The emperor has no clothes – therefore, I don’t really have to discuss your argument. I don’t have to listen to what you’re saying because it is false. It is false because I know that it is false. In fact, it is so obvious that I don’t really have to explain why it’s obvious – some Internet snark, a little profanity, and there you go. Nothing you say after that statement which I have declared false can be worth engaging. It’s like sticking your fingers in your ears in the middle of an argument and screaming “I can’t hear you! I know I’m right!” at the top of your lungs.

Here’s how it plays out here: I know James C. Scott is a raving primitivist. I know it because I know that anyone who dares question the goodness of modern life in any way is a primitivist misanthropic crank. It’s a fundamental axiom, a law of the universe. No further thought is necessary. I don’t even have to read the article, which several posters obviously did not, repeating (over and over and over, even after other posters POINT IT OUT) simple errors of basic fact and reading comprehension with an aggressive ignorance. It doesn’t matter that the article states:

Scott is not suggesting that we chuck society and head for the hills. He believes there’s much that the modern welfare state offers that makes our lives demonstrably better.

It simply does not matter what the article actually says.

This is what PZ Myers has in common with Sarah Palin, and with several prolific Metafilter posters’ comments – a proud, dismissive and belligerent ignorance. They know things – they feel them in the gut.

They have truthiness.
posted by jhandey at 8:49 AM on December 14, 2009 [10 favorites]


aught: The fact that a significant fraction of the supposedly independent "Zomia" is the Tibetan plateau

As far as I could tell, reading about it yesterday, most of Tibet isn't part of "Zomia" but that parts of Zomia are in Tibet. I had the same reaction as you though. Tibet has had a strong, centralized state since the 7th Century.
posted by Kattullus at 8:51 AM on December 14, 2009


Here's what I tell my students: we live in the best time (= now) and place (=developed world) in world history by several orders of magnitude. I'll stick by that.

Here's what you tell your students:

we live in the greatest country and we are entitled to all of these material comforts that less privileged peoples do not get. Our form of civil organization results in children in poverty, a culture of rape and oppression, exploitation of other countries and people and wholesale murder of brown people and this is good! It's good that we are destroying the environment, and poisoning our oceans! This is because of your inherent (possibly genetic) superiority!

There is no reason to think that the world/nation/city/your domestic situation should be assessed or improvement should be worked for because the world/nation/city/your domestic situation is already the best it could possibly be! Don't work to make the world a better place! It's already perfect! Perfect in it's exploitation, corruption, oppression, pollution and abuses!

Every man is an island, do not ask for whom the bell tolls, turn up your ipod instead.

Yeah, you stick by that.
posted by fuq at 9:04 AM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]




Uh, Fuq, that's a pretty wildly assholish interpretation of MarshallPoe.
posted by klangklangston at 9:40 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Uh, Fuq, that's a pretty wildly assholish interpretation of MarshallPoe.

Is MarshallPoe saying something different that "This period of history is the greatest period of history and the United States and it's allies are the greatest countries and civilizations of all time"?

If that is the statement, then my interpretation is fairly accurate. Let's look again at the original:

"we live in the best time (= now) and place (=developed world) in world history by several orders of magnitude."

The "Best Time" is the current time, i.e. December of 2009 including all human activities currently taking place, and the "Best Place" is the developed world, particularly America, where MarshallPoe lives. The assertion is that the current circumstances are significantly better (orders of magnitude!) than ANY known world situation.

Well, MarshallPoe may be satisfied by injustice in the name of short-term comfort, but I'm a bit offended by the current situation the world population is in. I'm sorry, but "we live in the best time and place in world history" strikes me as "I got mine, fuck you (and I'm happy about it)"

I fail to see a non-assholish interpretation of that statement.
posted by fuq at 10:17 AM on December 14, 2009


fuq, 'now and here is the best so far' does not imply 'we won't aim for better in the future'.

You just made it up.
posted by Anything at 10:24 AM on December 14, 2009


'now and here is the best so far' does not imply 'we won't aim for better in the future'.

"Now and here is the best so far" also does not imply "we will aim for better in the future."

In fact, "now and here is the best so far" more strongly implies a desire not to change than it expresses a desire to improve. If you are happy with the way things are currently (and think the current situation is the best evar) when why would there be any desire to change the situation? Especially when changes toward greater global equity mean that the United States will be forced into a situation of diminished comfort, and thus no longer be the "best time and place in all of history".

Defending the status quo because you are part of the small percentage that is properly serviced is permissible, I'm not angry about that and I'm not telling you to give up your incredible unwarranted privilege, I just want to point out the depravity at the end of your fork.
posted by fuq at 10:57 AM on December 14, 2009


fuq, it's an arrogant and baseless proclamation but I'm not sure MarshallPoe is denying most of what you're saying. I think he's saying it's wonderful in spite of it all, or it evens out or something like that. Which is a hell of a hard thing to determine. And also kind of pointless, IMO.

Keep in mind people have done this in every civilization (ahem, complex society) that has ever existed. Even up to the point where it's crashing down around them... so get back on the bike, don't waste (too much) time trying to convince people that god doesn't exist or oil production has peaked, and just keep trying your best.

Also, what Anything said (on preview, i see you replied to him but i'll go on anyhow). Although you could probably make a pretty good case for why the majority of our institutions are so entrenched for so many reasons that they can't do anything but minimally function and so don't ever get around to doing much of that "aiming for a better future" stuff. Which still leaves room for progress, just outside the bounds of convention.

(post-preview) I'm not even sure I would call it depravity, tastes a hell of a lot more like futility.
posted by symbollocks at 11:05 AM on December 14, 2009


Associating awesome medicine solely with civilization makes no more sense than associating genocide with civilization. Civilization is just a complex society, end of story. Don't read so much into it. Jesus.

Silly me for thinking a complex society is required to produce things like fetal heart monitors. I'm sure the local shamans whipped them up out of locally produced grasses and stones.

Genocide doesn't require complex societies at all and it's idiotic to even say that. Tribes wiped each other long before cities were built. Hell, they were probably wiping each other out before they were even modern humans.
posted by codswallop at 2:02 PM on December 14, 2009


Access to hot and cold running water has a limiting effect on human vision. Proved right here.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 4:17 PM on December 14, 2009


At least the primmies in this thread aren't claiming that denying animism and magic are equivalent to denying light and gravity. That's progress!
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:40 PM on December 14, 2009


symbollocks: “Associating awesome medicine solely with civilization makes no more sense than associating genocide with civilization. Civilization is just a complex society, end of story. Don't read so much into it. Jesus.”

codswallop: “Silly me for thinking a complex society is required to produce things like fetal heart monitors. I'm sure the local shamans whipped them up out of locally produced grasses and stones. Genocide doesn't require complex societies at all and it's idiotic to even say that. Tribes wiped each other long before cities were built. Hell, they were probably wiping each other out before they were even modern humans.”

Well, first off, symbollocks didn't say genocide is a product of civilization; he indicated that associating genocide with civilization doesn't make sense, and that associating medicine with civilization doesn't make sense, either.

But that aside - I've wondered, is 'complex society' required to produce things like fetal heart monitors? I mean this in all seriousness; sure, there are a lot of people standing around who'd like to take credit for modern medicine, but does it really make sense to simply say that 'complex society' did it? For one thing, as I mentioned above, I wonder if 'complex society' is an adequate characterization of our society; I have a feeling ours is not really more complex than Zomia or any other society you can come up with, except in that our population might be larger. For another thing, isn't it really science that provided for the production of those medical advances? You can argue that industrialization is the real key, but I'd be skeptical about that, too. There's an old science-fiction theme that deals with this question symbolically: the image of the scientist transported to the past, or to another place or time in which industrial supplies and machinery are not available. (This is in fact the sum and total of the theme of Doctor Who.) The question in these cases is always: do we have the materials? But that's just a demonstration that the real necessity - the proper scientific cast of mind - is already fully available. I have a feeling that a rational and scientific way of looking at the world is always available, even in so-called 'primitive' societies. In fact, it seems like in a certain way that's precisely James Scott's point: that this society which everyone thought had lived a nomadic and rugged existence because they didn't know any better actually chose that life because they thought it was preferable to the alternatives. An analog would be to say that the same person could both live in a loose-knit migratory commune and discover the polio vaccine. There are certainly limits to what one can do without the props of industrial civilization, but those are limits of practical experimentation, not limits of the scientific mindset. I only say this to point out that your characterization of the leaders of nomadic tribes as 'shamans' isn't necessarily fair, although maybe you didn't mean to associate superstition with less rigid social structures.

Really, I'm just interested in this question: would it be possible to build a fetal heart monitor in the wild? I really don't know - I've never built one - maybe there's really a way. And more importantly (I think, since fetal heart monitors, while very useful, aren't really in the 'top ten' of lifesaving equipment and innovations) - would it be possible, say, to develop vaccines? To build a microscope? To manufacture all the useful drugs to treat diseases? To make penicillin? I suspect that at least some of these things would be possible, and pretty much every one of those advances was responsible for one of the top ten lifesaving medical innovations in history.
posted by koeselitz at 5:53 PM on December 14, 2009


[And I should say that, being a fan of Doctor Who, I think that series is responsible for a lot of really intriguing consideration of the notion of the traveling scientist who treats the world as a lab. Of course, the Doctor always has the deus ex machina at hand that he can pretty much immediately summon up any piece of equipment he might need - electronic screwdriver, et cetera.]
posted by koeselitz at 5:56 PM on December 14, 2009


primmies?

Pope Guilty up-thread there are enlightening, deep and generous conversations going on, but here you, in your infinite wisdom and import, are making up new words that might be funny if you didn't clearly mean them.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:07 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


koeselitz:

As a working scientist I can tell you that many of the neat gadgets we have today could only spring from a complex process of people learning from the work of many many others. One person or village could never invent an infant heart monitor any more than than discover everything about physics and the heart necessary to build one. One would need at least a basic working knowledge of bio-electrostatic potentials along nerves, how to detect faint electrical impulses, and why one might want to care.

"Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size."
posted by Blasdelb at 6:33 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Apropos fetal heart monitors, old-skool midwives have conical eartrumpety devices, called a Pinard, used like stethoscopes, which they can use to listen to fetal heartbeats. Your average mountain village certainly has someone who can carve or turn one out of wood for you. And in skilled hands it will answer almost all the cases where an electronic device would be used now.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:00 PM on December 14, 2009


Apropos.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:03 PM on December 14, 2009


But that aside - I've wondered, is 'complex society' required to produce things like fetal heart monitors?

Given a mind that could conceive of a complex device with enough detail, either through polymath genius & synthesis ala Da Vinci or access to another complex society ala Doctor Who, I don't think it'd be impossible to (re)invent it in an uncomplex society. But Da Vinci level geniuses are extremely unlikely events that come along once in a millennium & the Doctor Who method is kind of cheating because he's only implementing something that originally was the product of a complex society, just not the one he's currently in.

It's all about information density. As our brains grew we could catch & grow more efficient energy sources, giving us more time & energy to just think. That (plus the Fox2P gene) led to information-dense syntactic language, which led to larger, more cohesive social structures & also the ability to pass more information from generation to generation, which again led to more energy efficiency & gave us the leisure time to invent written language & the various storage media for it, again increasing the amount of information that could be stored & presented to the new generations instead of forcing them to relearn everything from scratch. At each step the information becomes denser & the complexity of the society must increase to support, learn, maintain & add to that data structure. It takes a lot of brains & bodies acting cooperatively to keep that going. If you're lucky every once in a while you may get a Da Vinci who can short circuit all that; but how much real, immediate change did his inventions have on his society?

If you want some idea of how hard it is to reinvent a complex device without access to the technology required for it the first time around, take a look at the guy trying to make a toaster from scratch.
posted by scalefree at 11:29 PM on December 14, 2009


instead of forcing them to relearn rediscover everything from scratch
posted by scalefree at 7:13 AM on December 15, 2009


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