Scott’s paradox: between hill and valley

Most of the terms that we would translate as crude, unrefined, barbaric and, in the Chinese case, raw refer directly to those who live in the hills and forests.

1. James C. Scott makes this observation in the introduction to The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009). As I have noted elsewhere on this site (see First Proposition, 1.4.1), this particular set of lexical associations links the concept of culture, understood as a catch-all for the processed, refined, civilized or cooked, to relatively settled agrarian polities and so to the history of state-making whether in its ancient, national-colonial or contemporary guises. This makes the concept itself a vital constituent of valley thinking in Scott’s terms, that is, of the wet-rice cultivating polities that emerged in the river valleys of Southeast Asia, or Zomia, defining themselves against the peripheral, mobile and state-evading peoples of the hills. The ‘barbarians’ (βαρβάρους), as the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy recognized at the turn of the last century, have always been ‘a kind of solution’ (μια κάποια λύσις) for state-makers in this respect, helping to clarify and shore-up their own self-understanding as the exclusive custodians of culture.

2. Yet, as Scott continues, and as I argue across this site and in the associated book, these emphatic assertions of difference take place against a background of a ‘centuries-old, brisk traffic in people, goods and culture [in the sense of artefacts and practices] across the very permeable membrane between the hills and the valleys’ (28). Hence Scott’s ‘paradox’: despite the abundant evidence of intercultural movement and exchange the ‘divide’ between these communities remains a ‘stark and durable’ part not just of their respective self-understandings but of their ‘lived experience’ (28).

2.1 How are we to make sense of this? To begin with, Scott suggests, we have to abandon the ‘just-so’ story favoured in the colonial era but which still forms part of ‘popular folklore today’: namely, that the hill “tribes”—the term itself belongs to the lexicon of the state—are ‘the historical remnants of an earlier stage of human history: what we [i.e. the valley people] were like before we discovered wet-rice agriculture, learned to write, developed the arts of civilization, and adopted Buddhism’ (28). Instead, ‘we’ [again the valley people but also scholars who share their assumptions] should recognize that ‘valley states and hill peoples’ are ‘constituted in each other’s shadow, both reciprocal and contemporaneous’—that is, part of a composite, always evolving modernity, not a sequential narrative of progress, where the statist valley communities define themselves against and depend on the anti-statist hill peoples, and vice versa (28). Joyce coined the term ‘mutuomorphomutation’ to describe this process (see Fifth Proposition, 5.4). As Scott notes, this applies not only to regions of Southeast Asia on which he focuses but, among others, to ‘Amerindian societies of South America’ and the ‘structural opposition between Arabs and Berbers’ in the Maghreb—for the former he references Pierre Clastres’s La Société contre l’état (1974) and for the latter Ernest Gellner’s Saints of the Atlas (1969). ‘Far from being successive stages in social evolution,’ Scott concludes, ‘such states and nomadic peoples are twins, born more or less at the same time and joined in a sometimes rancorous but unavoidable embrace’ (29). Following Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction (1979), this logic could be extended to the structural conflicts between literate elites and those deemed to be the non-, il- or semi-literate masses (within the same state) or those identified as belonging to an exclusively oral world (outside the state)—but think also of UNESCO’s founding commitment to the global extension of literacy in the late 1940s and beyond (see the Prologue to Part II of the book).

3. In fact, for Scott, the most debatable element of his own alternative ‘non-state-centric history’ arises in relation to the question of orality and literacy (38). While he is reasonably confident about seeing the ‘economic, political, and cultural organization’ of the hill people as ‘a strategic adaptation to avoid incorporation in state structures’ (39), he acknowledges that the evidence for making the same claim about the ‘maintenance (if not creation) of nonliteracy’ (note: not illiteracy) is ‘almost entirely circumstantial’ (220). He none the less proffers this as a plausible reading of the ‘oral legends’ many peoples around the world, not just the hill communities of Southeast Asia, tell to explain how they came to be without writing, many of which centre on one key theme: ‘the people in question once did have writing but lost it through their own improvidence, or would have had it had they not been cheated of it by treachery’ (221). On this account, orality too has a strategic dimension: ‘if swiddening and dispersal are subsistence strategies that impede appropriation; if social fragmentation and acephaly hinder state incorporation; then, by the same token, the absence of writing and texts provides freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines’ (220).

Baul singers in Santiniketan (Credit: ptwo)

3.1 The Bāul singers of Bengal, who, as I note in Chapter 4 of the book, had a definitive influence on Rabindranath Tagore, clearly recognize the advantages Scott outlines, though in their case the enemy is not the state as such but the sometimes state-aligned authority of institutionalized religion embodied in the Hindu temple, the Muslim mosque and the associated written traditions (look and listen here). Much the same can be said of the ways in which the Zen tradition downplayed the importance of the Buddhist sutras, a challenge the contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing has extended to include the canonical forms of Chinese literate culture as well: the newspaper and the printed book (see天书/Tiānshū (1988), webnote x, and Postscript).

3.1.1 Yet, as Xu Bing’s own works show, and as the writings of Tagore, Joyce and many of the contemporary authors I discuss in the book and on this site confirm, it is equally clear that certain forms of literary writing and artistic practice can also be said to create ‘freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines’, opening up other ways of thinking about writing and culture itself. So, ‘writing’ may generally be ‘on the side of the law’ as Clastres put it in a statement from La Société contre l’état Scott cites as an epigraph; but, taking Finnegans Wake as a paradigm case, there are also notable exceptions to this rule (220). It is just that valley thinkers don’t much like them because they threaten their self-understandings as literate elites and guardians of the state’s idea of culture.


James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale, 2009).



天书/Tiānshū (1988) by permission of the Xu Bing Studio

1 thought on “Scott’s paradox: between hill and valley”

  1. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that nations are spontaneously solidified artefacts produced by the convergence of historical forces. After these artefacts are created they then become a template compatible with in an array of “political and ideological constellations” (Anderson, 4).
    In the second chapter, writing about the ‘Cultural Roots’ of nationalism, he explains the decline of the bases, historically, that made possible the imagining of the nation. The first instance is that religious communities were weakened due to the disintegration of sacred languages, which solidified the community. The example he gives here relates directly to the discussion above: “Chinese mandarins looked with approval on barbarians who painfully learned to paint Middle Kingdom ideograms” (Anderson, 13). Those who attempted to earn this sacred language were seen as “halfway to full absorption” a vast improvement from their prior barbaric status (Anderson, 13). The function of language within religious communities was therefore a matter of exclusivity and membership, but the interesting thing is that for Chinese mandarins, at least, that linguistic link, once acquired, resulted in absorption into the community.
    What interests me here, in relation to Scott’s paradox, is that the paradox is not just that the divide exists despite the background of centuries-old intercultural movement, but that in the past, the divide was bridgeable in time, whereas now, in the West, the ‘barbarian’ or immigrant is not always able to join the imagined community of the nation by learning the national language in his own lifetime, at least.

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