i've been reading the works of the yale political scientist/anthropologist james c. scott, for example the art of not being governed; an anarchist history of upland southeast asia and seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. it's work that flips your head over. the experience of reading it reminds me of the first time i read foucault's discipline and punish: you suddenly see what we and our histories lok like from a completely different angle: the truths that you can only see from the outside. also like foucault, scott does theory by producing detailed empirical observations; there is very much hard work i can't help comparing my own work; i am more likely to wield the big theoretical construction; i wish i had more of scott's consciousness, though maybe you need both.
i'm not sure how i missed this stuff; it's easy to not register 'james scott,' and i kind of thought he was writing about some ragtag bands of anarchist rebels in burma or something. not at all. scott's data ranges around the world, but is also insistently particular and local, which is precisely what the intellectual structure he's constructing demands. so, he's roughly to be ranged in the movement of 'anarchist anthropology' that would include michael taussig and peter clastres and then younger figures such as david graeber. this sounds obnoxious, i admit; why combine the name of a political position with the name of a discipline? what if i said i'm doing capitalist anthropology or something?
but really here is the idea: such disciplines as environmental studies, anthropology, and political science are infested with statist assumptions that need to be questioned to get at the truth. here's how scott states one of the basic ideas of this trend:
Shatter zones are found wherever the expansion of states, empires, slave-trading, and wars, as well as natural disasters, have driven large numbers of people to seek refuge in out-of-the-way places: in Amazonia. . . in that corridor of highland Africa safe from slave-raiding, in the Balkand and the Caucasus. The diagnostic characteristic of shatter zones are their relative inaccessibility and enormous diversity of tongues and cultures.
Note that this account of the periphery is sharply at odds with the official story most civilizations tell about themselves. According to that tale, the backward, naive, and perhaps barbaric people are gradually incorporated into an advanced, superior, and more prosperous society and culture. If, instead, as a political choice, to take their distance from the state, a new element of political agency enters the picture. Many, perhaps most, of the inhabitants of the ungoverned margins are not remnants of an earlier social formation, left behind, or, as some lowland folk accounts in Southeast Asia have it, 'our living ancestors.' ...Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them. art of not being governed 8
scott ends up producing incredibly rich evidence for such assertions. the narrative of history or of hunter-gatherer indigenous tribes that reveal our stone-age past and so on, the teleological conception of history, is inherently a state dogma. my favorite little example, which is mentioned by scott, are the seminoles: they are themselves some kind of extruded portion of the cherokee nation intermixed with whatever was in florida. and then they welcomed and interbred with escaped slaves; they were so quaintly primitive; they were so hybrid and schooled in the arts of resistance. that might be quite typical. it's not like different people literally inhabit different temporalities, and i doubt that any human band is evr truly isolated for very long. scott does point out the disadvantages of living in the lowland valley states: corvee labor, conscription, taxation. obviously, some people might rationally opt into the woods. scott is fascinated too by everything that takes place within state formations that delays, irritates, evades, or undermines it.