Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts


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In its eclectic and schematic way it violates many of the canons of postmodernistwork. What it shares with postmodernism is the conviction that there is no social location or analytical position from which the truth value of a text or discourse may be judged. While I do believe that close contextual work is the lifeblood of theory, I also believe there is something useful to be said across cultures and historical epochs when our focus is narrowed by structural similarities.

The analytical strategy pursued here thus begins with the premise that structurally similar forms of domination will bear a family resemblance to one another.

These similarities in the cases of slavery, serfdom, and caste subordination are fairly straightforward. Each represents an institutionalized arrangement for appropriating labor, goods, and services from a subordinate population. As a formal matter, subordinate groups in these forms of domina, tion have no political or civil rights, and their status is fixed by bir-th. Social mobility, in principle if not in practice, is precluded. The ideologies justifying domination of this kind include formal assumptions about inferiority and Preface superiority which, in turn, find expression in certain rituals or etiquette regulating public contact between strata.

Despite a degree of institutionalization, relations between the master and slave, the landlord and the serf, the highcaste Hindu and untouchable are forms of personal rule providing great latitude for arbitrary and capricious behavior by the superior. An element of personal terror invariably infuses these relations-a terror that may take the form of arbitrary beatings, sexual brutality, insults, and public humiliations.

A particular slave, for example, may be lucky enough to escape such treatment but the sure knowledge that it could happen to her pervades the entire relationship. Finally, subordinates in such large-scale structures of domination nevertheless have a fairly extensive social existence outside the immediate control of the dominant.

It is in such sequestered settings where, in principle, a shared critique of domination may develop. The structural kinship just described is analytically central to the kind of argument I hope to make. I most certainly do not want to claim that slaves, serfs, untouchables, the colonized, and subjugated races share immutable characteristics. Essentialist claims of that kind are untenable.

What I do wish to assert, however, is that to the degree structures of domination can be demonstrated to operate in comparable ways, they will, other things equal, elicit reactions and patterns of resistance that are also broadly comparable. Thus, slaves and serfs ordinarily dare not contest the terms of their subordination openly. Behind the scenes, though, they are likely to create and defend a social space in which offstage dissent to the official transcript of power relations may be voiced.

The specific forms for example, linguistic disguises, ritual codes, taverns, fairs, the "hush-arbors" of slave religion this social space takes or the specific content of its dissent for example, hopes of a returning prophet, ritual aggression via witchcraft, celebration of bandit heroes and resistance martyrs are as unique as the particular culture and history of the actors in question require. In the interest of delineating some broad patterns I deliberately overlook the great particularity of each and every form of subordination-the differences, say, between Caribbean and North American slavery, between French serfdom in the seventeeth century and in the mid-eighteenth century, between Russian serfdom and French serfdom, between regions and so on.

The ultimate value of the broad patterns I sketch here could be established only by embedding them firmly in settings that are historically grounded and culturally specific. Given the choice of structures explored here, it is apparent that I privilege the issues of dignity and autonomy, which have typically been seen as secondary to material exploitation.

Slavery, serfdom, the caste system, colonialism, and racism routinely generate the practices and rituals of denigration, insult, xi xii Preface and assaults on the body that seem to occupy such a large part of the hidden transcripts of their victims. Such forms of oppression, as we shall see, deny subordinates the ordinary luxury of negative reciprocity: trading a slap for a slap, an insult for an insult.

Even in the case of the contemporary working class it appears that slights to one's dignity and close control of one's work figure as prominently in accounts of exploitation as do narrower concerns of work and compensation. My broad purpose is to suggest how we might more successfully read, interpret, and understand the often fugitive political conduct of subordinate groups.

How do we study power relations when the powerless are often obliged to adopt a strategic pose in the presence of the powerful and when the powerful may have an interest in overdramatizing their reputation and mastery? If we take all of this at face value we risk mistaking what may be a tactic for the whole story. Instead, I try to make out a case for a different study of power that uncovers contradictions, tensions, and immanent possibilities.


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Every subordinate group creates, out of its ordeal, a "hidden transcript" that represents a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant. The powerful, for their part, also develop a hidden transcript representing the practices and claims of their rule that cannot be openly avowed. A comparison of the hidden transcript of the weak with that of the powerful and of both hidden transcripts to the public transcript of power relations offers a substantially new way of understanding resistance to domination.

After a rather literary beginning drawing on George Eliot and George Orwell, I try to show how the process of domination generates a hegemonic public conduct and a backstage discourse consisting ofwhat cannot be spoken in the face of power. At the same time, I explore the hegemonic purpose behind displays of domination and consent, asking who the audience is for such performances.

This investigation leads in tum to an appreciation of why it is that even close readings of historical and archival evidence tend to favor a hegemonic account of power relations. Short of actual rebellion, powerless groups have, I argue, a self-interest in conspiring to reinforce hegemonic appearances. The meaning of these appearances can be known only by comparing it with subordinate discourse outside of power-laden situations. Since ideological resistance can grow best when it is shielded from direct surveillance, we are led to examine the social sites where this resistance can germinate.

If the decoding of power relations depended on full access to the more or less clandestine discourse of subordinate groups, students of power-both historical and contemporary-would face an impasse. We are saved from throwing up our hands in frustration by the fact that the hidden transcript is Preface typically expressed openly-albeit in disguised form. I suggest, along these lines, how we might interpret the rumors, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes, and theater of the powerless as vehicles by which, among other things, they insinuate a critique of power while hiding behind anonymity or behind innocuous understandings of their conduct.

These patterns of disguising ideological insubordination are somewhat analogous to the patterns by which, in my experience, peasants and slaves have disguised their efforts to thwart material appropriation of their labor, their production, and their property: for example, poaching, foot-dragging, pilfering, dissimulation, flight.

Together, these forms of insubordination might suitably be called the infrapolitics of the powerless.

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Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts

Finally, I believe that the notion of a hidden transcript helps us understand those rare moments of political electricity when, often for the first time in memory, the hidden transcript is spoken directly and publicly in the teeth of power. The result was an aggregation of individual acts of exemplary generosity and largespiritedness that produced, on my part, an intellectual gridlock that lasted for some time.

I began to think of this as a kind of perverse mirror-image of Adam Smith's invisible hand. Unsnarling the traffic meant shooting several drivers, burying their vehicles, and resurfacing the road as if they had never existed.

Domination and the Arts of Resistance : James C. Scott :

Executions and burials were held with all the necessary decorum, and the victims might take comfort in the fact that three of my own children chapters 2, 3, and 5 were blindfolded, led to the wall, and shot without much ceremony but with much gnashing of teeth. The result, I think, is a reinvigorated intellectual traffic that moves along fairly briskly.

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Its briskness, I understand, comes at the considerable cost of eliminating intersections that would have permitted travel in different directions to new destinations. The costs can be weighed only against a judgment about whether we have, in the end, gotten to a place worth going to, and it is for the reader to decide that.

Among the tempting destinations left off the itinerary were those that would have integrated my enterprise here more closely with contemporary theoretical work on power, hegemony, and resistance. There is an implicit dialogue between this work and, for example, the work of Jiirgen Habermas particularly his theory of communicative competence , that of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault where it touches the normalization or naturalization of power, that of Steven Lukes and John Gaventa on the various "faces of power," that of Fredric Jameson on "the political unconscious," and, most recently, that of Susan Stanford Friedman on the "repressed in women's narrative.

But to have stopped and carried out a full-fledged exchange with any of them would XV xvi Acknowledgments have, I thought, interrupted the logic of my presentation and, more seriously, made the result more forbidding to a less theoretically oriented audience. I owe the origin of this book to Zakariah Abdullah, a teacher of rare patience and a friend of rare generosity, who taught me most of what I understand about Malay village life.

The members of an informal lunch seminar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Science, Technology, and Society Program, where I was an Exxon Fellow in , should be thanked for responding to the first crude version of the idea behind this book.

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In its various guises the idea was inspected, used, criticized, elaborated, and ridiculed by the undergraduates who have been in my seminar "Powerlessness and Dependency. I learned to discount their praise and amplify their criticism, since I was giving them grades. During the summer of , with the intellectual stimulation not to mention room and board of the Pacific and Southeast Asian History Department of the Research School of Pacific Studies of the Australian National University, I began pursuing the ideas here in earnest. Tony Reid not only arranged the visit but organized a seminar on which my still preliminary argument was subjected to such an array of well-aimed and high explosive projectiles that I had virtually to begin again.

This was my first encounter with the intellectual energy of the Subaltern Studies group that had transformed South Asian historiography in fundamental ways. At the center of this group stands Ranajit Guha, whose original and sweeping work is of fundamental importance. Ifl had been able to revise my manuscript in more of the ways his discerning eye suggested, it would have been a better book and would have better repaid the friendship he and Mechthild extended. Oberoi, Susan B. Devalle, Claire Milner, and Kenny Bradley, who did his best to teach me to shear sheep like a real Aussie.

A year at the Institute for Advanced Study, funded in part also by the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities, represented the oasis that made possible the broad reading and tranquility necessary to begin writing. The minimal routines of the Institute's School of Social Sciences together with the smart neighbors it provides were a Acknowledgments nearly ideal combination.

Nor can I resist giving public thanks to the "unknown nonbureaucrat" who interceded with the apparatchiks to allow my April Fools' hens to remain in the well-groomed Institute courtyard for a few days. Bits and pieces of my first draft were imposed on various academic audiences with results that were, at least to me, beneficial if occasionally sobering. A few intellectual debts embedded in this book merit special recognition.

Barrington Moore's work is a looming presence here even when he is not cited, and much of my argument could be read as a conversation with the more provocative sections ofhis book Injustice. The same could be said for Murray Edelman's work, with which I've been grappling, I've only recently fully realized, for a long time.

Even if our answers diverge, Moore and Edelman have asked most of the questions I've set myself to. Some of them thought I was barking up the wrong tree; others thought I had the right tree but was not going about it right; others wondered why I was barking at all; and still others, thank God, associated themselves with the hunt and worked on improving my bite so it might come up to the level of my bark. I can think of nothing else to do but to list them all more or less indiscriminately so any of them can disavow any affmitywith the position I've staked out.

A far smaller number of colleagues went through the entire manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and sent me suggestions I could act on as well as searching critiques that occasionally left me at a loss. Their help and criticism have certainly improved the book, and I believe have made me a bit smarter. It may well not have brought the fmal version up to their expectations. I'll take the rap for that, as if I had any choice.

Hidden transcipts

I assure them that I will never make the mistake of seeking so much advice again-at least as much for my sake as for theirs. Kay Mansfield, manager of the Council on Southeast Asian Studies at Yale, did as much as anyone to see this manuscript through to completion. I thank her for her friendship, efficiency, editorial skills, and her efforts.

Louise and our children continue to be an impediment to my scholarly productivity. They see no earthly reason why I should want to spend so much time writing books, given the cost in solitude and in opportunities foregone. This book was, like those before it, written in the teeth of their best efforts to bring me to my senses. There is little doubt that without them I could have written more and, who knows, maybe even have gotten smarter. All in all, a very small price to pay for their company. It is not sufficient to obey him, they must also please him, they must harass, torment, ntzy kill themselves in his Service; and..

Is this to live happily? Does it indeed d The dissembling of the weak in the face of power is hardly an occasion for surprise. It is ubiquitous. So ubiquitous, in fact, that it makes an appearance in many situations in which the sort of power being exercised stretches the ordinary meaning of power almost beyond recognition. Much of what passes as normal social intercourse requires that we routinely exchange pleasantries and smile at others about whom we may harbor an estimate not in keeping with our public performance.

Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts
Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts

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