Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Resistance Re-examined: An Overview on the Term and its Repercussion.

The first critique I heard about the James C. Scott’s ‘Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts’ reached me much more before I red the book. It came up in a party in Havana when a friend and colleague said these exact words, which I remember pretty well: ‘for Scott everything is resistance’.[1] Since I was myself beginning my undergraduate degree’s fieldwork I began my search for the book. Some months later –because it is very difficult to find an American book in Cuba- my friend Lillian Guerra, then studying at the University of Wisconsin at Madison gave me her own copy as a present. From that day on I have been deeply involved with Scott’s work which, I must admitted from this very beginning, I found fascinating.
The discussions about resistance have been present among historians for centuries. Just to quote an example, every rebellion, from the Wat Tyler’s revolt in England up to the African slaves’ uprisings in the Americas, have been commented and studied both for its contemporary witnesses and for modern historians. And precisely here we have the first problem: no doubt, resistance is a non well-defined term. There is a huge difference in the meaning of the term when we compare it and situate it in different historical scenarios and perspectives. Its meaning varied when we look at the Euro-American coalition that resisted the Nazi expansion during the II World War, at the runaway slave who managed to escape into the forest in the Seventeenth-Century Colonial Brazil or at the 1989’s Tianamen square clash against the Communist regime in China.
Lots of works on this ‘subject’ filled the bookshelves in the libraries around the world; however, the ‘subject’ in fact was not the same in each of them. During the Twentieth-Century from Lenin and Gramsci to E. P. Thompson and Foucault, many politicians and social scientists assessed the problem, given new tips for its understanding and settling precedent studies for future works.
It was James C. Scott who first attempted to write a comprehensive and coherent study of this term with two books published in 1985 and 1990 respectively.[2] Scott’s great contribution, in my opinion, is that he succeeded in bounding the concept under a specific conceptual framework and in providing a new methodology to go further on the study of resistance and domination as political and sociological concepts. As we will see in the next segments, he brought up together, with an undoubted degree of mastery, the various forms of behavior of the subordinate groups into a system. For Scott some terms already used to analyze these behaviors, such as negotiation and quiescence were all transformed into resistance. As a result we have today a whole school of studies around the so-called culture of resistance.[3]
This article is divided in three main segments. In the first one I will try to expose, as I saw them, Scott’s ideas around the relations of domination and resistance emphasising on his definition of the Hidden Transcript. In the second one, I will briefly attempt to shed light into the historiographic discussion raised in the early 90s about Scott’s ideas, and in the third and last I will scrutinise what I consider the most unsatisfactory points in Scott works.

Resistance, Hidden Transcript, and a Few Other Things
The starting point to comprehend the contributions of Scott it is, as he has asserted, that the histories based on sources generated by the powerholders always concluded that “…subordinate groups endorse the terms of their subordination and are willing, even enthusiastic, partners in that subordination.”[4] Subordinate groups did produce a ‘voice’ of course less audible and more difficult to find in the field or in the archive, but a ‘voice’ that indeed exists nevertheless. Scott was not the first scholar who called social scientists to take care about this issue.[5] However, this element undoubtedly breadth his ideas.
According to Scott subordinates are not passive spectators of the events happened in their lives. Rather, they develop different forms of response to the relations of power in which they are living. In order to understand and explain these practices Scott argues that it exists a public transcript, intrinsically related to the public realm and found under the virtual control of the dominant groups, and a hidden transcript practised by the subordinates –as well as by the dominants- located within the secure limits of their own private spheres. Maybe we could say that it is the approach to the definition of the Hidden Transcript as an element of the relations of domination and resistance, the great methodological contribution of Scott.[6]
For Scott, in the public stage both dominant and subordinate groups are deeply signed by the Bacon’s ‘idol of the theatre’.[7] The public is the realm of the fictitious, the right place to offer credible performances to the other side. While dominant groups try to represent a trustworthy and impressive spectacle of power, the subordinate groups intend to show a convincing performance of participation and agreement. Everything must be rightly engaged in order that the whole engine does work properly.
Thus, when both the dominant and the subordinate come back to their own domains, they stop using their masks and began their talks in the safety of the kitchen, on the bank of the quiet river, or with a glass of expensive wine between in a cocktail. Among subordinates this fact acquires a relevant importance. It is there, in these autonomous spaces where plots start, where discontent arises, where unconformity became anger. Therefore, those “…offstage speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript”[8] are, for him, the nucleus of the resistance. And in spite that he affirms –using Italics to define this clearly- that he sees the hidden transcript “as a condition of practical resistance rather than a substitute for it”,[9] he contradicted himself several times in the text, as we will see in the last segment.
Being aware of the importance of the behaviour to understand the ways in which cultural forms find articulation,[10] Scott asserts that several day-to-day patterns of behaviour, such as rumours, gossips, spirit possessions, aggressions through magic, anonymous letters and mass defiance, are all forms of disguised resistance. This is another controversial point in his argument that I will try to explore in depth in the last segment.
Against the naïve opinion of Richard Clutterbuck who dismissed his arguments by saying that there was little new in them,[11] it must be pointed out that indeed there are many new things in this book about domination, resistance and even about hegemony and the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’.[12]
In resuming, Scott offered a new methodology to assess the relations of domination and resistance by conceptualising and sealing the new binary system of the Public and the Hidden Transcripts.

Criticisers and Lovers: an Appealing Theme.
Probably few books have received so many reviews in academic journals as Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcript.[13] It is possible to find fascinated scholars who celebrated Scott somewhat as a new Messiah of the Social Sciences as well as others who saw his work as pernicious and noxious.[14] The main critique to his work has been formulated and supported for various scholars and become the centre of a debate in the Latin American Perspectives review during the spring of 1993. According to these critiques Scott gives pre-eminence to the forms of covert resistance ignoring the relevance and transcendence of the forms of overt resistance. This assertion has gone beyond by arguing that while underestimating mass movements, leadership and political commitments Scott opened the doors of a new field, full of misinterpretations of the reality. Where are then, popular struggles? What happen with guerrillas, workers strikes, maroons slaves, peasant revolts and so on?
Matthew Gutmann, his most acid faultfinder, accused him of misinterpret almost everything he studied.[15] Gutmann began by differentiating spontaneous and organised forms of rebellion. He tried to call the attention over those organised mass movements that Scott virtually ignored. According to Gutmann, Scott should never overlooked these clear and dangerous forms of resistance, because by doing that he discarded the determination of these social actors to transform their societies.
Then he went beyond by affirming that Scott overlooked the overt forms of resistance since his attention was just directed to the everyday routine of the people. But here he missed the point. Gutmann brought a question that later was re-taken by Harry Sanabria within the pages of the same journal. “If these acts of petty resistance [everyday acts he meant] add up so much [to the progress of humanity], where are the historical successes?”[16]
At first sight the question seems deeper than it is. Nobody –nor even Marx or Lenin- has been capable so far to fully elucidate the real nature of the social transformations. For Gutmann and Sanabria historical successes seems to have a vague meaning, so vague that they –both- were unable to explain it. What I perceive from this question it is an already old Marxist aphorism, that ‘just a social [and perhaps a socialist] revolution can effectively transform society for good’. The rest is not good enough. Unfortunately, if we take this reflection as a sacred true, we could omit and profane the hearts and minds of all these people who suffered and never rose up against their oppressors, as Scott himself argued, because they knew that their sacrifice could be “wasted or betrayed”.[17] Gutmann approach is quixotic and full of good intentions, but does not help to understand the real life of the majority of the oppressed people alongside the timeline of History. When he replied to Scott that not all sacrifices are wasted or betrayed he forgot to mention how many lost lives are needed to consider this issue seriously. And he also forgot that risky and brave acts of overt resistance usually take place, as Michael Craton and Gail Saunders have rightly noted “…where conditions were so intolerable that it seemed preferable to die in rebellion that to live in chains…”[18]
Scott never suggested ignoring overt forms of resistance. Rather he tried to show us that among subordinate groups “…there is a politics of daily resistance in practice, speech, and thought that persist whether or not there are mass movements or rebellions and without which mass movements and rebellions cannot be understood.”[19]
This critique is quite interesting because it comes from scholars with a deeply rooted Marxist tradition and who are identified with the popular movements against Capitalism and Imperialism. Day-to-day life appears to mean nothing to all of them. They seem to have forgotten how difficult it is the quotidian life of those that, one day, decide to protest in an open form against their oppressors. They have ignored that before kicking the ball, we necessary need to swing the foot.[20]
A second and recurrent complaint about Scott’s work it is that he supposedly fails to mention the work of several people who wrote before him about domination and resistance. Some have even argued that he used other’s ideas, such as the Gluckman’s concept of “rituals of rebellion” or the Goffman’s “backstage behaviors”.[21] Other mentioned his misinterpretations of Lenin and his ignorance of Mao Zedong, Tkachev and Trotsky when they argued that there was nothing new “at all” in his work.[22]
All these opinions are strongly arguable. Scott was indeed aware of the most of the precedent studies in his field. Lenin, Vaclav Havel, John Gaventa and even Max Gluckman and Erving Goffman appear in his work. Even more, he offered acute comments of most of them. His knowledge of the bibliography it is vast and above all undeniable. Perhaps Mao Zedong’s postulates about the people as a resource for all possible transformations in any society it is the only notable absence along these pages.[23] But again, in such a comprehensive book, Mao’s absence shall not be considered a capital sin.
Many other points have been criticised but there is not space enough to come over every one of them. It could be worthy to remark that the new methodology about domination and resistance offered by Scott have become useful for scholars from vast and diverse fields of study and geographical regions.[24]

Resistance from a Resistant Point of View
In the turbulent year of 1843 Don Carlos Ghersi, a Cuban resident planter and a militia officer of the Macuriges jurisdiction in Matanzas sugar lands wrote:

“...slaves watch their governors, the houses of these ones are usually far away from the slaves’ huts, thus they make use of the hours of natural rest to fled away: they establish communication with other farms, choosing as a meeting place that farm in which the white employees are less vigilant: and from those assembles and communications are born all the disorders, thefts and everything else to be feared (...) they abandon their farms by the footpaths across the hills, cane fields and coffee dryings, therefore nothing can be avoided...”[25]
This is definitely one of the clearest fragments ever written about the everyday behaviour of slaves in Cuba during the long Nineteenth-Century. I began the third and last part of this article with this report due to two relevant reasons. First, African slavery in the Americas has become one of the most proper environments to discuss about resistance and even Scott himself used it repeatedly to illustrate his reflections.[26] Second and final, since this is my own subject of study, it will provide me with a reliable backstage to develop the following comments.
Ghersi’s letter is not the only document addressed to bring attention over the ‘everyday dangers’ of the Slave plantation system imposed in the New World from the onset of the conquest until 1886. In his letter, Ghersi alerted his superiors about the disastrous consequences that such freedom of movement among the slaves could cause to the stability of the Island. And he was right, precisely during 1843 two of the most important slave rebellions in the history of Cuba started in March and November respectively, not far from Ghersi’s own residence. And before the year finished a vast conspiracy was uncovered involving free blacks as well as hundreds of slaves.[27]
In Ghersi’s letter we are able to find what Scott called Hidden Transcript of the subordinate groups. These escapes, meetings, and talks were the suitable elements to the development of the 1844’s huge conspiracy, and Ghersi –as well as others before- was able to predict the forthcoming danger. He knew about these facts, he knew about the slaves’ hidden transcripts and he practised himself a hidden transcript in his letter to the Captain General and Governor of the Island. However, he was still wearing his ‘mask’ and representing his role of merciful unwitting master in front of his ‘pacific’ slaves.
Everyday acts of covert resistance clearly appear in this document. Not surprisingly, in this case the hidden become public soon after. The aim of the mentioned meetings –or at least of some of them- was to overthrow the colonial slave system in the Island. There were numerous examples of this kind during the four centuries of slavery in the Americas. However, there were countless escapes, meetings, and talks never directly aimed to face their oppressors. And we can go further by affirming that there were also countless escapes, meetings and talks absolutely far from being acts of resistance.
To shed light upon this issue I would like to clarify a few things about what I understand as Resistance. People living under political and economical difficult conditions are often the actors who turn the world upside down. They are continuously obliged to endure or to do undesired things. Therefore, it is not rare to find among them, as Scott argued, a hidden discourse of revenge and anger.
At the moment to define these acts, Scott did not hesitate in considering them as acts of resistance. The hidden transcripts of these people, from jokes to magic, from gossips to folk songs, are all addressed to resist in a safe way the official discourse imposed from above. If we accept this fact, we could misunderstand –I think- Everything. I deliberately underlined ‘everything’, because the daily life of common people is much more complicated than that. I agree with Scott that all these attitudes can be understood as disguised resistance. However, it would not be right to presume that common people live their lives resisting and thinking that they are resisting. For slaves as well as for farmers, factory workers and so on, there is something even more complicated lying beneath. Common people are oppressed economically, politically, socially and in some other forms. Most of the time they do not concentrate in the forms of resisting such an oppressive domination, sometimes because they do not have the ways to do it –even within the private space- and other times because they have more important problems to resolve.
During the Nazi occupation of Europe movements of resistance appeared in every single occupied country, and indeed people talked and blamed Hitler for killing their families, for taking away their children and for put them all in such an unbearable situation. In nineteenth century America, Brazil and Cuba, slaves used to runaway to the mountains or to rebelled, and indeed they talked and blamed their overseers and masters for punishing them, for separating them from their relatives and for made them work from down till dusk –and sometimes even more- during the whole year in the cotton, cane and coffee plantations. Many other examples could be added to this list. Still all of them –European people, slaves, and others- before worrying about how to eliminate their source of oppression had to think in how to deal with more quotidian problems. They had to figure out how to protect their families from the cold winter, in how to find the required food to keep them healthy and alive, in how to shut up their relatives’ and friends’ mouths when they began practising the real hidden transcript. These people needed to think first in how to survive instead than in how to resist. Thus, not everything must be understood as a disguised form of resistance. And it is good to remind here that words sometimes have two or more meanings, and someone could be resisting with the same joke that another one is just relaxing from a difficult day.
Resistance is, as I already pointed out, a non-well defined term. Even now, after Scott’s works the debate is still alive. I consider that there is a sine qua non condition to properly assess the term. This is whether the discourse or the attitude of the people is addressed to resist or not. For me ‘Intention’ is the key word. Even when the act of resistance is thought to be safe and hidden, an intention to contradict or inflect the official script must exist. Otherwise, words and acts are just coincidences. The ‘toques de cazuela’ during the general strike against the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the anonymous execution of the SS Head Heydrich in Prague during the II World War, and the ‘catch the wise’ behaviour of Jamaican slaves are all forms of disguised resistance. Even when isolated, the simplest idea can be understood as Resistance, if it is aimed to resist, because it is thought as a form of contradict the hegemonic rule. Anonymity, mutuality, and safety must be displayed together –always together- with the intention of resisting.
Even when people are still oppressed but in a better condition of life, they usually think first in other things such as the supply of material necessities or a better alimentation rather –again- than in resisting. But of course, none of these affirmations mean that there is not an everyday hidden transcript addressed to resist and contradict the oppressors’ discourse and policy. My claim it is about the ‘other side’ ignored so far just because its actors did not die fighting back heroically against their oppressors, or because they did not ‘properly’ resist in a hidden form their oppressive rules.
I would like to finish by remarking that History is often seeing from an idyllic or biased point of view that does not help at all to its understanding. Furthermore, historians –as all humans- have their own backgrounds, which many times are far from matching their subjects of study and therefore do not allow them to interpret them in a precise manner. Faraway from romanticism and misinterpretations, common people’s lives deserve to be respectfully studied. Fatuous attempts to lift them up to the category of heroes may be as bad and wrong as to place them as passive witnesses of their times. These people we are talking have/had targets in their lives, and also necessities, beliefs, concerns, moments of happiness and sadness, and mainly they have/had feelings. In understanding this Scott went far beyond the rest and I praise his attempt, but I guess that we still need to dig deeper in those feelings to honour our quest for their truth.
[1] I appreciate the helpful comments I received about this article from James C. Scott and Catherine Crawford.
[2] James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. (Yale, 1985); Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcript (Yale, 1990).
[3] Gerald Sider, Culture and Class in Anthropology and History (Cambridge, 1986); John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London, 1989); and Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner eds., Culture/Power/History: a Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. (Princeton, 1994). We can add to these works the whole school of Subaltern Studies appeared in India in the midst 1970s.
[4] Scott, Domination, p.4
[5] See Carlo Gizburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore, 1980) and Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973).
[6] It is important to note that for Scott, relations of domination are not but relations of resistance. Scott, 1990, p. 45.
[7] We refer here to one of the “four classes of idols which beset men’s minds” according to Francis Bacon’s theory of what not to do, appeared in his Novum Organum in 1620. Bacon mentioned four idols, the idol of the tribe, the idol of the den, the idol of the market, and the idol of the theatre. About the latter he wrote “…there are idols which have crept into men’s minds from the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy, and also from the perverted rules of demonstration, and these we denominate idols of the theatre. For we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds.” Francis Bacon, ‘Novum Organum’ in Francis Bacon, The Works. (Philadelphia, 1854), Vol. 3, pp. 347-348.
[8] Scott, Domination, pp. 4-5.
[9] Ibid., p.191.
[10] Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture’ in The Interpretation of Cultures. (New York, 1973), p. 17.
[11] Richard Clutterbuck, ‘book review’ in Political Studies. Vol. XXXIX, (1991), p. 655.
[12] The critique of hegemony and ideological hegemony of Scott it is addressed against the trend of Gramscian scholars, who sees only the public transcript offered by the hegemony, missing the point of the possible diverse and broad reactions of the subordinate groups and reinforcing in this way, the myth of their ‘false consciousness’ and quiescence. Scott, Domination, chapter 4.
[13] I have found at least 18 to which could be added other comments appeared in articles related to these topics.
[14] For instance after a hard attack to his work Robert L. Paquette wrote “In bad hands, the arguments of James Scott could offer chaos as the alternative to the prevailing system of exploitation…” Robert L. Paquette, ‘Social History Update: Slave Resistance and Social History’. Journal of Social History. Vol. 24, No. 3, (1991), p. 684.
[15] Matthew C. Gutmann, ‘Rituals of Resistance: A Critique of the Theory of Everyday Forms of Resistance’. Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 20, No. 2, (1993), pp. 74-92.
[16] Gutmann, ‘Rituals...’ p. 80; Harry Sanabria, ‘Resistance and the Arts of Domination: Miners and the Bolivian State’. Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 27, No. 1, (2000), pp. 56-58.
[17] James C. Scott, ‘Reply’. Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 20, No. 2, (1993), p. 94.
[18] Michael Craton and D. Gail Saunders, ‘Seeking a Life of Their Own: Aspects of Slave Resistance in the Bahamas’. The Journal of Caribbean History. Vol. 24, No. 1, (1990), p. 1.
[19] James C. Scott, ‘Reply’, p. 94.
[20] As John Gaventa pointed out referring to the miners of Appalachian community, the fatalism that existed among them when they though in challenge their oppressors was not “…an irrational phenomenon. It has been instilled historically through repeated experiences of defeat.” John Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. (Oxford, 1980), p. 254.
[21] See Max Gluckman, Rituals of Rebellion in South-East Africa. (Manchester, 1954) and Erving Goffman, ‘The Nature of Deference and Demeanor’. American Anthropologist. Vol. 58, (June, 1956).
[22] Richard Clutterbuck and Phillip Corrigan supported this viewpoint among his criticizers. Clutterbuck, ‘Book Review’, p. 655 and Corrigan, ‘Book Review’. Social Science Quaterly. Vol. 56, No. 2, (1991), p. 624.
[23] See Mao Zedong, Selected Military Papers of Mao Zedong. (Beijing, 1981).
[24] His contributions have been commented in journals and newspapers dedicated to specific themes (agriculture, peasantry, slavery, class, women) and regions (Asia, Europe, Latin America). See the list of Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts’ book reviews added after the final bibliography.
[25] Carlos Ghersi to the Captain General of the Island. 5 June 1843. Archivo Nacional de Cuba. Gobierno Superior Civil. Bundle 942, File 33246.
[26] Scott argued several times based on examples extracted from the African Slavery History in the Americas. He largely quoted historians, anthropologists and sociologists whose works have been focused on this historical subject. Among them appeared Michael Craton, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Carolyn Fick, Eugene Genovese, Gerald W. Mullin, and Orlando Patterson.
[27] The key book to understand the so-called Conspiracy of La Escalera (or The Ladder) it is Robert L. Paquette, Sugar is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba. (Middletown, Conn., 1987). Two other important works are David Murray, Odious Commerce: Britain, Spain and the Abolition of the Slave Trade. (Cambridge, 1980), and Rodolfo Sarracino, Inglaterra: sus dos caras en la lucha cubana por la abolición. (La Habana, 1989).

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