History and Social Theory (2005) by Peter Burke and Two Cheers for Anarchism (2012) by James C. Scott warrant a close read

Raithby House, opposite Guelph University Bookstore. Jaan Pill photo

Raithby House, located at the University of Guelph across from the University of Guelph Bookstore, which I like to visit from time to time, to check out recent studies that I might find of interest. Jaan Pill photo

Two previous posts – from 2012 and 2014, respectively – which deal with how frames of reference drive (or determine, or influence: you can choose whichever verb you like) how we make sense of things, are entitled:

Peter Burke (2005) prefers to speak of postmodernity as opposed to postmodernism

Two Cheers for Anarchism (2012) began as a large undergraduate lecture course on anarchism

Peter Burke and James C. Scott

I was interested to come across studies by Peter Burke some years ago.

I also have an interest in work by James C. Scott, author of Two Cheers for Anarchism (2012).

A focus on “voluntary co-operation without hierarchy”

For each of the books, in the list that follows below, I’ve included excerpts from blurbs or similar overviews.

Based on what I have learned (primarily through blurbs) of James C. Scott’s work, my sense is that chaos (with its own language and sets of rules, as is the case with corruption, violence, and power) gives rise to dramatic tension, which is a central ingredient of storytelling.

Dramatic tension, as well, is a central ingredient of a dramaturgical perspective (for analysis of  – that is, sense-making with regards to – social interaction) of the kind adopted by Erving Goffman, in his analysis of frontstage (open to public view) and backstage (not open to public view) behaviours, and of frames and framing.

A great strength of Goffman as an academic, in my view, is that he kept his personal political beliefs to himself. Of course, each academic makes her or his own decision, regarding such matters.

The work of James C. Scott, as I see it, similarly adopts (and celebrates) a dramaturgical perspective regarding the meaning and purpose of existence. As well, as noted at a previous post, Scott’s conceptualization of anarchism includes a focus on “voluntary co-operation without hierarchy” and a celebration of “the inventiveness and judgment of people who are free to exercise their creative and moral capacities.”

The work extols, that is, the value of a low-hierarchy approach to life, and to perception of reality. An antithesis of such an approach, that comes to mind for me, would be the British empire among other empires and dominant ideologies. When I first began reading about the British empire, I had no idea what I would be learning. Over time, I began to understand what the empire entailed.

Without ever having labelled it as anarchism, I’m familiar (in my case through decades of volunteer work in community self-organizing) with the value of a flat-hierarchy approach to things, where every person’s input is centrally important. I’m also aware, through anecdotal experience, that flat-hierarchy community organizations tend to be more successful in sustaining themselves over time, through an effective system (and culture) of leadership succession, as compared to strongly hierarchical community organizations.

However, some distinctions must be kept in mind. What I describe is not anarchism. The volunteer organizations that I describe are “flat-hierarchy” but they are not “no hierarchy.” As well, a clearly articulated procedure is in place for key decision making (that is, a majority vote among a quorum of board members), and a constitution and bylaws are in place, developed with extensive input from members and consistently followed. Leadership succession is included in the constitution and becomes a key part of the culture of the organization.

Below is a list of James C. Scott’s books at the Toronto Public Library website:

Against the grain: a deep history of the earliest states (2017)

Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture, the advantages of mobile subsistence, the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain, and why all early states are based on millets and cereal grains and unfree labor. He also discusses the “barbarians” who long evaded state control, as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and nonsubject peoples.

Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance (1985)

A penetrating and illuminating study of the effects of the Green Revolution on one village in the relatively wealthy Kedah rice-growing region of Malaysia. Scott deepens the understanding of the erosion of traditional village reciprocity under the pressures of double-cropping and the commercialization and mechanization of agriculture. In this human and humane work, individuals both rich and poor are allowed to speak for themselves as Scott deals extensively with the economic and social changes wrought by this revolution.

Two cheers for anarchism: six easy pieces on autonomy, dignity, and meaningful work and play (2012)

Beginning with what Scott calls “the law of anarchist calisthenics,” an argument for law-breaking inspired by an East German pedestrian crossing, each chapter opens with a story that captures an essential anarchist truth. In the course of telling these stories, Scott touches on a wide variety of subjects: public disorder and riots, desertion, poaching, vernacular knowledge, assembly-line production, globalization, the petty bourgeoisie, school testing, playgrounds, and the practice of historical explanation.

Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (1998)

The 20th century is replete with ambitious, state-directed developmental projects that have resulted in major fiascoes. Third World leaders have repeatedly engaged in social engineering, consistent with an ideological commitment to modernist solutions of basic socioeconomic problems. For Scott (anthropology and political science, Yale), the manifest failures have had tragic consequences. In a treatment that can only be termed brilliant, he has produced a major contribution to developmental literature.

Political ideology in Malaysia: reality and beliefs of an elite (1968)

An Amazon description of this book notes: “Appendixes A,B,C. Examines the attitudes and beliefs of seventeen randomly selected Malaysian civil servants who have assumed positions of government leadership since independence.”

Comparative political corruption (1972)

A description (in the author’s own words) at Google Scholar reads:

The perspective of this book is that corruption, like violence, must be understood as a regular, repetitive, integral part of the operation of most political systems. In practice, this simply means that an analysis of who in a society gets what, when, where, and how that relies exclusively upon an examination of those political acts open to public view would seldom provide an accurate picture of political reality. Recurring acts of violence and corruption are thus more successfully analyzed as normal channels of political activity than as cases of deviant pathology requiring incarceration and/or moral instruction for the perpetrator (s). Just as social banditry and piracy must be viewed as integral parts of many agrarian and maritime economies, so, for example, must vote-buying and “rake-offs” be seen as an integral part of United States urban politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Far from being pathological, patterns of corruption and violence may actually represent channels of political demands without which formal societal arrangements could scarcely survive.

In keeping with this perspective, I have consistently tried to show how patterns of access and exclusion in the formal political apparatus help determine which groups will most likely resort to corruption or violence.

Since corruption is a violation of certain rules, the amount and nature of corruption is, in part, determined by those rules. If the rules permit large campaign contributions, they often simply institutionalize a transaction between wealth and power that occurs illegally under a more restrictive set of rules. Given the importance of the existing set of rules to any examination of corruption, I have …

The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (2009)

In accessible language, James Scott, recognized worldwide as an eminent authority in Southeast Asian, peasant, and agrarian studies, tells the story of the peoples of Zomia and their unlikely odyssey in search of self-determination. He redefines our views on Asian politics, history, demographics, and even our fundamental ideas about what constitutes civilization, and challenges us with a radically different approach to history that presents events from the perspective of stateless peoples and redefines state-making as a form of “internal colonialism.” This new perspective requires a radical reevaluation of the civilizational narratives of the lowland states. Scott’s work on Zomia represents a new way to think of area studies that will be applicable to other runaway, fugitive, and marooned communities, be they Gypsies, Cossacks, tribes fleeing slave raiders, Marsh Arabs, or San-Bushmen.


“Star of viral marathon video came in last”

A Feb. 5, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “Star of viral marathon video came in last, and wouldn’t have it any other way: ‘I always ask myself, would I have finished if Rene had not been there?’” I mention in because I like the inherent message, in the video.

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