James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Jeemut Pratim Das

‘The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia’, published in 2009, marked a renewed focus on the history and people of the Southeast Asian mainland massif of ‘zomia’, a term that Scott borrows from Willem Van Schendel1 to denote the geographical region stretching from the mountain highlands of Vietnam to India’s northeastern regions. This area, he argues, is populated by people characterized by a history of escapism from the expansionist padi wet rice agricultural states of the lowlands over the course of their fluid history, thereby seeking to contest the common assumption of them being left behind in the march of civilizational progress and being reduced to uncivilized barbarians in the process. Scott argues that the art of escaping was a deliberate choice rather than a forced exclusion, where the history of the hills is itself a unique construction of a ‘state effect’ of ‘ingathering’ of populations that seeks to make the peripheries visible and legible in the eyes of the modern state. By extension, this denotes an anarchist and non-state history as the choice came ‘from below’ and was not a state imposition, though the lenses through which the hills are viewed still exist and are defined and reified by (misguided) state practices of ordering the totality of existence within its increasingly well-defined borders.

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