Friday, 14 August 2009

Summer Reading: Domination and the Arts of Resistance

Martin O'Shaughnessy discusses James C. Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (Yale University Press, 1990).

There are books that you feel should have made more of a stir than they did, or that maybe made a stir in another field without you noticing from the field you were in, hedges sometimes being over-high. For me, Domination and the Arts of Resistance is one of these. If power and resistance are the stock-in-trade of Cultural Studies, then this is surely a work that its practitioners should look at, not least because of its implicit or explicit disagreement with key figures like Gramsci or Bourdieu.

At the heart of Scott’s book lie the core concepts of the ‘public transcript’ and the ‘hidden transcript’. The former is constituted by those practices and discourses through which the dominant perform their powerfulness and the subordinate seem to pay homage to it. The latter consists essentially of those covert practices (poaching, pilfering, tax evasion, vandalism etc.) and discursive forms (gossip, calumny, pamphlets etc.) by which dominated groups oppose their subordination. Between the two lies a third layer consisting of coded and evasive texts or gestures (silences, ironic consent) which suggest a resistance that can rarely be openly stated. Because only the public transcript leaves hard and easily visible traces, it is often mistaken for the whole picture, producing a misleading sense of more or less willing compliance to power. But, as Scott notes, even the public transcript can be a site of negotiation and struggle, as when the subordinate try to turn power’s flattering self-image to their own advantage.

Part of the importance of Scott’s work lies in its methodological implications: the need to read between the lines of the public transcript and to find ways to access a hidden transcript that by definition resists visibility. Part of its importance is theoretical, its opposition to strong and weak versions of the dominant ideology thesis whereby the dominated are fully incorporated by the ideology of the dominant group (unable even to think resistance), resigned to their subordination (unable to conceive of an alternative order as realistic) or actively complicit with it (hard-wiring their inferiority into the practices, spaces and discourses through which they live their lives). Disagreeing with these different versions of incorporation, Scott sees the dominated as both conscious of their subordination and able to express their resistance to it by coded negotiations in the public transcript and underground opposition in the hidden one. One of the benefits of such a position, not the least, is that rather than casting himself in the superior position of the one who knows the subordinates’ true position in a way they never can, Scott takes on the more modest role of decoder of the implicit and excavator of the buried.

One of the reasons his writing appealed to me was in the way it helps us think about the relationship between periods of calm and periods of rebellion. If we only pay attention to the public transcript and take it at face value, we can never see where rebellions come from, nor how their agents can imagine a different, more just set of social arrangements. Revolt simply seems to spring from nowhere creating its own self-aware, resistant subject in the process. But if we deploy the concept of the hidden transcript and hold onto the many signs of coded or covert resistance it entails, we are much better placed to understand how, in particular circumstances, the masks and gloves may come off and apparently compliant subjects rebel. Cultural analysts are much attracted to the idea of the Carnival as a time when hierarchies are inverted, the powerful are mocked and the repressed rises to the surface. While some would define the Carnival as a safety valve, a letting off of steam, that helps preserve a social order it only seems to threaten, Scott sees it much more as an authentic expression of resistance, a kind of rehearsal for real rebellions. In the same way, he sees the pan-European tradition of ‘world-upside-down’ prints as an expression of the capacity of even those who have never known anything different to imagine an alternative social order. His work might seem unduly optimistic, finding resistance everywhere from the prison to the plantation. Yet he also recognises that resistance can only arise when there is communication and co-ordination amongst subordinate groups and when ‘sequestered’ spaces where the dominated can speak freely (the tavern, the chapel etc.) can be found and maintained.

His work seems particularly relevant to current times, in negative and positive ways. On the negative side, we might find it hard to see how practices and spaces of resistance might be built and defended in the face of social atomisation, enforced individualisation and ever more prevalent surveillance. On the more positive side, the one we might prefer to hold onto, his work might encourage us to seek out and delineate the covert and implicit practices and discourses of resistance that persist beneath the surface of apparent consensus.

No comments:

Post a Comment