Sunday, April 25, 2010

zomi nge zomia

For those with the time to indulge and the inclination to ideate, this lecture might be one that interests you and, more importantly, worth your time. In this lecture (runtime: 1hr, 17mins), James C. Scott, a professor at Yale U, previews his book, The Art of Not Being Governed (2009). The focus of his lecture is the idea of "Zomia," which accounts for hill folk that inhabit the upper elevations from northeast India down east to the coast of Vietnam. Drawing on Willem van Schendel's work on the subject, Zomia is theorized as the last few bastions of resistance in the shatter-zones of modern nation states.

James Scott's proposal for theorizing "Zomia" is informative in that it valorizes our folks's difference and helps make sense of some of what we observe as mundane. More importantly, it suggests a lateral vantage point from where particulars may be viewed. Hence, what we might percieve as an issue as peculiar to say a Mizo situation, Zomia suggests broad cultural parallels for that issue. Two instances might be helpful to sell this point.

*Commenting on religion, Scott observes, "Where, as occasionally happens, they do come to embrace the 'world religion' of their valley neighbors, they are likely to do so with a degree of heterodoxy and millenarian fervor that valley elites find more threatening than assuring(Art of Not Being Governed, 21)." With a missionary Christianity that was "foreseen" (Darphawka) and the popular currency of "last-days" religious and ethical templates, the wide frames of reference that Zomia provides might be worth a second thought. Could Mizo Christianity and its idiosyncrasies suggest the tensions of coming to terms with modernity of a colonial extract? Vanlalchhuanawma's recent Christianity and Subaltern Culture (2007) suggested so.

**Regarding oral histories of writing, Zomia stories share a striking parallel: the hill folks at one time had writing but lost it through their own improvidence or treachery (Art of Not Being Governed, 221). Our oral tradition notes that we did have alphabets on a parchment. We couldn't care less for it. A dog eventually ate the parchment and, in doing so, deprived the Mizo of a script. This theme is not so unique and recurs through many oral tradtions of other hill folk (Akha, Karen, etc.). Seen, however, through Zomia lenses, these oral traditions underscore post-literacy (rather than illiteracy) in that, "the absence of writing and texts provides the freedom to maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines (220)."

The only preliminary caution is that the notion is, at face value, too large a metanarrative that more work will definitely be needed to highlight the variations and peculiarities of the Zomia folk. This is not so much a scraping down of theoretical structures as it is to take what resources we have and to push them further with our own work.

Postscript: what are we to make of the recent deplorable racial boycott? This is neither to condone a "crime" with verbal gymnastics nor to exonerate the tawdry response to an incident that is equally deplorable. Rather, insights from the notion of zomia are informative as they push us to rewrite our own stories not in blissful exclusion but with templates that are problematically inclusive (for instance "of-half-breeds-and-aliens"). Inarticulate xenophobia takes little to peer through fa├žades of religion or modern sophistication.