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Below is my summary review of James Scott’s very influential work. I commend its reading to anyone concerned with domination and subordination. His text offers a global construct, that in my view, is imminently applicable both today and in the analysis of texts, whether biblical or otherwise.

James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1990). Reviewed by Rob G. Reid

James C. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University. His work Domination and the Arts of Resistance sets forth to apply critical analysis to the task of class relations, specifically between the powerful and the powerless. Chiefly, he is interested in the modes of discourse employed both “publically” and “offstage” between groups possessing socially powerful positions of dominance and those individuals and groups who find themselves under the social, political, economic, and class domination of others. More specifically, this work takes up an investigation of “hidden transcripts,” a mode of communication in the public sphere between groups evidencing a disparity of power and privilege. His work admittedly emerges first from his sociological analysis of class relations in a Malay village.

Scott perceived unique aspects and a strong disparity between the public discourse of both the rich and the poor and the private discourse of both groups. After further consideration, he began to notice the same phenomena on a much broader scope than merely from observations of the Malay village. As a result, Scott’s undertaking seeks to probe the public and hidden discourses of the powerful and the marginalized. Something Scott finds at work universally in all human discourse relative to the power differential between individuals. Scott’s aim is to uncover the “contradictions, tensions, and imminent possibilities” afforded by the creation of “hidden transcripts” by both subordinate groups and those who dominate them (xii). By a comparison of the hidden transcripts of both groups vis-à-vis the public transcript, Scott surmises, that a “new way of understanding resistance to domination” is possible (xii). Therefore, Scott’s work may rightly be classified as a sociological project that provides the analytic tools to decode public and hidden transcripts evidenced by those on both sides of the power divide which serve to penetrate modes of resistance to domination. His work focuses primarily on examples of slavery, surfdom, and caste subordination, which offer more explicit examples from which to extrapolate (x). He presupposes, in offering something of a global theory, that “structurally similar forms of domination will bear a family resemblance to one another” and “that to the degree structures of domination can be demonstrated to operate in comparable ways, they will, other things equal, elicit reactions and patterns of resistance that are also broadly comparable” (xi). At bottom, Scott contends that the hidden transcripts of subordinate groups are often manifest in public discourse, albeit in veiled form, or by means of vehicles such as rumors, gossip, songs, gestures, theatre and others that enable a “critique of power while hiding behind anonymity or behind innocuous understandings of their conduct” (xiii).

Scott’s work is structured in eight chapters that systematically work out, by use of a variety of examples his thesis that hidden transcripts exist and can be readily discerned to the discriminating critic. In chapter one, “Behind the Official Story,” Scott grounds his basic assumptions and the trajectories of his argumentation. Scott begins by asserting that, in the context of “normal social discourse” those routinely exchanged expressions of pleasantries and smiles may well be deceptive. Indeed, discourses in these contexts may often embody a level of discourse which seeks to negotiate power differentials in mutually reinforcing ways in order to mask candor. This is what Scott identifies as a “strategic” dimension—a misrepresentation of ourselves that may engender either positive or negative reciprocal effects. Further, methodologically, this also locates Scott’s concern with “performance.” Here he helpfully identifies actual relationships in which a “public transcript” would occur: the worker to the boss, the tenant or sharecropper to the landlord, the serf to the lord, the slave to the master, the untouchable to the Brahmin, a member of a subject race to one of the dominant race, etc. A public transcript is his shorthand way of describing the “open interaction between subordinate and those who dominate” (2). This discourse, he finds, is usually constructed in order the mutually reinforce the interests of both parties. Thus, the employer’s discourse to the worker reinforces his own interest and likewise the workers public discourse reinforces his location of subordination in her or his own interest. These public transcripts are suspect by virtue of the probability that they are tactical in nature to a deeper analysis. Conversely, the hidden transcript is discourse characterized as that which “takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders” (4). It is a derivative discourse embodied in “speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript” (4-5).

In fleshing these distinctions out, Scott draws on the discourse of a slave after her master had left the kitchen in which she proleptically envisions the vindication of her cause and the demise of her dominator in apocalyptic, religious terminology (5). He further notes that hidden transcripts and “masks” as it were are normative to both parties in the power differential. He proposes that all public discourse between dominator and dominated exist as a collision between the independent public transcripts of each group (13).  Scott  closes the chapter after enumerating three distinctives of hidden transcripts: (1) each is specific to a social site and a particular group of actors, (2) each contains more than merely speech acts, but a whole range of practices, and (3) the “frontier between public and the hidden transcripts is a zone of constant struggle between the dominant and subordinate…” (14).

Chapter two, “Domination, Acting, and Fantasy” suggests Scott’s means of “interpreting” and seeking to understand the political conduct of subordinate groups—namely, by considering the use of disguise, deception, and indirection “while maintaining an outward impression, in power-laden situations, of willing, even enthusiastic consent” (17).  Thus, he takes up considering how the public transcript is constructed, its maintenance, and the purposes, which it serves. Here Scott identifies four varieties of public discourse among subordinate groups: (1) a (safe and public) discourse based in maintaining or supporting the “flattering self-image of elites;” (2) the hidden transcript itself; (3) strategically located discourse between the first two characterized by disguise, anonymity and double meaning taking place in the public discourse (e.g. rumor, gossip, jokes, songs, rituals, codes, and euphemisms); and (4) a discourse rupturing the divide between hidden and public (e.g. the in-breaking of the hidden discourse in public). Of these, the main concern of Scott is the third mode, the disguised, coded, discourse (19). Scott finds that the practice of domination itself ipso facto “creates” the hidden transcript (27). The chapter provides helpful diagrams evidencing Scott’s own deep consideration and theoretical construction of the issues of public and hidden transcripts applied in social circumstances (e.g. 26). Further, he probes the necessary relation between power and language thereby opening up immense possibilities in the consideration of language and power grounded in explicit social cases (e.g. class subordination: Untouchables). Hence, language, power, and performance are bound up and expressed in cases of social, gender, and other types of subordination as a system of reinforcement of domination and subordination (31-33). Further, he finds that hidden transcripts necessarily operate in the realm of mimicry and fantasy, often at the expense of the dominant.

Chapter three explores the “public  transcript” as a performance. Here Scott supposes that “relations of domination are, at the same time, relations of resistance” (45). Here he explores the symbolization of domination through public demonstrations and the actual enactments, in social contexts, of power. He finds that euphemisms often are employed to conceal social stigmatic practices or to veil their severity by subtly endorsing them (e.g. “reeducation camps = prisons for political opponents” [53]). Further, the practice of “naming” itself is a political and power-laden act (54). The public transcript also functions to give the appearance of unanimity in order to create the aura of social solidarity among groups.

Chapter four considers the public discourse in light of conforming behavior of the less powerful. Here he identifies two dominant views “thick” and “thin,” which attempt to explain how dominant ideology achieves its ends (72). Here he offers a critique of the hegemonic view and opts to follow the trajectory, albeit developed and nuanced of the “thin” view—the dominant ideology convinces subordinate groups that their subordination is “natural and inevitable.” Eventually, Scott concludes that subordinate groups, in concrete situations, tent to clothe their resistance in “ritualisms” of subordination serving to disguise their purpose and remain ambiguous enough for “retreat” (96).  Also, groups maintaining dominance, necessarily in justifying their own social location and domination open themselves up for criticism (103). Hence, the language of the elite in this regard provides a vocabulary that can be inverted for resistance (103).

Chapter fives sketches the dynamic connection between the hidden transcript and the experience of domination. Scott employs social psychological findings, the two most significant of which are: (1) forced compliance fails to produce attitudes sustaining compliance, “but produces reaction against such attitudes” and (2) individuals individual beliefs and attitudes are likely to reinforce the dominant ideology if compliance is perceived as voluntary (109).  Scott explores how the negation of self-dignity functions social in means as important in consideration as material oppression. Further, Scott finds two other factors significant to the livelihood of the hidden transcript, namely, social locations (not necessarily physical locations) and public “surveillance from above” and “from below.” These latter two operate within social locations to restrain the expression of hidden transcripts both from the dominant group and indigenously amidst the subordinate group.

Chapter six explores the mode of articulating a politically disguised discourse. He finds this “interstitial space” (my term) between the “two poles” of complete compliance and collective defiance to the territory for a disguised discourse of resistance (136). Herein Scott helpfully enumerates forms of disguise such as anonymous expressions (demon possession, gossip, aggression through magic, rumor, anonymous letters and demonstrations [140]). He, successfully in my view, makes an exceptional case for euphemism offering in the public transcript “an allusion to profanity without full accomplishment of it; a blasphemy with its teeth pulled” (153). Also, dissonance to subordination is found to be expressed through cultural life (157). He further finds that “oral culture” itself tends toward disguise in constructing cultural narratives, perhaps elevating social status to figures of martyrdom to mastery (160). Another realm of political disguise may be found in the inversion of the symbolic world (166).

Chapter seven continues the discussion along the lines of “infrapolitics” of subordinate groups. Chiefly at issue, for Scott, is the systemic underpinnings that enable (e.g. channels of distribution, akin to “infrastructure”) of the discourse of the subordinate groups (184). The consideration takes shape around the notion of hidden transcripts being social poses as well as social practices. He provides a helpful discussion of the possibilities of the hidden transcript in materialist, status, and ideological dominance “below the line” (198). Herein much of Scott’s previous argument coalesces in a cogent, recognizable, and visually appealing form (e.g. chart). This is a vital chapter to fully grasping the significance of Scott’s argument and its tangible praxis among social classes.

Chapter eight seeks to address the issue of what occurs when the hidden transcript becomes manifest openly in the public discourse. His discussion surfaces the issues of psychological release experienced by the subordinate in the somewhat euphoric expression of “truth” in the teeth of power along with the social meaning of tearing down the wall of silence between the public and hidden discourse. Finally, he finds that the in-breaking of this hidden discourse also offers immense personal satisfaction for the subordinate on the grounds that they had previously policed their anger and aggression, often through displacement, and in the moment of breaking the silence experience such a release (213).

Overall, Scott’s project is very broad by nature, nuanced and complex, evidencing a breadth of critical social inquiry stratified across a body of divergent, yet similar social circumstances of domination and subordination. His intent was to articulate modes of discourse, especially a “hidden transcript” elicited amidst social classes operative under disparate power-bases. His argument, in my view, is exceptionally compelling and deeply insightful. However, by the nature of the inquiry, his insights provide something of a roadmap towards other scholars to apply said method to unique texts and peoples in identified social and historical circumstances, thus betraying perhaps the greatest value of the text—sociological analysis of power relations readily available for use across disciplines. Scott exemplifies cautious handling of the matter, albeit striding forward to openly construct a plausible structure to explain the discourses between dominant and subordinate groups that seem to transcend one social, political, racial, or gender-specific circumstance. His work will doubtless continue to be a tour de force in social, political, and anthropological dialogue.

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