Published on March 4th, 2013 | by Engin Isin


Why Acts?

There are various ways of introducing why collecting, collating, presenting, and interpreting – in short creating an acts archive – is a different and possibly effective way of doing social and political thought.Here I will do it briefly through James Scott’s latest book [1]. In case you are not familiar with Scott’s work he has done fascinating and illuminating anthropological studies of how power is exercised. He examined, for example, how resistance to power may take rather minute and passive forms [2, 3]; how social agents adopt ways of seeing their objects from the perspective of the state [4]; and, how subjects may resist to being governed according to scripts handed out to them [5]. He has given social and political thought memorable concepts such as ‘weapons of the weak’ and ‘seeing like a state’. In all of this work, it is probably a fair and hopefully accurate thing to say that Scott focused on the artfulness of resistance to domination. For Scott the term ‘artfulness’ serves to indicate that subaltern people (in his case often peasants in Southeast Asia where he conducted his studies) often develop subtle, nuanced, intelligent, and thoughtful ways of dealing with, and resisting against, whatever the dominant people may have intended for them.

Those who are familiar with Michel Foucault’s studies on power and knowledge [6, 7] will already know or will have spotted the similarities and differences between the two. Foucault too focuses on various social groups such as prisoners, patients, students, workers, and women being ‘subjected to’, or rather, subjectified by various disciplines and how each develops forms of subversion within those disciplines. Clearly, one major difference between these two is that while Foucault’s subjects were invariably urban subalterns, Scott focused on rural subalterns. In any event, I want now to turn to Scott’s latest book where he actually uses the phrase ‘acts’ to describe these artful or subversive ways that subaltern subjects resist domination.

Scott especially emphasizes the significant contribution that such subversive acts make to democracy. Scott calls them acts of disobedience or acts of insubordination.  Scott says that although exemplary acts of disobedience are rather petty in the sense that they involve often minute everyday practices they can have massive political effects: ‘multiplied many thousandfold, such petty acts of refusal may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the plans  dreamed up by general and heads of state’ [1: 6-7]. ‘Yet, such petty acts of subordination typically make no headlines’ [1: 7]. The reason why they remain rather anonymous is twofold. First, actors don’t want to draw too much attention to themselves. Second, authorities would also rather keep them out of view [1: 7]. In my view, Scott neglects here that precisely for the second reason often actors attempt to draw media attention to their acts. Even when they want to remain anonymous as in the case of Anonymous they aim to draw maximum attention to their acts. But we can deal with this issue elsewhere. Scott says ‘… such acts of what I have called “everyday forms of resistance” have had enormous, often decisive, effects on regimes, states, and armies at which they are implicitly directed’ [1: 8]. Again, he says that ‘quiet, anonymous, and often complicitious, lawbreaking and disobedience may well be historically preferred mode of political action for peasant and subaltern classes, for whom open defiance is too dangerous’ [1: 10].  In fact, Scott argues only after the failure of such quotidian acts over a period of time that riots, rebellions, and insurgency ensued [1: 11]. Again, arguably, the opposite can be true too: that quotidian acts preserve and maintain a critical if not rebellious dispositions that become the condition of possibility of what appears to be spontaneous demonstrations yet in fact are the result of accumulated acts.

Nonetheless, Scott considers the sort of lawbreaking that accompanies such acts is a subspecies of collective action in that, while not recognized as such, they are handed down from generation to generation and from one subaltern group to another. How do we know that these acts of subordination move beyond the quotidian invisibility and enters the political scene? Scott says here we face a paradox. The contribution that lawbreaking and disruption make to democratic political change is difficult to accept. It is almost as if the condition of democratic political change is lawbreaking and insubordination [1: 16]. If, as Martin Luther King claimed, ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’ [quoted in 1: 19] then how do we develop the analytical tools to understand that such a language has its structure, purpose, method and organisation and that acts are rarely, if ever, ‘random’?

Scott believes that democratic political theory has failed to understand the language of acts of subordination [2: 19]. We may disagree with that sweeping claim but recognise that on the whole within social sciences and humanities,  acts, or rather, their systematic analysis – especially acts for democratic political change – are neglected.

It is in the sense I discussed here then that this website aims to serve two functions. First, we develop, or at least contribute to developing, a systematic way of collecting, collating, preserving, and presenting acts that otherwise remain out of sight and out of recognition for whatever reasons. Such archives and repertoires of action that they preserve may well be as significant to foster an effective democratic culture as the acts themselves. Second, we begin to develop a distinct way of doing social and political thought by actually doing it.


[1] J.C. Scott. (2012). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[2] J.C. Scott. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[3] J.C. Scott. (1992). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[4] J.C. Scott. (1999). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed: Yale University Press.

[5] J.C. Scott. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[6] M. Foucault. (1979). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.

[7] M. Foucault. (1980). Power/Knowledge. Hemmel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.




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