An international workshop exploring James Scott’s concept of zomias and its relevance to the global middle ages was held in Oxford in February 2019. The organising group comprised Ian Forrest (Oxford, UK), Catherine Holmes (Oxford, UK), Minoru Ozawa (Rikkyo, Japan), Amanda Power (Oxford, UK) and Naomi Standen (Birmingham, UK), with funding from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the John Fell Fund, and crucial assistance from Claire Phillips of the Oxford Centre for Global History. Scholars from Ethiopia, France, India, Japan, Thailand, the UK, and the USA took part in two days of intense discussion which demonstrated the interest and potential of this theme.
Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen, who had organised earlier workshops Defining the Global Middle Ages, made some introductory remarks, speculating on the value of the zomias idea and noting the method and values that make global medieval scholarship productive: learning about how history is studied in different institutional and national contexts, taking comparison beyond Europe and China, being willing to listen generously, and taking risks. Minoru Ozawa, whose funding grant from the JSPS had brought to Oxford four further Japanese historians, introduced the study of stateless spaces as an exercise in overcoming prejudices in global history. He suggested that thinking globally problematizes everything from primary education to research agendas. Scott’s book had been translated into Japanese in 2013, garnering some interest from anthropologists but not, as yet, from historians.
The first session was chaired by Simon Yarrow (Birmingham, UK) and included papers from Arezou Azad (Birmingham, UK), Lewis Borck (Leiden, Netherlands) and Minoru Ozawa. Arezou Azad immediately questioned the state/non-state binary in Scott’s model in her paper ‘Rethinking Khurasan: a zomia in Islamic Central Asia’. Focusing on the mountains, steppes and salt-flats around Merv, Herat and Balkh, a multi-lingual and multi-religious region that was not exactly ungoverned, just very loosely linked to the centres of Sasanian and then Islamic power, she argued for a model of state/stateless hybridity. Lewis Borck’s paper ‘Radical archives against the state: historic zomias as temporary autonomous zones’ introduced the anarchist ideas of Hakim Bey as a tool for studying the archaeology of the Gallina culture in North America, c.1100-1300CE. The Gallina had been understood in terms of social pathology: the ‘left behind’ of the Chacoan pueblo state, or the ‘living ancestors’ of peoples who had made historical ‘progress’. Instead, Lewis suggested that the Gallina knowingly deployed social practices that resisted hierarchy and maintained the dispersal of power. He also noted the challenges of practising an archaeology of statelessness when heritage bodies such as UNESCO prefer state-like sites and non-hierarchical peoples are categorised (still!) within natural history rather than human history. Minoru Ozawa’s paper on ‘Making communities through ships in late Viking Scandinavia’ questioned the tendency to see the history of Scandinavia as incorporation into European statehood and religion. Taking the ship to be the basic unit of Viking political economy (a ‘maritime zomia’), Minoru suggested that trade and raiding could be seen as stateless or state-resisting strategies at the same time as being the crucibles for state-formation. In most scholarship Viking activity is seen as a problem resolved by statehood. Following the three papers discussion ranged widely, addressing the empirical and theoretical shortcomings of Scott’s model, but also its potential when put into conversation with related ideas and the medieval evidence.
The second session was chaired by Naomi Standen and included papers from Takashi Kawato (Chiba Keizai, Japan), Elizabeth Lambourn (De Montfort, UK), and Nicholas Matheou (Institute of Historical Research, UK). Takashi Kawato gave a paper on ‘Wako (Japanese pirates) as a maritime zomiatic people in late medieval and early modern East Asia’, which posed questions about how identity and economic activity are seen through the eyes of states. The Mongol emperors of China saw Wako as a Japanese problem, but they were defined more by ethnic diversity, involving fishing peoples from Tsushima Island and the Goto Islands, the Hwachog (sedentary pastoralists and craft producers) and Jaein (performers) from Korea, and horse breeders from Jeju. Ethnic and economic diversity are categorised as dangerous by states. Elizabeth Lambourn spoke about ‘The friction of watery terrains: thinking the Indian Ocean rim as zomia’, using Hajime Narukawa’s world map projection (http://narukawa-lab.jp/archives/authagraph-map/) to centre the maritime worlds of the global middle ages. Questioning Scott’s idea of ungoverned spaces as zones of flight, Elizabeth wondered whether Pahlavi and Sogdian speaking sailors were indeed refugees rather than ‘able migrants’. She concluded that the Indian Ocean littoral incorporated a number of lightly-governed regions whose existence actually benefitted the interests of neighbouring states. Nicholas Matheou’s paper on ‘Zomia, hegemony and counterpower: towards an anarchist heuristic’ urged engagement with the hinterland of radical social science beyond Scott’s anthropology, as tools for understanding medieval conditions. In particular he suggested that counterpower (anti-hierarchical resistance) comprises the ‘dark matter’ of history, the stuff whose unruly existence stimulates the state action we usually class as history. Discussion included the comment that thinking about statelessness as a good thing challenged the positive connectivity at the heart of early modern global history, but also the warning that some zomias are ruled by Count Dracula; that living in a zomia might create a cultural inheritance for later generations, but also that perceived statelessness could be the prelude to conquest. Lewis proposed a three-fold categorisation of statelessness: (1) living outside states (e.g. fur trappers), (2) resisting the encroachment of the state (anti-state zomias), and (3) navigating the state while being refused by it (e.g. refugees).
The third session was chaired by Phacha Phanomvan (Oxford, UK), a PhD student researching religion and trade in Southeast Asia during the first millennium CE, and included papers by the geographer Fiona McConnell (Oxford, UK) and anthropologist Nayanika Mathur (Oxford, UK). Fiona McConnell’s paper on ‘Geography, zomia and the knowledge production of area studies’ took us back to Willem Van Schendel’s original coinage of the term ‘zomia’ as a riposte to the determinist path-dependency accorded to the canonical world regions of area studies. Using the radical feminist Gloria Watkins’ (bell hooks’) idea of the margins as a site of resistance, Fiona proposed that ‘zomia’ is most useful as a conceit which upsets traditional habits of knowledge production, rather than as a model easily applicable to any particular case study. Nayanika Mathur’s paper, ‘Anthropologising the state and government in Northern India’, outlined the hostile reception that Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed has received amongst anthropologists, particularly for its reification of the ‘state’ as a centralised organ of power. Since the 1990s, she argued, states have been understood to exist in everyday practices and perceptions rather than in central power, citing several key works. Discussion revolved around the willingness of historians to work with flawed models (such as zomia) as tools to think with rather than as explanatory frameworks to be applied uncritically.
Ian Forrest reflected on the first day’s papers and discussions, commenting on the need to see ‘state’ as a complex and varied phenomena existing in social relations as much as institutions of power, on the notable absence of women from much of the discussion, and on the radical potential of a consciously anarchist historiography.
The fourth session was chaired by Minoru Ozawa and included papers from Lance Pursey (Birmingham, UK), Hirokazu Tsurushima (Kumamoto, Japan), and Marek Jankowiak and Christian Sahner (Oxford, UK). Lance Pursey’s paper ‘Coming to terms with illegibility: historiographical debates on the Northeast Asian frontier in middle period Chinese history’ drew upon his ongoing PhD research into the Liao period (907-1125CE). He argued that a region once defined by zomia-like social structures, refuge and state-flight became, under the formerly-nomadic Liao, a much more legible and governed region: ‘Liao’ is itself a loanword from Chinese meaning simply ‘state’ in Khitan. Hiro Tsurushima, who spoke of ‘Two or three “Englands” in the long eleventh century’, began from Scott’s idea that the friction of distance and terrain limits the reach of institutional power. In a kingdom with an itinerant court (and courts), zomias are, he argued, defined as much by time as by distance. Royal power appears and disappears over the horizon; it would be possible – and extremely interesting – to map the intensity of governance over different time scales. Marek Jankowiak and Christian Sahner gave a joint paper, ‘At the fringes of Byzantium and the early Islamic empire’, in which they identified possible zomias among the Balkan Bogomils, the Slavic lands c. 800CE, the Atlas mountains, and Yemen. They proposed that illegibility could have been a conscious strategy, and reflected on the challenges and potential in using archaeological data to study the intensity of governance and to chart gradations in connectivity. Discussion followed on the geographical determinism of Scott, and the themes of multiplicity and hybridity in understanding global medieval cultures.
The final session was chaired by Catherine Holmes and included papers from Stephanie Wynne-Jones (York, UK), Yoichi Isahaya (Rikkyo, Japan), and Hitomi Sato (Konan, Japan), although Hitomi was prevented by illness from attending and her paper was read by Minoru Ozawa having being pre-circulated. Stephanie Wynne-Jones spoke about ‘Mobility, history and non-state actors’, focusing on the Bantu migration across Africa. Africanists, she explained, have long been pushing for a rejection of the evolutionary model of a shift from foraging to agriculture as both too binary and neo-colonial. Scott’s work replaces an evolution over time with a contrast based on space, and is thus still too binary. She argued that the formation of sedentary polities, such as Great Zimbabwe around 700CE, was often based in the political forms and values of the migratory era: acephalous and heterarchical social institutions. Yoichi Isahaya’s paper on ‘Sciences in zomia: Nizārī Ismā’īlī movements (1090-1256CE) in the Iranian plateau’ proposed the usefulness of the zomia model for thinking about the attraction of Ismā’īlī mountain refuges for ‘runaway intellectuals’ and ‘prophets of renewal’. This significantly amends Scott because these were hyper-literate refuges from state power. Hitomi Sato’s paper on ‘Revolts and boundary areas in the late medieval Italian peninsula’ continued the critique of Scott, pointing out that medieval European states were far weaker than he had proposed. Nevertheless, she argued, we can find small-scale zomias in close proximity to centres of power, although their autonomy was usually negotiated with states rather than being the result simply of flight and resistance. In discussion a number of lines of critique of the zomias paradigm were developed, including the danger of reintroducing colonial romanticism about ‘unexplored’ regions, despite the desire to put all areas of the global middle ages onto a level playing field in terms of historical significance and study: inclusive history is not just the comparison of different places, but the discussion of different people to those whose agency normally dominates historiography. Several people made observations to the effect that medievalists are able to contribute a subtle and diverse set of observations about the political contingencies of zomias.
Amanda Power then led a summary discussion and consideration of plans for the future. She began by noting again the lack of explicit discussion of gender, an important theme in any recalibration of medieval historical study on a global scale; the need to incorporate aspects of environmental history and the intellectual culture of zomia-like regions was raised; the need for deeper engagement with Africa, the Americas and maritime worlds was noted, as well as the desirability of including historians and archaeologists from countries that are less well-represented in global historiographical conversations. Solomon Gebreyes concluded that zomias as an experiential category could be social or individual, and Scott’s 19th century assumptions about what constituted a state hindered a proper discussion of this. Picking up a point made by Julia McClure about working with Zapatistas who are writing their own history, there was discussion about the use of ‘zomia’ as paradigm for a post- or anti-globalisation global history. Amanda Power suggested that the obsession with ‘agency’ was exclusionary in its own way, while Naomi Standen suggested that queering the sources was integral to uncovering new histories. Simon Yarrow asked what our own positionality as citizens of surveillance states meant for our approach to this subject, while Anya Raisharma pointed out that the people (including scholars) most subject to state power and surveillance today are precisely those at the margins, not the centre: the migrant, the refugee.
Everyone agreed that a second workshop, further discussion, and potentially publication of some essays were good ideas.
Workshop participants (*doctoral students)
Lesley Abrams (Oxford, UK)
Arezou Azad (Birmingham, UK)
Fozia Bora (Leeds, UK)
Lewis Borck (Leiden, Netherlands; now Missouri, USA)
Caroline Dodds-Pennock (Sheffield, UK)
Marie Favereau (Paris, France)
Ian Forrest (Oxford, UK)
Solomon Gebreyes (Hamburg, Germany)
Catherine Holmes (Oxford, UK)
Yoichi Isahaya (Hokkaido, Japan)
Marek Jankowiak (Oxford, UK)
Huw Jones (Oxford, UK)*
Cory Johnson (Oxford, UK)*
Takashi Kawato (Chiba Keizai, Japan)
Elizabeth Lambourn (De Montfort, UK)
Michael Leadbetter (Oxford, UK)*
Curtis Lisle (Birmingham, UK)*
Shinobu Majima (Gakushuin, Japan)
Nik Matheou (IHR, UK)
Nayanika Mathur (Oxford, UK)
Julia McClure (Glasgow, UK)
Fiona McConnell (Oxford, UK)
Minoru Ozawa (Rikkyo, Japan)
Phacha Phanomvan (Oxford, UK)*
Amanda Power (Oxford, UK)
Lance Pursey (Birmingham, UK)*
Anya Raisharma (Oxford, UK)*
Claudia Rogers (Sheffield, UK)
Christian Sahner (Oxford, UK)
Hitomi Sato (Konan, Japan)
Naomi Standen (Birmingham, UK)
Hirokazu Tsurushima (Kumamoto, Japan)
John Watts (Oxford, UK)
Chris Wickham (Birmingham, UK)
Stephanie Wynne-Jones (York, UK)
Simon Yarrow (Birmingham, UK)