“Standoffish States: Nonliterate Leviathans in Southeast Asia.” (with Dan Slater, Trans-Regional and National Studies of Southeast Asia 2015)
Under what conditions do states strive to homogenise their populations, rendering them ‘legible’ for state-making projects? Virtually all conditions, according to James Scott’s landmark treatise, The Art of Not Being Governed. Whereas Scott sees states’ appetites to standardise their populations for purposes of control and extraction as practically universal, we see this appetite as radically and fascinatingly uneven. Much as Scott sees mobile populations as ‘nonliterate’ due to their disinterest in (and not their ignorance of) the purported fruits of civilisation, we see Leviathans as frequently ‘nonliterate’ in their disinclination (and not simply their incapacity) to actively administer their subjects and territory: even in Southeast Asia, the region that has done more than any other to generate Scott’s theories of state power and practice. We thus argue that the world is riddled with standoffish states, not just standardising states. Even in the zones where the potential costs of eschewing the pursuit of legibility appear highest – those containing violent insurgencies – states can prove surprisingly disinterested in pursuing centralised governance in a highly administrative manner. We highlight four alternative strategies – indirect rule, divide and conquer, militarised pacification, and forcible expulsion – that states commonly deploy to fulfil what we see as their most fundamental objective: preventing political challenges to the ruling centre.
“The Story of the Tattooed Lady: Scandal and the Colonial State in British Burma.” (Law and Social Inquiry, 2012)
This paper centers on Branded Woman vs. Unknown, an unusual 1889 trial that gave birth to the “ordinarily accepted significance” of Burmese tattoos. What began as a snippet of gossip from a colonial village became a scandal involving the highest echelon of Britain’s metropolis. I explain why this dynamic of escalation occurred and how colonial officials in Burma utilized a courtroom to transform tenuous fictions of tattooing into a seemingly coherent fact about Burma. My argument that this process—shaped through cues from a fragmented audience of peers (rather than a single audience of subordinates)—represents the production of an elite public transcript highlights how colonial scandals worked as eventful moments for an always precarious state to reconfigure its claim to power by prompting local agents to enact expressions of certainty. It further carries implications for scholarship on symbolic state power and the construction of legal facts and public knowledge.
“When the War Ends: Legitimacy Crises and Theatrical Legibility in Colonial Asia”
War makes states and states make society legible – but not always to the same extent or for the same reasons. This article explains when and why rulers develop administrative projects that selectively register people, improving legibility over some but not others. Unlike canonical theories that focus on how rulers develop administrative projects for revenue extraction in preparation for war, I argue that legitimacy crises after wars can prompt rulers to perform governance before elite supporters. When confronting post-war disorder, beleaguered rulers may see administrative projects as a way to display competence and please crucial stakeholders. Rulers will target people, rendering society legible selectively, depending on how they are balancing the concerns of multiple types of elite supporters. I demonstrate this argument, using historical case studies of registration campaigns for opium consumers in colonies of the British, Japanese, and American empires in Asia after late 19th century wars of conquest. This article contributes to literature on war and the making of modern states, by identifying postwar legitimacy crises as a novel mechanism for bellicose state formation, while focusing on the role of performance in politics, as well as symbolic and cultural power.
“Colonial Origins of Southeast Asia’s Drug Wars”
Southeast Asia has an unusually high concentration of countries that impose the death penalty for drug-related offenses. Why do states in this region share such forceful laws against narcotics? This article locates the answer in Southeast Asia’s history of colonial state formation. It identifies a process that links early 20th century projects for raising revenue from opium in countries formerly under Anglo-European and Japanese influence, to a sweeping wave of capital punishment laws across the region in the 1970s. Colonial-era arrangements for taxing opium influenced post-independence power struggles, by bequeathing stocks and infrastructure to elites as a ready source of finance and patronage-building. Using evidence from Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, I demonstrate how elites competed to control these legacy assets, using anti-narcotic campaigns to undercut another’s support base, and trace the process through which a political instrument for eliminating rivals escalated into harsh drug laws. Unlike conventional understandings of states as developing punitive laws in response to perceived social threats, I argue that the initial introduction of repressive anti-drug legislation has more to do with power struggles among state elites than with pressures from below. This article adds to scholarship theorizing legacies of colonial rule upon today’s state-society relationships by stressing the role of elite competition for understanding laws for capital punishment, an especially extreme expression of state power.