“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.