Language and the “Arts of Resistance”.

I have long revered James C. Scott for his fierce focus on (to quote Wikipedia) strategies of resistance to various forms of domination, but I have also suspected that (like many scholars with an ideological focus) he was oversimplifying and ignoring facts that didn’t fit his theory, so I was glad to read Susan Gal‘s sympathetic but critical “Language and the ‘Arts of Resistance’” (Cultural Anthropology 10.3 [Aug. 1995]: 407-424), a review of Scott’s book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (I’m afraid it’s behind a paywall unless you, like me, have access to JSTOR). Much of it is not of LH relevance, but Gal says that in a central chapter Scott’s “goal is to detail the linguistic mechanisms of resistance,” and I’ll excerpt some of the sections dealing with language:

More important, Scott’s equation of power with lack of expressive constraint flies in the face of cross-cultural evidence. Extensive ethnographic case studies have demonstrated that in some societies it is the holders of greatest power who must restrain themselves physically, linguistically, and often in the expression of emotion exactly because it is superior restraint that culturally and ideologically defines and justifies their power, enabling them to properly exercise it. In this sense, the link between linguistic forms and their functions is constructed and mediated by local ideologies of self, language, and power. The indirectness and allusive quality of Malagasy men’s speech (Ochs 1974 [Norm-Makers and Norm-Breakers: Uses of Speech by Men and Women in a Malagasy Community. In Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, eds. Pp. 125-143. New York: Cambridge University Press]), the linguistic inarticulateness, even ungrammaticality, of Wolof nobles (Irvine 1990 [Registering Affect: Heteroglossia in the Linguistic Expression of Emotion. In Language and the Politics of Emotion. Catherine A. Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Pp. 126-161. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]), the strenuous restraint in performance required of monarchs in the Balinese theater state (Geertz 1980 [Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press]), and the muting of interactional gestures among educated, high-status Javanese (Errington 1988 [Structure and Style in Javanese: A Semiotic View of Linguistic Etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press]) are only the best known of such examples. In short, there is no simple, universal relation between social power and the form in which emotion is expressed, exactly because the construction and expression of affective states is mediated by linguistic ideology.

What is odd about this part of Scott’s argument is that he himself provides counterevidence to his major claims in the course of making other points. Indeed, it is a general and irritating characteristic of the book that Scott often denies in one place a point he has demonstrably asserted in another.

* * *

Scott’s insistence on linking speech forms directly to political functions, without the mediation of culture or linguistic ideology, parallels the way in which he attempts to link emotions directly to selves, without the mediation of culture. Both attempts derive, ultimately, from a referentialist view of language in which texts and transcripts are read for their supposedly fixed, unproblematic, denotational meaning. Tropes are seen not as cultural constructions but merely as transformed or deformed versions of the literal. In this view there is no need to consider the cultural context in correlating linguistic forms to social functions. In contrast, recent work on linguistic ideology argues that linguistic practices — tropes and figurative uses of language, such as euphemisms and indirection, as well as the supposedly “literal” — are interpretable only within particular social and institutional contexts, and are linked to social functions such as resistance or domination only through specific linguistic ideologies. However aptly chosen his particular examples of resistance, Scott’s more general theoretical proposals ignore this mediating role of linguistic ideology, thus vitiating his larger argument about language and resistance.

* * *

No doubt Scott would more easily detect the complexities of resistance and the partial or contradictory forms of hegemony if his understanding of language included more attention to linguistic form and the way that its political function is conditioned by language ideology. Two quite different examples will illustrate this point. Although Scott often mentions minority languages and dialects, he is interested mostly in the way these can shield the hidden transcript by making oppositional talk impenetrable to powerful observers. But in societies that have undergone linguistic standardization, domination is not directly a result of economic weakness but is established exactly by the ideological construction of a “monoglot standard,” inculcated in schools and in mass media and viewed as the property of the bourgeoisie. Once the belief in the communicative, aesthetic, or other superiority of such a standard has been established, other varieties, whatever their provenance, are usually seen (and not only by standard-speakers) as degenerate or inferior versions of the standard itself. Regardless of the exact political and economic aspects of their weakness, speakers of such varieties are ideologically constituted as a subordinate group on the basis of the supposed cultural, cognitive, or aesthetic inadequacy of their speech. As many studies have shown, such speakers may resist by continuing to use their own varieties, but within regimes of standardization they often also devalue themselves and the varieties they use […].

A second, quite different kind of example similarly provides a complex and subtle case of resistance and tacit hegemony mediated by linguistic structure. As is well known, English has a system of obligatory pronominal gender categories. Critics have complained for at least 200 years that, by virtue of their structural properties, these distinctions naturalize and reproduce certain categories of thought, including the ideological assumption that men are the prototypical human actors. However, the articulation of grammatical gender with categories of humanness and social agency creates an impressive stability in the gender system, making it difficult to change. […] There is no room for such complex interactions of resistance, domination, and hegemony in Scott’s analytical scheme.

The conclusion says that Scott “takes seriously the centrality of linguistic practices in the production and dissemination of ideology and their importance in understanding resistance to cultural hegemony,” but “ultimately, Scott’s attempt to theorize the links between language and power fails, because his approach to language lacks some of the basic principles about linguistic form and ideology currently being developed within the anthropological study of language and social life.” That was a couple of decades ago; I hope he’s taken the criticism on board. (I’m curious about “the linguistic inarticulateness, even ungrammaticality, of Wolof nobles,” and one of these days I’ll have to read the Irvine article she cites in that connection.)


  1. For those of us without access, changing the URL to does the trick. ( and are down now).

  2. marie-lucie says:

    LH “the linguistic inarticulateness, even ungrammaticality, of Wolof nobles,”

    I don’t know about Wolof customs, but In many cultures the king, chief or equivalent top leader does not speak publicly, but has a spokesman who speaks for him, and messengers who carry his words throughout his territory. This was the case in some areas of the Pacific Northwest.

    Similarly the leader cannot be heard speaking like ordinary people, or appearing to make efforts to be understood by them. For a modern case, remember Marlon Brando as the Corleone patriarch mumbling in the film The Godfather. No one would dare asking him to repeat more audibly!

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    In many cultures the king, chief or equivalent top leader does not speak publicly, but has a spokesman who speaks for him

    This is true of Akan culture, where the king does not address his people directly in formal contexts; the speaking is done by his okyeame. This a hereditary post of some importance; the okyeame is an important royal counsellor. In Ghanaian English, the okyeame is called a “linguist.”

    The Mole-Dagbani cultures have the same thing; their kings and chiefs are traditionally held to be descended from actual foreign conquerors, so it’s conceivable that this could be a legacy of a time when the chiefs actually did need interpreters, and in fact there are even now areas where the chiefly clans speak a different language from their subjects. However, the custom is just as strong in areas where all speak the same language, and it seems more likely that it reflects a West African cultural characteristic quite independent of any need for translators.

    The word for it in Kusaal is nodi’es, “mouth (i.e. command) transmitter.” In the Bible translation, “prophet” is rendered Wina’am nodi’es “Linguist of God.”

    No one would dare asking him to repeat more audibly!

    Like Benya Krik, the Jewish gangster in Odessa Tales:

    “The King doesn’t talk much, and he talks politely. This puts such a scare in people that they never ask him to explain or repeat himself.”

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    An antique Log post about disfluency among elites (Wolof and otherwise):

  5. Wow, that is exactly on point, thanks very much!

    As I recall, the griots also serve as spokesmen for important members of the high-status group. So one of the symbols of high status is hiring someone to speak on your behalf; and skill in speaking comes to have low status, rather like skill in typing once had, back when it was something that only secretaries and journalists did.

    And Mark Liberman and Kerim Friedman between them couldn’t locate the right Judith Irvine reference, which is clearly the 1990 article I cited above.

  6. In many cultures the king, chief or equivalent top leader does not speak publicly, but has a spokesman who speaks for him

    Could this be a possible alternate back story for Aaron speaking for Moses?

  7. Stuarts started as High nodi’es of Scotland

  8. The famous British “stiff upper lip” is another example of restraint as marker of elite status.

  9. The famous British “stiff upper lip” is another example of restraint as marker of elite status.

    First thing I thought of.

    In Ghanaian English, the okyeame is called a “linguist.”

    The Byzantine term (in English) is “logothete.” Maybe we could suggest they adopt it in Ghana. It sounds cool, and surely we don’t need yet one more meaning for “linguist.”

  10. -logothete

    Russians are mostly familiar with a different type of logothete

  11. That’s hilarious. “До свифания!”

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    Can I prefer “dragoman” to “logothete” for adaptation/use in this context even if in other contexts I prefer the Byzantine option to the Ottoman one?

  13. Perhaps they could have a Society of Dragomans and a Logothete Association in competition.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    we don’t need yet one more meaning for “linguist”

    Not even if it means “high royal official”?

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Byzantine term (in English) is “logothete.”

    I believe the traditional American term is “spicer.”

  16. The spice must flow!

  17. And Mark Liberman and Kerim Friedman between them couldn’t locate the right Judith Irvine reference, which is clearly the 1990 article I cited above.

    The Irvine paper is in the reference list of Gal’s article: Irvine, J. T. (1990). Registering Affect: Heteroglossia in the Linguistic Expression of Emotion. In Lutz, C. A. & Abu-Lughod, L. (eds.), Language and the Politics of Emotion (pp. 126–161). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The book doesn’t have a Google Books preview, though, and I haven’t been able to get enough from Amazon to really follow the argument (though I very much liked the first couple of pages).

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