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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Against the Grain (2017) by James C. Scott


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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, published August 2017 by Yale University Press
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
by James C. Scott
Published August 2017
Yale University Press

  I've been familiar with James C. Scott, currently a professor of political science at Yale University, since I majored in political science at The American University in the mid 1990's.  My thesis, about political participation among "straight edge" punks in the Washington DC area, was couched explicitly in terms he laid out in his earlier work, about the passive resistance of slaves and peasants to overwhelming authority.   Honestly don't remember how the two things tied together. College was a bit of a haze in that regard.  But the name stuck with me, but when I saw he had a new book out about the deep history of the earliest states, I leapt at the opportunity to read Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.  Almost one year later, I got the copy I had placed on hold in the LA library system and yes, it was worth the wait mostly if you are interested in a) the history of the earliest states b) the theories of passive resistance to authority Scott has advocated in his career-making work. c) pop culture takes on these very same subjects by best-selling authors, who Scott clearly acknolwedges in his forthright preface, where he admits he is not an expert in these fields (ancient political science, you could say) and is relying on the work of others, probably leaning heavily on graduate students.

     Scott brings his distinct perspective to the relatively staid world of ancient political science.  Most specialists on ancient civilization are either linguists or archeologists, and both practices have deep roots in the days of European empire, colonialism, etc.  Scott, on the other hand, comes from the very cutting edge world of major American research universities with their own publishing houses and potential for celebrity generating publicity into fields like film and television.  It kind of looks like what Scott, in his own highly intellectual way, is doing here: Making a play for something more than the adulation within the political science community.  Considering how progressive and innovative his ideas are, about how ancient government is at heart an exercise in slavery, and how human kind has not benefited particularly from the rise of agriculture and it's role in allowing the growth of the first political states.

   His argument is intellectual ammunition for those who would role back the clock on human innovation and technology in many different respects, and it isn't hard to imagine a world where Against the Grain was embraced by a dangerous crowd for the wrong reasons.   At the same time, his arguments are just so interesting, and so well constructed, that is difficult not to get swept along- and is also a characteristic of his more specialist centered earlier work. 

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