Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Shadow Archipelago

(Note: I use the word 'Civilisation' a lot in this post. I use it to mean '(often relatively) densely populated society dominated by urban centres' and only that.)

In his book 'The Art Of Not Being Governed' James C Scott talks about the uplands of South East Asia.

To cut a very complex argument down (also because I haven't finished it), his theory is an attempt to turn on its head the standard narrative of civilisation in which centres of agricultural power gradually expand, drawing to themselves various people with the strength of their highly organised society, before  reaching the hills and mountains where they find dispersed ancient peoples, relics of a past age from before civilisation, people made hardy, uncivilised but independent and freedom-loving by the mountains in which they live.

In Scotts re-telling of this story Civilised centers essentially bully captive or near-captive populations into doing what they want. They fill flat valley-areas with grain-based agriculture, not because it is more efficient but because it locks people in place and makes them easier to control.

Then various peoples decide they want nothing at all to do with Civilisation and, as this is before the modern era and civilisations find it very hard to project force in highly complex mountainous terrain they bugger off to the mountains and build societies defined by the fact that they are very hard to centrally control.

So, in this version, the mountains don't make people independent, independent people go to the mountains. Mountain agriculture isn't necessarily that much less efficient than plains agriculture, its methods are chosen for political and semi-political reasons. To make the people who use it harder to find, harder to count and harder to control. And there is an economic relationship between the mountains the valley even if they are politically separate. And the mountains aren't full of ancient peoples, some of them may be ancient, but some may be quite recent indeed.

And, this is the part where it gets very interesting for me, even their forms of social-remembering may be specifically arranged to make them harder for the state to make use of. He mentions that all the societies he talks about have legends about how they could once write and had a written tongue, and in many cases that writing was stolen from them.

Oral cultures are more plastic, more personal and, crucially, are hard to reveal to strangers unless you specifically decide to.

This lead me to think of the nature of memory and of what civilisation does.

We live inside a kind of global Mnemarchy. Oral cultures are pretty good and you can do a lot with them but there is a hard limit to the amount of information they can carry. Civilisations are the guardians of deep-memory-in-detail. What we know, we know of densely-organised peoples, the history of distributed peoples is generally lost to us.

Again, oral cultures can carry something a long way into time but in terms of the amount of information they can carry, the level of detail they can carry and the distance into time they can carry it, writing, inscription and the products of civilisation win out.

So anyone who talks about history in the modern world is pretty much talking about the written history of civilisation. When we see any other kind of history we see it through the written history of civilisation. Like my buying 'The Art Of Not Being Governed', a book about distributed oral cultures, written on paper, by a guy employed by a university, produced en-masse, bought on the internet and distributed through a highly structured logistics network. It's a very civilised thing.

This is where it gets D&Dable.

To D&D something, or genre-fy it generally, we can take an effect, or something which is primarily an effect, turn it into a cause and then spin the dials on it.

Let’s accept Scotts argument about memory, in fact lets over-accept it and assume its the most important thing. People go to the hills and build societies where they carefully half-sabotage their own cultural memories, oralising what was written, embodying what was disembodied, turning record into behaviours and what can be read by anyone into something that can only be understood by a few, to make themselves hard to understand or control by the Civilised valley.

So the Valley Civililisation becomes the guardian of a certain kind of 'national memory' a structure for arranging and understanding knowledge of the world and making an identity of it.

What about the *opposite effect*.

Some people try to avoid the Valley Civilisation by going to the hills and making their memories shorter, more personal, more plastic. What if there was an opposite place, a place opposite to the hills where people went, maybe because, like the hill people, they wanted to, or maybe because they were forced to, or simply it was a natural progression of their nature.

These groups might not be driven by the expansion of the Valley Civilisation but perhaps separated when it goes through its periodic (but almost inevitable) contractions.

And in this place, rather than changing their own memories to make them more plastic, more personal, more embodied, less comprehensible to outsiders, they went the opposite way, they built huge icy labyrinths of total memory in which they lived. Absolute memories. Memories that could not be contradicted. Memories that could not actually be lived with comfortably in the Valley Civilisation.

And where is this place they might go? Well it has to be the opposite of the Mountains and in South East Asia, that is the Sea. The sea is wring because it’s actually very easy to travel by water instead of in the mountains, and maybe there isn’t an actual physical archipelago where you need one, but this is D&D and you might not be able to build the kinds of thing you would need in the 'real' world anyway. There is always they Plane of Shadow.

An archipelago of Shadow Islands, only part real, strung around the city at a distance, just far enough and strange enough that it is almost impossible, or very hard, to project military force there. But related, like the hill peoples, in some kind of cultural contact with the centre, defining the centre by what it is not. Changeless where the centre is alive, absolute where it is adaptable, locked into an unforgiving history and identity while the centre is strangely mutable by comparison. Like there is a certain level of forgetting you need to do to have a functional civilisation and they won't do it.

Not the remnants of an ethnic group that nearly got wiped out, but perhaps the remnants of the people who did the wiping out, and are still pretty much fine with that.

And all different, ancient histories and ethnicities and philosophies and ethnic or racial groups strung out like a ring of shadowy pearls around the City State.

An archipelago of eternal White Russians and loyalists to fallen crowns and adherents to once nation-shaping faiths now lost or changed. Each very small, yet many, an archipelago of hidden Taiwan’s holding alternative histories, almost like parallel political and cultural worlds. Expressions of what could have been if things had gone a different way, thousands of them from the long long history of the state as it grew and changed and fell and grew again, and shrank and grew and fell again and was re-built. All those other histories that were lost, distant but somehow keenly yearning.

The default idea is undead, and yes they might be there, but it’s almost more interesting to think of them as frozen or undead cultures, but full of living people.

(Some Arab cartographers called the Atlantic the 'Sea of Shadows' which I rather think we should have kept as a name.)

The islands are half shadow and you can only really reach them when there is certain light and certain shadow on the sea, which is rare, the shadows of certain storms and certain great waves against certain stars or certain faces of the moon. Or perhaps it simply takes a long long time to reach the shoreline of a shadow isle and if you go there, though the visit may be short for you, you come back years later.

But they are there and you can almost sense them as you sail past or through the oddly-stilled patches of sea.

Would the communicate with each other? It seems like they wouldn't be able to stand each other, demanding as they would the sole representation of the true history and true self. But, perhaps over time they might. They have something in common after all, they all remember the same place and I suppose each one would consider itself the 'real' nation and everything else relics or shadows of it and therefore no offence.

What would they trade in the Shadow Archipelago and what would they build? I don't know, art perhaps. Music. What would you pay to hear Roman music as the Romans heard it? Or to see a Greek play as the ancient Greeks saw it. The Spartans weren't allowed to write but they were famous for their music and their dancing, what would it be like to see that, or to own a Tang Dynasty vase made only a week ago?

Perhaps they would go mad and become fierce. And they would always be a strange threat to the Civilisation that birthed them, small as they are, with their alternate histories and alternate sense of self.

They would know a lot about certain things, scholars would try to get there.

Scott would say the closeness of the hills placed a kind of natural limit on the ability of the state to control its populations. If it comes down to it they can just go away and this puts a kind of pressure valve on what they can do. What would the Shadow Archipelago prevent or allow. Perhaps it would govern or control the amount of forgetting they could do.


  1. Due to the subject, when I started reading this post I thought I was reading the excellent sociology blog, Abandoned Footnotes ( Then I got to the line "This is where it gets D&Dable." and was very (pleasantly) confused for a bit there.

    Great post! More like this, please.

  2. Nice to see someone gaming Scott a bit. I live in an urban community with a number of cultures who came here as refugees from the ungoverned mountainous areas he describes in the book. So the ungoverned can be re-incorporated too. It all depends on the interplay between states and these non-state groups, and the alliances they make (for good and for bad).