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Journal Article

The art of not being legible


Kelly,  Piers
The Mint, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Kelly, P. (2018). The art of not being legible. Terrain, 70, 1-24. doi:10.4000/terrain.17103.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0002-76FB-F
James C. Scott argued that the traditional non-literacy of highland minorities in mainland Southeast Asia may belong to a wider pattern of state evasion whereby lowland practices, including literacy, are strategically rejected. This position ignores the moral and material value attributed to literacy in upland folklore, as well as the many radical messianic movements that purported to bring writing back to the highlands. I review nine such cases of recuperated literacy among Southeast Asian minorities, all of which were created in circumstances of violent conflict with lowland states. Leaders of these movements recognised literacy as an important vehicle of state power, but their appropriation of writing was limited to very specific purposes and domains. In short, the new literacy practices did not mirror the ordinary bureaucratic uses in lowland states. Instead, writing became a symbolic instrument for building state-like institutions of resistance.