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James Scott, Yale Prof, speaks about Myanmar

<le professor and renowned social scientist James C. Scott came to Carleton’s campus to give a lecture and speak at the opening of the “Public Memory in Myanmar” archive, which he and Carleton political science professor Tun Myint have collaborated on.

The lecture, given Monday evening, shares a title with his upcoming book, Against the Grain, which will be released this coming August. The title references Scott’s tendency to challenge accepted theses concerning human civilization.

“Scott’s work is really important. We need to really pay attention to this kind of thinking, to balance out [what] we’ve been reading from the book,” said Myint. According to Myint, political science relies heavily on European scholarship and the notion of state-centered society. The notion of state itself, which often governs thinking about human civilization, comes from this established academic work.

“[Scott’s] interest is in looking at these people that we have labeled as barbarians, and see what kind of contribution they are making in terms of our thinking about the autonomy of us [as individuals and communities],” Myint explained.

In his lecture, Scott referenced key aspects of what he calls the “civilizational narrative,” namely, the idea that agricultural societies are more advanced than hunter-gatherer societies, and that the institution of state is natural.

To counter these ideas, Scott referred to the Black Plague in medieval Europe, which, before the pandemic, had been an agricultural society. “A third to half of the European population died. And if you were lucky enough to survive, you had a lot more land than you ever had before,” he said. The abundance of land during this period made hunting-gathering a more efficient choice for the pandemic’s survivors since, according to Scott, agriculture is land-efficient, but labor-intensive.

Scott continued, summarizing the development of states in a single phrase: “Grains make states, states make grains,” he said, referencing the fact that early state-based civilizations tended to appear in locations which were suitable for grain cultivation. Grains have certain traits—for example, their ability to store and high value to weight ratio when compared to other crops—which make them a suitable crop to tax. These traits contributed to the formation of early states, which, in turn, continued to produce grains.

The rise of grain-based states led to the classification of humans through diet. “The distinction between grain as the basic subsistence crop and other forms of hunting and gathering and so on was not just a difference in diet and subsistence and ecology, but it was the marker of civilized and uncivilized peoples,” said Scott. This type of classification continues today according to Myint, explaining how individuals who reject the conventional world order are labeled to be “barbarians.”

On Tuesday at noon, Myint and Scott spoke at the opening of the “Public Memory in Myanmar” archive, a project led by Myint and supported by his students, to record an often unseen side of Burmese history.

In his part of the project’s introduction, Scott spoke to the importance of public memory projects focused on Holocaust-era Germany. A popular history movement, he said, swept over the nation in the late 20th century. Out of curiosity, German youth began to explore the history of Naziism in their villages through conversations with older generations, many of whom were only just now willing to speak of their experiences after many years. “They created village by village and town by town this incredible archive that will never be lost of the history of Naziism in their village,” said Scott.

Myint’s project focuses on cataloguing the daily public life of people in Myanmar. It will continue to be expanded through Myint and his students’ work collecting documents, photos, and videos to add to the archive. “Public Memory in Myanmar” is available to the public as a digital collection on the Gould Library website.

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