Hegemony or Hidden Transcripts?: Aboriginal Writings from Lake Condah, 1876-1907

Article excerpt

Sutton v. Stahle

In the winter of 1876, Robert Sutton, a young Kerrupjmara resident of Lake Condah Mission Station in south-western Victoria, took the unprecedented step of issuing a summons against the station superintendent, Reverend John Heinrich Stahle. He charged Reverend Stahle with assault. A shocked and outraged Stahle duly appeared before the local magistrate. The magistrate dismissed the charge, and severely reprimanded Sutton and his two Aboriginal witnesses. He warned them that if they ever told a similar story again they would be put in the lock-up. (1) The magistrate's message was clear: although Stahle had no legal right to use physical violence against the Aboriginal people in his care, should he happen to do so, the victims were not to bring the matter to public attention. By threatening to lock Sutton up for calling violence by its name, the magistrate was not only pushing colonialism's coerciveness out of sight, he was issuing a clear message to Robert Sutton and his people: 'you must behave as though you are satisfied with your lot, or you will be punished'.

What we see in the magistrate's orders is the drawing of a line between what Yale political scientist James C. Scott has called 'hidden and public transcripts'--that which can safely be said publicly, and that which must remain concealed. (2) In Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), Scott examines what he describes as 'the fugitive political conduct of subordinate groups' (3)--those covert, indirect modes of physical and ideological dissidence that dare not speak their own name. These hidden forms of resistance pose a challenge to some major tenets developed within Marxist theory. Scott argues that followers of Gramsci, in particular, have tended to overestimate the effectiveness of hegemonic control because they have looked only at public transcripts, leaving hidden transcripts--that is, concealed and disguised expressions of resistance--out of account.

Traditional understandings of hegemony, Scott argues, have failed to consider two possibilities. The first possibility is that powerless groups, far from being unable to imagine political change, 'have typically learned to clothe their resistance and defiance in ritualisms of subordination that serve both to disguise their purposes and to provide them with a ready route of retreat that may soften the consequences of a possible failure'. The day-to-day survival of powerless peoples may depend upon their ability to feign willing consent to their own subordination, especially if they are living within total institutions such as slave plantations or Aboriginal reserves. The second possibility overlooked by theorists of hegemony is that dominant groups have their own reasons for concealing resistance to their ideological leadership. As subaltern peoples tactically hide their contempt for the powerful, the latter may hide their knowledge of being defied and despised, and may concomitantly hide the degree to which they must use physical coercion to preserve their position of dominance. Powerful and powerless alike are thus bound up in a conspiracy of silence about physical oppression and resistance. Both act out a public performance of control and subordination. This principle is neatly encapsulated in an Ethiopian proverb: 'when the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts'. (5) Here, not only does the peasant's expression of contempt remain anonymous, inaudible, and unprovable, the great lord also preserves his dignity by pretending everything is sweet. The peasant's deep bow and the lord's serene bearing are both part of a performance of hegemonic order; the foul smell is a protest expunged, a protest without trace.

Scott's approach is not without problems of its own, but it does raise an important question: if hegemonic control is invariably accompanied by at least a threat of physical force, how is it possible to gauge the degree to which a group may have been ideologically manoeuvred into genuinely spontaneous submission, as distinct from being physically coerced or threatened into a pretence of submission? …