Monday, February 19, 2007

The Resistance of Radical Love: Part II: Hidden Transcripts

James C. Scott Hidden Transcripts a Way Forward?

For this we enlist the methodological frame provided by James C. Scott in his recent study Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Scott’s work opens up a new interpretive frame, which allows us to analyze Romans 13.1-7 without succumbing to a ‘political realism’ which would undermine the cruciform communities in which Paul seeks to create. Indeed Scott’s study allows for the apocalyptic aspects of Paul’s gospel to remain in the forefront, calling the community to see that the Roman imperial order is but an illusion, an ideology, and giving them the resources to live differently.

Scott suggests that in any political situation where an elite class dominates segments of the population, you have an implicit or explicit ruling ideology, with differing levels of discourse throughout the population. Like performers in a play, there is an official script in which the performers are expected to perform; this script, according to Scott, is managed by the ruling elites, and is made up of the ruling ideology, and is designated the ‘public transcript’. Scott likens the ‘public transcript’ to that of a ‘self-portrait,’ a painting demonstrating how the dominant elites would like the rest of the population to see them.[1] This is contrasted by the ‘hidden transcripts’ which are the discourses that take place ‘offstage,’ beyond the intimidating gaze of power holders, and which diverge from the official script.[2] The oppressed group’s survival in such a society usually depends on their seeming compliance and obedience to the ‘onstage’ script, which follows the political play of the elite, hoping to find recourse for their interests within the prevailing ideology, without appearing in the least bit seditious.[3] Of course this is not the only recourse for the oppressed, the ‘hidden transcripts’ which while relegated to the ‘offstage’, beyond the scrutiny of the power holders, offers the oppressed group, a ‘politics of disguise and anonymity that takes place in public view, but is designed to have a double meaning in order to shield the identity of the actors.’[4]

Scott further nuances his discussion of both ‘public’ and ‘hidden’ transcripts to include both the elites whom have power and the oppressed who reside at the other end of the spectrum. Accordingly, each group manifests to some degree the ability to perform both ‘public’ and ‘hidden’ transcripts. Thus, for example, the oppressed in peasant societies may partake in activities such as poaching, pilfering, clandestine tax evasion, and intentionally shabby work for landlords. All such activities are part and parcel of the hidden transcript. Yet for dominant elites, the hidden transcript might include clandestine luxury and privilege, the covert use of hired thugs, bribery, and tampering with land tides. These practices, in each case, are in breach of the public transcript of the ruling elites and are, if at all possible, kept offstage and unavowed.[5] Meanwhile the public transcript remains quite stable, albeit taking a good deal of maintenance in order to consistently evoke the ruling ideology through symbols of domination, demonstrations and various enactments of power. According to Scott, ‘Every visible, outward use of power, each command, each act of deference, each list and ranking, each ceremonial order, each public punishment, each use of an honorific title or a term of derogation is a symbolic gesture of domination that serves to manifest and reinforce a hierarchical order.’ Of course the persistence of any pattern of domination is always problematic, and is always a balance between the amount of resistance there is to the ruling elites and the ‘force’ required to keep it in place.[6]

Scott’s detection of the hidden transcript depends largely on the context of domination in the society. Since the hidden transcript is a social product and a result of power relations among the elites of society and their subordinates, he likens it to a type of folk culture, “the hidden transcript has no reality as pure thought,” he states “it exists only to the extent it is practiced, articulated, enacted, and disseminated within these offstage social sites.” [7] It is the detection of this double entendre that is especially hard to do in ancient texts since the texts in question can often be read as being complicitous with the official transcript, thus often providing ‘convincing’ evidence of willing, even enthusiastic participation with the forces which dominate.[8] However since it is this seemingly willingness to contribute to the sanitized official transcript that often allows the oppressed to avoid detection; the reader of ancient texts must carefully look for clues that might tip off ‘insiders’, that something else is indeed going on.[9] According to Scott the typical way to rebel against the official transcript is to hide under the protective flattery which ensures that once the oppressed come under any scrutiny from above the rebels can claim to be perfect citizens.[10] In fact it is not uncommon for the oppressed to clothe their resistance and defiance in ritualism 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 possible failure.[11] Following Scott’s lead we may then consider the dominant discourse as a plastic idiom of dialect that is capable of carrying an enormous variety of meanings, including those that are subversive even while resembling the dominant discourse itself.[12] Scott reminds us that unless the group has completely revolutionary ends the terrain of dominant discourse is the only plausible arena of struggle.[13]

[1] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 18.

[2] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 18.

[3] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 18.

[4] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 19.

[5] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 14.

[6] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 45. Scott further states that. “Rituals of subordination are a means of demonstrating that a given system of domination is stable, effective, and here stay (66).”

[7] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 119.

[8] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 86.

[9] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 87.

[10] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 89-90.

[11] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 96.

[12] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 103.

[13] Scott, Hidden Transcripts, 103.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for your blog. How sure can we be that Paul is the author of Romans? Just curious for your thoughts.


metalepsis said...

There are very few people in the guild who would question the authenticity of Paul as the author. So we can be as sure that Paul authored the letter to the Romans, as we can be that Herodotus wrote the Histories.

But authorship doesn't amount to much when it comes to interpretation.


Anonymous said...

I see from your site that you spend a lot of time reading and studying Romans. Have you done much work on Romans 1? Do you think Paul is condemning homosexuality? Was Paul married?

Thanks again

metalepsis said...

no I don't think Paul is condemning homosexuality, Paul did not even know homosexuality existed, since homosexuality is a rather modern construct.

Was Paul married, don't know! If he was he wasn't to fond of his wife, he didn't mention her much - he does claim to be single in 1 Cor. 7 (i think ?).

These are rather random questions for someone with no name? How about a name.

Anonymous said...

Sorry 'bout that. I like to read a lot of different blogs, and since I don't have my own, I usually don't leave a name.

My name is Oscar. I am a Bible student. I am wanting to know more about God's Word.

Although I might agree with you that Romans 1 is not a condemnation of homosexuality, it seems that Paul was familiar with the concept - I Cor. 6:9, I Tim. 1:10. Wouldn't he also be familiar with Sodom and Gomorrah since he was a Jew trained in the Old Testament Scriptures?

Thanks for the interaction.

Cheers to you,


metalepsis said...


I am not saying Paul didn't know anything about same sex relations, what I would argue is that homosexuality might be much different than the same sex relations of the 1st century.

In brief, I think what Paul is doing in Romans 1 is using rhetoric to make his point that the neither the Jew nor Gentile can be self mastered by using Christianity as a moral system, but rather must truly be conformed to the cross of Christ through relationship with the community and with Jesus as Messiah.

So the prohibitions about same sex relations are an example of Paul using the rhetoric of Jewish polemics (see Philo) to argue that even if you are as ethical as the Jews it is of no avail, because being in Christ is the only way Christianity works, so to speak, it is not a set of principles that can be merely applied.

Any way thanks for being interested in this blog, and where are you studying?



dan said...

Hey Bryan,

I'm continuing to enjoy this series. I haven't read J. C. Scott's book on "hidden transcripts" although I have come across comparable ideas elsewhere. I continue to be highly interested in seeing where you go with all this.

Grace and peace.

metalepsis said...

thanks Dan, I would be very interested in any feedback you have to give!



kunnampally rev. said...

hi dear i am pastor in church of south india, persuing my doctoral studies in india. my research topic wud be a "study on Dalit (subaltn)arts" and wanted to use J C scotts' hidden transcript as methodological frame work. thanks for the post and showing us how to use it. and looking forward 4 ur comments. thanak u

metalepsis said...

not sure I am a great example, but thanks for the comment, and I hope your study goes well, sounds interesting!