James C Scott Behind The Official Story Essays

Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. To demonstrate the significance of fire, he points to what we’ve found in certain caves in southern Africa. The earliest, oldest strata of the caves contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch.

Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, came what is generally agreed to be the definitive before-and-after moment in our ascent to planetary dominance: the Neolithic Revolution. This was our adoption of, to use Scott’s word, a “package” of agricultural innovations, notably the domestication of animals such as the cow and the pig, and the transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops. The most important of these crops have been the cereals—wheat, barley, rice, and maize—that remain the staples of humanity’s diet. Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.

The story told in “Against the Grain” heavily revises this widely held account. Scott’s specialty is not early human history. His work has focussed on a skeptical, peasant’s-eye view of state formation; the trajectory of his interests can be traced in the titles of his books, from “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” to “The Art of Not Being Governed.” His best-known book, “Seeing Like a State,” has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and “high modernism,” the idea that officials at the center of a state know better than the people they are governing. Scott argues that a state’s interests and the interests of subjects are often not just different but opposite. Stalin’s project of farm collectivization “served well enough as a means whereby the state could determine cropping patterns, fix real rural wages, appropriate a large share of whatever grain was produced, and politically emasculate the countryside”; it also killed many millions of peasants.

Scott’s new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong. He focusses his account on Mesopotamia—roughly speaking, modern-day Iraq—because it is “the heartland of the first ‘pristine’ states in the world,” the term “pristine” here meaning that these states bore no watermark from earlier settlements and were the first time any such social organizations had existed. They were the first states to have written records, and they became a template for other states in the Near East and in Egypt, making them doubly relevant to later history.

The big news to emerge from recent archeological research concerns the time lag between “sedentism,” or living in settled communities, and the adoption of agriculture. Previous scholarship held that the invention of agriculture made sedentism possible. The evidence shows that this isn’t true: there’s an enormous gap—four thousand years—separating the “two key domestications,” of animals and cereals, from the first agrarian economies based on them. Our ancestors evidently took a good, hard look at the possibility of agriculture before deciding to adopt this new way of life. They were able to think it over for so long because the life they lived was remarkably abundant. Like the early civilization of China in the Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamia was a wetland territory, as its name (“between the rivers”) suggests. In the Neolithic period, Mesopotamia was a delta wetland, where the sea came many miles inland from its current shore.

This was a generous landscape for humans, offering fish and the animals that preyed on them, fertile soil left behind by regular flooding, migratory birds, and migratory prey travelling near river routes. The first settled communities were established here because the land offered such a diverse web of food sources. If one year a food source failed, another would still be present. The archeology shows, then, that the “Neolithic package” of domestication and agriculture did not lead to settled communities, the ancestors of our modern towns and cities and states. Those communities had been around for thousands of years, living in the bountiful conditions of the wetlands, before humanity committed to intensive agriculture. Reliance on a single, densely planted cereal crop was much riskier, and it’s no wonder people took a few millennia to make the change.

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial.

The other conclusion we can draw from the evidence, Scott says, is that there is a crucial, direct link between the cultivation of cereal crops and the birth of the first states. It’s not that cereal grains were humankind’s only staples; it’s just that they were the only ones that encouraged the formation of states. “History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit or sweet potato states,” he writes. What was so special about grains? The answer will make sense to anyone who has ever filled out a Form 1040: grain, unlike other crops, is easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) are buried and so can be hidden from the tax collector, and, even if discovered, they must be dug up individually and laboriously. Other crops (notably, legumes) ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season rather than along a fixed trajectory of unripe to ripe—in other words, the taxman can’t come once and get his proper due. Only grains are, in Scott’s words, “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’ ” Other crops have some of these advantages, but only cereal grains have them all, and so grain became “the main food starch, the unit of taxation in kind, and the basis for a hegemonic agrarian calendar.” The taxman can come, assess the fields, set a level of tax, then come back and make sure he’s got his share of the harvest.

It was the ability to tax and to extract a surplus from the produce of agriculture that, in Scott’s account, led to the birth of the state, and also to the creation of complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an élite presiding over them. Because the new states required huge amounts of manual work to irrigate the cereal crops, they also required forms of forced labor, including slavery; because the easiest way to find slaves was to capture them, the states had a new propensity for waging war. Some of the earliest images in human history, from the first Mesopotamian states, are of slaves being marched along in neck shackles. Add this to the frequent epidemics and the general ill health of early settled communities and it is not hard to see why the latest consensus is that the Neolithic Revolution was a disaster for most of the people who lived through it.

War, slavery, rule by élites—all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” Scott maintains. All the good things we associate with writing—its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory—were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression. As a matter of plain historical fact, that seems right. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club’s discussion of Jodi Picoult’s latest.

We need to rethink, accordingly, what we mean when we talk about ancient “dark ages.” Scott’s question is trenchant: “ ‘dark’ for whom and in what respects”? The historical record shows that early cities and states were prone to sudden implosion. “Over the roughly five millennia of sporadic sedentism before states (seven millennia if we include preagriculture sedentism in Japan and the Ukraine),” he writes, “archaeologists have recorded hundreds of locations that were settled, then abandoned, perhaps resettled, and then again abandoned.” These events are usually spoken of as “collapses,” but Scott invites us to scrutinize that term, too. When states collapse, fancy buildings stop being built, the élites no longer run things, written records stop being kept, and the mass of the population goes to live somewhere else. Is that a collapse, in terms of living standards, for most people? Human beings mainly lived outside the purview of states until—by Scott’s reckoning—about the year 1600 A.D. Until that date, marking the last two-tenths of one per cent of humanity’s political life, “much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector.”

The question of what it was like to live outside the settled culture of a state is therefore an important one for the over-all assessment of human history. If that life was, as Thomas Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish, and short,” this is a vital piece of information for drawing up the account of how we got to be who we are. In essence, human history would become a straightforward story of progress: most of us were miserable most of the time, we developed civilization, everything got better. If most of us weren’t miserable most of the time, the arrival of civilization is a more ambiguous event. In one column of the ledger, we would have the development of a complex material culture permitting the glories of modern science and medicine and the accumulated wonders of art. In the other column, we would have the less good stuff, such as plague, war, slavery, social stratification, rule by mercilessly appropriating élites, and Simon Cowell.

To know what it is like to live as people lived for most of human history, you would have to find one of the places where traditional hunting-and-gathering practices are still alive. You would have to spend a lot of time there, to make sure that what you were seeing wasn’t just a snapshot, and that you had a real sense of the texture of lived experience; and, ideally, you would need a point of comparison, people with close similarities to your hunter-gatherers, but who lived differently, so that you would have a scientific “control” that allowed you to rule out local accidents of circumstance. Fortunately for us, the anthropologist James Suzman did exactly that: he spent more than two decades visiting, studying, and living among the Bushmen of the Kalahari, in southwest Africa. It’s a story he recounts in his new book, “Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.”

The Bushmen have long been of interest to anthropologists and scientists. About a hundred and fifty thousand years ago, fifty thousand years after the emergence of the first anatomically modern humans, one group of Homo sapiens was living in southern Africa. The Bushmen, or Khoisan, are still there: the oldest growth on the human family tree. (The term “Bushman,” once derogatory, is now used by the people themselves, and by N.G.O.s, “invoking as it does a set of positive if romantic stereotypes,” Suzman notes, though some Khoisan prefer to use the term “San.”) The genetic evidence suggests that, for much of that hundred and fifty thousand years, they were the largest population of biologically modern humans. Their languages use palatal clicks, such as a tsk, made by bringing the tongue back from the front teeth while gently sucking in air, and the “click” we make by pushing the tongue against the roof of the mouth, then bringing it suddenly downward. This raises the fascinating possibility that click languages are the oldest surviving variety of speech.

Suzman first visited the Bushmen in 1992, and went to stay with them two years later, as part of the research for his Ph.D. The group he knows best are the Ju/’hoansi, between eight and ten thousand of whom are alive today, occupying the borderlands between Namibia and Botswana. (The phonetic mark /’ represents a tsk.) The Ju/’hoansi are about ten per cent of the total Bushman population in southern Africa, and they are divided into a northern group, who retain significant control over their traditional lands, and who therefore still have the ability to practice hunting and gathering, and a southern group, who were deprived of their lands and “resettled” into modern ways of living.

To a remarkable extent, Suzman’s study of the Bushmen supports the ideas of “Against the Grain.” The encounter with modernity has been disastrous for the Bushmen: Suzman’s portrait of the dispossessed, alienated, suffering Ju/’hoansi in their miserable resettlement camps makes that clear. The two books even confirm each other’s account of that sinister new technology called writing. Suzman’s Bushman mentor, !A/ae, “noted that whenever he started work at any new farm, his name would be entered into an employment ledger, documents that over the decades had assumed great mystical power among Ju/’hoansi on the farms. The secrets held by these ledgers evidently had the power to give or withhold pay, issue rations, and determine an individual’s right to stay on any particular farm.”

It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took a Ju/’hoansi only about seventeen hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another nineteen hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was twenty-three hundred a day, close to the recommended amount. At the time these figures were first established, a comparable week in the United States involved forty hours of work and thirty-six of domestic labor. Ju/’hoansi do not accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, and then stop. They exhibit what Suzman calls “an unyielding confidence” that their environment will provide for their needs.

The web of food sources that the hunting-and-gathering Ju/’hoansi use is, exactly as Scott argues for Neolithic people, a complex one, with a wide range of animal protein, including porcupines, kudu, wildebeests, and elephants, and a hundred and twenty-five edible plant species, with different seasonal cycles, ecological niches, and responses to weather fluctuations. Hunter-gatherers need not only an unwritten almanac of dietary knowledge but what Scott calls a “library of almanacs.” As he suggests, the step-down in complexity between hunting and gathering and domesticated agriculture is as big as the step-down between domesticated agriculture and routine assembly work on a production line.

The news here is that the lives of most of our progenitors were better than we think. We’re flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great. Still, we are where we are, and we live the way we live, and it’s possible to wonder whether any of this illuminating knowledge about our hunter-gatherer ancestors can be useful to us. Suzman wonders the same thing. He discusses John Maynard Keynes’s famous 1930 essay “The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes speculated that if the world continued to get richer we would naturally end up enjoying a high standard of living while doing much less work. He thought that “the economic problem” of having enough to live on would be solved, and “the struggle for subsistence” would be over:

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

The world has indeed got richer, but any such shift in morals and values is hard to detect. Money and the value system around its acquisition are fully intact. Greed is still good.

The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition. The secret ingredient seems to be the positive harnessing of the general human impulse to envy. As he says, “If this kind of egalitarianism is a precondition for us to embrace a post-labor world, then I suspect it may prove a very hard nut to crack.” There’s a lot that we could learn from the oldest extant branch of humanity, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to put the knowledge into effect. A socially positive use of envy—now, that would be a technology almost as useful as fire. ♦


Scott, James C. "Behind the Official Story."





My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.

-John Lennon

In order for the artist to have a world to express he must first be situated in this world, oppressed or oppressing, resigned or rebellious, a man among men.

-Simone de Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity

In January 1934, Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” had its world premiere in Leningrad and was embraced by audiences and critics alike. The opera, born out of the complex power relations of 1930s Soviet Russia, tells the story of a lonely, suppressed woman who falls in love with one of her abusive husband’s workers and is driven to murder. It is steeped in violence, sexuality, and the macabre. The opera played for hundreds of performances and became so renowned that Josef Stalin, leader of the Communist party, attended a performance in 1936. But, disgusted by what he saw, Stalin did not stay for the whole performance. The next day, Shostakovich awoke to find his previously hailed “national treasure” vilified and condemned in Pravda, the state newspaper. Soon after, he was denounced as a composer and the authorities began to monitor his activities. At this time, it was very common for Soviet artists, viewed as subversive and in opposition to the cultural values of the Communist party, to be exiled or executed. In fact, many of Shostakovich’s colleagues and family had met those fates (McBurney 286–87).

Shostakovich needed to write another work to save himself, a work that would meet the Soviet standards of socialist realism and heroism. A year later, Shostakovich completed his Fifth Symphony, which consisted of four movements. Shostakovich decided to subtitle the work “A Soviet Artist’s Response To Justified Criticism.” It was commonly viewed as his last chance to save himself from imminent destruction, and it did just that. Not only did the symphony touch its public audiences, but it also satisfied the demands of the authorities (Wilson 158–59).

In contrast to what he did in his previous works, Shostakovich used a more traditional approach to composition, employing a conservative structure and minimizing abrasive dissonances and grotesque musical effects. While the first movement has a reclusively meditative quality and the subdued third movement exudes an emotional fragility, Shostakovich incorporated many lighter moments; the entire second movement is an homage to the waltz, and the final movement begins heroically and ends triumphantly. How can a contemporary listener interpret this work, which satisfied the ideals of the Soviet authorities yet deeply resonated with the composer’s suppressed compatriots?

In “Behind the Official Story,” James Scott addresses the dynamics of power relations and their impact on communication between dominant and subordinate groups. Scott refers to the open interaction between these groups as a “public transcript,” a discourse “shaped to appeal to the expectations of the powerful” (2). He notes that this public transcript becomes more skewed towards the dominant side as the disparity in power increases. Scott writes that “the theatrical imperatives that normally prevail in situations of domination produce a public transcript in close conformity with how the dominant group would wish to have things appear” (4). He argues that the effects of power relations manifest themselves most clearly in the public transcript, and that a cursory analysis of such interactions suggests that the subordinate groups accept the conditions of their interactions and become “willing, even enthusiastic, partners in that subordination” (4). The dynamics of Shostakovich’s interactions with his oppressors, the Soviet authorities, can be understood through the composition and reception of his work. The pressures exerted by the authorities compelled Shostakovich to write his Fifth Symphony using a simpler and more conservative architecture. However, as Scott himself acknowledges, it is difficult to judge the intent of the oppressed solely from an interpretation of the public transcript: “Without a privileged peek backstage or a rupture in the performance we have no way of calling into question the status of what might be a convincing but feigned performance” (4). And so, to analyze such situations, he introduces the idea of a hidden transcript, a discourse that contains the thoughts and feelings that cannot manifest themselves in the public transcript, and that are harbored individually and more often collectively by the subordinate group.

Shostakovich’s personal and artistic integrity, as well as his understanding of his role as a public figure, could not allow him to fully cater to the Soviet Union’s desires. As a man of his time and a voice for his people and his country, his compositions embodied the controversy and tragedy that millions of people lived day to day. During his rule of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin sent upwards of thirty million people to their deaths and suppressed the basic rights of many more. Shostakovich wrote his music for every family missing a loved one, every mother who lost a child, and every human being whose rights, freedom, and individuality had been trampled. The people had neither the voice nor the strength to cry out loud; Shostakovich did it for them, sharing their hidden transcript. His music provided the mass grieving and cathartic release that his countrymen needed. He made it his responsibility, even when his own life was at stake, to carry the people’s burdens on his shoulders.

Ordinarily, a public expression of the hidden transcript would bring about “one of those rare and dangerous moments in power relations” (Scott 6). In fact, Scott believes that the explicit expression of these views would create a power crisis and prompt a potentially violent response. But Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony does not explicitly dictate the hidden transcript, nor did it instigate a conflict. Nevertheless, audiences have long found emotional solace in the work, viewing it as a statement of resistance against Stalin.

This is what makes “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Justified Criticism” so intriguing. Scott’s essay implies that the public transcript and hidden transcript can only be expressed in mutually exclusive ways. However, his political analysis of the open relationship between the dominant and subordinate does not account for cases where the public and hidden transcripts can be expressed through one medium. Yet, it seems clear that the Fifth Symphony meets the requirements of the public transcript while at the same time subtly presenting the hidden transcript. The public nature of the work and the attention the work received from the authorities prevent us from disregarding its role in furthering the public transcript even as it comforted the masses.

Shostakovich’s symphony allows us to simultaneously examine the public and hidden transcripts. The fourth movement of the symphony begins with an upbeat and heroic character, a necessity considering the mourning quality of the third movement; without the triumphant ending, his symphony would not have appeased the Soviet authorities. A bleak ending to the piece would hardly create the veneer of Soviet pride. As the opening march-like theme picks up speed, waves of triumph stream from the orchestra. The excitement swells until the action comes to a sudden halt. What follows is a long, slow passage with a searching feeling, as though Shostakovich is paying respect to what has been left behind at the cost of the fanfare.

A traditional symphony would follow this section with a return to the original theme, expressing the polarity of dark and light. Shostakovich does bring back the first march theme, but at a drastically slower pace. In doing so, he presents a shift in the theme, from willing celebration, to a solemn, obligatory funeral march. From here, the music journeys from the darker key of D minor to the lighter key of D major. However, the journey is not an easy one. The orchestra climbs to the high pitches with much difficulty, clinging on to the weight of the D-minor tonality. The violins make their last stand, repeatedly stating the same high note, while the brass instruments burst out with pitches that create dissonance, highlighting the tension and resistance to accepting the joyous transformation to D major. Finally, the orchestra relents and the will of D major prevails. Shostakovich majestically presents and repeats a fragment from the original march theme, transposed from the key of struggle (D minor) to the key of triumph (D major). The struggle appears to be over, with the forces of socialist heroism prevailing over its enemies, but Shostakovich complicates the expected happy ending by tampering with the final cadence. He changes the penultimate note of the cadence from a B to a B flat, momentarily bringing us to the pathos of D minor. By changing just one note, he throws the brilliance of the conclusion into question. And to magnify this point, he repeats the same phrase once more and again changes the penultimate note. Finally, the cadence resolves to the D-major chord, and the ecstatic chord is repeatedly triumphantly by the brass and accompanied by the timpani. Does the symphony end with the conflict resolved? Or does it remind us of the continuation of the struggle? Regardless of the conclusion made by the listener, it is clear that Shostakovich expressed both the public transcript and the hidden transcript through the same work. The duality is essential in order to understand the juxtaposition of the darker moments and brighter sections, appreciate the veiled sarcasm of the work, and gain a circumscribing understanding of the pathos of Soviet Russia at the end of the 1930s.

Scott’s views on the dynamics of open discourse through the lens of public and hidden transcripts cannot take into account Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and, by extension, the dynamics of Shostakovich’s interactions with his oppressors. Scott does not comment on the way art can fit into an examination of power relations and their effect on our lives. Art, it seems, has the potential to express the public and hidden transcripts simultaneously. This realization, provoked by Scott’s essay, gives birth to another question that, as an aspiring musician, I must ask myself: What is the role and responsibility of an artist, in light of such a work?

Shostakovich has been a highly influential figure in my musical life. I first encountered his music as a twelve-year-old, playing the second violin part of his Eighth String Quartet. I was drawn to the emotional power and darkness of the work and driven to learn more about the quartet and the composer. With a renewed appreciation for the aesthetic and pathos of his works, I began to explore and perform his piano pieces, symphonies, and string quartets. When I was seventeen, I decided to learn Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, one of the most profound works in the solo violin literature. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to perform the work as soloist with a symphony orchestra. I became for forty minutes a medium for Shostakovich’s message, guiding the audience through the darkest depths of the coldest hour of the night, the tossing and turning of a tormented epoch, a grief-stricken yet defiant funeral march, and a sarcastically boisterous burlesque. As I explored the powerful soundscape, the fear and suppression of his distant world became real to me.

Having performed his works and experienced the impact and power of his music, I have realized that the genius of Shostakovich doesn’t lie in his technical abilities and innovations as a composer, but in his sense of responsibility to his people and his desire to express protest for those who had suffered and died. As Scott writes: “The first open statement of a hidden transcript, a declaration that breaches the etiquette of power relations, that breaks an apparently calm surface of silence and consent, carries the force of a symbolic declaration of war” (8). Shostakovich’s admirable dedication pushes me to keep my work in perspective: I strive to become a more capable and sensitive artist, not only to be a better violinist or to be satisfied with myself, but also to address the issues of my time and attempt to alleviate the burdens of others. Shostakovich was not a traditional hero; he could neither feed an orphan nor clothe a family, but he could make life more tolerable for those who suffered so much.

Scott, James C. “Behind the Official Story.” Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. 1-16. Print.

McBurney, Gerard. “Whose Shostakovich.” A Shostakovich Casebook. Ed. Malcolm Hamrick Brown. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 2004. 286-87. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. London: Faber & Faber, 2006. Print.


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