I just can't tell how much I appreciate the short glimpses in which I manage to exchange just a few words in anyone who, in the bureaucratic language of ERC, might be called an "excellence level scholar". Neither the topic nor he discipline matters. It is just the proximity of the pics, the logic of a Himalayan skyline.
So today this privilege that for scarce several minutes has been mine was to exchange a couple of ideas with Caroline Humphrey, perhaps Siberia's most famous living anthropologist. The topic was taken from the lecture she gave yesterday here at the University of Warsaw, and it was about Zomia.
Zomia is a relatively recent term, coined by a Dutch scholar, Willem van Schendel, and it is essentially about certain territories that function transhistorically as refuge zones. Originally, it was supposed to be the land of zomis, south-Asian highlanders, but it could be more. Altai mountains, for example, or the swamps in Bissau's hinterland, or Najd, or the mountain ranges in the Maghreb. Some examples are for sure better than others, illustrating perhaps different problems or phenomena: resistance to state, pressure of other peoples. In any case, it is about the margin of all the margins, the earth's utmost outskirts, where rejected, dispossessed and vanquished accumulate across history, layer after layer, mixing their languages and rituals. Zones of interference, where unusual creativity might sprout, unpredictable forms of symbolization might emerge.
It might: we agree on the conditional, prof. Humphrey and I. Yet we couldn't think out a single example of such an innovation. Politically, zomias seem doomed to fail. Yet there might be any other plane on which they triumph. There might be...
Pure potentiality at the intersection of cultures. The promise of transcultural condition... The "might" of an experienced anthropologist. But how to get there...