What is a polity? 2018 Lewis H. Morgan Lecture

Michael Herzfeld


In this revised text of the 2018 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture, we encounter two communities—one a village in highland Crete, the other a small enclave in the old core of Bangkok—against which bureaucratic forces have exercised disproportionate violence, claiming to do so in response to what are openly admitted to be infractions of formal law. The particularly harsh punishments meted out to these communities, in contrast to what has happened to other, otherwise similarly insubordinate local groups, calls for a specific explanation. This would seem to lie at least partly in the residents’ tactic of subversive archaism, in which residents, through a variety of performative acts, challenge the moral authority of bureaucracies modeled on Western prototypes and imbued with Western-derived and middle-class notions of order and style. While other elements (such as shifts in the distribution of patronage) may shed light on the selective character of the state’s reprisals, the threat that subversive archaism poses to the cultural legitimacy of state and municipal bureaucracies emerges as a broader way of accounting for the official deployment of violence against groups of people whose flamboyant traditionalism ostensibly represents them as the most fundamentally loyal citizens of all.


subversive archaism, state power, bureaucracy, traditionalism, Greece, Thailand

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/703684