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Abstract

In Mayong—a multi-ethnic, “de facto” kingdom on the Southern bank of the Brahmaputra River in Assam (Northeast India)—accounts (hisap) are everywhere. Numeric, nominal, and narrative, sometimes secret yet increasingly public and shared, they are at the communicative heart of economy, collective ritual, political authority, and history. Through ledgers and rhetorical speech, they track individual and collective lives in birth, name, transgression, and death. They replicate yet complicate hierarchy by bringing into focus sorcery, kingship, and kinship. They attempt to unify and make a composite picture of a whole, while relishing in diversity and particularity. Almost every action or event of value (economic or otherwise) has an account attached to it. Accounting, in Mayong, is thus a total phenomenon; charged by affect management and aesthetic labor, we might felicitously call it a cosmographic art. Based on 26 months of fieldwork in and around Mayong, this dissertation is an ethnography—and ethnographic theory—of this cosmographic art of accounting and both why and how, in the contemporary moment, it has developed emergent properties of transparency, mutual commitment, and publicity that have congealed into a quasi-formal institution: the raijor hisap (“account of the public”), or what I call, with a strategic nod to Heraclitus’ idea of the fundamental transparency of logos, the “shared account.” In terms of analysis, this dissertation investigates why the shared account now seems irresistible, necessary, and yet always on the verge of collapsing under its own logic and processes. My primary argument is that the shared account has responded to a historical situation—what we will call, following Baruah (2005), “durable disorder”—by effectively (re)creating that very same situation, only each time it does so it elicits new wonders and revelations that compel a deepening of public commitment to the project. By drawing its processual methods of reckoning—quiescence, speciation, exhortation, and particularization—from “open” domains of life beyond ritual time-space (kingship, critical events, genres of inconsummate play, and taboo containment), the shared account produces revelatory surfeits, new wonders and provocations, which instill in it a sense of necessity, irresistibility, and true dynamism. I call this dynamism and the negative dialectic it engenders “goroka,” after a local metaphor for historiography that takes its inspiration from the foot loom rather than the industrial world of motors, gears, and drivebelts. The dissertation is divided into two parts. Part I, “A Cosmographic Situation” outlines, roughly, the historical, political, and social conditions of possibility for the shared account: (1) the larger political situation of kingship, tribes, and the state (fueled, in part, by “durable disorder”), and (2) the world of sorcery, secrecy, and deception immanent to Mayongian cosmologics. Part II, “The Making and Unmaking of the Shared Account,” illuminates the processes by which the shared account (re)creates the situation sketched in Part I, yet draws in irresistible (if ambiguous) surfeits from other domains to propel the dynamism of the account forward, even in its unmaking. Each chapter in this second part focuses on a single process, which is only isolated from the others only for analytic and descriptive purposes. The dissertation concludes with reflections on how cosmographic attunement, as seen in the shared account, also creates a felicitous method for anthropological comparison.

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