Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance

Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance
Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48109-1382 USA
Abstract. Anthropologists engaged in post-colonial studies are increasingly adopting an
historical perspective and using archives. Yet their archival activity tends to remain more an
extractive than an ethnographic one. Documents are thus still invoked piecemeal to confirm
the colonial invention of certain practices or to underscore cultural claims, silent. Yet such
mining of the content of government commissions, reports, and other archival sources rarely
pays attention to their peculiar placement and form. Scholars need to move from archive-assource to archive-as-subject. This article, using document production in the Dutch East Indies
as an illustration, argues that scholars should view archives not as sites of knowledge retrieval,
but of knowledge production, as monuments of states as well as sites of state ethnography.
This requires a sustained engagement with archives as cultural agents of “fact” production, of
taxonomies in the making, and of state authority. What constitutes the archive, what form it
takes, and what systems of classification and epistemology signal at specific times are (and
reflect) critical features of colonial politics and state power. The archive was the supreme
technology of the late nineteenth-century imperial state, a repository of codified beliefs that
clustered (and bore witness to) connections between secrecy, the law, and power.
Keywords: archives, archiving, bureaucracy, colonial archives, ethnography, knowledge

Archival Science 2: 87–109, 2002.