, Volume 2, Issue 1-2, pp 87-109

Colonial archives and the arts of governance

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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 thecontent of government commissions, reports, and other archival sources rarely pays attention to their peculiar placement andform. 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.