- Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense
By page 51 of her long-awaited Along the Archival Grain, Ann Laura Stoler has used no fewer than four metaphors to describe her topic. The colonial archive is wood, to be read along or against the grain. The colonial archive is a river, flowing silently through rapids and eddies of interest, enthusiasm, anxiety, and concern. The colonial archive is a body with a pulse that races in response to colonial fantasies and fears. The colonial archive is a palimpsest, inscribed, scratched out, and scratched over. The colonial archive is a leaf of stationary with a watermark, an indelible structure that determines the very shape of empire yet is only visible when turned to the right angle and placed in the right light. In less expert hands, this rhetorical exuberance might seem like overkill. But Stoler manages to fire this beautiful shower of figural arrows without losing sight of her mark. This combination of elegance, energy, and perspicuity has long been a hallmark of Stoler's scholarship, but in this book, Stoler's aim is particularly true. If her metaphors proliferate, this simply reflects the fertility of the insights that Stoler has arrived at through the teaching and research that led to this book.
These insights are at once historical and methodological. Here as elsewhere, Stoler makes a case for attending to the affective dimensions of colonial governance. Stoler focuses in particular on the anxieties that gave rise to efforts to control the passions, not of the colonized, but of those who ruled. Stoler documents the concerns that swirled around the Netherlands Indies' so-called "Indies children" – a protean, elastic category encompassing locally born Europeans ranging from Indo-European paupers to Batavia's city fathers. "Father love" and other excessive family attachments, insolence, indolence, resentment of their superiors: these imputed passions fueled reform schemes, from the founding of agricultural colonies to the removal of mixed race children from overly "native" homes. Stoler carefully tracks the sentiments of those who initiated and engaged in these projects. In chapter 3, she analyzes documents concerning an unprecedented demonstration held in May 1848 at the Harmonie Club in Batavia. Hundreds of "Indies Children" gathered to protest a new policy that required prospective civil servants to earn a degree only available in Delft if they wanted to advance beyond the lowest ranks. Stoler traces the growing discomfort of the colony's leading bureaucrats as they tried to determine who was at work and what was at stake in this disturbing protest. Natives? Socialists? Parental love and loss? Revolutionary change? Later in the century, when other top officials organized commissions to investigate the "problem" of Indo European paupers, similar anxieties surfaced. Could the investigators trust the statistics? Did their surveys penetrate to the heart of Indo European yearnings and desires? How many impoverished Europeans were there in the colony? Were they "really" Europeans or merely "faux" Europeans – mixed race natives living above their station and means?
Stoler's historical insights, while fascinating, are anticipated in her previous work. Equally striking are her methodological insights, which break new ground. In far more detail than in the past, Stoler explains the epistemological premises underlying her investigation, which have directed her to a novel object of analysis: what Stoler calls "archival form." By "archival form" I allude to several things: prose style, repetitive refrain, categories of confidentiality and classification, and not least, genres of documentation. The book's focus is on archiving-as-process rather than archives-as-things. Most importantly, it looks to archives as condensed sites of epistemological and political anxiety rather than as skewed and biased sources. These colonial archives were both transparencies on which power relations were inscribed and intricate technologies of rule in themselves (20).
The intricate composition of archival files proves significant: the fact that a file included not only texts penned by officials, but also press clippings, letters, flyers, pamphlets, and interview transcripts that went beyond the pronouncements supposedly based on these data; the fact that writings could circulate...