blank forms, paperwork, document, bureaucracy, self-evident, state administration, thing theory, materialism, book history, textual studies, Lisa Gitelman, Bruno Latour, David Levy, David Weinberger
Document exhibits the vexed genealogy of any word now bearing weight in the digital era, after a long and stable prescreen history. It entered English from Old French in the thirteenth century, its Latin source, “docere,” signifying teaching or instruction (a term that is also a root for the word docile). Medieval Latin determined the Old French and later English uses, wherein documentum referred to a written instrument. Its vagaries led to demotic uses, such as a verb form Benjamin Franklin wielded in his pissy Passy correspondence with Arthur Lee, complaining about “Letters . . . in which you with very magisterial Airs school’d and documented me, as if I had been one of your Domestics.” Documentation and documentary are almost entirely post-1800 terms, excluding uses such as Franklin’s, as when Samuel Richardson, in Sir Charles Grandison, deploys documentation to sound a note of lecturing admonition. While embedded and remote, the moral valences of, say, docility or rebuke deserve our attention, given the neutrality, the raw transparency, associated with the word. In this sense, document is not unlike another vexed word of our moment, data.
By the eighteenth century document carried its dominant sense, referring to a written record supplying legal or official proof. This twinning of inscription and evidence is the term’s legacy and power. While any kind of mark making on any kind of substrate—pot, fresco, antelope—might be construed as a document, the distinction from, say, artifact turns on strings of letters and numbers serving as facts for cases and arguments. Document here has the rhetorical charge Lorraine Daston ascribes to evidence, which she defines as “facts hammered into signposts.” Certificates and passports, title deeds and transcripts, receipts and logs—these are the evidentiary ephemera that first pop to mind within the settled sense of the term.1 [End Page 643]
So much for the OED. And so much for the superior tone that entries in the “keywords” genre can take. They school and document you! Let’s tack differently, in directions exploratory, ludic, and plain. In the pre-bust rhetoric of the 1990s, two of the dot-com age’s more thoughtful pundits—David Weinberger and David Levy—essayed on the following: document’s remediation in word-processing software, standing as the name for what we now mostly call files. Weinberger found document stretching to incoherence, abandoning its officialdom and becoming the default classificatory label for webpages, spreadsheets, and animations. Drawing on Bruno Latour and Hebraic etymology, Levy reframed the question spiritually, in a humanist defense of documents as “talking things.” In Latourian terms, documents are nonhuman actors by which we delegate activities: they speak for us. We control them and they, Golem-like, manipulate, frustrate, preoccupy, oppress, kibitz, distract, and steer—uncontrollably—us.2
These Web 1.0 reflections have been displaced by Lisa Gitelman’s recent anatomy of the document as a genre. The genre rides on a compounded relevance: documents present information and documents document the existence of that information. This is the logic of knowing and showing, of recognition, proof, and accountability. The evidentiary gravity of the term remains, but whatever retro solace document provided in the 1990s—a comforting, inert name for these things on your drives you manage, and which manage you—is revisited as a self-reflexive epistemic category. Equally sign system, material object, and ethical practice, the document, for Gitelman, loses Levy’s humanist glow, auguring a situated analysis of bureaucracy and modernity that, too, is all too human.3
What are these things? Document slides into paperwork when we turn to administrations of empire in the early nation-state and to industrial economies in the overdeveloped world of the last 150 years. On the former, Lothar Müller builds on Harold Innis’s communications theory to explain the imperial role of “light media”: papyrus and paper “made it possible to [End Page 644] control and exploit territories.” On the latter, James Beniger and JoAnne Yates explain that large-scale firms, in order to keep up...