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Modern society would be impossible without documents. This observation is not immediately noteworthy. But it has important implications when the processes that shape how documents are produced, evaluated, and used are taken fully into account. Documents are more than material objects that convey information to others, according to lawyer and anthropologist Annelise Riles. Rather, she argues, documents are subjects in their own right since they “generate the effects of their own reality by reflecting on themselves.”1 By this Riles means two things. First, documents are such a part of our everyday lives that we fail to recognize how they produce us as persons. This failure is striking because identification papers, census forms, and credit reports—to name but three examples—define who we are legally, socially, and economically. They determine our rights, specify our obligations, and affect what courses of action are available to us. Second, institutional forms of knowledge, such as the ones state bureaucracies rely on to govern people, places, and things from afar, would be impossible without documents. Yet documents remain largely untheorized even though they mediate much of what we know about the world. Critical reflection on both concerns, Riles explains, makes a familiar part of our lives unfamiliar, and this creates an opportunity to explore how else ethnography can be done, which is my goal as well.2 Introduction Cadres are the people who bring the policies of the Communist Party and the Government and explain them to the masses so that they are clearly understood and implemented. At the same time, [cadres] report on the situation of the masses to the Communist Party and the Government so that they clearly understand and devise policies which are correct. For this reason, cadres are the origin of each and every task. For this reason, disciplining cadres is the basic task of the Party. —Hồ Chí Minh 3 Riles’s arguments inform my own with a small, but important, difference. I examine the broader process of documentation rather than documents alone to draw attention to the complex role administrative procedures and people also play in it. This process, for the reasons outlined in the preface, adversely affected the ability of high-level officials in socialist Vietnam “to guide” (chỉ đạo) local affairs in the manner they desired. I explicate the reasons why over the next four sections of this introduction. The first section summarizes the political economy of information in socialist states. It clarifies why the forms of documentation cadres used to administer everyday life in the Vietnamese countryside fostered mistrust in others and doubts about the veracity of the information they provided, prompting high-level officials to develop additional forms of documentation for its personnel to follow in order to lessen both problems. In the second section, I present my central argument concerning the dynamics that perpetuated this cycle, which continually made conditions in rural areas less rather than more legible to policy makers in Hanoi. The third section provides an overview of the approaches high-level officials historically employed to reestablish the legibility needed—both in administrative offices and in peasants’ fields—to maintain centralized administrative rule and the reasons why the methods each used conflicted with the others. The fourth section explains why low-level cadres, because of their structural position—at the bottom of the administrative hierarchy, where the “party/ state” and “the people” meet—played such a crucial role in shaping the government of mistrust and, as a consequence, the efforts “to build socialism” (xây dựng chủ nghĩa xã hội) from the late 1920s to the present. A brief discussion of my methodology, which differs from what cultural anthropologists normallyutilize,follows.Iclosetheintroductionwithasummaryofthebook’s structure; it includes additional information on socialist Vietnam to further contextualize my central argument for non-specialists. Section 1: Forms of Documentation Some forms of documentation utilize comparison to assess the degree of correspondence between what is claimed and what is known or expected. Other forms of documentation are premised on theaccumulation of evidence, which must satisfy predetermined criteria or surpass thresholds to substantiate a claim. Still other forms of documentation rely on corroboration to verify claims regarding another person’s identity, character, or actions. None of the methods is straightforward, even though all of them present themselves as 4 Introduction being rational and technical in nature, and thus objective and apolitical in design.3 But on closer examination it becomes clear that the very methods used to verify the accuracy of claims—comparison...


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