‘Along the Archival Grain’ by Ann Laura Stoler

Ann Laura Stoler Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2009, 278 p & notes.

It was only when I googled the title of this book that I realized that I’d been thinking of it under the wrong name: it was not, as I thought “against” the archival grain, but “along” the archival grain.  It’s an important difference, as the author points out.  While previous historians concentrated on compiling records from the archives in an accessible form- and this is particularly true of 19th century Australian historians like Frederick Watson and the Historical Records of Australia- now we are exhorted to read against the archive and to resist its hard-won accessibility.  But Stoler writes:

Some would argue that the grand narratives of colonialism have been amply and excessively told.  On this argument, students of colonialism often turn quickly and confidently to read “against the grain” of colonial conventions.  One fundamental premise of this book is a commitment to a less assured and perhaps more humble stance- to explore the grain with care and read along it first. (p. 50) …Reading along the archival grain draws our sensibilities to the archive’s granular rather than seamless texture, to the rough surface that mottles its hue and shapes its form.  Working along the grain is not to follow  a frictionless course but to enter a field of force and will to power, to attend to both the sound and sense therein and their rival and reciprocal energies.  It calls on us to understand how unintelligibilities are sustained and why empires remain so uneasily invested in them. (p. 53)

When I first returned to postgrad study in history after an absence of some thirty years, I was perplexed by other students’ references to “the archive”.  Where was “THE archive”, I wondered?  Was it some huge Borgesian labyrinth that had somehow escaped my notice, like Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter?  I’ve since realized that “the archive” is not so much a place, as a mental construct of the primary material that we draw on as historians.  Approaching “the archive-as-subject” worthy of scrutiny in its own right, rather than “the archive-as-source” that needs to be mined and extracted, reflects the “archival turn” captured  by Derrida’s book Archive Fever.  The link with Derrida and cultural theory might suggest to you that, in many ways, the writing in this book is rather dense and self-conscious, and it certainly is.  But it is also very careful, poetic writing.  The author weighs her words carefully, reveling in alliteration and paradox, and I found that I had to slow down and subvocalize while I was reading  to let the pleasure of the language wash over me.

The title hints at the theoretical emphasis of the book, but it makes no mention at all of the Dutch East Indies context in which it is applied.  I think that’s probably intentional.  Stoler has been writing about the Dutch Indies for decades- the earliest of her works that she cites was written in 1985- but this is a book borne of long years of immersion in a historical context and it moves far beyond that region.  It is a tribute to the accessibility of the book that I could read and enjoy it with minimal knowledge of the Dutch Indies, and come away feeling that I had learned a great deal (although I really would have appreciated a good map!)

The book itself is divided into three parts.  She starts with a two-chapter reflection on the archive itself and methodological and epistemological responses to it.  Part I which follows is headed “Colonial Archives and Their Affective States” where she examines three small, or even non-existent events in Dutch colonial historiography.  The first was a protest meeting held in 1848 against an edict that the upper echelons of the civil service would be restricted to young men who had been educated in the Netherlands; the second was a series of blueprints of state fantasies for solving the ‘problem’ of the Inlandesche Kindern, a shifting category that included Indies-born Europeans, and mixed bloods; and the third examined two commissions that were held into poverty amongst poor Europeans in the Dutch Indies.  Part II entitled “Watermarks in Colonial History” focusses on Frans Carl Valck, a lowly ranked assistent-resident whose unwelcome report on the murder of a plantation-owner’s family led to his hasty removal to another colony and eventual dismissal and subsequent complete disappearance from the official record. In this section she juxtaposes and interrogates two different archives- the official and the family- against each other.

Interestingly, she suggests in the prologue that

some readers may want to turn directly to these last two chapters that trace the biographies of empire, and may find it more compelling to read them first. (p. 51)

Ah- there’s a problem: when the author herself is not secure in the structure that she has,like all authors, eventually have to settle for.  Which to go for? Compelling reading or the structure that won out? I stayed with the chapters as laid down, but I wonder if it would have been a different book if I had read the last chapters first.  As it was, each chapter was quite self-contained, but it’s an interesting question.

I very much enjoyed this book.  It is a dense read, and at times I found the references to Derrida, Foucault, Rorty etc. rather overwhelming.  Check out the Amazon look-inside feature first, and you’ll quickly sense whether it’s a book that will appeal to you or appall you.  But it came at the right time for me, and it has stretched my thinking about my own work and even spurred me to WRITE a paragraph or two!


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