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Response to Review of Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India

I am deeply grateful to Rama Mantena for her thoughtful review of my book, Document Raj. I particularly appreciate that her review uses the book to pose questions of the ‘governance turn’ in the contemporary historiography on colonialism. Two of these questions are striking. She asks: Does a focus on everyday practices of rule that lay bare its contradictions preclude a critique of colonial power and hierarchy? Furthermore, does a methodological focus on practice adequately apprehend the diminution of embedded forms of ‘native knowledge’? The questions are all the more meaningful because of how Mantena’s sensitive monograph on history writing in Telugu beautifully navigates the difficult ties between colonial philology, South Indian languages, and the problem of alterity.(1) As Mantena’s questions suggest, my book on the small practices of the bureau in early colonial South India has opened up questions that need further elaboration. With an eye to further discussion, I would like to respond by indicating some broad historiographical questions concerning power that animate Document Raj’s focus on practice.

For many years scholars viewed colonial occupation as a form of rule that was sustained either by force or collaboration. Debates turned on whether colonial power rested on consent or coercion and focused on documenting inclusions and exclusions. Often scholars viewed contradictions of colonial rule as a way to reveal a gap between triumphalist ideology and an accommodative practice. Practice, in these instances, was a site for the empiricist negation of official rhetoric. A good example of this type of scholarship is Robert Frykenberg’s Guntur District, written in the 1960s and which depicts corrupt scribes as men who often got the better of colonial officials.(2) Interestingly enough, the later historiography on colonial power, which takes its cue from the Saidian/Foucauldian turn, nonetheless remains haunted by this older problem of consent/coercion. For instance, the revisionist quest for ‘native agency’, which sometimes conflates it with the historical agency of the colonized, recreates the template of colonial collaboration.(3) Ranajit Guha’s discursive meditation on colonial power as a form of domination without hegemony dismantles the framework of collaboration but wrestles with the template of coercion and resistance.(4) The persistence of such formulations is all the more striking given that Foucauldian frameworks since the mid 1990s provided a robust departure from the problem of consent and agency by proposing that colonial power be analyzed through the lens of governmentality. David Scott perhaps best exemplifies the approach. Scott considered the ‘historically heterogeneous political rationalities through which political sovereignties of colonial rule were constructed and operated’.(5) Power appears in this formulation at its point of application, disabling old of forms life while constructing the conditions for new forms of life. In turn, practice is more than the testing ground of the official ideologies of colonial rule. Rather, Scott calls attention to the governing effects of colonial conduct.

My foray into the micro-practices of bureau-work was inspired in part by the call to attend to appearance of power at its points of application, namely, through the heterogeneous domains of bureau practice that produced the bureaucratic body – the petty clerk and the abject supplicant. I became interested in how the high-minded official tropes of transparency and written accountability were intimately tied with the ever-proliferating dissonance of scribal practice. These intimate ties suggested, in other words, that the conduct of conduct was not seamless. Practice, moreover, was not at odds with the ideology of rule, but fuelled the perpetually reformist logic of the bureau-machine and faith in the ideological efficacy of the legibility of writing. Clerk and supplicant thus appeared to me as perpetually recurrent sites of colonial tutelage. Signature and forgery appeared as permanent fixtures of the imagination of counterfeit. Archival verities appeared talismanic on the shifting sands of iterable writing. Perhaps most importantly, the conduct of routine paperwork was infused with decisionism. This is why the discretionary powers of petty bureaucrats became a key site of the dissimulation of colonial power in the book. The conduct of conduct was mediated by the very infrastructure (form/medium) of governmentality. Furthermore, conditions of possibility were reformulated in the colony by a new expectation of writing that was rendered accountable only to the metropole. The recalcitrant supplicant, the delinquent scribe and the corrupt petty bureaucrat – what we might see as exposing the weakness of the ideology of legibility – were produced by the expectation of legibility. They served as alibies and enduring targets of the pedagogic project of self-regulation. The everyday working of the bureau coded embedded modes of knowing (rather than forms of knowledge) as bounded, local, and archaic. Credibility and verity became the central object of colonial power and provides the fundamental clue into the reorganization of power in the early 19th century. In this manner, it seemed to me, the problematic of colonial power that scholars had grasped through the lens of governmentality/colonial knowledge could be productively re-engaged through the lens of practice. The frameworks of Document Raj in many ways can be read as part of a growing interest in the question of mediation in recent anthropologies of the everyday bureaucratic state.(6)


1: Rama Sundari Mantena, The Origins of Modern Historiography in India: Antiquarianism and Philology, 1780–1880 (New York, NY, 2012).

2: Robert Frykenberg, Guntur District. A History of Local Influence and Central Authority in South India (Oxford, 1965).

3: For an overview of the debate on collaboration and knowledge see Phillip Wagoner, ‘Pre-colonial intellectuals and the production of colonial knowledge’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45, 4 (2004), 783–814.

4: Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA, 1998).

5: David Scott, ‘Colonial governmentality’ Social Text, 43 (1995), 191–220.

6: Veena Das, ‘The signature of the state: the paradox of illegibility’, in Anthropology in the Margins of the State, ed. Veena Das and Deborah Poole (Delhi, 2004); Emma Tarlo, Unsettling Memories, Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi (Berkeley, CA, 2004); Mathew Hull, Government of Paper (Berkeley, CA, 2012); Akhil Gupta, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India (Durham, NC,  and London, 2012).