Documents of a Material Culture

The fascination with archives and documents as cultural artifacts has arisen in geography for a number of reasons. First, digital publication software and the globalized workforce that assembles cameras, scanners, and other inexpensive mechanical reproduction technologies have enabled scholars to produce facsimiles of particular documents, such that they can then pay close attention to the form and quality of a document through the publication of its image within their research articles. Second, an interest in the history of geography has intensified over recent decades. That literature has often drawn researchers to look at the various modern projects and cultural productions of the discipline, including the documents and archives that earlier geographers produced. Third, there is widespread concern with the consequences of an information economy. This is subject to broad variation, from Castells’ broad sweep to an army of economic geographers tracking changes in specific urban service sectors, yet these formulations brush up against archival practices now and again in a variety of ways. Fourth, there are those interested in articulating more precisely the relationship between knowledge production and politics. This has been theorized as a power/knowledge nexus in Foucaultian terms, and as conceptual practices of power in one variant of the feminisms that transformed thinking in geography in fundamental ways and which are now, perhaps, only begrudgingly acknowledged. In these and other cases, arguments that the uneven production, preservation, dissemination, and interpretation of knowledge are inherently political processes have given the emergent analyses of archives a critical edge.

Fifth and most importantly, the growing interest in archives and documents follows from an abundance of work in geography using textual semiotics and discourse analysis. In one sense, this is entirely straightforward: if many more geographers began to tease out the ways in which discourses vary over space as well as how spatiality is discursively produced, then it was a small step from the study of texts and popular media to the discursive analysis of forms, reports, and letters to be found in a wide variety of archives. At the same time, these analytical techniques have been subject to criticism among some geographers, from northeast England to northwest North America, who suggest that postcolonial discursive analysis (at least) is too cultural and ‘textual’ in its emphasis, that it fails to make explicit the ‘material’ practices of power and inequality in a society. But as Clive Barnett argues, postcolonial discourse theorists have been concerned as much with the economics of publishing and politics of education as with uncovering the hidden meanings of a text. Thus, the oft repeated claim in geography that discourse analysis has been troublingly ‘immaterial’ may be overhardened. Yet in that sense, the gathering interest in archival material acquired its energy both from the straightforward popularity of discourse analysis (which was also applied to primary documents), and from the ricochet against critiques that such studies have been overwhelmingly textual – too immaterial – in their focus.

In the wake of the increasing fashionability and dissatisfaction with discourse analysis, the work of Bruno Latour has gained numerous allies. This is evident in the literature with which he is closely associated, that is, actor-network theory. His work provides a provocative vocabulary with which to think through the materiality of documents one comes across in archival research. Consider Latour’s essay, ‘Drawing things together’. Here he seeks to replace grand theories of the scientific revolution with more mundane explanations for the power of science, explanations that ‘‘take writing and imaging craftsmanship into account.’’ His major argument is that we need to focus on two processes that work together: the ‘inscription’ of material and the ‘mobilization’ of allies. By inscription, he refers to the technologies through which the world is translated into print material: measuring devices and the making of texts, diagrams, tables, maps, or photos. By mobilization, he means the practices that encourage others (scientists and nonspecialists alike) to believe in new facts and to behave in new ways. For Latour, the documents found in archival research about, say, a nineteenth-century social survey in East London carry potentially important qualities that are all too easily overlooked: (1) these ‘inscriptions’ of the place are small, flat, and easily handled; (2) they are easily reproduced; (3) they are mobile across space and time, preserving their form while in transit and in storage; and (4) they are readily translated into other texts and documents, some of which can often be found in the archives. In short, his work provides an account of the materials and mundane processes through which one understanding of a place assembled power over the knowledge of others – including those who lived there. Indeed, more than a few geographers have mobilized Latour’s writing in their response to the ‘all too immaterial’ critiques of discourse analysis.

Engagements in the materiality of documents are moving into theaters beyond science studies as well. Here the work of Annelise Riles is illustrative. While many economic, political, and development geographers have turned to ethnographic methods to understand the spatializing practices of firms, states, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Riles and other anthropologists have been reconsidering the very nature of ethnographic inquiry. Riles asks specifically what can be made of ethnography when the subjects of anthropological research often look all too familiar, when informants are preoccupied with the same sorts of information (interviews, surveys, images, reports, and so on) as anthropologists are themselves. Riles’ response is to ‘‘find ways to apprehend what is already too familiar’’ by focusing on the esthetics of bureaucratic practice. Her move to esthetics is not a romanticist step away from materiality. Rather, it deepens an analysis of what Latour had simply described as ‘dramatic visual effects’, for, amidst the Fijian activist network she works with, Riles pursues that which makes certain documents effective and moving – the agency of nonhuman material in the generation of dimension and depth. Her study stands at considerable distance from Max Weber’s work on bureaucratic organization too. Riles’ work is not about the formalization of knowledge and practice. She does not assume, like Weber, that documents strip away deeper social contexts; instead, the context of anthropological concern is the making of documents. The shaping of lines on a page, the persuasiveness of form, the production of documents: these are becoming more the subject of ethnographies in anthropology while, in the wake of the ‘all too immaterial’ critique of discourse analysis, ethnographic methods seem to be used increasingly for research in human geography.

Riles’ ethnography may not be one that many geographers care to perform. Long standing conventions in document based research distinguish between form and content, and then pay closer attention to the latter. Documents are thus mined for their original content. As primary source materials, their analysis can add to the prestige of the scholar who translates previously hard to find data into a publishable form, provided it is effectively made to speak to the new audience. If the contents include pages of quantitative data, statistical techniques sometimes can be used to produce a few numbers and graphs (averages, variations, trends – all of which are more amenable for inclusion in the space of an article), along with cautions about overextending the inferences drawn from the dataset. Qualitative material, such as images, letters, and manuscripts, can be analyzed using techniques from discourse theory or semiotics. The contexts in which the documents were produced are almost always worth exploration, and contextual evidence can be gathered from the same material as well as other sources. Yet, an evaluation of the utility of the material for one’s research objectives (to better understand trends in a local economic sector, or the reasons for migration, etc.) should always come first: how relevant are the documents to that which one is trying to understand? Do the data they present triangulate with other sources? Was its author notable, representative, and reliable? What interests did their author bring to these papers, and what biases are inherent within them? What can be learned by reading against the grain for absences and evasions in this material?

These sorts of questions are invaluable. Yet, many acknowledge that they help researchers move forward largely by putting a series of oppositions under foot: content/form, researcher versus the subject, representation/reality, (general) methods versus (specific) data. This is not to say that all binary oppositions must be renegotiated, nor that this particular set of dichotomies is more problematic than others. Rather, it is only to suggest that the best questions with which one ‘begins’ to evaluate a set of documents may not be, in every instance, the traditional ones. In some cases and for some purposes, a more effective research strategy may perhaps start by interrogating what differences are assumed with the conventional distinction between form and content, and why. That may in turn provoke the formulation of another field of initial questions for a document based research project, with questions like: how did the material shape and constitute the very thing that one is trying to understand?