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The Duplicity of Paper: Counterfeit, Discretion, and Bureaucratic Authority in Early Colonial Madras

  • Bhavani Raman (a1)

Shifts in writing technology are usually taken to mark a shift from discretionary to rule-bound, impersonal forms of government. Equating writing technology with rules, however, obscures how counterfeiting, both alleged and real, and the exertion of official discretion can consolidate a government of writing. In his important study of Yemeni scribal culture, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society, Brinkley Messick modifies Weberian models of domination by calling for the study of textual domination that intersects in diverse ways with other dimensions of authority. Messick relates the demise of the calligraphic state to the advent of legal codification and print technology. With the arrival of impersonal documents of government and a form of rational law, he argues, writing itself ceased to be the “non-arbitrary mark of the person” and the relationship between the sign and signified was no longer connected by an intermediary figure. Similarly, the notion that the innovations of disciplinary writing constituted a new assemblage of control exercised through the “unavoidable visibility of subjects” has been extremely productive in delineating the colonial career of modern infrastructural power. Following the work of Bernard Cohn, the colonial state's “investigative modalities” have been shown to be integral to colonial command and the production of an ever-accumulating corpus of reports. Statistical surveys, reports, and censuses in colonies did not create a uniform template of rule but did enable the operation of inherently selective, targeted, and differentially articulated projects of governance. These gains notwithstanding, the debates over colonial governance have remained limited to differing estimations of the state's successful mastery of information, and whether its taxonomies were collaboratively authored by intermediaries or imposed upon the colonized. We need to give more attention to the complex articulation of records and reports with the law under conditions of exogenous rule.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
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