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Final Exam in Political Anthropology

Ann Laura Stoler (2008), in her book, Along the Archival Grain, argues that archives ought to be perceived as subjects of knowledge as opposed to sources of knowledge. Such a claim is based on her assumption that the placement and form of archives are affected by cultural agents of ‘truth’ production and as such are prone to the epistemological framework of those who have enabled their production and rearrangement throughout history.

As the subtitle of her book suggests, Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Commonsense, archival information ought to be seen as subject to critical analysis since the truth content of these materials are subject to the contrasting claims within the archival materials themselves which stems as a result of the “uncensored turns of phrase, loud asides in the imperative tense, hesitant sotto voce” of the colonized people (Stoler: 23).

In order to prove her claim regarding the problematic aspects in relation to the credibility of archival materials along with its relation to the epistemological foundations used in the production of these materials, Stoler uses the example of the Dutch colonial archives. In line with this, what follows is an analysis of Ann Laura Stoler’s aforementioned claims as it is presented in her book Along the Archival Grain. The founding principle of anthropology has been the inquiry into cumulative processes of cultural production without the typological aspirations and evolutionary assumptions of the other sciences.

The historic turn in anthropology may be seen as the result of a different reflection on the politics of knowledge production. In other words, it may be seen as the rejection of the categorization and cultural distinctions that enabled imperialism to proliferate its post colonial practices which is particularly exemplified by its subjugation of the colonial people within a particular mindset that perceives the colonizers as enabling either the introduction of civilization or morality within their land.

According to Stoler, the means through which the colonizer enables the subjugation of the colonized individuals is particularly evident in ethnography (32). In her discussion of the significance of historical ethnography, she states that the importance of the discipline may be traced to its assessment of the different forms of knowledge production and the power relations involved in the process of formulating these archival information. Within the text, she states, “Ethnography in and of the colonial archives attends to processes of production, relations of power in which archives are created, sequestered, and rearranged” (Stoler: 32).

She further states that this is possible since “ethnographies… (are) treated as texts… to reflect on colonial documents as ‘rituals of possession’, as relics and ruins, as sites of contested cultural knowledge” (Stoler: 32). Stoler argues that the problem with such an approach lies in its failure to recognize that such documents do not stand as exemplary documents but as sociological copies of the colonized people’s claims. She further notes that in order to have an accurate understanding of these archival materials, it is necessary to perceive them not as sites of knowledge retrieval but as sites of knowledge production.

She states, Colonial state archives are sites of perturbations… (as they enable) less monuments to the absence or ubiquity of knowledge that its piecemeal partiality, less documents to the force of reasoned judgment than to both the spasmodic and sustained currents of anxious labour that paper trails could not contain. (Stoler: 19) Within this context, one may note that Stoler’s claim necessitates a view of the colonial archives not as a source of the past but rather as a source of understanding the process of fact production, of taxonomies in the making, and of disparate notions of what made up colonial authority during the past.

Stoler’s claim regarding this existence of the archive as a subject of knowledge and not as a source of knowledge can be traced to the conception of the archive as a concept that has no material representation. In accordance to Michel Foucault’s views, the archive may be seen as a metaphor for any corpus of selective forgetting and collections. The archive thereby stands as a metaphor for the location wherein “knowledge… participated in its own self-mutilation… (as) it carves incisions into the flesh of race, slices through the legal armature of white privilege, slashes though the history of public welfare, and…

cleaves into the conceit that more knowledge secures a more durable empire” (Stoler: 8). In other words, the archive represents the institution that determines the statement of events and the system of their enunciation. As a subject of knowledge, archival materials thereby, ought to be seen neither as the sum of all texts that a culture preserves nor the institution that allows the records’ preservation but as the system of statements and rules of practice that shape the regulations of what cannot be said within these texts and within these institutions.

An example of this is evident in the case of the Dutch colonial archives. Stoler argues that although the Dutch colonial archives omit certain information that betrays the colonizers cruelty against the people, the content of these archive materials still contain ‘emotional element’ that betray the system of texts and the system of the institution created by the Dutch colonizers. She states,

“Emotional elements,” personal grudges, long harboured resentements… have escaped calculation… (in the) ‘para-ethnography’ of the lay world… Archival documents participate in this emotional economy in some obvious ways: in the measured tone of official texts; in the biting critique reserved for marginalia; in footnotes to official reports where moral assessments of cultural practice were ofter relegated and local knowledge was stored. (Stoler: 40-41)

Within this context, Dutch colonial archives may be seen to register its ‘emotional economy’ in several ways: (1) in the measured affect of official text, (2) in the critique of the marginalia, and (3)in the footnotes to official reports where assessments of cultural practice were often relegated and local knowledge was stored. Within her book, Stoler uses the case of Frans Carl Valck in order to show the manner in which the aforementioned ‘emotional economy’ garnered an effect on Dutch colonial archives.

She states that her book will trace “the story of Frans Carl Valck as told through government archives… and as it appears from a private archive of a very different sort” (Stoler: 52). The differences in the content of both archives, in the later part of the book, shows the means through which archival materials may be influenced by the power relations within society. As a colonial servant of the European empire in the Netherland Indies, Valck as an Assistent-Resident of Deli, had access to the information regarding the colonization process.

In the later part of his career, as a result of his dismissal from post and hence the end of his career, Valck wrote various letters to different individuals in the hope that these individuals may provide solutions to the atrocities and false information circulated within the region. Consider for example the case of the Luhmann murder which occurred during the period of his career as an Assistant-Resident. According to the military personnel, as it was stated in the archives, the murder stood as an isolated incident.

As opposed to this, Valck notes that the murder stands as a result of a patterned response to European abuse. It is important to note that Valck’s aforementioned assumption stood as a result of his various musings regarding the incident. In order to confirm the validity of his assumption, Stoler, within the text, assessed Valck’s conjectures in relation to the recorded information regarding the incident. According to Stoler, despite the seemingly contradictory claims of Valck in his written musings, it is possible to prove the validity of his claim.

She states, “With his contrary letters in hand, I sought to find out how much his reconstructions were at odds with the official version, how deeply his renderings went along-or bristled against-the grain” (Stoler: 184). Stoler notes that despite the differences of the archival information regarding the aforementioned murder, it is interesting to note how these information shared “a loosely standardized logic of blame… as individual planters and officials appropriated that logic differently to interpret what some have never seen but thought or claimed they knew” (184).

This ‘logic of blame’ may be interpreted in various ways. Initially, one might perceive it as the result of individuals’ natural desire to determine the cause of a particular incident. On the other hand, given the conditions of the colonized people during that period, one may also state that this ‘logic of blame’ stood as a manifestations of the people’s inability to accept their current situation during that period and hence instead of recognizing the event as a result of their colonizer’s brutality, they chose to perceive it in a different way.

As Stoler herself states, the conditions of the colonized Europeans during that period is comparable to the conditions of individuals within a ‘house of glass’. It is a ‘house of glass’ since one is presented with the fragile and disquieting image of the “fragile security of the Dutch police state and the false security of the Europeans living nestled in it” (Stoler: 18). Within this context, one may note that Valck’s case as it is presented in Stoler’s text stands as an example in which archival information manifests the power relations within society during a particular period.

This is specifically evident since as Valck’s account presents a knowledge claim which is in direct contradiction to the knowledge claims in the information within the archives of Dutch colonials, one perceives the means through which the epistemic anxieties may develop as a result of the discrepancies in the account within the archives and the account by the colonized individuals within the Dutch colony during that period. BIBLIOGRAPHY Stoler, Ann, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Np: Princeton UP, 2008.

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