From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures

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Historical anthropology: critical exchange between two decidedly distinct disciplines or innovative mode of knowledge production? As this volume’s title suggests, the essays Brian Keith Axel has gathered in From the Margins seek to challenge the limits of discrete disciplinary epistemologies and conventions, gesturing instead toward a transdisciplinary understanding of the emerging relations between archive and field.
In original articles encompassing a wide range of geographic and temporal locations, eminent scholars contest some of the primary preconceptions of their fields. The contributors tackle such topics as the paradoxical nature of American Civil War monuments, the figure of the “New Christian” in early seventeenth-century Peru, the implications of statistics for ethnography, and contemporary South Africa's “occult economies.” That anthropology and history have their provenance in—and have been complicit with—colonial formations is perhaps commonplace knowledge. But what is rarely examined is the specific manner in which colonial processes imbue and threaten the celebratory ideals of postcolonial reason or the enlightenment of today’s liberal practices in the social sciences and humanities.
By elaborating this critique, From the Margins offers diverse and powerful models that explore the intersections of historically specific local practices with processes of a world historical order. As such, the collection will not only prove valuable reading for anthropologists and historians, but also for scholars in colonial, postcolonial, and globalization studies.

Talal Asad, Brian Keith Axel, Bernard S. Cohn, Jean Comaroff, John L. Comaroff, Nicholas B. Dirks, Irene Silverblatt, Paul A. Silverstein, Teri Silvio, Ann Laura Stoler, Michel-Rolph Trouillot
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“There is a great deal of talk in academia about the promise of interdisciplinary work, but the dialogue between anthropology and history is one of the few cases that already exhibits a substantial payoff. This volume corroborates that dialogue as vital, fruitful, and very much a site of innovation. From the Margins, thankfully, does not represent yet another ‘normal’ discipline.”—Dan Segal, Pitzer College

"From the Margins exemplifies the best of current thinking in anthropology. It cuts through a haze of recent theoretical developments in the discipline and opens the way for new syntheses. With this exemplary piece of intellectual history, Brian Axel and the authors he has assembled also provide the conditions for a renewal in the dialogue between anthropology and other discursive fields."—Achille Mbembe, author of On the Postcolony

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328889
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 7.86 (w) x 8.48 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Keith Axel is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Swarthmore College. He is the author of The Nation’s Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh “Diaspora,” also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

From the margins

Historical anthropology and its futures
By Brian Keith Axel

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2888-7

Chapter One

Annals of the Archive: Ethnographic Notes on the Sources of History

Nicholas B. Dirks

History is the work expended on material documentation (books, texts, accounts, registers, acts, buildings, institutions, laws, techniques, objects, customs, etc.) that exists, in every time and place, in every society ... in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments ... in our time, history aspires to the condition of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument.-Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge

It is the state which first presents subject matter that is not only adapted to the prose of History, but involves the production of such history in the progress of its own being.-G. F. W. Hegel, The Philosophy of History

Ethnography of the Archive

The first time I entered an archive, I panicked. My historical zeal inexplicably vanished as I desperately stemmed a welling desire to exit immediately and search for the nearest pub. I saw before me the thousands of documents I could indent, the books I could read, the files I had to wade through. I tried to imagine which index to consult, what department to decipher, how best to control the chaos of what seemed an infinite chain of documents. My proposal for research, so lucid a minute before, seemedinappropriate, unwise, impossible. I felt embarrassed to expose my ignorance in front of professional archivists anxious to discern a research topic that might bear some relationship to the archive itself. Alas, my interest in the small voices and contradictory ruptures of history was not designed for easy access. My proposal to understand the essential relationship between political authority and social relations could take me to any fragment, and yet I knew that all fragments were not equal, that most documents by themselves were mere reminders of the quotidian tedium of history, that I not only needed to start somewhere, I needed to start somewhere promising. The archive is a glorious monument of history, but the documents within are simply the sedimented detritus of a history that from the inside had seemed both endless and banal.

Most historians write history before they enter the archive, beginning their professional apprenticeship by using those secondary sources in libraries that are already contaminated by interpretation and selection. But even at the beginning, such sources establish their authenticity through referencing an archive that demarcates the partial and secondary nature of all sources from outside. The archive is constituted as the only space that is free of context, argument, ideology-indeed history itself. Accordingly, historians can only really become historians or write history once they have been to the archive. The originary arrival of the historian in the archive is much like the arrival of the anthropologist in the field-that threshold of disciplinary certification-the magical moment when the scientist-scholar sets down upon a shore that beckons with the promise that one can finally engage in the act of discovery, at last come face to face with truth and the realm of unmediated facts. But while anthropologists have subjected their arrival stories to historical and critical scrutiny, the historian's arrival story is largely untold, shielded by the fact that while the archive has often seemed mystical, it has never appeared exotic. Travelers' tales and adventurers' yarns have never rendered the archive a major source of narrative, and yet the monumentality of the archive is enshrined in a set of assumptions about truth that are fundamental both to the discipline of history and to the national foundations of history. While these assumptions about truth and history have been critiqued in relation to historical writing (and the use of sources), they have rarely been examined in relation to the sources themselves, except inside the very historical footnotes that summon the greatest respect for the archive as a repository of ultimate value (Grafton 1997). The archive is simultaneously the outcome of historical process and the very condition for the production of historical knowledge. The time has come to historicize the archive.

My own archive arrival story was prefaced by several years of working with original documents that themselves preceded the establishment of the modern archive. Intrigued as I was by the character of the premodern state in southern India, I began my professional career as a historian by reading epigraphical series and reports, transcriptions and translations of inscriptions that were for the most part etched into either stone or copper surfaces. Stone inscriptions typically recorded endowments to temples and were inscribed on the stone walls of the shrines where worship was to be conducted, or on the walls surrounding the centers of worship. Copper-plate inscriptions were typically held by the descendants of kings, landlords, and various other magnates whose entitlements to land, tribute, office, and honor were itemized, publicly declared, and permanently instantiated by the presentation of the material text. In addition to recording details of landholding rights and relations, political positions and perquisites, ritual emoluments and entailments, and so on, these inscribed surfaces provided occasions for textual performances of various kinds, most significantly when the pedigree of the presenter became the basis for historical narrations of the exploits and exemplariness of certain families and their forebears. Inscriptions thus provided the stuff of history-the details of property and politics, identity and institutions-at the same time that they were themselves historical texts, recording in genealogical form the claims made by history itself for and about authority. History was already monumental, most particularly in the elaborate and sometimes enormous temple complexes that yielded surface after surface for textual inscription, but also in the use of precious metals to insure the permanence of the text (though its very preciousness meant there was always the temptation for textual meltdown). In one sense history was only monumental, for the myriad other texts that must have been etched on the surfaces of palmyra palm were consigned to certain obsolescence in ways that meant that if history was to last, it had to be written on or as a monument.

But if the temple complex was itself an archive, it was an archive of a very different kind than we imagine when we contemplate the contemporary institution. The walls of the temple complex served in one sense as a local record room, the origins of most modern archives; however, the records were attached to a preexisting monument, and functioned in effect to secure the monument as well as the authoritative relations and figures whose own power was symbolized and deployed through the institutional formation of the temple. And despite the ample epigraphical record, the actual record is slight compared to any modern paper archive, and with all the textual efflorescence of preambles and genealogical histories, the details of administrative procedure were few, far between, and only rarely cross-referenced in ways that betrayed the constant surveillance and custodianship of a bureaucratic managerial elite that would seem the sine qua non of modern archives and states.

Nevertheless, the temple complex was an archive of sorts. It preserved records necessary for the maintenance of a polity, even as the polity itself relied heavily on the institutional relations of the temple. And it preserved these records for reference use as well as in ways that worked to monumentalize both history and its documents. The inscriptional texts themselves appear emblematic of a particular kind of archival history, combining the most banal of details with the most glorious panegyrics in praise of kingly dynasties, local rulers, and institutional arrangements (ranging from the banking functions of temples or the maintenance of ritual performances to the memorialization of property relations and honorific offices). At the same time, neither historians nor "history" proper was necessary for the transformation of documents into history, as happened later when the myriad record offices of government still had to be monumentalized into archives in order to transit from the realm of governmentality to the domain of history. In southern India, documents began their careers as monuments.

It was with this experience of history that I set off on my journey to the archive. Even though by then I had shifted my own historical interests from the eighth and ninth centuries to the eighteenth and nineteenth, I was still ambivalent about the modern archive. Given my interest in precolonial state and society-specifically in charting out the nature of kingly authority and caste relations in southern India immediately before the onset of British colonial rule and then tracing transformations over the first colonial century-I was keen to find documents that existed before the modern colonial state and its documentation apparatus. At best, the archive might have admitted documents from an earlier age as an expression of the colonial state's need to know how things really were before the British arrived. But I worried that the archive was at least in part about the contamination of the west, or the modern, or both. At the same time, I walked into the archive with all the trepidation of the academic apprentice, worried that I would never penetrate the secrets of the archive, and worse that the secrets of the archive were impenetrable not because of the daring originality of my line of research but because of my fundamental ignorance of the archival structure of the conditions of historical knowledge.

The archive that inaugurated my experience as a historian was the India Office Library in London. Originally the library and record room of the India Office, the agency of the British government that oversaw Britain's colonial relationship with India until independence in 1947, it had been moved into a separate archive in the early 1970s, subsequently placed under the management of the British Library, and has now been moved to and amalgamated with the archival and library holdings of the new British Library in St. Pancras. Despite the shabby postwar high-rise that housed the miles of shelves, I walked into the archive for the first time with all the excitement that my fellow anthropology students had reserved for the moment they arrived in a "field of their own." My excitement soon merged with terror when I realized that I hadn't a clue about what to do next-whether I should look at the index for the political, public, or home departments, what the mechanisms might be for genealogical research, and how to access either Tamil or English manuscript collections. I remember spending the first day paging through the index of one particular department with a key word that failed to appear for anything more than the most trivial of documents. In frustration, I handcopied one very long letter that seemed vaguely important (only to realize later that I had already photocopied a passage from a government manual where all the good bits had already been excerpted). I wondered why the archive seemed far less satisfying than a basic university library. I panicked, feeling a bizarre envy for the traditional research historian who was assigned a topic on the basis of a specific collection of records or documents their supervisor had preselected for them, at the same time wondering if I should just discard history and go to the field instead, trying my hand at anthropology, the flip side of my disciplinary formation and training. At the same time, I realized I would have to do extensive fieldwork on the archive itself, learning both about the history of British governmental rule at the concrete levels of yearly bureaucratic organization and interaction, and about the history of various kinds of collections and record keeping.

Little by little, step by step, I learned about the nature, classifications, and institutional investments of some of the records and collections that were to become the primary documentation for my thesis. I also began to learn about the complex relationship between archives in Britain and archives in India-what sorts of files, what levels of detail, and what manner of departments were to be found and could be found to organize materials at the India Office Library in London, the National Archives of India in New Delhi, and the Tamil Nadu Record Office in Madras. The London and Delhi offices paid particular interest to the Princely States of India, one of which came to be the primary historical and ethnographic site for my research on state and society. At the same time, to find out much in the way of detail about the actual land settlements that implemented the introduction of new forms of property and new relations between "cultivators" and the state, I learned that I had to look at the "settlement registers" that were housed in Madras itself. So daunted was I by the stacks of settlements when I first encountered them that I found it difficult to anticipate that I would later come to relish these records; as it happened, I spent much of my thesis research period looking at records of tax-free land settlements, gradually coming to realize the extent to which these "inam" land classifications revealed much about the way the history of political privileges from precolonial times was sedimented into landed privileges under the early colonial regime.

My first experience of the archive was thus frustrating for several major reasons, quite apart from the myriad frustrations that any scholar working in archives in the 1970s took for granted, such as the absence of photocopy machines, the now unimaginable absence of the computer, and the often highly personalized contingencies of archival access. I was frustrated not only because I felt buried under the weight of archival excess, but because this excess seemed to signify (indeed amplify) the distortions of a colonial regime, one that either sought to eradicate the past, or to represent it in ways that seemed at best mobilized as evidence for unreliable arguments in favor of one or another colonial rhetorics of rule. I was, after all, determined to discover what I could about the nature of state and society in the immediate precolonial period, and the more I looked in colonial archives, the more I felt the impossibility of the project. And so I began to spend increasing numbers of hours away from the archive in a library of "Oriental Manuscripts" that housed, among other things, the manuscript collection of Colin Mackenzie.

Colin Mackenzie, an engineer and mathematician by training, went to India as an army man and soon became known for his extraordinary cartographic talents, first designing plans of military assault then plans for surveying and mapping newly conquered territories. His surveying skills were recognized as he was designated as the Surveyor-General of Madras in 1810, only to become the first Surveyor-General of India in 1815. Mackenzie, a Scot from the outer Hebrides who, like many other educated Scots of his time, went to India to find a more flourishing career than would have been available in Scotland, was also an avid antiquarian and became vitally committed to the collection of historical materials about peninsular India. On his own initiative and with his own resources he hired and trained a group of local assistants who helped him collect local histories of kingly dynasties, chiefly families, castes, villages, temples, and monasteries, as well as of other local traditions and religious and philosophical texts in a variety of Indian languages. He also took rubbings of stone and copper-plate inscriptions, collected coins, images, and antiquities, and made extensive plans and drawings wherever he went. By the time of his death in 1821, he had amassed a collection of 3,000 inscriptions, 1,568 literary manuscripts, 2,070 local tracts, and large portfolios and collections of drawings, plans, images, and antiquities (Dirks 1993).


Excerpted from From the margins by Brian Keith Axel Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Historical Anthropology and Its Vicissitudes 1
Pt. 1 Ethnography and the Archive
Annals of the Archive: Ethnographic Notes on the Sources of History 47
Ethnographic Representation, Statistics, and Modern Power 66
Pt. 2 Colonial Anxieties
New Christians and New World Fears in Seventeenth-Century Peru 95
The Kabyle Myth: Colonization and the Production of Ethnicity 122
Developing Historical Negatives: Race and the (Modernist) Visions of a Colonial State 156
Pt. 3 Marginal Contexts
Culture on the Edges: Caribbean Creolization in Historical Context 189
Race, Gender, and Historical Narrative in the Reconstruction of a Nation: Remembering and Forgetting the American Civil War 211
Pt. 4 Archaeologies of the Fantastic
Fantastic Community 233
Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony 267
Contributors 303
Index 305
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