Travels among the records

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Justin Richland. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.024


Travels among the records

Some thoughts provoked by Government of paper

Justin RICHLAND, University of Chicago

Comment on HULL, Matthew. 2012. Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

I am sitting in a hotel room in Berlin, in the midst of research travel that has taken me, in the past two weeks, directly from the high desert mesas of the Hopi Indian Reservation to the monumental architecture of the Mitte district, a former part of East Berlin now an area full of high-end retail. I find that the opportunity I have now to write about Matthew Hull’s provocative Government of paper couldn’t have been better timed. Hull’s book considers the place of documents—both in their production and circulation—in the bureaucracy of Islamabad, Pakistan. In so doing he makes a strong case for the need to attend not only to their semiotic content but also equally to their material form when understanding that role. As such, when reading this book alongside my travels, it seems to crystalize exactly the kind of question that has been itching at the back of my mind, but that has struggled to come to the fore—namely, what makes for a record, and what does a record make?

Hull is not the first to take up the questions he pursues in Government of paper, and he rightly acknowledges that in asking after the role of documents in the constitution of bureaucratic practice, he wades into deep waters, with the likes of such luminaries as Max Weber, Jack Goody, and Sandra Briet, to name only a few. But as he shows, where these and other scholars have tended to focus on the semiotic dimensions of bureaucratic writing, they perhaps overstate the immediacy with which documents convey or store knowledge about the world. As he explains, “In addition to mediating semiosis, graphic artifacts as things are involved in non-semiotic events and happenings … it is often precisely the disjuncture between communicative processes and the life of the artifact supporting them that shapes the significance and consequences” that these records produce for those who use them (Hull 2012: 22–23).

As Hull shows in the context of Islamabad bureaucracy, it is not just the information collected and communicated in files, lists, and maps, but the material qualities of how such documents sediment such communications that works their particular efficacy in the institutional practices he observed. Whether it was in the form of senior officials’ letters of support (parchi or chits) presented by persons seeking official action (but on at least one occasion appeared to be a signed form letter), or of directives inked by clerks in shorthand marks made in the margins of documents being circulated for action, or some other such document, the manner in which what Hull calls the “graphic ideologies” of these communicative materials shaped how they were subsequently taken up by others. With parchi, as with files, much seems to turn on questions of agency and the manner in which signatures could be taken in some contexts as indexes of individual agency, but also sometimes, simultaneously, as the dispersal of such agency across wider groups. Particularly in his analysis of files circulating up and down the bureaucratic hierarchies, Hull reveals many ways in which functionaries’ markings and their sequential appearance on the document page convert “individually authored notations … into corporate discourse” (2012: 138) via the material accretions on the page, resulting in “the transmutation from a collection of utterances to an authoritative collective decision” (2012: 138) when it is recirculated and reinitialized.

It is precisely the capacity for such inscription and circulatory practices to at once support the signification of individual authorship—but also to minimize reference to what exactly are the effects of a single functionary’s act—which Hull explains allows for their particular bureaucratic efficacy in Islamabad. As he writes, “In short, these practices make it hard to understand who does anything … [providing] some functionaries with job security and others with cover for questionable or outright illegal activities” (2012: 115). In a very real sense, then, the procedure becomes the decision-maker. For Hull, this helps explain both the more conventional understanding of documents as “essential media of bureaucratic action” (2012: 134), which in Islamabad are also seen by many as fundamentally manipulable, and thus untrustworthy, phenomena. An act seems to have been taken, somehow, on and through such documentary procedures, but it is unclear by whom. And it is precisely this agency without identity, or perhaps with only minimal corporate/bureaucratic identity, that leaves the individuals Hull interviewed (both inside and outside the bureaucracy) suspicious of the documents that make it run but also reliant on them for its operation.

Hull argues then that when attended to in their actual detail as both semiotic and material phenomena, the documents that constitute Islamabad bureaucracy show precisely the intermingling of the political and the personal, and how record-making and record-keeping can at once constitute the seemingly stable relations between persons and between persons and things that are the hallmarks of bureaucratic proceduralism, but also to reference a world of persons and things out there beyond the bureaucracy. As he writes, “In accounting for the efficacy of documents, one does not have to choose between proceduralism and reference. Procedurally correct documents compel compliance not because the documents they generate supersede the realities the purport to represent, but because … bureaucratic procedures normatively embed documents in those realities” (Hull 2012: 26). Whether it is via petitions or parchi, files, or maps, Government of paper persuasively argues that central to the efficacy of documents is the strange alchemy afforded by their material and communicative elements-form and content—and the hermeneutic rip-rap that it generates, allowing documents to be stable and unstable, to shift and slide up and down scales of the personal and the political, and to at once signify and elide the senses that those who engage them (both within and without the bureaucracy) endeavor to attach to them for various purposes.

It is this lesson I take with me, and to heart, on my current travels. In some ways it is hard not to want to extend the metaphor of a record and its graphic form when visiting Hopi and Germany, given the deep ways in which the past is inscribed in the present of the two places. Much as I try to bracket the supposed “ancientness” of the Hopi pueblos, at least for purposes of understanding their contemporary predicaments, their placement at the precarious edges of three mesas and the construction of their central homes and kivas in native stone, mud, and reeds, seem to always want to override my efforts in ways that even argue past the cinder block houses, Japanese pickup trucks, and TV satellite dishes that also make up and index the lived reality of contemporary Hopi village life.

Likewise, walking the main streets of the former East Berlin, I cannot help but see the past. It appears in the WWII-era bullet-holes that still pockmark the walls of the Pergamonmuseum. It is lodged even more complexly in the socialist architecture of Alexanderplatz, which when it is recalled as the product of having to be rebuilt after suffering heavy Allied bombing in WWII, doubly voices the past in a way that haunts the high-end shopping districts that now inhabit the area.

So, are these built spaces of the Hopi Reservation and central Berlin records of a sort? They seem in many ways to inscribe a past in the present that, while perhaps only sometimes “formally” graphic, are always visual, always semiotic, and certainly material. And the force with which I experience them does seem to emerge from not just their material but also their communicative dimensions, and do so in such a way that, at least for me, seems to both afford some kinds of understandings of place while eliding others—that is, they seem to have an agency that may have at once been individualized, or even collectivized, but now seems lodged in the thing itself. I wonder then, how much of what Hull attributes to the graphic character of written documents—their ability to both signify stability across the domains of their use and also to embed such moments in specific social arrangements and networks of belonging—couldn’t also apply equally well to other kinds of built things?

I just went to the window of my hotel room to watch the shoppers strolling under the arcades of a socialist era building on Friedrichstrasse, just east of what is now the cultural monument of Checkpoint Charlie. The building they stroll past, however, now houses an H&M clothier, a Volkswagen showroom, and a Rolex store. Do these shoppers feel the irony, I wonder? Are they haunted by the not-so-distant past that seems to me to surround us? Do these buildings, despite their very present-day commercial residents, come to them, like they do to me, in a manner that concretizes past events (at least of the structures, practices and values—both bureaucratic and social—of their making), in buildings and street lights and, yes, graphic forms, whose semiotic and material qualities inform the time-space we now share? If so, do they do so in the way that Hull’s documents constitute the bureaucracy of Islamabad? Or is this somehow of a different order of mutual orientation than what is accomplished in, by, and through the records that Hull so deftly follows?

I am not sure. But I am quite sure that in pushing us to take seriously the ways in which the material and semiotic come together in the records he studied, Hull has indeed offered us a promising new way of thinking not only about bureaucracy but about the way in which social life more generally is structured, practiced, and made meaningful.


Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.



Justin B. Richland
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126. E. 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637, USA