Reflections on dysfunctional functioning in the political economy of paper

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Gilsenan. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.026


Reflections on dysfunctional functioning in the political economy of paper

Michael GILSENAN, New York University

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

I have found Matthew Hull’s invaluable study rich and dense in terms of its closely interrelated ethnographic and theoretical contributions. It was only on a second reading that I was able to work my way through his meticulous arguments and keep a sense of the overarching analysis. It is a book to keep close at hand and I am looking forward to reading it in graduate seminars with advanced students on a whole range of topics.

I shall limit myself here to brief reflections stimulated by, though not limited to chapter three, “Files and the political economy of paper.” I choose this section not least because it is immensely helpful in thinking about aspects of my current research on legal files and records of cases around Hadhrami Arab family disputes in Singapore colonial courts over about a century. I have thus been reading Government of paper very much “for use.”

Now Singapore is a city-state in which the history and model of state and bureaucracy seem to be at the opposite pole to that of Pakistan for all kinds of obvious and a few not so obvious reasons. It is a (small scale) world in which seeing like a state is ideologically held to have a particular clarity and range, not to say omnipresence. So are state planning and (micro- as well as macro-) management. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are the technocratic and neutral expression of the state as a one-party social engineering project in which state ownership and powers of disposition over land and housing are crucial. Precisely because of these contrasts, I found myself wishing for a study of Hull’s sophistication of the materiality of bureaucracy and state agencies in Singapore in which the “complex political economy of paper,” to use his phrase, might generate extremely interesting comparisons.

I am particularly interested in the historical framings of questions of trust, responsibility, and the nature of the constitution of files, inscription practices, and file circulation in that political economy of paper that in his view has “deep historical roots” from the early period of the East India Company on. (The phrase calls to mind Brinkley Messick’s “textual polity” of Imamate Yemen in his The calligraphic state.) The history is indeed deep. But it is not perhaps a continuous, undisrupted history changing only by accumulation and aggregation, complexity and entropy proceeding slowly together. For when Hull’s account suggests that the discourses and movements of files shape and are shaped by the efforts of functionaries at every level to avoid responsibility, influence cases, and sometimes to raise money, that fundamental characteristic appears to be the consequence of more specific and historically proximate political factors in the postcolonial period.

If “these practices make it hard to understand who does anything,” this is not only because of the emergence of what might come to be seen as some generic or intrinsic properties of the evolving nature of the materiality of bureaucracy. Rather, it seems to be because of a certain historically emerging collective interest or sets of by no means always concordant interests—not a term Hull uses—in these shared ways of practical knowledge that will finesse or make almost impossible the specific location of responsibility there. The enjeux are critical. (Socialization into such practical knowledge and the everyday interactions it informs must, as always, be a fascinating process.)

How did these complex practices and interests arise, with their multiple variations and positional possibilities of greater or lesser kinds? If I read Hull correctly, he sees them developing out of specific political pressures under Bhutto and Zia ul Haqq. Each of these enemies diminished in different ways the autonomy of the bureaucracy and its relative insulation from military and partisan political accountability. There were direct attempts, therefore, to change the relations between state institutions in Pakistan.

So there is a historical sense in which one might analyze the dysfunctional functioning that has become foundational to everyday bureaucratic practice. And that dysfunction is not at all simply the kind associated with certain ideal type models of bureaucracy. Hull does not, I think, suggest any concept of rupture so much as a significant emerging set of reconfigurations of powers, competencies, and governmental processes. But he does suggest that if distrust, dissimulation, fertile imaginings of who is “really behind” a particular proposal, and anxiety have their particular multiform shapes in the Islamabad bureaucracy, that is at least in part the consequence of a specific set of direct and not so direct political and military practices and policies that might impact any person at any time in terms of unpredictable sanctions (Hull 2012: 127–28). In other words, the political economy and the political economy of paper are closely related.

That other and greater bureaucracy and supposedly centrally controlled and controlling organization, the army, as well as multiple political factions and regional forces, shape and penetrate the political economy of paper too. In such a complex, shifting setting the best KPI is no KPI at all. Purges and transfers are powerful, capricious instruments of power, all the more significant for their unpredictability and links to shifting constellations of persons that constitute a crucial and constant aspect of bureaucratic dealings, not least for petitioners. (Hull’s writing on petitions is particularly acute, see pp. 86–111.)

If an officer’s capacity to intervene in matters he formally supervises seriously constrains or renders impossible his capacity to act, that may be a matter of relieved, ironical complaint rather than panic. He may be, as one of Hull’s contacts clearly is, a highly skilled operator with his own narratives of how helpless he is and “how the system really works” against its supposed objectives. He may be equally skilled in achieving certain aims, constitute and maintain certain key personal networks, and have a degree of control over certain resources. But he does not necessarily wish to be identified as having “agency” in his function as agent of the state in any but certain moments and spheres. (Though i do not discuss it here, Hull’s treatment of the topic and theories of agency is critical and perceptive. see 129–30 for example, on corporate agency and collective action.)

Rather different kinds of histories and temporalities are also in play in the serious games of paper. “A file is a chronicle of its own production,” though as Hull points out, that chronicle has to be studied critically rather than simply being taken as unproblematic evidence of the practices involved in its constitution (11618). The file takes, marks, inscribes time(s). And many files are “current” for decades. Their status may still be “active” for who knows what or if some new factor may not arise, some eruption of someone’s interest, some relevance however uncertain to however confusing a dispute or claim, some revivifying of what had seemed to be a dead file? This kind of temporal indeterminacy goes together with the processes of recontextualizing a document, shifting its place to a file or a file into another context changes meanings in perhaps unanticipated ways generating the possibility of different, equally uncertain histories. such histories are also histories, incomplete, perhaps illegible to the persons they most concern.

Files are also highly problematic and objects of mysterious significance to those who are in different ways interpellated by and through them in, say, legal cases involving property. The perfectly chosen anecdote with which the book begins is a “file story,” a document story told by a driver who wanted to move to a new house. He had managed to construct an “unofficial replica” of the official file. This sign of his learned stealing of the skills of working the files was one triumph in itself. But it made possible the greater triumph. After all kinds of complex and formally illegal moves he had actually obtained the vital “No objection certificate” approving the house plan. Here was agency indeed. But such a paper crown no doubt eludes many. Persons may possess documents, relentlessly track them down, make, forge, trade, exchange, steal, pay for, or inherit the file or the papers. They may know or be absolutely convinced that if only they could put this perhaps precious, perhaps life-changing document in its confusing or arcane language and form into its right context, make it part of what lawyers call “the root of title,” then who knows what might not follow when the just entitlement is finally acknowledged, somehow, by the competent “authorities.”

Files and documents may come to be, for those in whose hands they are, objects embodying a (potential) Maussian inherent property or deep value, not least in the imaginary of the person(s) who cannot seem to find ways of making part of those exchanges and trades that would realize their vital worth. if only they could be activated, vitalized, instrumentalized through the agency of the right persons and procedures. Inheritance dispute is the locus classicus of such imaginaries, as my research in Singapore constantly shows me.

To end with an anecdote: When an exhibition was planned by the National Library of Singapore (a major state institution then recently reopened in a new modern fourteen- or fifteen-story glass walled building in which KPIs were much advertised) to celebrate and in part constitute an official placing of “Arabs” in “Singaporean society,” librarians sought “old documents” such as property deeds or powers of attorney for display in locked glass cabinets. A friend of mine explained that he had decided that this was a problematic request. Who knew what might not be somehow in what was displayed? Should it be looked at and what sort of looking is involved? Why ask for documents to be put in a glass case for a public? What interest did that have? Yet there must be an interest, even if he could not think what it might be. Better not. Recontextualizing in multiple ways was clearly not at all the simple request that the librarian to whom I spoke thought she was making. “Why are some people being difficult?” she asked with some exasperation. “This is part of their history.” My friend’s reluctance appeared to her to be obviously a form of irrationality. For my friend, the documents might turn out not to be dead at all. They must signify something for this interest to be shown. He would not participate.

I am already learning the benefits of recontextualizing Government of paper in my own research that it, in turn, will recontextualize and I look forward to the conversation HAU is making possible.


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

Messick, Brinkley. 1993. The calliggraphic state: Textual domination and history in a Muslim society. Berkeley: University of California Press.



Michael Gilsenan
Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies
New York University
50 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012, USA