Administory 4 (2019)

Max Weber famously observed that the modern office is based upon »files«. In his characterization of the »bureau« he went as far as to say that it was composed of the »body of officials actively engaged in a ›public‹ office, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files« (Gerth/Wright Mills 1946: 197). In recent years, anthropologists, historians, literary critics and media historians as well as sociologists, have moved beyond reading documents just »as evidence of any kind of historical reality«, but rather as »testimonies of the practices and cultural techniques embodied by them«. (Siegert 2003: 25) Drawing from the study of discourse, materiality, cultural techniques as well as of science and technology, scholarship on bureaucracy increasingly examines the role of documentation processes in the life of institutions.

With respect to processes of administration this body of scholarship revealed that »bureaucracies don’t so much employ documents as they are partly constructed by and out of them« (Gitelman 2014: 5, referring to Hull 2012). Files are connecting administrative acts: »Every file note indirectly contains a command. Reporting the execution of an order triggers the next one. […] An executed command, then, has a double orientation: it generates the next command and notes its own execution.« (Vismann 2008: 8) In other words, records generate files and build a papery organism that embodies and at the same time realizes the logics of law, state, and government.

Based on this observation, we would like to develop the analytical viewpoint by strengthening the historical perspective. This opens several important questions. The first asks what actually is considered to be a file under specific historical circumstances? Some studies understand files chiefly as those administrative objects referred to as »files« in particular bureaucratic settings. More commonly, scholars follow Weber in identifying files as »written documents«. However, we want to attend to files as a particular documentary type, which was and is subject to change both as an integrative written record and as material artefact. Therefore, files belong to a particular genre of documentation and are defined by their relation to other records. Understanding files as artefacts, therefore, allows for an analysis of the historically specific ways through which documents are physically and discursively interrelated.

Related to this is the second questions which focuses on the role of political, medial, or material transformation for the ways in which files gather, organize, articulate, store, and circulate individual documents. Unlike other kinds of documents, whose completeness and temporal finality is essential to their function, files grow and expand unlimitedly. What effects have for example political transformations for this process? Are filing routines interrupted, efforts made to restore a continuity of documentation, to destroy or to hide files? Changes in mediality (e.g. the use typescripts instead of manuscripts, or more ephemeral notes as post-its instead of forms) will affect equally the potential of files for organizing and synthesizing the various kinds of paperwork. Do these changes affect the way in which people, places, things, and processes are transformed into cases and issues.

We invite contributions that explore files that shape or emerging during moments of political, medial, or material transformation. Situations of turbulence highlight specific qualities of files and therefore allow for observing particular qualities. We are looking for contributions dealing with cases outside Europe or North America as well as papers engaging with pre-modern times.

Issues/questions:

  • discourses dealing with files
  • structures of participation
  • laws, norms, procedures, techniques of production, access, circulation, storage
  • materiality, material media, including electronic media and their impact on files and vice versa
  • interaction of files and administrations, including human and non-human actors
  • material and reality effects of files
  • historical emergence of files
  • the file as a genre and its boundaries (ephemeral notes)
  • speech and writing (catastrophes for administrative writing e.g. destruction of files, telephone, type writer, post-its, email et cetera) 

ADMINISTORY aims to foster debate on the history of states and administrations. With its innovative articles and broad methodological and theoretical spectrum, the yearbook is a key interface between historical and cultural science research, and discussions on the state and administration in the social, legal and political sciences. The yearbook publishes original contributions in English and German. On average, our articles contain 9000 words including footnotes.

If you intend to contribute to this volume, please submit a title and a short abstract (max. 2500 characters) by August 31 2018 to stefan.nellen@bar.admin.ch. We expect an outline sketch (around 10’000 characters) by end of September 2018 and the submission of the final article by end of January 2019.

For more information on the yearbook: https://adhi.univie.ac.at

Cited Literature

  • Hans Heinrich Gerth/Charles Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology, New York 1946
  • Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge. Toward a Media History of Documents, Durham/London 2014
  • Matthew S. Hull, Government of Paper. The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 2012
  • Bernhard Siegert, Passage des Digitalen. Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften 1500-1900, Berlin 2003
  • Cornelia Visman, Files. Law and Media Theory, Stanford 2008