A preliminary approach to organized research

Global Archivalities Before the Modern Era:

A comparative interdisciplinary investigation of record-keeping, repositories, and the uses of stored records in post-Classical civilizations

Statement of themes and approaches [v3]

© Randolph Head and Arndt Brendecke 2013

Randolph Head – Arndt Brendecke

University of California, Riverside – Ludwigs-Universität München

 [This statement conveys ideas about how one might organize a larger research project into pre-modern archivalities in global context, and is intended to provide food for thought and debate]


Archives play a fundamental role in historical research, yet archivality as a human cultural product subject to enormous variation across cultural systems and across time has received little substantive and almost no comparative attention. We propose a collaborative project to investigate the formation, use, and representation of archives around the globe in the pre-modern period. By bringing together scholars with the necessary linguistic skills, specific historical knowledge, and diverse theoretical and epistemological approaches, this project will contribute to enriched research on the various areas included. Of equal importance, however, will be the project’s contribution to understanding how archival accumulation has shaped legal, political, memorial and not least historiographical expectations and production in different civilizational contexts. In light of the last half-century’s theoretical and methodological insights, it is no longer tenable to write history from the archives without understanding the history of the archives.

Thematic approaches and institutional settings: The project will approach the problem of how archival accumulation was practiced and was understood through a series of thematic questions viewed against multiple institutional settings, which will provide the necessary framing for carrying out research that involves careful consideration of practice. The resulting grid of approaches and settings can provide orientation to regionally-specific studies taking the form of dissertations, post-doctoral projects or monographs while encouraging comparative analysis and the ongoing refinement of our theoretical and methodological approaches in more synthetic works.

Thematic approaches. Existing approaches to the production of records and of archives, the modes of archival organization and preservation, and the use of archival evidence have highlighted a number of thematic areas that will form the starting point for – though not necessarily the conclusion of – our comparative study of global archivalities. Each of the major constitutive areas can be interrogated in light of existing and future research on the following thematic questions:

 1. Archives and the law: archives in Europe were imagined and created in the context of legal norms and practices, and changed in response to shifting legal systems. The nexus of record-keeping, property, and litigation seems to have played an important role for archivality in most cases, though the articulation of this nexus and the range of variation has scarcely been questioned.

2. Archives and power: The idea of the archive has played a central role in critical theory’s debates over power, representing only the most recent iteration of the commonplace equation of “knowledge and power.” This equation has long shaped archival formation and deployment, with similar representations of stored records appearing in cases ranging from cuneiform tablets to digital repositories. That diverse modes of archivality share close relations with the exercise of power – often mediated by legal structures – is obvious but largely unexplored in detail outside the European case (and contentious within it).

3. Archives and administration/bureaucracy: The classic Weberian definition of bureaucracy as “the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge” gives accumulated records (viewed as repositories of information and knowledge) a central place. Recent work by European medievalists, however, illustrates how complex archives’ roles in such exercise could be, while research on the flow of information in pre-modern China suggests that the distinctive cultural and historical formation of bureaucracy there produced its own patterns of record-keeping and record-deployment. The place of archives in bureaucracies must be examined, not assumed.

4. Archives and memory: Path-breaking work on early and central medieval Europe has emphasized the importance of memorial, liturgical and ritual practices in the formation of texts and repositories afterwards treated as ‘archival’. The importance of commemorative intentions in the history of the hadith or in the biographical archives of Islamic cities suggests that similar cultural practices were important in many cases. Here, too, the relationships between archives and memory in specific political and cultural traditions must be investigated rather than assumed.

5. Archives and history-writing: Recent research has highlighted the extent to which the connection of archives to the writing of history is contingent and culturally constructed. With the Rankean tradition of faith in archives under increasing question – as suggested by topoi ranging from Droysen’s ‘source fetishism’ to Derrida’s ‘archive fever’ – a comparative analysis of archivalities in terms of their role in forming historical tropes and historical narratives is urgent.

Sociocultural Settings: The category of the setting provides a praxis-oriented framework to investigate thematic issues with the precision and specificity necessary for historical research. The following broad frameworks identify three ‘families’ of settings with distinctive characteristics that can be refined in the course of specific, monographic research, while linking multiple projects to provide comparability.

1. Archivality of Imperial Centers: Archivality appears to have been crucial for the formation and operation of imperial centers in all known historical cases, although the specific archival practices that emerged and their political and cultural consequences varied in important ways. This dimension of the project will concentrate on the constitution of archivality in post-Classical centers around the globe – including China, South Asia, the Islamic world, and Europe – that deployed record-making and record-keeping on a large scale according to expectations formalized in law, in their respective religious canons, and in the production of historical knowledge (viewed as an aspect of imperial discourses of authority and power as well as an autonomous mode of canonical and critical knowledge).

2. Archivality across Space: The formation, use, and representation of archival repositories was not confined to imperial centers in the post-Classical world: local actors at various scales participated in archival practices and in archival discourses, as seen in innumerable private, noble, regional, urban, clerical and similar archival depositories and products. Sometimes reproducing imperial archivality, sometimes conceived of as resisting imperial control, local archivalities are a rich field for research, in creative tension with the archivality of centers.

3. Archivalities of Contact: A defining feature of post-Classical civilizations around the world was their contact with other societies beyond the imperial aegis. The most extensive current work examines the creation of colonial empires and imperialist trading companies in early modern Europe, whose archival practice notably remained distinct from the respective political centers (Casa da India, Casa de Contratación, VOC, EIC). But contact created distinct conditions for archival production (e.g. the efforts to create distinct Mongol record-keeping in the 13th century) and destruction (e.g. destruction of the records of the Chinese treasure fleets in the 15th century) in all post-Classical civilizations; these promise to be particularly fertile for understanding the production and diffusion of archival expectations on a global scale.

By providing a framework for focused research by Ph.D. students, post-doctoral researchers, and senior scholars, an international and collaborative project on Global Archivalities will contribute both to the definition and refinement of world history – a field for which the corresponding archivality has not been defined and remains highly problematic – while simultaneously contributing to richer and better-informed research within existing areas of specialization. A contribution of particular importance will be the deployment of comparative insights that reveal the features and possibilities of the diverse archival traditions that provide the foundation for all historical research.

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