Monthly Archives: January 2015

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System

In many ways a more detailed history of the rise of state centralization and absolutism, one that goes beyond simply asserting that this was done as a command exercise, or for nakedly functional reasons. Soll instead argues that much of this had to do with Colbert’s own form of encyclopedism, and that the private or secret world of information was conceptually intertwined with the invention of the 17th & 18th Century public sphere. I find this a really smart reading of many things besides Colbert and the French state.

“Colbert sought to become a scholar of state learning: not simply a bureaucrat but an expert.” p. 7

“There are reasons tht intellectual and cultural historians have not studied the intellectual history of the state….Studies of the public sphere focus on journalism, clandestine literature, and printing; as well as sites of sociability, such as academies and the Republic of Letters, public and private communication networks, art markets, salons, learned societies, Masonic lodges, societies, coffeehouses and lending libraries. These social and cultural phenomena are often used as ilustrations of a bourgeois opposition and counterbalance to arbitrary, secretive absolute monarchy”. p. 10

Yes, but it’s also that I think we take the state as not having a “culture”, or if it does, as if its culture does not need investigation–much as we take the actuality of “capital” as sometimes uninteresting unless/until it is simultaneous with bourgeois life.

“Philip II was the first hands-on bureaucrat king of a massive empire and certainly the forerunner of his Bourbon heirs in France. His information system was so vast, so intricate, and in some cases so efficient that even the Venetian ambadssador sent his relazioni back to Venice via Spanish royal messenger posts. Yet this Planet King, on whose empire the sun never set, was never a traveler, but rather inhabited his own virtual world, enclosed in the halls of his monastery palace, the Escorial, which he filled wit mountains of dispatches and reports.” p.20

Interesting use of the concept of virtual world–as sequestered/enclosed/unreal.

“Old Italian mercantile, administrative culture had fostered humanism, and it was steeped in an ethic of technical expertise…[but]as humanist traditions evolved, they had less and less mercantile content. What had been a merchant and bureaucratic-inspired tradition of learning became increasingly literary and scientific and humanist philologists translated ancient texts and copied their content. Humanist political theory became grounded in ancient history and legal scholarship. Yet at the very moment that Tacitist humanists claimed that statecraft cold be learned through classical ethics and history, it became increasingly clear that these forms of political learning were not sufficient for managing a large, industrial, colonial and militarized state.” p. 52

Very interesting material on double-entry bookkeeping and on the technological establishment of archives. Ch. 4

Ch. 5–creation of “informers”, e.g, bureaucratic workers who were trained both to provision information back to Colbert and to carry his will or ideas out to provincial actors. “He transformed their function from provincial tax collectors, into professional observers, statistic-takers and, as Anette Smedley-Weill calls them, ‘informers’. The intendants were trained observers whom Colbert told to take notes only on what they had seen with their own eyes, and not rely on the accounts of others.” p. 70

Great use of Colbert’s system for training his son as a way to reveal both the empirical content of his system and Colbert’s authorial imagination of the system, Ch. 6.

“For Colbert, governing was about writing clearly and organizing writing into easy-to-use notebooks. The evolving humanist culture of the commonplace notebook and the Jesuit schools, along with mercantile book keeping, now became the basis of governmental pedagogy.” p. 89

“The former English chancellor and inventor of the experimental method, Francis Bacon had suggested that the sort of information collected by scholars, scientists, bureaucrats and industrialists could be formalized within the state itself. Bacon envisioned the state as a center of research and collection, which constantly acquired new information by discovery and experiment. Like Thomas Hobbes, Bacon believed that the monarch should rule over knowledge. What Bacon envisioned was not simply formal, university learning of a library, but rather a state-controlled depot of information of all sorts, constantly renewed, and potentially secret, which gave the state the monopoly on the information of politics, trade and science.” p. 97

“Colbert had no time for the formalities of the Republic of Letters, such as openness and the ethics of information exchange. His collecting techniques both disregarded the integrity of individual collections and were devoid of ethics in acquisition. Indeed, he offered to buy the Wolfenbuttel Library outright…He bought other entire collections for the Royal Library, 10,000 books at a time.” p. 102

“While Colbert’s library and research facilities produced knowledge and appeared to be practical, they also created constraints on Colbert’s government. One of the most revealing elements of Colbert’s policy archive are the files concerning colonial enterprises….while he certainly kept his large colonial administrative correspondence, he did not integrate it into his archival system for daily government. This undermined his ability to effectively manage his Canadian policy” p. 113

“The fact that Colbert mixed the worlds of state administration and scholarship so closely makes it hard to define exactly what he created. Were his intendants and agents bureaucrats in a modern sense? Or were they subservient versions of the humanist secretaries that had filled the ranks of papal and Italian administrations since the late Middle Ages? What becomes clear is that Colbert was creating a new sort of agent loyal only to the state. He actively trained information managers who could find, copy, catalog, and bring him documentation as he needed it for his day-to-day affairs. In other agents, he sought scholars to teach him how better to handle the historical material he used for government.” p. 120

“More than anything, however, was remained of Colbert’s legacy was not a permanent state information system or even tradition. Rather, Colbertism should be defined as the idea that a large-scale state would need to centralize and harness encyclopedic knowledge to govern effectively, and that all knowledge, formal and practical, could be used together in one archival system to understand and master the material world.” p. 163

Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With Congo

Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With Congo

First went to Congo as humanitarian aid worker, Medicos Sin Fronteras.

“It became clear to me that local agendas drove a large part of the continuing violence. Why then did diplomats, United Nations officials, and nongovernmental organization staff members continually fail to consider the local dynamics?” p. xvii.

This is essentially the cri d’coeur of a huge body of scholarly literature, particularly Africanist literature. It’s a complicated bit of self-fulfillment, in a way: it often comes from people who first worked for development agencies or in interstate politics and who then pursued academia looking for other ways to understand what happened and why it happens.

“Two themes [in stories told by ‘perpetrators and victims of violence’] constantly recurred: the primacy of land and other micro-level issues in causing violence and producing anguish, and the unspeakable horrors perpetrated on the Congolese population. The first theme is crucial. It helps to understand why violence started, why it becameso pervasive, why it continued after the Congo embarked on a transition from war to peace and democracy, and why the efforts of international interveners failed to help the Congo build a sustainable peace.” p. 2

“The neglect of local conflicts is even more perplexing in the Congo, because we cannot attribute it to callousness, powerlessness, or inanity on the part of the foreigner interveners…Most foreign interveners genuinely tried to end organized violence in the Congo. Far from being callous, they usually were well-meaning individuals, who had often devoted their lives to combating injustice, violence and poverty…Why did almost all of them ignore the critical micro-level causes of violence?…a dominant international peacebuilding culture shaped the intervention in the Congo in a way that precluded action on local violence…this culture shaped the parameters of acceptable action.” pp. 10-11

Here I think we’re on the terrain Ferguson established in The Anti-Politics Machine, if more sympathetically to these actors: that sovereignty as both interstate and nationalist actors have codified it in Africa prevents thinking of “the local” as a domain of international and non-state actor action, and arguably prevents them even from conceding that they understand what they understand about it. To acknowledge that they understand accurately the importance of something that they also believe themselves unable to intervene within–unable both as a matter of having the right instruments and in having the right to do so–is to understand that the whole enterprise is futile.

Autesserre doesn’t agree quite with my pessimism here, in that she thinks the interveners could understand locality and could choose to conceptualize their intervention as legitimately concerned with it. For all that I don’t think that faith is quite warranted, she pulls a very nice trick off in terms of conceptualizing the problem with intervention as cultural in an almost classic “pathology of poverty” sense–e.g., that the interveners have habitual, institutionalized ways of thinking and acting that keep them stuck repeating the same mistakes. And like anyone with a project of naming culture as the problem, she has faith that there can be an intervention in the interveners–that their habitual, bounded practices and thinking can be changed or remolded. This requires her to not accept that there is any sense in which the failure of intervention reinforces the deeper interests of the interveners (which I take to be Ferguson’s argument in Anti-Politics Machine) or that it is a structural, discursive requirement of the institution itself (which would be more my point).

Clear, incisive rebuttal of any argument for intrinsic or “bottom-up” explanations of postwar conflict in Congo; also a clear history of international intervention and ideas of sovereignty. What’s bottom-up here in her view is not violence but disputes over land, property, and local forms of bureaucratic authority.

Very rich, detailed history of how attempts to craft “local solutions” were frustrated or dispersed within the intervention. This is the most original, startling material in the book, I think. (Chapter Five)

“Throughout the transition, most international actors continued to perceive local tensions as a secondary cause of violence and grassroots conflict resolution as an unfeasible and illegitimate task. This collective understanding shaped not only the overall intervention strategy away from micro-level involvement, but also the international actors’ perception of the obstacles they would have faced had they tried to become involved at the grassroots level. They viewed the institution of sovereignty, as we as mandate, financial, logistical and human limitations as absolute constraints instead of manageable problems. As a result, interveners let local tensions fester to the point where they jeopardized the macro-level settlements many times both during and after the transition.” p. 230