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

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