Peasantries with long experience of on-the-ground statecraft have always understood that the state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine. So when a government surveyor arrives with a plane table, or census takers come with their clipboards and questionnaires to register households, the subjects understand that trouble in the form of conscription, forced labor, land seizures, head taxes, or new taxes on croplands cannot be far behind. They understand implicitly that behind the coercive machinery lie piles of paperwork: lists, documents, tax rolls, population registers, regulations, requisitions, orders—paperwork that is for the most part mystifying and beyond their ken. The firm identification in their minds between paper documents and the source of their oppressions has meant that the first act of many peasant rebellions has been to burn down the local records office where these documents are housed. Grasping the fact that the state saw its land and subjects through record keeping, the peasantry implicitly assumed that blinding the state might end their woes.

Scott (2017), p. 120

It’s hard to read Scott’s description of govermentality and not think of the archive. The archive is often directly associated with state, corporate and institutional power (Jimerson, 2009), sometimes even going back millennia (Derrida, 1996). The vast scope of effects that writing and record making/keeping have brought about is a major theme in this book, which at a surface level seems to be about archaeology and agriculture.

Hyperfocusing on the governmentality of archives and record keeping practices actually helps throw into relief aspects of the archive that decenter this traditional story of archival work. It allows us to focus instead on archives as spaces for community, activism, resistance (Flinn, Stevens, & Shepherd, 2009; Pell, 2015) as well as desire, affect (Caswell & Cifor, 2016; Cifor, Caswell, Migoni, & Geraci, 2018) and re-imagination (Gilliland & Caswell, 2016).

Is it at all useful to consider how these re-conceptions of archival work map onto web infrastructures (Srinivasan & Fish, 2017)? Does the web really offer us new modes for participation, or does the slippage in media forms provide the breathing room necessary for us to really question what an archive is, and who an archivist can be? (Huvila, 2015)?

Like much of Scott’s other work I think Against the Grain implicitly invites us to think about the new algorithmic readers for our digitalized and networked records (aka Big Data). The Empire has always struck back against, or at least enveloped, our attempts to transform archival work. The standards and inner workings of web infrastructure are knowingly, or unknowingly, complicit in this truly ancient project of legibility. What modes of resistance and solidarity will help us cultivate new genres of archive that are needed for our survival as a species?

Lots of questions – let me know your answers!


Caswell, M., & Cifor, M. (2016). From human rights to feminist ethics: radical empathy in the archives. Archivaria, 82, 23–43.
Cifor, M., Caswell, M., Migoni, A. A., & Geraci, N. (2018). “What we do crosses over into activism”: The politics and practice of community archives. Acrhives and Public History, 40(2), 69–95.
Derrida, J. (1996). Archive fever: A freudian impression. University of Chicago Press.
Flinn, A., Stevens, M., & Shepherd, E. (2009). Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream. Archival Science, 9(1-2), 71–86.
Gilliland, A. J., & Caswell, M. (2016). Records and their imaginaries: imagining the impossible, making possible the imagined. Archival Science, 16(1), 53–75.
Huvila, I. (2015). The Unbearable Lightness of Participating? Revisiting the discourses of “participation” in archival literature. Journal of Documentation, 43, 29–41.
Jimerson, R. C. (2009). Archives power: memory, accountability, and social justice. Society of American Archivists.
Pell, S. (2015). Radicalizing the politics of the archive: An ethnographic reading of an activist archive. Archivaria, 80, 33–57.
Scott, J. C. (2017). Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press.
Srinivasan, R., & Fish, A. (2017). After the internet. Polity.