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2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 407–10


Matthew Hull and ethnographies

of the state
Katherine VERDERY, City University of New York

Comment on HULL, Matthew. 2012. Government of paper: The

materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of
California Press.

Beginning in the 1990s, increasing numbers of anthropologists began offering

ethnographies of “the state”—not to imply that we had never done so before (consi-
der, to mention just two examples, Fallers 1965 and Nadel 1942), but the numbers
now have increased substantially. They include, for instance, works by John Borne-
man on Germany (1992), Julia Elyachar on Egypt (2005), Akhil Gupta on India
(2012), Gail Kligman on Romania (1998), and Yael Navaro-Yashin on Turkey
(2002). Although the theoretical influences informing these works vary, in my view
a prime enabler of ethnographies of the state has been the influence of Foucault,
with his emphasis on practices and the “microphysics of power,” as opposed to the
institutional or organizational emphases typical of the more usual studies of the
state in political science or sociology.
In this company, Matthew Hull’s book is absolutely original, and unquestion-
ably pathbreaking in our discipline. With the help of tools provided by actor-
network theory and semiotic anthropology, he finds his way ethnographically into
the Pakistani state through its bureaucratic practices, most particularly those of
documentation. Emphasizing the materiality of these practices and of the signs
through which they work, he is able to make a number of counterintuitive argu-
ments about Pakistan’s bureaucracy that illuminate the state in unexpected ways.
For instance, instead of arguing that specific sociologically defined coalitions of
actors come together in pursuit of compensation claims for expropriated land, he
suggests that it is instead the written instruments of compensation—the lists of
people to be compensated, the maps and diagrams of the urbanization plan, et

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Katherine VERDERY 408

cetera—that mobilize networks around them. In a brilliant argument about how

files are circulated and with what effects, he shows that despite an ideology of
transparency and accountability, bureaucrats systematically diffuse responsibility
across the organization, thereby helping to make it a collective agent. The file
emerges from this as a vital actor, its vitality residing in “its ability to support the
formation of an authoritative voice of government, to allow individuals to escape
responsibility, and to facilitate individual and small group enterprise within the
larger organization” (Hull 2012: 160). And arguing against the view that document-
ation is inevitably about increasing government control, he reveals how in the
expropriation of land and the building of mosques, documents turn against the
bureaucracy and subject it to their own rule through the coalitions and manipu-
lations they mobilize.
Each of these arguments serves an analytic deconstruction of state power,
decomposing it into graphic artifacts formed by pen, paper, stamps, and signatures.
This makes the state eminently susceptible to ethnographic treatment—through
participating in office routines, tracking the movement of files among officials,
analyzing the language of the comments in a file, and so on. When we thought of
the state as an organization claiming a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of force
in a territory it controls, gaining ethnographic purchase on it seemed impossible.
Not any more.
Let me think further with this book in two ways. First, a question: how much of
the productivity of Hull’s theoretical approach is specific to Pakistan, whose history
(along with India’s) seems to have endowed it with an inordinately heavy reliance
on paper? He offers an intriguing argument about the British East India Company
as the origin of the intense documentary practices he witnessed. Is there something
about former British colonies—or even former colonies in general—that thickens
these practices in ways unusual for other ethnographic sites? How might different
colonial powers (Dutch, French, Spanish, British, Portuguese) have created
different matrices of governmental signification? Do the ones like the Dutch and
the British that began as trading companies (obsessed with the problem of trust
among economic agents) have documentary regimes that distinguish them from the
others, and with what effects in the present?
Whatever the answer to that question, Hull’s work across the divisions among
precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial gives his methods great utility for historical
analysis. And even though he himself is less interested in looking for continuities of
colonial practices after colonialism than in examining how those practices operate
in new ways in the postcolony, he gives us excellent means for exploring the
former. One of the most fascinating questions concerning social transformation is
how even “revolutionary” movements often end up reproducing some of the stru-
ctures and problems of the order they replace, or, on a more modest scale, how
the alternation in power of political parties representing very different principles
does not produce chaos in government. Thinking about those questions through
the materiality of documentary practices would provide some unusual answers.
Second, despite my earlier question, I have found Hull’s framework helpful for
thinking about an entirely different case: the archive of the Romanian secret police,
or Securitate. In my research in this archive, I have learned about the forces that
fragmented the organization into multiple directorates, each with its corps of
agents, divided by county and district; factionalism in the organization was ram-

2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 407–10

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pant. Aggravating these divisions was the rule of compartmentalization that all
intelligence services use to maintain the secrecy of officers’ identities and work
practices. This rule dictated that agents from one branch not deal directly with
agents from another, to reduce the possibility that someone’s identity would be
discovered. Officers of one department could get data or information from
another department only by going through their chiefs. Any divulging of their own
activity and its results to colleagues from other departments was drastically
sanctioned. In support of compartmentalization, the labor process of surveillance
was broken down into shadowing targets, censoring correspondence, eavesdrop-
ping, transcribing overheard conversations, installing surveillance devices, and so
on. As a result, in any one location certain members of the organization were dis-
guised from each other. A very few senior officers were in a position to know who
all the operatives were and what they were doing. This had consequences for
organizational unity, further undermined by the factionalism and backbiting that
made careers unstable.
Following Hull, I have suggested that the circulation of the material files was the
principal instrument of the organization’s cohesion (see Verdery 2014: 68). Files
traveled from the hands of the case officer up the hierarchy, accumulating marginal
notes from various superiors on the way, and came back down with the superiors’
observations and instructions. Their trajectory materialized among various levels of
the Securitate a conversation that would never or rarely happen in person. Thus,
the regular circulation of files unified the Securitate as an organization and
constituted it as a collective actor rather than as isolated individuals writing reports.
The trajectories of files also marked off the organization’s boundaries, for they
rarely went outside it into other parts of the communist bureaucracy.
Lacking not only a corpus of files as large as Hull’s but also the kind of
information he gathered by talking with bureaucrats about their work and watching
their behavior, I cannot follow his lead further. Without it, however, I would have
been mystified at how such an organization hung together at all. I remain in his
debt for teaching me how important is the sheer materiality of files. Indeed, since
1989 they have been mobilizing around themselves new coalitions of actors, as the
former victims of communist repression use them in pursuit of “transitional
justice” to identify the former officers and informers who did people harm (see
Verdery 2012)—a pursuit deeply in need of the subtlety of Hull’s analysis. If the
test of a theoretical approach is its fruitfulness for handling different kinds of cases,
then the use I have been able to make of Matthew Hull’s work suggests that it
should have far-reaching impact on ethnographies of the state.

Borneman, John. 1992. Belonging in the two Berlins: Kin, state, nation.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Elyachar, Julia. 2005. Markets of dispossession: NGOs, economic development,
and the state in Cairo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 407–10

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Katherine VERDERY 410

Fallers, Lloyd A. 1965. Bantu bureaucracy: A century of political evolution among

the Basoga of Uganda. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red tape: Bureaucracy, structural violence, and poverty in
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urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Verdery, Katherine. 2012. “Postsocialist cleansing in Eastern Europe: Purity and
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———. 2014. Secrets and truths: Ethnography in the archive of Romania’s Secret
Police. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Katherine Verdery
Department of Anthropology
City University of New York Graduate Center
365 Fifth Ave, New York, NY 10016, USA

2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 407–10

This content downloaded from on April 02, 2019 05:11:05 AM
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