The Political Life of Documents: Archives, Memory and Contested Knowledge

15 January 2010 - 16 January 2010

CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

Conference registration is now closed.


Chris Kaplonski (University of Cambridge)
Catherine Trundle (Victoria University of Wellington)

Keynote speakers

Ann Stoler (Anthropology, New School NY)
Retracing the Imperial Modern: The Carceral Archipelago of Empire

Christopher Andrew (History, Cambridge)
The use and non-use of classified archives with particular reference to MI5

Conference summary

Documents are rarely finished. They may be amended, added to or censored. They come to be refilled, misfiled or transformed into new technological formats, and they can be distributed, withdrawn or elevated to iconic status. Documents stored within archives, databases and state files are particularly potent as political tools. Often imbued with new, unintended meanings over time, they can become testimonies, symbols of memory or legal evidence. In a range of contexts, this conference will trace the political, technological and social genealogies of such documents as they are manipulated, and come to be agents in their own right, within public spaces.

Documents are powerful ‘artifacts of modern knowledge’ (Riles 2006: 5), ubiquitous in modern society. This conference aims to ask: How is access to documents that stockpile or conceal personal and collective ‘data’ being negotiated in the public sphere, and how are ideas of ‘the commons’ and ‘privacy’ being reconfigured in the process? Furthermore, how do such documents engage in political struggles, not just as tools of legitimacy, but as powerful affective focal points of outrage, nostalgia or apathy? Finally, speakers are invited to consider how academic analyses of such documents acts to reify, transform or place into public circulation such objects, perhaps with unintended, ethically complex consequences.

Delegate notice

Conference delegates can find information about accommodation in Cambridge at the following URLs:
NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of delegate accommodation.

Conference sponsors

The conference organisers are grateful to The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), The Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge.


Administrative assistance: Anna Malinowska (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)
Friday, 15 January

08:45 - 09:30
Registration and Welcome

09:30 - 13:15
Panel I: Documents as Political Struggle

09:30 - 10:00
Greg Rawlings (Anthropology, Otago, NZ)
Statelessness, Citizenship and Annotated Discriminations: Meta Documents, the United Nations and the Aesthetics of the Subtle in Colonial Contestations of Human Rights

10:00 - 10:30

Catherine Trundle (Anthropology, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ)
Searching for culpability in the archives: Commonwealth nuclear test veterans’ claims for state compensation

10:30 - 11:00
Chris Moffatt (Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism, LSE)
Creating a 'Ché for India': Transnational Libraries and Post-Colonial Trajectories in the Prison Diary of Bhagat Singh

11:00 - 11:15 Coffee break

11:15 - 11:45
Sas Mays (English and Linguistics, Westminster)
Documents, Accumulation, and the Politics of Unfinishedness

11:45 - 12:15
Discussant: Hildegard Diemberger (Social Anthropology, Cambridge)

12:15 - 12:45
Questions and answers

12:45 - 13:30 Lunch

13:30 - 17:15
Panel II: Documents as Testimonies, Truth and Affect

13:30 - 14:00
Nayanika Mathur (Anthropology, Cambridge)
Paper tigers

14:00 - 14:30
Fiona Murphy (Anthropology, National University of Ireland)
Archives of sorrow: A discussion of the relationship of the archive to trauma, memory, loss and reconciliation in an Australian context

14:30 - 15:00
Marc Aymes (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris)
Archive Trouble: Documentary Currencies Counterfeited in the 19th-Century Ottoman Empire

15:00 - 15:15
Coffee break

15:15 - 15:45
Anita Prazmowska (History, LSE)
Oskar Lange – a multifaceted biography

15:45 - 16:15
Silvia Posocco  (Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck)
Expedientes: fissured legality and affective states in the transnational adoption archives in Guatemala

16:15 - 16:45
Discussant: Yael Navaro-Yashin (Social Anthropology, Cambridge)

16:45 - 17:15
Questions and answers

17:30 - 19:00

Keynote address at Mill Lane Lecture Rooms, Room 9
Ann Stoler
(Anthropology, New School NY)
Retracing the Imperial Modern: The Carceral Archipelago of Empire

Note different venue for this lecture!

19:00 - 19:45

Drinks reception, CRASSH
For conference participants and delegates only

Saturday, 16 January


09:00 - 10:00

Keynote address at CRASSH
Christoper Andrew
(History, Cambridge)
The use and non-use of classified archives with particular reference to MI5

10:00 - 10:15
Questions and answers

10:15 - 13:00 Panel III: Working in Sensitive Archives: the Art of Access, Creation and Use

10:15 - 10:45
Christopher Kaplonski (Anthropology/MIASU, Cambridge)
Archived relations: repression, rehabilitation and the secret life of documents in Mongolia

10:45 - 11:00 Coffee break

11.00 - 11:30
Peter Jackson (International Relations, Aberystwyth)
Working with the archival material of intelligence and security agencies of Britain, France and the US: comparative perspectives

11:30 - 12:00
Thushara Hewage (Anthropology, Columbia)
Secrecy and Authority: Archives of the 1971 Insurrection in Sri Lanka

12:00 - 12:30 Discussant: David Sneath (Social Anthropology, Cambridge)

12:30 - 13:00 Questions and answers

13:00 - 13:45

13:45 - 17:30
Panel IV: Rethinking Archives, the Public Sphere and Databases

13:45 - 14:15
Mark Turin (Museum of Arch. and Anth., Cambridge)
Digital Documents and Himalayan Heritage: the Politics of PDFs, Collaborative Collections and Vanishing Videos

14:15 - 14:45 Conor Galvin (College of Human Sciences, University College Dublin)
Creatures of an outward digitality: documenting the self as transigent product & project – an elision of commitment to truth?

14:45 - 15:15 Gemma John (Anthropology, Edinburgh)
Reading the life in documents: Freedom of Information Legislation in Scotland and Decisions over Public and Private

15:15 - 15:30 Coffee break

15:30 - 16:00
Jie Yang (Anthropology, Simon Frasier University)
The dang’an ‘personal dossier’

16:00 - 16:30

Noel Lobley (Ethnomusicology, University of Oxford)
Recording the Vitamins of Music - Hugh Tracey's 'The Sound of Africa' Series and the International Library of African Music

16:30 - 17:00 Discussant: Christopher Kaplonski (Social Anthropology
University of Cambridge)
17:00 - 17:30 Questions and answers