A Frontier in the History of Knowledge
In September 2021, Peter Burke gave a talk at Lund University in which he spoke about the challenges that historians of knowledge face as we attempt to understand not only what was known in the past, but what people did with their knowledge. One approach to this puzzle, he suggested, lies in studying decision-making. If we assume that people have at least some control over their actions, then decisions are among the most significant, and common, situations in which what we know interacts with what we do. Decision-making is, thus, not only a proper subject for political or economic historians but also for historians of knowledge. If we are to pursue this insight, we must either develop tools of our own for studying decision-making, or borrow existing tools from adjacent disciplines. Considering the tools available for investigating these subjects, Burke said, he was most attracted to bounded rationality. But what is bounded rationality, and how can we apply it to our research?
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What do governments know? When and why have they generated knowledge about themselves, sovereign territories, the functioning of bureaucracies, legal systems, and the effectiveness of legislation? In other words, how have officials made that capacious concept we call the state legible?
State knowledge took on heightened importance in Central Europe in the nineteenth century with the transition away from remaining vestiges of feudalism. This is especially clear to see during the revolutions of 1848. Over the course of a turbulent two years, revolutionaries protested against a great many things. They most famously called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration. Such ultimatums were unsettling for governments in two ways. First, they required a rethinking of law, as well as of the kinds of bureaucratic structures and activities needed to bring about a more flexible handling of domestic affairs. And second, they prompted an urgent need to generate knowledge to gage the effectiveness of these initiatives.
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Settler colonialism is a structure of political relations where a settler population seeks to replace native forms of life and relations with settler communities and, ultimately, to establish a new political community distinct from the colonial metropole. Unlike other forms of colonialism that primarily seek to exploit natural resources or extract labor power from native populations with the intention of enriching the metropole, settler colonialism additionally involves permanent invasion.
Canada’s definition and documentation of “Indians” is a project of bureaucratic knowledge production in service of the continued assertion of settler colonial political visions. The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 to assert the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and certain peoples the Act defines as “Indians.” The Act has been amended many times, but is remains a current piece of legislation in Canada and still defines “Indian” as a political and legal category of person. Defining and identifying “Indians” served the broader project of managing Canada’s so-called Indian problem. From the perspective of nineteenth-century legislators, the “problem” was one of Indigenous peoples asserting nationhood and insisting on claims to the lands where they have lived since time immemorial, thus creating obstacles for settler claims to sovereignty. But it is also a problem of knowledge, which Indian Affairs administrators sought to address through a practice of classification. To apply and enforce the provisions of the Act designed to undermine Indigenous sovereignty and compel their assimilation, “Indians” had to be made visible to state legislators, bureaucrats, and other agents. The definitional work of the Indian Act is both a technique of classification and a way of seeing.
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In the summer of 1809, the imperial kinsman Jincang (?–1828) was appointed the general of Ili (Yili jiangjun) to supervise the entire Xinjiang. Jinchang had mixed feelings about the promotion. Only distantly related to the ruling house, it was a great honor to assume such an important position, but he felt overwhelmed by the onerous duties it entailed. As head of the military government on the Qing empire’s Inner Asian frontier, the general of Ili was not only responsible for troop deployment and provisions but also had to address day-to-day administrative affairs such as the collection of taxes, budget-making, and land reclamation. Jincang’s anxiety about the new post was not alleviated until he received the Comprehensive Survey of Affairs in Ili (Yili zongtong shilue) from the current general Sungyūn (1754–1835) on his way to Ili. Finishing the twelve-volume text in his carriage, Jincang felt that he had become better informed about “mountains and rivers, cities, local customs, non-Han tribes, stationed troops, and agriculture reclamation,” and he had learned the strategies of “pacifying non-Han peoples and stabilizing the borderland.”
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In 1936, actor Ian Keith petitioned a Los Angeles court to change his legal name. Born in Boston as Ian Macaulay Ross in 1899, Keith had honed his skills on Broadway stages before transitioning to the silver screen. By the mid-1930s, he was a familiar face in dozens of Hollywood films. He played the assassin John Wilkes Booth in Abraham Lincoln (1930), D. W. Griffith’s first “talkie,” and appeared in several Cecil B. DeMille epics, including The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934). Audiences knew him as Ian Keith, the stage name he had settled on in the early 1920s. Keith’s petition sought to make this public identity official.
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