Like many historians, I’m currently cut off from physical access to archives. This may be the case for several months to come. Even when archives re-open, travel will be difficult, and the disposition to travel troubled. Having spent several months in the company of limited numbers of people, even ten strangers in a large, well-spaced consultation room will be fraught. We are all musing on what historical research will look like in the coming years, for ourselves and our students. There are good reasons to distrust the fetish of the archive, as scholars who have worked doggedly to find the voices they occlude – by design and by accident – have demonstrated. What is certain is that existing inequalities of access between researchers privileged by money and personal circumstance with the ability to spend long stretches in archives and those who lack such resources will be augmented, possibly cemented.
In the meantime, we dig rather than spread – mining down into our personal archives. I’m pursuing my research by processing and analyzing my own archival photographs. This is long overdue. I am embarrassed to confess that on a trip to one archive last year I was halfway through photographing a collection before I realized that I had actually done so a year before. Between the earlier and subsequent trip, I hadn’t found time to process or analyze the photographs. (Nor, apparently, made any adjustments to my research agenda.) What disorder. And now, as I look back, what a painful waste of access. Digging into existing materials is a needful side effect of the current sheltering in place.
(Of course, I haven’t really stopped collecting and hoarding. Now, bereft of library access or an office of books, I scour for digitized secondary texts. But I’m trying to break the habit.)
No doubt our current circumstances influenced my decision to return to my photographs from the Police Archives of the city of Paris. The police archives and those of the country’s judiciary occupy a potent place in France’s national and historiographic traditions. They are artefact and agent in the country’s longstanding administrative and political centralization, playing a supporting role in erecting the state and its bureaucracy as national icon. Engagement with these sources has resulted in some of the discipline’s most significant theorizations of the nature of the historical task. Michel Foucault’s decades-long interrogation of the revelatory and disciplinary quality of judicial archives not only resulted in an influential account of the nature and evolution of state power and the construction of the modern self. Through his collaborations with historians, notably Arlette Farge, it also generated probing reflections on historians’ (and history’s) connections to archives, on their limitations and productive power, on the possibility of a historical subject and on the purpose of history.
I use the police archives for perhaps unconventional purposes: in a bid to see popular financial practices more clearly. At the end of the nineteenth century, Parisian police were surveying and harassing political suspects, tracking foreigners, monitoring the press, and violently suppressing crowds. Concomitant with what Foucault would identify as the modern state’s biopolitical ambitions, they were also engaged in more everyday acts of control: enforcing building codes, reporting on employment levels, and testing adulterated foods. My own interest is in the records of financial behavior they accumulated as they intervened in illegal gambling, surveilled financial companies and brokerages, tracked white-collar crime, and importantly, oversaw the daily operations of the Paris Stock Exchange. Of all the local police stations that existed in the nineteenth-century capital, only the records of the station specially dedicated to the Stock Exchange survived the fires of the Paris Commune in 1871. A history of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’ told from local police archives would put the Stock Exchange exactly where its acolytes believed it to be: at the centre of everything. (Indeed, one suspects that some of the Commissariat de la Bourse’s surviving archives, like the daily lists of lost property at the Exchange and its surrounds, would have pleased Benjamin greatly.)
The police archives open a sidelong perspective on finance. I use them to centre the experiences of those at the fringes of financial activity, unlikely to appear in most accounts of the market. In a classic mode following Farge, I ask how the murmurs of otherwise unknown, ordinary individuals can be heard in these records, as they seek help from the police. A study of the financial netherworld presented to and constructed by police surveillance leads swiftly into questions about the nature of police activity itself: how police agents diagnosed moral and illicit financial activity, how they worked to shift rumours into explanations of trends in the same way – or differently – than other market interpreters, how they imbued particular spaces and practices with economic and political significance.
The materials I use in these archives bear little resemblance to the archives of terror that result from police perpetration of the most extreme acts of state violence. Yet they do spring from the massive information networks put into place by the “political police” that the Third Republic maintained and expanded following the fall of the Second Empire. And the eye and pen of police agents were consistently moralizing and political, discriminating between groups that warranted different levels of surveillance. Agents are often contemptuous toward unsteady operators (and their victims, too), but more deferential to their more grandiose counterparts – though scathing to those who abuse their positions to defraud the unwary. The professional priorities and biases that structured police control are evident. Reports indicate the political inclinations of brokers whenever they can be discerned (“his agency is never empty of priests,” but “he’ll soon collapse despite the cassocks”). Foreigners come in for particular scrutiny, especially Germans; Alsatians who have relocated to Paris are also looked at askance. And it is always pertinent to report not only when someone is Jewish, but when they’re an “unscrupulous little Jew” or “a Jew greedy for profit.”
When these characterizations erupt into routine accounts of how many shares were paid in on the foundation of a company, the researcher is quickly shaken from the passivity that the formulas of reporting, the standardization of official accounts, can instill. (Indeed, what constitutes ‘routine’ reporting is necessarily reevaluated.) More than passivity, there is a danger of complicity in pursuing practice through the police. I have found myself grateful for the good order and extensive cross-referencing of nineteenth-century record-keepers, rejoicing in the alphabetization, the chronological organization, the standardized information-gathering that makes my own datasets easier to assemble. I have been naively impressed by the police’s research capacity, the range of their information sources, the extent of what they considered pertinent to report. Their correspondents long dead, the world the police archives capture seems precious. Such impressions place me implicitly on their side: together, we are sleuths seeking to worry information from unyielding sources; together, we are authorities seeking justice (of different sorts) for complainants. In a world without police, I see archives vanish, Thanos-like, into ash.
We know these concerns to be true, and they are mostly easily addressed. Historians train to recognize and overcome such fetishism: we don’t often work from single archives, we don’t accept archival accounts – no matter how arresting – as unmediated reflections of the real, we seldom fail to make much of the loud silences they contain and produce. But as folders accumulate, it occurs to me how easy it is for such institutions to gain our trust, or at least, briefly, our acquiescence. Even in terrains of enforcement far removed from the most violent forms of police practice, or less obviously engaged in the creation of criminalized identities, the disciplinary purposes of these vast folders of information, their relationship to the institution’s conception of public order, can never drop from sight.