Files, Not So Simple After All
Want to read a book about paper filing systems that stretches your imagination and challenges your most basic assumptions? Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law and Media Technology, translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008) is a detailed examination of the shifting legal, administrative, and technological aspects of files, extending from the ancient world to the modern era. Vismann, a German legal historian and scholar, has given us a meditation of how records have changed through the centuries, with the intention of revealing, “how files control the formalization and differentiation of the law” (p. xii). While Vismann indicates that this book is written for those who work with files, have worked with files, or have forgotten how files function because of new technologies that transform their functions, this is a book really for the serious scholar of recordkeeping and the archival function. It is not a book that can be skimmed lightly or read at the beach or assigned to the novice archival student. As a study, Files provides complex assessments of key shifts in record-making and archiving, drawing heavily on European examples but at times ranging widely across the geopolitical and historical landscape. There are ideas I am still wrestling with and conclusions I question, but this is a book, despite its rather pedestrian title, that intellectually engaged me in new and different ways.
To make its heavily pedantic analysis come to its most basic point, Vismann believes that the day of the paper file is over and that we can sit back and reflect on the importance of this historic run of recordkeeping. At least this is what the book’s advertising précis tells us: “Once files are reduced to the status of stylized icons on computer screens, the reign of paper files appears to be over. With the epoch of files coming to an end, we are free to examine its fundamental influence on Western institutions. From a media-theoretical point of view, subject, state, and law reveal themselves to be effects of specific record keeping and filing practices. Files are not simply administrative tools; they mediate and process legal systems. The genealogy of the law described in Vismann's Files ranges from the work of the Roman magistrates to the concern over one's own file, as expressed in the context of the files kept by the East German State Security. The book concludes with a look at the computer architecture in which all the stacks, files, and registers that had already created order in medieval and early modern administrations make their reappearance.” Assuming that has been written by the author, we can also assume that this is what she intends us to find in the book. However, it can be rough going, as she delves into particular epochs and records systems and then shifts into the next. Does she convince the reader that the paper file era is over? I don’t believe she does, but her book is full of such rich and interesting insights about recordkeeping that it is worth a go. And, in some ways, her analysis of past recordkeeping practices, changes, and technologies are more useful than in her overall sense of us being on the cusp of yet another major shift (like parchment to paper, scrolls to codex, documents to files, and so forth).
After an interesting orientation to the nature of writing in legal terms and the various means by which scholars and administrators often consider records, Vismann begins analyzing how the earliest documents came into being and what they evolved into (scrolls to codices, papyrus to more durable parchment) and how they increasingly supported political, legal, and economic structures. In ancient Rome, for example, “from the times of the early Republic up to the reign of Justinian, Rome teems with files, notebooks, official minutes, diaries, municipal records, protocols” (p. 47). Our intrepid scholar shows how early magistrates relied on spoken commands and written documents were used sparingly for bridging time and space. However, the nature of record-making changes; for example, the “act of recording acquires independence once it is not the transmission itself but the control of the transmission that is emphasized” (p. 51). New approaches to recording and keeping records in public repositories lead to a new kind of “truth claim” and records became connected to storage points rather than any individuals (p. 52). As modern archivists acknowledge, when in ancient Rome files are placed in a “specially designated repository, their function fundamentally changes.” “According to the ideal of the archive,” Vismann writes, “the law is the sum of all files on record. They are the capital of the law” (p. 58). The Justinian codes “legitimized power” by connecting back to old Rome, and the codex was used to create a “comprehensive repository of the old empire, in which everything that had ever been regulated or examined existed simultaneously on one level without contradicting or annulling anything else” (p. 65). I love such descriptions, breathing new life into old records systems. And I am sure Vismann’s work might engage some archival theorists and scholars, working from within the archival community, to question, probe, and dissect her ides and conclusions.
Vismann next considers the shift to documents, with documents being for preservation rather than transmission, featuring ornamental writing, and formalization with seals and signatures and other such devices. This is the era of diplomatics, the science of verifying documents, with its “binary code of true or false” but with the existence of files “subject neither to formal instructions nor to criteria of authenticity. They proliferate and decay, but they do not conform to a binary scheme” (p. 74). Diplomatics is a science directed at individual documents, rather than their aggregate (although some uses of this old archival science for electronic recordkeeping might contradict this). Reading such a truncated view of what Vismann is analyzing might seem shallow and confusing, but her dense scrutiny of the shifts in various recording approaches rewards the reader interested in this topic with insights about the complexities in the nature of recording and recordkeeping. What this scholar is seeking to show is how files, what generally characterizes modern Western administration, governance, and law, have continued to proliferate. “For the administrations of the Western world, a life without files, without any recording, a life off the record, is simply unthinkable” (p. xii). And it is the particulars of this basic fact or characteristic that are worth mulling over.
Files offers a lot of interesting material about particular documentary forms and recordkeeping services, such as registers, the emergence of chanceries, the creation of offices, and the impact of new digital technologies. The emphasis on systematic recordkeeping is seen in how the new nation states utilized documents. So, for example, “following the devastations of the Thirty Years War, language had become a sanctuary for political action. Words are more easily ordered than territories, and they are more obedient than mercenaries” (p. 103). Read how she believes that archives and records agencies came to be: “Registering outgoing documents, taking notes, and collecting drafts and letters led to an exponential growth of written matter. As files increased in weight and took up more space, they demanded a room of their own” (p. 96). As she slides into the nuances she makes between records and archives in her review of the Stasi files case in a unified Germany, one can feel both enlightened and befuddled about her distinctions (although archival theorists have been just as nitpicky in their distinctions, divisions, and definitions) about what these files represent when used by historical scholars, legal experts in court cases, and by individuals represented in the very files. Ultimately, Vismann gets us to her penultimate point, that the records we see on computer screens are “stylized icons,” turning users into “virtual chanceries or chancellors” (p. 163).
Don’t pack this book to the beach, but definitely schedule for a reading in the future. It stirs the mind.