Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 21 April 2011


Bureaucratics: Reproduced with kind permission from Jan Banning
  While idly leafing through a UK national newspaper over my lunch this week, I saw a photograph which made me freeze in the middle of my bagel. It was from a project called Bureacratics, by the photographer Jan Banning, which is currently showing in a Dutch gallery, but which you can also see on-line or in book form (to see the full collection, click on Bureaucratics). To create Bureaucratics, Banning talked his way into hundreds of government offices across the world, from Yemen to Russia, and photographed bureaucrats at their desks.  He says that the project is “the product of an anarchist’s heart, a historian’s mind and an artist’s eye”.

The image which so struck me was a photograph of Sushama Prasad, assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary in Patna, India (above). This is a photo to induce a moment of horror in any historian. We see Ms. Prasad sat at a battered and bare desk, in front of large wooden cabinets. On top of these are piled hundreds upon hundreds of aged bundles of paper. They form a grey sea of unfiled, utterly chaotic, visibly decaying bureaucratic paperwork. This is precisely the sort of thing research historians see in bad dreams – sources there in tantalising abundance, yet virtually unusable, because they are utterly disordered and unsearchable. The sight of apparently rotting official papers, sources on the cusp of oblivion, is equally distressing – it reminded me of a Polish ecclesiastical archive in which I was handed 15C episcopal letters so damp, I had to wipe my hands after using them. Banning’s photograph brings home what historic documents look like in their ‘natural state’, if left to run wild like a garden. It makes stark too how much artifice and on-going human intervention there is behind an archive, where archivists have imposed (or maintained) an order on/in the paperwork. Ms. Prasad’s office, in this striking shot, is a kind of anti-archive, a dark place in the historian’s imagination.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

News and Rumour

While I was on holiday last week on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, I noticed that the Guardian newspaper journalist Andrew Sparrow had been named Political Journalist of the Year for his political blog on the paper’s website. During big political moments – last year’s UK general election, government cuts announcements, and the Arab Spring – Sparrow and his Guardian colleagues post minute by minute updates of the latest speech in the House of Commons, the latest significant Tweets, and above all the latest rumours sweeping Westminster, Washington or Cairo.

News blogs like this, for all their technological wizardry and global connectedness, seem to me to be, paradoxically, taking us back towards an early modern way of thinking about the news. Among historians of Renaissance Europe, the question of how ‘news’ was spread and reported has been an increasingly popular one. My undergraduates always enjoy reading A. Fox’s article on rumour, news and popular political opinion in Elizabeth England (History Journal, 1997), and one of the Faculty’s doctoral students is currently writing a thesis on how news from Transylvania was transmitted and reported in 17C German newspapers. The striking thing about early modern news, if you look e.g. at the 16C diaries of the Florentine apothecary Lucca Landucci, or the Venetian notable Marino Sanudo, is how unverified, indirect and untrustworthy much of it was – somebody has received a letter from their cousin in Dubrovnik saying the Turks are coming, people in the city are saying that the pope is gravely ill, a merchant from Poland says the king is divorcing his queen…

Sparrow’s news blogs (addictively good read though they are) remind me a lot of Landucci, Sanudo et al in the extent to which they treat rumour as the basic fabric of news – so-and-so in Westminster has heard that Nick Clegg has been offered this, it’s being said in Tahrir Square that Mubarak will do this… I think we’ve come to expect the ‘news’, on national television or newspapers to consist of a cool, authoritative digest of events, to provide a coherent and verifiable narrative. News blogs, instead, like Landucci and Sanudo’s diaries, report a lot of rumour and leave it to the reader to decide what sounds plausible. Like early modern Europeans, those who read news blogs are learning to think of news as a grapeshot blast of gossip, half-fact and fact, without any clear narrative to hold it together. And that seems rather postmodern.