Fragments and archives: conversations in UvA, Charlottesville

Fahad Bishara, in conversation with Nandini Chatterjee

In October 2018, I visited the beautiful University of Virginia at Charlottesville, to discuss the project and its activities with one of the key team members, the upcoming star of legal history, Prof. Fahad Bishara. HIs first book, A Sea of Debt, is deservedly making waves! Notes from our conversations were written up by Fahad, in his inimitable style.

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How do we take scattered and disconnected pieces of paper and make broader claims from them? Over the course of our discussion this morning, we discussed two broad but inter-related themes that could structure our thinking moving forward: first, the idea of legal consciousness, and second reflections on the fragment and the archive. In thinking about legal consciousness (over coffee at Grit Café, as one does) we were primarily interested in a framework that would allow us to take bits of paper and use them to “move up the chain” of nested legal genres, rather than down the chain (in the vein of Hallaq and Messick) – or, more accurately, to use those pieces of paper to shed light on the very shape of the nesting itself. We thought about how the approach of starting with manuals and moving down to workaday forms of writing felt restrictive, in that it presumed the existence of a coherent silo of nested texts – which is of course not untrue, but doesn’t allow for the possibility of a more variegated juridical landscape in which legal discourses, texts, and practices bleed into one another, and forms of legal consciousness that can accommodate for that bleeding rather than forms that restrict themselves to strictly defined constellations of texts.

            A necessary component of this inclination, we thought, was a meditation on how to read these scattered/disconnected papers (“fragments”) within the context of the collections we find them in (“the archive”) so as to get a more textured sense of how they relate to other types of writings. A critical caveat, though, is that one has to account for the ways in which these archives are curated and re-curated multiple times over the course of their lifetimes so as to push us towards particular narratives, and thus simultaneously opening up and restricting the possibilities of what we might say about them. We also have to account for the ways in which we, as scholars, assemble our archives for the purpose of thinking about a set of issues – and, by extension, creating a coherent narrative out of the jumbled mess of paper that we encounter more generally (Fahad’s writing on “the dhow’s archive” is one example of this). We asked ourselves how we might relate this to the subaltern history project of “rejecting the narrative,” in which they use episodes to write microhistories that aim to challenge the nation (but perhaps never do).

            Finally, we ended by reflecting on notions of public and private in the documentation. How do the archives we encounter hold up the stories that people tell about themselves through fragments (as opposed to kings, for instance, who leave much fuller accounts of themselves)? And how are these documents themselves straddling both the realms of the public and private? “Public” bureaucratic documents can sometimes house “private” information in ways that surprise us (notarial records are particularly good examples of this) and even what we might assume to be undeniably “private” records – for example, letters – are sometimes created for expressively public purposes.