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Power, Knowledge, and Russian Expansion

Such a program cannot avoid engaging with the enormous body of criticism and meta-criticism of the relationship between power and knowledge in imperial settings. Scholars of Russian imperialism have been debating this question for almost two decades now, mostly through the prism of the ur-text on this problem, Edward Said’s Orientalism.9 The consensus of specialist studies of individual scholars and institutions is that Russian orientalism was subtler and less monolithic than Said’s model would lead one to expect, that it was diverse and fundamentally apoliti- cal.10 But there remain lingering doubts about whether this work tells us anything unique about Russian orientalism; scholars of other colonial empires have shown just as clearly that orientalism is not a monolith, and that the connection between scholarship and policy can never be simply assumed.11 We are left with a familiar scholarly dynamic: after years of focused empirical research, a broad theoretical text is shown to be imperfectly applicable to all times and climes.

This approach to the power-knowledge relationship can be criticized, even on its own grounds, in two ways. First, while the empirical study of intellectual biography is useful as a means of restoring historicity to scholars subordinated to a totalizing orientalist paradigm, the history of texts and ideas does not end at the effects their authors wished them to have. This is an idea which literary critics have developed since the 1940s, and it was forcefully stated by Bruno Latour with respect to the hard sciences in the 1980s.12 In this book, we will frequently have occasion to see administrators take scholars’ ideas in drastically different directions from those they had intended. Accordingly, to understand the relationship between scholarship and imperialism, knowledge and power, particularly in an autocratic state, it is necessary to trace the circulation and genealogy of ideas from scholarly writing to imperial administration as thought, practiced, and lived. Second, among Russianists, a focus on the philologically oriented classic disciplines of orientology has blinded scholars to disciplines—geography and statistics in particular—where the relationship between knowledge and state authority was much clearer. Following too closely in

Said’s footsteps has left us with a consensus view of the relationship between power and knowledge that is at variance with the historical record on the Kazak steppe.

Meanwhile, the historiography of other European empires provides us with sharper tools of analysis for this same problem. In this sense the work of Bernard Cohn and C. A. Bayly is particularly notable. Cohn’s studies of knowledge production and British rule in India see classification and categorization as closely connected with governing; the imperatives of rule shaped what he calls “investigative modalities” by which appropriate knowledge was gathered and worked up into usable forms.13 In this project orientalism stricto sensu, understood as the knowledge of languages, was a prerequisite for, or a silent partner in, the production of the really useful knowledge surveys and censuses could offer.14 State building depended on specific processes of documentation and classification, some purely administrative, others developing into scholarly disciplines; the burden of Cohn’s scholarship is to trace the connections between these processes and the instrumentalization of knowledge in specific historical contexts.

Bayly’s critique of Said that “orientalism . . . was only one among a variety of localized engagements between power and knowledge” stems from a similar historicizing impulse but goes farther in stressing the weakness of the British colonial state and the importance of local intermediaries and forms of knowl- edge.15 What Bayly terms the colonial information order was “erected on the foundation of its Indian precursors,” leaving the British little choice but to adapt themselves to older networks and forms of knowledge.16 Though this adaptation saw the gradual rise of colonial “experts” and a gradually heightened understanding of local conditions, it neither destroyed the old information order nor totally undermined the authority of indigenous ways of knowing. At key moments, most notably during the mutiny of 1857, British administrators revealed their fundamental ignorance of the country and inability to come to grips with the information order that had preceded them. Producing knowledge in colonial contexts, Bayly shows, must always depend in some measure on indigenous actors, networks, and understandings; the outcomes of this cooperation, though, are rarely predictable or straightforward.

Taken together, Bayly and Cohn invite us to carefully investigate the conditions of knowledge production as an administrative tool and as a social process. On the Kazak steppe, a weak imperial state was conscious of what it did not know and fumbled, gradually, toward ways of thinking and learning that would remediate its problems. Kazak intermediaries, engaging with the tsarist state, were only too happy to present themselves as the bearers of useful knowledge. They were a vital part of the historical linkage between knowledge and power, though the lines between their knowledge—indeed between any expert knowledge—and the articulation of policy were rarely straight.

 
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