Andre Wakefield


On his book The Disordered Police State: German Cameralism as Science and Practice

Cover Interview of November 13, 2009

A close-up

Schloss Friedenstein, the seventeenth-century palace that Ernst the Pious of Gotha built, is a good place to do research: on one side, in the east wing, the old research library; on the other side, in the west wing, the secret archive of Ernst the Pious.  It is an impressive physical space.  Day by day, as I ate my lunch under Pious Ernst’s statue and walked up the steep hill from town with his palace looming over me, the presence of the place—its vaults, fortifications, chambers, and halls—had an impact.  I started wondering about spaces and rooms, and about the treasury; not the abstracted treasury of administrative history, or the idealized treasury of the cameral sciences, but the specific room where the duke met in council with his officials.

In the conclusion I describe a large tabular chart that I found in the Schloss Friedenstein.  This “table of duties” dictated every aspect of behavior for the duke’s officials; it was hanging in Pious Ernst’s fiscal chamber when a famous cameralist named Seckendorff worked there.  Initially, the chart struck me as a perfect example of early modern social discipline, a case study in Foucauldian mechanisms of control and surveillance.  By subdividing space and time to provide transparency and visibility, it was a cog in the machinery of control that characterized early modern Europe. Fragment from the 1655 Fürstlichen Cammerordnung, a table of duties for state officials (Thüringisches Staatsarchiv Gotha).  It appears in the book on page 135.

I eventually decided that this was wrong.  The table of duties was really an example of wishful thinking, because the people it aimed to discipline and control did not exist.  Seckendorff’s imagined bureau had no meetings, no votes, and no timetables.  He was pretty much by himself.  The elaborate table of duties corresponded only to the fantasies of its author.

I focus on this episode here because it serves as a microcosm of my larger argument.  Historians have been conditioned to look for certain things in archives and libraries, so that research becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We find what we expect to find.  There is no simple way out of this trap, unless you believe in the myth of the objective historian.