Provincializing Europe
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Provincializing Europe

Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference - New Edition

Dipesh Chakrabarty

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eBook - ePub

Provincializing Europe

Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference - New Edition

Dipesh Chakrabarty

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About This Book

First published in 2000, Dipesh Chakrabarty's influential Provincializing Europe addresses the mythical figure of Europe that is often taken to be the original site of modernity in many histories of capitalist transition in non-Western countries. This imaginary Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, is built into the social sciences. The very idea of historicizing carries with it some peculiarly European assumptions about disenchanted space, secular time, and sovereignty. Measured against such mythical standards, capitalist transition in the third world has often seemed either incomplete or lacking. Provincializing Europe proposes that every case of transition to capitalism is a case of translation as well--a translation of existing worlds and their thought--categories into the categories and self-understandings of capitalist modernity. Now featuring a new preface in which Chakrabarty responds to his critics, this book globalizes European thought by exploring how it may be renewed both for and from the margins.

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Part One



Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History
Push thought to extremes.
(Louis Althusser)
IT HAS RECENTLY BEEN SAID in praise of the postcolonial project of Subaltern Studies that it demonstrates, “perhaps for the first time since colonisation,” that “Indians are showing sustained signs of reappropriating the capacity to represent themselves [within the discipline of history].”1 As a historian who is a member of the Subaltern Studies collective, I find the congratulation contained in this remark gratifying but premature. The purpose of this essay is to problematize the idea of “Indians” “representing themselves in history.” Let us put aside for the moment the messy problems of identity inherent in a transnational enterprise such as Subaltern Studies, where passports and commitments blur the distinctions of ethnicity in a manner that some would regard as characteristically post-modern. I have a more perverse proposition to argue. It is that insofar as the academic discourse of history—that is, “history” as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university—is concerned, “Europe” remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call “Indian,” “Chinese,” “Kenyan,” and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called “the history of Europe.” In this sense, “Indian” history itself is in a position of subalternity; one can only articulate subaltern subject positions in the name of this history.
Although the rest of this chapter will elaborate on this proposition, let me enter a few qualifications. “Europe” and “India” are treated here as hyperreal terms in that they refer to certain figures of imagination whose geographical referents remain somewhat indeterminate.2 As figures of the imaginary they are, of course, subject to contestation, but for the moment I shall treat them as though they were given, reified categories, opposites paired in a structure of domination and subordination. I realize that in treating them thus I leave myself open to the charge of nativism, nationalism—or worse, the sin of sins, nostalgia. Liberal-minded scholars would immediately protest that any idea of a homogeneous, uncontested “Europe” dissolves under analysis. True, but just as the phenomenon of Orientalism does not disappear simply because some of us have now attained a critical awareness of it, similarly a certain version of “Europe,” reified and celebrated in the phenomenal world of everyday relationships of power as the scene of the birth of the modern, continues to dominate the discourse of history. Analysis does not make it go away.
That Europe works as a silent referent in historical knowledge becomes obvious in a very ordinary way. There are at least two everyday symptoms of the subalternity of non-Western, third-world histories. Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate. Whether it is an Edward Thompson, a Le Roy Ladurie, a George Duby, a Carlo Ginzburg, a Lawrence Stone, a Robert Darnton, or a Natalie Davis—to take but a few names at random from our contemporary world—the “greats” and the models of the historian’s enterprise are always at least culturally “European.” “They” produce their work in relative ignorance of non-Western histories, and this does not seem to affect the quality of their work. This is a gesture, however, that “we” cannot return. We cannot even afford an equality or symmetry of ignorance at this level without taking the risk of appearing “old-fashioned” or “outdated.”
The problem, I may add in parentheses, is not particular to historians. An unselfconscious but nevertheless blatant example of this “inequality of ignorance” in literary studies, for example, is the following sentence on Salman Rushdie from a recent text on postmodernism: “Though Saleem Sinai [of Midnight’s Children] narrates in English … his intertexts for both writing history and writing fiction are doubled: they are, on the one hand, from Indian legends, films and literature and, on the other, from the West–The Tin Drum, Tristram Shandy, One Hundred Years of Solitude and so on.”3 It is interesting to note how this sentence teases out only those references that are from “the West.” The author is under no obligation here to be able to name with any authority and specificity the Indian allusions that make Rushdie’s intertextuality “doubled.” This ignorance, shared and unstated, is part of the assumed compact that makes it “easy” to include Rushdie in English Department offerings on postcolonialism.
This problem of asymmetric ignorance is not simply a matter of “cultural cringe” (to let my Australian self speak) on our part or of cultural arrogance on the part of the European historian. These problems exist but can be relatively easily addressed. Nor do I mean to take anything away from the achievements of the historians I mentioned. Our footnotes bear rich testimony to the insights we have derived from their knowledge and creativity. The dominance of “Europe” as the subject of all histories is a part of a much more profound theoretical condition under which historical knowledge is produced in the third world. This condition ordinarily expresses itself in a paradoxical manner. It is this paradox that I shall describe as the second everyday symptom of our subalternity, and it refers to the very nature of social science pronouncements.
For generations now, philosophers and thinkers who shape the nature of social science have produced theories that embrace the entirety of humanity. As we well know, these statements have been produced in relative, and sometimes absolute, ignorance of the majority of humankind—that is, those living in non-Western cultures. This in itself is not paradoxical, for the more self-conscious of European philosophers have always sought theoretically to justify this stance. The everyday paradox of third-world social science is that we find these theories, in spite of their inherent ignorance of “us,” eminently useful in understanding our societies. What allowed the modern European sages to develop such clairvoyance with regard to societies of which they were empirically ignorant? Why cannot we, once again, return the gaze?
There is an answer to this question in the writings of philosophers who have read into European history an entelechy of universal reason, if we regard such philosophy as the self-consciousness of social science. Only “Europe,” the argument would appear to be, is theoretically (that is, at the level of the fundamental categories that shape historical thinking) knowable; all other histories are matters of empirical research that fleshes out a theoretical skeleton that is substantially “Europe.” There is one version of this argument in Husserl’s Vienna lecture of 1935, where he proposed that the fundamental difference between “oriental philosophies” (more specifically, Indian and Chinese) and “Greek-European science” (or as he added, “universally speaking: philosophy”) was the capacity of the latter to produce “absolute theoretical insights,” that is “theoria (universal science),” whereas the former retained a “practical-universal,” and hence “mythical-religious,” character. This “practical-universal” philosophy was directed to the world in a “naive” and “straightforward” manner, whereas the world presented itself as a “thematic” to theoria, making possible a praxis “whose aim is to elevate mankind through universal scientific reason.”4
A similar epistemological proposition underlies Marx’s use of categories such as “bourgeois” and “prebourgeois” or “capital” and “precapital.” The prefix pre here signifies a relationship that is both chronological and theoretical. The coming of the bourgeois or capitalist society, Marx argues in the Grundrisse and elsewhere, gives rise for the first time to a history that can be apprehended through a philosophical and universal category, “capital.” History becomes, for the first time, theoretically knowable. All past histories are now to be known (theoretically, that is) from the vantage point of this category, that is, in terms of their differences from it. Things reveal their categorical essence only when they reach their fullest development, or as Marx put it in that famous aphorism of the Grundrisse: “Human anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the ape.”5 The category “capital,” as I have discussed elsewhere, contains within itself the legal subject of Enlightenment thought.6 Not surprisingly, Marx said in that very Hegelian first chapter of Capital, volume 1, that the secret of “capital,” the category, “cannot be deciphered until the notion of human equality has acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice.”7 To continue with Marx’s words:
even the most abstract categories, despite their validity—precisely because of their abstractness—for all epochs, are nevertheless, … themselves … a product of historical relations. Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organisation of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allow insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc… . The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species … can be understood only after the higher development is already known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient… .8
For capital or bourgeois, I submit, read “Europe” or “European.”
Neither Marx nor Husserl spoke—at least in the words quoted above—in a historicist spirit. In parenthesis, we should recall that Marx’s vision of emancipation entailed a journey beyond the rule of capital, in fact beyond the notion of juridical equality that liberalism holds so sacred. The maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” runs contrary to the principle of “equal pay for equal work,” and this is why Marx remains—the Berlin wall notwithstanding (or not standing!)—a relevant and fundamental critic of both capitalism and liberalism and thus central to any postcolonial, postmodern project of writing history. Yet Marx’s methodological/epistemological statements have not always successfully resisted historicist readings. There has always remained enough ambiguity in these statements to make possible the emergence of “Marxist” historical narratives. These narratives turn around the theme of historical transition. Most modern third-world histories are written within problematics posed by this transition narrative, of which the overriding (if often implicit) themes are those of development, modernization, and capitalism.
This tendency can be located in our own work in the Subaltern Studies project. My book on working-class history struggles with the problem.9 Modern India by Sumit Sarkar (another colleague in the Subaltern Studies project), which is justifiably regarded as one of the best textbooks on Indian history written primarily for Indian universities, opens with the following sentences: “The sixty years or so that lie between the foundation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and the achievement of independence in August 1947 witnessed perhaps the greatest transition in our country’s long history. A transition, however, which in many ways remains grievously incomplete, and it is with this central ambiguity that it seems most convenient to begin our survey.”10 What kind of a transition was it that remained “grievously incomplete”? Sarkar hints at the possibility of there having been several by naming three: “So many of the aspirations aroused in the course of the national struggle remained unfulfilled—the Gandhian dream of the peasant coming into his own in Ram-rajya [the rule of the legendary and ideal god-king Ram], as much as the left ideals of social revolution. And as the history of independent India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh) was repeatedly to reveal, even the problems of a complete bourgeois transformation and successful capitalist development were not fully solved by the transfer of power of 1947.”11 Neither the peasant’s dream of a mythical and just kingdom, nor the left’s ideal of a social[ist] revolution, nor a “complete bourgeois transformation”—it is within these three absences, these “grievously incomplete” scenarios, that Sarkar locates the story of modern India.
It is also with a similar reference to “absences”—the “failure” of a history to keep an appointment with its destiny (once again an instance of the “lazy native,” shall we say?)—that we announced our project of Subaltern Studies: “It is the study of this historic failure of the nation to come to its own, a failure due to the inadequacy of the bourgeoisie as well as of the working class to lead it into a decisive victory over colonialism and a bourgeois-democratic revolution of the classic nineteenth-century type … or [of the] ‘new democracy’ [type]—it is the study of this failure which constitutes the central problematic of the historiography of colonial India.”12
The tendency to read Indian history in terms of a lack, an absence, or an incompleteness that translates into “inadequacy” is obvious in these excerpts. As a trope it is ancient, going back to the beginnings of colonial rule in India. The British conquered and represented the diversity of Indian pasts through a homogenizing narrative of transition from a medieval period to modernity. The terms have changed with time. The medieval was once called “despotic” and the modern “the rule of law.” “Feudal/capitalist” has been a later variant.
When it was first formulated in colonial histories of India, this transition narrative was an unashamed celebration of the imperialist’s capacity for violence and conquest. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, generations of elite Indian nationalists found their subject positions as nationalists within this transition narrative that, at various times and depending on one’s ideology, hung the tapestry of “Indian history” between the two poles of homologous sets of oppositions: despotic/constitutional, medieval/modern, feudal/capitalist. Within this narrative shared by imperialist and nationalist imaginations, the “Indian” was always a figure of lack. There was always, in other words, room in this story for characters who embodied, on behalf of the native, the theme of inadequacy or failure.
We do not need to be reminded that this would remain the cornerstone of imperial ideology for many years to come—subjecthood but not citizenship, as the native was never adequate to the latter—and would eventually become a strand of liberal theory itself.13 This was, of course, where nationalists differed. For Rammohun Roy as for Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, two of India’s most prominent nationalist intellectuals of the nineteenth century, British rule was a necessary period of tutelage that Indians had to undergo in order to prepare precisely for what the British denied but extolled as the end of all history: citizenship and the nation-state. Years later, in 1951, an “unknown” Indian who successfully sold his “obscurity” dedicated the story of his life thus:
To the memory of the
British Empire in India
Which conferred subjecthood on us
But withheld citizenship;
To which yet
Everyone of us threw out the challenge
“Civis Britanicus Sum”
All that was good and living
Within us
Was made, shaped, and quickened
By the same British Rule.14
In nationalist versions of this narrative, as Partha Chatterjee has shown, the peasants and the workers, the subaltern classes, were given the cross of “inadequacy” to bear for, according to this version, it was they who needed to be educated out of their ignorance, parochialism or, depending on your preference, false consciousness.15 Even today the Anglo-Indian word “communalism” refers to those who allegedly fail to measure up to the secular ideals of citizenship.
That British rule put in place the practices, institutions, and discourse of bourgeois individualism in the Indian soil is undeniable. Early expressions of this desire to be a “legal subject”—that is, before the beginnings of nationalism—make it clear that to Indians in the 1830s and 1840s, to be a “modern individual” was become a European. The Literary Gleaner, a magazine in colonial Calcutta, ran the following poem in 1842, written in English by a Bengali school boy eighteen years of age. The poem was apparently inspired by the sight of ships leaving the coast of Bengal “for the glorious shores of England”:
Oft like a sad bird I sigh
To leave this land, though mine own land it be;
Its green robed meads,—gay flowers and cloudless sky
Though passing fair, have but few charms for me.
For I have dreamed of climes more bright and free
Where virtue dwells and heaven-born liberty
Makes even the lowest happy;—where the eye
Doth sicken not to see man bend the knee
To sordid interest:—climes where science thrives,
And genius doth receive her guerdon meet;
Where man in his all his truest glory lives,
And nature’s face is exquisitely sweet:
For those fair climes I heave the impatient sigh,
There let me live and there let me die.16
In its echoes of Milton and seventeenth-century English radicalism, this is obviously a piece of colonial pastiche.17 Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the young Bengali author of this poem, eventually realized the impossibility of being European and returned to Bengali literature to become one of our finest poets. Later Indian nationalists abandoned such abject desire to be Europeans, since nationalist thought was premised precisely on the assumed universality of the project of becoming individuals, on the assumption that individual rights and abstract equality were universals that could find home anywhere in the world, that one could be both an “Indian” and a citizen at the same time. We shall soon explore some of the contradictions of this project.
Many of the public and private rituals of modern individualism became visible in India in the nineteenth century. One sees this, for instance, in the sudden flourishing in this period of the four basic genres that help express the modern self: the novel, the biography, the autobiography, and history.18 Along with these came modern industry, technology, medicine, a quasi-bourgeois (though colonial) legal system supported by a state that nationalism was to take over and make its own. The transition narrative that I have been discussing underwrote, and was in turn underpinned by, these institutions. To think about this ...

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